On Online Voices

I am told, dear hypothetical audience, that I sound much angrier online than I do out there in real life, and although I am deeply cynical, the effect is made all the much worse over pure text. This isn’t intentional, as I’m a bit more laid back in the real world, but hardly comes across as surprising to me, and is not a phenomenon restricted entirely to one person. It is, however, incredibly interesting how people can have an entirely different “voice” when communicating via methods other than voice online.

Modern text communication has become incredibly popular, given the existence of instant messages, social networks, SMS messages and so on, and in many ways it has changed how we communicate for better or ill. However, in many other ways we still apply existing conventions in areas they don’t really work in. I’d like to think my own written style for things like this is very conversational, yet that’s essentially a vocal style that requires a listener to figure out rather than a reader. Emotion and intonation, for instance, are both incredibly important to difficult to convey in plain text, which is why reported speech convention often have various phrases that get attached outside speech or quotation marks to outline it (think “he said sarcastically” and so on). The kind of direct speech most people use in IMs or Social Network/forum posts tends to not feature these, and more often then not they wouldn’t fit within what was said anyway. Combine this with the ambiguities that already exist within the English Language and intended meanings of textual communication is often lost completely. It’s not for nothing that they say “Sarcasm doesn’t work well on the internet.” And it is this that totally changes people’s voice on the internet, and it’s rarely intentional.

Without the contextual information applied, misreadings are more than likely to occur and this will colour people’s opinion of the “speaker.” Twitter is a wonderful example of this, thanks to its low character limit. Many a time I’ve read a tweet and thought “Man, this guy is a dick” or “What a total sociopath” only to find out much later that the offending tweet was intended satirically or humorously. Thanks to the disconnect between how think something is read and how someone else does, people forget to even try to add context in and that creates the change in tone. Admittedly some people play upon this intentionally, specifically thinking of anyone who makes extensive use of satire or really dark humour, where this mistaken tone works more in the direction of whatever they were aiming for.

Choice of language also affect how your online voice is seen by others. Perhaps this seems obvious but think about it for a moment, if you often use language that is very to-the-point, that bluntness can often come across as impatient or even rude, and constant use of overly long words where they aren’t really needed (yes, I am aware I can be guilty of this) often comes across, I am told, as a desperate attempt to seem more intelligent. Then there are things like L337 and txt, which are a pain in the arse to read by the way, which always put a very singular voice in my head, usually one that’s speaking very, very fast and deliberately trying not to make any sense whatsoever.

Similarly deliberate stylistic choices, limited as they often are from just plain text, can have an impact. The most traditional is all caps which I think the general consensus would be shouting. One I tend to use myself is Title Case Where Every Word Has A Capital, which I personally think provides emphasis but have heard others see it as more rushed. Perhaps the worst example for me would be the trend for people to RANDOMLY capitalise words OFTEN that has no BEARING on the sentence (I’ll stop now). I can’t fathom how this is meant to sound in their heads, but always comes across either as someone who’s desperately trying to have select phrases heard to impress (though word choice makes this even weirder), that or they’re having some kind of weird seizure centred entirely upon the vocal volume bits of their brain. Interestingly I almost always see this from either fanboys defending something with typical terminal integrity or the tinfoil hat brigade. Curious, really.

As I said earlier, people are rarely aware of the difference in tone between real-world and “online” voices unless they’re told as such. Its pretty much a subconscious action, after all. But even after being made aware of how angry I often sound online, no matter what I tried to change things I’ve always come back to the same old tone with my text communication. Maybe it’s something as engrained as our normal voices, which are very difficult to modify without training and practise (in my experience anyway). I’m curious if anyone has actually managed to do this successfully outside of deliberate stylistic variations.

So, try surprise people you interact with pointing out what they sound like online, the result may be anything from ambivalence and dull surprise to genuine confusion and shock, but that’s half the fun of it isn’t it?

Until Next Time, folks.
–Not this angry in real life.

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