Communication is at the heart of how we shape our daily lives and society. In the current
age of rapid technological and cultural changes, it has become fast, placeless,
ubiquitous and overly accessible. In contrast, in-person communication remains
slow (e.g. requires to be at the same place), multisensory (e.g. allows to
perceive the other beyond hearing) and tousled (e.g. infused by sarcasm or
irony) but with a broad range of communicative capacity (e.g. eye contact,
gestures, a tone of voice).
With the rise of the Internet, it is crucial to look at the consequences of the way it is prompting us to communicate increasingly via text as a fast paced computer-mediated way of communicating, satisfying our craving for efficiency while lacking to sufficiently meet our desire to express empathy and emotions.
As a consequence, the proposed solution Vivid Text merges the systematics of both in-person and text-based communication to create a new culture of communication, which does not forfeit the senses in pursuit of speed but moreover offers new interactions to express emotions and empathy when communication via the Internet.
Today, we find ourselves facing the world full of people who are optimizing themselves, reaching for a better self, craving to be efficient with every beat of their heart. Meanwhile, the same people desire genuine relationships with others, wanting to be together, longing to be loved. In this world, communication presents itself as the only tool to express our thoughts, ideas and needs, but also as a means to create, maintain and intensify relationships.
As already investigated by pioneers such as Marshall McLuhan, technology can turn our world upside down in the process of its evolving (e.g. letterpress). Nowadays, in the framework of a fast-paced society, an infinite variety of media makes it even harder for us to keep up with. But also, thanks to these media, we are connected to an extent that was never reached before in human history. Computers, mobile phones and the Internet are interwoven with our daily life, they mediate large parts of our communication. They make it possible to communicate whenever and wherever we want. But, while seeking for the faster, higher and further, we move towards a society characterized by a new kind of solitude, lacking authentic connections, as observed and scrutinized by Sherry Turkle (2011). Although we are always connected, we are alone, physically separated from each other. As a consequence, communicating in physical co-presence might be at stake, displaced by computer-mediated communication.
However, our desire to bond through spending time in physical co-presence and to interact with every fiber of our bodies is stronger than our craving for efficiency. Longing to show our personality but also to inhale the fragrances of the interlocutor, we sincerely appreciate spending time together, standing in front of each other to perceive us as a whole. While doing so, we make use of the full communicative capacity of our body, for instance, to cover up moments of discomfort with a distracting gesture or calm someone down with a gentle voice.
It becomes clear, that we desire two things which do not fit but rub each other up the wrong way. For reasons of efficiency, we communicate in a text-based manner via the Internet. We appreciate that it takes place asynchronously and only asks for our attention when necessary. But we miss fully expressing our personality. As we feel greater oneness in physical co-presence (Okdie, Guadagno, Bernieri, Geers, & Mclarney-Vesotski, 2011/1, p. 156), we desire to conduct fully committed conversations in-person but also accept to be highly involved and to take more time to convey one’s message.
Bridging back to the technologies which mediate communication in our current digital age, no solutions are found which fulfill both a craving for efficiency and a desire for bonding with others. Consequently, this thesis explores two kinds of communication, text-based and in-person communication, to identify and merge their strengths. Thereby, it demands a new kind of communication for humankind, opting to enter an era characterized by the hybrid of the two above mentioned alternatives, allowing a greater abundance of communicative capacity to express emotions and empathy.
Taking the present state of communication in an age characterized by fast technological changes as a starting point, this thesis explores the importance of the medium as a carrier of a message but also of interpersonal and expressive cues. Furthermore, it investigates the rise of the mobile phone and the Internet, which made communication placeless, ubiquitous, fast and easily accessible, resulting in a society that communicates more and more via text. The example of dating Apps that aim to connect people in-person, will make visible the friction between a desire to communicate with more than words and a desire to communicate efficiently. Looking at designer’s practices will help to understand the possibilities and challenges of computer-mediated communication. Finally, this thesis introduces and scrutinizes a hybrid that merges the strengths of in-person and text-based communication. This tool is analyzed concerning its efficiency, usability and capability of transferring more than words as well as its influence on communication in a broader sense. Additionally to the existing tool, possible applications and developments are discussed to show how the tool can possibly be integrated into our society.
Communication in the Digital Age
As we are social beings, large parts of our brains are concerned with social interaction (Adolphs, 2009). Communication as such exists by biological nature and is a key to create, maintain and intensify social ties and relationships (Cushman & Cahn, 1985). Both phatic (serving a social function, e.g. scratch one’s head) and emphatic (seeking/offering information, e.g. asking for the time) messages were used by early humans to survive in the physical sense but also as social groups (Moran, 2010, p. 55). Thus, communication is at the heart of our society.
When trying to understand the origins of communication, we tend to imagine a setting of two (or a few) persons, exchanging and passing on skills and stories in preliterate culture. Also, we refer to debates and public oration of ancient Greece. fig. 01 Either way, the setting required the involved interlocutors to be at the same time at the same place which causes the major downside of primarily oral communication: It is entirely ephemeral, there is no way to record it, but the level of its longevity is limited to the memory of the present persons. For this reason, humankind enlarged its sphere of communication by designing communication media, for instance, cave paintings as the most well-known form of primitive communication.
Marshall McLuhan, pioneer in Media Theory, once argued that not only the medium is the message but that furthermore, we cannot understand the message unless we understand the medium (McLuhan, 2001). Although his words seem to be more relevant than ever before, McLuhan failed to take into account that media would change so quickly that it becomes ever harder for us to keep up. Hence, this chapter investigates what communication is in the age of fast and significant technological changes that result in a messy, fragmented media world. Maybe, it is outdated that McLuhan once emphasized the human sensorium in each medium by punning on the word “message” (“The Medium is the Massage”). However, it could be suitable to rephrase his words into “The Medium in the Mess Age," even if it was beyond his imagination that it is nowadays possible to have umpteen different Instant Messengers on one single smartphone.
