Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Perils of Text-only Communications

Without the subtle nuances of the spoken word, detecting humor, sarcasm and anger can be very difficult. Writers have always relished the ambiguity of the written medium and have used a host of word tools designed to introduce double entendres and hidden clues into their text.

For a fantastic treatment of web Netizens, see Mike Reed’s wonderful web site, “Flame Warriors”. Mike is the official artist for Rampant TechPress, and a very talented artist. On the web, the inherent lack of non-verbal communications leads to many misunderstandings.

  • A simple typographical error in a sentence might change the meaning of the thought that the writer intended to convey.
  • A word with multiple meanings might be read with a different meaning than what was originally intended.
Even the choice of font can be the source of consternation for some. The following is an example from a UseNet newsgroup:

btw... a**hole, why don't you type in a normal font.

The bold mono-spaced font is difficult to read. If you don't know how to change fonts read the book that came with your browser!

The next response is even scarier and demonstrates how even the tiniest matter can enrage some individuals:

Well, D***head... I type in the fonts I happen to like. I didn't realise you'd been apointed head of the Font Police.

I suppose lying, dishonest SOBs like you get to pontificate on anything, though, don't they? Anyway: I can recommend a good optometrist if you find it difficult to read.

Incidentally, "Arial" is not a mono-spaced font, but I'm sure you won't want facts to get in the way of your "argument".

Look [poo]-for-brains most folks, except blowhards like you, don't use BOLD and ITALIC except for emphasis. I guess you didn't learn that in school.

So, how does one communicate effectively in a text-only world? Users need some method to communicate emotion.

The World’s First Emoticon

The founding fathers of the Internet decided to use special characters to indicate simple emotions. For Internet history buffs, the following is the very first bulletin board message that proposes the use of symbols to indicate jokes in 1982:

19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman :-)
From: Scott E Fahlman

I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:


Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use


The “reading sideways” of these symbols allows the expression of facial emotion without being face-to-face. Once users adapt to turning their heads 90 degrees, the symbols make a lot of sense and add emotion to text statements, helping to fill the non-verbal void in text communications:

While primitive, these icons helped immensely to remove the ambiguity of text-only communications. For more information, see Stephen Andert’s great book “Web Stalkers: Protect yourself from Internet Psychopaths”: