Emotions can be easily misunderstood when you can’t see faces or body language. People may not realise you are joking, and irony and satire are easily missed – all good reasons to think before you send a message. To compensate for these restrictions, early internet users came up with the idea of the smiley face – :) or :-) – which then grew into a whole family of emoticons.
Remember that the systems upon which many forums are based only support plain text, so you can’t always rely on fonts and colours to add meaning. Even if you are using a forum that allows so-called ‘rich text’, it’s possible that other users will be picking up messages as plain text emails or as text message alerts on their mobile phones and will not see your formatting. AND DON’T WRITE IN CAPITAL LETTERS – IT WILL COME OVER AS SHOUTING!
If you read something that offends or upsets you, it is very tempting to dash off a reply immediately. However, messages written in the heat of the moment can often cause offence themselves. It’s much better to save your message as a draft and take a break or sleep on it. That gives you a chance to come back to your message when you’re feeling calmer and ask yourself ‘how would I feel if someone sent that message to me?’. If you decide it will make things worse then make sure you edit it before you send it.
The best advice is to try to be aware of your audience before you post. The internet is a global phenomenon; people from widely differing cultures and backgrounds may read what you write online, and what you find funny may be offensive to them. It may take time to work out what sort of ‘audience’ can be found in a particular forum; some are very permissive and allow almost any sort of behaviour, while most (like those at The Open University) will not tolerate bad behaviour or abuse.
Activity 7 (exploratory)
Look at the email exchange shown in Figure 8. What emotions are being expressed through smileys and typography? Would Jon and Sue still be on speaking terms if they hadn’t used these devices?
In Sue’s first reply to Jon she expresses her frustration by typing ‘Aaaarrrgggghhhhhh’, but she ends that message with a winking smiley. Jon’s reply then says ‘sorry’ in a very small voice! Sue’s final reply starts with a happy smiley to show that everything’s OK. She uses a large font when she mentions the annoyingly early meeting time.
I feel sure that Jon and Sue would still be friendly after this email exchange. But I have seen email exchanges between colleagues that had the opposite effect, when the participants didn’t take care about how they expressed themselves in their messages.