I was lucky enough to be working in the networking department of an up and coming software company at the beginning of my career. As a consequence, I had access to email before most people in the world. Even then, it was apparent that email was a volatile communications medium. At first we attributed it solely to the fact that it didn’t have the benefit of the subtle back channels that facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and inflection offer our face to face communication.
Upon further reflection though, it occurs to me that we have been communicating with the written word for centuries. There was something else in play here. For instance, it was easy to send email and once you hit send, it was gone. It was easy to write a quick note. It was more like an informal conversation so it was approached with less thought than a physical letter might. It took more discipline than most of us could muster to read what we had written carefully to make sure it couldn’t be misinterpreted.
And then there was the fact that the person, or persons, with which you were communicating weren’t present to give you immediate feedback, either positive or negative. This delayed any corrections that might be made to the message until the recipient had had time to stew about it for a while. And when they had built up a head of steam, it was, again, too easy to snap back a confrontational reply without due consideration. Thus were flame wars invented.
At the time, we thought there might be something to the idea that email was only used by technical types who didn’t have the best reputation for social skills. Only time and the rise of the public internet would disprove that theory. It seems that anyone, socially adept or not, was equally capable of miscommunicating via email. And the situation just got worse when the discussion forum was invented.
I have more to say about the evolution of online interpersonal communication. So much more that I am going to post this as part one. In part two I will explore some of the unexpected social impacts that arose from the vast social networks like Facebook.