Signal Ratio: An Engineer’s Suggestions for Social Communication Theory


There is a field in electrical engineering called ‘communication theory’ which basically encompasses all of the equations and technologies that it takes in order to get information from one place to another place using electronics. The applications of communication theory are things such as radio, television, ethernet, wireless internet, and cellular technology, among many others. Though the results of the field are broad, the same fundamental principles can be applied to pretty much any method of electronic communication, at least in terms of basic starting points for more complex ideas.

Why is this important? Well, I got to thinking about how the communication of ideas works in the social sense, and I realized that the same basic ideas can be used to help our understanding of how ideas propagate through social mediums as well.

There is a concept that I have mentioned before called the ‘signal to noise ratio’. In basic terms, this is a measure of the strength of meaningful information in a broadcast relative to the strength of the underlying static. This is an easy concept to translate into social communication, as it is pretty obvious that there is sometimes quite a bit of noise that one needs to overcome in order to communicate, especially as the number of people one wishes to communicate to becomes greater.

However, there is another aspect that is less obvious but, in some cases, far more important. In addition to the signal to noise ratio, one must also consider the relative strength of one’s signal to other surrounding signals as well. In communication theory, this can be seen most commonly when wi-fi signals overlap in an apartment complex. While each signal might be very strong when compared to the noise, if one signal completely overlaps another in strength, it still results in one person’s internet experience becoming drastically degraded.

So what is the connection to social communication? Well, in the past year or so as I’ve taken a few steps back from social interaction on the internet (in some parts of it, at least), I was able to do a lot of listening to what people were saying, and the ways in which they were saying it. While the internet has been a great tool in letting  people communicate with each other and discover ways to voice their thoughts and feelings, sometimes the signal overlap can cause a great deal of unintentional misunderstanding.

To continue the analogy, consider a group of signals that are comparatively weak on their own. Once the communication begins and they start to reinforce each other, the potential exists to rise above the noise and to make the collective broadcast heard. Now, an overlapping strong signal can still drown out that collection of weaker signals, and whether that strong signal has a complementary or conflicting message, the effect is the same. An outside listener would only hear the stronger signal, and therefore, everyone would see the information as being overpowering, or that the strong signal was taking over or co-opting the collective broadcast for its own purposes. As I’ve said many times before, it doesn’t matter what the intention is, it’s the result that matters. Similarly, it’s pretty easy to tell if you’re the strongest broadcast in the room: if you can’t hear anyone else when you’re talking, there you go. I won’t give specific examples of when this happens here, but really, you all probably know what I’m talking about.

So, in this analogy, what is the best, most helpful thing that someone broadcasting from a position of power can do to help those who are not? Adding a voice to the conversation so strong that it drowns out that conversation isn’t the answer. Even if the intention is helpful, the result is not. No, the best thing that a strong signal can do in this case is to stop broadcasting.

To be blunt, if you’re speaking from a position of power, the most helpful thing you can do in any conversation that isn’t about you is to shut up and listen. Because if the conversation is not about you, then it’s also not for you, and trying to make it be either will just make you look like a jerk.

Now, I realize that signal boosting is a pretty common thing, and that is helpful. If there is information that should be amplified, it’s good to do that. The caveat is that in order to effectively signal boost, the amplifier cannot add its own voice to the boosted signal. It should exist solely to turn a weaker voice into a stronger voice, but still allow that voice to retain its own agency.

Therefore, that is my suggestion to everyone. So many outlets place the focus on what you can tell others, but in order for things to work in a more positive way, the focus should instead shift to what others can tell you. Be silent for awhile and listen to the information that other, different signals are broadcasting. Signal boost what is important, if you choose, but the truly essential thing is that you let conversations happen.

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