domingo, 27 de febrero de 2011

Interacting with others in on-line environments

I think it is very interesting to notice how the written form of language has acquired an increasing salience over the last few years, especially after the emergence of social networking platforms, such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc. The ever-growing popularity of writing in mainstream culture has made me think, once more, of the fact that the written form of language is not natural, it is rather artificial, complex, and very difficult to master. I would never say, however, that writing is a pseudo-skill, some sort of ‘parasite’ of spoken language, as more than a few authors have implied (for further information on this topic, see Sapir’s seminal work on cultural studies Culture, religion and personality (1949), in which the author criticizes the Cartesian idea of ‘writing as a “by-product” of oral interaction’). Writing, just as speech, is a crystal-clear reflection of the cognitive processes by which we comprehend the world. Nevertheless, there are obvious and pervading differences between these two forms of language, which I’ll try to address, very succinctly, in the following lines.

1. The spoken form of language is natural; it doesn’t have to be formally learnt through conscientious schooling. Writing is a skill we develop only after carefully directed attempts, years of schooling and, perhaps, great effort from both teachers and students. Some would say that speech is simply acquired, while writing is learnt (see Gass and Selinker (1994) Second Language Acquisition. An introductory course, for further information on the acquisition of language skills. Brown, H.D. (2000) Principles of Language Learning and Teaching also offers a very thorough explanation of the so-called distinction between language ‘acquisition’ and ‘learning’).

2. Because of the very fact that oral language is natural, inherent to human existence and culture, nobody seems to control, at least not successfully, the speech realizations of people; the written form of language is ruled by academies, dictionaries, universities, scientific publications, the media, etc., in an effort to guarantee that all members of a particular community understand each other, through clear texts that fit into the regulations and canons of their respective speech community.

3. Speech is fleeting; writing is long-lasting. Writers have the chance to draft, revise, and rewrite their texts, whereas speakers are subject to the consequences of the things they say, without any major chance to correct their propositions, or to make adjustments so that their production would fit better into the restricted repertoire of the intended audience of their texts.

Alright, now, I have digressed very much from the main topic of this post, which is the nature of the language we use when communicating with others in on-line environments. I think that, when posting comments on an internet site, we need to bear in mind the characteristics of the written text I have, very briefly, discussed so far. Let’s think of the following:

1. When posting a comment in, let’s say, a blog, are we going to be readily available in the case that our reader had a question about the text?
2. What does the fact that the written text excludes a few very important extralinguistic features that carry a great load of meaning, such as gesturing, breathing, sighing, etc., imply in our web-based working arena?
3. How would we like to be addressed by others when interacting in on-line environments?
I would say that there are two simple answers for these three questions:

(a) Our posts in any web-based platform should always be very clear, concise, coherent, cohesive, and self-explanatory. This ‘suggestion’ matches the ones provided in the material “Netiquette” E-guide for social interaction and communicating electronically”, available in, under the subtitles “Be clear” and “Be brief”. I do think I’m really flouting the part of the suggestion which refers to conciseness: this post is getting awfully long! However, I believe that certain issues are worth dedicating a few more lines than others; I would say that the length of our on-line posts depends on the nature of the topics that are addressed. Netiquette, our business at the moment, is key in on-line interactions, hence, the size of my post! J
(b) We should address our interlocutor with respect, politeness, and affability. The biblical Golden Rule definitely applies here!
[1] We should always try and treat others the way we would like to be treated. This ‘suggestion’ matches the contents of the website I quoted above (see the subtitles “Use appropriate language”, “Make a good impression”, “Consider others”, “Cite others’ work you use”, and “Don’t respond to “flames” or personal attacks”.

Now, the Practical Communication Principles (PCPs)
[2], which you can find on-line in, are very interesting. I find the first of these, “Thank, acknowledge and support people freely”, very useful and absolutely necessary when communicating with others in on-line environments. Going back to the features of written texts, we have to recall the fact that we cannot see our reader, nor the writer of a post, so, how do we show the others that we are interested in whatever they are saying? How do we let the others know that we are ‘tuned’ and following the issues that are raised? Well, we have to actively reply to the participation, the posts, of our peers. We have to try and show that it was worth taking the time to read the post and make a comment about it. Even if we disagree with the propositions of our colleagues, there is, usually, something good to point out in anyone’s production, so why don’t we just show that we care? A “thank you for your post!” might be a good start. I’m not saying that we cannot express our disagreement, if we happen to disagree with anyone’s post, what I’m saying is that, as in the evaluation of the learning process of a foreign language, we should always highlight the achievement, the positive, and comment politely, respectfully, about the aspects on which we disagree, proposing, when possible and/or needed, alternatives. This principle is very much connected to PCP2, “Acknowledge before differing”. PCP3 is absolutely important, of course: “Speak from your own perspective (or at least some specified perspective)”; we cannot present our ideas as the ultimate truth of it all, we basically write about our opinions, our perception of the phenomena of reality. I particularly liked one abbreviation that is presented on the website quoted above: IMHO, which stands for “In my humble opinion”. I think that that is a very lovely way to start a reply, especially if we are about to show disagreement!

Well, guys, I think that this is pretty much everything I have to say right now. I hope that my views are of your interest. I’m looking forward to reading your comments!

[1] I’m not particularly religious, I’m just trying to put forward a well-intended reference; it is not my intention to be offensive.[2] You can find the following reference quoted in the website I cite on the text above: Bob Zimmer and GaryAlexander, "The Rogerian Interface: For open, warm empathy in computer mediated collaborative learning", Innovations in Education and Training International , 33, 1 (1996), pp. 13-21, Kogan Page