Have you ever been misunderstood online? Has a message that you quickly dashed off from your iPhone come back to haunt you when the recipient read it the wrong way? Brevity might be the soul of wit, but brevity and wit both translate badly online – and accidentally insulting someone in an online message is today's social faux pas extraordinaire.
But is it really our fault - or is our smartest technology simply too dumb to cope with real human conversations? In part one of a two-part dive into the future of digital chatter, Sean Fleming looks at how even the simplest digital exchange can land you in hot water...
Hey! I don’t like your tone.
If you have trouble sensing tone over the internet, don’t worry. It’s not your fault. It’s everyone’s fault.
Last year I was told off by my then Head of Operations, for what I can only describe as benign rudeness to an intern via Slack. Here’s a transcript of my unbelievable discourtesy, in full.
Your Humble Narrator [3:13 PM]
yeah of course, very doable.
VICTIM [3:16 PM]
Great! I’ll get a brief over to you as soon as I can.
Your Humble Narrator [3:17 PM]
sweet. please please please make it as detailed as humanly possible, por favor.
VICTIM [3:17 PM]
Will do! And would you remember please that we need it by the end of the day.
Your Humble Narrator[3:17]
That ‘Noted.’ got me in a lot of trouble. So, I ask you, dear reader: was I really a complete bastard-man?
Was it the one-word response? The out-of-character capitalisation? Was it the full stop? The finality of it all? I’ll never know, ladies and gentlemen. The reason behind it all is my one armed man. My Szechuan sauce.
It’s only now, as I sit down to write about how we communicate via the interwebs, that I no longer feel as outraged as I did then. It really wasn’t the intern’s fault that she misread my tone, and by extension every other quality of my response. The fundamental misreading of that innocent verb gave our exchange a whole new dynamic - in which she perceived me to be a knobhead.
Which, I might add, is a fair enough observation.
Now, this small misstep isn’t a big deal. It really isn’t. But what intrigues me is how this kind of misunderstanding must happen all day, every day, millions of times, the world over.
Look at the many opportunities for problems to arise. Email. Social Media. WhatsApp. VoiP. Facetime. Leaving “SIIIICCK DROP BLUD” comments on Soundcloud. Online communication continues to supplant real-world interaction.
Before you accuse me of being a boring old man (I’m 25, I swear), I am a pure advocate for digitisation. I’ve worked in tech for a long time and believe it to be, on the whole, a good thing. I can Skype my girlfriend who is currently living in Edinburgh, while I'm in Berlin. I can see my nephews. I can collaborate seamlessly with my self-described ‘digital nomad’ graphic design partner.
If I wanted to, I could feasibly never meet anyone in person ever again, and have a rich and fulfilling social, and professional life. I would have it all: online, no less!
Except, wait: maybe I wouldn’t.
Given the complexity of human interaction, just how much are we missing by talking via digital means rather than in person?
Well, back in the 1960s, a Dr. Albert Mehrabian - Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA - conducted several studies on nonverbal communication. He found that 7% of any message is conveyed through words, 38% through certain vocal elements, and 55% through nonverbal elements like facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc.
The remaining 7% accounts for actual vocal content.
The so-called “7% rule” has been wildly circulated and misinterpreted across the decades, but the essence of the argument still retains a certain potency: there is more to communication than simply forming words and saying them out loud.
Flash forward 50 years. With the shift from analogue to digital technology so came the need to communicate via these shiny rectangles. Now, one in four adults now spends more time online than they sleep. Teens and preteens are estimated to spend nine hours a day interfacing with mobile devices.
But here’s the problem: empirically speaking, people talking over messaging or voice platforms are operating with incomplete data.
When we have a conversation with someone in person, there’s so much going on besides what’s being said.
According to conversation analysts and Ethnomethodologists, who examine how individuals use everyday conversation to construct a common-sense view of the world, conversations work at their best when there is a continuous flow. We’ve all had those conversations where we instinctively pick up the thread that our conversational partner leaves open.
That slight overlap that results in intense engagement. It’s art, really. I rarely have fantastic conversations via Skype, or WhatsApp. Maybe that’s my own fault, but then again, maybe not.
Could body language, facial expressions, gesticulation, and everything else that theoretically constitutes a proper interaction be faithfully recreated in a VR space?
As we hurtle into the future, and the technology underpinning augmented or virtual reality gets more and more impressive, could we - given what lacks in current-gen digital communications - feasibly replace in-person interaction with say, a VR representation of our conversation?
That's a conversation for Part Two of this story, but before we start having full-on VR conferences or VR dinner parties, the problem of VR sickness needs to be addressed: vomiting mid-conversation is not a great look.
While common symptoms of include general discomfort, headache, stomach awareness, nausea, vomiting, pallor, sweating, fatigue, drowsiness, disorientation, and apathy, that’s not far off how I already feel in social situations, so maybe VR communication will suit me down to the ground.
And could body language, facial expressions, gesticulation, and everything else that theoretically constitutes proper interaction be faithfully recreated in a VR space? Could we enter an age of synthetic experience? And what does that mean for our workplace DMs?
We, life’s endless interns, are just going to have to figure out when our boss is quickly messaging us the word “Noted.”, and when they’re just being a dick.
In Part Two, next MONTAG, Sean explores what happens when communication merges with immersive experiences in Virtual Reality, asks "what if conversations were more than mere conversations?", and meets a man who will live in VR for a month.