Clarifying intent, emotion, wishes and meaning is a rather tricky and cumbersome process that we all navigate each day. Online in the digital world this is even more challenging, if not sometimes impossible. The pre-digital method of exchanging information in a social context would have been face-to-face. Such a method provides the full gamut of verbal and non-verbal dialogue between two or more parties. Importantly, it also provides a channel for the exchange of unconscious cues between people, which researchers are increasingly finding to be of critical importance during communication.
So, now replace the the face-to-face interaction with email, texting, instant messaging, video chat, and other forms of digital communication and you have a new playground for researchers in cognitive and social sciences. The intriguing question for researchers, and all of us for that matter, is: how do we ensure our meaning, motivations and intent are expressed clearly through digital communications?
There are some partial answers over at Anthropology in Practice, which looks at how users of digital media express emotion, resolve ambiguity and communicate cross-culturally.
[div class=attrib]Anthropology in Practice:[end-div]
The ability to interpret social data is rooted in our theory of mind—our capacity to attribute mental states (beliefs, intents, desires, knowledge, etc.) to the self and to others. This cognitive development reflects some understanding of how other individuals relate to the world, allowing for the prediction of behaviors.1 As social beings we require consistent and frequent confirmation of our social placement. This confirmation is vital to the preservation of our networks—we need to be able to gauge the state of our relationships with others.
Research has shown that children whose capacity to mentalize is diminished find other ways to successfully interpret nonverbal social and visual cues 2-6, suggesting that the capacity to mentalize is necessary to social life. Digitally-mediated communication, such as text messaging and instant messaging, does not readily permit social biofeedback. However cyber communicators still find ways of conveying beliefs, desires, intent, deceit, and knowledge online, which may reflect an effort to preserve the capacity to mentalize in digital media.
The Challenges of Digitally-Mediated Communication
In its most basic form DMC is text-based, although the growth of video conferencing technology indicates DMC is still evolving. One of the biggest criticisms of DMC has been the lack of nonverbal cues which are an important indicator to the speaker’s meaning, particularly when the message is ambiguous.
Email communicators are all too familiar with this issue. After all, in speech the same statement can have multiple meanings depending on tone, expression, emphasis, inflection, and gesture. Speech conveys not only what is said, but how it is said—and consequently, reveals a bit of the speaker’s mind to interested parties. In a plain-text environment like email only the typist knows whether a statement should be read with sarcasm.
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[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Wikipedia / Creative Commons.[end-div]