body language and cyber language

my new-found friend sheldon from the kitzul connection wrote this the other day:

given the world we live in with social media dominating our relationshipscapes, why all the love??!

i have had this brewing in the back of my mind for a while now. but it really hit home during a recent trip to the interior. i am an avid twitterer and saw that a connection from there was also traveling to kelowna the same time i was there. i sent her a message and asked if she would like to meet for coffee or a drink. she agreed. my friend and i went to meet her one evening and during our conversation we talked about how easily we give up trust in people we meet this way. i have had many recent examples where i meet people from twitter or elsewhere for coffee. having never met each other, without fail, one party always leaves their belongings at the table after the hand-shake to go get a coffee. somehow, having never met you in person, i’m willing to leave my laptop, keys, cell phone etc with you. i have just transferred my trust to you.

in kelowna, the woman we met with told us that her husband had offered to come along and she declined feeling that she trusted us – two strangers. did she have enough information from our tweets and blogs to know we were trustworthy?

being the woman in question, i thought i`d say something about this. in fact, i, too, think that this is a very interesting phenomenon. just one observation, about what i’d like to call bodylanguage and cyberlanguage.

you know how they always say that social media is a poor method of communication because we`re missing the body language? it is true that in written social media we miss body language (not so much when it comes to video, of course) but there is an equivalent in social media – let me call it cyberlanguage. i’m sure linguists and postmodern woollymouths have created a term for it but – well, let’s leave that for now. this cyberlanguage is quite rich. let’s look at twitter and just some of the many ways we communicate outside of the informational content of the text:

  • mode of interaction with others. do we reply to others? is there evidence of actual conversation with others? what is the nature of that interaction? friendly, hostile, fun, etc.?
  • evidence of self-involvement. does the person tweet nothing but her or his own “wisdom”, or references to their blog or web site?
  • what do the avatar and twitter backgrounds say about the person? fun? boring? interesting? unusual?
  • what does the bio say? is there a link to a web site or blog?
  • what is the writing style? formal, informal, flowery, abrupt … ? can they spell? how do they use punctuation and symbols?

and the list goes on … i often think people are developing their own unique cyberlanguage, their own internet voice print, so to say. the more time we spend online, the better we are able to discern the subtle undertones and colorations of these voices. we can judge them according to more common standards (e.g. use of swearwords, uniqueness of twitter background, amount of retweets, etc.) but we can also attune to our own resonances. maybe the person uses certain expressions that really appeal to me. maybe the person has a ratio of conversation to just-talking-to-myself that makes me feel comfortable.

and then of course there is also the content, both of the tweets and of the bio and the web sites that the bio leads to. in my case, i did go to sheldon’s blog, where i had been before, and discovered that he spoke favorable of research on drug addiction by bruce alexander, one of my favourite psychology professors at sfu.

did all of this guarantee that sheldon was a good guy and not a serial killer? of course not. but how different is that from real life?

what do you think of the idea of a unique cyberlanguage?


  1. This makes total sense to me Isabella though I would need to think harder about all the nuances we use to develop that language (as speakers, and readers / hearers)

    I had another experience of this last week meeting some people I’d got to know through online conversations. The speed at which we could get to the really *good* stuff of conversations was brilliant.

    It’s one of the reasons I think social media works so well for introverts. It means when you meet people you’ve already got to know online you can move more quickly to what feel like authentic conversations, and dispense with a lot of the awkward feeling chit chat.

  2. the experience you related makes me think of all the couples that have met online. many say similar things.

    it’s amazing how the internet/social media has opened a whole world for introverts, isn’t it? actually, now that i’m saying that i wonder whether the whole concept of introvert looks different through the lens of social media … hmmm … should discuss that with one of my meyers briggs friends … thanks for the inspiration!

  3. evan, i just looked it up and found two entries in wikipedia but they’re quite different – they sound more like some sort of esperanto. do you have a URL for the book you’re thinking of?

  4. Excellent post Isabella! i think the idea that we begin to develop a ‘cyberlanguage’ and internet voice print is very interesting. And I agree. But also, there is a part of us that just wants to trust. So there is a combination of our natural inclination to want to trust, the ‘cyberlanguage’ and our ‘spidey senses’. When we see someone for the first time – maybe having connected somehow online – we pick up all kinds of non-verbal, unconscious cues. i think we are well equipped to be intuitive about our environment. Sometimes we have left that behind and say, “well thats not rational.” This is when we get into trouble. So use your spidey senses too!

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