You Keep Using That Word…

“…I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The internet gives any pleb* the ability to communicate with a much wider audience than ever before, but this comes with a significant downside. And I mean besides the “Pro: anyone can publish. Con: anyone can publish” issue.

While there are photos, videos, and podcasts, they take time to prepare, so the vast majority of interaction is still text-based (forums, blogs, articles, etc). Anyone familiar with the old chestnut about “only 7% of communication is words, the rest is tone, facial expression, and body language”** will see the problem. When you add in the variety of cultures, and that many are not communicating in their native language, there is a huge potential for misunderstandings.

Communication Theory points out that in order to convey a concept from source to destination (e.g. my brain to yours) the information must be translated into some external message which is then received and interpreted at the other end (in this case, words in a blog post). This presents two obvious places where things can go wrong: I may struggle to put my thoughts into words (yes, frequently); you may misunderstand what I have written (e.g. due to ambiguity). And that is assuming the encoding is agreed upon (e.g. that we agree on the meaning of the words).

A good example of this phenomenon is that sarcasm is easy to miss in plain text, so many people have tried to design special punctuation to indicate it. None has succeeded (which is kind of a shame), because they have not become universally recognised, so their use instead presents another avenue for misunderstanding and confusion. How ironic.

There must similarly be universally-agreed meanings in order for any words to be useful. Which is fine for words in common use, but if I was to hazard some atypical language, bystanders might find themselves at sixes and sevens.

Combine this with the dehumanising effect of conversing via a computer screen (with an ethereal person—or persons—of unknown nature and location, rather than concrete individuals right in front of you***), and it’s not surprising that arguments erupt online. I’m not sure how to solve this problem, but at some point I’ll probably post about how I try to avoid getting caught up in it myself (which may or may not work for anyone else).


* Well, any sufficiently fortunate to have access the necessary infrastructure, sufficient income to pay for it, and enough time to present their works for perusal.

** Ironically, the original study behind this concept has been misunderstood. What it actually shows (if anything) is that when words and tone/body language are inconsistent, the audience is more likely to go with the non-verbal cues.

*** Hmmm, there’s a thought. I wonder if anyone’s looked into whether online discussions are more polite when people’s posts are accompanied by actual photos of them (as opposed to animals, celebrities, symbols, and so forth).