Communication evolves as technology and media evolve, which brought us in an age where large parts of communication take place asynchronously (severing the real-time aspects of communication) and irrespective of place. In the following, it will be worked out, how this process happened and how asynchronous Internet-based communication, text-based in particular, transform our society into a society characterized by efficiency and acceleration, as specified by Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han (Han, 2015).
The letterpress was the key format for mass messages years after its invention in the mid 15th century. Only the invention of the electric telegraph in the 19th century by Samuel Morse marks the next significant milestone in the development of communication media. fig. 02, 03 For the first time in human history, it became possible to communicate “instantly” (although with just a few characters per second) across long distances, without even leaving the house. The message could be carried irrespective of the physical movement of an object or person such as a letter or a postman.
In the 21st century, after the inventions of the radio, telephone, television, Tim Berners-Lee’s “World Wide Web” and Marc Andreessen’s first revolutionary browser in 1993 (Mosaic), the Internet and the incredible boom of mobile phones manifested a real need for constant connection in a physically and socially dispersed society. Smartphones and the Internet represent the most recent evolution of this process as they are, looking at the US, “the most rapidly adopted consumer technologies of all time” (Dediu, 2012). Both only required about ten years to invade a half of all households. Moreover, even regions of the world with difficult access to electricity or computers, such as parts of Africa, are fast growing markets for cell phones (GSM Association, 2011). Though with inequalities in bandwidth, efficiency and price, at this moment we can “say that humankind is almost entirely connected” (“The Impact of the Internet on Society: A Global Perspective - OpenMind,” n.d.). Only by meeting such a real need, the Internet and also the smartphone became ubiquitous. This, along with the developments in mobility (e.g. invention of the car, railway, plane) shrank our conception of time and space in such a way, that the world became a “global village” (found in McLuhan, 2001, p. 63). We cannot only instantly communicate with someone but are also free from constraints of places.
On the basis of McLuhan’s insights, also the Internet and smartphone are changing the way we communicate. As such, there are many responses and outcries, when asking how Internet-based communication (e.g. e-mail, Internet telephony, online chat, instant messaging, video calling, social networking or forums) is affecting the way we think, write and speak (Brockman, 2010; Glance, 2015; Kleinman, 2010; Knibbs, 2013).
Looking at how the Internet actually influences language, it needs to be clarified that it is neither making communication briefer nor less formal. Brief forms of communication, as well as informal communication, existed long before: The shortest known written exchange took, for instance, already place in 1862 between Victor Hugo and his publisher. Hugo was wondering about the success of his novel Les Miserables and, therefore, wrote a letter containing only a “?” while his publisher responded with only a “!”. And also, emoticons – in means of informal communication – arrived in text already in the late 1800s when the American satirical magazine Puck published them categorized in emotion classes such as “joy” or “astonishment” as typographical art (Puck, 1881, p. 65). fig. 04
Thus, the much more interesting aspect to look at is how the Internet unveiled the desire for asynchronous text-based communication over spoken communication which is naturally synchronous. In the early 1990s, SMS text messaging was developed to let customers know about basic information such as network problems. Although not intended, customers started to use it to communicate with each other (Wray, 2002). Years after, when the young started texting, traffic in text messages worldwide grew from 4 billion in January 2000 to 366 billion in June 2002 (Ling, 2004, pp. 145–146). Nowadays, looking at teenagers, according to the Pew Research Center, “Texting volume is up while the frequency of voice calling is down.” (Lenhart, 2012, p. 1). While 63% use text messages every day, only 39% of them would choose a phone call for their daily communication (Lenhart, 2012). Far beyond cost-effectiveness, reasons for texting lie in its character as a less challenging, easy and effective means of communication that potentially expands the social network (Licoppe, 2004).
Text-based communication offers the key feature of taking place asynchronously by severing real-time aspects. Speaking is most often synchronous (e.g. in-person, phone calls, video calls) and less likely to be asynchronous (e.g. audio recordings, voicemail) while writing is most often asynchronous (e.g. postal letters, e-mails, text messages) and less likely synchronous (e.g. Internet-relay chat). Writing provides convenience which then again is the fundamental characteristic of Internet-based communication: Students prefer to write an e-mail to their professor instead of synchronously communicating by, for instance, calling or asking questions in-person before or after a lecture (Li, Finley, Pitts, & Guo, 2010). Employees prefer communicating asynchronously if the exchange needs to be thought through (El-Shinnawy & Markus, 1997, p. 456). Companies prefer e-mails, social networking and instant messaging to accelerate communication and thus the pace of business (Guffey & Almonte, 2009, p. 34).
This main advantage (asynchronism) of text-based communication via Internet may, therefore, be broken down as follows. In contrast to fleeting, ephemeral and transient spoken words, text-based communication is intransigent: The written word is permanent (Feenberg, 1989). This insight marks another essential characteristic of written messages: They are documented, can be archived and returned to. Additionally, by staying available for reference, they are more definite and hold people accountable. Taking an example, it is a familiar routine to take Minutes (protocols) in business meetings to be reviewed later or to use them as legal documents.
Furthermore, especially in the context of companies, one benefit of text-based communication lies in being organizable as, for instance, e-mails can be visually sorted by criteria. Along with being more succinctly, this allows for a better overview of the content than, for example, a collection of audio recordings can do. In ordinary Instant Messengers (e.g. WhatsApp), interfaces are vertically divided into two areas: The right is allocated to the messages from the owner of a device while the left is assigned to the interlocutor(s). fig. 05 Meanwhile, the top is allocated to old messages, while the bottom is assigned to the new ones. Consequently, already the interface allows a structured conversation as it visualizes messages as one-to-one responses in a sequential dialogue.
