Communicating Digitally (Part 1 of 3)

The Language of Digital Mediation

This is the first of a three part blog series on digital communication & how people online communicate, form communities, create identity, build relationships, and develop intimacy. In this post, we’ll look at how people communicate online and build their own language.

Much of the material is from Nancy K. Baym’s Personal Connections in the Digital Age, 2015 (link), summarized and applied for a ministry context. 


How do you communicate digitally? (If you’re following along in the book, this post is largely from chapter 3, "Communication in digital spaces").

We’ve all, in some way or another, communicated using digital media - Facebook messages, emails, tweets, posting on websites, texting, even through video streaming like Youtube or Skype. For many of us, it’s just a natural extension of the ways we talk offline - written language through letters, or spoken language through our voices. We gesticulate and make facial expressions to add another layer of depth - social cues.

Here are four questions that help us understand how digital communication isn’t so unfamiliar, and highlight social cues that only happen in digital spaces.

What is Digital Media Capable Of? 

(This section is from the introduction, see Baym p. 6-12)

Baym describes digital media using seven characteristics, which help us differentiate how different mediums offer different possibilities for connection:

Interactivity

A medium’s capacity to let people talk and interact with each other - how does a medium let you talk back?

Temporal Structure

Does the medium let you engage in real time, forcing your group to schedule together (synchronous), or does it allow for larger groups to talk at each person’s convenience (asynchronous)? 

Social Cues

How does the medium information other than the message - like context, meaning, and even identity?

Storage

Can the medium record an interaction - like text or instant message logs?  

Replicability

Can you replicate, edit, or re-send an interaction? 

Reach

What audience can the medium reach? For example, face-to-face interaction is limited by the room size, but a video can reach millions of people.

Mobility

Can participants access the medium from anywhere and any time, regardless of location? 

Different digital mediums let us do different things because they have different qualities - video calls are the most similar to a face-to-face coffee chat, but aren’t always practical. When we turn to more mobile mediums, like a texting or instant messaging, we have to replace our facial expressions with other gestures, like sending emojis and emoticons.

What kind of language is digital media, and what does it enable?

Speaking the language of digital media requires fluency in many different forms of communication. Baym offers two arguments that describe what kind of fluency we need:

1. Digital Language is both writing and speech.

One example is instant messaging. It’s a written language in that you use words and characters rather than your voice, but you don’t have to follow the rules of written language, like proper punctuation, or capitalization, or even spelling out words fully. It’s also like speech - you’re free to add extra social cues that are implicit rather than explicit, like emoticons. 

Digital media is not standardized - it’s up to each individual to develop their own “dialect” and learn to be fluent in how others “speak” or “write” online. As a consequence, how you use language says just as much as your message itself.

2. Digital language cannot be defined without recognizing that you can mix and match mediums according to people’s communication skills. 

Digital language is open, loose, and free, and leaves possibilities up to each person’s imagination and skill. Baym, hopeful at what this might lead to, suggests: “As people appropriate the possibilities of textual media to convey social cues, create immediacy, entertain, and show off for one another, they build identities for themselves, build interpersonal relationships, and create social contexts...” (p. 60).

What can people do with the language of digital media?

Rather than approaching the limitations of digital media - often an argument that communicating  digitally prevents us from perceiving each other fully, or is hampered by having “less” social cues than face-to-face communication, what possibilities open up because of the freedom of digital language? (Chapter 2, p. 22, and Chapter 3, p.51 of Personal Connections offers a more thorough argument for why this isn’t true). 

As Bret argues, even face-to-face communication is a mediated form of communication. The only form of unmediated communication is through Jesus and with God. 

Rather than seeing digital media as another layer of mediation, how do we use different that those we rely on when face-to-face? I argue that digital language allows people to connect with more than just words. 

Through digital language, we have the freedom to create and share a language with people that’s tailored only to that community.  We bend written symbols - letters, capitalization, punctuation - to communicate in a language only our communities can understand. In doing so, we share a special intimacy with this group that can’t be found anywhere else.

How do social forces, like Culture, Race and Gender, shape online communication?

Communicating online is still deeply tied into our identities offline. Through we’re creating new language and identities, these don’t take the place of who we are in other circles. We still perform gender and represent race and culture online. Digital media isn’t free from sexism and racism. Rather, they are prevalent and normal, and even more difficult to see. 

For some examples of the ways race and gender affect our experiences online, consider this interview with Lisa Nakamura, a digital media scholar who writes about issues of race and gender online. 

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