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Body Language On-line

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



Do people consciously use body language on-line? If so, when and why? In order to explore this question I have chosen to study a MU* on which I have several friends who have agreed to be my pseudonymous respondents. Since I do not wish to remove agency from them I have been careful to use their particular idiomatic abbreviations in my research (please see the Glossary in the Methods section of this paper). I also suspect that players on line do not differentiate between 'posed' body language and the physical, real life actions. For them the object of on-line communication appears to be visualizing the interaction as it is described on-screen, and reacting accordingly. Thus while what they see is written kinesics, they are reacting to it the same as they would react to pictures or videos of body language. As an example, it is easy to point at a movie and say 'that's kinesic communication.' However, reading a vivid description of the same actions can be no less powerful or moving. As the actors in a movie portray body language, so the players on line do the same. Since this particular MU* is one where the gaming paradigm is one of sentient animals, I believe it will be a particularly fruitful avenue of exploration in regards to potential body language.

Assuming typewritten actions can be categorized as body language, why do the players use it? I believe the most common usage I've seen to date is in small gestures used as kinesic shorthand, followed by 'physical' actions made in greeting other players in order to establish and maintain group 'mood.' Body language as a non-spoken form of communication via gesture is indicated on-line by, for example, 'waving' to players entering a room. Also, as the title of the paper notes, 'snugs!' or some variant thereof is particularly common, especially in creating and sharing group feeling. I believe the word is a juxtaposition of 'hug' and 'snuggle' for an informal and friendly greeting.

On-line body language seems also to be partially inspired by a sense of humor in regards to deconstruction of RL borders of categorization and physicality. I have been on MU*s where frequently the players chat together OOC, yet maintain the body language, typed accent, or attitudes of the character. Sometimes it's simple things, like 'Santiago wags her tail,' where other players present know the character 'Santiago' was a canid male, and the player is a human female. In a case like this the user is 'playing fast and loose' with both gender and species in a humorous fashion: the character would ordinarily be referred to with a male adjective, but by using 'her' the player notes that she is speaking OOC. Furthermore, since it is obvious she could not have a tail she both juxtaposes incongruous elements for an ironic or amusing effect, and also appropriates body language not of her species to denote an emotion in a fashion she is not capable of in FTF communication.

Unfortunately I could not find a single paper on 'nonverbal' expressions of CMC. However, I did manage to find some papers on some aspects of personal identity creation and use on the net. In these cases it is not what the paper discusses in particular, so much as what they infer or assume about the manifestation of self in CMC that is of interest. It was my thought that personal expression on-line would be enhanced by conscious use of body language. Thus papers that examined the conscious creation and assertion of self on-line, as expressed through one's chosen on-line gender, age, species, or other characteristic, could be said to be a form of nonverbal communication. They might also suggest useful possibilities in my examination of conscious use of nonverbal communication in CMC.

Most frequently a single element or variable (for example, race or gender) will be examined for its effect on discourse and/or play on the net (Rodino 1996, Jaffe, Lee, Huang, & Oshagan 1995, Nakamura 1995). Specifically, Jaffe et al (1995), and Rodino (1996) examine the nature of 'gendered' discourse in various areas or communities of the net, and Nakamura (1995) examines LambdaMOO for replication of RL hierarchical structures through stereotypical uses of race. Research has also been done concerning the effects of pseudonymous communication on the dominant paradigm (MacKinnon 1998, Bruckman 1993, and Meyer & Thomas 1990). The possibility of redefining virtual terminology to defuse and demystify virtual (and possibly RL) attacks by the pseudonymous/anonymous is the subject of MacKinnon's (1998) research, while Bruckman (1993) examines how 'gender-swapping' can impact not just work practice but also culture and values. Finally Meyer & Thomas (1990) examine how pseudonymous communication has (re)created and (in)formed the subculture of the 'Underground net.'

The 'read' gender of one's on-line name frequently contains implied assumptions of an imagined, on-line, 'physical body' with which to communicate and express oneself. Since the great majority of on-line users are male, a female-'reading' name contains potential prospects of availability and heterosexuality. As a consequence, female-reading names receive far more attention than male-reading names (Nakamura 1995, Rodino 1996). Within the parameters of an on-line, created body, there is also strong reflection of, posing as, and enforcement of, societal 'norms' of heterosexuality on LambdaMOO (Nakamura 1995). Both studies unfortunately assume that RL gender equivocates to the gendered name choices of the net users.

Nakamura (1995) spent several hours of observation on LambdaMOO, the MU* on which she chose to conduct her study. She hypothesizes that the user-constructed social world of LambdaMOO creates and enforces a protected, privileged space for ethnic 'tourism' that replicates RL physical hierarchical paradigms and statuses. Also, Nakamura (1995) incorrectly assumed her particular area of exploration was generalizable for the net. However, I would suggest that she was, in a sense, conducting an unobtrusive, exploratory study that unfortunately was by its very nature of a tourist type mentality. In other words, she was a short-term 'lurker': a net user that does not contribute to or participate in social world building, but merely watches. As a consequence the most 'interesting,' 'exotic,' or 'deviant' behavior is what she most carefully noted, without also noting (or even perhaps even realizing) that such behavior is not necessarily the standard for the net subculture in which she was vicariously participating. Also, she may not realize that while it is the nature of role-playing to try on roles other than what is considered quotidian by the role-player, this does not assure any initial skill at doing so. She seems to infer that racial or ethnic identity should not be explored except under certain stringent criterion, but unfortunately does not answer the question of how one can learn about the life experiences of others without attempting some sort of participant-observation. If, as Nakamura (1995) states, attempting to portray someone of another race is merely tourism, what does that infer about herself? She does not state what her on-line physical 'look' or persona was, nor how she portrayed her body language. Under her own (rather stringent) criterion, if it was other than an exact replication of her RL physical self, or if she posed herself as ever being less than completely competent regardless of/despite her race, then she also was participating in ethnic tourism.

