Friday, February 14, 2014

Internet Comments, Language Out of Context

Many years ago, before Web 2.0 but after the invention of the internet, I would occasionally go to the public library and check out music CDs instead of books. I would do this because the public library was the one place where I could discover new music that radio DJs would never dream of playing on the radio, because it was, you know, actually good music and they can't play that on the radio.

It was on one of these trips to the library that I was perusing the music selection and I happened to come across a CD by Yanni. I had heard of him before and had heard someone play one of his songs on the piano so I was considering checking it out so I could hear his music and see if I liked it (I later bought two of his CDs). While I was standing there looking at the cover, a man who had been browsing the music near by noticed what I was looking at and made some comment about Yanni. I, being the socially awkward person that I am, grunted a non committal grunt.

Undeterred, the man continued on about how he finds Yanni boring (let's face it, after two CDs I agreed), but then he went on and made some comment about Yanni and John Denver (this was shortly after John Denver died in a plane crash). I gave him a quizzical look so he explained that he had heard that John Denver and Yanni were lovers. It was at this point that I decided the conversation was over. It was just a little too awkward for my normal stoicism.

As I look back on this brief interaction I realize that what I experienced was a real life version of an anonymous internet comment. I do not need to belabor the nature of (semi-)anonymous comments on the internet, but I would like to point out some important differences between my real life encounter with an anonymous commenter and internet comments. When that random man at the library made his comments there were some crucial differences between the real life version and the equivalent virtual conversation. What fills the difference is the unspoken nuances of language that are not found in the actual words.

If I had written down verbatim everything the man had said I still would not have captured everything that was conveyed in our brief encounter. The unspoken elements of language that in many cases go beyond what is said, or even how it is said, can be used to judge and evaluate the veracity and usefulness of what is said. For example, the man's speech, while not exactly slurred, was not all that precise in its pronunciation. That is, his pronunciation immediately made me think of him as someone who is not too bright. I do not mean uneducated, I am sure he was sharp enough to graduate from high school, and perhaps go to college, but given the context his pronunciation marked him as someone who would not be making or thinking profound thoughts. Beyond his speech there was his demeanor and grooming that seemed to indicate that he had at least taken a bath before leaving his parent's basement to go to the library (he was probably in his late 20's). In short, if you met this guy on the street you probably would not take seriously anything he said.

While it is true that speech and appearance cannot always be used to judge someone, in that context the unspoken parts of language were the things that allowed me evaluate and ignore what he had said when the actual words that he said could not be proven one way or the other. So it was precisely due to the fact that he was standing there with me in the flesh that I could evaluate his character and decide that what he said, almost no matter what it was, could not be trusted as accurate. But in the realm of the internet all of those unspoken cues of language are stripped away and language is reduced to the bare words.

In this expropriation of words from their linguistic context it is too common to mistake comments that should not be taken seriously for those that should, and mistake those comments that should not be treated lightly for those that we do not give a second thought. This does not mean that this confusion does not exist for language in context, but it is easier to lose sight of which comments to ignore and which ones demand a response when we divest the unspoken cues from the words that we say.

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