Category Archives: IM

How Flame Wars Get Started

Please, don’t flame me! 😉

Though there is a specific context for this post, I prefer not talking about it. For once, context seems to matter less! 😉

Flame wars (FWs) are those personal confrontations which happen so frequently online. FWs are seen as the bane of the online world. I don’t find them particularly appealing myself. Some FWs have been at the centre of the collapse of some online communities. FWs may even be related to some people’s fears of communicating online (or offline!).

There’s a wealth of literature on FWs. This post is mainly based on my experience on (literally hundreds of) mailing-lists, forums, discussion boards, and blogs since 1993. I did read some of the research on FWs but this post is more about my own thinking.

Though it will probably sound more general than it should be, it’s based on something similar to an ethnography of online communication. As such, I don’t think so much on direct causalities but on different patterns, linking FWs with other dimensions of the culture of online groups.

Let’s go.

Ostensibly, FWs come from breakdowns in communication. Moments in which communication ceases to work properly. Note that the notion that communication is a direct transmission of a signal is a very schematic model and that I tend to prefer models which take into account diverse goals of diverse participants as well as inter-subjectivity. Authors that have influenced my thinking about those models include Gadamer, Hymes, Jakobson, Goffman, Sperber, and Molino. (Luckily, all of these authors are easy to find by their last names! Unfortunately, all of these names refer to male speakers of European languages…)

Communication breakdowns (CBs) happen in a variety of contexts and seem to be related to a large variety of factors. Differences in communication norms are quite common, even in contexts which seem to be fairly homogeneous in terms of “communities of communication” (or “speech communities”). According to some, there are speech communities in which gender differences imply such discrepancies in communication norms, causing the “You Just Don’t Understand!” principle. Quite often, a communication event will break down when the goals and expectations of different participants clash on the very possibility of communicating (“We just can’t be having this conversation!”). In my experience, rarely does CB happen when people simply disagree on a specific topic. There are many online groups in which it is quite common to take disagreement “the wrong way,” and get angry because of what appears to be much of a challenge. Though such a perspective on disagreement may contribute to communication breakdowns, my observation is that disagreement alone doesn’t cause CB. Though the term “misunderstanding” («malentendu», «quiproquo») may seem to apply to any CB, it could also be used more specifically to refer to the (very frequent) cases in which discrepancies in the way specific utterances are understood. The whole “this is not what I meant by my use of the word ‘banana’ in this post on electrical conductivity!” and other (funny to the outsider) examples of miscommunication.

In my experience, CBs are more the norm than the exception, in many contexts. Especially in verbal-intensive contexts like discussions among colleagues or fans of different teams. Quite clearly to me, online communication is also verbal-intensive and a talkative (garrulous?) guy like me takes to online communication like a fish to water.

Come to think of it, it’s really an extraordinary event (literally!) when two people fully understand each other, in a conversation. I mean, when each of them really groks what the other is saying. On average, people probably get compatible understandings of the communication content, but the kind of “merging of horizons” characterising true inter-subjectivity is quite uncommon, I think. Notice that I’m not talking about people agreeing with each other. As you probably notice, people often misunderstand each other more when they strive to make sure that they agree on everything. In fact, such a “conflict avoidance” attitude toward communication is quite common in certain speech communities while it’s ridiculed by members of other speech communities (some people probably can think of examples… :-D). Some communication scientists probably disagree with me on this matter (especially if they apply a strict Shannon-Weaver view of communication or if they hold McLuhan’s view too dearly). But, in the speech communities to which I belong most directly, disagreement is highly valued. 😉

If miscommunication is so common, it’s difficult to think of CB as the “root cause” of FWs. As so many people have been saying, since the explosion in online communication in the early 1990s, written language can be especially inefficient at transmitting “tone” and other important features of a person’s communicative intention. Online communication is mostly written but attempts to fulfill some of the same goals as oral communication. Instant Messaging (IM) and other systems of synchronous, typed communication constitute an excellent set of examples for the oral-like character of online communication. They also constitute a domain in which communication norms may differ greatly. Usually based on comparative age (most IMers are relatively young, which may cause a “generation gap”) and not, as far as I know, based on gender (i.e., younger women and younger men seem to hold fairly similar norms of communication in IM contexts). More interesting to me than the tired tirade about the “poor quality” of IM language is the fact that IMers appear quite efficient at transmitting more than just information through a rather limited medium.

