Communications and communication are different things. No S refers to human processes of producing and interpreting meaning. This process is dynamic, always symbolic and referential, and fundamentally experiential all the way down to the individual level.
With the S are other amazing things and my focus here: networks and systems, technologies and schedules, designs and infrastructures. All communications.
Communications and communication and connected — two parts of the same human interaction whole. But each less of a bifurcated opposite and more of a connected and mutually influential side of the same coin.
Communication, you’ll recall, is all about meaning-making, interaction, and symbolic relationships. Different and distinct from those things, communications are about the dispersal, spread, and enablement of our meaning-making processes; the structures, channels, wires, and signals of connection. It is communications that give shape, rise, and dispersal effects to all the messages we can’t help ourselves from spewing toward others. They are the systems and networks and channels and infrastructures that partly shape the conversations we humans are always having.
Communications enable, frame, and structure communication in various ways. They are cables and towers and wires and much that goes well beyond all that.
Why care about this distinction between S and no S?
Well, despite pervasive interchangeable usage in everyday language, the two shouldn’t be conflated. Using these terms interchangeably, particularly when substituting S for no S, we inadvertently reinforce the idea that communication is simply messages arriving or having been sent — which isn’t how we should be thinking about communication.
Many things are “communications.” Communications are often related to scale. I think about communications in 3 general categories: infrastructure, dispersal, and institutions.
INFRASTRUCTURE is stuff like wires, tubes, signals, cables, towers. It can also be the designs of channels, their features, and their shapes and contours. Communications aren’t just technical-mechanical systems, but where systems meeting design.
Infrastructure are the networks, in all their forms, that get signals and messages from here to there and also elements that shape our experiences of exchanging information and interacting.
Channels guide and shape the contours of our communication experiences. When you zap into Tik Tok or Reddit or Tinder or your text messaging app, you are constrained in certain ways (and enabled in others) with how you interact with the person or people on the other end. In each channel, certain outcomes are facilitated and made easy and you can do (or are guided to do) certain things in certain ways.
The outcomes themselves are communication, the ways you’re funneled there are communications. Channels are everywhere and they’re all fundamentally different. There’s not one exactly like another and in each different things are possible.
Infrastructure always changes. It’s always being built and growing. Sometimes these changes are small tweaks in design, or simply adding to or growing the network. At other times, the infrastructure of how people communicate undergoes rapid bursts of radical change. As example would be Facebook going from 0 to 1 Billion global users in 8 years — a violent (of sorts) social reaction that led to entirely new opportunities and consequences of interaction. There is certain to be more radical changes in the infrastructure of communication such as this although it will look different, in some new form. Perhaps augmented reality will provide the next giant crashing wave of radical new connections. If that happens, it will be on the crest of a wild wave of infrastructure.
DISPSERALS are things like strategy, structure, plans, and campaigns. They are organized and strategic.
If it’s planned, structured, or strategized it is communications and not communication. This is what the professionals do: develop targeted messages, build a strategic plan, target specific audiences, and measure outcomes. Communications of this sort can take on all kinds of forms: a brand launch, an orchestrated corporate event, a PR campaign, or advertisements. To be clear, or perhaps to confuse matters, each of these is still communication in that it is a meaning-making opportunity, however such designed, structured, and measured instances are thought of as with the S. Communications.
INSTITUTIONS are things like “the media,” journalism, content platforms, and the like. Content platforms and the structures of content production are communications. Institutions come and go. Structures change.
The fact that I can easily share this article, or a video version of it, on any of a thousand different websites speaks to the pervasiveness of communications. If anyone engages that content and takes meaning or information away from it is evidence that communication has occurred.
We can think of much of media production, content creation, and consumption as “institutional.” Netflix is an institution in this sense. Once, it wasn’t. At one point in time, Netflix mailed DVDs to your house! Journalism has taken on many forms over it’s life course and continues to manifest in multiple ways even today. YouTube gets more content uploaded each day than any person could watch in a life time. Institutions always change and evolve.
Communications allow us a view into the details and intricacies of how messages get transmitted, distributed, or dispersed through networks. Communications are how the information gets from here to there, and guide and shape the experience we have consuming and exchanging information along the way. Somewhere down the communications to communication rabbit hole, the story shifts from dispersal to conversational. It’s there — when we start to get close to interaction — that the switch flips for me from S to no S, from transmission to meaning-making; they are connected, but saying precisely where or exactly how one becomes the other is anyone’s guess.
Take care in your usage of communications v. communication as they aren’t the same thing. Understanding the differences is part of understanding the whole of communication better — and as communication is such a central part of every person’s life, it’s worthy of this attention.
Communications aren’t just packets of information moving from here to there. They’re lots of things; they are the backbones of how we’re enabled to interact with others. It’s communications that allow us to play games with each other on the internet, to connect and organize around issues that matter, and that structure and guide — in a technical and institutional sense — how we are able to connect and interact with one another and have those connections that are so important.