THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


CONCERNING E-DEHUMANIZATION: THE DIALECT OF INSTANT MESSAGING, AND WHY IT'S NOT THE END OF CLOSENESS AS WE KNOW IT

by by Matt Surka

illustration by by Drew Foster

Friend request accepted," reads a Dentyne gum ad on the wall of a Boston subway car. The huge letters are watermarked over a photo of two women hugging, and to complete the joke the caption reads, "Close browser. Open arms." Similar posters hang on either side: "send and receive" in front of a kissing couple, "chatroom full" above a crowded couch, "the original instant message" on top of another pair of smooch-stuck lovers. Captions hit the punch line on each poster. "Log off. Latch on," says one. "Minimize buddy list. Maximize buddies," goes another. The concluding slogan, "make face time," follows each stream of wordplay.

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Dentyne's new ad campaign emphasizes getting away from the computer and chatting with friends in person instead of online. While at heart it's just an advertisement, Dentyne's message carries an implication that the average subway-goer might take for granted: that in order for people to bond, they need to be in the same room. "[W]hen people are surfing the Web, they're missing the best part of life--being together," the Dentyne website declares. People need to "spend less time online and more time with each other."
The sentiment is not a new one. Many people agree that interacting the old-fashioned way is more intimate than talking via instant message or online wallpost. That feels a little strange, though, when put in context with the fact that an overwhelming majority--96 percent, according to a National School Boards Association survey--of high school students with Internet access use it for social networking. If talking online isn't really bonding, why do so many persist in doing it on a regular basis? It's almost alarming, and doomsayers (i.e. Douglas Groothuis, interviewed for Losing Our Souls in Cyberspace) have gone so far as to predict a grim, unfeeling future for our increasingly screen-struck race.
But is the clickety-clack of a computer keyboard really so cold? Does Dentyne-inspired face-to-face conversation have inherent value that bare text can never truly match? Not everyone thinks so. Web-based interaction in the present day is not a dead end, but rather the beginning of a new language, one capable of becoming as versatile and emotional as the spoken word.
With its colorful palette of facial muscles and vocal chords, the human body can give sadness, anger, surprise, disappointment and a host of other emotions, each its own identifiable shape. It's called body language, and it's why face-to-face feels warm and nuanced. Dentyne obviously gets this, but the ad campaign is making a false comparison. Frequently, chatting on AIM does not mean a person wants to spend less time with friends and family. In-person interactions are here to stay, at the very least for the proliferation of the species.
The Dentyne campaign does, however, highlight a somewhat puzzling trend in long-distance communication, the pace of which has, over the centuries, gradually increased--until now. Humans moved from letter-writing to the landline to the cell phone, with each new technology increasing the speed and convenience of making conversation. But in recent years, the trend reversed. Texting, chatting online and writing to inboxes and walls are now arguably the most popular modes of remote conversation among young adults, which feels like a step backwards, to somewhere between the telephone and the written letter. Why the regression? Why would people prefer stretching the content of a fifteen-minute phone call to a six-hour texting conversation or a three-day wall-to-wall? Within the texting community, the answer to this question is obvious, but only between good friends do people break taboo and discuss it out loud. Insiders--those who know T9 so well that when they see the word "awake" the word "cycle" flashes in their minds--have a collective, unspoken understanding: texting allows for composition, for taking a breath and really meditating on a message before sending it.
Proust's major gripe with spoken conversation was that it allowed no time to reflect, to actually think while talking. Online, though, the rhythm of dialogue is much more relaxed. Without the need to keep up with the rapid back-and-forth intrinsic to talking on the telephone, without having to worry about being interrupted by a sarcastic comment or being distracted by an exasperated sigh, someone talking online can get a point across, in some sense, much more sincerely than if he or she were talking out loud.
Text-based conversation allows young adults the time to "think about how best to articulate themselves, especially in emotional situations," psychologists Dominic E. Madell and Steven J. Muncer discovered during the course of their study, "Control Over Social Interactions," published in CyberPsychology & Behavior in 2007. At least in certain circumstances, young adults prefer texting or IM-ing to actually verbalizing, because typing gives them time to make sure they say what they really mean. It's not a new revelation: just hitting 'send' is far easier than having to deliver a line orally. In some cases, it can definitely feel like copping out ("You can't text-message break-up!!" screams one strange and popular Youtube video), but at times it can compensate for nervousness or low self-esteem and lead to something genuinely good that otherwise wouldn't have happened. A wanna-get-coffee sent after ten minutes of staring at the AIM window, trembling hand poised over the 'enter' key reads the same way as a wanna-get-coffee sent nonchalantly; you can play it cool even when you're feeling very much the diametric opposite.
