Many people talk about the way digital channels and social media have changed the way we communicate. Actually, it seems to me people changed. We became more lazy. Before Twitter, Facebook and other tools came along, email messages imposed no restrictions. Yet salutations and closings suffered. Then the message body lost a lot of substance and context in favour of brevity.

Replies also took a hit. People adopted short phrases and even single words as a way of acknowledging and even replying to something that demanded a little more depth.

I routinely hear people blame the tools for their own laziness when it comes to online relationship building. Rather than put in the necessary energy and effort to do a lot of small things, they’d rather do just one very small thing and call it an achievement on their part.

Let me illustrate the point.

A little over a week ago, Andrea and I received an electronic invitation to a children’s book launch. It arrived in email from someone we don’t know who suggested in two very short sentences that it would be lovely if we could attend. True, at one time our children’s book podcast and blog was an important online community for the children’s book industry. That was 14 months ago. We essentially shut it down when Andrea was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Three rounds of emails were exchanged during which, despite her efforts, Andrea was never able to extract from the source who she was and why she was inviting us. The responses we received were abrupt, never doing more than acknowledging we wouldn’t know who this person was though she boasted knowing where our children go to school and where we’ve been recording our podcast (remember, we haven’t recorded one since September 2009).

We did our own online research to determine the source is a co-founder of an independent children’s book publishing company launching its first book — written by the person who sent the invitation. None of that information (including the identity of the author) was part of the electronic invitation. The kicker is the person who contacted us (the author) identifies herself on the publisher’s website as a 20-year professional of marketing, advertising and communications.

Over lunch recently, Walter Robinson told me about being in Pompei with his family and realizing that effective city and community planning hasn’t changed in thousands of years. The Roman approach to grid layout, sewage, gathering spaces, etc… is a proven model. Just as social interactions and relationship building hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. What has changed is where we gather.

Character limitations (e.g. Twitter=140, Facebook=420) certainly demand more creativity and perhaps even more individual contributions. In the end, though, the rules of effective social engagement and etiquette are the same.