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[personal profile] mirrorshard
Many of my readers are geeks themselves, and I'm quite prepared to admit that I am too. The ramifications of the ways geeks and non-geeks communicate with each other rather interest me, so I trust you'll forgive my rambling on the subject for awhile.



[Edit - I should probably make it clearer that I'm not trying to divide all of humanity into geeks and non-geeks, but rather that some people have more geek tendencies than others, and/or more trouble switching out of geek mode when socially appropriate (and, of course, when they have information about what mode they're supposed to be in).]

We are all aware that geeks value efficiency, accuracy and good practice more than social niceties, and that many geeks are proud of this, if they are aware of this habit at all.

One explanation for this is that geeks are naturally bad at understanding and interpreting social contexts, either through an autistic spectrum disorder or through inadequate socialization when growing up ("always has his nose stuck in a book", for instance). They get baffled, angry, and impatient because the world, and other people, insist on spamming them with all that social data that they don't know how to handle and interpret, and then react to them outside the parameters they understand - "Hey, what's up? Was it something I said?" "It's not what you said, it's the way you said it." "Huh?" In fact, many geeks don't notice the subtler kinds of social data at all, and only react based on the small set of data they do notice, whilst simultaneously denying that they are giving off any themselves beyond what they actually try to communicate. "Look, just grow up and stop stressing, okay? Listen to what I said."

This happens in real life, but expresses itself most strongly online, in muds, IRC, message boards, and other forms of asynchronous or near-real-time plain-text communication.

The problem with this approach is that these media transmit metadata (such as mood, respect for the other person's state of busyness or otherwise, or not wanting to insult them) incredibly poorly - it is possible to set up references and signs that express these things, but the person you want to communicate them to has to look for them, rather than (as in real life) being presented with a very large number of data channels which they subconsciously filter and interpret before their conscious mind considers the ostensibly "important" part of the communication. To put it another way, muds and IRC have no context to use to interpret the messages, unless you already know the person who's talking to you well.

So the geek tradition of accuracy and efficiency in conveying information is actually counterproductive online, because it largely avoids conveying meaning and context for that information. In a work environment, this isn't a problem, because everyone's on the same page (using the same paradigm) so they already have a collective context with which to interpret the text. In a social environment, where people are all pulling in different directions and working from different rulebooks, where they're often very different kinds of people (many of whom will not be geeks, or feel any need to allow for geek practices, or have any investment in communicating with geeks), you get two effects from it.

The first is simply that people don't get on so well, because the geek half of the conversation seems not to be interested in side-band subjects like what they've interrupted, whether the non-geek is doing anything else, whether the non-geek is feeling okay and got out of bed on the right side, the non-geek's potential fear and insecurity about the subject, &c., &c. The geek assumes that the non-geek is capable of dealing with all of those themselves, and that if the non-geek considers them relevant they will bring them up, and indeed that if the non-geek considers it appropriate they will tell the geek that they're full of shit, or to go away and not bother them. Non-geeks rarely have these baseline assumptions.

The other is that the uncertainty about context adds in social friction and reduces the possibilities - people are less open to each other, less trusting, less cooperative, when there's unresolved ambiguity about the other person's meaning or agenda. They always hold back a bit in case the situation turns out not to be the way they interpreted it. Some people don't get this effect, they make broader assumptions and jump right in, but by the same token they're less likely to be right because they spend less time trying to interpret things and understand the other party's social rulebook.

So making a deliberate effort to transmit some metadata is a good thing, and even better if it's an accurate representation of your state of mind. The question is, how does the metadata get transmitted online? Partly, it's through the phrasing of the text itself, even things as simple as "short sentences sound more aggressive and definite than long ones, so avoid using them", and getting into the habit of using neutral words rather than context-laden ones.

Possibly this next one counts as metametadata, but the levels of abstraction we're looking at here are arbitrary anyway, so we'll let it stand. One thing that's also important is the level of your engagement with the social group, the frequency of engagement and the range of topics - if you only ever pipe up in conversations about programming, you aren't likely to get invited to many parties, and if you jump into any conversation and try to turn it into one about sex then nobody's going to take your opinions on programming seriously, but you'll become a popular running joke.

whether or not you use proper capitalization n punctuation is also metadata as is the use of txtspeak

Controversy, of course, rages over the use of smilies and other emoticons (especially the weird ones that nobody knows what they're for), but they're a valid way of sending metadata :-)

Actions usually make a better (more information-rich is better, in this context) substitute for smilies. The point of them, which is usually missed by the (common) kind of geek that thinks in straight lines rather than feedback loops, is not to say what you're doing at the time, but rather to give more information about you, your character (in either sense of the word), and the way your comments should be interpreted. This is what makes it meta, it's not there to be read directly, but as a gloss on the communication itself.
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