Sunday, October 9, 2011

The pitfalls of online communication

by: Joelle Charbonneau

The internet is a cool thing. With a click of the button and a little maneuvering of a mouse we can travel the blogosphere, Facebook, twitter, send pictures to our friend and family and order everything from bacon scented candles to push-up bras without getting out of our holey pajamas or brushing out teeth. Nifty, right? Never before have we been so connected. And yet I would offer the hypothesis that never before have we been so disconnected.

Why?

In all the convenience of tweets, e-mails and blog comments, we’ve forgotten how to communicate. Sure we relate information but I’m not talking about facts and figures. I’m talking about true communication. With only a computer screen sitting on the table in front of you, it is easy to forget that there are people – REAL people – sitting on the other side of the screen reading what you type. People with real lives and real feelings who might interpret the tone of your words in the wrong way. It is easy to pretend that the people reading your comments understand where you’re coming front. Heck, they should know when you are joking, right?

Wrong.

Because those people can’t see you. They can’t see your tired eyes or the laughter in your voice. Those are tried and true methods of communication that don’t exist online. People online can only see your words. And trust me when I say that those words matter. Words have a tone to them. Word choice means everything in conveying the correct tone. In face to face conversations, people use tone of voice, posture and facial expressions to convey the meaning behind their words. And I would say that when engaged in a face to face conversation, most people take more time and care with their word choices. (Not all people, because we all have those friends or relatives who never think before they speak – you know who they are!)

The internet makes it easy to brush people and their opinions off. The lack of human contact makes it easy to forget that there are more than avatars sitting behind that computer screen. And on a bad day, or even a good one, it is easy to forget to choose words carefully when making a point.

As writers we know that words matter. We sit behind our keyboards and ponder what our characters will say, how they will say it and how their words will impact the reader. We know that word choice is key. Changing a word in a sentence can alter whether a character is mildly annoyed or whether he is going to grab a baseball bat and start wailing away. We choose our words carefully because to do anything less would be to belittle our work.

Word choice changes the tone of your message and tone matters.

No matter what you want to believe – tone really does matter.

And on the internet it matters even more because we don’t have facial and physical cues to help put words in context. Every day I am struck by the things I see on Facebook, twitter and on blogs and wonder – why would anyone post that? Don’t they know how that comes across? I’ve hidden or unfriended people on Facebook that I know and like in real life because their posts lack the care and attention that they take when speaking to people in face to face conversation. I want to keep liking them, so I opt to not read their posts. And don’t get me started on the people who are only on social media for self-promotion. That’s another big ball of wax that I don’t even want to start rolling downhill. But anyone who has seen the type of posts I am talking about will know that the tone of them can grate.

Don’t by any stretch think this is me saying that I always choose the right words. Trust me when I say I have my good and bad days just like everyone else. I know I don’t always get it right. But I do understand that what I say online matters and how I say it – well, I would contend that it matters more. Think of it this way - you might be brilliant. You might know how to secure world peace for centuries to come. You’re awesome. Still, no matter how brilliant your ideas and how sound your facts, if your word choice and the tone you use are off-putting, well, no one will care. So much for world peace.

This week has been an interesting one in the world of blogging writers. If you’ve followed the discourse on Chuck Wendig’s blogpost - http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2011/10/05/the-publishing-cart-before-the-storytelling-horse/ - you’ll know he talked about tone. Unfortunately, I think his point was almost lost in the haze of debate about self-publishing and traditional publishing. Which is a shame because his point about tone was more than valid. It should serve as a call to all authors online who are pursuing publication in any manner they see fit. It should also serve as a reminder to anyone – writer or not – that while it feels as if you are alone while typing those words on Facebook, an e-mail or anywhere online – you aren’t. And if you want people to listen to your message, whatever it might be, choose your words with care. Because—hell—I want world peace!

1 comment:

Joanne Elliott said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. Getting someone's tone in online communication is hard to do. But as a writer I enjoy communicating via the written word and made myself aware that there are others out there who would try to get my meaning. When I first began talking to people online back in 1998 I constantly reminded myself that real people were on the receiving end of my posts, etc. I think choosing our words carefully is the best advice in online or face to face communication. Didn't our mothers or someone always say, "Think before you speak or you could end up with foot-in-mouth disease."