The Internet Separation Layer

Mar 13, 2015
Joe Buhlig
~4 mins

We do it almost every day. We communicate with another person using a screen of some kind - social media, texts, emails, instant messages.

The internet has made it possible to communicate in a lot of new ways. And since we have the internet in our pockets, we can connect with just about anyone at any time.

But are we starting to see issues with digital communications? I wouldn’t say there are flaws in the technology from a philosophical standpoint, but what if there are flaws in the way we use or perceive them?

A phone call

I was recently on the phone with someone, talking about differences in the words people use on social media as opposed to the words they use when voice-to-voice or face-to-face. It’s amazing how someone can be rude and inconsiderate on Facebook and then be kind and caring as soon you get them on the phone. Is that really the same person?

During the conversation, I mentioned the separation issue of digital communications like social media. We are always one step removed from people and that can pollute the way we interact with them.

What is the Separation Layer?

Think about this way - there is a filter between you and them. It’s the nature of digital communication. The filter is nothing more than a delay in time combined with the inefficiencies of written words in conversation and lack of body language to aid in understanding.

This filter or separation leads us to a disconnect. We don’t immediately feel the gravity of the words we use and full understanding between us disappears. Yes, it’s possible to communicate effectively through these methods. But most of the time something is missed, even if it’s on a small scale.

If you add the expectations of the sender into the mix, it gets worse. If someone sends you a text message, when do they expect a response? Immediately. What if you’re in a meeting or driving? Without maturity, we’ll start to speculate the reasons why they aren’t responding and drama ensues.

Long-term effects

In the long run, if we use digital communication only, we’ll begin to lose our true conversation skills. The skills of noticing body language and changes in voice to aid in understanding begin to disappear without practice.

It’s subtle, but a feeling of loneliness starts to set in as well. It feels like we’re connecting with people, but it’s not a true connection. We need the warmth of another person that comes from being present with them.

This separation layer can easily create a lot of drama. It happens a lot on social media. Something is hastily written and posted, which is then misunderstood by a friend. They respond in the moment with words that are again, misunderstood. Enter drama. And unfriending.

Trolls. This is so easy to fall into when you add in the ability to remain anonymous. It becomes easy to send an online creator hateful words with no ramifications. We don’t see the creator and don’t feel the results of what’s been written. Again, we’re separated from the human on the other end.

How to overcome it

Given the prevalence of digital communication in our world today, this is tough. I work for a virtual company so it’s something I deal with on a large scale every day. Here’s what I’ve found to help combat the shortcomings:

  1. Do as much in-person as possible.

    This goes without saying. If it’s something that has to be communicated in detail or you need it to come across correctly the first time, find time to meet in-person.

  2. Use video

    One form of digital communication that’s not far from real life is video-conferencing. There are a number of ways to do this. Pick one that works for you and use it as much as you can. Keep in mind that not everyone is comfortable with this so they’ll hesitate when you propose it. Don’t force it.

  3. Pick up the phone

    If you’re having a disconnect with the other person over email, it’s probably best to pick up the phone and work through it. It’s faster, easier, and more effective to have 15 back and forth responses to each other over the phone than through email.

  4. Repeat, repeat, repeat

    Sometimes you’re trying to convey just a small bit of information. It’s not worth the time to pick up the phone, turn on a camera, or meet in-person. Then what? Don’t leave it to just one communication. Reiterate the information in a few different ways and forms. Use multiple examples in your email, send multiple messages over a few days, and bring it up again when you’re on the phone with them.

The method you choose to ensure accurate communication is dependent on how complicated the idea is that you’re trying to convey and how important it is. If you’re intentional, you’ll be able to intuitively make that judgement call when you need.