Moreover, writing is more precise as it forces to reflect, think carefully and to be more specific. Thus it also allows being economical with language by expressing one key detail succinctly and eloquently. Nowadays, Twitter is used for educational purposes to force students to clarify thoughts before stating and formulating hypotheses and conclusions (Tinit-Kane, 2013). Furthermore, 140 characters leave little space for small talk or chatter but instead demand to be concise. In working environments, Millennials are even known for skipping small talk, not engaging with pleasantries but getting right to the point (Crosby, 2015). Also, writing allows to be more in control of the communication process. Giving an interview via e-mail allows to use words like a craftsman would use his tool. In contrast, giving the same interview via phone asks for a much more immediate reaction on quite unexpected questions.
Last but not least, even if it is not at the core of this thesis, it should be mentioned that (from a technical perspective) text-based applications run faster than, for instance, video chat services like Skype. In general, they require less processing power as they only proceed few graphics. This advantage implies fewer interruptions caused by, for example, a bad Internet connection which might be a problem in less developed countries.
All in all, text-based communication is a preferred way of communication when looking for efficiency and convenience. It allows communicating at any time from any place. Furthermore, by severing real-time aspects, it offers greater convenience (e.g. when desiring to spread a message quickly) and also becomes less challenging (e.g. no immediate reaction on a tough question needed) compared to in-person communication. In detail, text-based communication via the Internet is fast (e.g. short exchanges), concise (e.g. skipping small talk), precise (e.g. economic use of language), recallable (e.g. chat record) and organizable (e.g. search function, folder structure in e-mail program).
In late March 1922, Franz Kafka (German-language novelist) already experienced a backside of communicating via text. In his Letters to Milena, he picks up on the inhumane characteristics of technologies mediating human connections, blaming them to alienate humans from each other.
Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts […]. How did people ever get the idea they could communicate with another by letter! One can think about someone far away and one can hold on to someone nearby; everything else is beyond human power […]. Written kisses don’t arrive at their destination; the ghosts drink them up along the way. It is this ample nourishment which enables them to multiply so enormously. (found in Kafka, 1990, p. 223)
Taking Kafka and also Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian-British scientist and philosopher, into account, our preference for text-based communication over in-person communication results in a smaller communicative capacity.
[…] we can know more than we can tell. […] Take an example. We know a person’s face and can recognize it among a thousand, indeed among a million. Yet we usually cannot tell how we recognize a face we know. So most of this knowledge cannot be put into words. (Polanyi, 2009, p. 4)
With this, in 1966, Polanyi made a profound contribution to the philosophy of science and social science by exemplarily pointing out that words cannot express all our knowledge. Although Polanyi offers a much wider picture of tacit knowledge by looking at skills, ideas and experiences, it becomes – in our digital age – particularly relevant in the light of our preference for text-based communication.
Although we are neither able to express tacit knowledge in a text nor with words in an in-person conversation, our communicative capacity is much greater when communicating in-person. For example, two strangers are sitting in the same room. One stares at the other until the other rolls their eyes and turns their back. Without any use of words, it is pretty clearly communicated that the second rejects the first. This insight inevitably leads to looking at the value of nonverbal communication. In 1971, a very popular estimate by Albert Mehrabian stated that 93% of all meaning in communication is nonverbal while only 7% is expressed with words. In fact, these numbers are already noted as inaccurate (Burgoon, Guerrero, & Floyd, 2016, p. 2) but nevertheless, experts regard the value of nonverbal communication as indisputable.
Nonverbal communication is part of human nature and a lot of it is done subconsciously. In our imagination, a picture of someone sad would look the following: Their eyes are constricted, the skin between the eyebrows is drawn down while it is drawn up around the inner corners. Or of someone happy or excited: Their eyes are dilated, the skin is crinkled around the eyes. fig. 06 Looking into someone’s eyes, ergo, helps to gather emotional information before responding (Burgoon et al., 2016, p. 306). We can pick up hidden messages because we are able to read facial expressions. Subsequently, it is harder to hide one's current emotional state when communicating in-person. For example, when trying to figure out if someone is telling the truth, it is easier when facing each other as the liar might offer shorter responses, makes more speech errors, blinks or fidgets a lot. For instance, this makes it desirable to communicate in-person to achieve a better impression of the other's personality.
Furthermore, not only the body language but also the inflection and tone of voice are lost in text-based communication which then again impacts how we design and interpret a message. However, these actuators of communication play a significant role in conveying one’s meaning in the verbally communicated message. As a substitute, people send voice messages, or, when communicating text-based, use emotional words (e.g. “I’m sorry to say…”) to work around this lack of transmitting emotions. For instance, it is difficult to convey sarcasm or irony and emotions such as sympathy or compassion very well. It even leads to discussions, whether it is a breach of etiquette to send condolences or any serious news via text message (Anonymous, 2013; Epstein, 2013; “How To Offer Condolences,” n.d.). Thus, communicating in-person stays the preferred way when desiring to give a message an emotional character by making use of tone or inflection.
In addition to the usage of emotional words, dispatching emoticons represents a common way of infusing subtext (e.g. feelings and tone) in a text message. Formed by combinations of characters, these units represent facial expressions. Interestingly, they vary by geography and culture: While Westerners employ a vertical style that primarily uses the mouth to convey an emotion, e.g. :) for happy, Easterners prefer a horizontal style that focuses on the eyes, e.g. ^.^ for happy. fig. 07, 08 This difference may result from the fact that Westerners fixate their attention on both mouth and eyes in order to read facial expressions, while Easterners favor the eyes (Jack, Blais, Scheepers, Schyns, & Caldara, 2009). Yet, this results from cultural differences, as Easterners are used to suppressing their facial expressions (e.g. in the presence of authority figures) while Westerners are not (e.g. in the Mediterranean, one will see men crying in public). Being more restricted in showing emotions, Easterners consequently employ a greater variety of emoticons to express their feelings in text. Either way, the phenomenon of emoticons shows well our craving for a substitute to communicate with facial expressions in text.
