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On Online Communication

by footpad (Monsignor)
on Apr 19, 2001 at 00:31 UTC ( #73653=perlmeditation: print w/ replies, xml ) Need Help??

Some of you noticed a spirited exchange in the ChatterBox between myself and another monk this morning, as he attempted to understand a point I was trying to make in a certain thread. While I can't necessarily speak for his views on the subject, I wasn't entirely satisfied with the results of the conversation. This lead me to ponder the difficulties of online communication, the risks associated with it, and my ways of trying to prevent issues from cropping up.

(Please understand that I did not consider that a flame war, nor am I trying to incite one. The specifics around that conversation aren't germane to this discussion. I am not criticizing the other person, nor am I attempting to fix any blame. More later.)

Let's start with certain assertions. In Communications 101, you learn that communication is a process consisting of a:

  • Sender
  • Message
  • Receiver
  • Medium for transmitting the message

Furthermore, communication can fail for a number of reasons, including (but, by no means limited to):

  • Poorly-composed or ill-conceived messages
  • Unclear presentation by the sender
  • Inattention on the part of the receiver
  • Impurities in the medium (also called "noise in the channel")
  • Unexpected evironmental factors that otherwise corrupt the message and/or the process itself

The sender and the recipient each have two important responsibilities in the communication process:

  1. The sender is responsible for providing the initial transmission of the message.
  2. The recipient is responsible for being open to that message, even it it contains unpleasant or undesireable information.
  3. Both are responsible for validating the success of the transmission.
    1. The sender must verify that the intended message is received
    2. The receiver must verify that they heard the intended message

As you probably know, the most successful communications are face-to-face conversations. Even if any of the previous conditions occur, you can often obviate them through clarification, context evaluation, or interpreting visual cues, such as body language, vocal tone, and so on.

These luxuries are not available in online arenas and we've all seen flame wars ignite from simple misunderstandings. Granted, we've learned typographic conventions for expressing some of the subtext, (emoticons, SHOUTING, TLA's, describing physical actions such as *sigh*, and so on), but those are crude and very limited approximations.

Because online text is nothing more than electrons striking phosphors, we often find ourselves filling in that missing subtext, generally assuming that the other person is responding the way we would in a given circumstance.

Now...I hold these "truths" to be self-evident:

  • People who regularly participate in online communities are trying to learn and to help others learn.
  • Behind every 'nym (nick, screen name, login ID) lurks a very real person, with ideals, goals, dreams, asperations, and experiences as real to them as the ones I hold are to me.
  • Many flame wars are caused by misinterpretation, which in this context is a failure in the communication process.
  • It is better to fix problems, rather than blame.
  • People who are upset or frustrated respond poorly when challenged
  • Name calling, in any form, does not help the communication process.
  • No one is perfect or right all the time.
  • Everyone is right at least some of the time.
  • No one has the PSI::ESP module installed.
  • In general, people treat others the way they wish to be treated.
  • I may be worried about a lot of things, but I should not take my personal frustrations out on you.
  • Some people really are boneheads, but there are fewer of these than we're willing to admit.
  • Perception is usually 9/10th's of the flaw.

Having said all this, here are a few points to consider when reviewing my posts:

  • I rarely fix blame; I am simply suggesting alternatives or ideas for consideration.

  • I value each individual and therefore avoid comments that could be seen as embarassing, insulting, sarcastic, or making you look foolish.

  • If you don't get my point, talk to me about it (preferably in private). My email address is not obviously public, but I am happy to provide it on request.

  • I will happily discuss specifics in private; I am reluctant to discuss them in public. I do not feel it is wise (or even helpful) to air dirty laundry in public.

  • I am not always certain of my conclusions, so I prefer to allow others (and myself) the opportunity to graciously acknowledge mistaken or incorrect assertions.

  • Sometimes, I am vague in an attempt to further the conversation and learn more.

  • It is better to graciously accept alternate interpretations rather than to continue to attempt to convince someone that you're right and they're wrong.

  • Real change, like real education, comes from within. If you work it through yourself, you will make certain connections that you would otherwise miss if you were always handed the complete solution.

    Similarly, it's not my place to tell you to change. Only you can make that choice.

  • Criticism is meant to help you make those connections; it's not an attack.

  • If we're having problems with the communications process, consider taking a break. Perhaps I'm not hearing the message you're trying to communicate or perhaps I'm not communicating effectively.

  • I don't expect you to agree with me; only to listen.

