John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated March 97 (v1.0)

Communicative Subtlety in Multimedia Chat

How many ways can you say "Hi" at the Palace?

By their very nature, humans love to communicate. They love to express themselves. They love to explore subtlety in communicating and expressing themselves. In the "real" world of five senses, people freely can experiment with language, voice modulation, dress, hand gestures, facial expressions, body language, even perfume - all as ways to communicate nuances in meaning. In cyberspace, the sensory options are not nearly as numerous or versatile. But that doesn't mean that subtlety is absent. When immersed in a medium that places some restrictions on paths to communicate, humans get downright clever and creative in overcoming the barriers. In the traditional text-only chat environments, users have developed a wide variety of symbols, phrases, and acronyms - a whole new vernacular - to get their ideas and feelings across to their cyberpeers. In the newer graphical/auditory chat environments, the addition of even relatively simple sight and sound options has provided considerably more elbow room for subtlety in communication and creative self-expression. And sometimes these environments provide options for communication that are NOT available in the real world!

As the simplest example, let's explore the vicissitudes of saying "hello." In cyberspace, how many different ways can you do it?

Tinkering with Text Balloons

To answer that question, let's travel to the Palace - a social (chat) community on the web that combines typed-text communication with graphics and sound. We pop into Harry's Bar at the Main Mansion site, hoping to find our friend Lucy. She's not there, so we settle down into one of the plush chairs and watch the members and guests talking together down on the oriental carpet in the middle of the room. Suddenly, we see Lucy standing in the doorway from the Red Room.

We type "hi lucy" and hit return. Now if Lucy is a good friend, we've committed a bit of a faux pas here. This salute is rather lukewarm. It's perfectly appropriate as a polite greeting to strangers and casual acquaintances, but for a friend it's a week gesture. First of all, without even one exclamation point, or caps, there's very little evidence of enthusiasm. The fact that we didn't even bother to capitalize Lucy's name (or the "H" in high) might be taken as a sign of indifference or laziness. Lucy may wonder why we seem a bit distant and formal.

So let's try again. Lucy appears in the doorway, only this time we type "Hi Lucy!" That's better. Caps, an exclamation point... some enthusiasm! An unspoken norm at the Palace is that one's degree of enthusiasm is loosely correlated with the number of exclamation points in the greeting. The more, the better, unless your exclamations start piling up in an ostentatiously long row and spill over to another line of typed text. That might be considered overkill... overly eager enthusiasm (or a perseveration indicative of an underlying organic mental disorder).

For a slightly different interpersonal effect, we might use a "spikey" - also known as an "excited balloon." It indicates, obviously, that we're excited to see Lucy. The enthusiasm here is a bit different that simply using exclamation points. The very electric-looking spikey has a more visceral impact. It will be much more quickly noticed by Lucy than a standard text balloon. It also will be quickly noticed by other users. We're making it very clear to everyone in the room that we're saying hello to Lucy and are elated about seeing her. It also takes a bit more keyboarding effort to create a spikey, which suggests that we went out of our way to show our enthusiasm for Lucy. A spikey with just "LUCY" (in caps) is like jumping up out of your chair while shooting your arms into the air with surprise and delight. As with abundant exclamation points, a spikey greeting will cause others to think that we must be good friends with Lucy. But if you use too many spikeys (or exclamation points) with too many people, others will assume that you're putting on an act and being a bit disingenuous.

Maybe we want to show emotion other than enthusiasm when Lucy arrives. Maybe we want to show warmth, affection. For quite some time in many chat environments, this affection has been expressed by the use of brackets or parentheses that "hug" the name of the fellow user. It's interesting that this technique rarely is used at the Palace. It's hard to say why. Palatians do like to think of their culture as unique - especially its graphical features. So widespread habits from other virtual communities may be viewed as a bit hackneyed when applied at the Palace.

Here's another greeting that one rarely sees at the Palace, even though it does involve a uniquely Palatian visual effect. Perhaps it's rarely used because a similar greeting violates norms in the real world. If we put up a rectangular "sign," it will hang in the air indefinitely until we type more text and hit return. In the real world, it would be like hanging a "Hi Lucy!" poster around your neck. That may work fine at airports or as a way to catch the attention of family when you're among a crowd on TV. But otherwise, it's a bit strange. Other Palatians would probably interpret our "Hi Lucy!" sign as overly persistent and attention-seeking, as if we were repeating "Hi Lucy!... Hi Lucy!....Hi Lucy!" over and over again.

