Written Communication Can Be Good Communication
It has been said that the internet, or any text format, is not a good medium for discussion. But writing can be as good or better than verbal communication, particularly verbal communication where the other person is not seen (such as phone or radio). Of course, the internet also allows for long distance video chat, which would include visual cues, but even if text is the only medium it can be an effective medium if people want it to be.
Writing allows for a detailed and thorough arrangement of points. If you look over a message and see that a point is not made as effectively as it could be (and will thus be communicated in a less effective manner) you can edit the writing. If text is entered real-time, there is usually the advantage of seeing exactly what you just said, which is not possible with verbal communication. This will better enable you to make corrections or clarifications to your own statements or to the other person’s statements.
Many online conversations are not impacted by anonymity. With blogs or social networking sites, there is usually a distinct identity attached to each piece of writing. Even if a pseudonym is used, internet handles often remain constant. A stranger you exchange words with online is no more anonymous than a stranger you discuss issues with in person.
So why does internet conversation often fail? Trolling and sarcasm take place offline, so they aren’t to blame. Internet conversation often fails because people (not all, but a significant number) don’t write well, don’t read well, or don’t generally communicate well.
Can you imagine Thomas Paine, George Orwell, Howard Zinn, or other well-known writer responding to a critic by saying “you couldn’t see my facial features or hear my intonation when you read that”? Not everyone needs to write as well as they did, but acknowledging one’s own limits is a lot more honest and conducive to self-improvement than referring to imaginary external limits.
Sometimes the style of writing that people use is not appropriate to the situation. The internet is often used as a substitute for casual personal interaction. This is fine, but do understand what is going on. Think about the setting and how the other people in the discussion are acting. And if you can’t get your message across in under 140 characters, Twitter is probably not the best place to write it.
Readers are often uncharitable. They should consider the professionalism of the writer and the setting. How formal is the setting and how much detail would one expect from it? Why not ask for details instead of assuming the worst? A blog might be an open journal or notebook. An op-ed designed for wide circulation might only have space to gloss over specifics. A Facebook comment might be a question from a curious uninitiated reader. It’s fine to expect an overview to take no more than a paragraph or a page, but one should be willing to read more than an overview before making a detailed critique.
When online, people communicate with different sorts of people than they often do in person. Those who are not good at writing or are operating without guidelines might be difficult to understand. But someone who is a representative of an organization should be able to represent it skillfully in writing.
It is always difficult to convince someone who has little or no interest in what you are saying. This person will not read in detail. Similar things occur in verbal communication when people only hear the part of a conversation that supports their assumptions.
Writers should realize that they can’t always have as much of another person’s time as they want. In the verbal realm, speeches are limited in time, the audience question time is limited, and you can’t force a speaker to attend your response speech. If you are unable to get someone’s interest in the beginning of your essay, they are less likely to consider your writing a worthwhile use of their time.
If your focus is on “defending a position” you aren’t necessarily open to considering other views. There is an appropriate time for this, like when there is an audience you are trying to convince, but not every instance of communication is an appropriate time. Even when it is appropriate to take a combative approach, you have to engage with the opponent – actually understand what he or she is saying — to accomplish more than ridiculous posturing.
It is true that when communication is not done face-to-face there can be a lack of empathy for the other person. However that means that during in-person exchanges, empathy can substitute for a convincing argument. People may be emotionally inclined to get along instead of continuing the discussion or looking for rational common interest. It also means that charisma and intimidation will play more of a role when communicating in person. If you can’t motivate someone without relying on your physical presence, you might be okay at getting your message across in person but not as good at arguing rationally.
Perhaps the most crucial impediment to online communication is the refusal to take it seriously. What happens on the internet is part of real life. The more you abstract away from “RL” the less real you will be.
Internet communication is unlikely to fulfill the emotional needs that communicating in person can fulfill. But for understanding and discussing arguments it is as capable as the users are.