Text chatting versus Face to Face talking

On: April 11, 2007
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About Pepijn Uitterhoeve
I'm Pepijn, a veteran Utopia player (and gamer in general). I intend to write my master thesis on Utopia, and focus mainly on the cooperative aspects. Some more stuff about me may be found here: http://peppie.wordpress.com/about/


I’m getting rather tired of people ranting on about the inferiority of text-based conversation such as MSN, ICQ, AIM, Yahoo! messenger, G-talk and IRC. The prevailing opinion seems to beFace to Face vs Instant Messaging that face to face communication is hands down superior to online text conversations, because face to face includes body language, intonation, facial expressions, physical contact and so on. The story goes that consequently there is a huge information loss during online communication because of the aforementioned features lacking in text-based conversation. Efforts to bridge this gap, like the usage of emoticons in text-based conversation, merely constitute a poor substitute.

Another notion going hand in hand with this view is the belief that it is ‘better’ that a person spends time outside of the house, meeting people face to face at bars, clubs, fraternities, sports teams and so on. I think this trend has been going on ever since television addiction became a social issue, of people ‘wasting their time’ on their own as opposed to being socially active. It is the reigning (conservative) way of viewing human contact, to a point that everyone can’t feel but a little guilty or ashamed that, when asked where you were last saturday night, you have to answer “behind the computer”.

While I do not want to take this dominant view of RL communication versus online communication head on, I do want to speak in the defense of the latter. Rather than simply being an inferior way of communicating, I’d like to point out some specific advantages of IM communication which may or may not be obvious.

[1] Chat History.

In the old days, ICQ used to give you little text boxes into which you typed a message, which would be sent off and disappear from your screen. Then, if your conversation partner was online and replied to you, you’d see a blinking message next to his/her name in the ICQ interface, which would spawn a popup upon doubleclicking with his/her reply. It was cumbersome, a kind of popup email, but new and fun, and ICQ featured a message history.

A bit later MSN got mainstream, and (quite revolutionary) allowed recently sent and received messages to be displayed in a single chatbox. However, for some reason the earlier versions eschewed things like offline messaging and message histories.  

IRC, of course, both allowed a message history (logfile) and kept your recent conversation on screen, but was harder to ‘get into.’ Still, it is my personal preferred IM application since it also allows many to many conversations in an extremely friendly and clear chat environment.


One of the funny things about sound is that you can’t really freeze and capture it like a photograph. It is notoriously hard to search a soundscape for the stuff you want, or index it without substantial expertise. That’s why people write transcripts. Sound and soundrecordings are cumbersome.

And that is IF you even have a recording. Face to face conversations are fleeting. Most of us (at least the sane) don’t industriously record every conversation we have with people. Interesting and deep discussions become a thing of the unforgiving permanent past the moment they end. Of course, they will be kept somewhat in our memories, where they will be immediately edited (raped) by our silly brains, forgetting certain parts and overemphasizing others.

This is the subject of so much frustration. “I am CERTAIN you said that.” “No I didn’t!” “Yes you did!” “When?” “I can’t remember. Between two and eight months ago?” and so on.

I bet you can see where I’m going. Logfiles and message histories preserve our conversations as they had happened. When your online conversation partner gives you shit about something you supposedly have said, of which you are sure you haven’t, all you have to do is locate the appropriate logfile and present him or her with the cold hard evidence. Misunderstandings and potential causes of festering feuds are avoided with some deft use of the standard search functions (ctrl+f) present in every chat history browser.

Furthermore, having on-screen reference to recently written lines helps along the communication in several ways. It makes it more easier to address the things someone else has said earlier because no part of the conversation obfuscates another part, whereas in a linear sequence of spoken words earlier things said are prone to slip from your memory even though you wanted to comment on them. This is why people often interrupt one another; to make sure the points they wanted to make are stated before they are forgotten.

