Many people think that communication and more precisely communicating is a natural, inbuilt skill that we, humans, learn at a very young age.
Undoubtedly communicating is something we learn to do quickly to cope with our lives. But proper and effective communication is something that does not necessarily come so naturally; it requires preparation and training. When communication moves from natural settings to virtual ones, communicating can become more complex.
In those virtual settings, we miss the contextual elements that occur in face-to-face interactions that help us deciding what to say and how to say it. We miss to “see” directly the impact of our communications on others. Thus, new skills and abilities are needed.
Today, much of our daily communications is mediated. Even in situations where we could interact face-to-face, we prefer to use smartphones and other digital technologies with friends and colleagues. We are exponentially relying on these technologies to interact with others with important implications for human relations.
Digital communication, as a form of mediated communication that occurs in the digital, often web environment, has become the way we talk, listen and interact with other social actors. This includes organizations and any organized group too. In fact, it is inconceivable today to think of an organization without a digital presence of some sort. In the digital environment, communicating, interacting, promoting, and even selling products and services is the new mantra for organizations and organized groups.
Many of these organization-public communications online are not necessarily human-to-human mediated communications.
The increasing use of chat bots in organizational settings, whereas chat bots are computer programs or an artificial intelligence (AI) which conducts a conversation via auditory or textual methods, is actually pointing out that part of digital conversations exist without another human being present, albeit virtually. So, does it mean that those nice communication skills we have learned from childhood are not usable anymore? Not all, but they are not sufficient.
On top of this, recent research on AI shows that machines can learn a great deal from our digital communications. They can learn because every time we are online, we leave traces of our digital presence (what we search, see, read, like, comment and buy) and such information can help them becoming more human-like when interacting with us.
There is, however, an insidious problem with this phenomenon.We lose privacy and we become targets, often unaware, of well-crafted, sometimes manipulative messages.
Technically, organizations have gathered already for some time multiple forms and types of personal data –the big data phenomenon– and used them to monitor their employees, clients, and customers’ opinions and foresee trends and crises to gain important Intelligence that is used for strategically planning, developing, executing and measuring business activities off and online.
Recent policy developments at the EU level, for instance, the recent General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – address this problem, but it is not sufficient to avoid misuses and abuses by organizations as we have experienced and will experience. Hence, learning more about how to digitally communicate with humans and non-humans, but also better understanding how digital communications, of which much is produced maximizing the Intelligence collected through our digital traces, shape our thinking and actions is rather important, and a vital skill for anyone especially in countries with high digital penetration such as Finland.
New ethical issues may arise in the future, but as a scholar I believe that research can help bring back the ‘human’ to the centre of our thinking, theorizing and practicing communication. Only with a human-centric view we can help societies addressing if not completely, at least in part these challenges through ethical choices.
Ph.D., Professor of Corporate Communication
JSBE, University of Jyväskylä