Chatty Cathy: Drinking and text chat

Quite some time ago now, some folks studying electronic communication theorized that people talking to each other in the stripped-down setting of text-only chat found ways to develop relationships and share intimate information. Later, people like Adam Joinson began to realise that people might even share more information in online chat than face-to-face. Joinson theorized this had to do with how anonymous people felt, although I wonder how anonymous we actually feel in places like WoW where we spend a lot of time with a specific group… hm.

I’ve been long musing about what makes people share in online chat. What is it about this “lean” medium that seems to evoke certain kinds of self-disclosure? In my personal experience, there are some exchanges where both parties seem to spill a lot more than they would offline – I have had many the conversation about deep issues and pains with people I hardly know. And I’ve had similar conversations with people I grew to know online, too, of course. I find myself blurting out things that seem to be far more blunt than I do in other kinds of conversations.

There’s a shift in the way we filter ourselves in certain online spaces, I think. There’s a change in the barriers we usually put up that elsewhere keep us from fully explaining ourselves or sharing our thoughts or confessing our secrets. Maybe some of the things that trigger certain kinds of self-monitoring in face-to-face settings are missing online, so consequently we say a different range of things. Maybe we’re willing to take the risk to say it how we see it because we’re not responding as strongly to some cue or another that stops us offline.

By the way, I refer here to text chat, not voice chat. I actually haven’t really experienced much difference in what people are willing to share in voice versus face-to-face, and very little experimental research has been done on that of late, so I can’t compare that to Joinson’s work… (my next project?!).

But I do believe that there’s something about text that leads us to say more, “anonymous” or not. Maybe we’re looking so hard for ways to make up for the lack of touch, smiles, and gazes that we ramp up the bold statements and raw truths as we try to connect. Walther would say so, I think. We adapt our expression and interpretation to infuse as much personal information into text as we can.

It kind of reminds me of when I drink. Yes, we’re venturing into the realm of, “oh, and this one time….” Forgive me, but I swear it’s relevant. When I drink sometimes – and it doesn’t take much – I get chatty. Really chatty. I talk the ears off my poor companions. And if I like those companions, I tend to have pretty dang low self-monitoring. I self-disclose a lot. My filters fade away and I have been known to wake up the next morning thinking, “uh oh…. what all did I say to that person last night…” It’s the “morning after” syndrome but with talking. So far it hasn’t gotten me into much trouble – well, maybe a little. The point is, my level of self-disclosure goes way up in that setting, and it feels very similar to exchanges I’ve had online in that way.

I don’t believe that in either situation what I say or what people say to me is less “true” or sincere than other times. But it does kind of puzzle me. Well, when I drink, I’m doing something pretty typical – talking in ways that might be otherwise seen as a bit reckless.

But I wonder  why that also seems to happen sometimes in text chat? I’ve experienced the same over email, although less frequently. What is it about text chat that evokes that intimacy, that sharing?   Is it really that we don’t feel there’s a social risk the way we do face-to-face? That just doesn’t make sense to me somewhere like WoW, where there are powerful social consequences to what we say and how we build relationships – there is still risk there. I’m holding out for a more complex explanation.

On a side note, I’ve never felt that urge to spill more in FB chat, although I have felt it on Gchat. That’s probably just me, but still, interesting questions….


2 responses to “Chatty Cathy: Drinking and text chat

  1. I admit this all sounds very technologically deterministic, which I am most adamantly not. But I do believe in the social, psychological, and cultural power of the medium (even if it’s not quite the message). And I think that part of the answer here might be that we learn a different set of social rules for specific online spaces.

    In other words, it’s not the electronic text itself that makes the difference, but something more complicated about, for example, WoW and text and experiences there and who we are…. you know, all that stuff.

  2. I don’t know if I can achieve a complex explanation, but I shall take a stab at this question: “Is it really that we don’t feel there’s a social risk the way we do face-to-face?”
    Perhaps it is not the reduced social risk, but the mitigated consequences of that social risk. Going back to the drinking example, being drunk is an easy excuse for actions we might want to distance ourselves from (and even those we don’t, but might be forced to). I would never say I only did something because I was drunk; but being able to say “I was sooo drunk” mitigates some of the risk associated with actions that others might look askance at. It is a lowering of inhibitions in both the chemical and the social sense. In text chat, I think the riskiness might be mitigated by the fact that we are not directly and immediately confronted with the response to our disclosure. This is different from the drunk explanation, in that the reaction to what we say is mediated. It’s not that “I was sooo text-based,” but rather if I say something about myself and you are uncomfortable, I don’t have to see the look on your face. Perhaps we get lured into a false sense of security by that, because there are still risks to disclosing, there always are. Writing also tends to feel like a much more solitary pursuit than it is in reality. We disclose ourselves when we write in a way we are not trained to when we speak. Speaking is seen as much more performative, perhaps. We are much more aware of ourselves when all we have to represent us are words. In the absence of the physical confrontation of the other (the face, if we go to Levinas…but let’s not), we disclose because we can think more self-centeredly (not in a bad way) than we do when interacting in a physical/social sense. Going back to the lowering of risk, I am more likely to disclose in the dark than I am in a brightly lit room; when talking to one other person as opposed to a group; when looking away, or when the other person is looking away, than when looking someone in the eyes; and so on. Perhaps it is the publicness and the reactions that could help make sense of the level of disclosure on different channels. For example, FB feels public and is not known for its respect of privacy. G-chat is tied to email and thus work and perhaps less “free,” but skype feels more direct and personal because it is not something open to “just everyone” in our social circles.
    Just a thought (or two…).

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