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Platform Wars: How technology is changing the way we 'talk'

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Maureen Howard, 39, was longing to talk to her 21-year-old nephew, so she zapped him a text asking if she could call him.

“He said ‘no,’ ” recalled the midtown Manhattan executive assistant. “Then we texted back and forth for over an hour.”

Howard would have preferred a catch-up chat in half the time. Still, she rationalized, “as long as he’s communicating, with me, it’s OK.”

Welcome to the Platform Wars. We have more communication options than ever before, yet more difficulty connecting in a mutually agreeable and equally convenient way.

For more than a century, almost everyone agreed that a phone call was the best and often only way to reach out and touch someone, to quote the Ma Bell commercials. But today, it’s our lives against countless inboxes as we jockey with various degrees of aggression and passivity to communicate in our preferred means: scratchy cell or high-fidelity land line phone calls, text messages, Twitter, Facebook, emails, Skype — why not throw in smoke signals and interpretive dance?

The individual with the most power in the professional or interpersonal hierarchy is the person who generally determines how a communication will occur, noted Gilbert Melott, founder and president of dog-ear labs, a GenY marketing firm. “If the boss only wants to communicate with you by PowerPoint, email and the morning meeting, those will be the three ways you communicate with him,” Melott pointed out.

Frustrations reflect generational divides. People born after 1980 have lower needs for engagement and prefer rapid, casual forms of communication such as texting, Melott said.

“Nobody wants to talk,” affirmed Garcelle Robertson, 26, a Flatbush babysitter. “If you call them, they won’t pick up the phone, but text you back. It’s rude.”

Many 20-somethings “don’t even check their emails” unless they’re expecting to hear from an actual or potential employer, she added.

But thumb pianos are not universally embraced. People with poor eyesight or lacking manual dexterity find Blackberry buttons and infinitesimal script on tiny screens user-hostile. Too, not everyone runs around with a cell phone permanently attached to their hip.

Alex Yakushev, 43, a web portal and software developer, prefers the precision of email, and not just because it provides a reliable written record. Cell phone technology may be dangerous, said the Midtown resident, citing speculation that the devices may play a role in cancer. Yakushev also is occasionally flustered by rapid conversations via poor connections. Email allows the native Russian speaker to absorb content at leisure, and “answer better, and with better grammar.”

As we struggle with this communications tangle, a new communication etiquette is being codified, said Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach.

Email is “the most polite” method to use in initial communications, because it is most respectful of the recipient’s time, she said. In an age when everyone is “overworked, underpaid and trying to multi-task,” a phone call is likely to be an unwelcome interruption, so should be avoided, she added.

After that? You negotiate — and the person with the most to gain cedes to the preferences of the person with the least.

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How the communication game has changed in recent years:

2006

Text Messages: 158 billion
MMS Messages: 2.7 billion
Voice Minutes: 1.7 trillion
Cell phone subscribers: 233,041,000
Land lines: 140 million
Twitter Accounts: just launched that July
Facebook accounts: 12 million
Skype accounts: 171 million

2010

Text Messages: 2.052 trillion
MMS Messages: 56.6 billion
Voice Minutes: 2.241 trillion
Cell Phone Subscribers: 302.9 million
Land lines: 153 million at the end of 2009, (but losing 700,000 a month)
Twitter accounts: 175 million
Facebook accounts: 500 million
Skype accounts: 560 million

(Dina Davis)

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