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11 things you probably didn’t know about how you communicate online

Researchers tracking the migration of words to digital spaces have uncovered some surprising facts.

  • Beyond Zoom and email, channels like social chat and real-time gaming communities are surging.
  • These days, brands don't wait for us to find them online – they're coming to us on social media.
  • Switching to airplane mode and spending some time in the real world every now and then can be good for both body and mind.

Even before the onset of a global pandemic imposed severe restrictions on our capacity for face-to-face meetings, online communication was starting to dominate.

The average office worker sends 40 business emails each day. Globally, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all feature in the top 10 most-used websites. Twitter users alone churn out around 9,000 tweets per second, and this number is still growing.

Over recent months, many of us have been entirely dependent on online communication channels at one time or another. However, researchers tracking the migration of words to digital spaces have uncovered some surprising facts – good, bad, and ugly.

1. Too much time online is bad for your health.

Whether we like it or not, most of us are addicted to our mobile devices, with the average American checking his or her phone 80 times a day. About 63 percent take our phones into the bathroom, and 70 percent of people fall asleep each night with their phone in reach.

But your phone compulsion could be doing more damage than you think. From causing sleep deprivation, to "text claw," researchers are uncovering myriad ways that our phone addictions are bad for our health. Switching to airplane mode and spending some time in the real world every now and then can be good for both body and mind.

2. You need to write shorter emails.

It's likely that the phone addiction is to blame, but studies have shown that humans have a shorter attention span than goldfish. Apparently, we can hold a thought for an average of just eight seconds.

So, if you're one of those people who has a tendency to write essays over email, the chances are that your recipient isn't reading all the way to the end. Experts also suggest that long emails send an unwritten message that you don't know your audience, or at least that you don't care so much about the recipient's time.

EmailAnalytics word counter screenshot


With this in mind, keep emails short and to the point if you want to maximize their value. Tools like EmailAnalytics can scan your mailbox for metrics such as word count, thread length, and response times. If it starts to look too wordy, then consider picking up the phone.

3. Good grammar could help your love life.

Bad spelling and grammar are widely regarded as a professional no-no. But chances are, you never considered that it could be damaging other areas of your life. A Dutch study of online dating site users found that error-free language is generally linked to attractiveness, meaning that potential dates may find bad grammar off-putting before you ever get the opportunity to dazzle them in person.

Online tools such as Grammarly can help polish up your written communications, and also integrate with your web browser along with word processing software. They'll help spot the kind of spelling and grammar mistakes that often slip through when you're multitasking and typing at speed, helping to polish your written communications.

4. You probably communicate more with brands via social media than their own websites.

These days, brands don't wait for us to find them online – they're coming to us on social media. According to HubSpot, Facebook is the primary content distribution channel for marketers in 2020, taking precedence even over their own websites. However, marketers are also maximizing their footprints across other channels, including Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat.

This isn't simply one-way communication, either. According to reports from Social Bakers, in April, PlayStation drew the most interactions of any brand on Twitter with 1.6 million, while Netflix took the top spot on Facebook with nearly 2.5 million likes, comments, and shares.

Consumer communications survey chart from Twilio


However, according to Twilio, 83 percent of us still prefer email to engage with brands online – unless it's urgent, in which case, text is the preferred option.

5. Your emails might be more negative than you realize.

The "passive-aggressive" email trope has spawned many a meme. But as the old adage goes, it's funny because it's true. While the memes are amusing, the reality of receiving negative emails is less likely to make anyone laugh. In fact, researchers have found that email "incivility" is a cause of stress in the workplace that many people end up taking home with them, transferring it to their loved ones.

AI can help. Tools such as Boomerang Insights can scan your emails for tone, identifying positive and negative language and even drilling down into how you communicate with individual contacts.

6. For online video presentations, desktop still trumps mobile.

From online courses and training sessions to product demonstrations and remote business meetings, webinars have proven to be a lifeline to many companies and employees affected by the pandemic.

