Interactivity on the Internet: Who Are You Talking to?
"But despite the universality of URLs, we often forget that they're not just a handy way to address network resources. They're also valuable communication tools."
- Jesse James Garrett, author of The Elements of User Experience
Communication is an integral part of human life. We perform it every day through a variety of media; we talk, we listen, we gesture, we watch, and we respond, even in silence. In this electronic age, the computer, and subsequently the internet, is counted as a major agency for carrying out this act of communication. Emails, live chats, three-dimensional virtual worlds, blogs, social networking services, etc. are now as valid a tool of human interaction as much as face-to-face conversations are. But how effective is this tool when all you have is a collage of text and images? What are the problems, if any, inherent in such a method of communication? In this paper, I intend to explore interactivity as it occurs on the internet, and discuss the pros and cons it is associated with.
The most traditional form of communication that we are familiar with is the one involving a face-to-face interaction, which entails the exchange of ideas produced by the mind, as well as "a meeting of embodied creatures who relate to one another through the explicitness of words, gestures, and touches and the implicitness of physical appearances and postures" (Ford 337). There are, therefore, two factors involved in this form of interplay: that of the mind, and that of the body. When you're communicating on an online platform, the first is present by default. It is the presence of the second part, the bodily part, which is a bit more complex to understand.
To claim that the human body is entirely absent in virtual experiences would be fallacy. In virtual communities, the members act like they met in a physical space, and assume that this space is inhabited by real bodies (Stone 18). These bodies express themselves using a) text, and b) images. Textual expression includes not only phrases and sentences, but also smileys and emoticons. Images cover profile pictures, icons (also called 'avatars'), and pictorial memes.
When a person communicates through traditional channels, he may speak or he may use body language. Words convey meaning not only in themselves, but with the help of voice modulation, too. At times, words do not even have to be there; a smile, a frown, a simple shake of the head, or a vigorous nod is enough to make it clear what the message he intends to send across. Both mechanisms of expression are present in the communication that takes place in the online world. Here, voice modulation is replaced by various textual tools:
a) Capitalisation: A user may type his words in capslock mode to signify extremes of emotion, such as anger and excitement. For example, a curious "What were you thinking?" as opposed to a shocked "WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?"
b) Emoticons: Emoticons are used for signifying bodily gestures using punctuations and letters. For example, a smile as represented by a combination of a colon, a dash and the end of a parenthesis.
: - )
It should be noted that this combination of punctuations is not the only one that can signify a smile. A user can simply choose to use "=)" or "XD", yet the meaning is usually easily comprehended by others who follow a different style.
c) Action Words: A user may also put an action word between asterisks to signify bodily gestures. For example, instead of an icon, he may write:
I am happy to hear the good news. *smiles*
d) Abbreviations: There are standard abbreviations which are used to denote actions. For example, when a user types in an "LOL" (laughing out loud), it is enough to let the other user know that he finds something funny.
Images contribute towards this mode of communication by representing body language. Communicative images used on the internet are of two categories - animated and non-animated. The most common form in which such images exist is icons which are used in the place of profile pictures in internet forums.
The figure above is an example of an icon being used to express an opinion. Such an icon may be sufficient for communicating the idea of an emotion - sadness - without the addition of textual elaboration.
In addition to icons, three-dimensional avatars used in virtual worlds like Second Life and the now defunct LambdaMOO are examples of graphic representations of human bodies. They are more fluid in the sense that they are built to simulate the entirety of the human body. With a three-dimensional avatar, what a user gets is not just the expression of one emotion at the right moment, but the ability to move around a virtual world using the digital likeness. They are, thus, more advanced forms of graphic representations than icons.
It is apparent that, even in online interaction, the same ingredients which make up the traditional one can be found. Instead of embodied signs, what we get are textual and graphic ones, which nevertheless manage to bear the implied meaning. Both processes use semiotics, and both involve human interlocutors. More importantly, they establish communication between two or more parties. Yet, the virtual agency has been seen as one that allows more freedom to a person when it comes to flexibility in the area of interaction:
The Internet enhances the potential for its users to interact with each other, transcending the time-space barrier on an unprecedented scale because it is capable of linking individuals into an instantaneous electronic global communications network. As such, geographic boundaries (e.g., local, national, and international) hardly matter for the participants in an online group to aggregate in a certain place in cyberspace (Lee 390).
It is such a freedom that lures users towards online sites and forums. A user does not have to spend a large sum of money to talk to somebody on the other side of the world. All he has to do is to sit in front of the computer, log on, and then converse and interact as much as his internet fee and bandwidth would allow. Issues of race, gender and sexuality are often shunted aside when the user exists, not in the body he lives with, but the self he constructs for himself (Ford 345). This reconstructed self may even succeed at helping the user achieve the ideal which he otherwise finds difficult to present to the world (Schau and Gilly 394).
However, even the mode of online communication is not immune to problematic issues. Although it provides a degree of transcendence, there are other aspects of it which complicate the whole idea of a perfect mode of human communication it is often touted to furnish. Ford looks at how the human individual dissolves to a less distinct form, while Lee identifies the tendency of online forum members to abuse freedom of self-expression.
