I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes people tick. Sometimes it’s so that I understand my friends better. Sometimes it’s so that I understand myself better. Sometimes it’s so that I can teach better. Sometimes it functions for all three purposes simultaneously.

Like, lately I’ve been thinking about how human interaction works online and off, and particularly what kinds of information people need about each other in order to interact easily together.

At the conference I went to last week we heard about an assignment that failed and talked a lot about why that might be. The assignment was for Russian language students to participate in a Russian language forum on a fan site for a Russian pop star. For those of us who spend a lot of time online, it was kind of unsurprising to hear that the students didn’t get much in the way of participation from the forum denizens (and that the teacher had to reassure the forum owner that they weren’t some sort of spam bot). If 15-30 students suddenly showed up in my online space asking seemingly random questions, I’d be taken aback, too. So that’s one piece of the still-disconnected thread in my head. It takes time and participation (in a genuine way) before people in a forum will interact with you. First you have to interact with them and give them enough of your personality that they remember you.

Speaking of which, remembering each other is kind of complicated. There are no faces to remember, or clothing styles. Avatars, sometimes, but it seems like the people I remember best online have some kind of hook. My friend Jason is the Zotero guy. He’s more than that, obviously, but that’s his hook, particularly for people who don’t know him as well. My other friend Jason is the Apple/tech-predictions guy. Again, he’s way more than that, but that’s his hook. These hooks are kind of like stand-ins for faces — not complete representations of the person, but something to recognize from across the room.

I also got to hang out in person with a friend I normally can only hang out with via IM, and we realized how much online conversation narrates what we’re doing in real life, and how little that’s necessary when we can actually see the other person. I didn’t have to say I was cooking dinner. The cooking of dinner was pretty obvious. Online, though, these mundane things provide valuable context for what we might be thinking or how interrupted a conversation is likely to be. And more than that, they help me know how my friends are doing and help me read between the lines a little, more like with face-to-face friends.

And then there’s a habit a few non-local friends and I have of starting off a “conversation” simply with the name of the day and a semicolon. “Sunday:” (After all, coming up with a subject line is the worst part of subjectless online communication, so a day of the week works just fine. I wish email didn’t scream at me for skipping the subject line.) I rather love this habit we’ve formed even though there’s almost never anything earth shattering in the follow-up pieces to those conversations. For example, today I wrote, “Furnace guy, resting, now getting ready to spend the rest of the day on the reference desk, with a break for dinner at a friend’s house.” That’s barely even interesting if you’re my mother. But these conversations keep me feeling connected to these friends and help me to predict the kinds of interactions we’re likely to have, and when, and about what. They also give us things to talk about when “furnace guy” has come and gone. (In related news, my house will no longer be in danger of blowing up when the furnace kicks in.)

It’s about the little stuff, for me. If I have to wait for big stuff I’ll usually have nothing to say. And if you wait until you’ve got big stuff to tell me, I no longer know how to read between the lines. There’s just so much to compensate for when you can’t actually see the person you’re talking to.

And now I should get back to prepping for these classes I have coming up this week. *sigh*