[2] Time to reflect and contemplate

Have you ever had one of those conversations where every word counts? Job interviews, trying to save or break a relationship, heated debates with your parents (or children) reaching very dangerous climaxes and so on? Have you ever wished “you hadn’t said that”? Face to face communication is fast paced. It requires your full concentration and devotion. Taking pauses to think is not always appropriate, viable or possible. These pauses themselves may contain meaning for the other party that you really really did not want or mean to convey. Especially when emotions are involved, things can slip out in oral conversations that shouldn’t have.

In truth, fast typers have the same problem. Text chatting is not immune to the same pitfalls and problems of face to face communication in this regard and it has some extra danger added to it concerning informationloss due to lack of bodylanguage, intonation and so forth. The difference however is that you have way more opportunity to really think things through before you hit the [return] key. You can sit back in your chair, not having to worry about uncomfortable silences, and reply a minute later without feeling the direct pressure of eyes staring at you.

As such, in text chatting you can appear reasonable, calm, informed or insightful while in face to face communication you might seem rash, ignorant, offensive, indecisive, blunt or stupid. Most likely if you are such a person it will translate to text chatting as well, but at least you have a CHANCE to redeem yourself.

[3] Freedom

Text chatting provides both conversation partners the ability to do things besides holding the conversation without appearing inattentive, rude or distracted. In face to face talks you have to keep your mind sharp and focused in order to maximize information intake: nuances in expressions, intonations and on the fly translations when dealing with someone with a heavy accent or some other speech impediment do not afford a half distracted mind. Having your mind elsewhere is considered disrespectful or offensive – we all know the examples of a wife talking to her husband “Have you done the dishes?” “Yes, hun.” “Are you going to pick up that couch from the neighbours?” “Yes, hun.” “Are you even listening to me?” “Yes, hun.” “Did you know our daughter turned into a goat?” “Yes, hun.” *SMACK*

Text chatting affords distractions. We can listen to music, read a Masters of Media blogpost, write a paper and eat dinner while still being able to keep a fruitful conversation going. We no longer have our attention tyrannized by our conversation partners – conversations are part of our information flow rather than being attention monopolizers. This is likely also a reason why SMS is such a brutally popular function on cellphones, and a reason why instant messaging as a medium is unlikely to be replaced by computer mediated audio or video chat in the future.

[4] Context

Face to face conversations happen everywhere and anywhere; on trains, in living rooms, in hallways, during sex,  in waiting rooms, in fox holes, under shields while suffering a rain of Persian arrows and so on. What these locations and situations have in common is that the people involved are unlikely to have an internet terminal standby to look up extra information regarding a conversation topic. In face to face conversations, you can claim things like the earth being spherical, WTC 7 being brought down in a controlled demolition or Scarlett Johansen having an awful taste in gala dresses but you will generally have trouble summoning evidence supporting these assertions. You have to take things, heh, at ‘face value’. You can also get into frustrating situations like being unable to recall the name of a song even though you know a string of lyrics from it, or having forgotten the name of that action film with Nicolas Cage in some prison airplane.

In these situations, instant messaging wins again. Not necessarily due to its innate features (though during trillian chat certain words can be highlighted showing an excerpt from a wikipedia entry) but because instant messaging generally happens online, unless you’re chatting on a closed off intranet, which is just plain stupid. The fact that instant messaging generally happens on a PC or Mac while being connected to the internet enables you to support whatever conversation you have with a wide variety of sources or illustrations. Generally text messaging applications allow you to send photos, videos, other applications and links enabling you to for instance  show off your new boy/girlfriend or your holiday in Uruguay. These things are hard to do when you’re talking with someone on the train.

Instant messaging is therefore in a way academically superior. Faulty claims made can be more easily refuted citing online evidence to the contrary (or amazon links to books which contain such evidence, if you’re an internet sceptic.) Statements can immediately be verified thanks to [3] without interrupting the flow of the conversation.

There are likely other unique advantages instant messaging offers to the realm of conversations that I haven’t thought of. Possibly nothing I have said is in any way new and already established in books on communication or cognitivity or whatever. I just wanted to provide some counterweight to people rapping on text messaging while glorifying face to face conversation. I feel that both modes offer specific advantages and disadvantages and I wanted to point out that neither is superior or inferior to the other.

Please comment!

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