Interactional Systems and Interfaces


General Comments

Much of what Saville-Troike discusses deals with how different societies utilize language differently, even when that language takes the same form (as in Northern vs. Southern English). This difference stems from the different social patterns and different form and function of social interactions that characterize each society. Indeed there is also the belief that language form can influence the utilizing society--example the trend towards the use of politically correct terms in the past decade or two in American English--so the interaction of society and language is cyclic.

One of the great unifying characteristics of the Internet is the predominant use of English as the common language. Though there are large communities of non-English-speaking users on the Internet--Chinese and Israeli are two of note--most common interaction and interaction across borders (both virtual and international) takes place in English, reserving other languages for interaction between native speakers spread across the globe. Interaction using English generally follows American customs (of course, there is the fact that the Internet is inhabited predominantly by Americans, or at least has been), though this doesn't take into account specialized interactional communities, such as the soc.culture newsgroups. All of the interfaces for interaction discussed below seem to follow this trend.

It would seem that Saville-Troike's example of language maintenance and spread with regard to Yaqui and Tewa Indian tribes (p. 207) is very applicable here. "The Yaqui were subject to quite tolerant early colonization by the Spanish, relatively free of friction, and the Yaqui language and culture readily adopted Hispanic traits.... The Tewa language and culture remain relatively free of Spanish influence, in large part because of strong coercive attempts to repress them." The Internet, beyond being largely accessible only in English is, in social settings, very tolerant of language variations, and so the adoption of standard language forms and cultural customs--such as waving at a newcomer in a MUD/MOO--is prevalent and transparently accomplished. Indeed, we might argue that the Internet, at least for real time interactional systems, has developed a variant of the English language that is used to allow more textually terse and expressive interaction, more closely resembling spoken English than the proper written form.

Personal Chat: AOL Instant Messenger

AOL IM, like most other Instant Messaging clients (ICQ, MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Pager) is a closed, synchronous, identified, textual chatting medium. Interaction takes place within a chat window similar to IRC, with the text of the interaction scrolling up the screen.

Of interesting note is the distinction between what I call a masked identity and representative identity. IM differs from IRC in that the people who communicate using instant messaging tools generally know each other in real life. The usernames that people use to contact each other on IM (besides usually being linked to their email addresses) are just convenience for finding known people. Unlike IRC or (especially) MUD/MOO identities, IM usernames are just masks for the RL identity of the user.

Interaction generally follows a back and forth verbal conversational pattern--perhaps even more so than in IRC, IM's closest Internet relative.

There is a standard greeting sequence; people, when first contacting someone over IM usually say "hello" or "hi" or some other such greeting. Unlike IRC or MOO/MUD, there are usually no departing sequences. When people are done with a conversation, they usually just log off. This is probably due to another interesting aspect of IM that differs from a phone or RL conversation: pauseabilty. IM interaction generally takes place over long periods of time, with people keeping a user window open on their computer throughout the day, showing who of their friends are logged on at any given moment. Once conversation is initiated, it may continue actively for a while, but eventually, it hits a lull, or one of the participants leaves or is distracted. Since there are usually only two people interacting (unlike IRC). The conversation at this point is paused, often with no warning and sometimes leaving one party hanging on their last message.

Speech is usually condensed, as in IRC or MOO/MUD. There are emotes, however they almost always take the form of smileys, which are small faces created from ASCII text characters: :) ;) %@. Most of these are converted into actual graphical represenatation by the software (although this can be turned off in software). They can also be introduced into the stream of a message by using the button on the middle-right of the interface.

Identity in this environment is established through at least three channels: speech, image, and visual represenation. In the same way that each user has specific speech patterns in other textual interaction, IM users also have a vocabulary of standard grammar that they develop that is unique to each person. Some people bring MOO-speak to this medium, such as "lol" or "otfl", although this is somewhat unusual, especially since many of the users of IM have never frequented IRC or MUD/MOO. More usual is the use of contractions for longer words (like t’morrow above, or b/c). A new addition to the interface is the addition of a picture of the person to the lower left-hand corner of the message window. Most people use this space for an actual photo of themselves, however some put some other graphic in that space. Again, it seems that the use of this space as a place for non-photo content is mostly by those users who have experience in other textual communications media, and many users do not take advantage of this feature at all. Lastly, and most obviously, is the visual representation of the message itself. Users can customize the color, background color, font, and size of their messages (Though their username always is shown in red with the other person in blue). By creating a unique combination of color and font, a user can create a distinctive represenation of themselves to other people. This represenatation is maintained when writing to anyone, not just a particular message window.

There is an increasing move towards voice interfaces for these IM programs. Almost all of them implement some form of voice-over-internet capability, though I have not yet tried the feasibility of such a system. It is clear from other voice chat systems that such a shift in interaction modality will change the type of interaction that occurs on such systems. However, the convienience and almost background nature of text IM ensures it will not be entirely displaced by voice systems.

