Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Online Tone... huh?

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I've been online a long time. I've seen a lot of comments about the way people communicate online, and I've seen a lot of left-field accusations about perceived "tone". Generally, comments made about "tone" are done in the negative, i.e. "I didn't like the tone of your post, you give the impression of arrogance". I know you've seen that too - we've all seen it. Sometimes it's a pretty accurate description, other times it couldn't be more wrong.

Here's the real problem with this sort of thing. One, unless you know the person (and I mean really know them, not just know who they are, online - and yes - there is a HUGE difference) perceptions of their "tone" may be entirely dead wrong. The other part of the problem is, the lack of facial expression, the lack of REAL tone (voice) the lack of body language, and the lack of communication that takes place in face to face discussion. Online, text-only communication leaves out this very important element of meaningful discussion, and can (in many ways) often lead to unfortunate miscommunication.

Let's say you read a post about abortion. The writer of the post is someone who, as an unsaved young woman, had an abortion. You don't know that because you don't know her or her history. She writes with great conviction and great passion, and struggled through much of what she has written with tears streaming down her face and a lump in her throat. Her only agenda and motivation for writing such a painful and personal piece, is to reach out to other young women who have gone through the same nightmare but she writes without revealing that she has personally experienced it herself. Then, someone comes along and accuses her of being judgemental, careless, and unkind toward those who have experienced this. They accuse her of this based partly on their wrong perception of her "tone", and partly because they don't know her at all - or - know only what others have told them about her (which may or may not be true). (This is actually a real example that I watched unfold a few years ago on a Christian discussion forum. To say it was a horrific mess is to put it lightly, and it all came about as a result of a misunderstanding of "tone").

I've had this sort of thing happen to me as well. I've written about a topic that was so incredibly heavy on my heart, and with tears streaming down my own face, only to have someone comment or email and let me have an earful of their venom. It's a rather unpleasant scenario. Especially when you're so preoccupied with doing a good job with the post that you never consider for a moment that someone will not "get" it. In some cases it's because you didn't write in a sort of lawyer-mode, anticipating the potential arguments or weak points - and in other cases it could very well be that someone just had a bad hair day and took your words the wrong way. Either way, because it's online and not face to face, the missing element is the personal element.

Its interesting to note how expressive folks can be face to face and how much of that you miss completely, when all you see are words on a screen. I know many people that like me, use their hands almost constantly when they speak. Someone once told me that this is an artistic expression - and I find it curious that it is generally the more artsy, creative people that I know, that are the kinds that often speak with their hands. Folks also use a variety of facial expressions and body language when they speak, that is guaranteed to be missed in such a medium as blogging or web authoring. Sadly, tone of voice is missed as well, and that can often be the critical element in understanding someone's point, passion or focus.

I thought about all of this recently as I watched my friend James do his Dividing Line show, on video. It's much different than watching him face the camera and make his points, or watching him present his side of a debate. Far more relaxed and casual in that video, you can watch his facial expressions as he listens to audio clips he's about to comment on and you can practically watch the wheels of thought turning as he prepares to address a point being made. Hand gestures, smiles, expressions of being perplexed, dismayed, disappointed, humored, frustrated and more. If you don't know James, and don't know that he always smiles when he says certain things, or is always dead serious when says certain other things, you might miss some of that by just reading his words in a book, or on a screen. While James is an excellent writer, the personal element of seeing someone's face as they speak (as you can in his 250+ youtube videos!) is still missing from his written work.

This is the element that is so glaringly absent from online communication in general. Of course some folks try to blend it in by using :-) or "lol" but it's really not the same thing. There is no way you can know (unless I tell you) that while writing that last line, my facial expression was similar to Spock in Star Trek, when he'd quizzically raise one eyebrow. (Although, I don't have the gift of One Eyebrow Raising - my brother is really good at it, but I cannot do it).

I recall reading Kim Shay's very next blog post, after the first time I met her face to face three years ago (was it really that long ago??) After having spent hours chatting away about every topic you can come up with, I had a much better understanding of her personality than I ever had just by reading her blog. While it obvious just by reading her blog that we "clicked" in many ways, I felt like I understood her so much better after getting to know her outside of Bloggy Land. Reading that next post I remembered her facial expressions when she said serious or funny things, and it made a very noticable difference for me in the way I read her words.

I'm not so sure there is any kind of certain work-around on this, unless maybe it's youtube and video blogging. Now I know that everyone isn't about to start doing that, but I do think it would often be far more helpful to actually see a person's face and to hear the real tone of voice they use, when someone is taking on a hugely important topic. Most bloggers would never do this partly because expressing themselves in writing is their expression of choice (and some do it VERY well) and partly because some of them prefer to express in jammies and uncombed/unstyled hair, that would have to be remedied before going in front of a camera.

I recently changed the batteries in my digital camera to really great ones, and decided to play around with the video settings to see how much better it worked. I made a short video and watched my own facial expressions as I spoke about video blogging, and just laughed at how different I sound, than how I know I'm read - or often accused of coming across as mean, or uncaring. People that know me, know how I really am, while people that do not, might not really "get" me simply by reading my words on a screen.

Since not everyone is going to be willing to begin videoblogging, I think it's always a good reminder to try harder all the time to be more accurate in writing, since we're eliminating so many of the aspects of standard communication. We have to make up for that in mere words, and it really is an art form. With the increase in online communications through blogs, social networking sites, chats and more, I think it's more important that ever to stress good written communication skills. Maybe writing with the anticipation in the back of your mind that some might disagree with your point or not quite understand it at first, is not such a bad idea. Maybe writing with the understanding that face to face, "silent" communication is missing and you need to make up for that with a good choice of words, would be helpful. No matter how you approach your own writing online, it's a benefit to the reader if you do approach it with the idea that it's really easy to be misunderstood in this medium.

Now here's a fun thing. Do you really know what my tone is like? Huh, huh, DO YA, HUH? (Just kidding) Well, now that you've read this post and have one impression of my tone, click to play the video below, for the youtube PS to this post. Maybe you really do know what my tone is like, and maybe you don't? I thought it would be fun to produce a short videoblog spot, so that you can actually see/hear me. It's quite probable that I will not come across exactly the same way you assumed I would - and that only proves my point. Videoblogging is definitely not my thing, so please forgive the amature that tries very hard to put a cork in the smart alec side, and balance that all out with grace. Sometimes I do okay with that balancing act, and other days I blow it in huge ways. By His grace, I'll keep balancing.

I do hope you're encouraged & challenged by this to be a lot more mindful of how your words are coming across to whoever happens along your blog.

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