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IM, not listening


I am the queen of self-editing. When I write, I generally don't begin typing a sentence until I know what the end of it will be. I stop and backspace over words when they don't come out just right. Writing instructors almost universally agree that this is a terrible habit and insist that good writers must separate the writer from the editor if they're to accomplish anything. They are probably right. But it's a component of my personality. In speaking, I'm the same way. I don't usually blurt out what I'm thinking. When I do blurt, it usually gets me in trouble. So I carefully edit and prepare my comments, at least most of the time.

So recently my world has been rocked. I've discovered IM (instant messenger, for those of you still living in the acronym-deficient dark ages). I, by the way, am way behind the times; I know grandfathers who've been IMing for years.

IMing is a crazy combination of an actual conversation and email. It's an instant computerized conversation. In IM-speak, you can forget commas, periods, capital letters, and punctuation of any kind. An IM conversation moves as quickly as you can type and read, which can be really fast. For my internal self-editor, this has been detrimental; IM has taught me to cut that sucker off like no other writing exercise could have. In that sense, it's been good for me.

At first, I was really caught up in that freedom of talk afforded by IM. It's perhaps the most "carpe diem" I ever feel, since most of the time I'm so careful and so modulated. And there's something about leaving out commas and capital letters that just removes other inhibitors of conversation.

But now I'm re-evaluating. There's a downside to total abandonment after all. The missing link is obvious: humanity. If you think about it, you'll recognize that in conversations with other people you rely more on nonverbal language than you do on the actual words of the conversation; without nonverbal language, you'll never understand anyone in everyday life. Words are just so ambiguous. I love you, I hate you, That is the worst haircut I've ever seen. OK, not all words are ambiguous. But still. It's easy to understand the words "I love you" when they are whispered in your ear by a lover. It's also easy to understand them when they're ironically hissed at you by a foe. On IM all you get is "i love you" with no corresponding tone or eye rolling or kiss or even a punctuation mark to help you comprehend the true message.

There's a brutal honesty about IM language that I initially valued. Most people aren't very honest about their feelings or their thoughts, or their actions for that matter. Or at least they aren't very honest in person. On IM, inhibition-free, maybe people feel more free to say what they're really thinking without fear of seeing a disappointed expression or hearing an exasperated tone. But this surface honesty belies the deeper dishonesty of an IM relationship/ conversation: it's a conversation without life in a sense, words that ignore the human beings at whom they're directed. We haven't achieved very much if we can only be honest when we're typing away at the computer and not when we're face-to-face with other human beings.

Now, I do have a friend who met his spouse on the internet, so I understand the lure of e-talk. When you chat with someone on IM or via email, it's only the words that matter. You don't judge their appearance or their voice because you don't have a choice. And if IM helps you to overcome such prejudices, then I suppose it's a good thing. But in the case of my friend, the relationship did actually develop into a human relationship with tone of voice and nonverbal language and a three-dimensional human being with everything included. It didn't stagnate in the world of IM where the only paltry clues to a person's state of mind are smiley faces and frowny faces.

Yet this is the direction of American relationships. We're all becoming more and more isolated. Our work is often solitary, hence the Cubicle Culture both deified and reviled by Dilbert and Office Space. Our entertainment is increasingly solitary since people now have movie theater quality sound systems at home, not to mention the internet's plethora of entertainment possibilities. And now we can even have our conversations without having to see a human body or hear a human voice.

Hell, the only reason left to leave the house is the pursuit of sex. And for the true hermits among us, there's cybersex to be had aplenty. You'll find more chatrooms devoted to discussing sex than debating whether Spock is cooler than Data. And there's nothing better after a long, hard day stuck in your cubicle staring at your computer screen than coming home and sitting in front of your computer screen, pretending to have sex with someone you may or may not find sexually appealing in RL (that's real life to you, pops).

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