IRC: #beginner

IRC is the standard Internet textual chat system. It provides an open, synchronous, identified, textual communication medium. People log onto servers, creating a virtual identity, and then subscribe to channels, which are chat "rooms" in which groups of people talk to each other textually.

Unlike IM, identity on ICQ is representative, meaning that a person's username is also their online identity, similar to MOO/MUD, although the coupling between username and online persona isn't as tight as in MUD/MOO, nor is the decoupling of RL identity and online identity as decoupled. Conversation flows continuously, as in almost other chats, however, unlike IM, there are often different conversations going on at the same time in the same channel, so messages belonging to particular conversations are threaded between messages for other conversations. Also, system messages are also interspersed, announcing the arrival or departure of users--this behavior is handled by another window in IM.

Since there are continuous conversations in any given channel, users usually announce themselves with a "hello", which is responded to by others with a "hello <username>" directed towards the entering user. Similarly there is a standard method of leaving a channel by announcing the imminent departure. However unlike MUD/MOO in Cherny the rules for such behavior aren't so stringently followed. Also, there are many lurkers in any given channel who seem to be logged into the system but do not participate in the conversations. These users can come and go without announcement. Those who stay seem to not be paying attention to the interaction taking place in the channel, presumably distracted or not at their computer. There are also private, one-on-one channels for interaction, and people (especially on #Israel) seem friendly in using this feature, often contacting a recently arrived user with a private hello.

Conversation is generally timelier on IRC than on IM. Since there is more than one other person in a given channel, if a person attends elsewhere, the conversation usually continues on without them. The pause-able quality of IM is not present here. Language on IRC is more stylized than IM, perhaps due to its greater age. Also, the community of IRC users is worldwide, and it is not unusual to find people from other parts of the world interacting in a channel. Emotes exist similarly to MUD/MOO. Though less prevalent, it is not unusual to see people "winking" at each other or "laughing" through the use of emotes. However, since IRC is more heavily tied to the real world, and has no real environment, landscape, or architecture, the type of emote-play that Cherny discusses, especially the use of unrealistic emotes such as "nuking" a place, is infrequent at best. The grammar for emotes also seems to be less rich, probably due as well to the environment being one more of talking than playing.

Another quality that sets IRC apart from MUD/MOO and IM is the ability to have multiple instantiations within the IRC system. A person can be a part of as many channels as they choose. They always have the same identity across these channels, and it is not unusual to see a person in more than one of the channels you are participating. This has the possibility of being disorienting, and though I have not had the opportunity to investigate how having two or more active conversations with a group of people in which at least one other person is a member of both groups, I suspect that there may be some difficulty maintaining a separation of conversations.

Identity in IRC is created by username and by conversational style and grammar. Everyone looks the same in IRC, so there is no real ability to create distinct visual representations of a person. Also, there is no signal for the idleness of a particular user. Unlike IM, where a user has a definite idle time (though this is measured as time away from computer activity, not IM activity), and MUD/MOO, where an idle person is said to be "sleeping", IRC gives no such cues for how long a user has been inactive. This can be a difficulty at times, since there are many channels to which many people are subscribed but in which no one is interacting.

Usenet: rec.antiques

Usenet is an open, asynchronous, identified, textual medium. Users of Usenet post "articles" to specific Usenet groups on a server, which distributes the these articles worldwide. There are 11 hierarchies for Usenet (according to, with on the order of 20,000 different groups.

A standard usenet posting generally has no greeting (unlike email, which it is similar to in form), and the language used is very informal. When replying to a particular posting or person, that person's name is generally put at the top of the post, indicating that the message is primarily a personal one (though not necessarily with personal content), but is made available for informational purposes for the rest of the group to hear. If a message is intended to be private, then email is generally used to contact the other person. Posts are usually at least a few lines in length, and can be up to a few paragraphs, though longer messages are frowned upon.

Each post, since the interface is asynchronous, is intended to be self-contained, and while greetings are not common, signatures are. The signature is the most obvious identifying mark of the post, and often times the most visually distinctive. Though each person on usenet develops their own writing style for posts, the signature is the most important identifying mark. Identity is also tied to the header information, which can, in some groups, determine whether a person is an acceptable member (WebTV and AOL are particularly looked down upon in some groups).

Conversations are, in many instances, heavily threaded. In rec.antiques, an average post gets 4-5 responses, and can generate as many as 20. While threaded news readers help to keep track of the flow of the conversation in threaded posts, traditionally this is done by quoting a previous post. This can lead to rather large message sizes, if five or ten previous posts are quoted.

The language used in rec.antiques is generally quite sophisticated, as compared to other usenet groups. Though the membership of the list is global, coherent, well written posts dominate, even for non-american users. There are representations of both knowledgeable and amateur users in this group, and interaction between these members is very friendly.

Above is an example of an apology for spamming the newsgroup. This type of apology seems to be unusual, as is the apparent pleasant email responses that the user received informing him of the proper use of the group.

page last updated 3/27/2001