Another backside of text-based communication is a widely known tendency to rely on stereotypes when lacking information. This lack of information, in the case of text-based messages, is the fragmented perception of the other’s personality. Therefore, it is harder to understand a text-based joke of an acquaintance compared to one of a close friend. A medium like Skype, which is already closer to in-person communication than text messaging, is creating a gap that prompts to build up a relationship in-person before, for instance, beginning teaching via Skype (Pillon & Osmun, 2013). And also, regarding everyday life, an already existing relationship helps to understand why someone did not reply to a message although the Instant Messenger shows that the message was already received and read. This shows the importance of getting to know each other in-person to perceive the other as a whole and to better understand their personality.
This tendency to rely on stereotypes leads to shedding light on misunderstandings, fostered by text-based communication. Already a spelling error can ruin the intended effect of a message which, for instance, resulted in a “1 million dollar comma," caused by a single comma in a contract between Canadian cable provider Rogers Communication and phone company Bell Aliant (Austen, 2006). Punctuation is, thus, an important aspect when looking at possible interpretations of a text message. For instance, it is already researched that text messages, which end with a period, are rated as less sincere than those that do not (Gunraj, Drumm-Hewitt, Dashow, Upadhyay, & Klin, 2016/2). Then, according to the famous words of Mark Twain, an American novelist, any writer should carefully distinguish shades of meaning: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bugs.” (Bainton, 1890, pp. 87–88). More recently, Kristin Byron (Syracuse University) pointed out in her research on miscommunication of emotion by e-mail that misinterpretations come in two forms, either neutral or negative (Byron, 2008). According to her research, the lack of emotional cues makes us less engaged with a message. For instance, an employee receives an e-mail from a colleague, saying they “noted” the previously received e-mail. Instead of interpreting this as “he noted my e-mail," he assumes the worst: “he doesn't care." Such an interpretation, however, was not intended by the author and could be avoided by communicating with nonverbal cues, for instance, a calm voice that helps transmitting a more positive meaning within the message.
Another phenomenon to look at when comparing text-based to in-person communication is the ability to mimic the other (Social Mirror Theory) which is an important skill in interpersonal communication. In Psychology, it is regarded as key to self-reflect and to develop a notion of self (Meltzoff, 1990). Think of a child that starts mirroring its parents and thus adopts social skills. In such a situation, according to research from Giacomo Rizzolatti (Italian neuroscientist), “mirror neurons” are fired up by the brain if the child initiates or perceives its parents are performing a similar action. Taking another example, when a conversation partner smiles, part of one’s brain smiles too. Thus, these neurons help to explain how and why we feel empathy for others. Nevertheless, Internet usage does not reduce people's capacity for "real-world empathy"(Carrier, Spradlin, Bunce, & Rosen, 2015). Indeed, keeping in touch online can improve an already established relationship (Carrier et al., 2015) and by that the time spent in-person. Although "virtual empathy" demands for more empathic interactions online (e.g. empathic comments on social media) than "real-world empathy" demands in-person (e.g. one hug), it results in the same feeling of social support (Carrier et al., 2015). Speculations that text-based communication is often held responsible for a decline in empathy (e.g. Sanchez, 2016, p. 111) could, moreover, not be confirmed or reinforced within this thesis. Instead, indications are found that mimicry takes place when texting. For instance, although not related to nonverbal cues, people communicating via Instant Messenger may adapt the linguistic style of the interlocutor (e.g. using a self-determined common set of abbreviations). It is for this reason, that it becomes of interest to investigate how "virtual empathy" can be improved towards more effective empathic interaction.
In a nutshell, text-based communication offers a much smaller communicative capacity than in-person communication. As constituted by text, the author’s personality can not be as perceptible as in-person. It gets easier when a relationship was built-up in-person beforehand, but even if using emotional words (e.g. “I’m happy to say”) or emoticons (to express sentiment) in text, the spectrum of possibilities to impart subtext remains small compared to the full range of mimicry (e.g. facial expressions, body posture, eye contact, gestures) that is used when communicating in physical co-presence.
In the current age, characterized by rapid technological and cultural changes, humankind is almost entirely connected. By designing media to enlarge the sphere of communication (e.g. access to a greater audience), society reached a condition in which people can communicate asynchronously and across any distance. In the 21st century, the Internet and mobile phones became incorporated in our society, are part of daily routines, feel like second skin. Furthermore, with the rise of the Internet, text-based communication became a preferred way of communicating, tempting us to communicate with a focus on efficiency. Nevertheless, by revealing dysfunctional communication (e.g. misunderstandings), it unveils human’s need to communicate with more than words.
When looking deeper at all its facets, text-based communication reveals both the need to communicate as quickly and flexibly as possible but also a human need to communicate with a broad range of communicative capacity. While being fast, concise, precise, recallable, organizable and less challenging, text-based communication cannot achieve the same spectrum of communicative capacity as in-person communication, characterized, for instance, by nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, body posture, eye contact and gestures. In a nutshell, text-based communication serves well the purpose of communicating productively but only poorly the purpose of conveying emotions.
Taking an example, our desire for being hugged can not be fulfilled by several hundred of e-mails arriving in our mailbox. In contrast, if one needs a quick answer to an urgent question, a very long emotional explanation seems to be inappropriate. Expressing this inherent contradiction with a famous English figure of speech: We’d like to eat our cake and have it too. We want to benefit from the newly gained digital communication technologies while retaining the qualities of physical co-presence.
Friction Becomes Visible
This chapter investigates the usage of existing text-based communication solutions that are not utilising the systematics of in-person communication to their advantage. Therefore, it takes a closer look at how strangers get to know each other with the help of digital technology. The App Tinder becomes focus of this chapter as its users aim to meet in-person while initially getting to know each other via text. Thus, Tinder becomes a case study which could benefit from dealing with the friction between a craving to communicate efficiently and a desire to communicate with a broad range of communicative capacity.
