Bridging the Social Gap of Instant Messaging

In response to Are these media the ‘fitting response’ to an oral communicative exigence, that now gets expressed textually? Is this the answer to bridging geographic distance textually but using rules clearly based in orality, afforded by the new technologies?

I took this to refer to bridging the situation that since you are not right in front of the individual(s) with whom you are communicating, there are spans of “silence” during which the other person does not know what you are doing.

While I will not deny there is some etiquette with chatting, there are some major differences I see between that and a live conversation. Beyond addressing objective differences between IM/chatting and a real conversation, I’m really referring to the way that I (and my chat friends) use the tool. I use some type of IM client pretty much all the time that I am online – work, school, and home. In some ways, seeing your online/available friends in your buddy list it is sort of like sitting at a table with everyone that you see online; they are sitting there and you can address them and ask a question or begin a conversation. However, if an individual comes, “sits” down and then after being there for 30 minutes leaves, no one is offended. Whereas in that live setting, there is the etiquette need to say hello and perhaps make some small talk.

Similarly, when I am actually chatting with someone, the situation is rare that we are communicating full-attention, 1-to-1 the entire time. Rather, there will be a bit of back and forth conversation and then the conversation will go temporarily (or not) dead. We might continue a conversation in a few moments, hours, or even a day. Sometimes, particularly at work with many windows open, I minimize a chat window, forget about it, and a day later that individual asks something and I am able to see the previous day’s entire conversation. In the live conversation, such extended silences are awkward at best, obviously ridiculous if two individuals were to be sitting there not communicating for a day.

This is in part the nature of the tool and how it is used, short bits of information and to share links, etc. But more so (and closely related) is the rhetorical situation. If I am online and available in chat, I am working. Presumably, any person with whom I might initiate or accept a conversation invite is also working. Unlike a situation where you meet someone in-person or even make a phone call (where the person COULD be busy, but not assuredly so), rare is the case that I would be online for the sole purpose of communicating on chat. Even if the other person is not hard at work, the knowledge that he or she is doing something else (playing a game, answering emails, browsing the Web, etc.) rests in our mind and the need for that full attention is negated in favor of an understanding of split attention … just like your analogy of changing the light bulb. If I am aware you are doing this and my discussion of dinner plans is affected by your distraction of the task at hand, I am understanding.

That said, the devices used to bridge that situation are the visual cues (emoticons) and the comments we add to help the other person realize our situation for that moment. The smiley emoticon or typing heh, ha!, lol, lmao, lmfao, or rotflmfao all convey some acknowledgment that I find some level of humor in what you “said.” I use this example intentionally, since it is a great example of a situation where we have really established an understood jargon of degrees of emotion (the examples I give become progressively higher in humor intensity). Even the emoticons have varying levels of smile, smirk, laugh. Similarly, whether I write, “brb, be right back, or hang on a sec,” etc., I am letting you know that I will be away from the window or the computer for a non-specific amount of time. That is the illocutionary speech act that informs you of this point and helps explain any lack of response to something you might write in my absence.

To answer your other question, I have not done such an analysis of audio/chat conversations. However, I’m sure much has been written on that. It should be easy enough to find. Actually, I think that is sort of along the lines of what Mialisa Hubbard’s Diss was about: something to do with the oral and conversational nature of online discussions in relation to knowledge building in TC programs … something like that. Don’t hold me to this reference; to be honest, I have to go look it up, I may be off a bit. Either way, it would be a good topic to look into.

In regard to the last point made in the comment, I do not see this condition/situation as THE response to oral communicative exigency, but it is A response. I think we do it because we can do it. While I acknowledge this is sort of a cop-out answer, any combination and direction of tools you can imagine either exists now or is a bout to exist: speech-to-text, text-to-oral, hand-held texting, facebook posting of what are you doing now (yes, Twitter, too), everyday.me (which takes one picture of you per day), posting videos to your blog directly from your phone, etc. We use tools and, intentionally or not, they begin to fill a need, sometimes a need we may not have know was there. In other words, assuming there is a need in oral communicative exigency, these media are definitely a fitting, albeit textual, response to that need.

There is much crossover in these tools, too. Let’s say I am making dinner and need eggplants; I can sent a Jott (speech-to-text message) to my significant other to pick them up on the way home. I could even Jott to my Twitter account (knowing my significant other follows my tweets and gets updates to her phone). She receives the message and (hopefully) picks them up. However, I might have other tools connected to my Twitter account, such as my blog and Facebook account. So, while she gets the message that I am awaiting the final ingredient to make dinner, so too does everyone following me on any of these three or more networking tools. In this way, I have really surpassed any need and even created a possibly difficult situation, since most people do not desire such platitudinous information about my life. NOTE: An overwhelming amount of posted tweets is easily classified as such platitudinous information.

Is this the answer to bridging geographic distance textually but using rules clearly based in orality, afforded by the new technologies? Again, I would say it’s AN answer, albeit not likely THE answer. These new tools certainly blur or erase geographic distances, and the communicative discourse level (more informal) establishes a more personal, human, and immediate level of communication.

Finally, I’ll also throw out for considerationGoogle’s new translation bots for Google chat, which actually translate languages as you send your messages (live synchronous chat translation). Original Babel fish, here we come.

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