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I'm Wearing Bright Yellow Undies: How We Make Stuff Up When Communicating Online

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By Sonia Lyris, May 12, 2009

Communicating with humans is dangerous.

I don't just mean that you could say something ground-breaking that challenges the dominant paradigm and breaks the old models, necessitating a restructuring of modern thought. (Though you could, and if you can, go for it.) No, I mean that when you say something to another person and they say something back, you get involved, engaged, entangled. You care.

And once you care what the other guy is going to say, you start getting ready for it, thinking how it might go. Being annoyed when it goes some other way.

Those darned people. They say things they shouldn't, they don't say things they should. You go out of your way for them and they don't notice. You get them to say yes one day and the next they don't remember. Unbelievable.

Naturally, we do a lot of speculating about the other guy. When we talk, we guess at how he hears us. When he talks, we guess at what he means. And you know, allowing for culture, gender, and distractions like screaming children and trucks thundering by, we're actually pretty good at the whole guessing thing.

That's what we do, as humans, with other humans. We guess. And we're very good at it.

That's not the dangerous part.

We Evolved in 3-D

Let's talk about all this online media stuff you do. (You're reading this, so we both know you do it.) In email or IM or blogs or twitter nearly everything we humans evolved to perceive about each other is missing. Things like voice, body language, footwear, and who you hang out with. These things say plenty about you and what you mean when you say whatever it is you're saying. We used to say that on the net, no one can tell you're a dog. They also can't tell much else. Are you hunched over? Was that snort amusement, disgust, or allergies? You biting off your words because you're pissed or is that an accent? Are you hot? Cold? Hungry? Tired? Got a kid on your arm?

And then there's the stuff we can't see but we notice, like breath and body odor and pheromones. A woman's time of month. A man's time since last shower. A baby's diaper. When you talk with someone in person, these details are a huge part of what they're saying to you and, more importantly, what you're hearing. Even when you're not aware of the details, you notice them. You see, you smell, you sense.

Online You Got Nothin'

Right now, you can't tell that I'm wearing grey sweats, eating carrots, or that I smell just a bit like dog. You can guess, and we do that all the time. We read a book, we hear the author's voice in our heads, we imagine what they look like. But books and magazines are one-directional. When I'm done with the book I put it back on the shelf. It's not a conversation, and I don't imagine that it is.

Online it's another story. Because we toss out words and get a fast response, we understand it to be a conversation with someone. We don't have voice tone, or body language, and we don't know where she is, what she's sitting on, or how she looks, but we think we have an idea of who the gal is on the other side.

But really, we don't know. We got nuthin'.

We R So Smrt

The human brain is the best make-stuff-up engine ever. We can invent tall buildings and rocket ships and Shakespeare with flicks of our collective minds and our nifty keeno opposing thumbs. We totally, totally rule.

And we routinely and unconsciously sketch our fellow humans' entire history with a glance and a sniff. Yes, we are that good.

But online? All the ways we understand others of our kind is gone. We're exchanging a lot of words, maybe some pictures and voice recordings, and it gives us the sense we're showing who we are. We say something. Someone responds. We engage, we invest. Conversation!

And when humans invest, we bring to bear everything we have, all our creativity, all our inventiveness. Our powerful, powerful minds start working. What we don't know, we create, and we're not half bad at filling in the blanks. Our splendid fingers and lovely thumbs send forth words across world as the replies come back to our clever, clever minds.

But that's not the dangerous part.

Ooooo, Pretty Bird in the Mirror!

We know what we mean when we type something, and we know how we look and sound, and so, not surprisingly, when someone sends words back, we figure that someone looks and sounds a lot like us. Ah! We have friends!

All this social media is a mirror. We can't see the other guy at all, but because communication is something we humans are so very good at, all our heritage, all our backbrain calculations about sound and sight and scent, is brought to bear on the exchange anyway. In this massively large conversation involving millions of people, when we converse, we are making up tons of details about the other guy.

But we don't think about it that way. We don't realize how much isn't really there in the other guy at all, how much we invented ourselves. All these fast and furious conversations with other humans lead us to think we know what's going on with them, when really, we are filling in the blanks with our formidable imaginations without even realizing we're doing it.

In short, nearly all of what we know about the other guy from our online communications is stuff we've made up, but we tell ourselves it's a conversation.

Now we're at the dangerous part.

What are You Wearing?

Try this on for size: you're walking to Starbucks on your lunch break and a guy pops out from an alley waving his arms. He says "I got laid off last fall and I'm 45 and I can't get another job. Damn the health care insurance industry! I'm pissed as hell and I'm not taking it any more!" You stop and answer "yeah? Have you considered that maybe your company was too big and should downsize? It's called a market. And maybe you weren't that good at your job and you got what you deserved. Hey, I got problems, too." So then he says...

