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

Psychological Dynamics
of Online Synchronous
Conversations in
Chat Environments

(now that's a mouthful)

In the beginning, there was TextTalk. And only TextTalk. Now that the internet has become multimedia, sounds and images also are whizzing by us. But even with the advent of video and audio streaming, typed text continues to reign supreme as the primary mode of conversing on the internet. This is especially true of "synchronous" modes of communication, as in the ever-popular IRC channels and chat rooms of AOL. Even in the multimedia chat communities, like Palace, where users communicate with avatars and sounds within a visual backdrop, typed text remains the front line method of "talking."

TextTalk in online chat environments has evolved into a fascinating style of communication. In some ways, it is strikingly similar to face-to-face (ftf) dialogue. In other ways, it is quite unique. Many of its unique qualities revolve around the fact that it is an austere mode of communication. There are no changes in voice, no facial expressions, no body language, no (or very little) visual/spatial environment as a context of meaning. There's just typed words. Some people find that experience too sparse. They feel disoriented, disembodied, adrift in that screen of silently scrolling dialogue. Other people love the minimalist style of TextTalk. They love to see how people creatively express themselves despite the limitations. They love to immerse themselves in the quiet flow of words that feels like a more direct, intimate connection between one's mind and the minds of others. Almost as if the other is inside one's head. Almost as if you are talking with a part of yourself. Without the distracting sights and sounds of the ftf world, TextTalk feels like a more pure communication of ideas and experiences. For some users (like many interested in cybersex), the bare quality of typed text allows for a greater flight of imagination and fantasy.

A Method in the Madness

Chat room banter can seem quite chaotic, especially when there are many people talking, or you have just entered a room and immediately dive into the ongoing flow of overlapping conversations. There are no visual cues indicating what pairs or groups of people are huddled together in conversation, so the lines of scrolling dialogue seem disjointed (visual chat environments, where users can move their avatars close to each other, have an advantage in this respect). You have to sit back and follow the flow of the text to decipher the themes of conversation and who is talking with whom. In almost all types of chat environments, you consciously and unconsciously set up mental filters and points of focus that help you screen out "noise" and zoom in your concentration on particular people or topics of discussion. Often, you become immersed in one or two strings of dialogue and filter out the others. With experience, you develop an eye for efficiently reading TextTalk. Some people may be better at this specific cognitive-perceptual task than others.

Let's pop you into an excerpt from an ongoing chat room conversation and see if you can figure out what's happening in this "buzzing confusion." Here are a few hints: there's an intellectual discussion between Symmetry and TipTop; the greeting of a user (YieldNot) whom people haven't seen in a while (they know his real-name initials, which means these people know each other pretty well); some mutual ribbing between Avenger and Barney; and a new user (Newbie) who's having a hard time edging his way into this conversation among more the experienced users.

Chill: good to see JH back
TheBrat: Why do ya ask...Chill?
Symmetry: my life is really out of balance....this computer stuff is far to consuming....
Belle: good i would hate to think you beecame a woman on me
YieldNot: hehe
Bandit: Its TheBrat!
Belle: hi JH
YieldNot: good to be back
Newbie: hello everybody
Barney: NO more crotch jokes, Avenger.
Chill: good to have you back JH
TipTop: we don't keep our sanity... that's the problem!!
TheBrat: ????????????????it made no sense...
Symmetry: reading a book about humor and disabilities
Avenger: I love you too Barney, not.
Chill: that's yer sister calling
YieldNot: thanks everyone!
Bandit: Hah! Busted JH!
Newbie: what's up everyone?
Chill: I wondered that too :)
Symmetry: my interest is sociology of time and space
TipTop: interesting topics!
YieldNot: hmmm...
TipTop: I love that kind of stuff
TipTop: and philosophy too
YieldNot: Chill...gotta show you my server some time!
Symmetry: i think it is cultures think about time, particular, or even individuals and how that impacts on our behaviors
Chill: having trouble with my typing and log

What's interesting about these types of log excerpts is that they often are more difficult to read and understand than actually "being there" at the time the chat is occurring. In part, this is due to the fact that during a post-hoc reading of a log, you read at the pace you usually read any written material - which is QUICKLY, but much too quickly to absorb TextTalk. While online, the lag created by people typing and by thousands of miles of busy internet wires forces the conversation into a slower pace. And so you sit back, read, wait, scan backwards and forwards in the dialogue (something you can't do in ftf conversation), and think about what to say next. There's more time for those perceptual/cognitive filters and lens to operate. There's also more time for a psychological/emotional context to evolve in your mind - a context that helps you follow and shape the nuances of meaning that are developing in the TextTalk.

