Your online voice has probably ruined your relationships

Samar explains why he thinks everyone with a smartphone is a troll – including you

I have a catastrophic relationship with my phone. I waste plenty of time on it, just like anyone else, but I’ve also been noticing more and more how much trouble I get into because of the vacuous way in which I message. I do this frequently enough that I’ve developed an online voice, which is separate from my real voice. I think this duality is a dangerous thing worth paying attention to.

My online voice isn’t landing me in trouble in a real sense where I’ve offended someone so much that they turn red – but trouble in a sticky, virtual sense where I’ve written something that never meant to mean much. I’ve glanced at my phone, hastily dragged my fingers across it’s screen and hit send, but someone else now has to sit there and interpret whether my digital jumble of incorrectly applied emojis and obscure assemblies of words means something. Sometimes they realise it’s a dumb message, sometimes they probably think I’m a timewasting prat, most of the time they’ll probably understand it in the wrong way. 90% of the time I don’t intend these consequences, I swear… I just hate messaging. 

I’ve experienced  friends cancelling holidays just because of an imprecise Facebook comment. 

There’s a harmful dissonance between how we convey ourselves online and how we communicate in person. Replying without careful thought and sharing random stuff can have huge impact – from unnecessarily rattling parliamentary parties in their WhatsApp groups, to galvanising murderous mobs seeking revenge for made-up child abductions in Indian villages. Everyone will have been part of a group where war is being waged over nothing more than words. I’ve experienced  friends cancelling holidays just because of an imprecise Facebook comment. 

On a more personal level, our online voice has an impact on our relationships. If we speak differently online than we do in person, what we think about others becomes more abstract. We’ll view people as a compound of their tangible physical selves and the memories of the images and words that they published somewhere online. For example, in person they may be appear jolly and lighthearted, but you’ll remind yourself of the tear-jerking poetry they post on their Insta and consequently treat them as if they are a sadboi. If, like me, you perpetually misrepresent yourself online, I can imagine it might be confusing for others to correlate what I spew online with me in person. 

It should be obvious how easy it is to present yourself differently online. If not, a re-cap: on Instagram, images are carefully curated and supposedly uploaded at random yet well thought-out intervals. On Twitter we have all (hopefully) grown out of sharing our immediate complaints and now share the thoughts that make us seem interesting. On Facebook we’ll dump holiday pictures, once a year, and decide which tagged images can remain on our profiles. You can give a pristine presentation of someone that you’ve invented for each platform, whilst watching Dragon’s Den in your boxers and losing yet another custard cream in a mug of over-dunked tea.

If, like me, you perpetually misrepresent yourself online, I can imagine it might be confusing for others to correlate what I spew online with me in person.  

This widening gap between personas creates a colourless yet opaque virtual bubble of space that swoops in and hangs over every real interaction you have with someone you follow or message online. Do you just  pretend you don’t know anything about someone you just met, even though you’ve already conducted an extensive character assessment based on the four public posts you discovered whilst stalking through your friends of friends profiles. Or do you incorporate your knowledge? When you stand in front of someone do you speak to whoever they were in their 5am Snapchat, or do you speak to them like you would a stranger? Should we make more of an effort to keep online and real personas distinct? If so, how do we even do that?

These questions probably require different answers depending on the technological context. I want to focus on a specific technology – instant messaging. Since social media posts are generally more planned, I would argue that we develop our online voices mainly in endless quick-fire exchanges enabled by our smartphones. 

Using smartphones to chat is so, so different to how we communicated before and it’s down to how the technology works. If we recognise technology to be an ever-expanding set of tools which allows us to manipulate and play with the world, then it means that our world changes according to technology we use. So, the technology we use dictates the way we speak into the world, ie. our voice.

We can view having a chat over a hot choc, putting pen to paper and touching a screen as making use of different technologies and different ways of interacting with the world. Real-life conversations are straightforward – we use our eyes, ears and mouths. We can see each others facial expressions and its hard to be misguided about someone’s tone of voice – you can tell if you are being wooed or insulted. In a letter, each word is deliberated and only one sequence of words is committed to paper – you can take the time to try write out how you feel. 

Using instant messages, you go without the tone, body language and shared environment that provide a physical and emotional context to the conversation.

However, in instant messages, you go without the tone, body language and shared environment that provide a physical and emotional context to the conversation. You stare at a few blinking pixels with two options: (i) you do your best to imagine how the other person is feeling and reply accordingly, (ii) you just write whatever. 

Too often I do the latter. I know the limits of emotional response that come with each technology. I’ll tap different things into my smartphone than I would speak to another person. Why bother trying to have a conversation about something that’s genuinely affecting you through instant messaging? Especially if you know you’ll fail to express how you feel and will probably need to use a :’( emoji. 

