Blog Post

Silent Conversations

The room fell silent as we sat, not quite looking in each others' eyes. It was a strange move, truncating a good academic conversation between roommates in favor of disembodied chatter on an online messaging client. Still, we had wanted to heighten the transition from a physically present conversation into a digital medium, and I was excited to see how the discussion would go. Soon enough, the steady tapping of keyboards filled the air, as I maintained eye-contact with the lime green "Payton" on my GChat's left margin. 

Early into the session, I realized that even though the chat messages themselves move "more-or-less" instantaneously, conversation proceeded at a much slower rate. Typing is much slower than talking after all, at least for most. I noted how our typed sentences became crisper and shorter than they would have in spoken conversation: an attempt perhaps to compensate for the hindrance of the keyboard. Still, even though composing and reading messages took a longer time, I found myself considering and engaging with the concepts contained within with an unexpected ease. Online conversations afford a longer window of opportunity before a reply becomes too-late, which allowed me to mull over its content much more thoroughly and to take as much care in my own reply. At no time did I feel the urge to say something because a silence had stretched too long, or simply to show that I was following the conversation. The effacement of body language, so de-humanizing and impersonal for some, seemed to make way for a language of pauses, punctuation, and emoticon that I found almost easier to read and negotiate. Although I missed the quick trading of ideas and non-verbal cues (the quirk of an eyebrow or the quick nod of encouragement), I appreciated being able to take my time and zero in on the conversation at hand. 

In the course of our conversation Payton mentioned "phreaking", a form of phone-line hacking that I had never heard of. Rather than painstakingly explain its salient points and history, he swiftly sent me relevant links on Wikipedia and got me up to speed without a break in the conversation. Online discussions allow for a stretching of a conversation's temporality - and a more forgiving notion of presence - that allowed me to simultaneously browse Google Scholar and the Newberry Library's online catalog for leads that seemed relevant enough to me, but were not directly pertintent to the conversation. At one point we were even perusing a new media journal's list of entries together for inspiration, a phenomenon that is possible but less common in physical conversation, where eye-contact and mirroring body language are key to rapport. At the end of the session, I noted with some measure of relief that everything we had said, from Payton's insights on my ideas to the explosion of new ideas we came up with, was already recorded and easily searchable. 

Entering into this exercise, I had imagined the shift from face-to-face dialogue to a real-time Internet chat would be somewhat jarring. While there was certainly a brief period of adjustment - not least because we were both in the same room! - I felt that the medium had offered our discussion inroads that I had not expected, and that verbal communication might have precluded. I hesitate to say that a person should decide if they enjoy either form of communication more, or to commit to either as inherently more conducive to an academic discussion, but suggest instead a consideration for how particular mediums' attributes may take communication in certain directions, that may ultimately be more or less desirable in context.

Perhaps I might use Facebook Messenger the next time. Never underestimate the inspirational value of food photography and funny cat videos!


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