To help you out a little bit, I've edited the other log excerpts that appear in this article. Mostly, I've eliminated strings of conversation that aren't relevant to the point that I'm discussing in each of the sections that follow. My editing is doing the job of those filters that operate automatically (almost unconsciously) while online.

What'dya Mean?

You would think that the lack of ftf cues and the buzzing confusion of TextTalk would result in many misunderstandings. If five different conversations are scrolling before your eyes, it would seem easy to lose track of what was said. And if you can't hear people's voices, or see their faces, you easily might misinterpret what they mean, wouldn't you? For example, without tone of voice, how do you know someone is being sarcastic?

After searching through my many megabytes of saved logs, I found no juicy examples of people being confused or misunderstanding what other people were saying. Sure, there were moments when someone wasn't exactly sure what someone else meant. Situations involving humor and sarcasm usually were the culprits, because that smile, chuckle, or wry tone of voice were missing. But these misunderstandings were always cleared up quickly. A quick explanation accompanied by a simple smiley : ) or winky ; ) efficiently resolves the confusion.

What's fascinating about TextTalk is that people mostly DO understand what others mean, despite the lack of visual and auditory cues.

Of course, some chat users may like to play games with the potential ambiguity of TextTalk. The excerpt that follows is an interesting example of how the lack of ftf cues can make it difficult to tell whether someone is intending humor or irony, and when they are being honest or sly. The use of the winky ; ) and smiley : ) are sometimes used to indicate irony or sarcasm, but in this excerpt the situation is perfectly ambiguous. The excerpt also illustrates how people play with the ambiguity of identity in chat environments. The illusive use of the smileys add to this ambiguity. BillyBob is trying to figure out if matt or Nuclear (DrZz) is really MrBig, a well known user in this community. Are Nuclear (DrZz) and matt simply playing head games with BillyBob? Are they at times being truthful? Are they at times TRYING to be truthful but unable to convey that as a result of the limitations of typed text. Without face-to-face visual cues, it's difficult to tell. Asterisks indicate a private communication (whispering) to and from BillyBob:

Nuclear: matt: are you MrBig in disguise?
BillyBob: MrBig doesn't hang out in disguise.... or does he?
Nuclear: i think yes, BillyBob ; )
Nuclear: BillyBob, you mind if im a doctor in here?
BillyBob: not sure what you mean... r u a doctor?
matt: or a quiz show host................
Nuclear: BillyBob: are you a BillyBob... in real life?
BillyBob: I am what am I, and that's all that I am
Nuclear: if you can be popeye, then i can be a doctor
--- [Nuclear changes his name to DrZz) ---
*BillyBob*: Matt, are you MrBig?
*matt*: no ; )
*BillyBob*: so how come DrZz thinks you are MrBig?
*matt*: he is being entertaining in his own way : )
BillyBob: Wait a minute, maybe Nuclear is MrBig in disguise! What do you think Matt?
DrZz: BillyBob: he is thinking how not to be MrBig ; )
BillyBob: So whatyda think Matt.... is DrZ the real MrBig?
matt: BillyBob:YES... no doubt 'bout that
BillyBob: How does one choose to define oneself at Palace... that's an interesting issue
DrZz: The answer is ANY WAY ONE WANTS TO.

In and Out of Synch (crisscrossed messages and "leading")

Due to lag in network connections, messages do not appear on your screen at a steady pace, which causes temporal "hiccups" in the pacing of the conversation. People also may be fumbling with their typing, typing a long message, pausing to think... but you can't see that. It's not easy to know when to wait to see if someone will continue to talk, when to reply, or when to change the topic of discussion. A conversation may accidentally become crisscrossed until both partners get "in sync." Users skilled in online chat - and who have a talent for writing - will create incomplete sentences or ideas that lead the companion into the next message. To allow the other user to express a complex idea, you may need to sit back into a "listener" mode. Some users will even type "listening to Joe" to indicate this posture to others.

