Say Less, Feel More: The New Communication Minimalism

It is not just the new uncluttering but also the latest brand of intimacy.

Posted Jan 27, 2020

Photo by Andrei Lazarev on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Andrei Lazarev on Unsplash

Depression and suicide rates are rising sharply among young Americans. One factor is social media enhancing anxiety, as users exhaust themselves in the dopamine rat race on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter; it's an unregulated and boundless marketplace that puts them in 24-hour competition for recognition with everybody else in the world, leading not only to FOMO (Fear-Of-Missing-Out) but also a fear of not being good enough, a fear of not being someone. Young people are struggling with how to communicate, with experience overload, and perhaps most importantly, with having to navigate too many possible identities.

Self-promotion and personal branding are not the only pressure cookers on social media. The platforms are also increasingly weaponized for asymmetrical information wars fuelled by fake news, as the Philippines-based journalist and activist Maria Ressa underscored in a moving talk she gave at the DLD conference in Munich last week. “A lie that is repeated a million times becomes a fact,” she reminded the audience. On the same panel, MIT scholar Sinan Aral added that it was “half-truths” in particular that were conducive to spreading virally because they involve just enough truth to gain credibility and just enough fabricated truths to be spectacular enough to provoke imagination.

Aside from regulation, new metrics such as the concept of “conversational health” that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has been touting lately, or total abstinence, what might be other, more beautiful ways of designing for and living a good life on social media?

A refusal to verbalize

One possible escape from the anxiety of social media is communication minimalism, a new trend both online and in the real world that strips communication down to its essence, removes all complexity as well as the need for accuracy, and reduces it to something that we feel rather than do: communication that is becoming haptic or entirely silent and that does not have to be true but rather feel true.

From hieroglyphs to emoji, non-verbal means of communication have been used for millennia, but a new slate of products and services are now taking non-verbal to the extreme with a focus on fostering intimacy. In times of growing social isolation, loneliness (more than three in five Americans are lonely), and mental health issues, intimacy is both a scarce resource and a much-needed companion.

Take Silent Book Clubs, a phenomenon that began with two friends meeting in a San Francisco bar. They were tired of the assigned readings of traditional book clubs and just wanted to read what they wanted; however, they didn’t want to give up the company of others that comes with being a member of a book group. The format has since gained traction not just as a boon for introverts, but for everybody who appreciates silence as the great equalizer and an effective catalyst of social intimacy among strangers. Silent Book Club members can bring any book they want, and they may discuss the book with other attendees or simply read together in quiet communion. There are now more than 100 active chapters around the globe—from Cape Town to Dubai to Stockholm.

A touch without touching

When its social value trumps its informative function, researchers call a communication “phatic.” This phatic quality is epitomized by Bond Touch, a new product and service for two users, allowing them to communicate with each other simply by sending digital "touches" at any given moment via slick designer bracelets. Think of it as “poking” in the physical realm with digital means. When one user sends a “touch” to the other, the other’s wristband vibrates and lights up. No words, just a light and a touch. Now, you might wonder, why not just send a text message? The answer is simple: Too complex. Too high of a chance for miscommunication.

Some herald Bond Touch as the savior of long-distance relationships, others as an additional physical-digital bond for couples, parents and their children, colleagues, friends, or strangers who see value in being physically reminded that the other person exists and thinks of them in that very moment. The service offers a “touch history” and even “replays” of past touches, and eventually, according to the web site, an “encrypted and private space to share all memories with your one and only love.”

With this focus on exclusivity, Bond Touch is thus not just satisfying a desire for simplicity in our communications but also for simplicity in our relationships. While some might find it creepy, one can understand the product’s allure: there is something, well, touching about the idea of an overwhelmingly complex world in which a simple remote touch can help us cultivate a relationship.

Hearts without bodies

Ultimately, we may not even need a digital pulse and may instead rely on our heartbeats as the cadence of human-to-human communications. Nothing is more direct, and nothing is more sincere: while our hearts may misguide us from time to time, they usually don’t lie.

Driven by this insight, the artist duo Diogo Teixeira and Dijana Galijasevic created an installation called “Heartbeat” that invites two people to listen to each other’s heartbeats in a quasi-private setting. Amplified by highly sensitive microphones and witnessed by an attentive small audience, the installation establishes an intuitive bond between two strangers by foregoing any rhetorical barriers. 

There is something comforting in reducing human communication to the fundamental mechanism of the human body, but interestingly, experiences of intimacy don't have to involve sex. Quite the opposite. In recent years, one could observe a desire to free relationships from the intricate layers of meaning and the power structures that can come with it. In fact, the number of young Americans reporting to not have had sex in the previous year has doubled to 23 percent between 2008 and 2018. The no-sex rate among young American men, in particular, has nearly tripled during that period.

An escape from complexity

Perhaps communication minimalism is the new celibacy. Heartbeats, Bond Touches, and Silent Book Clubs offer up an escape route from complexity and ambiguity; they allow us to feel more without the risk of being hurt; to touch each either emotionally without getting entangled. They all point to a new essentialism assuring us that we can still manage the signals amidst all the noise if we only reduce the noise and focus solely on the signals.

Communication is a miracle—and a minefield. With all the nuances around political correctness, the constant chatter of social media, and every single one of our words online recorded and potentially shared in broad daylight, it is no surprise that we become more reserved, hold back, or retreat entirely. Words are gifts but also weapons. Using them can do harm and limit the possibilities. Nothing said can be unsaid, and to remain a complete person, it might be better to keep most words for ourselves.