Chuck (charlesofcamden) wrote,

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IM frustrated

One often hears alarming/depressing reports about literacy in America. Sometimes the message is couched in cool-sounding phrases like “iconic era” or “post-literate era.” Great. Nothing like putting a hip sheen on ignorance. Yet for all of that, I would venture to say that the past decade has seen a tremendous spike in the number of words typed in this country. I submit in evidence these three pillars of the Wired Age: emails, blogs and instant messages. If you include telephone texting along with IMs in the total word count, the spike is way, way larger.

Never has the distinction between quantity of words and quality of words been clearer. IMs rarely rise much higher than the expression of such sublime thoughts as “OMG! C U L8R!” – and I count myself among the guilty. It’s plain that IMs are not merely a different option in communication; they are different form of communication.

Here’s the problem: We tend to view IMs as a text-based version of audio conversation. In fact, if you look at IMs on the continuum of communication options, they are closer to Morse code than they are to audio conversation. Most insidiously, they deprive us of methods for indicating the tone of our message. I say “insidiously” because we tend to go back and forth during an IM conversation using most of the same words we might use if we could hear one another, but without the nuances we automatically employ with our voices, and this can lead to trouble.

I’m going to shift from the general to the specific now and talk about my own problems with IMing. I think I probably employ sarcasm more than most people. I know that the word sarcasm tends to carry some pretty negative connotations, but I don’t necessarily employ it to that extreme. There are many different shades of it, from the insultingly biting riposte to the knowingly shared smile. Now there are many novels, essays, stories, and articles that have employed sarcasm effectively, but these are forms that are more carefully composed than a conversation is. When employing sarcasm (or any of various other linguistic subtleties) in an IM, one is at serious risk of being misunderstood.

The problem is that IMs are inherently unsubtle. The only thing we have is words on a screen, composed on the fly. OK, we also have emoticons. It’s no accident that emoticon options have become so varied and sophisticated, because anything that expands us beyond simple words is a valuable tool. But as a conversation tool, sarcasm is mostly about tone of voice.

So I’ve had to adapt. I resisted utilizing IMs for years. I would often tell people who initiated them with me that I really hated IMs, and would they please call me on the phone. But little by little, I began to embrace them. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve conducted many extended chat sessions, sometimes lasting for hours, that I’ve enjoyed the heck out of. There are now various people with whom I share IMs on a regular basis, and it would make me sad to see that option go away. Properly utilized, they can expand one’s world. But stuff still happens. I still find myself typing things that come out as positively snarky though they were typed with a wink and a smile on my fingertips that didn’t quite make it to the screen on the other end. So I guess I still have a few things to learn about how to use this particular tool. I hope your own adventures in IMing may be smooth and harmonious!

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