In “The Fall of Public Man” (1977), Richard Sennett (American sociologist) suggests that “Electronic communication is one means by which the very idea of public life has been put to an end.” (Sennett, 1977, p. 282) Within his work, Sennett mainly looks at how media changes our behavior in terms of prevailing in increased intimate private realm as they are consumed at home (e.g. TV). As strangers usually do not meet in the private realm but in public, Sennett sees the democratic values at risk. He argues, that, for instance, people with different opinions will less likely be in a situation to discuss and debate and thus less likely confronted with unfamiliar knowledge. Although, with this, Sennett is much more looking at how the developments in technologies blurry private and public life, his insights can be seen as a critique on how communication technologies alter the sense of place and the way we gather.
However, meeting strangers is a real boom these days. An enormous number of Apps supporting such encounters can currently be found in App Stores. In the traveling categories, services like Airbnb and Couchsurfing enable travelers to sleep at private places; For mobility and transport purposes, Car Sharing Apps like Blablacar allow users to meet new people on a shared car drive; In the Food categories, Apps like Grouper encourage strangers to eat together. Last but not least, dating Apps like Tinder facilitate in-person get-togethers around the world. The goal of these Apps is to bring together people in-person while designing the process to achieve this mediated by technology. Yet, the two kinds of communication, text-based and in-person, stay separated from each other. Our desire, to communicate with more communicative capacity in text, is consequently not tackled.
Taking Tinder as an example, efficiency is attained by allowing the users to get to know each other in an asynchronous manner. A yes-no user-interface allows to decide at one's own pace whether to "like" someone or not, without facing the other in-person. Furthermore, only mutually interested users are authorized to communicate as they can only start messaging when both “like” each other (match). This marks the greatest advantage of Tinder over conventional dating: While rejection can become very personal and apparent in a conventional date, it becomes absent in Tinder as the user is not even faced with this information. What is left, is an assurance of acceptance which is crucial in the decision making to flirt or not (Huston, 1973). Thinking of a date in a café, it requires courage to start flirting with another person that does not take an unequivocal stand whether they are interested or not. Flirting with the help of an App like Tinder is thus a lot less challenging (assurance of acceptance) and less risky (no apparent rejection) which then again marks the need to communicate asynchronously via text.
In search of reasons for the success of Tinder, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a psychology professor at University College London, argues:
Tinder is more linked to impulse and emotions and focuses on looks, which is more realistic, even if it is a bit lazier. It replicates the traditional version of dating more closely than Match.com or eHarmony as it allows for more serendipity. (Ayers, 2014)
However, while this mechanism of choice is designed to allow impulsiveness, the following exchange takes place text-based with all its values but also downfalls. Just as the other Apps mentioned above, Tinder comprises a universal instant messaging feature which is used to getting to know each other before dating conventionally. fig. 10 The desire to meet in-person though, is indicated when looking at discussions between users about how quickly they should ask to meet (e.g.“About how many messages should a guy exchange with a girl on Tinder before asking to meet? - Quora,” n.d.). Consequently, the conversation via text is not satisfying enough as it does not allow to fully perceive the other.
Indeed, in-person interactions are perceived as overall more enjoyable although they verifiably take more effort to be maintained (Okdie et al., 2011/1). For instance, if strangers interact in-person, they form more positive impressions as when they communicate via Instant Messenger, as a study by psychologist Bradley Okdie, University of Alabama, confirms (Okdie et al., 2011/1). The examined friction becomes visible once more: Both Okdie’s research and the actual use of an App like Tinder show the need for in-person interaction that allows to perceive the other as a whole by communicating with full communicative capacity while it also shows a need to make use of text-based communication to initiate the interaction as efficiently as possible.
All in all, Tinder manifests the need for both communicating text-based but also in-person. As a representative for other Apps, it shows well that digital technology nowadays facilitates people to meet in-person. Although already taking advantage of in-person communication (e.g. allowing impulsiveness in the decision-making process) as well as computer-mediated communication (by implementing an ordinary Instant Messenger), Tinder is not offering any hybrid solution that allows interactions known from in-person communication in text-based communication. This, indeed, would be beneficial as it could help the users, compared to existing Instant Messengers, to perceive each other more holistically before meeting in-person.
Friction as a Design Challenge
Technology is not just an add-on to our lives. We live in a symbiotic relationship with it. However, we lack an understanding of what technology is and how we integrate or discard it within society. Writing, in particular, is one of the technologies that we do not recognize anymore as such as it became omnipresent. Moreover, the Internet has proven a desire for asynchronous text-based communication over spoken communication (2.2 The Rise of a Digital Society). While it serves well the purpose of communicating productively (2.3.1 Craving for Efficiency), it poorly serves the purpose of conveying emotions through more than words (2.3.2 Desiring Communicative Capacity). Thus it fails to comply the desire for physical co-presence while promoting requirements in efficiency and moving us towards its side.
This inherent friction becomes visible when looking at current digital services (e.g. Tinder) that are exploiting both text-based and in-person communication to connect people (3 Friction Becomes Visible). Such services tackle the need for both kinds of communication while only allowing them to coexist. Consequently, they fail to look at communication itself, let alone merging the desire to communicate in-person with a craving for efficiency. Therefore, designers need to take responsibility for investigating the possibility to develop a hybrid between text-based and in-person communication to overcome the current state of coexistence and enter a status of a genuine relationship between both. It is the designer’s role to shape and anticipate technology’s impact on society by offering new understandings and perspectives on the present and – in the particular case of this study – to create new ways of communicating for humankind.
In the field of design and art, several projects can be found that focus on the challenges of communication and in particular on computer-mediated social interactions. Therefore the following chapter concentrates on three projects that emerged between 2010 and 2016 which is a long time span considering the rapid technological developments of this era.