In "Impacting Persons through Shifts from Face-to-face to Computer Interactions" (1999), Ford points out the differences between the kind of interaction that humans have in their physical environments, and the one which are acted out in CME (computer-mediated environments). The latter mirrors the former, but only just. Ford observes:
Gestures and postures start to lose important qualities as these identifying markers become more uniform. For example, in physical space, each handshake is unconsciously different. A handshake has varied feelings: size of hands, pressure exerted by each hand, depth of grasp, warmth of hand, length of handshake, extent of motion of hands...Most of the elements plays into the experience of these are undertaken with little thought, but often they express a statement to another individual. Yet in a CME, handshaking interactions tend to be contrived in both their differences and uniformity. There is a lack of the actual physical contact that may gratify something of an animal desire for the warmth and intimacy of touch. Also there is the loss of a certain vulnerability created through the action of handshaking. (342)
Ford also gives the examples of users wanting to use public figures and media icons as their avatars, but choosing such "ready-made" figures only succeeds at decreasing the "importance and uniqueness of who [they are]" (342). Uniformity, therefore, is easily achieved, while individuality is as easily lost. The physical identity, although presumed as less perfect, is negated by the creation of a substitute which is an amalgam of pre-existing models, so that what a user is connecting with is less with the former, and more with that pastiche of idealized parts.
While Ford explores the troublesome nature of establishing a unique self in CMEs, Lee looks at the use and abuse of online selves in internet forums. As already discussed, communication in online communities provides users a lot of independence in discussing issues they might not be able to in their real self. In an online forum, what a user looks like in the flesh will not influence how he presents himself there as long as his real identity is not revealed in any way. As such, the user has the liberty to articulate his opinions without restraint, whether the topic of discussion is politics, religion, science or sex. Such an amount of independence may also easily regress to abandonment, leading to hostility between dissenting users.
Hostility on the internet is a phenomenon that occurs quite frequently. While social etiquettes and ethics serve to check a person's behavior, the issue of liability which that person carries with him might not loom as large while he is engaged as a user on an online community. One of the most common caveats to be found in many internet communities and forums is the following words: Behind every computer screen, there is a human being. Think before you type. It is taken for granted that there is indeed a human being sitting in front of a computer, very much alive, and using specific commands which help him navigate the online world and leave his marks on it. And yet, the fundamental knowledge of this person's existence is not safe from being ignored, and in some cases, completely bypassed.
In his essay "Behavioral Strategies for Dealing with Flaming in Online Forums" (2005), Hangwoo Lee defines the term "flaming" as "a hostile expression of strong emotions such as swearing, insults and name-calling ... one of the most widely recognized phenomena of online interaction". As such, it is safe to assume that behavior in online communities - or, CMC (computer-mediated communication) - is not altogether free of hostility and abuse. Debates and disagreements often quickly lead to open rudeness and vulgarity. Lee argues:
This low social presence of CMC results in de-individuation, in which feelings of embarrassment, guilt, empathy, and fears of retribution and rejection are generally reduced; while anti-normative, unrestrained, and uninhibited behavior become more salient (387).
The lower the answerability factor, the higher the propensity to act as a person wishes. Here is where Lee's study ties with Ford's: both arguments point towards the low social presence that is characteristic of computer-mediated interaction, wherein the word "social" lays stress on the interplay between the physical selves of users. If it is a medium that makes it possible to engage in social activities otherwise forbidden or inaccessible, it is also one that calls for intense regulations and frequent interventions by the moderators who manage the sites.
So far, we have discussed the drawbacks of the kind of interaction afforded by CMCs. Although it takes place with the effective use of text and graphic presentation of body languages, it cannot retain the innate physicality that face-to-face interaction possesses. While it may permit a person to put on identities which are far beyond the real one they live with, it can also take away the sense of being an individual which the later self delivers. While it gives a free passport to users to advertise their opinions and beliefs on a more public forum, it can set them loose from the social codes which regulate their real life, so that the interaction is no longer civil, but chaotic and degenerative.
However, to discount the value of the provisions given by online communities and media altogether would still be an error. Virtual interaction may lack actual physical contact, but it is also known to be powerfully suggestive of that contact. There is the case of the virtual rape that took place in the virtual community, LambdaMOO, where a user by the name of Mr. Bungle seized the accounts of a group of members and forced them to perform sexual acts in living room. While the acts were performed by the avatars, and all the users of those avatars lost in that case was control over their online self, they felt as victims of rape, and one of the members even had "posttraumatic tears ...streaming down her face" as she later discussed the topic (Dibbell 6). The virtual world Second Life had to create a separate island by the name of Zindra in 2009 for adult activities for legal adult, mainly because the main community was becoming inundated with strip bars and fetish clubs.
Interactivity in computer-mediated environments, while it falls into the danger of being de-individualized, is also a means of exercising self-expression where it wouldn't be possible to do otherwise. Consumerism in real life involves capital, but online users "literally associate themselves with any brand by digital appropriation and manipulation of digital symbols" (Schau and Gilly 400). Certain real life constraints can be crossed with the use of more easy-to-access online provisions.
While flame wars are bound to occur, the fact remains that are still measures which can be adopted to manage the users involved, such as banning them permanently, and to create rules and laws which can be used to prevent any further flaming. In the same essay, Lee discusses that online groups tend to form strategies to deal with such issues, for instance, apologizing, mediating, joking, and ritualizing (401).
As fraught with complications that online communication is, its useful attributes cannot be ignored. While there is a section that abuses it, there is also the mass of users who find it a way of self-expression otherwise not possible. It is not absolutely transcendental, but it does allow escapade from the more rigid restrictions of real life.