Mystic: i think she's interested in me
NYGuy: I've been wondering about that
Mystic: i don't know what to do
NYGuy: Are you interested in her?
Mystic: i got to email you about it
[...... long pause.......]
NYGuy: you still thinking about moving?
Mystic: no, I'm not interested. That's the problem
NYGuy: ugh... a tough situation
Mystic: still thinking about it... it's a big decision
NYGuy: where would you move to?
Mystic: you're telling me! I don't want to hurt her feelings
NYGuy: you first.....
Mystic: the thing is that because we're together at work a lot she's beginning to think that...
Mystic: we're developing a relationship.
Mystic: even other people see us together and are assuming...
Mystic: we're an item. It's making me uncomfortable.
NYGuy: I was in a situation like this once and I think the only thing you can do is
NYGuy: talk to her and be as honest as you can,
NYGuy: and try to be gentle about it.
Mystic: You're right, but no matter how gentle I try to be, it will still boil down to one thing for her -
Mystic: ..... rejection

Staccato Speak

Text communication in a chat room or channel often assumes a staccato style. Most of the time people express what they have to say in a brief sentence or two, or in sentence fragments. This style works well when people are joking around and ribbing each other, often in what turns out to be a playful game of "can you top this." In these kinds of exchanges, it usually doesn't matter too much if the other users' messages arrive on your screen out of the order in which the users may have intended them (which happens often in chat rooms), since there is no specific logical sequence that is needed for the ideas. It is more of a group "free for all." The following example illustrates this - and also lends fuel to the hypothesis of some psychologists that computers serve as sexual symbols for some people.

Dragon: next ur gonna say she has a 15 inch monitor, right?
Daisy: 20 inch, Dragon
THR: geez and black and white haha
Mr. Tops: 17 in rotating
Daisy: hahahahhahah
Tweety: bigger is... bigger!
Dragon: wow, no wonder you gals like macs so much
Daisy: doesn't have to be bigger, just better
Daisy: and rechargeable
Tweety: or plugged in the wall...
Hawkeye: what about bigger AND better?
Mr. Tops: its not the size of the monitor, but the driver behind it
Tweety: with loads of amps
Hawkeye: as one of my friends like to say, "How hard is your big drive?"
Daisy: lol!
Dragon: more importantly, Hawkeye, is it compressed?
Daisy: more importantly, is it unzipped
Hawkeye: and how often do you optimize it?
Lola: or is it backed up?
Dragon: only in san francisco
Daisy: LOL!

The staccato style of speaking is very apparent in a chat room or channel where people are meeting each other for the first time. Because none of the visual cues of face-to-face encounters are available, people feel the need to quickly test the waters to determine the qualities of the users around them and whom they want to engage. Questions that would be considered less than tactful in face-to-face encounters are a bit more socially acceptable here. Terse inquiries tossed out to a fellow user, or the entire room, might include "Age?", "M/F?", "Married?"

Staccato speak also includes a wide range of acronyms, like BRB (be right back), AFK (away from keyboard), IMHO (in my humble opinion), LTNS (long time no see), and LOL (laughing out loud). Different acronyms evolve in different online cultures, but the LOL is ubiquitous. So important is the need to express pleasure and laughter that a graduated series of such expressions have evolved. "Hehe" or "hehehe" indicates a giggle, or a polite/obligatory chuckle: the user finds something humorous, but not humorous enough to deserve a LOL, ROFL (rolling on floor laughing) or LMAO (laughing my ass off).

To the Point

The terse style of talking in chat environments can result in either superficial chat, or a very honest and "to-the-point" discussion of personal issues. One doesn't have the verbose luxury of gradually leading the conversation to a serious topic, so self-disclosures sometimes are sudden and very revealing. The safe anonymity resulting from the lack of ftf contact - as well as people not knowing who you "really" are - also contributes to this honest and open attitude. In the following excerpt, both superficial and very personal conversations are occurring simultaneously. Dan and Diamond sense the seriousness of Helen's distress and try to address it. On the other hand, LostBoy tends to speak inappropriately because he is unable to detect the seriousness of this discussion - partly due to the fact that he can't see or hear Helen's depression, and partly due to his lack of interpersonal sensitivity (the lack of ftf cues probably amplifies the interpersonal insensitivity of some people). Arriving in the middle of the discussion, Yabada also cannot sense the serious atmosphere in the room - which, in the ftf world, most people would pick up almost immediately. He decides to leave - rather ungraciously abrupt by real-world standards, though acceptable in cyberspace - when he finally realizes what is happening in the room and what Helen wants and needs: an understanding stranger to listen to her anonymous self-disclosures about her problems. It's a need that brings some people to chat rooms.

