I was recently asked this question: "do you feel that it's possible for someone to detect another person's feelings online?"
Allow me to elaborate.
Emotions and emotionally declarative statements are perhaps an obvious answer, but certainly not the whole answer. You probably do not say "I am happy :)" every time you feel that way while talking online, nor do the people you talk to say that when you pick up on their happiness, more than likely. So what is the process by which emotional states are conveyed in these other cases?
First off, we must understand the concept of presence
, defined as "the illusion of nonmediation" (Lombard et al 2000)
. which occurs when a a person fails to perceive or acknowledge the existence of a medium in his/her communication environment and responds as he/she would if the medium were not there" (2000)
. Ito describes a similar process called "creative bodily forgetting": "The machine, in this scenario, is a faithful extension of user agency, its bodily processes rendered invisible to maintain an ideally seamless fantasy abstraction" (p 100, Mitzuko Ito 1996, "Virtually Embodied: The Reality of Fantasy in a Multi-User Dungeon" in
Internet Culture, David Porter, ed.). Remember for a moment the last face-to-face conversation you had with someone. Were you conscious of how your mouth was vibrating air molecules which were picked up by the other person's ear and translated into information in their brain -- In other words, did you notice the medium by which you were communicating, or did you only notice the content of the communication? Did you think: "My boss is so rude," or, "My boss uses her mouth to create patterns of sound that I decode into rude messages because of our similar cultural and linguistic background"? If it was the former and not the latter, you experienced the illusion of nonmediation.
Now back to the Internet. Let us keep in mind that the type of presence we experience on the Internet varies by medium. A virtual environment like in the movie The Matrix would utilize all 6 types of presence defined by Lombard et al (2000)
, but obviously our current technology is much more limited than that. Talking with microphones, webcams, and fast connections in a teleconference does not have the exact same sort of presence as reading a text-only blog. One type of presence is immersion, which Lombard et al (2000)
divide into perceptual and psychological. Perceptual immersion is "the degree to which a virtual environment submerges the perceptual system of the user" (Biocca & Delaney, quoted in Lombard et al 2000)
. The teleconferencing system would involve sound and would perhaps be more visually engaging, and therefore would have greater perceptual immersion. "Psychological immersion occurs when users feel involved, absorbed, engaged, engrossed" ((Lombard et al 2000)
). To continue using the aforementioned examples, suppose that you used video-teleconferencing software with your rude boss, afterwards, you read an interesting (text-only) entry in the blog of someone you love. The former would have greater perceptual immersion, but the latter would almost certainly have greater psychological immersion, as you would probably care a lot more about the person and what they were saying. As Suler (2003)
wrote: "However, we also can feel very powerfully the other's presence within environments providing low sensory character, such as the text communication of email, chat, instant messaging, and message boards. The history of literature, journalism, and personal correspondence clearly demonstrates the human ability to create one's presence within the written word. Interpersonal presence involves more than seeing and hearing the other person."
Do certain types of presence aid or inhibit the conveyance (and formation) of emotional states? Suler (1997)
compares text-based online communication with offline communication, and finds: "There are distinct advantages to the time-stretching, distance-shortening, and potentially fantasy-driven dimensions of CSR. On the other hand, IPR have the advantage of touch, smell, taste, the complex integration of all the five senses, and a more robust potential to 'do things with' other people." Jacobson (1999)
found that culture mediated the reception of information received in an online contexts; he writes: "Although researchers have emphasized the difficulties involved in impression formation in computer-mediated communication, people in the text-based virtual communities of cyberspace do develop images of one another. These impressions are based not only on cues provided, but also on the conceptual categories and cognitive models people use in interpreting those cues." (I still fault his analysis for not considering cultural adaptation to the strengths and weakness of online communication over time; I think a follow-up study of his informants might show them forming more realistic impressions in their online relationships.)Suler (2003)
writes: "Even in the pure text environments of chat, message boards, and weblog communities, your presence can be enhanced by the ability to move from one section of the environment to another, assuming other people are able to see your movement. In any environment, multimedia or text, the opportunity to add, remove, or change something enhances your presence in the minds of others who experience that alteration of the setting." Consider all the options you are given to change little things in AIM: you can change your font size, type, and color; you can change your user icon; you can put up an away message; you can direct-link and send sounds or images; you can warn the user; and, you can invite them into chatrooms. All these software options should potentially add to a sense of presence, according to Suler.
Therefore, the conveyance of emotion in cyberspace is mediated by both the type(s) of presence that the technology enables, and the culture of the participants.
Consider for a moment how culture mediates emotional conveyance. Mainstream conceptions of masculinity and femininity tend to genderize emotions, so that a man who is angry is still masculine, but fear and sadness are often seen as contaminating to masculine identity. Imagine a man were to cry while communicating with you--what difference would it make if he was in-person or online? In person, you could see a suspension of his usual body language, tears on his cheeks, redness in his eyes, a change in the tone of his voice, and perhaps an attempt to hide his face or excuse himself to the bathroom while he regains his composure. Perhaps he would be able to hide the fact that he cried from you in this fashion, but it would be much more difficult that it would be online. Saying the words "I'm fine" allows you to hear happiness or sadness in the voice, but typing "I'm fine" looks the same whether you are happy or sad while at the keyboard. However, the context surrounding these words contains "information given off," to use Goffman's term (see my earlier entry on this).
In the course of one's social interactions with a person, online or offline, you go through a process of constructing meanings for that person's patterns of speech and behavior. Say, for example, a person began biting their lip right before they gave you an angry tongue lashing. In the future, that person biting his or her lip would acquire the meaning of anger for you. Online, without a webcam or microphone to enable you to see or hear the person, you would not know things like if your friend is biting his/her lip. But, other actions/words that are conveyed by their computer-mediated presence could acquire meaning. The more time one spends chatting with a person, the more familiar you become with the patterns of their chatting practices. Does your friend always say "bye" and then wait for you to say in response before logging off, but this time he or she logged off without waiting? Perhaps you know through this that he or she is upset at you. Is your friend usually a good speller but is making lots of typoes? Perhaps he or she is intoxicated or tired. Is your friend usually a fast typist but is slow to respond to one of your questions? Perhaps your question elicited a strong emotional response.
In addition, it should be pointed out that people often use multiple types of communication; interpretting your friends' words/behavior on AIM does not have to come only from AIM experiences. Maybe you used teleconferencing, voice chat, the telephone, or watched him/her use AIM in person, so you can draw upon those experiences in your interpretation. You can also extrapolate from your face-to-face interactions with him/her (if you had any) to interpret their online speech/behavior.
In sum, emotional conveyance online is mediated by both culture and the type(s) of presence enabled by the technology. Most Internet contexts allow for greater concealment of emotion than face-to-face interaction does because there is less senory data by which "information given off" can be obtained, but, from my experience, there are still plenty of cues available online to convey emotional states. As Lombard et al (2000)
pointed out, "A medium that becomes invisible can provide rich verbal and nonverbal information for social interaction (presence as social richness)". Furthermore, "As the widening expression of identity becomes interactive, when others can give and receive feedback, the sense of presence intensifies. The more comprehensive the mutual exploration of each other's background and personality, the more people sense each other truly being there" (Suler 2003)