Channels of Meaning and Internet-Based Communication

Different mediums of communication have different capabilities. For example, written language can’t easily capture the subtle emphases and intonations of spoken language, but it does provide more clear, unambiguous, and quotable means of differentiating sections of speech, like italics, capitalization, and underlining. That is, emphasis and intonation in spoken sentences might be heard and understood differently by different people, but everyone can agree when a section of text is in all caps. In the Computer Age, mediums like email, webpages, chat rooms, and instant messages provide us with new ways of communicating that can’t be reproduced out loud or on paper. Here are a few examples:

Hyperlink placement

A hyperlink has two parts: the anchor text (the actual words the link is on top of) and the target (the page you get to when you click on the anchor text). The placement of hyperlinks on top of anchor text allows for communication on what might be thought of as an entirely different channel of meaning from the channels that convey the text’s content and formatting (italics, font, text size, etc.). The formatting channels are generally used to complement the content channel (for example, in “I am very angry right now,” the italics amplify the effect of the italicized words), and the hyperlink channel can function like this too. I can think of two main uses of hyperlinks to support the content of the anchor text:

1) Citation: “4,326 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

2) Directions: “Wilfredo’s fifth post on laughter is here.”

I think the main difference between these two uses is just that the latter explicitly acknowledges the link, while the former would be a perfectly normal sentence without the hyperlink.

However, these are not the only two uses of hyperlinks. The hyperlink channel does not have to support the bare content of the anchor text; in fact, it can give the the text an entirely different meaning (where the text’s meaning is defined as the summation of all the channels of meaning) than it would have without the hyperlink. This use of hypertext is reminiscent of dramatic irony, when, for example, the words of a character in a play have a different meaning for the audience than for (some of) the characters because of extra knowledge the audience is privy to. Steve Rhodes’s Beachwood Reporter, a Chicago-centric, politically conservative webzine, makes frequent use of ironic hyperlinks in its news and commentary posts. For example, see the first few items in this Weekend Desk Report. These items, if stripped of their hyperlink channel, would be blatantly false; some of them, like the item about Reality TV’s potential hostile takeover of Reality, are clearly impossible, while others might be taken at face value by someone just skimming them. With the ironic hyperlink, though, their meaning is something very different from the simple content of the text.

It should be noted that the disappearance of the hyperlink channel is not just a hypothetical here; that channel is much more prone to disappearance than the content or formatting channels. If a webpage is printed out or read on a computer that isn’t connected to the internet, or if the hyperlink’s target is no longer at the linked URL, that channel is as good as gone. This can make it frustrating to read old Beachwood Reporter posts; since many of the links are to news stories from papers (like the Houston Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune) that archive their articles after a certain period of time, it can be impossible to figure out what an item is really about.

The hyperlink channel’s ability to support or alter the meaning of a text makes it much more powerful and interesting than the formatting channel. Like the other means of communication that the Internet opens up, it is a thing entirely new upon the earth, whose significance for how we communicate has yet to be properly appreciated.

Email threads

Imagine two friends whom I’ll call Michael and David. Michael and David correspond often by mail, maybe because they don’t live in the same city and email hasn’t been invented yet. Once Michael is going through a hard time, and David sends him a letter of support and encouragement. It cheers Michael up, and a few years later, when David is going through a hard time, Michael sends him a similar letter of support and encouragement. At some point, explicitly or implicitly, he might reference David’s earlier letter, to make the points that he is grateful for David’s previous support and that David should recall the counsel he gave and apply it to himself. This reference to the previous letter could well be useful, and if Michael can’t be sure that David will infer it, he may have to spell it out.

Now imagine that Michael and David live in the modern world and are corresponding by email instead of through letters. Again Michael is going through a hard time, and David sends him an email of support and encouragement. A few years later, when David is going through a hard time, Michael can actually send his email of support and encouragement as a reply to David’s earlier email. In a service like Gmail, that groups responses and forwards together with the original email in a single conversation thread, Michael’s email will appear just below David’s and the thread will be recalled to the top of David’s inbox. This means that Michael’s email will remind David of the earlier email without Michael having to mention anything about it in the actual content of the email. Like with the earlier hypertext example, we have information being transmitted over a channel that simply doesn’t exist in other mediums.

Another example: let’s say Michael and David agree to share an apartment, and before they move in they divide up the chores over email. If one week it’s Michael’s job to sweep the floor and he shows no signs of remembering this, David can reply to the chore-arrangement email and say something like “Hey Michael, can you sweep the floor this week?” or something similarly nonconfrontational. Even in an old-fashioned email service that doesn’t group replies and forwards together as conversation threads, the earlier email might be automatically quoted. Either way Michael will be both gently reminded of his responsibility and provided with clear proof that it is in fact his turn. Imagine if Michael and David were corresponding by mail; David would have to write something like “As you may remember, you agreed to sweep the floor this week.”

This channel (we might call it the “thread channel”) is a lot more limited in what it can transmit than the hypertext channel, but it does have its uses. Unlike the hyperlink channel, the thread channel isn’t overlaid on top of the text—instead we might say it’s located sort of around the text. If we want, we might classify the thread channel as a message-level channel, rather than a character-level channel like the hyperlink channel, since these are the smallest units that can carry the channel in question.