  • Don't expect me to understand that you're joking unless you clearly mark it as such. Similarly, don't expect me to understand your personal idioms or mannerisms until you've explained them to me at least once.

  • When I am specific or completely direct, take the time to listen to me.

In short, please assume that any conversation, no matter how difficult, is an attempt to further understanding in some fashion. Yes, I ask stupid questions about Perl--because I'm still learning it. Allow me the same latitude with regard to you...or your online personality, at any rate.

So, why is this a meditation? Primarily because I believe that these issues are things many of you deal with in your own ways. How do you manage your online communications to ensure successful processes? How do you respond when there is noise in the channel? What's your personal form of dealing with the lack of a PSI::ESP module?

In closing, allow me to offer a (slightly edited) quote from a friend, one I find instructional and cautionary:

Behold: A man.
  A dichotomy in living form.
    An enigma that steps on others' toes.
      A great enemy of his own tongue.

I don't ever want to be that man.

--f

Comment on On Online Communication
Re: On Online Communication
by yakko (Friar) on Apr 19, 2001 at 01:28 UTC
    I manage online comms by:
    • listening
    • not trying to fix blame, as for some situations, it's clear what the problem is
    • not criticising destructively (because then I end up in a vicious cycle known as the "flame war")
    • not trying to convince folks of my own POV (works great for anything where there's no right answer, and no wrong answer)

    For channel noise, this is much easier to deal with online than in real life. In real life, I lost count of how many times i've just wanted to yell "STFU!" at the top of my lungs so that I could speak with no interruption, opting instead for waiting until everyone else is done. Online, I can ask my question or (try to) make my point right then, and it can wait in everyone's queue. No response generally means they chose to ignore it or had no comment. Relatively simple.

    For PSI::ESP problems, I like to clarify my position if i catch these. It does neither of us any good to have my ramblings mis-perceived.

    --
    Me spell chucker work grate. Need grandma chicken.

Re: On Online Communication
by Sherlock (Deacon) on Apr 19, 2001 at 01:38 UTC
    I'd have to say this was a rather interesting (and long) ;-) post. I doubt there is a single perfect solution, but this is my take on the subject:

    Due to the lack of types of communication when dealing with online communication (no body language, voice changes, etc.), it can be a great challenge for both the sender to "send" a clear message and for the receiver to "receive" that same message. I often take for granted the information that I actully receive from someone while I'm talking with them face-to-face until I'm trying to relay my message to someone online.

    The biggest enemy to clear communication is anger or frustration.

    If you can't keep a clear head, you can't communicate online (heck, I've had cases where I can't communicate clearly with someone face-to-face if I'm angry or upset). Sometimes, just taking a deep breath and trying to make myself relax is enough to clear my head and go on with the conversation. But, if that's not enough, it's time for the conversation to end. Period.

    One wonderful thing about collaborating online is that there are lots of ways to do it. If I were to get upset with someone, I'd kindly (and hopefully privately) let them know that I was upset and, later, I'd send them an e-mail. In an e-mail, you can take all the time you want to explain your point and try to make it as detailed as possible so that your message is clear. It's often difficult to do that while "chatting" online. The other benefit is the "cool-down" period. The sender (and receiver) get a chance to get away and clear their heads and can then come back to the topic later with an open mind.

    That would be my approach to such a situation, but I'm sure there are countless others. The key is: Once you get angry, just walk away - you're not going to do any good after that, anyway.

    -Sherlock
      The other benefit is the "cool-down" period.

      This is a -very- important benefit in (near-)realtime chats. Unfortunately, this cool-down period is not exercised nearly enough, and lots of very ugly things have happened. Ever see an IRCop lose his/her temper, for instance? Ever see it in the form of a netsplit because they yanked their hub's ether out of the wall? Bad stuff.

      --
      Me spell chucker work grate. Need grandma chicken.

Re: On Online Communication
by jepri (Parson) on Apr 19, 2001 at 06:38 UTC
    Many years ago I had someone on the net warn me:

    Not to attribute to malice that which can be explained by thoughtlessness

    Actually, the original I heard had a diferent word in place of "thoughtlessness" but you get the idea. It's worked pretty well for me, although it has left me with the impression that about half the net is... thoughtless.

    It should probably also be modified to read "thoughtless, tired, irritable, not enough coffee, too much coffee, under pressure, or simply suffering a momentary loss of the sense of humour", but I feel that would take something away from the original quote.

