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Non-Verbals in Online Communities

A while ago somebody asked me why I was worried about one of my online friends. How could I tell that this friend had probably been through a terrible weekend? He hadn’t posted anything online about it, and he lives clear across the country, and I’ve never met him in person. So what was the clue?

I didn’t know. But I knew that I’d worried about that friend all weekend and ended up being proven right, unfortunately.

Talking to people in person, we use non-verbals as huge clues about how that person is feeling. I can see when people are tired by the way they carry themselves, the look in their eyes, the pace of their speech, their tone of voice. All of these tiny clues add up to a fairly clear picture of tiredness, and I don’t even have to think about processing this information. I just know it, and I respond accordingly.

But I’m beginning to think that there are non-verbals to online communication as well. As a community gels, I get used to the kinds of words people use, the pace of their posts, the times when I can expect silence, and the times when I can expect excitement. These things have very little to do with the actual content of their posts but everything to do with the person on the other end of the posts.

It’s kind of amazing, actually, and incredibly touching to see a community keeping tabs on its members and reaching out when things seem off. I’ve had friends check in with me when I stopped posting for a while, and I’ve seen the same happen for others. And just this week I was floored when, after posting that computer monitors were seeming painfully bright all of a sudden, a friend said she’d thought this sounded like a migraine, except that “Iris doesn’t get migraines.” And I don’t. Or rather, I hadn’t until yesterday. (They’re not fun, by the way, in case you had any doubts. I say that knowing full well that mine was a light-weight in the land of migraines.) This friend didn’t have to investigate past posts and think about whether she’d ever heard me talk about migraines before. She just knew that this was different. The fact that she knew this kind of thing just reinforced for me that it’s not just what we post online that lets people know who we are, it’s also what we don’t post, and how we post what we do post.

In a world of text, this is the kind of thing that replaces non-verbal communication. This is the kind of thing that allows online communities become more than just a group of people with similar interests.

4 thoughts on “Non-Verbals in Online Communities

  1. Insightful.

    We are pattern-making apes, we are. We note patterns without even realizing we’re doing it… and we need a lot less to build patterns on than some folks think.

  2. It’s interesting, to me, that some folks who would chafe at this sort of “keeping tabs upon” activity in a real-world community setting (say a church) seem to not-mind the same sort of thing in a virtual community setting (say a private chatroom)

  3. Aaron, I think the difference lies in what you mean by “keeping tabs on” people. If you mean something closer to spying, then yeah, that’s creepy no matter the context. But I’ve known real-word community settings where the activity was more like what I was thinking of here, which is more of a “making sure everyone’s ok” kind of activity. Supportive rather than oppressive. Online or off, this supportive kind of “keeping tabs” is a beautiful thing.

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