Line breaks in instant message conversations

Pauses of different duration and meaning occur often in spoken language. For example, they are often employed in comedy to indicate that the section of speech after the pause is an afterthought. Smaller pauses are sometimes (but not always) used to separate sentences from each other, analogous to a period in written language, or to separate clauses, analogous to a comma. (Example: “I didn’t manage to make it to the meeting on time, although I tried to. I was late for reasons beyond my control.”) However, the use of commas, periods, semicolons, colons, and other punctuation in written language does not correspond exactly to the use of pauses in spoken language. Any given punctuation mark (including a paragraph break) can correspond to a significant pause, a small pause, or even, in the case of commas and maybe periods, no pause at all.

Just as pauses in spoken language and punctuation marks in written language have somewhat different uses, line breaks in instant messages (or chat rooms) have somewhat different uses from either pauses or punctuation marks. This is by no means immediately apparent. For one thing, instant messaging, like spoken language, is conducted in real time, which means that a line break often results from and accompanies a pause. In spoken language or instant messaging, if I say one thing and then a few moments later think of and say another thing, there will be a pause between those two things, and in instant messaging there will also be a line break that has more or less the exact same significance as the pause. Instant messaging is also like written language in that it allows for punctuation marks, and like punctuation marks line breaks are often used to separate sentences or clauses. In written language, if I write one sentence and then another, there will be a period between them. In instant messaging, that period will be replaced or accompanied by a line break that has more or less the exact same significance as the period.

But not all line breaks are equivalent to either pauses or punctuation. Here is an example:

me: often one imagines an example
me: and then finds the general principle in it
me: but sometimes it’s the opposite

At most one of these line breaks could represent a pause: try saying the whole sentence out loud with pauses for both line breaks and it should sound weird and choppy to you. And only the second line break could represent a comma: again, if you imagine commas for both line breaks, the sentence comes out seeming choppy. However, the two line breaks look perfectly natural to my eye. Line breaks are used in instant messaging to represent divisions between thoughts that aren’t necessarily representable through pauses or punctuation.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about these and other possibilities of communication that the Internet allows for is not just that there is room for expansion in the ages-old field of communication, but that we’ve all adapted so quickly. In particular, line breaks could have the same function as pauses or punctuation; the only reason they don’t is that their unique function is commonly, conventionally, understood. What other channels and means of communication might be opened up by further technological advances? Are there more possibilities that the Internet allows for that just haven’t been discovered or exploited yet? Only time can tell.

Questions for commenters: How might Google Wave open up new channels or means of communication? Can you think of any channels or means of communication specific to other mediums that aren’t available on the Internet? If the hyperlink channel is a character-level channel and the thread channel is a message-level channel, what would be an example of a discourse-level channel?

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.


9 Responses to “Channels of Meaning and Internet-Based Communication”

  1. It’s an interesting point that line breaks in chat are (a) difficult to translate, (b) inconspicuous, (c) surprisingly intuitive and regular

    • Clavdia Chauchaut Says:

      It’s also interesting to note generational differences in the use of line breaks in chat. For instance, here is a chat between me and my mother (note my surprisingly intuitive and regular line breaks, contrasted to her awkward and inefficient attempt to communicate in paragraph form)

      me: you are annoying
      Ann: thanks
      mothers are alwaus annoying.
      and they cant speel eithee
      I just made plans to see my mother to help her clean out her house as she had asked me to. I just spoke to her and she just told me t i can take things that she doesn’t have two of ( as if I wanted her stuff) and that sombody else can clear out her house when she dies.Gee thanks mom. So all mothers are some what annoying. sorry.
      me: hahah
      Ann: did you find where the wild things are/
      me: somebody needs to rant
      i keep finding porn
      Ann: ugh

      • Vicente Peláyez Says:

        Very good point—the generational difference was actually what made me notice this in the first place. My mother notoriously used to end IM conversations with “Love, Mom,” which also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium.

      • Clavdia Chauchaut Says:

        I have to get this off my chest: I have several times left cell phone messages ending with, “Thanks, Hannah”

  2. Thanks for including The Beachwood Reporter in this piece. However, we are not a politically conservative publication. We are politically independent, and more often than not accused of being progressive liberals. The only “ism” we really believe in, though, is journalism. That is our ideology.

  3. you should do a post on obsessive image policing by/of internet personalities.

  4. Wilfredo García Conejo de la Mothstache Says:

    I would definitely read that. hop to, Vicente!

  5. (Reposting my comment here, where people are more likely to read it. Do you have a preference in that matter, Vicente?)

    A possible candidate for a discourse-level channel of communication is choice of medium. Example: At a place of work there might be a system in which the first policy violation brings an email warning, and the next requires a face-to-face conversation. It is thought inappropriate to break up with someone via text-message, maybe better to do it over the phone, but best to do it in person. In these examples one could say that greater closeness to ordinary face-to-face speech communicates greater gravity or intimacy. As a last example, one might be thinking of asking someone out for the first time, and agonize over whether to do this over IM or the phone.

  6. […] capitalization is more useful as a channel of meaning in a proper-noun capitalization language. If I want to emphasize that I am Very Serious about […]

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