The Psychology Of Internet Language

As this hectic technological age develops, one can note that a new kind of language is developing with it. It's as though this internet lingo is needed; why waste your time writing three long words when you can just push them into three letters? And we all know how valuable time is. What was always interesting to me though, is what is the reason behind this development? Why did this new kind of communication prevail so quickly? As a psychologist, I refuse to believe that being time-savvy is the only motive for a sociological move of this magnitude. In this page I will discuss the several aspects of the Psychology of Online Language from my perspective and attempt to reach a conclusion as to why this development has spurred in in the first place.

As psychologist John Suler points out, "text communication is as old as recorded history". Hence, the psychology of textual communication goes back a long way. But, Suler believes that the introduction of online textual language has new relavance in the psychological realm: "Online text communication offers unprecedented opportunities to create numerous psychology spaces in which human interactions can unfold". It is a given that online language is in no shape or form equivalent to normal textual communication. Suler cites accessibility, efficiency and speed as some of the distinctions between online text communication and regular text communication. Suler identifies in his article 12 aspects detailing this interaction between psychology and online language.

1. Writing Skills, Styles, Attitudes:

Suler notes that "Unlike verbal conversation - where words issue forth and immediately evaporate - writing also places one's thoughts in a more visible, permanent, concrete, objective format." This is, of course, part of the pull of online communication or writing in general. Suler notes that, much like any form of communication, online communication is a skill, an art… not anyone can excel at it and not everyone who excels at, say, conversational communication would excel at online communication. Another important factor here is the style of the communication. In the abscence of many of the psychological cues we rely on to understand the speakers intention in real life, "people tend to project their own expectations, anxieties, and fantasies onto the other". Thus, the style of the speaker and their elequonce is impotant to maintain the quality of the online relationship. To illustrate, while poor writing and succinct statments may make the person seem aloof and result in misunderstandings, more wordy and tech-savvy people may be able to improve the quality of the online relationship merely through their words. Suler also notes that the quality of the actual text may improve as the relationship deepens and online trust is established. Psychologically, one may not feel comfortable being completely expressive of their emotions online until such trust is established. "Composition can advance when people feel safe to explore; it regresses when they feel threatened, hurt, or angry…Writing affects the relationship and the relationship affects the quality of the writing". Also, one's personality tendencies greatly affects how they may write and, in turn, how they are percieved in the online world (for example, "People who are compulsive may strive for well organized and logically constructed, intellectualized messages with sparse emotion and few, if any, spelling or grammatical errors").

2. The Absence of Face-to-Face Cues:

When talking about online text, it is important to note that many of the factors of ordinary communication is taken away by the fact that "subtle voice and body language cues are lost" and thus human beings adapt to and interpret online communication differently. "Despite the lack of face-to-face cues, conversing via text has evolved into a sophisticated, expressive art form", psychologists then crave to understand how other cues have evolved to save online language. "The lack of face-to-face cues may create ambiguity", Suler says, we then have to combat this ambiguity the only way we know how; by projecting our own preconceptions onto the other end. And, more often than not, these preconceptions are from previous experiences: "expectations that formed in our early relationships with our parents and siblings". The absence of face-to-face cues will have different effects on different people, some people may feel that online text is distant and impersonal while others may enjoys the silence and anonymity of online text. Suler stresses that while there is indeed a visual aspect to online communication in the form of font, Caps lock, colour of font, etc. facial cues are the basis of interpretation thus this is what we focused on.

3. Temporal fluidity: synchronicity and asynchronicity:

Online communication has virtually elminated the concept of time as a relevant issue in communication: "Cyberspace creates a flexible temporal space where the ongoing, interactive time together can be stretched out or shortened, as needed". Suler identifies two kinds of communication; "In asynchronous communication - such as e-mail and message boards - people do not have to be sitting at their computers at the same time… In synchronous communication - like chat and instant messaging - [people] are sitting at their computer at the same time, interacting with each other in that moment". This, of course, means that each type of communication has its own psychological implications. In asynchronous communication, gives one space to evaluate and plan what they may have to say (what Suler terms A Zone for Reflection), a quality that is handy for those who are emotionally awkward. Suler proposes a "24 Hour Rule": they may compose a reply without sending it (or write nothing), wait 24 hours, maybe reread the message and change their emotional reaction to it. After this time, their reply may be more mature and composed. Similarly the Stop and Think method helps the person reduce their impulsiveness and embarrassment. E-mail paces may change over the course of a relationship. In synchronous communication, there is a smaller reflection zone due to technicalities such as transmission speed and typing speed. This zone may be useful.

4. Disinhibition
It is well know that some people find it easier to communicate online than in the face-to-face world. Suler names this the disinhibition effect; people express emotion easily, they share secrets and other emotions they may have not communicated face-to-face. What causes this phenomenon of Disinhibition? According to Suler, it is a combination of factors such as: Anonymity(You Don't Know Me), Invisibility (You Can't See Me), Delayed Reaction and Solipsistic Inrojection.

5. Fluid and transcended space
"Despite hundreds or thousands of miles of distance, the connection is always seconds away, always available, always on". In this context, issues such as individuation and seperation have a new meaning which can be a double-edged sword. It is important to note that although online relationships transcend geographical barriers, it does not necessarily overcome cultural differences.

6. Social multiplicity
Social Multipilicity is another feature of online communication that influences text; this basically entails that "with relative ease a person can contact hundreds or thousands of people from all walks of life, from all over the world". This means that you are more likey to adjust your text to fit different cultures and people from all over the world.

7. Recordability: Archives and quoted text

8. Media disruption
The computer as a medium is not one that is immune to disruption. Disruptions in media may effect online relationships.

9. The message body
"Humans are curious creatures. When faced with barriers, they find all sorts of creative ways to work around those barriers, especially when those barriers involve communication. Despite the auditory and visual limitations of text relating, experienced onliners have developed a variety of keyboard techniques to overcome some of the limitations of typed text - techniques that lend a vocal, kinesthetic quality to the message, that indeed create a metaphorical message “body.”" This includes several strategies such as:

  • Emoticons
  • Parenthetical expressions (explaining feeling)
  • Voice accentuation (using caps, asterisks, etc.)
  • Trailers (uh… um… etc.)
  • LOL (and other acronyms - check glossary)
  • Exclamation Points
  • Expressive acronyms (btw, jk, imo,…)

10. Message peripherals

11. Text talk in real time

12. Integration: Crossing the text boundary
"If there are any universally valid principles in psychology, one of them is the importance of integration: the fitting together and balancing of the various elements of the psyche to make a complete, harmonious whole". What happens when an online relationship develops is that the textual boundary between people is somehow overcome into an actual relationship.