Plane Crash Survival, Multitasking, and Communication Chains —Oh My!

During the first week of my class, “Communication in a Networked Society,” at Emerson College, our professor led us in an activity in which we broke up into three groups to test the use of face-to-face interaction (F2F), instant messaging (IM), and email communication.  The activity was a simulated  plane crash and winter survival game. The purpose of the exercise that day was to evaluate flow and presence within these three channels of communication.

After lengthy discussion the class—as a group—concluded that flow is strongest with face-to-face communication, followed by instant messaging, while the asynchronous nature of email communications disrupted the flow most. However, during this exercise, I made a few silent observations. As one of the members in the face-to-face group, I anticipated that we would complete this simulation ahead of the other groups and with the best information. Not only did our group take the most time to prioritize our list of survival equipment, we seemed to be faced (no pun intended) with the most opposition within our group in arriving at our final decisions.

Authors Su et al. hypothesized that, “the process of aligning with others through communication is affected by media, by the organizational context of the partners, and involves stress….For example, because face-to-face communication acts are longer than communication with IM or email, we might expect different patterns off media switching that can reveal interesting information about alignment.”

At the start of the exercise, each member of the face-to-face group rated the available equipment and then we communicated to the entire team our top five choices. From this list, we identified the five most common choices. Later, we circled back and determined the group’s mission and values (1. Survive harsh and cold climate, 2. Rescue–find civilization or be found, and 3. Stay hydrated and nourished). Each of the three methods described above was introduced as an interruption to the flow. Additionally, each new method required further discussion and exploration. Then, each method introduced a new order to the survival list prioritization. In short, each interruption started a new communication train, or worse, a meta-communication chain within the larger objective.

One of the minor revelations of Su et al.’s research is that, “when chains are triggered by external interruptions, they have more links…[and] switching of organizational contexts in communication is associated with higher levels of stress.”

While my revelations do not entirely fit within the theme of managing multi-media information overload, it might be interesting to repeat the exercise by assigning one member from each group (F2F, IM, Email) to communicate with the other two groups in their communication channel preference and arrive at a final class list. Perhaps, then, we might be able to further explore the question, “Has the prevalence of communication media in the workplace created more opportunities for interaction, and consequently interruptions, or rather has the expanded number of projects that people are involved in created more need for communication and thus interruptions?”


Gallant, Linda AUDEINCES/USERS ARE ACTIVE: Connection, Flow, & Presence. Walker Building, Emerson College, Boston, MA. 9 June 2008.

Norman Makoto Su, & Mark, G. “Communication Chains and Multitasking.” CHI 2008 Proceedings.

Norman Makoto Su, & Mark, G. “Communication Chains and Multitasking.” CHI 2008 Proceedings.

Norman Makoto Su, & Mark, G. “Communication Chains and Multitasking.” CHI 2008 Proceedings.

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About themacdoodle

Communications Manager, Creative Strategist, Community Builder, & Possibility Agent
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