Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Communicating, Fast and Slow

I list around two dozen forms of modern communication, sorted by how fast it is to push out a message using each one. How can we keep the benefits of the fastest forms while not succumbing to their drawbacks?

Today we can communicate faster than ever, but is that a good thing or not? There are clear benefits to fast communication, but how can we reduce its drawbacks while still keeping in touch with our friends and coworkers on platforms that they love to use?

First I want to list a bunch of ways that people communicate in 2019, sorted by how fast it is to push out a message using each medium. Read this list and then let's reflect on what “fast” means:

  • replying to someone else's post on social media, from your mobile device (the fastest on my list)
  • making your own original social media post, from your mobile device (note how replying is faster than making your own post)
  • replying to someone else's post on social media, from your computer
  • making your own original social media post, from your computer
  • posting to a discussion forum (e.g., Reddit, Hacker News, hobbyist forums, website comments section), from mobile
    • (again replies are faster than making new posts)
  • posting to a discussion forum, from computer
  • messaging on a private group chat (e.g., iMessage, WhatsApp, Slack, Facebook Messenger)
  • one-on-one messaging (e.g., texting, Twitter DMs, Gchat)
  • sending an email to a mailing list
  • sending an email to multiple hand-picked recipients
  • sending an email to one recipient
  • making a phone call
  • talking to someone face-to-face
  • recording a video or podcast
  • writing on your own website, with comments enabled
  • writing on your own website, with comments disabled
  • mailing a letter 🐌🐌🐌 (Don Knuth style)
  • sending a periodic (e.g., monthly) email newsletter to subscribers
  • giving a talk, and maybe chatting with people afterward
  • writing an article that's peer-reviewed or professionally edited
  • writing and publishing a traditional book

What's fast and slow?

What do I mean by fast and by slow? At one extreme (top of my list), pulling out your mobile device and firing off a quick reply to someone's social media post is the fastest form of communication since you can impulsively do it from anywhere. At the other extreme, publishing a book may take years of detailed planning and sustained hard work.

Let's now go through the list from top to bottom.

Social media platforms encourage the fastest forms of communication since their advertising-driven business models depend on keeping users engaged. Thousands of highly-paid user experience designers and data scientists at these companies are constantly optimizing these apps to encourage rapid-fire responses, viral amplification (e.g., retweets), and reply pile-ons.

Replying to someone else's post is often faster than making your own, since it usually takes longer to formulate an original idea to post than to just fire off an impulsive reaction to what someone else just posted. But even if you only post original content, since it's so fast for others to spread your words and impulse-reply to them, that in turn causes you to want to reply back just as quickly.

Posting from mobile is faster than on a computer (even though typing the actual message takes similar amounts of time on both!) because our devices are right at our fingertips nearly every waking moment. Without mobile devices, even if we had the perfect zinger or hot take ready to go, we still need to wait until we get to the nearest computer to post it; by that time maybe the thought will have passed or we'll rethink whether we really wanted to post it. Just that little bit of slowness can squash such temptations.

Continuing downward ... discussion forums, Q&A websites, and online comments sections are slightly slower than social media. These platforms are not designed to be as overtly addicting, although users may still get hooked on earning reputation points based on upvotes or other engagement with their posts. They're also public, so there's tons of random people on there that could get you riled up and wanting to lash out with fast replies.

The next slower category is private messaging, which are usually less gamified and – unlike social media and public forums – greatly reduce the chance of randos jumping into your threads. To get a sense of how people are finding refuge in private chats, check out Group Chats Are Making the Internet Fun Again. Chats are still faster than email, though, since you can often see a visual indicator of which other people are currently typing at the moment, so there's an obligation to stay in the app so that you too can respond more quickly.

To me, emails feel like the natural midpoint in conversation speed, being neither fast nor slow. They're (semi-)private, not gamified, and not designed to sustain rapid-fire back-and-forth conversations. Even within emails, the more people involved (e.g., a large mailing list) the faster it feels since more people could potentially rapid-fire reply and pile on in outrage. Mailing list flame wars were the original social media dogpiles.

Everything below email I consider “slow” in the sense that those mediums discourage impulsive, knee-jerk, rapid-fire interactions. For instance, getting on a phone call or talking to someone face-to-face takes a lot more planning than posting on social media, so people are more likely think through what they want to say.

Creating original content (e.g., audio, video, text) for your own site feels much slower and more deliberate than posting that exact same content to social media or forums. Your own site is a refuge that shields you from the engagement-driven platforms that well-paid UX designers and data scientists have been tuning for years.