So, now, how do FWs get started? Is it just that older people don’t know how to communicate efficiently? Don’t younger people have FWs? Aren’t FWs caused by (other) people’s inability to understand simple concepts? 😉

To me, FWs happen mostly in difficulties in recuperating from CBs. When a CB happens in face-to-face communication, there are well-known (and somewhat efficient) methods of preventing an outright confrontation. In some speech communities, much of those methods centre on “saving face.” At least, if we are to agree with Brown and Levinson. Whatever the method, preventing confrontation is often easy enough a task that we don’t even notice it. Even in offline written communication, many speech communities have well-established norms (including genre-specific textual structures) which make confrontation-avoidance an easier task than it can be online. To me, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that part of the issue with FWs is that specific strategies to defuse conflict are not shared very widely. Some would probably say that this lack of standardisation came with the democratisation of writing (in Euro-America, a larger proportion of the population writes regularly than was the case in the era of scribes). Not sure about that. Given the insistence of some to maintain online the rules of “Ă©tiquette” which were deemed appropriate for epistolary writing in the tradition they know best, I simply assume that there are people who think online writing had a negative impact when people forgot the “absolutely minimal” rules of Ă©tiquette.

What happens online is quite complex, in my humble opinion. Part of the failure to recover from CB may relate to the negotiation of identity. Without going so much into labeling theory, there’s something to be said about the importance of the perception by others in the construction of an online persona. Since online communication is often set in the context of relatively amorphous social networks, negotiation of identity is particularly important in those cases. Typical of Durkheimian anomie, many online networks refrain from giving specific roles to most of the individual members of the network (although some individuals may have institutionalised roles in some networks). One might even say that the raison d’ĂȘtre for many an online community is in fact this identity negotiation. There might be no direct relationship between an online persona and social identity in (offline) daily life, but the freedom of negotiating one’s identity is part of the allure of several online groups, especially those targeted towards younger people.

In a context of constant identity negotiation, face-saving (and recovering from face threatening acts) may seem scary, especially when relative anonymity isn’t preserved. To those who “live online” (“netizens”) losing face in online communication can be very detrimental indeed. “Netizens” do hide behind nicknames and avatars but when these are linked to a netizen’s primary online identity, the stakes of face management are quite high. Given the association between online communication and speech communities which give prominence to face (and even prestige) as well as the notion of communication as information transmission, it is unsurprising to see such a pattern.

In my personal experience as a netizen, FWs are quite easy to avoid when everyone remains relatively detached from the communication event. The norms with which I tend to live (online or offline) have a lot to do with a strategy of “not taking things too personal.” Sure, I can get hurt on occasion, especially when I think I hurt someone else. But, on average, I assume that the reasons people get angry has little to do with my sense of self. Not that I have no responsibility in CBs and other FW-related events. But I sincerely believe (and would be somewhat unwilling to be proven wrong) that taking something as a personal attack is the most efficient method to getting involved in a FW. As I want to avoid FWs as much as possible, my strategy can be measured for efficiency. No idea what the usual average is for most people but given the very large number of online discussions in which I have participated in the last fourteen years, I feel that I have been involved in relatively few FWs. Maybe I’m just lucky. Maybe I’m just oblivious to the FWs I cause. Maybe I’m just naĂŻve. But I live happily, online and offline.

Advertisements

Apple Video Conference Phone???

I’m probably reading way too much into this. So I’m just speculating on rumours. But the implications could be huge. Apple’s main site currently has a teaser “The First 30 Years Were Just the Beginning,” in preparation for MacWorld San Francisco. What if the big announcement on Tuesday was more than a mere iPod-based phone. What if this were about a true camera phone, one which could be used for video-enabled chat?Two ideas from PiperJaffray’s Gene Munster, republished by Apple rumour site AppleInsider:AppleInsider | Apple seen launching new iPod, iTV and iPhone at Macworld

6. iSight camera, 4GB or 8GB storage on the iPhone (7 out of 10). Recent rumors point to an initial release of two iPhone models: a 4GB version for $249 and an 8GB model for $449. Both models are rumored to feature two separate batteries in the handset, one for the phone and one for the music player. Also, Apple has successfully branded the iSight cameras on the MacBook and MacBook Pro portables and it is likely that they will eventually extend the brand to the iPhone line. With music, photos, and video from iTunes, the iPhone will be a media-rich device and an iSight camera would add to the eco-system of media/communications on the device.

