Death of the Telephone

by Simon Tam

Last week, someone accused my work with social media marketing “irrelevant.” They claimed that organizations did not need an online marketing specialist — that it was a waste of resources. It reminded me of something I saw on television.

During the first season of Downton Abbey, there was an amusing bit when the family decided to install a telephone. It being 1914, no one knew how to use one. Several members of the household even questioned whether it was necessary at all.

Of course, this was funny because the phone seems like such a common object in our lives now. It wasn’t long after its invention that nearly every home and business had one. The telephone provided connection with the community. Urgent messages could be delivered quickly; distant loved ones could be reached easily. Dinner could be ordered and delivered.

When I was younger, our household had a “family phone.” We only had one phone line to share. It was in the kitchen. By the time I was in high school, we had several lines, call waiting and phones in each bedroom as well. In fact, even the computer had its own phone line, which it accessed using a top-of-the-line 28.8k modem.

Email experienced a similar transformation. Most households started with a singular email address that was shared by all members of the family. Do you remember getting those free AOL trial discs in the mail? Within just a few years, most people started getting their own email addresses. You probably have multiple. As of this writing, I have 17 different email addresses that I use regularly.

These days, many households use individual cell phones in place of a shared landline. Even so, cell phones are hardly used as telephones anymore – in fact, service providers make their money on data, not minutes. Talking has been replaced by texting, tweets and status updates. Many people spend more time playing Angry Birds than they do on phone calls.

As a society, we’ve become obsessed with having our own phone lines and emails, mostly in order to enjoy privacy. Despite our move towards more privacy in our intimate forms of communication, we’ve become much more public through social media. Many crisis phone lines are being replaced by instant Facebook messages and tweets. We can now broadcast what we are thinking, share photos of what we are eating, show progress on what we’re reading or watching and can send an update worldwide — instantly.

It’s more important than ever to understand the world which we live in. Email hurt the phone, social media is killing it.

I can understand why some people might scoff at the newest forms of technology. However, this is not a “tech” thing. This is communication. This is how businesses connect with their audiences; these are the mediums that are reuniting families.

So before you dismiss the role of online communications, think about this: the biggest waste of resources for an organization isn’t investing into new forms of communication. No, it is when they forget how to connect with the very people they’re trying to reach. Perhaps it’s time that the old communications slogan be updated to “Reach out and tweet someone.”

Simon Tam is a musician, author, marketer and social justice activist. He is currently pursuing an MBA at Marylhurst University and can be found at and Twitter @SimonTheTam.

Photo: Tim G. Photography via Flickr, Creative Commons License