October 1996

Root Page of Article: Feeling Between the Lines, by Joyce Menges


The fact that MOO and IRC programmers have gone to the trouble of writing code to facilitate the use of emotes supports my original hypothesis: people need to, want to and do act extraverbally in cyberspace. But wait a minute; this preliminary statement is fundamentally flawed. People don't act in cyberspace, do they? Doesn't the word act imply physical motion? I should be saying people represent actions they would take in face to face contexts, when communicating in these virtual venues, using textual descriptions. To save us all from the verbal gymnastics of that last sentence, however, I ask that you to read what follows with a bit of suspended disbelief. When I use words like "behaves" and "acts" what I really mean to say is represents behaviors with text.

It is easy to find examples in the NGT logs of emotes that serve Knapp's functions. Nods, for example, are used to reinforce (repeating) affirmative responses or in place of them entirely (substituting). In the following brief exchange from the second MOO NGT there is a bit of regulating:

Joyce says, "is a pretty good list :)"
JackG writes this on the whiteboard:
>> commanding statements
Joyce asks, "anything else?"
Joyce looks around the room carefully
Anne says, "Not from me"
JackG says, "I'm finished"
Joyce nods to Anne (personal communication/NGT log, 3-24-96)

The participants had gone fairly silent by this point in the group process but I wanted to make sure everyone had listed all their ideas. "Joyce looks around the room carefully" was my way of making room for any last minute ideas while beginning the transition to the next phase of the group process.

Apparently, however, emotes have not been enough to satisfy the virtual space communicator because other extraverbal devices have emerged that also serve to transmit clues to feelings and attitudes.

Punctuation, Emoticons, & Capital Letters

There is much to be conveyed in the turn of a bit of punctuation or case, I have learned. An exclamation point can transform a simple statement of fact into a declaration, often changing the whole flavor of the sentiment transmitted. Can you feel the difference between someone saying, "I'm swell." and "I'm swell!" In the first instance you would be wondering if the person was being facetious, in the second you are quite sure of his mood. An experienced virtual communicator might interpret the ambiguity of the first statement as an effort to deceive or reveal a mood or attitude not articulated. The second simply reinforces the obvious words. As well, upper case letters serve to accentuate certain words or phrases in an exchange. You cannot raise your voice in a virtual conversation but you can RAISE YOUR VOICE! And your favorite smiley emoticon can entirely transform the implied meaning of the words used. Sometimes, just as in face-to-face communication, it is difficult to tell when someone is joking. In the conventional venue, you can catch a twinkle in the eye that reveals the teasing nature of the words, "You're awful." In the virtual world you might be offended by these same words were it not for the emoticon that punctuates them ("You're awful! :-)")

The use of ellipses is particularly interesting. Since all such conversations are typed, there is a natural lag to the flow of conversation as thoughts are transformed into text. While it is common to trip over each others words from thought to thought in a way that becomes quite natural and acceptable, strategically placed ellipses dots help to regulate virtual conversations. Punctuating the end of a line of text with these three dots reminds the reader that there is more to the thought coming on the next line. They can also simulate the natural pauses in audible speech as in the following exchange from the first IRC NGT:

[Joyce_] what about that fellas... is Brent correct?
Joyce_ waits while you talk among yourselves :)
[AllenR] I think so... yes
[Da_Bear] sure
[rrider] Yes, I agree with that

(personal communication/NGT log, 4-6-96)

Word Choice

Ultimately, however, the most powerful transmitter of extraverbal information is words. As great literature has shown us repeatedly, carefully chosen words can convey the most powerful of emotions with perfect clarity. A particularly lively discussion developed around this very idea in the last of the NGTs. Read (3) this excerpt and watch for the use of well chosen words as transmitters, and the content of the exchange, for this group's thoughtful debate about this issue:

[Joyce_] everyone agree the list is good enough to vote on?
[lizzie] no
[Joyce_] please feel free to discuss further guys :)
* Joyce_ wait and watches with interest
[JmpMstr] voting to find the top six???
[dori2] lizzie describing actions is more than just making actions - it is a more detailed thing
[Joyce_] JM: yes, that's the next step
* OldBear wishes there were a chalk board or place we could write each item on yellow stickies and then cluster them into groups. This medium is not very good for developing true group hubris. ;)
[lizzie] dori, convince me
* JmpMstr lines up with OB... I agree
[dori2] well I can say dori2 sits
[lizzie] dori.... you mean... dori sits on the chair hapazardly
[dori2] that is simply using /me command
[dori2] yes - that is closer lizzie
[lizzie] ooooooooooooooooo, this group is creating a mind meld... we both knew you were sitting
* lizzie gets spooked
* Joyce_ smiles
[dori2] it is more detailed - that gets the behavior more clear
[Joyce_] what a great group!
[lizzie] wait.. i have to think it out
[lizzie] Will... waht about you.. i picked on two of yours
[lizzie] do you have convincing arguments????
[Joyce_] wanna see the list again?
[dori2] using /me command is part of the expression - detail is describing more
[lizzie] you SAID THAT
[JmpMstr] remember that we're talking about expressions AND perceiving... what is it that helps you perceive????
[dori2] the more we type, the better chance we have at perceiving what the other is trying to say
[lizzie] but how do you SHOW your perception????
[lizzie] ooooooooooooooooooo, William.... WELL done!
* OldBear perceives lizzie's point.

(personal communication/NGT log, 4-10-96)

When OldBear expresses his wish for a chalkboard upon which to organize his thoughts, for example, it is easy to sense his frustration with the limitations of the medium. It is also easy to believe that this person is taking his task as participant in the NGT process seriously and thoughtfully. He did not have to express exactly these things, but they are available for those who can hear them. --

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