The Perils of Speaking Online
Most people, even otherwise smart and successful people, don’t really know how to read. Words, for them, can interact with existing frames in their mind, but can’t create new structures. Most people also don’t really know how to listen to music, look at a beetle, or cook a meal. Much of the world exists as an apparition for all of us: we see it, but we can’t interact with it in a meaningful way because we don’t know enough about it. This seems obvious with coleopterology, not with reading, but I think it’s true. Just as doing sums doesn’t mean that one understands math, parsing sentences doesn’t mean that one understands how to read.
All communication is lossy, but some mediums are more lossy than others. Writing holds up surprisingly well—if you know how to read. Some of my most intense interactions have been with people I have only read: James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, and so on. We have nothing in common besides the language, but writing can survive that kind of contextlessness because of its formality; we craft sentences with unacquainted readers in mind.
Speech, on the other hand, is terribly lossy because it’s informal and saturated with extraverbal information. Details like tone and expression are obvious, but there’s also the fact that when you listen to somebody speak you usually know them. That is, you know their prior utterances, their context in your life, and whether they are generally good or bad people. You can probably cognitively empathize with them.
Writing is distant and formal, but speech is a closed, in-group phenomenon. We know this because writing is a relatively recent invention; humans have been communicating through speech long before we thought to write it down. Writing is an artifact of civilization, but speech appears to be something more fundamental to our species.
This dichotomy is where modern communication short-circuits our brains. Is texting writing? I would argue that it’s actually written speech. That distinction is important. Why are emoji a near necessity in texting, but a faux-pas in formal writing? It’s not mere stuffiness; it’s to do with the fact that we text with friends and write for strangers. Linguistic structures in texts are different to formal writing: sentences are much shorter; paragraphs act more like breath marks than idea delineators; we delete all of the throat-clearing and ass-covering that we insert into formal writing, and we add things like emoji, hahas, and expressive gifs, all to convey those nuances of body language that we need for speech to make any sense.
The difference is clear in other forms of what I’d call “written speech,” like blog posts, comment threads, and of course, tweets. Twitter is a bunch of people speaking to their in-groups through writing on the internet, and out-group people who don’t know the full extent of the tweeter’s humanity drag their utterances through the mud. At best, they nitpick points which the original tweeter has clarified before, and at worst, they sling verbal abuse.
If written speech is bad, extemporary speech is even worse. It is, by necessity, so laden with meaning that when someone hears you who isn’t jiving with you, or doesn’t know where you’re coming from, or isn’t prepared to grant you charity, you can be subjected to the worst possible interpretation. There’s a whole micro-industry of people who hate-listen to podcasts and nitpick them. Sometimes they’re actually entertaining—if the nitpickers are part of your in-group.
I have more than 30 hours of myself speaking on the internet. That’s nothing compared to professional speakers, but it’s a lot for me; in comparison, I have maybe 30 minutes of my flute playing on the internet, and that’s my real-life profession. Even from my tiny catalogue, you can probably pull a fair amount of stupid things I’ve said both in and out of context. The process of making a podcast is the process of constantly listening to yourself and wondering, “who is this idiot, and why does he sound so much like me?” My show is just me chatting with one of my best friends of almost ten years. I’ve known him for more than a third of my life, and we’ve spent a good amount of our intellectually formative years talking to each other. How much context is there between us that most people can’t possibly know about? I use my example to show that even I have a very real problem on my hands, and I’m not in deep at all compared to people who make their living on the internet. This problem scales, and it scales badly.
There’s no real solution, either. You can mitigate it with paywalls, or you can just hope that strangers will extend charity to you. But the former isn’t often a viable business model, and the latter goes against everything we know about human nature. Perhaps we’ll only see daylight when a critical mass of people start living their lives openly online, as a few of us do now, blogging, tweeting, or broadcasting prolifically. Maybe the only way forward is if, in the future, everybody says something stupid on a podcast for 15 minutes. Or 15 hours.