Channel confusion

Posted on 04/01/2011


fuzzy TV set

I came across a really vivid quote the other day:

“[the] world has burst into a thousand pieces, all sharp, many of them unstable, some of them fearfully dangerous.”1

If there’s one image I’ve heard / seen over and over its the idea of everything splintering. Communities have shattered, unions have been broken, and along with it the way we communicate has fragmented. Once upon a time there was just one TV channel, then two, then five and now hundreds of different TV stations broadcasting more hours of television a day than any individual could watch in their lifetime. And there are plenty of other “channels” beyond the TV which have broken up to, giving us more choice, but less awareness of what’s going on.

Staying on top of it all is a pretty massive challenge, that not even the Radio Times could help you with (for now we have websites as well as printed TV guides!). We’re well beyond the age of pure broadcasting, perhaps even beyond more dynamic two-way channels (think letters, telephones or video calls). If anything describes the world of web 2.0 that we’re working our way through, it’s that we can now choose to make all our previous actions (scheduling, messaging, flirting, photographing) public with the people we know and even those we don’t. Thoughts and expressions don’t have to be kept private (although perhaps they should be…), which gives us unrivalled access to other people’s information. With this we can achieve more than we ever could alone, but only if we know where to find it and how to use it2.

I spend most of my time playing around with these “channels”3, but increasingly its hard to make sense of them. Where do you go for news: TV stations, a newspaper website, a professional blog, or a real person’s live updates from an event? When I want to watch something should I try the cinema, a DVD, see what’s on the telly or just browse YouTube? And likewise for social networks: if I want to speak to my friends do I give them a ring, send an sms, post on their Facebook or tweet them?

Part of the problem is that we’ve moved away from the old patterns of communication faster than ever before. While some people never got the hang of the telephone in their lifetime and just stuck with good ol’ letters, we’ve had to adapt to email, to mobile phones, text messages, and tweets. Some people still prefer to write letters; others have decided to make their every thought just 140 characters long. We no longer know what the “received” or common way of doing things is, and that’s because there isn’t one. It is and it isn’t impolite to text instead of calling someone to let them know you’re going to be late.

Confusing huh? I don’t think we’re ever going to get back to the stage where we all know the “best” way to communicate information. There are no longer any cultural codes to recommend how we should and shouldn’t say something. This is both liberating and a bit scary. Freedom = good, I’m not arguing about that. However, there comes a point when we have to communicate outside the demographic and social “tribe” that we exist in. If we’ve nothing to fall back on, how do we get the right message across in the right way?

For the “greater good” (or perhaps just to get my head around it) I’m going to be posting my own understanding of the different networks, how I see some people using them and how I’m going to use them. With luck it’ll make interesting reading, but failing that it might just help you understand them better, and make navigating the different channels platforms a little easier.


  1. If you’re interested, the quote came from a piece in the Guardian newspaper on how the US Embassy Wikileaks scandal didn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already suspect.
  2. There’s my bit of eternal web optimism. I know there are a lot of negatives to the digital communications, but it’s too easy to lose sight of the positive changes it can bring. If anything it’s more likely that we’re completely oblivious to both. I’m not much a polemicist so I’ll leave the negatives to someone else.
  3. From this point on, it’s probably worth scrapping that word altogether – “channels” doesn’t do justice to the complicated way that many of them work. They’re probably more like platforms – they work in any direction, and more than one person can use them at once. I could put down some others, but it would only get confusing… Any ideas though, please feel free to add them below! For now I’m sticking with Platforms until I find something better/ funnier.