Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Long live text

Here's my November column for AVENUE magazine.

November marks the five year mark for me in Second Life®, although it wasn't as Huckleberry Hax that I first entered the metaverse.  That avatar – born, as it happens, as a work avoidance strategy to the task of writing a fifty thousand word novel in one month (National Novel Writing Month, or 'NaNoWriMo,' will be well in swing by the time you read this; either I'll be on the way to adding another hastily written book to my collection or exploring some other new virtual world) – is long ago retired.  Needless to say, the metaverse was a different place back in those days.  The thing you rezzed into broadly looked like a human being insofar as it had all the limbs in the right place, but that was about as far as the comparison was valid.  Clothes looked like they'd been spray-painted on by a novice graffiti artist (who was drunk).  Hair looked like discoloured modelling clay.  And so on.

What hasn't changed in all that time is the use of text communication.  Huck himself was born in the midst of the voice beta period, during which there was a great deal of discussion about this upcoming change to the main grid and how it would effect interaction.  Opinions varied, however one view back then was that it would be a rubbish thing and this particular bandwagon was one I readily leapt aboard.  To a certain degree, I've revised very considerably my views on voice.  I use it quite a bit now for such events as poetry open mics, the weekly improvisation event I go to (Predicate, on Wednesdays at 3:30pm SLT; you should go) and my own book readings.  I also like to chat in voice to individual friends occasionally.  To a certain degree, voice is now something so commonplace in SL that we don't really notice or question it any more.  But has it – as back then the proponents hoped and the objectors feared – taken over as the primary form of communication in SL?  Without doubt, it has not.  Text is still the way we mostly introduce ourselves to new people and develop any friendships that result.  It's not until we know someone really well that the possibility of voice becomes discussed – and there are plenty of people who don't have the inclination or desire even then.

In some respects, it seems a little strange that this should be the case; sure – old hacks like me who were around in those pioneering, pre-voice days might find transitioning to the miracle of speaking a little hard, inflexible Luddites that we are; but what's the problem for the newbies?  After all, it's not as though speaking to someone with your voice is a particularly hard thing to do - we do it all the time in RL.  There's nothing to learn and nothing to unlearn, so it should be as natural as, well, talking to someone.  And Linden put a lot of work into making voice an immersive experience in order to facilitate exactly that – not only do you hear avatars' voices in the stereo field according to where they're standing, but their volume decreases the further away they are from you.  Just like RL talking.  So why hasn't it caught on? 

Well, actually, it isn't just like RL talking at all.  For starters, when you're looking face on at your avatar, the person to your left sounds in your right ear and vice versa.  And, as far as volume is concerned, this seems to be far more an outcome of other people's mic settings and quality than anything to do with their distance from you, resulting in that cheerful flirtation with eardrum perforation that happens when you turn voice all the way up because the person to your left sounds like they're whispering in the vague direction of a microphone somewhere in the general vicinity of their zip code and the person on your right then sneezes.  And then there's the dropouts, when somebody tells you something really important (it always happens when they're telling you something really important) and the key bits are substituted with short periods of silence (or, in some cases, everything you should have just heard, but at two or three times the speed).  In the end it's just too much bother. 

What's also missing in the understanding of SL voice implementation is the simple fact that when you're talking face-to-face with people in RL, it's not just their voices you're paying attention to.   You're also attending to all those non-verbals such as their facial expression, the way they're sitting or standing, who they're looking at, what they're doing with their hands as they speak and – a key one here for me – whether they're keeping an eye on their watch whilst you talk.  The absence of all this information is something you can just about get away with in a one-to-one context (hence the success of the telephone), but it becomes increasingly difficult to manage the more people you add in.  Personally, I find group voice conversations a nightmare.  There's nearly always a dominate person or pair, there's nearly always at least two out-of-sync conversations going on at the same time and there's nearly always someone who's mic's so quiet that by the time I've brought up the voice list and individually turned them up the conversation has somehow moved onto a different topic and my well-constructed, frankly hilarious quip has to be thrown upon the rubbish heap of wasted effort and failed social opportunity. 

Text communication, on the other hand, is a greatly more laid back affair.  Whilst it's true that the missing non-verbals which can make voice communication harder than expected practically cripple any attempt at serious conversation in text (which is why I do prefer voice for these discussions), much of our talk in SL via this medium is actually quite light-hearted and leisurely, and is largely unaffected by this deficit.  Paradoxically, in fact, our conscious awareness of the limitations imposed by text have resulted in both the creation of conventions that get around the absence of non-verbals (such as smiley faces or that RP technique of describing observable behaviours, for example “Huckleberry Hax walks to the nearest wall and bangs his head against it”) and the allowance of a great deal of leeway in composition, relevance and timing. 

Along the way, we've picked up some entirely new expressions as a result of text's rule over real-time digital interaction.  LOL is perhaps the most famous of these, an acronym so useful and distinct as a word in its own right that it finally got an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary this year: "used chiefly in electronic communications... to draw attention to a joke or humorous statement, or to express amusement".  I think we can do better than that.  David Mitchell, for example, in his Soapbox broadcast earlier this year defined LOL as meaning “I acknowledge that you have made a joke and wish to express my enjoyment of it,” pointing out that the alternatives - “very funny,” “ha ha,” “most amusing” - could all be taken as sarcasm.  I've even had a go at defining LOL myself a few years ago in my novel, 'Be Right Back': LOL – Yes, that was indeed amusing. 

I doubt I need to mention the horror expressed by the so-called language pedants at the 'official' adoption of such new words into our languages.  The point they miss, of course, is that language is the thing in which we live and it lives its own life right beside us, evolving to meet the needs of the contexts in which it's used and the people therein using it.  Text is, of course, not the possession only of SL, but in SL we have the ability to write about what we're jointly seeing or hearing – to experience something in words together.  As technology improves (see my column last month), this might end up a thing of the past.  So be it.  But whilst this era is upon us, we can still make it a golden.

Speaking of LOL and its associated family of laughter related acronyms, a few weeks ago one of my friends in SL spilled coffee on her keyboard, resulting in the entire bottom row not working.  Whilst awaiting the repair date, we had a lot of fun playing the 'guess what this is meant to say' game and one of those missing-letter-words ended up making it through to regular subsequent conversation: LAO (LMAO, but without the M).  It's a great world to live in where one friend can make another laugh through the typing of three letters.  I really mean that.  In these days of increasingly sumptuous visuals, let's not forget SL is also still a great big language playground.  Most importantly of all – if for no other reason than it won't always be this way – let's not forget to play in it.
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