Wednesday, March 24, 2010

There's no emotion in text?

Crisis hotlines all around the world are working on ways to bring crisis counseling services to people whose preferred communication media involve text-based communication, rather than voice-based. There's a lot of really exciting work happening in the field (I was part of it, on the national level, until very recently), and it has a ton of potential.

People often try to shoot holes in the idea, though, saying things like "you can't talk about emotion in text", "texts aren't real communication", and "omg ur suicidil lol!!!". Typically, the level of hostility is linearly related to the speaker's age. They often focus on the unavailability of verbal and visual cues (tone of voice, pacing of speech, expression, redness of the face, body language, etc.) and use them to justify the belief that emotional communication, online, is impossible.

My new rebuttal: if verbal and visual cues are necessary for communicating emotion, how is it possible that deaf and blind people share their feelings? There's a deaf woman who works in my local grocery store, and I speak with her quite often. She knows how to read lips, and she's able to speak intelligibly even though she can't hear herself (the more I think about this, the more impressive it seems). She's quite capable of understanding and conveying emotion without tone of voice.

Similarly, our crisis hotline has had several blind volunteers--all were successful crisis hotline workers once we got them past the technical challenges of using our unfamiliar technology (phones, databases). It's worth pointing out that, as far as crisis hotline callers are concerned, ALL of us are blind. And yet we help them.

Saying that online environments cannot convey emotion clearly is the same argument as saying that emotion cannot be shared over the phone, by deaf people, or by the blind. It's just not true. The means of communication may be different, but people find a way.


  1. very good points, and very valid. i have people with whom i have never spoken who are facebook friends who i can tell you in a heartbeat their entire mood based on their status (and they, mine). likewise, i have people with whom i instant message and we know exactly what we are feeling (emoticons or not). ;-)

  2. I get really hopped up about the generational diversity issues these days--for those who aren't familiar, Michelle Pacansky-Brock has a totally awesome presentation about it, and I have a huge intellectual crush on her.

    Going with my analogy to deaf/blind people, I think a lot of the concerns about online communication come down to the fact that online communication is a new thing, in terms of experience, for most of the people sharing the concerns. They're like people who have a traumatic accident and become deaf or blind at 40: the new medium is frightening because it deprives them of sensory cues that have been essential parts of their experience for life.

    The younger generations today, in contrast, share more in common with people who were born deaf or blind. Online communication has been a part of their lives since they first started interacting with the world, so they don't think of it as restricted (any more than you think of a car as restricted because it can only travel in two dimensions instead of three). So they've grown into a native understanding of that medium where the rest of us are still learning to tread water.

    MPB's generational diversity video:

  3. 1.5 trillion text messages sent in the US in 2009. That's trillion with a T. It really doesn't matter if people think the channel has shortcomings. People are using it in droves. If we want to help, we have to be there.


  4. I think that there's much more to communication than anyone knows.

    Why, for example, did my sister-in-law call home from Vienna many years ago because she just felt that something was wrong? When her older brother's car had just crashed into an electric pole and taken out much of the electricity in Lake Placid, New York?

    Why was your dad so relieved to see, courtesy of Galician internet TV, you walk onto a Spanish stage with the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland and The Chieftains after he'd been beside himself with worry that something bad had happened to you? And it turned out that the band's van had been hit broadside by a careless driver on the way to the concert, and your driver and the other chaperone were in the hospital?

    Sometimes we humans don't seem to need ANYthing extra to communicate!