Choose Your Words Carefully

By Alex Newhouse

We need to change the way we interact with each other. Words are disconnected from speech, and the subsequent loss of emotion, rationality, and intent that comes with them has harmed all of our relationships.

But everyone has heard the prophecies of the end of all meaningful interaction, how society has become so far removed from any physical connection is lost in the hollowness of words. Or, as some say so eloquently: the internet is terrible, get off your phone.

I’m not writing this to say that. I’m a child of the internet age as much as anyone in my generation. I love it and everything it enables me to do. If anything, I would recommend that we use the internet more. Contribute to it, make it a better place and expand our online “personality”.

What I argue now, though, is that we need to find a way to eliminate those quotation marks around “personality”. A presence on the internet must become fully fleshed-out and dynamic. A digital personality should have just as many facets and shades as a physical one. The internet problem is not one of overuse, but of misuse. It is not that we are too entrenched in online interaction, but that those interactions are static and flat.

This is an understandable product of the rapid integration of the internet into our lives, but it is certainly not permanent. When we gained the capability of ubiquitous digital conversation, we lost a crucial element of vocal speech: the ability to be lazy. When we speak out loud, our vocabularies can be limited, but our words can still carry countless different meanings. An incomprehensible grunt can convey dozens of different emotions. Based on intonation, the same sentence can be sincere, insulting, sarcastic, self-deprecating, joyful, melancholic, or whatever else. The rise and fall of pitch is what truly defines our meaning when we talk. Words are often secondary.

But when we write, intonation does not exist. Nothing matters but the words. As a result, it becomes much more difficult to illustrate emotion. What a sentence sounds like in a mind is not a representation of what it sounds like typed.

No one would disagree that authors can often evoke emotion purely from the words they use. Anyone who has ever taken an English class and analyzed a poem knows that a single word can have several different definitions and a dozen different connotations. A phrase on a page can objectively mean the same thing but carry an entirely different weight depending on the synonyms chosen.

If we were to deliberately choose our words, then it is reasonable to assume that textual conversations could become much more deep and expressive. We need to play with words and the structure of our sentences, experiment with the punctuation and expand our vocabularies so that the feelings ingrained in each word, and not just the definition, convey our meaning.

The verbal carelessness we have right now is why our online personalities are so superficial. So much of our individuality comes from our physical presence. Our facial expressions, movements and quirks cannot be replicated on a computer screen. An online personality is therefore fated to be a crude shadow of the self.

Words can change this. Just as a character in a novel can feel lifelike and real, so too can a person seem alive and true online. Choosing the words to describe something shapes characteristics. The more varied a vocabulary, the deeper the person appears. As a personality develops, it is far easier to view him or her as a real person, and not just a line of text. The real danger in online interaction is anonymity. People feel like they can get away with saying anything and often do not fully comprehend that there is a human behind the name and picture on the screen. This separation of online name and real-world person happens subconsciously all the time, and few are able to avoid it. But when one diversifies and expands one’s online personal to better reflect oneself, it does not matter if the screen name is real or not. The myth of anonymity is gone. A person will generally act more like himself and will treat others in a way more indicative of who they are.

Each line of text we type is meant to express something. But so much evocative power is lost by removing intonation and pitch that that expression is often ineffective. In the ease of online communication we forget how dynamic words are. A sentence typed flippantly can be perceived seriously. Someone attempting to make a joke can just as easily insult their audience. But just as authors are able to control their meaning through their word choice, we can control them online. When we choose our words deliberately, we bring more of ourselves into our interactions.

Artwork by JENA RITCHEY.

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