    ____________________
    Jeremy
    I didn't believe in evil until I dated it.

      There is one critical aspect to on-line communication which many people misinterperate - emotion.

      Emotion is a difficult thing to convey via *any* written word. You start to delve into connotation. For instance, see (I think) Santa Barbara's ban on the word 'minority'.

      Unless you craft your on-line speach ~very~ carefully, and the person(s) receiving the message follow(s) your policy, your message can be misinterpreted. REMEMBER - everyone is a method actor! Most will bring their own baggage into your message. Tech folks, Monks included, tend to see email and on-line communications as generally void of emotion unless *OBVIOUSLY* stated.

      Beware of the workplace!!! Non-tech people work there, too. I received a negative performance apprasial (only negative one in four years) because my emails were misinterpreted as arrogant and rude. The emails offered to me by me were concise, writen w/o emotion, and offered direction. They were, in my mind, good workplace emails. They were deviod of amything anyone could misconstrue as hurtful or insensitive or abusive. Oh well...

      I propose a tag at the top of on-line communication, like 'emote on' and 'emote off'.

      As Dennis Miller says, "That's just my opinion. I could be wrong.".

      I miss the days of yore where '~', '*', CAPS, and other keyboard gymnastics could handle the load, and everyone agreed on a system. Too few people ever grew up on net news (Net::NNTP for the uninitiated).

      HTH
      --
      idnopheq
      Apply yourself to new problems without preparation, develop confidence in your ability to to meet situations as they arrise.

Re: On Online Communication
by eejack (Hermit) on Apr 19, 2001 at 08:33 UTC
    For me the key is to not participate in instantaneous online communication with people I don't know.

    While I may be a newbie here, I have certainly participated in my share of online forums, and because of my abrupt and wandering style of discourse, mixed in with my warped sense of justice and fair play, I have participated in my share of those wars of cinders and ashes.

    Given the chance to pause and consider what one is going to say will often times give them the opportunity to rethink and reword. For myself, I find my first response is very often not appropriate. Now, I *know* why I rant and act like an absolute idiot on occasion, have acknowledged it, and deal with it by *not* putting myself in the position to harm myself or others.

    I think the reason why this forum ( as opposed to irc ) works well is because there is time to pause and consider.

    Did someone already answer the question better than I could?
    Did I understand the answer or should I pull out a book and take another look at it? Should I ask for more details?
    Do I have something unique to offer to the topic or would I just be filling the screen with common knowledge?

    On IRC or in the chatterbox, there is a certain amount of pressure to post quickly, and hasty, opinionated ( we are opinionated here, aren't we? ) will tend to grate on the occasional nerve.

    You might offer that usenet provides the same pause, but it lacks the persistance of this forum, and it definitely lacks the noise and confusion. One of the nicest parts of a forum like this is you can look at a person's other posts...determine whether or not they are held in regard, get a feel for their writing style ( which over the long term is as meaningful as body language ). What may appear to be a thoughtless or callous remark, or something you might interpret as snide or condescending may only be part of that person's style, no offense intended. I take the slant that most people are not really insulting until they get to know you...*g*.

    The persistance and pause seem to keep the *heated* disaggreements to a minimum here, and at least for myself, give me an opportunity to partake in discourse without making a great and complete fool of myself.

    And last but not least, the preview button gives you that second chance to be nice.

    Thanks,

    EEjack

(Communication's Mantras) Re: On Online Communication
by arhuman (Vicar) on Apr 19, 2001 at 12:17 UTC
    Footpad, your words are pure wisdom.
    I've followed this discussion, and some others quite similar, on the CB with a lot of interest.

    And almost everytime I whitnessed the same problem :

    When there's SERIOUS a problem in a communication, any attempt to clarify/reduce noise is a failure.
    It's normal beccause if you can't communicate, you OFTEN can't communicate on your way to communicate...
    To use your signal analogy you can't transmit a new protocol
    for a better communication on a weak communication channel.
    To my mind, it's important to setup the 'error handling/correcting' part of the protocol before any communication.

    So why don't we just do it for communication between monks ?
    Spot the common problems, and write rules (mantra;-) for a correct communication.

    Here are some common problems I've seen and the proposed mantras,
    please feel free to complete/modify this list/mantras...

