Sunday, 17 August 2014

Some Musings on Forum Speech Acts

Suppose I were to ask you to tell me the rules of English. What would you tell me about? You would probably tell me about starting sentences with capital letters and ending with full stops. You'd discuss past, present and future tenses. You might talk about the use of the letter u in words such as colour or armour if you speak and write Australian or British English. There's plenty of things we don't think about when asked to immediately think about our language. Concepts that we assume are inherently the same in all languages but can in practice differ wildly for all sorts of reasons. One such example is the concept of turn-taking in speech.

In English, there is an expectation that when you speak to someone, they face you and listen to what you are saying. When you give an appropriate indicator, they are expected to give a response. What response they give determines who has the next turn to speak and so on until the conversation ends. If in a group environment such as a dinner with friends, the expectation is usually that one person speak and the others listen, speaking once something needs clarifying or the initial speaker has left the floor open for someone else to take over. Not all languages work this way. For example in Italian, it is perfectly polite to have 3 different conversations occur at once in a group. In Japanese there is a practice known as Aisatsu or Active Listening. The polite way to listen to someone in Japanese is to frequently make remarks such as "yeah", "is that so?", "ah, I see" and so on. If you quietly wait for your turn, they think you're uninterested in what's being said or possibly snubbing them intentionally.

Online communication has its own rules for turn taking that differ even from spoken English. Suppose I were to start a thread on a forum that uses English with a post like this.
 This is a perfectly normal way to use your first speaking turn in English. If you started a thread somewhere like a character matchup thread on a fighting game forum you'd be considered strange. You might be considered an advertising bot. The thread would likely be deleted, or locked and a moderator would leave a cautionary message scolding you for not following the board's topicality. Imagine trying to perform aisatsu in a place like 2chan. You can't because the asymmetrical flow of information delivery means that your "oh, I see" could be four posts below where you wanted it to be thanks to the time it took for the server to process your submitted post.

This language that I'll call Forum English has some other differences to spoken English with turn taking. If there is a moment of silence in a spoken conversation for more than a few seconds, the situation feels awkward. People cannot work out whose turn it is to speak, so someone will often break the silence with a joke or a different topic starter. In Forum English, a moment of silence can last anywhere from 2 seconds to years before the next remark is made. The permanency of text in a thread means that a conversation can be jumped into or left whenever a speaker involved feels like it.

There's no formality to leaving a thread either. Suppose that halfway through an argument on whether Guilty Gear Xrd Slayer is stronger than Guilty Gear XX Slash Slayer I had to leave to play cards with friends. I wouldn't need to say "sorry, we'll finish this up another time. Gotta go." I'd just not make a post until I had the time. This in turn is different to conversing over an instant messaging program. In that case I would be expected to give a farewell comparable to a spoken form of English.

So what I'm getting at here is that the internet has created and is still creating new languages that we aren't even aware are actually operating on rules that differ from something they appear to be identical to. They're also creating similarities between languages that previously had some stark differences. Forum English has similarities to Forum Japanese in turn taking that don't exist in spoken Australian English and Japanese.

Languages are weird.

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