Speaking tomorrow night at Keene Public Library: "The Big Disconnect - How Communication Is Changing All Around Us"
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Is "family identity" dead? (In a communications form)

Is the concept of "family identity" dead in terms of communications?

As I was thinking about my talk tonight over the weekend and how the ways in which we communicate are changing, one of the themes that kept emerging was what I'd call "The Death of Family Identity".

Think about it... once upon a time, there were primarily two ways that people would communicate with members of a household (outside of the obvious one of knocking on the front door):

  1. Postal mail
  2. Telephone

In both cases, there was one "address" for the family... either the postal address or the phone number. In either case, you could contact "the Yorks", for instance, by sending a letter to the address or by calling the family phone number. The mail or phone might be picked up by any member of the family, but it could be shared or passed along to other members of the family. Mom, dad, brothers, sisters, friends or whomever lived there... anyone could potentially see the mail or get the phone call.


Let's take the phone. My parents have had the same phone number for 35 years. Growing up, anyone could have called that number and reached either of my parents, myself or my brother. That was the number to call us on. Period. End of story. And while there were certainly some disadvantages to this approach... busy signals (pre-call-waiting), messages not being delivered, people listening in on extensions... there was also a solid sense of "identity". You could leave a message there and someone in the family would get it. If it was urgent, someone could try other ways to reach the person - or could provide info about where the person was.

Fast forward to today... mobile phones are ubiquitous and traditional "landlines" are being shed at a rapid pace. As today's mobile-phone-using college generation starts to buy homes, will any of them actually bother with a landline? What's the point? The mobile phone lets you receive your calls wherever you are. No more messages that aren't communicated to you by a family member... no more busy signals because your sibling is on the phone...

Personally, I wouldn't invest in the landline biz... sure, many of those who have them in their houses today will keep them until you pry the handset out of their cold, dead fingers... but that's a market that's capped. And many of us who have them may move... if I can eventually figure out a solution for fax and 911, I'll probably cut the cord, too.

But let's think about that in terms of "family identity":

  • Mobile numbers are individual - Each person has a mobile phone. Mom, dad, brother, sister... everyone has their own phone with their own number. For families who have "cut the cord", how do you just leave a message for the family? Say you want to invite them over for dinner... how do you just leave a general message? You can't... you have to call one of the individuals. Or maybe you call a couple. (Or maybe you just text them all.) It's no longer simple.

  • Mobile phones are less reliable - Your ability to reach the family members assumes, of course, that their mobile phones are reachable. Batteries die and need to be recharged. Phones are lost. Someone is traveling in an area with bad coverage (recall that I live in the wireless backwater known as the United States). Voicemail messages may not be delivered in a timely fashion. None of these were generally issues with traditional landlines.

  • Mobile phone numbers change - How many mobile phone numbers have you had in the last, say, five years? Some of you may still have the same numbers, but odds are most of you reading this have gone through several numbers. Either because you switch carriers and cannot move your number... or it's just too much of a pain in the neck and it's just easier to get a new one. Or you wanted that shiny new phone that another carrier had and so you wound up with two mobile phones? Regardless of the reason, there is more churn in mobile numbers. Anyone seriously think they'll have the same mobile phone number for 35 years?

So in a world without home landlines, how do you reach "the Yorks"? Sure, you could set up a "family number" through an abstraction layer like Google Voice that would ring all family phones... but how many people are actually going to do this?


Do I even need to discuss it? When was the last time any of you reading this wrote an actual "letter" to someone and mailed it in the postal service? When is the last time you received a personal letter?

Messages are sent online... either through "e-mail" or IM or increasingly through services like Facebook, etc. And all of those media have the same issues as mobile phones: they are almost always individual, they are less reliable, they change.

Gone are the days of the sending a letter to "The Yorks". Now you have to cc a bunch of email addresses and hope they all get there... or rely on someone in the family to send it to everyone.

(And sure, some of us, myself included, still engage in this quaint, anachronistic custom of sending "Christmas cards" to a family, but even there I've increasingly seen friends and family reciprocating with "e-cards"... that time is probably limited, too.)


Is "family identity" dead in our brave new online world of 2009? Does it matter? Are we better of with the convenience we have today and the ways we have to connect as individuals?

I don't know the answer. Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe it does. Maybe it's just another aspect of the changing fabric of our society where we don't yet understand the full ramifications as we continue our evolution into the cloud... Part of me feels like we are losing something... but the pattern isn't fully clear.

What do you think?

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