10. iPhone to feature ‘iChat Mobile’ video and instant messaging (2 out of 10). Again, we believe that the iPhone will be a media-centric communications device and messaging features would work nicely with such an ecosystem. While it is unlikely that the first iPhone will feature video conferencing, this is certainly a feature the company could add to future models, including a possible smartphone model.

The second part is, according to Munster, very unlikely. But how cool would it be?Quite cool indeed. Revolutionary, almost. Just think about the impact picture phones, coupled with Flickr and YouTube, has had on the world in the recent past. The move toward citizen journalism, user-created content, the YouYear…And the technology is largely there. Apart from ubiquitous WiFi to make it practical, of course, but that’s almost a detail for the world in which Apple visionaries tend to live. As for battery life and other technical issues, it shouldn’t be so much of a matter if the rumoured specs for the phone (with two batteries) are to be believed.What is more likely to prevent Apple from coming out with such a device is the fact that Apple has strong ties with “content companies,” especially in movies and music. Surely, these people would have a hard time getting past the idea that these are mostly meant to be bootlegging tools (as if bootlegging was the main intention of most people, at this point). So, even if Apple does come out with a mobile iChat AV on Tuesday, it surely will be somehow crippled so that people can’t use it during shows by commercially established artists (independent artists and “up and coming” artists already know the value of fan recordings and would find ways to promote them). In the end, even artists might benefit as people would use the devices to do cool video mashups (using Apple’s iMovie and other iLife apps, of course) but, in the meantime, Apple will still play it cozy for “content companies” and media conglomerates.Ah, well…


Web 2.1 or Internet 7.0?

Speaking of Web technologies getting together to create tomorrow’s Web. It’s all about puzzles.

It’s really not that hard to visualize the completed picture of a Web 2.1 puzzle merging most of the advantages from the main Web 2.0 players: Facebook meets YouTube, Wikipedia meets WordPress, PodShow meets Digg, Flickr meets SecondLife… Smaller players like Moodle and GarageBand are likely to have a huge impact in the long run, but the first steps have more to do with the biggest pieces of the puzzle.

In fact, if I were to take a bet on the near future of the user-driven Web, I’d say Google is the one institution with most of the important pieces of the puzzle. Google owns YouTube, JotSpot, MeasureMap, Writely, SketchUp, Blogger, etc. They have also developed important services and features like Gmail and Google Maps. In many ways, their management seems clueful enough. Their “do no evil” stance has helped them maintain much of the goodwill toward them on the part of geeks. They understand the value of the Web. And they have a fair amount of money on hand.

Because of all of this, Google is, IMHO, the most likely group to solve the puzzle of redesigning the Web. To pull it off, though, they might need to get their act together in terms of organizing their different services and features.

On the other hand, there’s an off-Web puzzle that might be more important. Internet 7.0 needs not be Web 3.0 and the Web may become less important in terms of digital life. Though I don’t own a cell phone myself, a lot of people are surely betting on cell phones for the future of digital life. AFAIK, there are more cell phone users than Internet users in the world and cell phones generate quite a bit of revenue to a lot of people. The connection between cell phones and the Net goes beyond moblogging, VoIP, IM, and music downloads. It’s not hard to envision a setup combining the advantages of a smartphone (Ă  la TrĂ©o or Blackberry) with those of a media device like the Apple iPod, Creative Zen, or Microsoft Zune. Sure, there’s the matter of the form factor difference between smartphones and portable media players. But the device could easily have two parts. The important thing here is not to have a single device doing everything but having a way to integrate all of these features together, without the use of a laptop or desktop computer.

There are other pieces to that second puzzle: MVNOs, voice navigation, flash memory, portable games, Linux, P2P, mesh networks, media outlets, DRM-freedom, etc. And it’s difficult to tell who has the most of those pieces. Sony would be a good bet but they have messed up on too many occasions recently to be trusted with such a thing as a digital life vision. Apple fans like myself would hope that the computer company has a good chance at shaking things up with its rumored phone, but it’s hard to tell if they are willing to listen to consumers instead of WIPO member corporations.

It’s also difficult to predict which scenario is likely to happen first, if both scenarios will merge, if we will instead see a Web 2.0 burst, etc.

