Friday, June 05, 2009

The perils of mediated communication

Way back in the 1980's Lee Sproull and Sara Kiesler wrote a seminal paper on how human communication - and the relationships that are founded on them -- is transformed, often in unconstructive ways, through the mediation of technology. Their study, which predated the web, focused on email, particularly on discussion boards. Among the phenomena they studied was the problem of flaming -- the tendency for online discussions to fly out of control and for some participants to become verbally abusive to a far more severe degree than might happen in face-t0-face communication. They concluded that computer-mediated text-based communication has, among others, the following distinct characteristics:

  • in normal face-to-face conversations, people respond constantly to a variety of tangible cues such as facial expressions, body posture, tone of voice, smells, ambience, etc. that constrain and guide the way the respond to each other
  • in technology mediated communication, there are no physical or tangible cues concerning the people other than the disembodied text that appears on the screen
  • the lack of such visible, audible and other cues results in conversation participants focusing entirely on the words that appear on the screen rather than the person that generated them
  • participants construct entire personas of others based on the words they write and consequently, a rather skewed impression of others emerges
  • the typical interruption and turn-taking that occurs in face-to-face conversation, guided by non-verbal signals is lacking in online communications
  • messages often end up addressed to the wrong person since it is not possible to "turn one's face" as one "speaks" online
  • online communication, since it is one-dimensional (involving only text) distorts communications and relationships -- sometimes constructively, but frequently destructively
Well, I had one of those moments, today: I shot off a fairly personal text message to -- I thought -- my good friend. I was certain I had chosen the right number on my cellphone; I do recall seeing his name come up on the screen before I selected it. The message ended up with a person who worked at the organization which happened to be the subject I had texted the message. Fortunately, the message was reasonably cryptic and I didn't end up embarrassing myself. I still don't understand how the message went off to the wrong recipient. In the physical world, such errors would rarely occur since I would turn to face the appropriate person when I try to speak to them. But the design of mediated technologies places barriers to overcome whichwe need to exert extra cognitive effort -- which may act as a significant psychological drain.

Among the key principles underlying interaction design is the need to reduce cognitive effort as well as to reduce the likelihood of error - or at least to make it possible to recover easily from errors. Ubiquitously available technologies at the present, such as mobile phones, are still low down on the design ladder. High-end 'smart phones' such as the iPhone and the Blackberry do have some means of disambiguation such as the use of pictures along with numbers in order to identify recipients. But this is not enough -- there is still room for error. We still have a way to go.