Rodino (1996) also observes the effects of identity portrayal on the net, through examination of 'gendered' discourse on Usenet mailing lists. Her study consisted of downloading 3 weeks of mailing list communication and examining it for latent content. Like Nakamura (1995) she too assumes RL gender equivocates to name choice on the net. However, after completing her study she notes her facts indicate both the gender construction and the IRC utterances she observed were not only of a dualistic nature. She concludes that gender should be reconceptualized as 'performance,' both spoken and posed, that is constantly (re)created and (re)interpreted. She also notes (as Nakamura [1995] does not) that current binary-based examinations of oppositionally defined 'gendered' discourse/action do not serve to disrupt or demystify the binary gender system that currently naturalizes RL societal patriarchy. Instead she suggests that reconceptualization of gender as performance would not only accomplish that goal, but also allow researchers to escape the trap of methodology.

Jaffe et al (1995) concur with many of Rodino's (1996) observations. However, their study approaches the issue from the 'other side,' as it were. They offered the group of volunteers the choice of whether or not to adopt pseudonyms on an on-line forum created specifically for the study. They then researched both the differing uses of discourse that pseudonym use offered, and which genders used which forms of discourse. Unsurprisingly (to me, at least) their study agreed with and expanded upon Rodino's (1996) conclusions. They laid out their theories clearly: first, they hypothesized that women will hide their gender more often than men do; and secondly, that pseudonyms will encourage more response volume, with less 'gender-specific' discourse usage. Their study's results supported their hypotheses. They conclude that binary gender differences in communication patterns (again, both spoken and posed) may be mitigated through use of pseudonyms in CMC channels.

I found both this research and Rodino's (1996) fascinating. Both studies not only bore out my anecdotal net observations concerning gendered discourse, but also verified that net users are deliberately engaging in pseudonymous identity play, apparently both to regain agency and in order to explore (at the very least) the limitations on RL parameters of gender behavior. While neither study specifically addressed my question, they both touched upon it interestingly. Also, they noted that the on-line use of CMC could be used to explore and express issues that were difficult to examine iRL. In a situation such as this could males potentially learn more about decoding body language, so that females weren't always better decoders iRL? Might both genders learn more about body language through conscious usage of it on-line?

In a more generalized vein, Meyer and Thomas (1990) hypothesize that the net 'underground' (in)forms a postmodern rubric. They explore the net underground via surveys and conversations with several noted hackers, and participation/observation on hacker bulletin boards. Their research reveals the net underground is currently being defined by the public in general as 'deviant,' yet its participants view and (re)define themselves both as a mutually supportive fringe subculture operating in a new, 'semi-private' sphere, and as an act of defiance. There is no attempt to fit within or be defined by public or mass culture. The authors conclude the deliberately created and posed, symbolic identities of the net are excellent representations of postmodern behavior, rather than examples of deviance.

Finally MacKinnon (1997) and Bruckman (1993) hypothesize upon their observations of the social phenomena of virtual identity manipulation and its potential effects upon the mainstream society. MacKinnon (1997) explores 'virtual rape,' including a history of the social construction of rape. He notes that identity and behavior is personally constructed on the net, and that LambdaMOO, where the most infamous 'virtual rape' was acted out, has as one of its technological constructs the inability to textually or physically force anyone else. He raises the fascinating point that if the user defines both self and body language and behavior, then there is none better to deny the existence of virtual rape than the user -- rationally speaking, rape need not and should not exist on the net. Furthermore the nonconscious importation of the term 'rape,' with all its associated emotional baggage, creates unnecessarily complex problems. He hypothesizes that virtual (and possibly non-virtual?) rape needs to be reconstructed, so as to render it less harmful, or even irrelevant, to the intended 'victim.' Bruckman (1993) speculates regarding the societal repercussions of playing with gender swapping, both spoken and posed, through research based on time spent on a MU*. She reports on her observation, exploration, and participation in the medium through discourse and self-presented, acted body language. She and MacKinnon (1997) do not clearly state, but seem to strongly infer, that MU* identity is performance-based, thus conscious reflection upon, construction of, and acting out of, identity on the part of the MU* players is of benefit in disrupting the current societal hierarchies and paradigms.

In conclusion, there are numerous investigations of identity-exploring and its accompanying presentational behaviors on the net. These range from the effects of pseudonyms and gender on discourse, through the import/exportation of meaning to and from RL as a means to disorder and (re)conceptualize identity, to the nature of individuals who use the net as their chosen medium for identity performance and play. However, as far as I can tell, currently there is no examination of body language itself in the on-line communities, either in how it is perceived and created, or how it is applied. Thus I present my research question once more: can the on-line use of 'poses' be construed as conscious use of body language in a text-only communicative environment, and if so what are its most common forms?



The Non-verbal Communication paper:

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