    • Rudeness/sarcasm.
      If you find that your listenner is angry and seems to not listen to what you're saying
      and/or argue on the WAY you say thing, chances are that you have been too rude.
      Thinking "it's not what I say it's the way they take it", is not an answer.
      Think in term of efficiency : when cummunicating with a client/server using a weird protocol
      if you want to be understood you'll have to adapt to this protocol,
      the same goes when talking with someone you'll have to adapt to the way he PERCEIVE things...
      And the fact is that people rarely feel offended to be corrected/commented when you use a kind tone.
      If what you want is to be hear, just give it a try, you'll be amazed on how many door a smile could open :-)

      Mantra: If you want to be listenned try to put a smile on your face, and find a common language

    • Ambiguity.
      If there's any chance that what you say could be misinterpreted, don't fear to clarify.
      (Error correcting code are REDUNDANT.)
      emoticon, re-sating your sentence a different way,...
      Whatever the way use it until you're sure your listenner get your ideas.

      Mantra: Said it once,twice or a thousand times but say it DIFFERENTLY until it becomes clear.

    • Hidden informations.
      If you want to communicate properly you should both have the same info
      In the signal analogy, think about 'state' of communicating clients/server,
      common encoding, same constants..
      It could be a good thing to make sure that both parties have the same elements
      before starting communicating on a subject, or at least
      give the info to your listenner when you think that your listennerdon't have it.
      I remember once, I thought everybody was quite rude with a newbie on the CB,
      I started to defend him, argue with others until someone /msg'ed me
      to explain me all that this newbie did before I arrived
      (flooding the CB, mass posted dumb things..)
      needless to say that this radicaly changed my point of view...
      The moral is double : First an hidden info is often an effective way to 'syncronize' a communication,
      and BEFORE talking everyone should gather ALL the informations available :-)

      Mantra: 'Informations light the path to wisdom'

    • Subjectivity.
      People are biased, it's fact, what happened to you, your education,
      even your language change the way you think, talk.
      First you must be aware of it. Then you should try to correct it !
      It's not that you're WRONG or that others are RIGHT, think in terms of efficiency again,
      try to communicate with FACTS, if you are subjective spot it, and underline it
      (IMHO, To my mind, AFAIK...are never overused to my mind ;-)
      Using the signal analogy again : remove unnecessary encoding to to be sure that the data are received correctly, avoid transcoding problems.

      Mantra : You are not the Truth, Facts are the Truth


    "Only Bad Coders Badly Code In Perl" (OBC2IP)

    Edit 2001-04-19 by tye

Re: On Online Communication
by clemburg (Curate) on Apr 19, 2001 at 19:03 UTC

    • Patience and politeness
    • Explicit, open communication
    • Reasonable assumptions
    • Love of life and other people

    ... and some humor to make it fun when it isn't.

    Christian Lemburg
    Brainbench MVP for Perl
    http://www.brainbench.com

Re (tilly) 1: On Online Communication
by tilly (Archbishop) on Apr 19, 2001 at 21:03 UTC
    Allow me to borrow some related thoughts from Larry wall...
    Of course, in Perl culture, almost nothing is prohibited. My feeling is that the rest of the world already has plenty of perfectly good prohibitions, so why invent more? That applies not just to programming, but also to interpersonal relationships, by the way. I have upon more than one occasion been requested to eject someone from the Perl community, generally for being offensive in some fashion or other. So far I have consistently refused. I believe this is the right policy. At least, it's worked so far, on a practical level. Either the offensive person has left eventually of their own accord, or they've settled down and learned to deal with others more constructively. It's odd. People understand instinctively that the best way for computer programs to communicate with each other is for each of the them to be strict in what they emit, and liberal in what they accept. The odd thing is that people themselves are not willing to be strict in how they speak, and liberal in how they listen. You'd think that would also be obvious. Instead, we're taught to express ourselves.
    (Emphasis mine.)

    I am not as generous and forgiving as he is, but I certainly find his thinking on how to communicate rather illumining...

Re: On Online Communication
by TGI (Vicar) on Apr 23, 2001 at 22:21 UTC

    When you find yourself in a flamewar, I recommend three simple steps to get it over with.

    The Three Simple Steps:

    1. Write your response.
    2. Read your response.
    3. Delete your response.

    The best way to avoid misunderstandings is to modify the above process. Repeat the Online Dialog Two Step as necessary (I recommend ~4 times).

    The Online Dialog Two Step

    1. (re)Write your post/email.
    2. Wait one minute and read your post/email.

    This technique works well for me, when I follow it. I don't come off as anywhere near as much of an asshole online ;)


    TGI says moo

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