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Body Language On-line

Sociology 135: Non-verbal Communication
Prof. D. Archer
Copyright © 1999 B. A. Collie Collier



There is, of course, a problem in comparing my research to the literature review, since there was no direct match-up between them and my study. However, some of the general conclusions arrived at in the various studies covered by the literature closely match those I found. For example, I found the on-line identity as performance (both acted and spoken), and deliberate, humorous disruption of RL hierarchies, was a theme running through all my respondents' replies, just as Rodino (1996), Bruckman (1993) and MacKinnon (1997) suggested. Nor did I find the strong insistence on stereotypical racial portrayals which Nakamura (1995) found on LambdaMOO. However, this may be due to my respondents: firstly, I was questioning them concerning their kinesic portrayal of themselves on-line, and secondly the MU* they're used to playing on insists on non-human characters. In such a case RL hierarchies are a bit tougher to implement. For a single example, what species do you map as Caucasian?

My research results also agreed with the results of Jaffe et al (1995) in regards to deliberate, pseudonymous identity creation and exploration being ultimately beneficial to communication. While it is true not all of my respondents mentioned being masked as increasing their sense of freedom of expression, both spoken and acted, several did state it so, and none found it detrimental. It would appear VR kinesics are easily assumed and integrated into the masked persona, as every one of my respondents used body language in the interviews. Finally, Meyer & Thomas' (1990) portrayal of the net Underground as postmodernist is reflected in my research also. As the humorous or incongruous use of body language demonstrated, the deliberately created, symbolic identities of my respondents defiantly (re)define themselves within a mutually supportive fringe subculture, with little or no attempt to fit within or be defined by public or mass culture.

According to my correspondents, the textual 'body language' which they type into the MU* is received and interpreted as actual kinesics. When pressed, individuals are aware they are reading 'text-only.' However, it is not understood as such - to them, it is body language. Dialogue and action are quite separate to them, both as they type it and as they interpret the written words on the screen. Rokhan's previous example of watching an internal movie was echoed by three other respondents; as Morgan concisely put it, "If I can't see it? If it's not in my head? It's not happening." Maki and Dimitri both also used literary comparisons; Maki points out

Ooh. Poses are much more important than the dialogue as they set the scene and tell you what's what and where. It also lets you visualize what is going on. If you think about it, what would your favorite novel be like if you cut everything but the dialogue. Poses are the same.

Uniformly, respondents seemed to view their on-line gaming and communication as simply another form of art or literature. They did not differentiate between body language used in those mediums and body language use iRL, and they saw no need to differentiate RL kinesics from those performed on-line.

Since the primary purpose in going on-line was stated (with variations) by my respondents as socialization and gaming, it would make sense that interpersonal gestures used as visual shorthand iRL would be a natural outgrowth of those desires on-line. The on-line format was in fact considered an aid to kinesic performance by some. Carroll notes:

In the Real World, the display of that sort of thing is still up to your ability to read it, but it's sent all the time, and usually subconsciously or nearly so. Online, you have to think about sending those messages. This means that the ones that are sent usually have more meaning as someone thought they were important enough to type.

while Maki adds (with an emoticon to indicate humor), "For myself, I find it easier to convey my true feelings on things and I also have to admit, I can flirt a lot easier online than I can IRL... I'm just too shy to even try offline. ;)" However, they maintain a strict differentiation between poses performed as thought (i.e. 'Santiago wonders what you're doing'), and kinesic poses (i.e. 'Santiago nods to you'). As Dimitri humorously noted

Some folks use dialogue-ish poses, but that's often awkward and strange. For example, how do you respond to [the] pose
>>> Joe wonders what you are doing?'
Because since Joe didn't really ask anything, ICly you shouldn't respond. :)"

On-line kinesics were seen as indispensable in providing another layer of meaning and subtlety. To Carroll, body language should be used, "any time you want to make a session more detailed or important, or add intensity, or make it more personal or meaningful, describing how you've moved, and what you're doing is important" while Rokhan amusingly notes:

I am performing, mostly for the benefit of the others, so that they can get my intent more clearly ... without falling back on a lame response such as, "I AM MAD, AND I'M GONNA SHOOT YOU WITH MY GUN!"

Here he also uses capital letters to denote shouting, which is a tonal indicator on-line.

Interestingly enough it was my sole female respondent, Morgan, who felt there was no difference between difficulty of use of body language on- or off-line. This might be an example of females being better decoders of kinesics than males. Only she and Carroll felt that on-line kinesics were of use to improve one's RL kinesics. Indeed, one respondent saw no correlation between them whatsoever. However, all my respondents unanimously agreed that it was more difficult to communicate on-line, as opposed to iRL, and that conscious use of kinesics on-line was an excellent means of clarifying meaning and intent on-line.



The Non-verbal Communication Paper:

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • References
  • Appendix
  • Tables