In person, awkward moments are hardly uncommon and can at times be bizarrely damaging. A passing greeting between acquaintances can go perfectly by the book, in which case the status quo (think of the 0-to-100 relationship rating in The Sims) is either maintained or even slightly improved. As the average person can handle blurting out "Hey what's up?" when called upon, most flyby conversations follow this model just fine and have no lasting effect, good or bad, on a cordial relationship. But drop in some social land mines--seeing each other far too late or (worse) far too early, the untimely passing of a loud truck, a painfully coincidental alignment of two acquaintances along a plane so that a single hi accidentally hits two completely unrelated parties--and hey-what's-up/good-how-are-you can take a hideous turn. The exchange becomes muddled, dotted with 'what's and 'huh's and all manner of confused babble. The relationship rating sinks, the dynamic becomes a little more strained, and, perhaps before long, the two people start dodging eye contact, all simply because of bad timing.
Is the risk of tongue-tying just a natural part of human interaction? Sure. And, yes, a healthy social life does depend on the ~occasional~ offline foray. But that doesn't prevent today's adolescents from sometimes relying on chatboxes to develop friendships with limited threat of awkwardness. For anyone who has ever hesitated to say something out of nervousness, the option to interact without having to speak can be incredibly appealing. There's also a weird degree of accountability in text-based communication, as anything said in the past can be fished out of the archival deep and ctrl+c'd / ctrl+v'd into the present. The experience of having to confront his or her own spiteful words may make a person think twice next time before texting out of anger.
Instant messenger lingo isn't the botched, monotone shorthand it used to be: the IM revolution has shaped a deep and nuanced new language. Subtle expressions of tone exist online, even though becoming attuned to them takes time. Only a veteran of online conversation could understand the delicate but powerful differences between the sincere hahaha, the uninterested haha and the sardonic ha. Only an experienced chat room frequenter could value the gravity of a period at the end of a line, the mocking disdain of a phrase written in capital letters, or the critical change in tone brought about by placing two exclamation points instead of one. Asterisks signify action, tildes imply a less-than-serious tone and the infamous lol can mean everything from legitimate laughter to a simple show of levity, depending on context, repetition and placement (a concerned "she ignored you?" vs. a lighthearted "lol she ignored you?" vs. a mocking "she ignored you? lol.")
Even cursing feels dynamic online, sometimes more so than out loud. For the passing show of displeasure, a 'holy shit' can suffice, but for those choicest moments of horror and embarrassment, an AIM-er might be inclined to make some font changes, throw in some caps, or utilize the 'Enter' key. For some, not even a shouted-out-loud swear can compare to the cathartic power of a well-timed
holy
SHIT.
Not everyone can recognize it, but the dialect of text-based conversation has a meter and a flow. There's an informal set of rules built into all that ughing and loling that can make conversations on AIM a little warmer than just text on an LCD screen.
Text-based communication also strikes a chord often repeated but rarely acted on in the Western world. The point has been made over and over that the amount of respect and admiration a person earns has far too much to do with his or her appearance. Even in academic circles, the impression a person makes is largely defined by body structure, voice, facial expression, speaking ability and other questionably relevant traits. Instinctively giving one person respect and denying it to another based on appearance or demeanor usually happens subconsciously, and as such it cannot be completely prevented in face-to-face interactions.
A habit of stumbling over words, sporadic lapses in hearing, a just-slightly insincere-looking smile--these things that can fracture an in-person exchange play no role in an AIM window or on the screen of a RAZR. As Madell and Muncer observed in their study, young adults cite as another benefit of online conversation the ability to "allocate increased cognitive resources to the construction of a message," since they do not have to divide their attention between speaking and watching posture, worrying about hair, trying not to stutter, managing eye contact, noting sweat on palms and making sure breath is Dentyne-fresh. Think of Roxane in Cyrano de Bergerac telling Christian, "Your thoughts outshine your face... I now love you for your soul alone." The moment was somewhat tragic in the play, but the idea itself is romantic: there's something very genuine about neglecting outer appearance, and text-based communication makes it possible. The focus of an online conversation is on the words--the exchange of ideas--and not on the dozens of distractions that abound in person.
Though some people use online journals and websites simply to broadcast their rash, half-baked conclusions (read: Youtube comments), others are finding that the ability of the internet to control the flow of information, to slow down communication just as easily as it speeds it up, makes being truly analytical a less difficult task. In the same way that it can save an awkward eighth grader from the trial-by-fire of having to learn how to flirt in person, text-based communication has the potential to guide conversation away from rapidity and towards thoughtfulness.
For those still worried about the fate of web-endowed humanity, keep in mind that people will more than likely continue to be driven by motivations more primal than a desire for written conversation. Parties and dance floors cannot be replicated online, and for people with fleshier intentions, random encounters lose their flair when the only touching involved includes that of keys and computer mice. In these respects, online communication falls short. Despite the allure of the internet, the majority of people will more than likely continue to log off from time to time in order to feed and procreate, and mankind should pull through just fine.

MATTHEW SURKA B'11 wonders how many times he's gonna say "holy SHIT" in his life.