I mean, you could try harder to imagine what the other person is saying, but that’s long when they haven’t written much. I’d rather turn my phone on, reply, and then put it away without getting distracted by nonsense about Brexit or a video of capybaras having a cute bath.

Not only is it effortless – it’s also addictive. It’s a badly-kept secret that several of the creators of Facebook have deleted their social media accounts and would never let their kids near them. Facebook owns Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram and have come clean about the fact that they design their software to seize our attention. Instant messaging apps make it enticing to send more and more messages, the gifs, red dots, loud chimes and blue ticks that follow us when we are walking, sitting or chatting demand and reward our attention, only leaving us alone once we’ve flicked off a message. Interestingly, I have noticed that I choose Whatsapp’s mature green setting when I’m trying to have a more proper conversation because I chat relentless rubbish on the more childishly-hued Messenger.

By interfering with the mechanisms that keep our minds interested, Facebook manipulates how we choose to spend our time and interact with the world. The medium of a shiny touch screen and ease with which we can message allows software engineers to almost decide when, where and why we communicate. This leads  to the development of a voice that no one would hear otherwise.

Why you’re a troll

Although smartphones make us more accessible to one another in that we feel closer together, they can drive us apart. Rather than looking to real activities or interactions, they consume our time by keeping us satisfied with endless hyperlinks and holiday pictures that take us far away  without having to lift our legs. 

The time that we spend messaging isn’t always time we want to spend messaging. It’s a kind of absent time where we allow our phones to keep us occupied. We feel like we are connected but we kind of just aren’t. It’s like a thumb war which is won only when someone clocks that the conversation has become meaningless and puts their phone away.

We feel like we are connected but we kind of just aren’t.

People that especially love to engage in finger battles are trolls. A troll is someone that recognises that the only joy that they can get out of messaging online is by creating a thumb war, sustaining the battle, and then ending it by summoning a stream of expletives from the group or individual they are annoying. 

But I think that trolls don’t always need to be provocative. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to anyone that can, successfully, convey their true voice through their phones. A troll can be anyone that is comfortable talking nonsense from behind their screen. It’s anyone who’s aware that communicating in real-life and through a screen are very different, but still says things through fingers that they wouldn’t say out loud. 

Time constraints and sensory limits provoke Freudian slips and benign chatter to pervade our relationships – making every single one of us a troll. As soon as we unlock our phones the civil ambience that we must wear out to work or on the bus disappears, leaving behind a bad-breathed demon at the helm of a keyboard. 

How can we stop it

Without doubt, I could evade this behaviour altogether. I don’t have to be affected by all these systems that make me hate my phone so much. I have a gorgeous yellow turtle-shell shaped Nokia 3310 that I switch my SIM card into once or twice a week when I don’t need to read emails or am just sick of using it. It’s a blissful time: the only red dots I see are the snacks that I eat when playing Snake. The only sound it makes is a gentle buzz when I’ve put it on silent or a non-invasive 8-bit ringtone. The only messages I send are straight information exchanges about where I am or where I’m going to be. It doesn’t prompt me to send more and more messages and it would be laborious for my fingers to press the buttons that many times anyway. Although, my brick phone doesn’t open up as many opportunities for my everyday – I LOVE Google Maps. 

Another option is to learn how you can give your true voice in messages – to be methodical in taking our time in constructing a message. But we face the reality that we are never sure how much of what we see online is true, so it’s easy for people to create personas and inject enthusiasm into benign conversations. So, I think conveying your true voice in messages is kind of impossible and anyway it’s long to try and do this every time.

I have a gorgeous yellow turtle-shell shaped Nokia 3310 that I switch my SIM card into once or twice a week when I don’t need to read emails or am just sick of using it. It’s a blissful time.

Or, we make peace with having a new voice. Our online voices are just as ‘real’ as our real voices. Social media platforms give our online voices a sense of purpose, we can interact in a different way when we’re speaking with our phone and maybe this is probably something to be valued. Having smartphones in our lives allows us to exist in different worlds where we speak differently and even have different companions to speak with. Instead of deleting one, we could ask if it’s possible to juggle them. Can we sometimes play off the two, combine them when we feel we can. Or should we turn one off when we turn the other one on? Maybe we just need to get used to the idea that truth in one reality is not the same as truth in another reality. 

The bottom line is that we’ve got to learn our online voices are not our real voices. Though we may try to take ourselves seriously online, we’ve got to question why we are communicating there in the first place. For straight, factual information exchanges, instant messages are an incredible technology. But, if you are wanting to have a worthwhile interaction, meet in person, or at least take some time and imagine you’re writing a letter. Any other chat probably isn’t more meaningful than some pixels in your palm.

What do you think? Drop us a comment below or use your best non-online voice to leave us a comment on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram – if you can…

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