The Totem Pole of Communication

Totem pole

Like many viewers, who saw HBO’s Girls last week, one of the most intriguing parts of the show was when a girl instructed her friend on the totem pole of chat. That term has been in my mind for the last week or so and I’ve spent time thinking about the idea. In our modern connected society, communication has evolved significantly, which is something that a lot of people have trouble grasping. It’s no longer the difference between snail mail and email, but the vast different ways that people of all ages communicate these days, from texts, messaging systems, and life streams.

1. IRL

Nothing beats communicating in real life, face to face, over a cup of coffee or dinner. Unlike many people, I tend to leave my smartphone in my pocket and concentrate on the other person, even if I get alerts. There’s a subtlety of human non-verbal expressions that are hard to translate into technological means, which is why it’s still really relevant.

2. Life streams

The major difference in what has been said about communication is when it comes to life streams, which include Twitter feeds, Facebook feeds, Instagram feeds, etc. When I give access to my life streams to another person, I let them discover who I am, via a variety of different media. Naturally, if you don’t post many updates, this can become a meaningless step. You are giving access to your phone number, uncountable personal details, emails, etc when you “add a friend” or follow someone. By far, the most important one is Facebook. Almost all users register in their own name and it gives a snapshot of what a person does and feels.

3. Video Chats

Skype dates have become common and allow for a much more interesting way of interacting with other people than just over the phone. They can last for a longer amount of time and there is an additional level of intimacy when you actually see who you are talking to.

4. Talking on the Phone

It’s been around for ages, but it’s still one of the most important ways that people communicate. While I don’t use my phone a lot to talk, I do still talk with some people. The visual element is lacking, but there are ways that it makes up for this by allowing you to move around, into other areas.

5. Texting

Texting, when using your own phone number, is a quick, easy way to talk with other people. It becomes essential when you can’t talk on the phone, and is quite quick when you get used to typing on small screens.

6. Email

Most of my email is work-related, and since I run Inbox Zero, I usually check it only a couple of times a day. I’ve actually set up a specific mobile email account for my smartphone that I only use for personal issues. Still, it’s very useful when you don’t want the instantaneity of texting and other forms of more directed communications.

7. Whatsapp, KIK, LINE messaging

Some of these new forms of messaging are cross-platform, working on a number of different smartphone OS, and aim to replace texting. While Apple has already implanted something like this with iMessage for all iOS users, it’s still very interesting to be able to text people without paying for these messages. These apps use a 3G or WiFi connection to make their messaging free.

8. Facebook status updates

Commenting, posting and following updates of your friends is one form of communication, but it’s mostly impersonal. This includes the people you are subscribed to, but not friends with and other restricted online relationships.

9. Tweets and DMs

Tweets, DMs, are still a long way from any kind of personal communication. Some of them will lead to more, but most stay secluded in the Twitter-verse. Twitter is a marvelous way of getting an instant snapshot of what’s happening in the world, depending on who you follow. It has become an essential tool of modern journalism.


Blog comments are one of the safest and most impersonal ways of communicating. I used to place a lot of importance on blog comments, especially for the blogs I write for, but nowadays I barely read them at all. I do read all of the comments on my personal blog and respond to them.


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