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Life was simpler when we still wrote letters. I still have a couple of handwritten notes from my grandmother stored away. They’re quaint in today’s terms, filled with detailed descriptions of the past two months’ weather and the current state of their avocado tree, as well as questions about my progress learning to play piano and admonitions to be a good boy.

Today, this would all be covered in a few WhatsApps, richly coloured in with short video clips and emojis. Phone calls aren’t scheduled for Sunday evenings anymore – we make them any time, from anywhere. Instead of writing letters to one person we post status updates on Facebook or share photos on Instagram for the world to see.

But despite this amazing progress (or maybe because of it), we still get it badly wrong sometimes, and the ubiquity of communication channels has a darker side, too.

Let’s have a look at how communication has changed, including the good, the bad and the scary. Then make up your own mind about how your communication habits should change to improve your relationships and keep yourself safe online.  

Communication is global

Want to get off the grid? Good luck with that, buddy. These days communication is global, and there are very few places left where you can’t see what your friends are up to on Facebook. You can purchase products from the other side of the world, follow your favourite celebrities or play massively multiplayer online games.

Communication is invisible

For many of our most important communications, machines do most of the work. Think of online transactions, marketing emails, app store purchases and browsing websites. While you’re doing your thing, you’re opting in to privacy notices and cookies, which means you’re saying yes to a constant stream of advertising that follows you wherever you go.

New regulations in the EU, called GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), has been put in place to protect individuals’ interests, but it’s good to be aware that websites can track your behaviour and make use of that information.

Communication is screen-based

Look up from your screen. What do you see? If you didn’t notice your colleagues coming in an hour ago, you’ve illustrated my point that we’re becoming increasingly comfortable with our communications happening through a screen. This is not necessarily good or bad, but I can promise you, life is better and more interesting in real life.

Mobile device manufacturers are also starting to build in functionality to monitor and limit your screen time.

Communication is multi-streamed

At many workplaces, colleagues are connected through multiple streams of communication. There’s Slack and Workplace to talk about work, Asana and Trello to manage projects, WhatsApp for friends, and Facebook and Instagram for everyone else. In between there are phone calls and Skype and Hangouts, and calendar apps and a whole host of other applications that we use to stay hyper-connected.

Language now includes pictograms

Our writing is evolving to include emojis and GIFs. Apparently teenagers can write whole essays without using any of the 26 letters on this page. If you want to test your emoji knowledge, read these 3 books written entirely with emojis.

Communication is democratic – or is it?

The most recent election campaign in the US brought to light a dark side of social media, advertising and news. While the details are still murky, it appears that non-US agents influenced the outcome of the elections using a host of manipulative techniques.

In more practical terms, the web has long promised to democratise information, but it seems that the information with the strongest financial and technological backing will dominate the discourse, whether the topic is the US elections or something else.

Communication is public

Despite new regulations to protect our online privacy and more transparent privacy practices by Google, Facebook and Apple, it’s up to you to ensure you don’t make a fool of yourself, or ruin your career, or end up in prison for things you say online. Social networks are public by their very nature, so don’t be stupid, okay? :)

Keep in touch online

Want to stay in touch with friends and family. The latest smartphones are all available to purchase now at Vodacom online.

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