Dan: Helen, you sound depressed
Helen: I am forever depressed
LostBoy: If you traveled back in time and killed yourself, you wouldn't be alive now so you could go back in time to kill yourself. A paradox!
Diamond: I was like that alot.... now I am doing better thanks to prosac
Dan: Helen, why are you depressed?
Helen: my heart hasn't healed from life yet
Diamond: I have a family of depressed people
Yabada: hi folks!!!
Diamond: and .. like I said... am doing better
Yabada: hi Diamond!
LostBoy: Helen, I have almost no self confidence...but I never let it get me down.
Diamond: hi Yabada
Yabada: I pale to see myself typing this...but how old are you Helen?
LostBoy: Yabada, are you hitting on poor Helen?
Dan: Helen, did you just break up?
Helen: no he's being very nice
LostBoy: I have never officially had a girlfriend before.
Diamond: I am in therapy now
Helen: I have a psychiatrist
LostBoy: Never been on a date. Never done the hunka chunka
Helen: actually a good listner is all I need right now
Yabada: Gotta go. See you all later.

Group Free-Association

When a whole room is focused on discussing a single topic, the conversation often takes the form of group free-association. Unlike face-to-face discussions, it's not clear who is reacting to whom because there is no eye contact. Any given user may be addressing a comment to one other particular user, or to the whole room. If people don't preface their message with the other user's name, it's not easy to tell who is reacting to whom, or if someone is indeed speaking to the whole group. Messages also appear on your monitor in an intermixed, slightly non-sequential order, unlike face-face-discussions where people typically respond to the idea that was just previously mentioned. The logical flow and transitions of face-to-face encounters are much less apparent. The net result is a group "free association" where ideas bounce off each other and the "owner" and "recipient" of the ideas become secondary. In the excerpt below, people are discussing internet romances.

Susan: You can make the other person look anyway you want them to
polly: mental love is powerful
Susan: I think the internet is a very dangerous place for some marriages
Jen: a few friends argue that cyberaffairs aren't a problem to their marriages
Jen: i think they may be deluding themselves in some cases
polly: if you are looking, you can find love anywhere
Jo: some say cybersex isn't really adultery
Al: give me ambiguity or give me something else
Wisk: i don't think you can really love someone in cyberspace
Jen: hmm is this the topic we started on?
Wisk: until you've spent time with them in person
Jen: can you say "infatuation"?

Just Between You and Me (public and private self)

Quite unlike face-to-face encounters, people can send private messages to another user in the room - a message that no one else in the room can see. There may be very few or no messages appearing on YOUR screen, but the room may not be quiet at all. There may be numerous private exchanges among the other people. In face-to-face encounters, the equivalent would be a silent room filled with telepaths!

If you are engaged in one of those private discussions, as well as conversing with people out loud, you are placed in the peculiar situation of carrying on dual social roles - an intimate you and a public you, simultaneously. Even more complex is when you attempt to conduct two (or more) private conversations, perhaps in addition to public ones. You may be joking privately with user A, conducting a serious personal discussion with user B, and engaging in simple chit-chat out loud with the rest of the room. This highly complex social maneuver requires a psychological mechanism called "dissociation" - the ability to separate out and direct the components of your mind in more than one direction at the same time (the same mechanism that becomes pathologically exaggerated in multiple personality disorders). It takes a great deal of online experience, mental concentration, and keyboarding skill (eye/hand coordination) to pull it off. There is no equivalent for this in face-to-face encounters, except perhaps having two or more people on different phone lines. But in that situation, your phone partners know you are dividing your efforts to other people, while the chat room users may have no idea of your social juggling.

