Serial Discussion (SD) v. Parallel Discussion (PD)

October 3, 2019

In SD, all participants give their full attention to one discussion at a time, as it happens. Participants deliver a message, wait for another party to deliver a message, listen, then repeat back and forth. During this discussion, no other discussions are underway. It may involve multiple people, but we ultimately describe this as, “We are having a (singular) discussion.” In this way, SD is a singular, unbroken stream with a distinct beginning and end.

In SD, a discussion persists only as long as the participants are actively giving their attention to it. When attention is removed (e.g. when the participants hang up the phone) the discussion no longer exists.‡ In this way, the substance of an SD is ephemeral, held in the consciousnesses of participants.

In PD, each participant's attention is split amongst multiple discussions happening concurrently, and not necessarily in real time. This is feasible because only partial attention is given to each discussion at any given moment. Someone may deliver a message in one discussion (say, by posting in an online thread or sending a text message) and they then shift attention away from that discussion (perhaps to a different discussion) rather than waiting for a response. When some interrupting signal (like a text message alert, “ding!”) indicates that a new message exists in a particular discussion is attention brought back to it. In this way, PD is multiple, noncontiguous streams that often have no discernible beginning or end.

PD is made possible by modern electronic communication tools that permit a discussion to persist independent of the attention of participants. A text message sent today will be there tomorrow and the next day in case the recipient doesn't respond right away. In this way, the substance of a PD is permanent, held in a non-human data preservation system.

What are the by-products of these differences?

How does the quality of communication vary between these two protocols? What benefits and downsides are associated with each?

SDs are warmer, but more transient and less factually reliable.

They require more investment of time as well as emotional and intellectual effort. They are less efficient in the sense that they happen one and a time, at the exclusion of other discussions. Because memories of SDs are built within the context of notoriously unreliable human memory, SD are factually unreliable.

However, the increased intellectual investment means that SDs can be more substantial and meaningful. They can tap into the benefits of empathy and compassion. They can also reach conclusions/decisions more quickly, be focusing attention on one particular idea until it reaches conclusion, rather than allowing a discussion to wither away in dilution.

PDs are colder, but more permanent and factually reliable.

Because only partial, fleeting attention is given to PDs, they involve less emotional and intellectual investment. Without the instant feedback of another participant's facial expressions and/or voice, the tone and “feeling” is diluted or missing entirely. Empathy and compassion are unnecessary, and sometimes even interruptive.

With the substance of a PD being externally-maintained, and with emotional investment largely nonexistant, participants feel less compelled to maintain it, or even to continue to participate in it. Someone can easily abandon a text message or social media conversation without any of the other participants even noticing.

However, PDs are more efficient in the sense that many can happen at the same time, and they can be maintained with only the bare minimum of investment of time and energy by participants. In addition, the permanent, external records of PDs can help offset the limitations and inaccuracies of human memory, and can provide valuable records in cases where legal issues are at stake.

‡ A memory of the discussion exists in the minds of the participants, but the actual substance of the discussion is gone (unless it was recorded in some way).

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