With his project “Guidelines for the Human Factor,” Henrique Nascimento (Masters’ graduate, Design Academy Eindhoven, 2016) explores communication between man and machine. fig. 11 While embracing the machine’s skills (e.g. ability to analyze language), man and machine cooperate to produce virtual objects by discussing. Consequently, language becomes the material and core in the production circle, just as wood is in the manufacture of a wooden table.
Choosing a bare setup of a table and four chairs, Nascimento leaves space to make the visitor aware of the value of a “good” conversation. Nevertheless, by deliberately stressing an output as a production target of the conversation, he takes away attention from the conversation itself. Although the output stays fluid and thereby can continuously change, this moment of creation appears gimmicky and accessory. Ergo, Nascimento only offers a way of transforming human-machine communication but does not investigate how humans can use computer-mediated communication to understand how they communicate with each other.
In the light of this thesis, it becomes of interest, that Nascimento arranges man and machine to meet “in-person.” Thus, they participate in a fully committed conversation, are prompted to react instantaneously instead of asynchronously. Furthermore, the machine’s ability to analyze human language (e.g. by monitoring conversational rules), is essential to maintain a certain quality of the conversation (e.g. to keep equal measures of dialogue). By stressing this skill, Nascimento empowers the machine to mediate the discussion based on how it develops. On the one hand, by taking advantage of text-based communication, he equips it with subtle ways to intervene with text-based references. fig. 12 On the other hand, Nascimento empowers the machine to intervene with speech, for instance, if one human speaks more than the other. This interaction takes on a disruptive character and exerts force on the human participants to follow the established rules. As this is artificially increasing conversational rules, Nascimento’s installation finally fails to allow self-reflect by only subtly embedding them in the conversation. Instead, the disruptive interventions of the machine might distract the human participants from the actual action.
The interactive video performance “How We Act Together” by Lauren McCarthy (artist, Assistant Professor at UCLA Design Media Arts) and Kyle McDonald (artist, based in New York) sheds light on facial expressions and gestures (e.g. eye contact, nodding) as means to communicate via digital technologies.fig. 13 This project is relevant for this thesis as it aims to increase awareness for communication as means to express oneself (e.g. emotions) while neglecting words.
In “How We Act Together," participants are isolated from each other. They perform facial expressions at different times while being at different places, sitting in front of screens. To say it with the title of a thematically related book: They are asked to work “Alone Together” (Sherry Turkle, 2011). As a result, participants can observe themselves asynchronously greeting or keeping eye contact with someone else. The interaction takes place time-delayed as the interaction partner was recorded in advance. With this, McCarthy and McDonald explore asynchronism in computer-mediated communication to make permanent (by recording) an action which is usually ephemeral. Although this deliberately creates an awkward atmosphere between the participants, the artists achieve to establish an intimate atmosphere as the users are directing each other’s interaction. Thus, this project plays with friction between meaninglessness created through repetition and emotional connection.
By prompting users to repeat (and even fake) gestures and facial expressions till absurdity, the human behavior is transformed into an automated sequence of movements. In fact, in this work, the gestures start feeling empty and meaningless, just as a word feels when repeated too often. To achieve this, McCarthy and McDonald did not choose gestures that are associated with digital devices (e.g. swiping) but instead with in-person communication (e.g. greeting by waving hands). As a result, in “How We Act Together," technology (here screen and software) is opposed by the very human body, being a tool to communicate. Nevertheless, when solely letting the human perform like a machine, the human starts making fun of the technology by making a fool of themselves. Consequently, McCarthy and McDonald fail to merge the positive aspects of both in-person and computer-mediated communication as they only impose characteristics from the one on the other.
“Devices for Mindless Communication” (2010), a project by Gerard Ralló (Design Interactions Department, Royal College of Art), becomes particularly exemplary when understanding our desire to communicate as quickly and flexibly as possible. As a series of speculative objects, this project explores how technologies offer possibilities to redefine human interactions. To be more precise: How technology possibly helps to avoid idle conversations in the future.
While looking at in-person communication, Ralló attempts to optimize human conversations by eliminating the alleged banal and idle ones. One of Ralló’s devices, “Reiterative Communication Aid," helps humans to react to common questions (e.g. “Are you listening?”) by providing answers for them. fig. 14 In the shape of a necklace, a screen is worn around the neck, providing these answers to the interlocutor. While having casual conversations, the user is not required to think and answer themselves but is offered mindlessness. Although it needs to be admitted that Ralló’s work is deliberately exaggerative (e.g. by making the human superfluous), it can be observed that the devices erode moments of social interaction which are usually key for humans to bond. If the devices would be taken as serious proposals, they decrease the interpersonal quality in communication instead of increasing it. Thereby, Rallé states, at least for this particular device, that it is the technology which is making our communication efficient while failing to see that humans play a vital role too.
In a nutshell, these three projects help to understand how artists and designers are already engaged in the field of computer-mediated communication. “Guidelines for the Human Factor” shows well, how in-person communication asks the participants to commit by prompting them to react instantaneously. Also, it allows seeing the importance of a non-distracting scenario as means to investigate aspects of communication and furthermore, it serves the purpose of distinguishing between an intruding and subtle technology-based guidance. “How We Act Together," establishes awareness for nonverbal cues by looking at communication without words. In this project, it becomes apparent how only imposing aspects of in-person communication on technology-mediated communication (but not merging them) leads to making fun of oneself and the technology. Finally, “Devices for Mindless Communication” serves as an example to analyze aspects of efficiency in communication. This project is a take on investigating the implications of technology taking over certain tasks from humans. Using the method of exaggeration, it allows seeing that not only the technology but also the human behavior play a vital role in achieving efficiency targets.
