Today I have been witness to an excellent example of why the internet can, at times, be a hopeless mode of communication. I’m thinking particularly of email and instant messaging, and I feel qualified to comment as I have been an intensive user of the net for nearly six years.
The reason it is hopeless is, in my view, the result of its predominantly text-based format and its instantaneous nature.
The only way to communicate is through the word itself. There is no intonation or inflection, no smile or frown, no waving hands or folded arms, no touch or stance. Consequently, perhaps less than half the message is actually communicated, and it is left to the reader to put their own interpretation on the words, to flesh out the bones of the message, something that may be coloured by past experience, their surroundings, their mood, even the weather outside.
Compare the telephone – there at least you have the intonation, the change in the tone of voice. You really can hear a smile or a frown in someone’s voice, and, with someone you know, get a feeling for their mood – happy, depressed, upset, jocular.
The instantaneous nature of the net then provokes a prompt response. And this is where the internet differs greatly from the printed (or written) word. It has been said that the greatest strength of the net is its rapid interactive nature, but I also believe that it can, at times, be its greatest weakness – all you have to do is hit “reply” or the “mail me” link and off you go, pounding your keyboard with your rapidly formulated response based on your ill-informed perception of a poorly phrased communication. It is even worse with instant message services. And, worse still, is any attempt to inject humour – what might be funny or tongue-in-cheek to you may be quite offensive to the person reading your message, even if offensiveness was not your intention.
Compare the printed/written word. You have the opportunity to read and re-read many times, to chew it over, consider the message, roll it around in your mind, get an impression of what was truly meant. And when you’ve done that, you can then take up your pen or turn on your PC and write a considered reply. Unlike email, there is no pressure to respond quickly – that is not the expected norm.
Another issue with the internet is its youth. I mean that in two senses: it is a relatively new mode of communication, especially as many of its users have only been introduced to it in the last twelve months or so. Many people are still not adept at communicating over the internet – they do not understand the nuances and pitfalls of pure text communication. Also, many of its users are young people, and please, do not think that I believe people younger than myself are useless communicators, or, for that matter, that after thirty years I am by any means the world’s greatest authority, a pillar of wisdom. But, it has to be said that the younger web users can, at times, be a little impetuous and testy, too ready to either take offence, offend or flame. Perhaps their impassioned idealism is something the rest of us could learn from, but equally I feel that a little pragmatism is a quality that a few web users would do well to acquire.
Maybe I’m just being cynical. And don’t get me wrong – I love the net – look at this blog as proof!
But today I witnessed people who I had previously considered to be friends have a fairly public falling out on the web. I hope it is only temporary, and given some considered time and a spot of non-net communication, the people will resolve their differences and understand what has happened and the causes.
But, to my eye, the principal cause was the weakness of the net as a mode of communication.