This article was written by Astrid Lied and is republished here with full permission of the author
When I first logged on to Discworld in September of 1998, this was my first experience with a mud. Apart from sending the occasional broadcast to other people at the office, it was also my first shot at communicating with others in a real-time and text-only environment. I guess the mysteries of communication weren't my main concern in the beginning, but after having played for a while I more and more often found myself pondering the characteristics of the special form of communication you get in an environment like this. It's a form of communication that strikes me as a far from ideal hybrid between the traditional forms of written and oral communication, and it seems somehow more prone to misunderstandings than the other two.
Dentist on a camel, an old australian dentist.
Communication on a mud is a hybrid in the sense that we pretty much behave as though we're having an ordinary, face-to-face conversation, while the conversation actually takes place through a medium traditionally associated with written communication. The really sad part of the story is that this hybrid lacks the advantages of both the traditional written and oral forms of communication. The reason why the mud form of communication is so prone to misunderstandings is, I think, that we don't always pay proper attention to this fact. I also suspect that quite a few mudders never actually think about it at all.
A good example of traditional written communication would be good old snail-mail letters. When two people communicate by writing each other letters, the communication as such does not take place in real time. Both the reading and the writing of a letter consumes as much time as is necessary for both parties. When writing a letter, you can take the time you need to phrase everything carefully, making sure that your letter says what you really want it to say. You also have a chance to read it all again, maybe changing some parts or rewriting the whole thing, and you may even decide never to mail it after all.
So, the typical written language is carefully phrased, reasonably free of typos and spelling mistakes and syntactically 'better' than the typical oral language. This means that in one respect, that is as far as syntax and semantics go, the chances of misunderstanding are reduced compared to oral communication. But, oral communication has certain other advantages that are lacking in written communication; advantages that serve again to reduce the chances of misunderstanding and to make misunderstandings much more obvious to us right away, thus enabling us to clear them up before they become a problem.
Oral communication totally lacks the inherent 'safety' of the written form. It happens in real time and it's irreversible. Once you say something, it stays said. Oral communication is normally much less formal than written communication (exceptions to this are certain formalized ways of communicating orally, like debates, meetings etc.). An ordinary conversation between, say, two friends having a beer together is totally informal, it has no rules, you can say whatever you want whenever you want, not necessarily waiting for your friend to finish to make sure you know what he's really trying to say, and you also get an immediate response to the things you say.
Misunderstandings occur all the time, but mostly they get cleared up so fast that we hardly even notice it. Why? Because we have access to a whole array of nonverbal means of communication: body language, facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice. We smile, laugh and cry and we look each other in the eyes. All these signals are vitally important parts of oral communication, and even if they don't convey much in the way of actual information, they help us in two very important ways: they make it very much easier to understand the intentions behind what the other person is saying, if it's meant seriously or just as a joke. These signals show us the other person's immediate reactions to what we say. In both cases this turns most misunderstandings into minor obstacles that are hardly noticed.
Of course there are some ways of getting around the lack of nonverbal means of communication on a mud. For instance, you can show the person you're talking to that you are smiling in several ways, like :o), or *grin* or with soul commands like 'smile tilly'. Still, these things do not happen all by themselves like a real smile usually does. You have to think about it and actually type it out. And even when you do that, a signal like this added to a sentence that is ambiguous for some reason or other doesn't always help. If there's some sort of tension already building up in a conversation, there's a good chance that signals like this will just be interpreted as irony anyway.
According to my own experience, a normal, friendly conversation on a mud will not suffer much from these disadvantages, but as soon as there are stronger emotions involved, misunderstandings happen a lot more frequently than they do in the more traditional forms of communication.
On Muds we communicate through written words only, but in real time. Most of the stuff we type out and pass on to our fellow Mudders would never get past the "quality control" we impose upon ourselves when writing a letter, and on top of that we have to keep telling each other - in some way or other if we are happy, sad, angry, excited or disappointed, and if we're joking or being serious. We would all do well to keep these limitations in mind, both when saying things ourselves and when interpreting things that others say to us.
November 1999 Imaginary Realities, the magazine of your mind.
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