In a search for a new culture of communication, as a significant part of our communication takes place computer-mediated, this thesis proposes the tool Vivid Text that looks at introducing new interactions in text-based communication. With the potential to become an independent medium, but also being applicable to existing ones (as further elaborated in 4.3.2 Critical Review and Prospects), this tool seeks to find alternative ways to express subtext (e.g. emotions) when communicating with text. It is a tool not only to imagine but to also explore what communication could become in future.
For reasons of simplicity and in order to facilitate a better understanding of traditional text-based communication via Internet, the following section keeps the appearance and functionality of a popular Instant Messenger such as WhatsApp in mind.
The most noticeable difference between the proposed tool and all popular Instant Messenger is the abandonment of the classic interface, which is divided into two areas, one for each interlocutor. Therefore, the new interface is characterized by a shared space in which messages from all interlocutors are displayed. Messages are concatenated in one text area. fig. 15 This new visualization is related to a new understanding of instantaneousness and synchronicity as is shown below.
Compared to popular Instant Messengers, the proposed tool works instantaneously too. However, beyond only transmitting data without time delay, the user's behavior has an instant influence on the conversation. For instance, when typing a letter, it is immediately transmitted which stays in contrast to ordinary Instant Messengers that send messages by user demand. fig. 16 Just with this slight change, the notion of “instantaneous” is extended from a technical to a holistic one. What it means in practice, is that users can interrupt each other. Imagine talking to a friend that holds a long monologue about his last weekend, not offering an opportunity to speak. In-person, it becomes easy to show one’s impatience and desire to respond while in a text-based conversation it is not. Then, when one is writing a long message, the other has to wait until it is delivered. In the proposed tool, however, messages are now transmitted letter by letter so that users can interrupt instantly. fig. 17 For instance, when they realize that they already understood a question without reading it till the end, they can intervene and answer directly. The conversation becomes more vivid.
Beyond that, the proposed tool asks the users to be present at the same time. Thus, the conversation takes place live and demands for a full commitment. This is achieved by designing the conversation as ephemeral (2.3.1 Craving for Efficiency). fig. 18 What was said, disappears after a short period of time instead of being archived (as usually known from text-based messengers). This transience of the conversation combined with transmitting messages instantaneously letter by letter makes Vivid Text synchronous; Both together prompt the users to react without time delay but similar to their behavior in in-person communication. Taking an example, if communicating in-person, one would not stare into the other's eyes for several minutes before reacting to a raised question.
This shows that already slight changes to an ordinary Instant Messenger allow users to show more personality and a less fragmented picture of themselves even though they express themselves text-based (2.3.2 Desiring Communicative Capacity). For instance, if one offers the other time to speak they can show respect and interest. If not, the conversation ends up in chaos, with interwoven messages that become difficult to decipher. As this chaos shall not hinder a conversation within Vivid Text, colors help to distinguish the contributions of the interlocutors. Moreover, this reveals a challenge to balance between chaos and readability as further elaborated below.
This possible chaos questions whether this tool can be efficient. Indeed, at first glance, it does not appear efficient if the synchronous characteristics of the proposed tool could lead to chaos. Nevertheless, this proposal builds upon the fact that employing technology to take over tasks can not achieve efficiency on its own, as also elaborated in the review of “Devices for Mindless Communication." Instead, the behavior of the user plays a key role for determining how efficient a conversation can be (e.g. choice of words in example “noted” in 2.3.2 Desiring Communicative Capacity). Therefore, the proposed tool does not offer asynchronicity as property to achieve efficiency but instead holds the user responsible to avoid chaos by their behavior. Thus, Vivid Text does not promote efficiency at first glance but yet does not forfeit the senses in pursuit of speed.
In contrast to projects analyzed before (4.2 Insight into Designer’s Practices), Vivid Text sensitively designs behavioral patterns, only using text and color to prevent any distractions (e.g. images, emoticons) which could hinder the flow of the conversation and take away focus of the conversation itself. Its aim is not to moralize or re-educate by force or exaggeration (e.g. 4.2.2 How We Act Together, 2016) but rather by designing this new kind of communication to be impulsive and innocuous. Therefore, Vivid Text refuses to be an intruder but fades from the spotlight as much as possible. Instead of becoming an active conductor of a conversation (as for instance in .2.1 Guidelines for the Human Factor, 2016) Vivid Text focuses on the experience of interpersonal communication and to achieve that, stays hidden.
Just as “How We Act Together" focuses on communicating only with facial expressions and gestures, the proposed tool focuses on communicating mainly with text. While McCarthy and McDonald limit the input (e.g. only gestures), the proposed tool is to an extent limited in the output (e.g. no images or emojis). As language evolves with its usage and already is a very sophisticated tool in itself, Vivid Text aims to avoid artificial additives by carefully examining communication's actuators. Choosing only text as an output is a deliberate choice to erode distorting parameters in communication. Furthermore, it allows a deeper understanding of the nuances of text-based communication (by fundamental research).
Accepting the challenge to create a hybrid by merging both, a desire to communicate in-person and the pursuit of efficiency (by communicating text-based), this thesis investigates finest actuators of communication.
It demands an all-embracing test series to investigate further options and then refine the proposed tool’s features. An aspect, which needs to be observed is the possible occurrence of suppression to communicate concerns of any kind (chilling effect). As messages are instantaneously delivered letter by letter, the backspace key becomes superfluous. Although messages disappear quickly, the users can not take back what they wrote. Every keystroke becomes significant which might lead to increased pressure to reflect and decide on what to type (e.g. “Should I really write that I love her?”). Consequently, the letter-by-letter transmission might work against the tool’s aim to fully engage people in a conversation. Thus, it needs to be investigated whether the ephemeral characteristics of the conversation help to prevent this chilling effect and instead leads to open and honest communication.