Puzzling.


Normative Language and Spontaneity

In an interview (in French) with Bruno Guglielminetti (site not yet updated with the interview), copy-editor François Hubert discussed the “quality” of the French language on blogs (by which he means the grammatical, typographical, and spelling correctness of blog posts in French).

This concept of language quality, as described by Hubert and many others, is an important component of French language ideology. While speakers of other languages often complain about the poor quality of other speakers’ speech (and, especially, writing), normative language seems to be a more important part of the language ideology for the French language than, say, the language ideology for the English language.

The insistence on normative language, on the part of French-speakers, seems to have very important effects on both non-native speakers of French and native speakers of French. For instance, many non-native speakers of French will refrain from using the language with native speakers because they fear the native speakers will judge them negatively. While this does happen with learners of other languages, it seems especially debilitating for people trying to use French across language communities. In fact, insistence by Hubert and others on the “quality” of written French might be one of the motivating factors for my blogging mostly in English.

Of course, Hubert has the right to his opinions on the matter and his preference for normative language could be interpreted as a part of his job as a copy-editor (my wife is also a copy-editor…). Yet, even those who work on prescriptive grammar in other languages may be more open to non-normative language. For instance, comments by the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style in their Questions and Answers monthly column often display a much more tolerant attitude to non-normative language than many French-speakers with minimal interest in language issues.

There’s a strong tendency in language sciences (my wife and I are both in the field) to adopt a much more neutral view of language prescription. Some language scientists may talk in private about their preference for «un bon français» (“a good French,” as close to the standard register as possible) but the general agreement is that any language variety is as good as any other in linguistic terms.

In this specific interview, Hubert was mostly discussing blog entries and their spontaneity. Pinpointing a known phenomenon linking mistakes with online communication (“What? There’s a ‘Preview’ button?”), Hubert sets up a model opposing spontaneity to quality.  Hubert himself not only sends his blog entries in a word processor to check for typographical mistakes (a spell-checking browser makes this much easier to do) but he even prints out some of his entries before posting them. Thankfully his advice to bloggers is less extreme as it centres on rereading posts before submission and going back to older posts in order to revise them for posterity’s sake.

None of this is inappropriate advice, but it leads us to think about the blurring line between oral and written communication. Hubert’s argument is that, if we care about communication so much, we should revise our texts as they might remain available for a long time. Bloggers often take another approach to revision: readers are like an open-source community of copy-editors. Blogs with active readership communities often attract comments on language issues. Simple typographical mistakes are usually spotted by some astute reader quite early on and deeper issues are sometimes solved by the community. “Given enough eyeballs, all typos are shallow.” This is especially true if the author of the entry is perceived as somewhat condescending to her or his readers. Nothing will motivate someone to write a comment than showing the mistakes the author has made!

This all has to do with not only spontaneity but the “release early, release often.” Bloggers do revisit older entries, if need be. Not necessarily by editing the original entry but by posting a follow up. Blog Ă©tiquette seems to have it that entries should be left untouched as much as possible. Otherwise, comments on those entries cease to make sense. And when bloggers are trying to get to publishing quality, they might in fact use the power of the community as an editing team. As such, a blog entry is like a recorded conversation. You don’t change the conversation but you can use it to go further. In such a context, normative language makes fairly little sense. As long as you can post quickly and the gist of your ideas can be understood well-enough to enable readers to ask questions, heavy revision of every single entry is contrary to the very principle of blogging.

IMHO, such emphasis on revision and “language quality” is a reason why so many people have difficulty with writing. Nothing prevents someone from writing more abruptly than thinking about peculiarities of written language. Except if those peculiarities are what this person is writing about, of course!

One thing that few people seem to discuss extensively is the fact that younger people are in fact writing inordinate amounts of text online. Of course, those with a prescriptive and normative view of language will just say that what is written online by a thirteen year old has no value because of the “poor quality of the language.” Yet those teenagers who are instant messaging their way to becoming extremely fast typists are really writing. They are putting ideas into written form. And they develop ways to be as efficient as possible in their writing while still being understood by their interlocutors. More than a skill, it’s an important social change. Writing is not what it was when only a precious few scribes were able to use it for specialized communication and archival (like accounting and religion). Scribes of old have been responsible for a number of changes in language. Why can’t millions of teenagers have more of an impact on written language than a few dead scribes?