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If we only knew…

October 6, 2011

When I was a freshman in college I took a writing class structured around discussing the effect of technology on society. As we delve deeper into the social networking age, I felt it appropriate to post the following essay from January 2003, written by me, as a look back into what we (or at least I) thought about web technology nearly 9 years ago…

Imagine a world where people never speak, a world based on text of all colors, shapes and sizes. A world that revolves around a single sound, yes, that one, that sound that comes across your computer’s speakers when you’ve been…INSTANT MESSAGED!

In today’s fast-paced world, the Internet is quickly becoming our main source for news, entertainment, information, and increasingly for communication. The proliferation of various instant messenger programs (mainly by America Online, but also by MSN, Yahoo, and ICQ among others) has allowed people to communicate instantaneously over miles and miles of space without having to pay long distance fees. Instant messaging has single-handedly changed the way young Americans communicate with one another, but in its current form it is no replacement for more traditional communicative forms. It does have a lot of future potential however, and with this communicative power comes some serious drawbacks.

The primary drawback of instant messaging (as is with much of the “frontier” of the Internet) is that there is an inherent inhuman aspect to it. First of all, unlike normal human contact, there are no facial expressions, hand gestures or any other type of body language. All that is expressed outside of words is expressed through little faces (called “emoticons”) or other pictures made with symbols. This won’t even compare to the telephone, where, although there is no person physically standing in front of you, the inflections in the tone of the voice add an emotional depth to the conversation that is lost in the vast wastelands of text that is the instant message. Unlike the informal letter, the instant message only allows you to change fonts and colors, while actually physical correspondence allows a person to use one’s own handwriting. The scribble of a line or tears on a page will speak volumes, and there’s nothing like the scent of perfume or a lipstick kiss at the bottom of the page to perfectly accent a romantic letter. In comparison to these traditional media, the instant message is probably the least formal, and in many ways the coldest, and least human form of communication.

Still the instant message is quickly removing traditional communication from normal daily life. Behind this upcoming force is the vast realm of the Internet and all of its resources, a power that could quite possibly give the instant message the ability to surpass normal communications by advancing the technology behind it. Already in existence (and in limited use) is the ability to “voice chat” over the instant messenger using a computer’s microphone. This technology theoretically would make the telephone obsolete in the future. Eventually it can be proposed that web-cams will be integrated into messenger programs to improve on the “community” aspect of the Internet. At that point users will not only be talking to each other, but seeing each other as well. This has already been put to limited use in businesses that allow for “telecommuting” rather than actually showing up for work.

In its current state though, the bulk of messenger services and their users are forming a new Internet sub-culture. This group lacks the formality of the letter writers of the past, and is quickly reducing the English language to free-form Internet shorthand that serves relatively no purpose in the outside world. In an instant message it isn’t so uncommon to see phrases like “lol” (laugh out loud), “brb” (be right back) or “rofl” (rolling on the floor laughing), but no where in normal communications would such phrasing be found. Another anomaly of messaging is the format of talking. Whereas in face to face or telephone communication an individual may speak for minutes without the other person getting a word in edgewise, but the bulk of messaging consists of two people going back and forth in conversation in alternating lines. Sometimes information is shared directly, but more often, information is only determined through what is implied, not what is directly given. In our groups, the only things I really learned about the other members is that one is handy with computers (something I implied from hi use of FlashMX) and the other is in a fraternity (known because he said he was). I enjoyed all of these conversations, but still learned relatively little about my team members.

This brings up another topic for questioning regarding instant messaging technology: Is it good/bad to be able to enjoy a conversation with someone and not learn anything about him or her? In a normal face-to-face conversation you can learn things about a person by their facial expressions, body language and voice tones. One might not learn anything from what they say, but from how they say it. In instant messaging this avenue of communication is lost. If a person is shy, nervous, or twitchy it is quickly noticed in person, but the instant messenger does not discriminate by race, religion or social disposition. I believe that this is actually the greatest virtue of instant messaging services. Currently I have 126 people on my AOL Instant Messenger program, the bulk of which I have little if any contact with outside of the Internet. Many of these people I’ve never seen pictures of nor will I ever meet some of them in my lifetime, yet this does not stop our conversation. I have “friends” in Alaska, British Columbia and New York and in theory could meet a person in Europe, Asia or anywhere that has an Internet provider. It is this same ability to meet people miles apart that helps maintain the popularity of messaging, especially among college student who have friends from high school who have gone to colleges out of state or in other parts of the state. With long distance telephone fees eliminated, communication becomes a “whenever you’re available” issue, and availability (of time) really is the only thing that stops communication from occurring.

The content of the communication leaves something to be desired. So much of the time the typed words contain relatively meaningless “fluff”. Because of the non-discriminatory nature of instant messaging, words of love and hate are spread with equal ease. This is due to the fact that we cannot see or hear the consequence of our actions, and the fact that the mask of a new screen name gives anonymity to a user that doesn’t exist in normal physical life. This causes some people to say things online that they otherwise wouldn’t say (which can be good or bad) but also increases the amount of deceit (50 year old men posing as 16 year old girls) that exists on the Internet. Furthermore, the recipient of the message, not the sender, determines the value accents placed on words. This reality begs for miscommunication and misunderstanding to take place, and often results in confusion for both parties. Even if the communication is proper, the designation of the importance of statements is still determined by the recipients. Because of the ”free-space” ideology of the Internet, so much is left to the users of the technology, and thus it is difficult to accurately group all instant messaging encounters into a single concept.

On the whole, instant messaging technology is the leading force in Internet communications, and it is the way businesses and corporations will soon begin to communicate. Its popularity among general Internet users is slowly degrading our traditional communications infrastructure and guides much of the communication in the younger (15-24 years) age bracket. If it is not controlled, instant messaging could become the bane of the educational system as more and more of the English language is becoming reduced to shorthand. Still, under proper restraint instant messenger programs are like any other technology: it is neutral, the user determining whether its purpose is for good or evil.

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