While observing the usage of the tools' prototype, these concerns were already explored to some degree. Initial findings show that transmitting messages word by word (instead of letter by letter) enhances the deciphering of the conversation but therefore fails to be fully instantaneous. If messages are transmitted word by word, the users are offered the possibility to think in word-units and can thus edit or delete a word before pushing the space key to send it. Nevertheless, this shall be a feature to be investigated further to counteract a possible chilling effect.
Furthermore, the balance between readability and chaos (as elaborated in 4.3.1 Introducing the Tool Vivid Text) will be analysed to gain a better understanding of the implications the proposed changes have on computer-mediated communication. The use of different colors to distinguish different users already marks a slight but effective design choice as it enables the users to ascribe text to an interlocutor. All in all, this proposal grapples not only with balancing opposing desires while communicating, but also with balancing adverse effects of too radical changes in already established behavior and accessibility in technology for the user. The choice of text as the primary output facilitates the reduction of possibly distracting artificial additives (e.g. emojis and images). Facilitating the desire to convey emotions can be achieved by making use of the vast spectrum of typography (e.g. font size, font style, spacing, an addition of graphic marks). For instance, it will be explored, how font size can be a substitute for the tone of voice.
Moreover, in terms to allow perceiving the interlocutor more holistically, the current prototype of Vivid Text will need to be improved towards its capabilities to allow a greater variety of input (e.g. facial recognition). Possibilities will be investigated that allow using a greater abundance of communicative capacity, known from in-person communication. For instance, facial expressions will be recognized by a camera and an algorithm to allow the users express empathy and emotions more easily beyond words.
Considering possible applications for Vivid Text, three directions will be elaborated in the following. Firstly, in form of a functional prototype, Vivid Text allows applied research with the aim not only to imagine but also explore how text-based communication could be more vivid in comparison to what it is today. On the one hand, it enables to investigate how users interact by means of the tool without knowing each other. As this setup does not artificially impose a topic of the conversation, it allows for a pure analysis of the natural interaction with each other mediated by the tool. On the other hand, two close people (e.g. friends that know each other from childhood on) can become the focus of the investigation to further look at how an already existing relationship (e.g. with established jokes and expressions) influences the way to interact with the help of the proposed tool (referring to Pillon & Osmun, 2013).
Secondly, the mechanics of Vivid Text can be applied on established applications such as existing Instant Messengers or applications that integrate these. For instance, in the case of an App like Tinder, the proposed tool would help to get to know each other more holistically already before dating in-person. Users could show and assess more easily their personality and charisma, for instance, by not interrupting but listening. Thus, the proposal can help a service like Tinder to become more efficient as users could decide faster, already based on the text exchange, if it is worth to meet.
Thirdly, Vivid Text bears the potential to become an independent medium. It can be thought of as an alternative to existing Instant Messengers that offers a more vivid way to converse text-based by allowing to express oneself with a higher percentage of the communicative capacity of the body, prompting a more committed exchange, allowing to express oneself beyond words by expressing emotions and thus showing empathy.
To conclude, the proposed tool Vivid Text offers a new way of communication, a hybrid of in-person and text-based communication. While neglecting few aspects of convenience and efficiency, it creates a greater awareness for the conversation itself. By adding qualities from in-person to text-based communication, Vivid Text increases the experienced quality of a conversation to establish a greater bond between the interlocutors. But also, the Vivid Text takes up the challenges that come along with these changes (e.g. chilling effect) by being extensible. Defining scenarios and context of usage will allow to improve Vivid Text incrementally. All its facets (e.g. interface, functionality, context) will be optimized through making targeted observations of the usage of the tool with the aim to gain new insights to its strengths and flaws.
Vivid Text satisfies the desire to communicate via text with a richness and abundance of interpersonal and expressive cues, known from communicating in physical co-presence. It is doing so by inflicting behavioral patterns (e.g. being fully committed) and thus new social norms (e.g. broadening acceptance of interruptions) to society.
The necessity for Vivid Text arises from a lack of existing solutions to sensitively interweave text-based and in-person communication to push the value of text-based communication and our ability to using it as a communicative tool to a next level, empowering us to transmit emotions and show empathy, opening avenues for a new culture of communication.
With prospects for the future, Vivid Text openly welcomes possibilities that technology offers us to mediate our communication. But also it encourages to critically reflect on its tempting character, prompting us to optimize our communication to become ever more efficient. Thus, Vivid Text asks to look out for potentials how technology can be used to design communication in compliance with human nature.
Vivid Text encourages us to welcome the advantages of technology and upcoming communication media, to make use of them while also critically investigating their impacts on society. By keeping this in mind, it motivates to enhance the craft of design so that we can enrich communication for humankind and break the boundaries of efficiency focused developments. Vivid Text challenges us to understand the value of communication once more in a time in which our craving for efficiency blurs our need to fully express ourselves when communicating.
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Author: Annegret Bönemann
Mentors: Geoffrey Brusatto, Dick van Hoff, Michael Kaethler, Eric Klarenbeek, Rianne Makkink, Tamar Shafrir, Fabrizia Vecchione
Head of Department: Jan Boelen
Special thanks for every single conversation during the last two years – for those that were unexpected, encouraging, refreshing, enlightening, but also for those which were controversial and challenging. I want to thank in particular my parents, my tireless friends Dasha Tsapenko, Michael Johannes Lux and, of course, all my fellows: Marco Cagnoni, Yen-An Chen, Chris Cooper, Asja Eggers, Mark Henning, Sara Kadesch, Donghwan Kam, Roxane Lahidji, Shani Langberg, Audrey Large, Valeria Di Leone, Timothy Liu, Sebastian Lilge, Diogo Rinaldi, Ottonie von Roeder, Guillaume Rousseaux, Basse Stittgen and Jiayu Wu.
No parts of this thesis may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior permission from the author.
© Annegret Bönemann, 2017
Design Academy Eindhoven (NL)