Monday, May 6, 2013

Random Rant: Communication and the Internet

I figure I'll record my opinions on communicating via the internet in 2013 here. Granted, to my future self this may seem antiquated to someone who can talk to people holo-projector style a-la DS9 (or any of the other Star Trek iterations I may have seen by that point), but it should be interesting all the same.

Like all forms of communication it has its pros and cons, which for lack of a better format I shall list in numerical format:

1) You can be anyone you want to be

This is both a pro and a con. On the positive side there are many people, especially teens/young adults who can try out personae different than the ones they may show their friends and family out in a retribution free environment that is completely separate from the foibles of ones past (ie. "Hey, remember that time you bit Katie Whatserface? That sure was crazy.") Much like college this can be a very freeing experience for some, to go to a place where no one knows who you were so you can be anyone you want to be, and that kind of release can be very cathartic indeed.

 It also protects one from more...lets say direct forms of redress for negative remarks. Take online gaming for example, when I play League of Legends (or LoL for short) and I've had a bad day I tend to be a bit peeved, and by a bit peeved I mean that if someone gets in my face about not laning properly their screen will fill with asterisks and words that somehow make it past the censor (Really riot? You censor "fuck" but not "fucked"?). If I were to make such comments to the face of the person involved it would likely end in a fist fight, by which I mean their fist would fight my face with the maximum degree of success.

This leads me to the negative part. After all, on the internet you can be anyone you want to be, but then again, on the internet you can be anyone you want to be. If you want to be a condescending jerk, whose to stop you? If you want to visit fanficiton sights, find the most hopeful new writer you can, and tear them a very eloquent new one, how will they seek redress (other than finding a moderator to ban the IP, but that only directs the problem somewhere else)? And yes, if someone answers your mildly negative comment on LoL with a series of much more negative comments (working on not playing LoL angry), how will retribution be meted to the offender?

 This, and the many questionable things one can download from the internet are a large part of why some people say the internet should have stricter sanctions placed upon it. There are some rare people who have been cyber-bullied into committing suicide, possibly by some once well meaning people who let their internet persona get out of hand. It may be all fun and games to vent some anger on the internet, but to some people that sort of thing can be very emotionally damaging.

2) You can have a conversation without having a conversation

What do I mean by that? Well let me use an example. In situation A you're out with a friend at a cafe and you see a man walking by wearing a tie-die shirt, rainbow suspenders, and rainbow jeans (they exist, trust me on this). You want to say something funny about him to your friend, but you can't think of the right line. While you're thinking your friend points to him and says, "I wonder is his boxers are the pot of gold." You smile and laugh a little while thinking damn, I wish I'd thought of that. In situation B you're on Facebook talking with that same friend while perusing all your like and friends and friends likes when you stumble across a picture of the very same man. You want to say something about him and after thinking of the right line for a couple minutes you hit upon it and link the picture to your friend with the comment just below. They type "lol :D" and you've nailed it.

What I'm trying to illustrate with that example is that conversations in person happen in real time, you have about a second at most to think about what you're going to say next and once you say something you can't unsay it. While on the internet you can think for hours about what you're going to say (I've been thinking about how to write this for almost a week now, and had the idea of this rant germinating for much longer). If you feel like it you can even edit each thing you say several times before saying it, like your own mini-essay. In theory the internet conversation format sounds preferable, but it does have drawbacks.

Most importantly, the inability to convey tone. In a conversation face-to-face there are tons nonverbal and verbals cues (divided about 80% verbal to 20% nonverbal) that we pick up on that tell us what people mean when they say something. There's still a lot of reading into things and guesswork on our part, but with all that information to help us it's a lot harder to be wrong. On the other hand, the closest thing the internet has to conveying tone are emoticons such as :) :D :( :< :3 >:( ^_^ , and while they may be amusing they don't do nearly as much to convey tone as an actual smile, frown, or furrowed brow.

 And yet tone is conveyed somehow. How exactly? By the other person's impression of us. Their own mental framework that outlines who we are to the person we are talking to defines how they read our words. The only control we as writers have is our choice of words.

