Ever said something, perhaps as a joke, or without thinking, when almost immediately, the realisation dawns that it was perhaps not the smartest thing to trip off your tongue? There was, for example, my faux pas at the chemist a couple of weeks ago, where – for about the fifth week in a row they were completely out of stock of a specific type of aspirin that I’d been trying to get hold of. Frustrated, I called the pharmacist over, and asked them when they might have stock in, which they were unable to tell me. It was at this point that I heard myself say “I can get hold of crack cocaine more easily than aspirin lately!”
Probably a mistake, right? If the look on the pharmacist’s face was anything to go by, almost certainly!
I should make it clear, at this point, for any law-enforcement types who might be reading this that I’ve only ever partaken of narcotics under medical supervision! You can’t be too careful on the internet these days, right?
Actually, you can’t be too careful sometimes in SL too. For all its bells and whistles, SL is still at its heart a glorified chat room when it comes to conversing with others, and it’s not immune from from all the drawbacks that text chat has always suffered. The lack of body language is distinctly unhelpful, when a conservative estimate is that around 55% of communication is non-verbal; even worse, in SL, our bodies can easily be doing something entirely at odds with what we are typing, giving a completely incorrect, subliminal subtext to our message. Try having a serious conversation about somebody’s poor health or news of a death, whilst your AO seems determined to have you twirling around like a model on a catwalk, and you’re sending decidedly mixed messages!
Then we have all the other nuances – or lack of nuances – that conspire to catch us out when communicating via the medium of text. No tone of voice, unexpected silences while you desperately attempt to re-type that word you’ve misspelled for the fifth time, chat lag, ttypos that completely detract from the point being made, and those horrifically inappropriate gestures that suddenly erupt when you inadvertently type a forgotten trigger. It’s remarkable that we’re able to communicate at all without coming to blows over even the most innocent of conversations.
SL is also blessed with a chat engine that’s apparently held together with sticky tape, spit and hairy string – a system so prone to breakdowns and failure that many residents have given up on it almost completely, in favour of platforms such as Discord. Personally, I think that just makes things worse… Not only is attention diverted away from SL – in fact, one might argue that logging-in to SL is unnecessary if all you want to do is chat with your SL friends – but it further complicates conversation, as those around you may not even be paying attention to what is being said inworld, plus it excludes those who don’t wish to partake in any platform other than SL.
There is, of course, always voice chat, which you could argue avoids many of the pitfalls of simple text, and you’re probably right, but it’s not a workable solution for many. There are those who, for many reasons – both good, and not so good – for whom voice chat is not an option; for example, I’ve met both deaf and speech-impaired people in SL, who simply cannot use voice. Then there are many, like myself, who may have little problem with day-to-day, face-to-face conversation, but stick me behind a microphone without a prepared script and ask me to chat away, and I clam up, stutter, eventually resort to silence, and generally have a miserable time – possibly because I rely hugely on those visual clues and body language I mentioned earlier; I’m useless on the phone too, and just can’t do casual conversation, so voice – for me – is not an option I’d readily choose.
There are other drawbacks to voice chat too. To begin with, it’s incredibly intrusive: If I’ve gone to a club, it’s to listen to, and enjoy the music, not struggle to hear it over a morass of jarring voices and the babble of the crowd. Also, in text chat, no-one can hear you scream! A more subtle disadvantage of voice chat is that it creates divisions… In text there are no accents, no inflection, and everyone is on an equal footing – however, when you’re struggling to decipher heavily-accented, broken English (other languages are available), or even if it’s just a case of becoming aware that your accent doesn’t fit in with everyone else in the room, you can feel isolated and out-of-place. In these situations, I’d rather have the lack of subtleties and nuance in text, rather than the lack of subtlety that voice can bring into sharp focus. Again, there’s also the danger of excluding those who have voice turned off – like myself – who may be totally unaware of the conversation taking place around them, and may even be perceived as rude or ignorant for not contributing to the conversation.
On the subject of lack of subtlety, and bringing me back to my initial point, chat windows can be a potential minefield. We’ve all seen horrendous ‘wrong window’ faux pas, when someone has blurted out something in local chat that was meant to be part of a private, (sometimes, very private), conversation! Similarly, there are few things more cringeworthy than accidentally typing that rude comment about someone to the very person concerned, rather than the friend you were sneakily chatting to behind the other’s back! Cue some nifty back-pedalling, or hasty explanations about how you weren’t really calling them a bitch, rather it was a humorous comment about somebody else entirely.
I think we have to accept that communication inworld is never going to be perfect, but then again it certainly isn’t that great in the real world either, so really, we should probably be used to it when it comes to the virtual world.
Or maybe we should just add one of those disclaimers you see in books and movies before we even start to chat: ‘This conversation is a work of fiction. Unless otherwise indicated, all the names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents referenced are either the product of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead or virtual, or actual events is purely coincidental.‘
He said shut up – he said shut up
Oh God can’t you keep it down
Hush hush, voices carry
‘Til Tuesday – Voices Carry