Assignment 2: Language, Dialects and Email.

Identity is an inextricable piece of human communication. Without prior knowledge of another person, interaction becomes difficult: do they share a similar background, or set of experiences? These issues are easily resolved by a brief set of what Saville-Troike calls "greeting events," or questions we commonly ask to establish identity. As mutual understanding of two individuals increases, the efficiency of their communication follows, thanks to the ability to use common examples to convey meaning.

Even before people formally establish identity, they resolve more basic issues: does the other speak my language, and are they be willing to talk to me? Visual cues and local context are necessary for elucidating these open questions. Given that another person is in my general vicinity, and looks relatively similar to myself, I will make the assumption that we have a common cultural background and speak the same language. Online interaction presents an interesting dilemma in lacking both visual and contextual cues that allow us to gauge features of identity, requiring the creation of new alternative methods, many of which are still being established.

Online interaction: David Still

Everyone has the experience of forgetting identity. The process is most familiar to those who often engage in loose social interactions, such as informal gatherings at parties, bars and clubs. After a night of talking with a number of varying individuals (and perhaps under the influence of the socially stimulating and memory-impairing effects of alcohol), many conversations become mixed in your mind, and the identity of an individual becomes obfuscated. In these times, it is not entirely uncommon to receive an email such as the following:

Subject: Thanks!
Just a quick note to express my thanks for that chat I had with you, it really helped to put things straight in my mind. I've been thinking about everything you said, and a lot of it really made sense, but I'm still not sure if I can go through with it. I'll let you know how it all works out. If anything else springs to mind, do let me know.

All the best,
David :)

Upon receiving such a message, your mind is filled with questions: who is this fellow David Still, and when did I talk to him? Does he have the right person? Not sure, you respond with something to the effect of the following:

Hi, I know this is going to sound really bad but I don't remember having a chat with you, and to be honest with you I haven't the slightest idea who you are. Why don't you tell me a little more about this chat we had?

What you don't realize at this point is that the message you received was a hoax, playing off of your inability to retain the identity of others. Your response, along with similar messages from thousands of other confused individuals is publicly viewable on the David Still website ( Anyone visiting the David Still website ( can send a prewritten email, such as the one above, or construct their own message to anyone they choose. All of these emails are sent out from the address, an assumed identity.

David Still is an experiment in the effects of online communication on identity that calls into question issues of privacy and deception. With a lack of available contextual cues, messages deceive recipients into believing that David is a real person. The prewritten messages constructed by the project's creator ( each present a level of ambiguity that keeps David's identity obscure. In the example above, the chat, what was said, and what David plans to do are all implied to be mutually understood. This is extremely plausible given that many conversations involve discussion of goals, some advice, and goal-resolution. Furthermore, the message is devoid of the patterns discussed by Saville-Troike, leaving the age, social status and occupation of David Still unconstrained.

The reactions to Still's messages are varied: most recipients either "get it" or remain completely in the dark, based mostly on whether or not they visit the website while trying to recover his identity. In both cases, the level of ambiguity is carried through in a response to Still that reveals little about the respondent. This is a result of the give-and-take quality of identity exchange: for every piece of identity that one reveals, they expect a return on their investment. Each of the individuals who responds has the single goal of learning who is writing to them, regardless of whether or not they know the "trick."

Public online media, such as usenet newsgroups or weblogs have developed methods for maintaining honest discourse. As outlined in the Donath paper, usenet members post publicly the individuals who act in an inappropriate manner, and have created tools for filtering out their messages. Similarly, weblogs spread information through interpersonal communication about those who should not be trusted. In the last case of fraud, a false cancer death spun by Kacee Nicole Swenson, news of her lies spread to the entire weblog community within a few hours.

Email, on the other hand, has few resources for establishing and maintaining truth. Identity must be maintained by each individual, which in the context of online interaction, means deception is particularly easy if an individual is gullible. This makes email a fertile ground for hoaxes, theft and general chicanery. David Still brings these issues to the foreground by simply stating how easy it is to create language that produces misidentification.

Immediate World Interaction: 7-up

Michael Apted's 7-up series might be thought of as the precursor to reality television. In 1964 a television documentary was commissioned by the BBC to document the future of Britain, looking explicitly at who would be leading the country in the year 2000. Apted interviewed a 14 children of age 7 from a diverse sample of British culture. The series was such a success that Apted repeated the interviews with the same children seven years later, and subsequently every seven years since then. The result is a longitudinal conversation between a director and 14 individuals, each of whom has experienced life differently.

A striking observation from the first episode is how obvious the identity of the children are at such a young age. Seven years has allowed for a diversification of language, gesture and interests that makes both class and race identifiable within only a few seconds of interaction. Three boys of privileged upbringing with a posh mannerisms and speech talk of aspirations to study at prestigious universities, and an excited little boy with a thick Cockney accent has the single goal of becoming a jockey.

Seven more years shows the effects of age on personality and presentation, where nearly every one of the bright and cheery children has been transformed into a shy, timid teenager. Another seven years returns them to their outward selves. By thirty-five, nearly all of them have found a place in society, some of them in transition between classes. The only black member of the documentary goes through a phase in his twenties where he develops a Jamaican accent and discovers his black heritage. By 35, he has settled down with his second wife, a middle-class woman with no Jamaican affect, and the accent has disappeared entirely.

The documentary is not a conversation per se, but as the series progresses, it becomes obvious that the relationship between Apted and his subjects is not one of observation, but personal interest. By age 42, their inhibitions have quelled, and the dialog speaks like a conversation between old friends. The strength of the movie really comes from Apted's ability to ask the questions that extract identifying characteristics. Whenever Apted hits home with a truly defining question, the expression on the subject's face changes, as if her true identity has just been found, to the interest of both the audience and the subject herself.

Each documentary pays only a scant few minutes of attention to each member, but in that period, the audience is able to aptly place the subject's identity. Of the three types of ethnographic data outlined by Saville-Troike, linguistic knowledge, interaction skills, and cultural knowledge, the third is by far the most important feature in understanding the individual. Their values, beliefs, and interests are the most signifying factors of their identity. While context and linguistic style do play a role, sometimes these features can be deceiving when categories are mixed (such as with the Cockney boy who moves into a middle-class neighborhood later in life). It appears that being able to identify a person is a skill that some wield better than others; understanding an individual is a process of asking the right questions, a process that Michael Apted has refined to perfection in his 35 years of experience with the 7-up kids.

Posted by cameron on February 23, 2002
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