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….