A “chat” in the 21st century: instant messaging & more
Beep. Ping. Clang. Those are the sounds of communication in my life. I have typed thousands of lines into an instant messaging (IM) client, without a single sound exiting my mouth. Unlike the teenagers who decades ago heard the sound of a nearby postman, our current world is full of these percussion sounds, signifying we have just received another message or other notification.
Just like those in long-distance relationships fifty years ago checked their mailboxes eagerly for letters from their lover, we check our Facebook notifications and inboxes with a similar eagerness. Moving my mouse to the right edge of the screen, a “buddy list” appears. Shown are a list of “friends” currently online, automatically sorted by the number of previous interactions. I have checked this list a hundred times each day, some times on accident, but many on purpose. Whoops, I just did it again while writing this. Describing this list of “friends” with quotation marks was no accident - admittedly, many of the people on the list I have no motivation to converse with. However, some of those I can converse with for hours every day. With this stark contrast, a question arises: why do we make use of such an odd list, making split-second judgments on who we value and who we don’t? Why is there such an obsession over who is “online” and who is not? For all the people on the list are all equally human, and are equally capable of conversing (albeit some not instantly).
It is quite certain that the computers and the Internet has changed the way we communicate (perhaps forever). As I was born in a time when the Internet was gaining popularity (1995 to be precise), I have never experienced a world without this medium available to me. While digital conversations may seem quite similar to those in real life, they have a few key differences:
Conversations online have much less greeting/introduction involved than physical ones. Starting out with a question or comment is less rude than one may perceive from speaking to someone on the street. It is acceptable to start out with “we should go to the movies tomorrow” when texting/instant messaging while a physical conversation would begin with “Hi [name]! What’s up?”
Tone, body language, most emotion, and other nonverbal cues are removed. When sending a message such as “oh wow that sounds wonderful” it could either imply happiness or sarcasm/dismay, depending on the context. In some situations it becomes very hard to discern which is which. This lack of nonverbal context can prove disastrous.
Use of texting abbreviations and slang. Unlike a physical conversation where these characteristics are not present, an online conversation is filled with them. However, a change from something such as “do u want to go to the movies lol” to “We need to talk about something.” signifies a vast change in mood.
Conversations may not have clear endings. In a physical conversation, each participant may feel the need to keep it going in order to avoid wasting the other participant’s time (as they may need to leave elsewhere). When instant messaging and sending links to one another, a long silence may not mean the conversation is over, but rather it has just paused while the participant(s) carry out another task. If the participant has no impending tasks but also no topics of conversation, they may wait for the other participant to write something. However, if this does not occur, the conversation slowly dies out.
All of these differences I have observed first-hand, and have struggled to deal with. In today’s age of texting and instant messaging, online commenting and the like, the social norms have changed. Yet we still use the schema of a physical conversation when engaging in a virtual one. Are we missing out on meaningful interactions? Or do we need to better adapt to an age where we do not communicate with elaborate points but rather short, terse statements?
As 2013 comes to a close, I feel as though I would become a more social[-ly skilled] individual if I was born in an age where the only modes of instant communication were by sitting across from a person. However, as this is not the case, I make a conscious choice to seclude myself in a room filled with screens, and becoming aware of other humans though only mere pixels. While this may seem to be a lazy person’s choice, it is also a practical one since all my peers have done the same.
As a society, we are still learning to use tools such as social media, texting, instant messaging, and others. Not just in the legal sense (the law is stumbling forward, e.g. NSA) but moreover in the social sense. How do we know the tone is correct in the latest Snapchat we sent? Did that Facebook like on our sad status update mean the person is trying to be comforting and supportive, or sadistic?
I do not have the answers to these questions, and neither does the creators of these mediums. But hopefully as we continue tapping away on our phones we can establish a well-defined etiquette for instant messaging and other new mediums of communication.
If you would like to discuss this further, please follow me on Twitter and reply to the tweet linking to this post. You can also find me on Facebook and instant message me there, or just send a good old-fashioned email (to eric[at]tendian.io). I’d love to hear your thoughts.