Before moving on to the next topic I will address two things. One is the question, "But Sid, what about Skype and other video chat functions? They're also online forms of communication, but they have all that verbal/nonverbal stuff you were talking about."

I love Skype. I think it's a brilliant idea that allows people to be brought closer together over longer distances than the phones it might someday replace. But I choose to ignore it because not everyone has access to webcams and microphones, whereas everyone who owns a computer has access to a keyboard and mouse.

The other question is, "But Sid, what about letters? Letters have the same text-based flaws that internet chat and emails do, so why aren't you harping on them?"

For much the same reason I'm not focusing on Skype, the letter-writing community is much smaller than the texting/emailing community. Most people under the age of 40 don't write letters that often these days, but they send emails and text people all the time.

3) It has the potential to keep ones social life entirely inside a computer

Allow me to use a more personal example this time. My roommate spends almost all day every day skypeing with a group of friends. This friend group met playing online games (League, World of Warcraft, etc.), none of them live in the same state, and none of them have ever met in person. And yet, they maintain what would, if they were all in the same town, be considered a normative social life. They drink together, watch movies together (they time it perfectly so that they all start watching the same movie on their computers at the same time, it's fascinating), play games together, and discuss various semi-philosophical ideas, social problems, and political problems. If you heard about a group of people who did this in any city in the United States you wouldn't raise an eyebrow, but if each city were a different city, that's another story.

The example above is a rather extreme case, but there are many others. The internet is full of forums, debate sites, social media sites, online games, and blogs. All of which have the potential to draw one's attention for hours on end. It can be a sensory overload, as stimulating as it is time-consuming. And for the lonely, the neglected, or the ignored, the internet may be seen as a safe-haven.

 To reference number one of this rant you can be anyone you want to be. On the internet you aren't poor, alone, or (and I use this term to mean not beautiful by current societal standards, not to defame any particular person) ugly unless you want to be seen that way. Much like movies before the internet, or books before movies, the internet can prove a seductive escape, one which many people everyday lose themselves in to forget problems that exist in the outside world.

But what does this all mean for my opinion? This is a blog after all, what good would it be if I didn't throw my opinion into the ring. Like many things in this crazy world I believe the internet is just a tool. We humans have always been good at making tools, tools to farm and hunt, tools to build and trade, tools to entertain and kill, all sorts of wondrous things. It's strange to blame the tools for the work of their owners, just as it's strange to blame the internet as a whole for the destructive tendencies of those that call it home. A tool can be used positively or negatively, and in the end the person who should take responsibility for the results is the person who used the tool in the first place.

 I don't think anything about the internet, it's just another tool, but I think we should all be a little more socially conscientious in its use. In the end the internet is just another world within our own, and I think we as a whole should be working to make it a brighter place to live.

If I were to draw one question out of all of this for future me and perhaps my one visible reader it would be this: If you had to personify the internet, what would it be to you? Friend? Lover? Confidant? Therapist?


  1. I agree, the internet is creating problems for communication. For me, the biggest peeve I have is when someone wants to have an in-depth conversation with me over text. In my opinion, texting is not an ideal platform to have a real meaningful conversation. It's designed to be a series of back and forth short messages. When I text someone I haven't talked to in a long while and they ask how my life has been going, I want to tell them everything, but feel I can't because then I'd be sending a humongous message. Texting is not a replacement for face-to-face conversation or phone calls/Skype (which are the second best thing if you can't visit with someone physically). I find it frustrating and disconcerting that the instant, short attention span that the internet/instant communication is also resulting in less meaningful conversations.

    1. That is one thing I wanted to cover, but forgot about somewhere in between thinking of the idea for this rant and putting it into practice.

      I meant to also talk about character limits in various chat functions and how they limit conversational variety and depth, along with the potential socialization effects that feedback into real world conversations, but you succinctly covered the basis of my argument so if I need to look back on this I'll just include that comment in my read through. Much appreciated.