Where We’ll Find the Next Major Communication Innovation

Even if our basic communication methods don't change much, we'll still see new ways of engaging with each other.

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I find it interesting to look at how communication has evolved. With certain generations today, non-verbal real-time communication has become the norm for the majority of interactions.

I come across this frequently when I tell people that the fastest way to get a response from me is to text me instead of calling me. I’m not always in a setting where I can answer my phone, but I am generally always in a setting where I can reply to a text message.

Technology has enabled this new tier of communication. I first started thinking about this new tier when, around 2007, I was studying how millennials were using technology. It was around this time that we saw the shift happen: This generation was texting more than they were talking on the phone.

At the time, this was a profound observation. This young demographic’s preferred method of communication was text messaging. In many contexts, it trumped other forms of communication.

Prior to text messaging, instant messaging was the closest thing we had to real-time non-verbal communication, but it required you to be logged in and at a computer. Texting delivered on the value of instant messaging but made it possible anytime, anywhere — for a fee, of course.

I bring this up because it begs an interesting question: Have we finished innovating around how we communicate? This is essentially one of the primary ways man has used technology. We have used it to our advantage to increase the manner and method in which we communicate. Communicating is a basic human need, and nearly every example we have of communication evolving has been directly powered by technological innovation.

Tiers of Communication

To look deeper at the question of future communication evolution, it is helpful to look at the ways in which we communicate. I call these the tiers of communication, and I believe there are three of them.

The first tier or communication is a basic verbal conversation, either in person, on the phone or via a video conference.

The second tier of communication is like a text message, instant message, or some other form of conversation that takes place non-verbally, but is in real time or near real time.

The third tier is made up of conversations we have that are non-verbal and not in real time. E-mail and snail mail are examples of this form of communication.

What’s fascinating about having different options for communicating is that we can use the medium that best dictates the context of the conversation. For example, in an emergency, a verbal conversation is often necessary. But for a question about a grocery store item, a text message would probably suffice.

Text messaging is perhaps one of the most fascinating ways in which our communication styles have advanced. Texting is obviously good for short conversations, but many millennials, for example, will have very long conversations and multiple conversations simultaneously in real time. We have all heard the horror stories of parents finding unusually high cell phone bills due to kids texting 10,000 texts or more in a month. That’s some dedication to this new form of communication.

Interestingly, social media like Facebook and Twitter contain multiple elements of these tiers. On Facebook, I can post something with no real time-sensitive purpose or even something requiring no response at all. I can also have a real-time conversation with someone via Facebook Chat. I can send a message and even have a voice conversation.

Similarly, Twitter gives me many ways of using the tiers of communication, minus verbal for now. Twitter is actually interesting to me and many in my close circle. Since many of us are bearish on Facebook, we have made time investments in Twitter. Because of how I use Twitter, it is nearly as good as text messaging if one wants to communicate with me.

My guess is that technology is not done advancing how we communicate. My conviction is that the tiers I outline above will stay the same; however, technology may enable new ways of engaging in them that aren’t possible today.

Maybe it will be the TV or wearable devices that will enable new ways to communicate. One thing, however, is highly likely: The millennial generation that embraced new technologies and adopted them into their communication methods will be the generation that brings us the next major innovation in communication.

Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the Big Picture opinion column that appears here every week on TIME Tech.