I wonder if how we communicate affects what we communicate.

I’ve been an email junkie for the last six years. When I first discovered email, I used it fairly indiscriminately. I applied very little thought to the content of my messages - instead preferring to whip off a letter as the inspiration hit me. This inevitably led to many misunderstandings, because I was not adequately fleshing out my thoughts before hitting the send button. Over time, though, I began to realize that the sterile nature of electronic communication often leaves the receipient with no frame of reference in terms of the tone of the document. I’ve engaged in many arguments with people due to someone - sender or receipient - making assumptions. I learned to proof read all of my letters before sending them. I learned to read every thing I write at least twice to assure that I adequately explain myself. I also try to be cognizant of emotionally charged words that could sway the reader’s attitude. And of course, I’ve always been conservative in regards to punctuation (we all know someone who displays their joy through the liberal use of exclamation points).

As more and more people get online, I’ve noticed a similar learning curve in most people. My mom is the prime example. When she first began sending email, she used it more or less as a telegram service - short, choppy sentences, and rapid-fire sequences of additional messages as a new thought came to her. She’s now getting much better at collecting her thoughts and presenting a cohesive message. My friends have exhibited a similar evolution with email usage.

My mom has a very interesting thing to say about me: I am the only person she knows who speaks in the same way that I write an email message. I am conscious of the words I use in conversation, just as in drafting a letter. I am deliberate and exacting with my words whenever possible. I’ve become so unaware of my vigilance in email that it has begun to affect the ways I communicate in general. I wonder if other people have experienced a similar phenomenon?

Email is so unlike traditional correspondence. Paper letters and postcards have an inherent quality of definition. The historical legacy of correspondence is such that you usually only sent one letter, and you tried your best to get it right the first time. In that letter you would make an attempt to pack as much information as possible. I guess this is mostly because it’s quite impractical to send a follow-up letter. But email allows you to conveniently send any number of messages, of any length. Not only does it not incur additional costs, it’s far more expeditious to fire off another email. And replies can now be received in minutes or hours as opposed to days or weeks.

This convenience has led to a proliferation of single-line email messages. My friend sends me a message while she’s at work that simply says “Hi.” While email certainly can accomodate this sort of communication, the latency between messages is a deterrent in a conversation-like engagement. I much prefer to send a message that contains some substance. For the quick messages, I rely on Mirabilis’ ICQ. This instant-messanger package allows me near-instantaneous access to anyone else I know who is online with the program. Messages are bounced directly between the users, without a mediating server to slow the process down. And the functionality of the program does not limit us to text - graphics can be exchanged, as well as URLs.

I’ve been using ICQ for over 3 years. My contact list is fairly large, by my standards. The program has been a tremendous convenience in a great many ways. I communicate with co-workers and clients while I’m working. ICQ allows me to bounce a technical question off a guru without the need for email or telephone, thus increasing the response time (and saving me some face in front of those around me, when I suddenly produce the answer!). I’ve made dinner plans with friends via ICQ. I’ve coordinated a cross-country road-trip by sending messages back and forth. The uses for instant messanging are nearly limitless. It’s no wonder that AOL and Microsoft are locking horns in regards to this issue.

And I’ve noticed that even ICQ has changed the way people communicate. I guess it actually started with IRC - Internet Relay Chat - but the same results have bled over to the mainstream using ICQ. People find it awkward or annoying to type common phrases after a short while. When leaving the room for a bit, most folks these days will type AFK, meaning “away from keyboard.” Or a quick potty break will be signalled by BRB, “be right back.” I have a good friend who always replies OIC, “Oh, I see.” On the whole, I don’t mind these little conveniences. But more and more, the English language is falling victim to this over-simplification. Too often I’m seeing things like enuf, yur, cuz, and the like. I’m guilty of some phonetic simplification; I’ll type wanna for “want to” or mebbe for “maybe”, because this represents the sound of the words I’m saying - it gives a small flair of personality in an otherwise sterile conversation. But I don’t think I’ve ever used sum1 or sumfin, or any other bastardization of the language I speak.

In a purely text based conversation, the strength of your presence is dictated purely on the power of your words (unless of course you’re in #quake, where your power is determined by how quickly you can flood an IP address on the screen). Without the help of tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions it is extremely hard to embody any sort of personality on the internet. I always kind of assumed that the internet would have a fairly powerful affect on literacy - it has, but unfortunately in a negative sense. People are too lazy to type the extra four letters. Or they simply don’t know the proper spelling and prefer to just sound it out with their fingers. I’ll forgive the developmentally challenged, the younger people online, and folks in the heat of a dynamic conversation - even my fingers slip on the keys. But I have no forgiveness for most adults sending email, or anyone who publishes content on the world wide web.

No one seems to realize that it’s just that - publishing. A public audience gauging you and your thoughts by how they are presented. I cringe when I see typographical errors in high-profile web pages like Slashdot, Blue’s News, or Salon. Every document should be proof-read and spell checked. Ask anyone who knows me - I beat myself up when a typo on my pages is pointed out to me.

As with email, I’m hoping there will be a gradual development of online literacy. But some people just don’t seem to get the internet, yet…

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