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Why people misunderstand each other on the Internet

November 9, 2009 Leave a comment

I love reading people explain their thoughts and ideas on things. When people construct an idea, ask good questions for others to answer, or show signs of weakness in themselves and ask others to help them in their reasoning. People who are able to do these things, are wonderful to listen to or read things by.

However, this is not very common on the Internet. I am doing a course in Communication, Rhetoric and Homiletics at the moment. During the lesson, we talked about different ways we misunderstand each other when communicating, due to allegations, prejudice and things like that. In speech, these things are usually smoothed out a little by having some sort of continuous feedback from your listeners.

Communicating with text is not always something hard. There’s no body language, tone or pitch to change to help get the message across. However, instead of concentrating on body languagy, pitch, tone and things like this, time is the ally of the writer. Individual words and grammatical structure can be used to emphasize specific words and emotions. If the recipient can be assumed to be a diligent and careful reader, things that usually need repetition and explanation to be said in speech, can be written in very few words.  Getting a hand-written letter from a dear friend usually works fine. You know the person, their quirks, expressions and specialities. You can recognize small peculiarities in the language, but also in the handwriting.  Thanks to the usually quite in-depth nature of those kind of letters, many times the message gets across from the sheer length and the larger context any single sentence is put in. Because a well-formulated letter does not disappear the moment one has read a word, any misunderstandings can simply be cleared up by re-reading a few words or sentences.

However, writing can also severely limit communication, and increase misunderstandings. The differences between speaking and writing are not that emphasized in school. In this age of electronics, information and efficiency, more and more writing is being converted into typing. Handwriting is replaced with fonts, although the choice between fonts is not given in all contexts. When the different gestures the hand makes writing a letter are replaced with keystrokes by different fingers, it is not always that personal… The text that comes out is the result of a computer using its premade fonts to represent the keystrokes we make. Of course, this can be personalized to an extent, but never to the same extent.

More and more information is also exchanged over the Internet. When using e-mail or Facebook to communicate with friends, even these digital messages can usually be re-interpreted in our minds to make us recognize the “voices” of the friends who typed them. However, one of the revolutionary things with the Internet was of course not primarily the ability to reconnect with friends, but rather the ability to meet entirely new people at any given moment. A conversation or personal message can be sent to or received from any stranger in the blink of an eye.

This has opened up possibilities for a whole world of misunderstandings.

On the Internet, people remain anonymous until they choose to stop being anonymous. Sure, usually a name is required of those who post on blogs and websites, but sometimes the only thing the name of someone like “tacolover241” will tell you of them are their feeding habits and possibly overweight. The anonymity of the Internet has many disadvantages and a few advantages, but I’m only going to talk about its effects on communication.

We humans are not omniscient. We live in an objective reality, but our minds forms its own subjective version of this reality in our heads. To counteract this, we  were made with at least five senses, so that we could get several “sources” of knowledge. When one sense says one thing, but another says something else, we can double-check. Not all senses apply in every situation, of course, but hearing and seeing are perhaps the most important in communicating intentional messages between two people.

In the most genuine form of communication, face-to-face, a person has to put their body in a certain place, and all kinds of things can be observed by their listeners. Tone of voice, twitches, smells, tears, sweat, movements of hands, eyes and nose, articulation and laughter. All these things are important to understand what the person is really thinking about, and can be helpful when deciding if the person is genuine and trustworthy, or not.

Most of these things are of course destroyed by Internet communication. While things like Skype, Ventrilo and Teamspeak can be used to get both a visual and aural representation of a person, most communication is based on messages recorded at a previous moment in time, and any faults by the author can be safely edited before publishing.

In fact, while in “real life” (a problematic term), we can respond to a person by putting our entire body there, establish eye contact and asking in the tone and volume of our choice, this is not a luxury often given online. In fact, response is not always even possible. Even in a case where it is possible to respond, it is not always guaranteed that your voice is heard. Even though you might be Britney Spears’ top friend on Facebook, the real person behind the profile might not read your messages at all. In the case of less celebrated people online, any uncomfortable questions  asked by people can easily be ignored, without any repercussions.

In fact, sometimes the whole web seems like it is designed to fit the world of post-modernism: everyone lives in their own truth.

Of course, the real truth is lurking somewhere in the background, but it is much more easily ignored! The best example of all these things are YouTube comments. I can’t think of a perfect example right now, but try looking at the comments of just about any video about a controversial subject… Examples include 9/11, Jews, Christianity, Swine Flu, Emos, Feminism… Just about anything someone might have a strong opinion on. Everyone should know that Youtube is the worst possible forums for a discussion about controversial subjects, but that does not hinder people (including me sometimes) from trying to tell everyone the truth about the matter. While some try their best to use the written medium to convey a thought-out message concerning the issue, most answers will always be someone who perhaps watched 5 seconds of the video and then saying something that only really makes sense with their own background and context in mind.

Because of this, is it extremely confusing to have discussions with people on Youtube, or anywhere else online. When you get to know the person behind the text a little bit, it’s a bit easier to understand the full extent of their message, but it’s still severely limited.

So.

Where was I going with all this? Basically I guess I just needed to make a statement. While this is obvious to some, reality shouts the fact that most people don’t think about this. Most messages made on the Internet fly right past their readers’ minds, and into their pit of prejudiced answers. People read whatever they want into the things they read, and have no one there to correct them when they do. So, I urge you people to bear this in mind when you try to type like it was a spoken conversation online.

Especially in anonymous contexts, this anonymity has its repercussions on how people interact, makes newcomers feel like the Internet is a cold and unforgiving place. That’s probably because it is. But if more people bore these things in mind, maybe less people would be hurt.

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