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Body Language On-line

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



Due to the rather fluid nature of the net, as well as its lack of extensive scholarly research, I find myself with an extensive list of terms and concepts that need definition - almost a glossary, in fact. Unfortunately some of these concepts appear to lack any scholarly definition whatsoever in any paper that I've been able to find, and thus I appear to be embarking into completely unknown territory. However, it is also vital that each of these concepts is clearly defined; in order to discuss my question cogently I need to have an appropriate language. It is a given that as I learn more this list of terms will receive more revisions and additions over the time this study progresses.

Term definitions and operationalizations

BTW An acronym for 'by the way'
character The 'persona' or alternate point of view taken on by the Player. Also known as player character or PC.
chat Indicates idle communication and socializing while OOC.
CMC 'computer-mediated communication.' I have not been able to discover who originated the phrase.
emoticons The ASCII characters used to form symbolic 'faces' to denote mood. The most common one is the smiley: :-) There are innumerable individually created variants, i.e. the winking smiley: ;-) and sticking out one's tongue: :-p
FTF 'Face to face,' especially when referring to off-line communication.
IC 'In Character.' The player is logged on as the character and is portraying to the best of their ability the reactions and thought processes of the character they have chosen to play.
IRC 'Inter-Relay Chat.' It is a means for many computer users to communicate synchronously, in a variety of self-selected and/or -created 'chat channels' or 'rooms.' These rooms are named so as to attract those of like interests, i.e. #gayLA for homosexual individuals living in the Los Angeles area. The pound sign is a command structure needed to create the semi-private area for discussion.
iRL 'in real life.' Generally signifies quotidian life away from the computer gaming community. See RL.
LambdaMOO One of the oldest and best known user-created and -mediated 'chat' or 'role-playing worlds.'
logs Saved files of on-line communication. It is generally considered courteous to notify others when you are logging.
mask When the player is connected under the character's name and is responding as themselves. They may do so using the body language of the character.
MU*s "The abbreviation 'MU*' is often used to refer to the union of all the different kinds of multi-user games, since the names of most begin with the letters 'M' and 'U,' and '*' is commonly used to represent a wild card. Strictly speaking, a MUD is a specific type of MU*. Which abbreviation one chooses to use for the generic case can be seen as a political question, since it raises issues of inclusion and exclusion in the community." Bruckman (1992). For my research I interviewed several participants of the MUCK 'RealityFault.'
nick The name (and occasionally associated persona) chosen by a player for on-line play or chat. Nick choice is often carefully thought out, as it is the first on-line clue as to who the player is and what they are like.
OOC 'Out Of Character.' The player is reacting as themselves, rather than as the character, as can often be clearly noted by the body language of the 'mask' on-screen changing somewhat.
player The physical person sitting at the computer screen and typing.
pose A way of formatting text on a MU* to signify action. In its simplest form you type in text, prefaced by the word 'pose' or a colon. Once you hit enter the text you have written appears on-screen with only your name prefacing it. For example, if Santiago's player types
the screen would show
Santiago jumps!
RL 'Real Life,' as in not occurring on-line. See iRL.
RP 'Role Playing.' A hobby consisting of mentally taking on a character in order to experimentally, vicariously, and without permanent physical consequence, experience another point of view. Note this is a hotly contested term within the hobby, and many would disagree with my definition, as the reasons for their role-playing affect their personal definitions of the term. Nevertheless, for clarity I am defining it so for this paper.
say A way of formatting text on a MU* to signify speech. In its simplest form you type in text, prefaced by the word 'say' or a quotation mark. Once you hit enter the text you have written appears on-screen with ' says,' prefacing it. For example, if Santiago's player types in
the screen would show
Santiago says, "Hello!"
say verbs Player-chosen verbs used to denote how the character speaks. For example, if Santiago's player chose 'yips' as his say verb, then his 'say' on-line would appear as: Santiago yips, "Hello!"
URL Uniform Resource Locator: the 'address' of a page on the World Wide Web
VR 'Virtual Reality,' a shorthand means to refer to being on-line.

The net, and computer-mediated communication in general, is a relatively new field of inquiry. Thus my study is both deductive and exploratory in nature. I am exploring the nature of nonverbal communication on the net - does it exist, and if so how is it used? In specific my respondent population comes together and communicates on a particular MU* named RealityFault. My respondents consist of one female and 5 male participants. While this may seem heavily gender-slanted, I do not consider this to necessarily invalidate my study, for the simple reason that the on-line community is similarly weighted to a preponderance of males over females. The current 'best guess' (since it is impossible to actually verify the genders of those on-line) is that between a quarter and a third of the on-line community is female. I would have preferred more closely matching that 'guesstimate,' but these were the individuals on the MU* who agreed to interview with me. I will use interviews to hopefully validate my belief that my respondent population views their poses as conscious body language, and if this proves to be the case, I will examine MU* logs of the interviews to discover what the most common usages of on-line body language are. Perhaps this paper will also serve as a starting point for further, more thorough investigations.

Please see the Appendix for the questions asked in the interviews. It should be noted that while the appendix layout is somewhat visually unappealing on paper, it was designed with an eye towards clarity in the on-line chat format. Thus I ended up with clear, compact paragraphs in an informal and somewhat chatty, 'between-friends' style; and many pauses, both to ask my respondents if they understood the concepts we were discussing, and to give them plenty of time to reply. Also, the use of the quotation mark before each paragraph is an artifact of the MU* on which I was holding the interviews. I typed up my questions ahead of time, then simply cut and pasted them into the MU*, in order to maintain some consistency between interviews. Therefore, assuming my on-line alias or 'nick' was Santiago, if I pasted the following into the MU*:

"How are you?

what would appear on the screen on-MU* to both myself and my correspondent was the following:

Santiago says, "How are you?"

Thus, to make sure I had no corrections to make each time (with the attendant possibility of missing something and confusing my respondent), I put the quotation marks into my original document. However, it should be noted that despite this preparation on my part I ended up making quite a few corrections, improvements, and personalizations on the questions in each interview - including, amusingly enough, some personal use of body language.

Let me attempt to clarify, please. I did have a short list of questions. However, the interviews never precisely followed them. In fact, the actual face-to-face interviews were a bit surprising to me. I'd originally intended to keep pretty much silent, and let the person I was interviewing do most of the talking as they answered the questions I would ask them one by one. However, I quickly realized that this was not going to work. Indeed, the very first person I spoke to frequently asked for more clarifications, wanted to find out what I thought as well as give their own opinions, and had some extremely salient suggestions to make regarding the nature of on-line body language. Furthermore, I discovered that as I became less distant and formal, my respondents tended to open up more, giving examples, asking questions of their own, and making interested comments on the research itself. It was using this more friendly and approachable mode of communication that gained me some of my most interesting responses, in fact.

Ultimately, most of the interviews became long, rambling, mutual discussions, where the intended questions became more suggestions than guidelines. The queries themselves were cheerfully dissected on occasion, with one correspondent curiously wanting to know what had inspired me to ask some of these questions, and several others making suggestions on other possible avenues of inquiry. Finally, I was personally touched to have about half my respondents actually thank me for talking with them, since they'd very much enjoyed both having the chance to consider the issue, and to participate in the research.

After the interviews were concluded, I went to the on-line logs of the interviews that I had and re-read them for every use of body language I could find. I examined the body language itself, and the context within which it was acted out, and attempted to interpret the intended coded meaning of each example. Once I'd done that I counted up how many examples of each interpreted type there was, and tried to generalize the interpretations into broad categories of meaning and intention.



The Non-verbal Communication Paper:

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