The Vexations of Text

Catching the Wave has been on hiatus this week, due to a combination of me being off at a Microsoft seminar all week and not really wanting to post while everybody’s busy with Thanksgiving.  It’ll resume next week.

In the meantime, though, I commend to you this article from siderea on LiveJournal.  She makes an excellent point that, while text is a more powerfully expressive medium for communication than it’s often given credit for, there are some essential conversational subtleties that are difficult or impossible to convey this way.

I’m curious about what people think about this, and particularly whether you think that there is any difference for up-tempo / synchronous modes of communication.  IMO she’s entirely correct for slower modes like LiveJournal, but I wonder if the extra subtleties of timing play into up-tempo.  For example, I’ve found that pauses in an IM conversation can be fraught with meaning; what other details are available there, and how much (if at all) can they help with the limitations she points out?

3 Responses to “The Vexations of Text”

  1. Jim E-H Says:

    The need to ignore timing in down-tempo conversations can also result in problems. Years ago, I was involved in a three-party email conversation about where a visitor from out of town was going to stay. We had made a general offer of our place before the specific dates were known, but it was settled that they would stay with the third person. Later, that fell through for some reason, and the two other people had an email conversation where they decided that the visitor should stay with us instead.

    Unfortunately, we had gone on a trip out of the country where we didn’t have access to email, and these two people managed to carry on this email conversation for a week or more without ever noticing that we weren’t there (and inexplicably never sending a “just confirming” message to us, which would have made it obvious.) So we came home to a series of plaintive phone messages, and this visitor still has never stayed with us because it became lodged in her subconscious that we had left her in the lurch and were unreliable.

    That’s an extreme example (even though it really happened), but I think it’s in part attributable to mentally putting email, especially multi-party email or email lists, in the category of “conversation” rather than “correspondence.”

  2. Justin Says:

    Huh. Yes, that’s one of the simplest face-to-face mechanisms that we take for granted but which *can* be badly missed online: is someone actually present in the conversation?

    I wonder if this is going to be a problem for tools like Wave, that are mixing the modes. In IM, it’s usually *fairly* obvious whether someone is there — indeed, that’s why presence is so crucial to any decent IM tool. In email, you at least have good reason to be uncertain. Wave mixes those up, and I don’t know if it’s going to help or hurt that clarity of whether someone is really involved or not.

    (An interesting aspect of this: in Google’s implementation, the server *does* know whether messages have been read or not. I expect this to be private information, but this is an interesting argument for why it could be useful for it to be more visible…)

  3. Arnis Says:

    I think it is an issue even for up-tempo conversations, perhaps even more so.

    Consider the following – I’m at work. I’m on an IM system, chatting with someone who is not. I am technically present, as far as my machine can tell, but I may well be distracted. My brother and I will carry on day-long conversations, realizing that either one of us isn’t really all there. Co-workers may leave an IM sitting until they can get to it, rather than answering it immediately.

    We have gotten into the habit of using an up-tempo tool for down-tempo communication. I have actually lost the expectation that I should get a fast reply in an IM system. And, by that same token, I have half-lost the idea that I really need to answer IMs promptly.

    What happens when you pair me with someone who doesn’t use the tool in a work environment, who thinks that when they are in an IM conversation, it really is up-tempo? Sometimes, it gets ugly…

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