The network is the keyboard: Patterns of scalable communication

Last week Scott Hanselman summed up the principle of keystroke conservation like so:

There are a finite number of keystrokes left in your hands before you die. Next time someone emails you, ask yourself “Is emailing this person back the best use of my remaining keystrokes?”

Several of the comments on Scott’s post focused on the notion that keyboards will one day be obsolete, and that speech recognition will break the typing bottleneck. But that’s not the real bottleneck. The keystroke conservation principle is just one way of getting at the notion of scalable communication powered by network effects.

One of my favorite stories comes from Larry Moore, who was a Lotus executive. To illustrate why people didn’t “get” Lotus Notes, he used to talk about the early days of the telephone business, when there were roadshows to introduce people to the concept of telephony. Demonstrators would set up two phones on either end of a stage, with a wire strung between, and talk to each other. But it made no sense to the audiences. Obviously those people could already hear each other! Who needed the wire?

It’s the same thing with the principle of keystroke conservation. If I talk to one person, or a few people, faster than I can type messages to one or a few, I can communicate more, but not orders of magnitude more, and not in ways that fully exploit the power of the network.

Forget keystrokes for a moment and look at how Sal Khan is rewiring math and science education. He started out doing one-on-one tutoring with his cousin Nadia. It’s clearly ridiculous to say that his ability to scale that effort is constrained by the rate at which he can talk. On his instructional videos he talks no faster than normal. But he has strategically placed those videos in a pub/sub network where they can be discovered, subscribed to, shared, and reused. There are nearly 60,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel. That’s scalable communication.

The problem with examples like this one, of course, is that most of us aren’t rock-star performers like Sal Khan. If we push all the communication that we can into open networks, we’re not going to boost our reach by five orders of magnitude. Maybe only two. Maybe even just one. But that’s significant! You’ll never type a message 10x faster, or speak it 10x faster. But you can easily reach 10x more people by adopting communication habits that make it more likely that your message will be discovered, shared, and reused.

Face-to-face discussion, phone calls, email, and text messages are narrowcasting modes that don’t scale in this way. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, wikis, and audio or video podcasts are broadcasting modes that do. How do we use both together in the right ways for given situations? It’s subtle. One commenter on Scott’s post writes:

My emails very rarely contain anything to blog about or update a wiki with.

What amount of email do you think is actually appropriate to becoming a blog entry in your life or in a less technical person’s life?

For what it’s worth, I think in terms of an inventory of reusable parts and the DRY (don’t repeat yourself) principle. For example, I’m often asked about how to publish iCalendar feeds from popular calendar apps. So I’ve written up a series of how-to blog posts. And I’ve encapsulated that series into a query: None of those posts would have been email messages. But there are many email messages in my outbox that contain links to the series. Because the link is a query, it yields fresh results for anyone who has ever received the link in email as well as for anyone who ever will. The same posts are also quite often found directly by way of search.

Counting keystrokes is just one way to think about the underlying pattern. It’s not about typing versus talking. It’s about choosing the mix of modes that will best repay the effort you invest in communication.


  1. I get a lot of questions from readers about restoring historic buildings. For 15 years I have been selecting some of my email responses and posting them at my discussion Forum:

    So, I can refer similar queries to that response. In this way “narrow-cast” becomes “broadcast.” They are often viewed by 10 or 100 more people than my original correspondent. Often the response develops into a full discussion that is viewed by tens of thousands of people.

    My forum system gives me a count of viewers. Here’s an example:
    You will see one near the top with 90,000 viewers, some with thousands of viewers and some with hundreds.

    When I see a discussion drifting up into the tens of thousands I select it to edit and add to my original response at the top of the discussion by summarizing the discussion beneath, and adding more recent material. As this body of text develops I add illustrations in form of photos, sketches and videos.

    Here is an example on removing paint with steam (92,000 views):

    and another on glazing windows with putty (32,000 views):

    When a topic has matured and has between 50,000 and 100,000 views I published in my little series of booklets and books:

    I might add it to an existing title (which I publish with Print On Demand services and can easily update), or create a new title.

    This bumps the readership of my response to that original query up into the hundreds of thousands.

    This approach is definitely saving me keystrokes. And, helping a lot of people along the way, too.

    by hammer and hand great works do stand
    by pen and thought best words are wrought

  2. Having 60’000 subscribers on youtube is “communication”? – Are you kidding? – This is broadcasting, not something I would call communication between people: it is a very one-sided thing.

    It’s like saying that having 60’000 friends on facebook is scaling friendship by a factor of about 10’000. – Those are friends, I mean real friends?

  3. This is broadcasting, not something I would call communication between people.

    Fair point. At Sal’s level, you’re right, it’s broadcasting. But there aren’t many at that level. For the rest of us, communication can scale, albeit imperfectly.

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