When I have something to say, I do it best in writing. The flood of thoughts waiting to flow from the tip of my tongue coalesce into military rows of precision on unlined pages. But this was mostly about expression, not about conversations. I predominantly used paper-and-pen to write poetry, short stories, or maintain a diary. I have outgrown those devices to a large extent and adapted to the tap dance of index fingers and thumb on the keyboard. In manual writing, my thoughts had to wait patiently in the recesses of the short-term memory as my fingers slowly measured out and gave shape to words. The white screen has replaced the unlined pages of my diary. Typing, I have discovered, allows me to keep pace with my thoughts.
I suppose the primary way we communicate online is through chatting, which is nothing but textual talk. It’s not restricted to communication that explicitly involves two people “talking”, but encompasses one to many, one to no one in particular, monologues and private messages, offline communication, SMS and email, all via text. A chunk of this textual talk takes place on social media websites, where commenting is encouraged. You must have read the popular joke on social media that goes something like this: Facebook asks me what I am thinking (via status updates), Twitter asks me what I am doing (tweets), and FourSquare asks me where I am (location referencing)….social media is just like my girlfriend!
Offline, writing is just one of the many forms we communicate in; our talk is illustrated and punctuated with gestures and head nods, silences and tears, graphical comical expressions and body movement, laughter and throaty sounds all coming together for a fluid, dynamic and richer form of engagement. How does this equation change online? Beyond texting, we do have video chat services, however, it isn’t the preferred mode of dialogue with many people; slow Internet speed, is one reason and for me, this awkward sense of surreality of speaking to the non-static image of a person, instead of in person. The same reason I hate ear-phones while using a mobile phone. Eccentric? You bet!
Is communication online worse-for-wear because of this interface restriction? A laughter is reduced to LOL or static smiling emoticons. People can sense that we enjoyed their joke if we text a lengthy “hahahhahahaha” and use ellipsis to convey suspense. I use waka waka <these diamond brackets> in Instant Chats to convey “thought speak” and snide remarks. Emphasis comes with the use of asterisk *on either side of the emphasized word* and lots of exclamation marks can convey excitement, wonder or disgust even! We needed a richer and dynamic way to communicate through text, and so we reinvented mathematical symbols and cheekily made room for micro-syntax in our textual talk. There is always room for improvement though, right?
I am still discomfited with this gap between how I feel and what the textual interface allows me to convey. My face remains blank as I text “LOL” on a friend’s status update; statements and one liners aren’t as funny when read, as when you hear them out loud. It’s the same as reading a funny passage in a book. We do cry at the death of a character we have grown attached to; we sigh at a good ending, curling up in bed; and frown at the entry of a villain. But that’s engagement in isolation, with the self.
I log online with the intention of engaging with friends intimately, despite the screen acting as a barrier. We have developed communities, groups and bonds online because there is a richer universe of elements that we interact with in the digital space. It’s easier to “share” those elements with our friends online. But sharing, and adapting to a new way of communicating, does not have to cost me my endearing facial ticks < insert tongue-poking-out emoticon here >. I wish to see a textual experience that stuns us with 3D, augmented reality, holograms, scent dispensers (that allow fragrances to waft through from websites via a usb-dispenser), ambient sounds to add context to a chat (between a person sitting at a lake house and someone in an office), and other interactive elements culled from museum exhibits, 3D films, science-fiction and live talk. Can you imagine the possibilities of chat then?
Perhaps you don’t feel the disconnect while chatting online? May be you think I am one of those digital dinosaurs that lament the bygone era! Shucks. Please share your thoughts via the comments section below. Thank you!
– Nilofar Ansher