The Pink Floyd song Keep Talking includes excerpts from the following Stephen Hawking quote-
“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”
While Stephen Hawking was right about the unbounded possibilities of technologies in helping us communicate, what we have seen over the past few years is that online communication has become less about talking in a meaningful and thoughtful way, and more about generating content to drive more views and clicks. The recent documentary The Social Dilemma did a good job of laying bare many of these issues and challenges. It has come to a point that there are many people who simply do not want to engage in social media any more. Technology, instead of encouraging us to talk, is starting to silence us.
One way out of the mess we are in is to get back to the basics and to encourage talking and listening. And I mean actually talking — using your own voice, at your own pace. The next time you have to say something to a friend, how about picking up the phone and using the voice calling function. So, you know, you can talk. We sometimes forget our phones have that feature.
“We learned to talk and we learned to listen.”
The art of listening is perhaps the biggest casualty of modern social media. We are all in our bubbles messaging away. Messaging is an apt term — we are not trying to communicate. We are trying to message. When you are messaging, you are not listening.
A year ago, I co-founded my second startup, Swell. It was meant to be in the area of health — where we would collect unusual and unconventional first hand health stories, and bring them to light for the benefit of everyone. When we started collecting the stories, we chose to record the interviews in audio purely for convenience. But then when we wrote the stories in a web format to publish, we were struck by how much was lost in taking that first hand audio interview and putting it into text. When you heard the voice, you were immediately connected to the speaker, it was intimate, yet private without the intrusiveness of video. In text, it just fell flat. We realized that was a big part of the challenge of modern social media — the authenticity and intimacy is gone. Instead of emotions, we have emojis. We are no longer talking. We are messaging.
So we pivoted our startup, and built a platform for audio-first communication. You can do everything you can do on other platforms — share a thought, ask a question, debate a topic, post a picture, talk about news and a lot more, but all is done with your voice. The platform discourages mindless forwards and memes, since you have to add your voice to everything you post. If you don’t really have something to say about it, why share?
I have been on startup journeys before. From over-funded failures to bootstrapped successes. But this one is personal — it can make a real difference to the world. I don’t know where Swell will be in 5–10 years, but it is urgent and imperative that we try. There has been a lot of buzz about audio as a major tech trend and I find that encouraging. Regardless of the winners and losers in the startup races, the use of human voice is a positive which will elevate the level of communication for everyone.
So, keep talking.
(Epilogue: Putting my voice where my mouth is — you can listen to the above article in my own voice on my Swellcast here.)