More than 8.5 million people attended some kind of webinar in 2019 on the ClickMeeting platform alone, according to the company. Given the events of 2020, it's likely we'll see that number skyrocket this year.

Chart - Devices: desktop versus mobile


However, video presentations are one area that don't appear to be transitioning over to mobile – at least not yet. ClickMeeting found that close to 70 percent of us still prefer to log into webinars via desktop rather than mobile.

7. Slack could very well defeat work emails.

Slack just might end up being the work communication tool of choice that so many predicted back when it was first getting popular. Even before most of us had heard of it, Slack was the fastest-growing B2B company in history. By the time the company went public in 2019, it had over 10 million users sending more than a billion messages each week.

What's more, users of Slack are highly engaged. Slack's IPO papers filed with the SEC state that "paid customers averaged nine hours connected through at least one device and spent more than 90 minutes actively using Slack."

Part of its popularity is the fact that Slack does away with the ceremony associated with email. This includes things like a formal greeting, or the expectation of a reply, which are a hangover from the days of letter-writing. In the words of Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, "It's radical collaboration, a different way of working and thinking."

8. WhatsApp is bigger than China.

If WhatsApp users were the population of a country, it would be bigger than China. We send 60 billion messages per day on the SMS-killer. It's used for everything from organizing family gatherings to brand communications, to Netflix recommendations.

Graphic that reads "messages sent via Whatsapp Daily: More than 65 million..."


But beware of what you're reading on WhatsApp. There are allegations that during the 2018 Brazilian presidential elections, WhatsApp was used to spread false information. In fact, this has become such a problem that WhatsApp has imposed limits on the forwarding of messages, which it claims is helping to slow the spread of fake news.

9. Video chat is going through the roof in 2020.

Due to the coronavirus keeping office workers at home, it's perhaps unsurprising that video chat is having a moment. While there are plenty of platforms now offering this feature, including Skype, Google Hangouts, and text favorite WhatsApp, Zoom is the tool of choice among the American WFH set. The company grew to 300 million meeting participants in April, up from just 10 million in December 2019.

However, this growth hasn't been without controversy. Zoom has come under fire from security and privacy advocates for failing to cover various vulnerabilities in its software. These include having default settings that don't include a password, and allowing any participant to share their screen, even if they've gatecrashed the meeting – a practice known as "zoombombing."

10. You’re probably spending hours every day on chat apps.

We're spending an insane amount of time online these days – close to seven hours a day. Of that, we spend around two hours each day communicating via messaging and social apps on our phones.

This means that these platforms account for the same time spent online on our phones as all other mobile activities combined.

Hootsuite infographic showing share of time spent in mobile apps in categories.

We Are Social

However, the precise amount of time does vary by country. Filipinos hold the global record, with nearly four hours each day on social media and messaging apps. In contrast, American users average around two hours, while the highly-focused Japanese spend only 45 minutes per day.

11. Social gaming has become a major force.

Online social gaming has become a massive industry, worth around $2.4 billion. Discord, the messaging app that was designed for gamers, now handles around 963 million messages per day, with over 10 million players online at peak times.

Sure, that's a fraction of the message volume that WhatsApp sees in a day, but it's still eye-opening in terms of the power of the social, conversational layer to the gamer's experience.

Furthermore, the stereotypical gamers aren't kids in their bedrooms. According to the World Economic Forum, the average U.S. gamer is 35 years old, with players over 50 accounting for 13 percent of the total in both male and female groups. With an audience of 665 million, more people watch video gameplay than major table networks and subscription TV services.

Changing norms for communication

With social distancing likely to remain a norm for months, if not years, to come, online communication is only set to keep growing. Thankfully, the popularity of video and voice chat gives us a means of keeping human contact more present during these times.

However, the question is, when things go back to normal, will physical face time (as opposed to FaceTime) ever hold the same value again? Only time will tell.

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