Understanding how to communicate using the Shannon and Weaver model

So much of one’s daily life revolves around communication. Throughout history, communication has been studied thoroughly, with a number of experts positing models and theories about what encompasses this often-elusive activity.

Here, we explore perhaps the most well known of these schools of thought – the Shannon and Weaver model – what it is, how relevant is it in today’s context and how it can be improved.

What is the Shannon and Weaver model?

Developed by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver in 1949, the Shannon and Weaver model is very popular when it comes to communication theory, and can be traditionally illustrated by a simple telephone conversation.

For example, let’s say Person A (Stacy) wants to call her friend Person B (Laura) to invite her to go swimming. When Stacy picks up the phone to make the call to Laura, she becomes the sender (or the source). The transmitter, or encoder, will be the telephone which Stacy speaks into, and the channel is therefore the telephone’s cable, which makes it possible for the two girls to communicate. Laura’s phone picks up the message from Stacy and, in doing so, becomes the receiver. Finally, the message reaches Laura, who is the destination.

Today, however, these components may no longer be valid. The question we’re exploring is: why?

Issues with the Shannon and Weaver model

Most of the issues with the Shannon and Weaver transmission model stem from the belief that “the context for the model had nothing to do with human communication.”

Many claim that the model doesn’t leave room for simple human nature, like using the wrong choice of words or the nuances of today’s technological world, which carries with it a variety of inherent consequences.  

Critics also say that “you cannot reduce or isolate the elements of a communication situation and make any sense out of them, because communication is a ‘big picture’ that is greater than the sum of its parts.”

In other words, the Shannon and Weaver model isn’t extensive enough. It focuses on linear communication when, in reality, it might take a sum of back-and-forths before a message’s meaning can be deciphered. The roles of receiver and decoder continually alternate, and there is no better example of this than the digital media revolution and its effect on the news.

How can the Shannon and Weaver model be improved?

The Shannon and Weaver model is not as easily applied to the communication systems of today, which are much more complicated than the operation of a simple wired telephone.

In the internet age, information is no longer spread in the traditional source-to-destination fashion. Considering the complexity of the internet, and the millions of people and components that form its infrastructure, the Shannon and Weaver model starts to look extremely simplistic.

Consider how a modern online news outlet communicates to its readers. Starting with a source – such as a news article, a tweet, a photograph and so on – where then is the transmitter? Is it the keys on the author’s keyboard that encode the typing to a digital signal? Is it the antenna in the laptop that sends the article to the Wi-Fi router in the office?

And what about the channel? Is it air between the sender’s laptop and the router? Is it the infrastructure of network cables, computers and exchanges between the computer and where the website is hosted?

What of the receiver and the destination? It’s taken for granted that everybody is free to access a news website and to share them with others via links. Not only can people consume this content, they can react to them on social media, creating a dialogue that leads to the further transmission of messages, and so on and so forth.

The Shannon and Weaver model doesn’t account for the public — who were once primarily the receivers — becoming the sources. According to the Guardian, in today’s context there is a “tsunami of primary source, on-the-spot reporting going on all over the planet. It just needs to be focused, edited and published.”

For any communications model to be considered reliable in the digital age, it needs to take into account the millions of possible news sources and the fluidity within modern messaging processes used in modern times.

Therefore, all components of the Shannon and Weaver model are — in modern reality — operating interchangeably. The model should be updated to a branching parallel system, where information spreads out in an undefined and uncontrolled way.

To find out more about communication on social media platforms, read our post on tips to consider when putting together a Social Media Campaign.