A "thought balloon" greeting also is rare because it doesn't have an equivalent in the real world. Could we think "Hi Lucy!" and expect her to know that we were saying hello? Not in real life. Not unless we're a schizophrenic afflicted with delusions of thought-broadcasting. For that very reason, our "Hi Lucy!" in a thought balloon would look quite strange at the Palace. People might think that we simply mistyped, don't understand how to use Palace commands, or deliberately are trying to under-emphasize our greeting to Lucy by playing our cards close to our chest. They may wonder if we're muttering to ourself, or expect other people to read our mind. They may simply WONDER about us....and why Lucy has this effect on us! Lucy probably will be thinking the same things.

Actions Speak Louder...

The beauty of the Palace compared to text-only chat is that we (or rather, our avatars) can MOVE. When Lucy arrives we could "run" to her side. She most likely will notice this and take our gesture as a sign that we feel close to her. With exclamations punctuating our hello, we are showing bursting enthusiasm that may cause people to take notice. We obviously like Lucy because we scream and run to her side when she arrives. Running to Lucy with a spikey would magnify this effect even more, though it might be a bit over the top in expressing enthusiasm.

Running to Lucy with a simple "Hi Lucy" WITHOUT exclamations or spikeys can take on a very different meaning. Lucy most likely will know that we ran to her, but in a crowded room other people probably won't notice this. It's a more subtle, private, even secretive way to express our hello. If it's an uncrowded room, people will surmise that we are close to Lucy. They may even think that we are an "item" and are not hesitant about letting others see that.

Just Between You and Me (whispering)

If we want a guarantee that other people will not overhear our greeting to Lucy, we can always "whisper" our hello to her. Most chat environments have the option of sending a message to someone that other users cannot see. At the Palace, NO ONE can see it, not even a wizard or a god. This is something that is NOT possible in the real world, which makes it feel very special, even powerful as a unique feature of cyberspace. It's almost as if you are telepathically connecting your mind to the recipient of your whisper. Whispering "Hi Lucy" is a sign of intimacy, something shared just between friends. It's a bit secretive, as if you don't particularly want anyone else to know that you're saying hello. If the recipient of your whisper is someone you don't know well, they may experience your hello as a bit intrusive on their psychic space, or as an "advance" of some sort - perhaps a gesture of friendship, or a hint at desired intimacy.

All of this holds true for any chat environment where private messaging is possible. But at the Palace, there's an added visual dimension. When you whisper, everyone else's avatar fades into grey while just you and the recipient of your message remain in bold, living color - as if the whole world has dropped away, leaving just the two of you. It's a very powerful visual effect. And at the Palace you also are located within the visual space of a room, which is absent in text-only chat. This can significantly affect how whispering is perceived. For example, there's a subtle difference between whispering to someone from the other side of the room (especially a crowded one), as opposed to being right next to them. Our private "Hello Lucy" launched from across the room means that we have singled her out from the crowd and are attempting an intimate connection... yet we are also keeping our distance. If we are next to her - especially if we run to greet her - our salute is a much more unambivalent expression of intimacy.

Speak to Me!

If we so desire, we can actually SAY hello to Lucy. She can hear our actual voice and any emotional expression we desire to put into it, just as in real life. This can only happen, however, if we created a sound (wav) file and sent it to her. In fact, we could send Lucy as many different "Hi Lucy" sound files as we care to create. As long as she has them in her Palace sound folder, she (and we) will hear our greetings loud and clear when we type the appropriate command. Because no one else will hear the sound, the greeting is a truly private, intimate experience. Maybe Lucy also has a sound greeting for us! When people exchange sounds, it binds their friendship in at least two different ways. First, they made a special effort to create the greeting specifically for their Palace chum. Second, we are sharing a "real-life" piece of ourselves - the sound of our voices. Stepping out of cyberspace anonymity (like sharing photos) is almost always interpreted as a gesture of friendship and intimacy.

Worth a 1000 Words

Finally, we may not have to type or say anything to greet our dear Lucy. Thanks to the visual wonders of avatars, and especially animated avatars, we can don any picture that conveys our hello. We can wave, turn a cartwheel, slip her a high-five, clasp our hands over our head... or flap. It's good ol' body language, which can be quite powerful. The emotion and meaning we convey in our graphical greeting is limited only by our imagination. Some of these visual effects may have universal meanings that everyone in the room will recognize. Or it may be a visual effect that will be meaningful only to Lucy. The fact that she is the wind beneath our wings may our little secret.

See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

TextTalk: Psychological Dynamics of Online Synchronous Conversations in Text-Driven Chat Environments
The Psychology of Avatars and Graphical Space

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