Unit 4: Communicating via the Internet

Many people fear that the internet is changing the way we communicate, making it briefer and less formal. However, both of these fears are simply misconceptions. In a lecture given by Professor Gernsbacher, she demonstrates how brief and informal communication are not modern things. In 1862, author Victor Hugo sent a letter to his publisher asking how book sales were going. The only thing written on the letter was a simple question mark. His publisher replied with a letter just as simple, with only an exclamation point written. Another example of brief communication before the internet is the telegram. Telegrams by necessity were brief, because writers were charged by the word. Their were even guidebooks instructing writers how to reduce the number of words in their telegrams to save money. One book instructed users to “eliminate the word ‘please’ from all telegrams because eliminating that one simple word would save the American public millions of dollars annually.”

Professor Gernsbacher also gave some examples of how communication is not getting less formal. Textual slang was used centuries ago. In 1917, Lord Fisher wrote a letter to Winston Churchill that used the abbreviation OMG with double exclamation points. Emoticons are also not new- they were first seen in the late 1800s. Today’s professors are dismayed when their students address them as ‘Prof’ in an email, but before the internet was even invented students still broke the rules of etiquette of addressing a professor. Some students were known to telephone professors’ homes at night to ask questions.

One thing the internet is changing though, is our preference for intransient, asynchronous communication as opposed to transient, synchronous communication. In other words, people prefer written communication on their own time, as opposed to spoken communication in real time. Today, people send more texts and emails, and make a lot less phone calls than they used to. From my experience, there have been many situations where intransient, asynchronous communication was preferred. For example, if I’m taking a class and I need to ask the professor a question, I would much rather email them and ask my question instead of going to office hours. Usually I’ll be busy during their office hours, and emailing them instead saves a lot of time and energy.

Speaking of emailing professors, many students are misinformed on the correct way to do this. A list of recommendations on how to email professors was compiled from several universities, and it includes the following suggestions:

  1. Use your university email account
    • Emails from other email accounts may end up in the professors’ spam folder.
  2. Use your professor’s last name in your salutation
    • Professors strongly dislike being addressed as ‘Professor’ or ‘Prof’
  3. Start with a new message
    • Don’t reply to an old email, unless it has to do with that subject matter
  4. Write an informative subject heading
    • Don’t say something generic like ‘question’ or ‘hey’
  5. Do not address a professor by their first name unless they have explicitly told you to do so
    • Also true for in-person communication
  6. Write grammatically, spell correctly, and use correct capitalization
    • This shows your professor you care about how you present yourself
  7. Use paragraph breaks to organize your message
    • Use no more than 3-4 sentences per paragraph
  8. Don’t use email to rant or whine
    • Usually results in the opposite of what you want to happen
  9. Write the body of the email first; fill in the address in the TO: line last
    • Protects you from sending and incomplete message

Follow these suggestions, and you’ll be set.

Like I said before, the internet is not making communication briefer or more informal, however it is changing the way we prefer to communicate- with asynchronous, intransigent, written communication. This applies to more than just general communication. Researchers are beginning to embrace this fact, and as a result are starting to conduct surveys over text instead of through phone calls. Participants prefer it, and it also helps researchers gain more accurate information. This is because when surveys are conducted over text, respondents are less likely to straight-line (respond to questions with similar answers suggesting that answers aren’t authentic), to satisfice (round answers), or to respond in a way that is more socially desirable than the truthful answer.

A study by Schober and Conrad found that participants who complete surveys over text answer more accurately by taking advantage of the asynchrony texting allows. They take more time in between each response to ensure its validity, and since the questions are over the text, respondents don’t have to ask interviewers to repeat questions; the information is all right in front of them.

There have been few studies conducted over text, but based on the findings from Schooner and Conrad more studies should definitely be conducted over text. For more information about this study, and this topic as a whole, read Professor Gernsbacher’s article “Internet Based Communication.”


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