In the excerpt below, Alloy skillfully maneuvers his private conversations with Ocean and Cowboy, while also carrying on a public exchange with Mr.X. Asterisks indicate a person who is sending a private message. This excerpt is hard to follow, so read it slowly. It's a good example of how "being there" - in contrast to reading a log excerpt - makes it much easier to understand what is going on:

Alloy: Hey MrX... you got any good CUSeeme reflector lists!
Ocean: hi again
MrX: I just got CuSeeMe...and have no reflectors
Alloy: almost every reflector I try doesn't work!!!
*Ocean*: my daughter is giving me grief about online time
MrX: it takes time Alloy... I'm sure we'll both get familiar with it : )
*Alloy*: really?
*Alloy*: my kids complain sometimes too
Alloy : so ya got a camera MrX?
MrX: yes : )
*Cowboy*: Hey, ltns, Alloy. How're you doing?
Alloy: MrX... can you TYPE text with CUseeme?
*Alloy*: pretty good, Cowboy
MrX: no Alloy, I can't...but I think PC users can
*Alloy*: does your daughter REALLY get annoyed about the computer?
*Cowboy*: how are things at work?
*Ocean*: an exaggeration but she is annoyed.... feeling neglected
*Alloy*: yeah... I feel guilty sometimes about being on the computer so much
*Alloy*: very busy

Who Says Chat is Superficial?

The word "chat" surely connotes a superficial mode of relating. Indeed, conversation in a chat room often is less than "deep." But as we've seen in the log excerpts so far, the conversation sometimes is very meaningful. Despite the staccato style and the potential for buzzing confusion, discussions can be very fluid, sophisticated, and personal. In the excerpt below, the ideas are complex and the interactions subtle. It also illustrates the "leading" strategy. These three people are discussing whether Palace is a "real" community:

BigThink: do you think Palace is a "community"?
Joan: yes i do
BigThink: question is... what is "community"
Balance: there are some members that depend on it
BigThink: but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a community
Joan: hmmmm... interesting
Balance: there are repeated interactions
Joan: its a group of people with commonalities
Balance: certain people care about each other...look for each other
BigThink: is that community?
Joan: as much as any other "community"
Balance: or more so
Balance: there are "relationships" which are beyond the sum of the individuals
BigThink: if people hang out at a bar regularly... is that a community?
Joan: this is not just a bar, BigThink
BigThink: I'm playing the devil's advocate
Joan: ah... and doing well at it ; )
BigThink: hehe
Balance: some people here call each other, see each other in "real life".... help each other
Balance: so there are commitments to each other, and the group
Balance: if that isn't a community, what is?


Humans are funny. Present them with a limit, and they find ways around it. Give them a seemingly simple and straightforward medium, and they find all sorts of ways to creatively fiddle with it. For example, in TextTalk, all you have are some letters to represent your identity. You create a word to represent you. Sure, that's enough in itself for people to invent all sorts of imaginative names for themselves. But people go beyond that. They elaborate and decorate their name with any variety of keyboard characters that your fingers can tap. Names may range from a highly ornate:


to a quasi-auditory:


to a stark, abstract, preverbal:


Because there are no visuals in TextTalk, body language is impossible... Or is it? "Parenthetical action" can convey any almost physical expression, some that even may be impossible in the ftf world. The parenthetical icing added to one's message can clarify or amplify the message, add subtlety to it, and sometimes even sarcastically contradict it:

- Ah, shucks... That was so nice of you to say! (blushing)
- That's fantastic news! (doing a backflip)
- I'm Mac. You're PC?... Sorry bout that (ducking in anticipation)
- Gee, aren't you just the sweetest thing I ever saw (gag)

A Dying Art?

Sooner or later, bandwidth is going to increase substantially. Video and audio streaming will make it much easier for people to chat with voices, and facial expressions, and body language - almost like "really" being there. When that happens, will text-only chat environments die out? Will TextTalk become an amusing bit of history in the fast-paced world of internet technology?

Perhaps not. Some people strongly prefer the minimalist style of TextTalk. They enjoy the anonymity, as well as the challenge of creatively expressing themselves given the barest bones possible. They see beauty in the clean, simple, quiet flow of scrolling words. Sights and sounds are but extraneous noise that clogs the pure expression of mind and soul. To these people, TextTalk is an art that must not die.

This article is
offered for CE credit.
Click here for information

See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

Communicative Subtlety in Multimedia Chat: How many ways can you say "Hi" at the Palace?
Hypotheses about online text relationships
Email communication and relationships

back to the Psychology of Cyberspace home page