On the Nature of Online Communications

February 22, 2006

I spend a significant amount of time online. I’m sure most people reading this also spend a good deal of time online, whether it’s surfing the web, entering comments on other blog posts, chatting, playing games, etc. I’ve always felt that the persona of who I present online is probably different than the real me, but it never really occurred to me how different those opinions would be, nor how varied my interactions with other people would be.

This was all brought on by one of my friends who had a link to this website. It’s quite a simple idea and produces some amazing results if enough people fill it out for you. Not many have for me, yet, but you can view my good profile here and bad one here. The basic idea is you invite friends to go to your profile page and select up to six adjectives that describe you. That’s it. What the website does is divide the adjectives up into four different branches: Facade (which are the adjectives you selected for yourself), Arena (adjectives that were yours to begin with but have been selected by at least one other person), Blind Spot (adjectives that people have selected for you) and Unknown (all the remaining adjectives). It then has a list of all the adjectives and a percentage of how often they were selected, followed by a list of people who have filled it out and the words they used.

What the results of my good profile say (so far) is that 4/6 adjectives that I used to describe myself, someone else has used as well. One of those words was selected by 3 people (out of a total 8). The word was introverted, which is an obvious one since I’ve used it several times on this blog, as well as in many of my conversations with people. But still five other people didn’t select it at all, which means it’s either not the first thing they think of in regards to me, didn’t see the word listed, or were unsure of it’s meaning. On the other hand, 50% of them said I was shy (which I don’t think is true), while others said quiet, self-conscious, and independent.

This fascinated me, because all those qualities aren’t something easily picked up on when dealing solely online. The one person on the list who I’ve known and met many times in person, never used the words introvert or shy. Three people focused on caring and intelligent, and two of those didn’t mention any adjectives about being quiet, shy, etc. That made sense to me because I’ve helped all three overcome problems, or helped them discover another part of themselves, gave advice, etc. They overlooked the quiet part of my personality, and instead decided to look at my generous side. I could probably analyze why people chose certain words over others for a long time, and I only have eight people to look at. I can’t imagine if I had over 50 people filling it in.

What looking at the initial results told me was that people trust you when you tell them attributes that are seen to be self-deprecating more easily than they will other traits (like looks, intelligence, etc). It’s easier to believe the negatives because people are less likely to show those truths to people in an online environment. We can’t build an impression through body language, our achievements in the public world, the way we dress, and speak. Physical and social image create such a strong impression of a person that we don’t need someone to clarify in the real world that they are stupid, because we’ll recognize it almost instantly.

In the online world, we don’t have the luxury of such obvious things and have to rely on different parts of our brains (I’m guessing analyzing language happens in a different part than analyzing visual stimuli). Certain verbal qualities of a person can translate well from the real world into the world of text. For instance, an intelligent person is less likely to be typing like “how r u” and “c u l8r.” A dumb person will still say dumb things no matter where they are, and a sexually perverse person will still make sexual comments online and hit on women – perhaps even more so if they’re shy in real life. We can tell if someone is funny through the jokes they tell, if they’re selfish by talking about themselves a lot, or realistic or idealistic through the opinions they share. Any quality that has to do with mental capacity for ideas (including opinions, stories, jokes, compliments) is rather transparent from the real world to the online world.

Emotional and social behaviour is a much tougher sell though. It’s something we express through actions, not purely words. You don’t just tell someone you love them, you show it through your eyes, your touch, the kiss. Shyness is shown through the hesitation to speak as much as the lack of words being said. Courage is judged by how you face certain situations, not by how strong your language is.

Our focus in the real world is centered around showing the most positive side of ourselves as much as we can. We’re wanting to attract positive attention so we can flirt with the attractive woman, impress our boss for a raise, create a good role model for our children, be rewarded for our bravery, or receive recognition for writing or creating something wonderful. But the humility found within us all is tucked away deep inside. Our society is ashamed to show the “soft” side of ourselves publically. When someone gets up in front of a stadium full of people to propose to a woman, they’re partially ridiculed for expressing something so private, or when a child starts crying in a store, it’s seen as an interruption to our personal life. The same thing generally won’t be said for someone telling a joke loudly in a classroom, or someone paints a scene on a sidewalk in chalk. Both are interruptions in our lives as much as a child crying, but we accept them because they’re “good things”to be shared. David Rushkoff touches on this in his book, Get Back in the Box, when he talks about “social currency.”

The expression of these more negative things are hidden for safe keeping and only shown to people we trust, or if things are well beyond our control (losing someone in a car accident, or we see/hear something that sparks a great fury inside us that we have to react). Because of our natural protection with such things, when people say online that they are “crying,” we take it to mean a few things. The first reaction is that we realize they trust enough to show their true emotions or thoughts, and second is that they genuinely are crying and hurt. The same thing goes for a lot of the other qualities that people felt that I had: shy, quiet, nervous, and others that I don’t, bold, brave, energetic, and so forth. With our interactions in the real world, we have a hard time thinking that someone want to lie about such things because we have been trained to treat them as damaging characteristics of that person. When someone does tell them, we become to believe that they are being honest. And since we have nothing that proves the opposite, we go with it.

So as surprising as it was at first to see that people thought and believed I was quiet and shy, there’s a very good reason behind their belief.

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