The weird ways of online communication

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Freedom to mess things up

More than often, young Internet users seem to think that they have found the Promised Land - no teachers, policemen or angry Grandma. One can do anything, nobody will know...? Actually, Internet can be far less anonymous than they think (finding out addresses and computers is often possible and obnoxious wrongdoers will get punished sooner or later).

Still, just like in real life, most online conflicts will start not from a deliberate attack (although this is possible) but rather gross misunderstandings (often caused by cultural differences). Therefore throughout the history of Internet, people have tried to set up some rules which help prevent such cases.

An online contact has a somewhat different profile than its real-life counterpart. A significant difference is the first impression being verbal (rather than visual) - strangers will be 'seen' through their written words. Many online channels forward the content of a message, but remove a great part of the context - situation, mimics, body language, tone of voice.

Let's have an example. The message is "You, Sir, are a total idiot!". This is transfered

  1. in a half-drunk chat between two old friends sitting in a sauna - probably not taken seriously at all, almost all of the negativity will get lost.
  2. between the same friends over a phone call - the context will be less and the conflict is more probable, yet the people still know each other - and they can sort it out immediately.
  3. between the same friends in an instant messenger - even less context (no voice either), but still possible to react right away.
  4. in an e-mail - being a discrete medium (a message can be answered with another message, a different entity), this will make the conflict much more probable.
  5. in a fax bearing the official letterhead of a company - this hypothetical scenario adds negative context by suggesting the official statement (Our company has decided that you are a #¤%&%&#&).
  6. in a letter signed by President, addressed to another head of state - while very unlikely, this may end up in a war.

"We wanted the best, but it came out as usual" (a Russian saying)

Let's quote a book by Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions":

A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing.

Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golf club.[1]

This is a surprisingly exact depiction of Internet communication.

Is it different?

The answer could be: both yes and no. The essence of communication - forwarding the message as well as some extra information like emotions - is the same in both face-to-face and technologically facilitated communication. The main difference lies in secondary factors.

All communication has at n+1 sides - in addition to the people communicating, the channel itself has its influence (be it air - in the ordinary talk -, phone or TV). Internet allows using many different channels (often in parallel) - we see here things which are similar to traditional telephone (e.g. Skype), letters (e-mail), newspapers (Web) and also some original ones.

Thus, while the 'terminals' are humans, the differences are in channels. They can be

  • temporal - different speeds (e.g. letter vs e-mail)
  • directional - can be a) one-to-one (phone), one-to-many (mailing list), many-to-one (blog commentary) or many-to-many (chatroom), b) one- (TV) or bidirectional (phone)
  • throughput - different amount of information can pass through different channels
  • filtering - different channels cut off different amounts of context, e.g. video conference vs phone vs e-mail

So what to consider in online communication? Some points will follow.

Openness and freedom of speech and thought

These qualities have been with Internet throughout its history, making it an important channel for those otherwise suppressed (various minorities, dissidents etc). All censorship has almost universally been met with very loud protest - be it then from some extremist group or the US Senate (who has initiated several censorship-related legal acts).

Note that while Internet supports all basic human rights, it seems to add another - the right to quarrel. Moderate nagging and argument will be counted as freedom of speech (to a certain point). Yet, the rest of the people have got another right - to say "Do it someplace else".

A very important point to remember in online communication is that Internet is global - it's a crossroad where people with different backgrounds and from different cultural contexts meet, making all kinds of stereotypes and misunderstandings a real threat. Let us have another example.

An excerpt from an online chat:

A: Had a wonderful barbecue yesterday. Tons of ham and sausages, yummy! B: Bah, you really eat all that shit?!? A: ????????? !!!!!!!!!!!!! ¤#%&¤&%¤/#%¤&&/&%&#/¤U/&&¤## !!! (a real nasty verbal war follows)

The reason: A was a typical American student, B was a dedicated Vegan - or a deeply religious Muslim. Neither knew anything about the other.

The only solution in such situations is to clarify the background. In turn, it demands a) remaining polite in whatever situation, b) ability to express oneself clearly and unambiguously.

The unwwritten laws

The first cybercommunities in the early days of Internet were mostly based on e-mail. As their numbers grew, they started to need some generally accepted rules - the result was network etiquette, or netiquette. While it's based on generic good manners, it also has more specific rules, e.g. about using capital letters or conserving bandwidth.

However, for some time, a big problem was in that these rules were in fact unwritten - they were rather strictly enforced but had to be learned by trial and error. In some communities, it is still the case.

Identity vs anonymity

While traditional channels in Internet imply some identity (usernames, IP address etc), anonymity and pseudonymity have a long tradition there. Today's cybercrime is largely built on identity theft, or posing as someone else.

On the other hand, anonymity breeds deceptive feeling of power in its user, and suspicion in others. Even in places which seem to promote anonymous presence, it may not be the best idea. Anonymity is a bit like the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings - it may betray at the worst moment. And the Net has a long memory.

It should be also noted that traditional hacker culture does not value anonymity (unless warranted by security concerns) - it prevents one from gaining professional fame and respect. "Wow, YOU are the author of software X! Cool!" is something that every true hacker likes to hear. Anonymity, however, works against it.

Different people

However, anonymity has a strong point. Besides allowing whistleblowing (reporting some serious threat or problem without fearing repercussions), it is a friend for the groups of people who have to face negative stereotypes. This includes various minorities (people with disabilities, ethnic or sexual minority groups etc).

Actually, here it is rather the filtering function mentioned above - the Net filters also out most stereotypes and prejudices:

  • The elderly former teacher does not know that the author of many sharp writings by a man pen-named Seagull that she has liked a lot is actually that punk rocker guy (complete with a mohawk hair and a pair of Doc Martens) from next door that she always has tried to avoid
  • People visiting a popular Internet chatroom do not need to know that its founder and 'boss' is actually a young man unable to walk, dress and talk.
  • No one should care what is the sexual orientation of the author of some fabulous poetry in that online portal.

Already in 1994 did Barrett and Wallace write: "On the Internet, height, weight, race, and gender may be unknown. Beauty doesn't impress us, nor does ugliness appall. We become our messages, purely and simply."[2]



  2. BARRETT, T., WALLACE, C. Virtual Encounters. Internet World, No. 8, Vol. 5, 1994. pp. 45-48

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