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“It looks like writing but, really, it’s conversation. Don’t be fooled.”

A couple of days ago on Facebook, I posted an implied question about the nature of communication as intended by the sender and as perceived by the receiver.  My longtime friend and colleague James Pickersgill wrote a response to that question that I think is worth repeating here.  Far longer than the average Facebook comment, what James wrote is really a well thought-out essay on the ways that our expectations of written communication have changed with the advent of so-called social media.

I had written about the apparent dysjuncture between what is said (or written) and what is perceived by the listener (or reader) in 21st century communication.  This is what I wrote:

I usually think of myself as a professional writer and communicator, able to cut through the crap and express myself clearly and simply without confusing issues. You’d think after 49 years doing what I do, I would have learned something. By now, I should be able to communicate without others misunderstanding.

I’m regularly surprised by one individual or another choosing to argue, often vehemently, with me over something I’ve written or said yet actually rail against points I’ve never made which are often quite different than and even the opposite to what I had actually intended. I’m forced to wonder whether it’s a matter of these individuals “reading-in” something between the lines that’s not actually there or some flaw in my own expression which I’ve never found or corrected.

It’s a puzzle.

A writer, publisher, and editor himself with a long career in Canadian letters, James Pickersgill wrote an eloquent exploration of the ways in which approaches to communication have changed and the reasons they have changed.  I believe his thoughts on this sea-change in communication may be of interest to writers and readers of all generations.  James wrote:

49 years being a writer-as-communicator is impressive. Having read your essays beginning 40+ years ago, I can affirm that there is nothing wrong with your ability to get ideas across to people using that method.

There is an interesting dilemma that arises from being immersed in that kind of writing for years-and-years prior to this kind of writing that emerged with the Internet and the way it was fashioned as a means of social interaction (along with many other uses).

Essay-writers and essay-readers prior to the Internet were habituated to view the written espousal of opinions as permanent and (one hoped) resulting from careful thought and a dedication to ensuring the words properly represented the thought.

In those pre-social-media times, conversation was viewed differently. We were habituated to the notion that communication in that form was always going to flow more freely and represented thoughts that were still developing as much as (or more than) thought that had been carefully teased-over and deliberately evolved. … and … it had a temporary quality. If someone wrote something nonsensical in a piece of writing we came across, we were much stronger in challenging it than if someone said something not-very-well-thought-through in conversation (and then probably quickly retracted it even if only lightly challenged, freely switching horses in mid-stream while they talked to you).

Bolstering our understanding of the flow in those verbal interactions with the quickly-thought-but-not-deeply-thought character of their content, was the form of the thing. It happened very often face-to-face and so we had a lot of communication-aids separate from the words and the ideas the words conveyed: we could see facial expression, we could hear tone of voice, we read a lot into body language (hand movements, folded arms, posture, etc).  And there were cues we took in without them being on such a conscious level (as the look on a person’s face, whether there was a smile on the lips or a wink in the eye, is the other person’s attentiveness waning? etc) … think of the role of the sense of smell, picking up on things like the release of pheromones from the other person in the conversation–if that is detected, we hardly know it on a conscious level but on a deeply sub-conscious level, we have the reaction, “This is going well. He likes me.”

Even if the verbal conversation happened over the phone (and we could not see body language or facial expression), we could hear tone of voice, we could hear the person chuckle after they expressed something that, if taken at face-value, might be construed as wrong, offensive, out-of-character, etc.

Then, having been habituated to all of that, with the dawn of the Internet, we are thrust into a different form of communication. At first glance, it clearly looks like written communication … “I mean, c’mon, there is the alphabet. There are words. They are arranged in sentences. I am reading it, not hearing it. You can’t fool me: that’s writing.” However, the content of it is just as clearly more like what we know as verbal conversation. It does not have the permanency we expect of the written form; it is not as well thought-through as we like an essay to be; the way it is set down in written words and sentences is quick and less-than-careful. (But that’s startling to us: we are habituated to want writing to be different than that.)

So, communication such as this within social-media is actually “written conversation” … quite a different animal than written political polemic, or, literary critique or a manifesto for societal change, etc.

In a written exchange of polemics wherein one writer responds to what another writer has expressed and then, in turn, that rejoinder receives its own reply, etc, thought tends to be orderly and stepwise. (“You said this as your first point. Here is what I have to say about that. Then you said this as your second point. Here is what I see wrong with that” … and on and on until all 57 points in the original essay have each been addressed.)

Verbal conversation does not follow that same careful pattern. Many points in what the first person says simply go unaddressed or unanswered; one point might spark attention and then that’s what is mentioned and, in turn, that determines the flow of the chat … it does not go more-or-less in a straight line point-by-point like a written exchange of essays would; it meanders. Even the points that are picked up and addressed tend to be said in a just-scratching-the-surface kind of way (“We’re just talking here; I’m not writing a friggin’ essay.”)

The “written conversation” that makes up 97.35% of all communication on social media looks like writing in its form but is carried like verbal conversation in its content. And that fools us. And that fools us in the same way. Over and over again.

Bob, you seem to want the exchange to be deep (or deeper) and well-thought-out (or, at least, better-thought-out) because otherwise it is never as meaningful as you need social interaction to be. I can relate strongly to that. I want the very same thing. I want this to be meaningful. I want this to be deeply intellectual. I want what others write/say to be well-thought-out.

I have mentioned this to you before in a Facebook comment and I will repeat myself here: social media does not tend to produce replies that follow intellectual rigour and so are carefully constructed as direct responses to points you have made; they tend to be more of a free-association of ideas (“This isn’t really an answer to what you asked, it is more of a random thought about something entirely different that was triggered by something in the way you wrote your question.”) That free-association has little in common with those careful point-by-point literary exchanges among critics and writers but much in common with a scenario where you sit on one side of a table and a psychologist sits on the other side and blankly says single words like “dog” and you say the first thing that comes to your mind like “violet” (and later she asks, “Why did you say ‘violet’ after I said ‘dog’? That does not seem like an ordinary response.” And you answer, “Well, ‘dog-tooth violet’ is another name for ‘trout lily.'”)

So, I think you are complaining that the medium does what it wants to do and fails to do what you want it to do. I have the same complaint. From neither of us is that complaint going to have any effect on the medium. Long years of complaining and unanswered expectation when it comes to social media tells me that.

… but … I’ve always loved your essays (and other “old-style” written work) and continue to do so. … and … I’ve always loved any opportunity we’ve had to converse, too. Just remember: “It looks like writing but, really, it’s conversation. Don’t be fooled.”