Disabling comments on your blog, podcast, YouTube channel, etc. will make interactions feel even slower. Otherwise you can still get addicted to the rush of someone potentially responding quickly to something you post, which may encourage you to post more frequently and impulsively. Seeing comments below your content also goads you into rushing to reply to how others react to it, which in turn elicits more fast-twitch reactions. With comments off, you can post content at your own pace without needing as much fast external validation from viewers.

To round out this list, the slowest and probably most thoughtful forms of communication are also the oldest: mailing a letter, preparing and delivering a talk, writing a professional article, and finally publishing a book.

OK, but so what?

Fast forms of communication bring out the worst in us. By design they encourage addictive, impulsive, knee-jerk, and rude behaviors of the sort that we would never try in slower forms of communication like face-to-face. At their worst, fast amplifies mean-spirited gossip chains, pile-ons, harassment, abuse, and online mobs that have ruined people's careers and lives.

But fast can also be wonderful ... otherwise we wouldn't all be so hooked on it! Fast is fun, thrilling, exciting, creative, entertaining, spontaneous, and full of life in ways that slower forms of communication can't as easily achieve.

Also, as a consumer, think about how you feel when you consume fast versus slow media; there are benefits and drawbacks to both.

I know fast is here to stay, so instead of spouting feel-good cliches like “boycott social media” or whatever, I think we each need to figure out how to deal with fast in ways that make sense for us.

What I currently do

[Update in Feb 2020: I quit all social media cold-turkey. 🦃 Good coincidental timing, too, since I don't think I'd be prepared for the onslaught of social media noise during the COVID-19 crisis that ramped up in the U.S. around March 2020.]

Here's my current setup that I'm happy with. I'm not saying you need to make these exact same decisions, but whatever you decide to do, I think this spectrum of communicating, fast and slow is one good way to frame your decision-making process.

  • No social media on mobile devices. This slows down my social media usage to computer-only, which curbs pretty much all temptations to send out impulsive zingers. I highly recommend this. (Famous YouTuber Casey Neistat has also done this.)
  • I try not to use computers after sundown; I just use mobile and tablet devices, which don't have social media on them (see above). It's also harder to type on those devices, so I'm less inclined to write emails at night.
  • I try to pause for a few seconds before sending out a reply on social media, and I'm OK deleting posts shortly after sending them. (It would be great to have a browser plugin that forces you to wait 10 seconds before sending out any post in a text box! See HabitLab for ideas along these lines.)
  • I browse all discussion forums without being logged in, so I'm not tempted to post any replies.
  • I never talk about work on messaging apps. This means no Slack and no texting about work. Close colleagues can text or call me to get my attention in an emergency, but I find it overly-stressful and ultimately unproductive to discuss work over a real-time text messaging platform.
  • I still have email on mobile, but hide it inside a folder and disable all push notifications so I can't impulse-check it.
  • I don't check my email unless I'm mentally prepared to deal with the worst possible incoming email that I could imagine right then and there. This means no checking email when I'm about to go out to run errands or while spending face-to-face time with friends or family.
  • When I post videos to YouTube or articles to my website, I always disable comments. Comments are the worst. Seriously, why do I want other people writing whatever the heck they want directly below my own videos or articles?!? Maybe I'm old-school, but it just makes no sense to me.
  • Speaking of comments, sometimes my articles show up on news aggregator sites or discussion forums. When someone sends me a link to those, I never click through to read comments about what I've created. Never read the comments.

I haven't tried blocking certain apps at certain times of day, but some of my friends have done so and been happy with that.

I know I'm in a privileged position since I can get my work done even despite these self-imposed boundaries. And I'm not trying to make a living by #engaging #with #an #online #audience, so I can afford not to pay attention to online commenters.

What do you do to cope with our ever-increasing obsession with fast forms of communication? Leave a comment below! And don't forget to Like and Subscribe. SMASH THAT LIKE BUTTON! The 1,000,000th subscriber gets a free goodie from our sponsors. Oh, and click the buttons below to share on Facebook and Twitter.


Related links

How this article was written ...

Behind-the-scenes of me writing this article over three sessions at the coffee shop (~2.5 total hours). All videos are at 400% speed.

Session 1: 2019-07-07

Session 2: 2019-07-08

Session 3: 2019-07-09

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Created: 2019-07-07
Last modified: 2019-07-09
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