Not likely, right?

Online, you might say that. Online, no one can see that you're slouched over your keyboard, haven't showered, and are having a tasty belch around last night's cold pizza and left-over diet coke. No one can see that you're wearing nothing on your lap but a cat.

It Only Breaks When You Test It

So what? You're used to the online social media, you say, and it mostly works, so what's my problem? I'm a software engineer from way back, and we code-slingers learn early that some things only seem to work because they never get tested. You tweet and your friends read you, even if they don't reply, right? You email, and if they don't answer, well, they'll read it and reply eventually. Right?

So, sure, it works as long as you don't test it.

It works right up until the online romance falls apart and you fall into a wrenching despair and get a bad review. Until your post about how bored you are with your job gets reposted all over and you lose your job and can't get another one because your rep is ruined. Until you get frustrated with some email and dash off a colorful reply that somehow gets distributed to your entire network, leading you to decide that something in the real world also needs breaking. Until too much alone time amidst the online illusion of companionship takes away your desire to maintain social niceties in the flesh.

We Make Friends!

We love the new media because it makes connection easy. It doesn't have all the risk of talking to humans in person, which is, admittedly, pretty damned risky. If they can see us, they can hurt us.

But online? Much easier. Cleaner, too.

So we scratch our connection itch with strangers, or people who are to all our sensual and perceptive abilities, strangers, despite how well we think we know them from various online exchanges. We make of them friends - in our minds, that is, where anything is possible.

Hey, we're not stupid - we know we don't really make friends with the click of a button. But we click the button anyway, and tell ourselves that it's the new media and new rules and besides, if you friended aunt Ellen who you never see, why not friend the guy at the grocery who you don't really know? They're all pretty much like us anyway. One big happy family. Just - over there where we can't see them or hear them or touch them. Different, but just a little different.

And then, when they don't act as we expect, we're shocked. It's not a problem when we're reading about Brad Pitt or the First Dog or King's latest e-novella, but it's a problem when we're conducting an online conversation about our deep held beliefs and we think we know who the other guy is.

When it comes to conversing with humans, we're far more likely to make something up than to realize we don't really know. Our brains are so damned good at filling in the blanks. Online, with even less information, we fill in even more.

The Fix is Bright Yellow and Smells Like Orange Peel

So what's the fix? Aside from dropping out of this online conversation, that is. We can, with just a little imagination, avoid believing we know things we don't. We can undermine our own clever and automatic responses using our own very nifty brains.

Let's imagine, for a moment, that I am wearing bright yellow underpants. Pick your favorite style of women's undies and lay 'em on me. That's what I've got on, right now. Raincoat yellow, lit-up-in-sunlight lemon, highlighter yellow - bright, bright, bright. Got a good visual? Don't my legs look great? Now there's an image that will stay with you, startling and vivid.

With luck, you realize that you don't really know what I'm wearing. And if you don't know what the other guy is wearing, you probably also don't know how he sounds or smells or much else about him. And then, when he types back that email that pisses you off, you think to yourself "yellow undies!" and you won't be quite as tempted to fill in the other blanks so fast.

Oh, yeah, and I smell like orange peel. Toss that in, too, for sensory verisimilitude. Nice and strong. Pungent, as we say in the orange peel biz.

This sensory snapshot helps you keep perspective. Your conscious mind knows that the other guy isn't wearing yellow undies, but if you tell yourself he is, you'll catch the inventive part of your head and hold off creating a conversation with someone you've imagined up when the going gets weird. And the going will indeed get weird, my friend. All these people conversing and all our imaginations running wild together - weirdness is a click away.

Bright yellow. Orange peel. Or pick colors and scents that suit your own special head. Anything startling that reminds you that your facebook and twitter "friends" are, quite probably, not doing, thinking, or feeling what you think they are.

We Don't Know What We Don't Know

It's not that the other guy isn't like you. He probably is. In some ways. It's that you don't know what ways. And then - he's got a lot of nerve - he'll go and change.

We use our powerful human brains to build tons of useful info about the other guy from smell and sight and context. When we don't have those clues, but we have words, we fill in the blanks about how they are physically from guesswork.

Do you know what I look like? Can you hear the dog barking in the background? Am I smiling? Can you guess?

: )

Of course you can.

Online, from post to tweet, you have to do some work to look past the mirror that shows you only you. You can't help but guess in your own image, of course, especially in those really engaging convos. It's easy to assume the other person is wearing what you're wearing and sounds and smells the way you do. But you are very likely wrong.

That is, unless you're wearing bright yellow undies. And I just bet you are.



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please consider making a donation to Nonprofit Online News.
It will probably feel good!



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