The Quirks of Online Communication
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
- 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.
- 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.
- between the same friends in an instant messenger - even less context (no voice either), but still possible to react right away.
- 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.
- 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 #¤%&%&#&).
- 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.
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.
It is only a game?
Various researchers have studied online games and their aspects.
Richard Bartle, one of the author of the first MUD in late seventies, has proposed the following typology of gamers:
- achievers - seek to 'beat the game': reach the highest level, gather all treasure etc.
- explorers - want to study and understand the game itself, learn its secrets etc.
- socializers - consider the game as just a channel for interacting with people.
- killers - strive to impose their will onto other players (sometimes by attacking, but also by manipulating and 'virtual politics').
Granted, the classification is not absolute - most people are either mixed types or fluctuate between them. Yet, it is another good indicator about how variable the online world is.
Another good notion was first made by Stanford researchers Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson in their 2007 paper suggesting that
- the avatar that people use online reflects their behavioural habits, and
- changing the avatar (e.g. by an admin) results in changes of the person's behaviour.
Note: while the theory has found support by several others, there might be situations where 'bad' characters actually behave 'better' than 'good' ones. A case can be found in the MUME, a Tolkien Middle-earth -themed MUD where several reports suggest that 'bad' races like Orcs or Trolls (darkies) are more considerate and polite towards their peers than, say, Elves or Humans (whities). The reasons might be various, including
- numbers - being less numerous, they need others
- maluses - the 'bad' races are meant for experienced players, therefore they are disadvantaged in character generation/development.
- policy - 'good' races cannot fight each other (attacks will be interrupted and sanctioned by management), making it also difficult to punish obnoxious and pushy behaviour. On the other side, the same behaviour may lead to getting killed in game.
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."
For people who are somehow 'different', the biggest problem is often in establishing the initial contact. All people fear rejection by others, more so if the person is aware of his/her 'difference' and considers it a handicap. Most psychologists agree that appearance plays a big role - not so much classical beauty but pleasant behaviour, but being beautiful helps too. For the 'different' people, it is doubly difficult - being aware of their 'inferiority', they amplify it further with stiff and awkward manners, leading to failure in the contact.
How can the online world help? Sure, one can find a suitable way to discuss his/her problems - but can also work as a direct contact channel. In most cybercontacts, be it in e-mail or real-time chat, the initial impression is verbal rather than visual, the person is what he/she says. And even if one side is somehow 'different', having the initial stage of contact in cyberspace can help both sides. But there is one condition: honesty.
A cybercontact works well as a preliminary stage to real-world contact only if both sides know exactly who is on the other side. The situation is a bit paradoxical - the Net provides ample chances for deception and 'acting up', but the real results can only be achieved when we choose not to.
There are cases when online relationships form as a kind of mutual play (e.g. romances between two characters in a MUD or MMORPG). However, most people likely use the cyber-channels to find a real person to form a real relationship with. Cyberdating is definitely nothing new - before the age of Internet, magazines, newspapers and telephone had been in similar use for a long time.
Most points outlined in the previous section apply here too - the main keyword is honesty. There are people who enjoy limitless fantasies possible online, never planning to move out of the cyberspace - some get 'married' in Second Life, others just play different personas in different places. But the majority needs 'something real'.
So, two people meet online. What now? It might be a good idea to keep it online for awhile and let the verbal first expression work. It has been suggested that people subconsciously 'hide behind their screens' and are often more open - but it works in two ways (see below). A contact initiated with deception and lies will typically be destroyed when moving to real life, the one built on truth is likely to survive as the hardest part - breaking through the facade - has already been done.
Honesty does not mean having to start with disclosing all details at once. A successful online contact has been likened to a game of Bridge - while cards are random, a skillful player will eventually prevail. Playing one's strong side first and establishing him/herself can help a lot in diminishing the effect of perceived shortcomings.
That said, the nature of cybercontact makes it vulnerable to all kinds of misunderstandings. Clarity and unambiquity are even more important than offline. Plus, if things go sour, interpersonal online conflicts can have serious consequences - not because people are more violent online, but they are often a) afraid of the unknown stemming from lack of context, and b) unable to know when to stop. In an actual conflict, two people typically fight until one clearly prevails - and usually the victor knows when to stop hitting the guy on the ground. In a cyber-conflict, bloody noses, broken hands or even being knocked out are unfortunately hard to see - but delivering that one extra blow 'just to be sure' can sometimes be fatal.
Thus, three main things present in a successful online contact are a) honesty, b) politeness, and c) clarity.
The rules of the game: Netiquette
The first rules of online communication, known as net etiquette or netiquette, date back to early mailing lists and later Usenet. While the rules may vary by places, there are some simple guidelines that are valid for most of the Internet and most of the time - as illustrated by the book of Netiquette by Virginia Shea, first published already in 1995. Her 'Ten Commandments' are
- Remember the human
- Adhere to the same standards of behavior online that you follow in real life
- Know where you are in cyberspace
- Respect other people's time and bandwidth
- Make yourself look good online
- Share expert knowledge
- Help keep flame wars under control
- Respect other people's privacy
- Don't abuse your power
- Be forgiving of other people's mistakes
Some other recommendations from different sources:
- read before writing - FAQs, policies, best practices (the "Know where you are" commandment)
- stay on topic
- do not cross-post into different channels unless really necessary
- do not quote full messages just to say "Me too!"
- know when to use top-post and bottom-post
- do not attach Word files to send trivial messages
- when receiving an upsetting message, go to have a cup of coffee, preferrably in another building - do not reply immediately. On the other hand, many issues may go sour overnight - a too long delay can be harmful.
- use e-mail to communicate with any unpleasant person (instead of phone or actual contact)
- know how to ask questions (Eric S. Raymond has written a good guide on the issue).
In all kinds of communication, knowing the specifics of the channel used is of great importance. The cyberspace features many different channels with different traditions and customs (not unlike going to a foreign country) - but knowing the netiquette and remembering three important words - honesty, politeness and clarity - can keep one out of most troubles.
- BARRETT, T., WALLACE, C. Virtual Encounters. Internet World, No. 8, Vol. 5, 1994. pp. 45-48
- How to Ask Questions the Smart Way by Eric S. Raymond. http://www.catb.org/esr/faqs/smart-questions.html
For additional reading
Also, seek out the following documentaries:
- Second Skin
- Life 2.0