Louis CK Explains Barrens Chat

Actually, he doesn’t. He explains why he thinks that children shouldn’t get smartphones. But it still applies.

The fundamental problem with digital communication is that it eliminates non-verbal feedback. As he describes, when you tell someone, “You’re so fat!” or, as is more often in MMOs, “You’re such a loser! You suck!”, you don’t see their reaction. Their face does nothing at all, nor does their body.

There are two parts to this. First, you can’t tell if anyone is listening. When you speak to a room, there is a palpable sense that the room is listening, or not. If you are speaking, you aren’t analyzing this, you are feeling it. The rustles sound different. Sometimes they get quieter, sometimes noisier. It makes sense emotionally.

But when our avatars, or our mere digital presence, doesn’t reflect our emotional state, that channel of feedback is lost. But that’s not how it feels. It simply feels muted, like no one is listening at all. So the normal human response is to dial your message up. Speak louder, swear more, get in people’s faces more. Above all, get a reaction. Is anyone listening? So this restricted channel encourages escalation.

This principle reminds me of a former guildie who’s drama and escalation in the level 80 channel on Butcherblock made our server somewhat famous – noted on EQFlames.com for one thing. Once I met someone in RL who played EQ2 and when I told him I played on Butcherblock he said he had added BB level 80 chat to his chat feed because it was so entertaining. I think of her escalation as a normal response to the unresponsiveness of the medium.

And also, there is the absence Louis describes. We can’t see the adverse reaction when we say something stupid or hurtful. The feedback loop isn’t closed. We have no clue about what other people might be feeling. We only experience hurt when it become an escalated angry message. And then our impulse is to win.

I don’t quite know how to fix this. Voice chat can be helpful, and it can be obnoxious. It’s a weak channel compared to face-to-face. Of course, SOE now has /soemote which will allow a webcam to track your face and animate your avatar’s face accordingly. This seems valuable, but it doesn’t solve the problem of Barrens chat. (Which, I understand, isn’t really much of a thing any more.)

None of this has much to do with anonymity. In fact, in an MMO, one is pseudonymous, not anonymous. Anonymity can be a factor, but so can the above.

Another complication is how easily we form identities and divisions. We divide up into teams almost automatically, based on the tiniest differences. For example, we might decide that redheads are superior (which is, of course true), and divide the world into two teams – redheads and inferior creatures. Once people divide into tribes, they take actions that will give their team members greater benefits than non-team members, even when the overall benefit to their own team members is smaller as a result. Winning is more important to us than flourishing.

And if this weren’t enough, it seems that humans (and elves, even if they are 3000 years old) have trouble maintaining a circle of relationships with more than 150 people. But our servers routinely are much bigger. So they will fragment. In some sense, that’s what guilds are for. Perhaps we could have smaller server populations, but that can be risky.

I don’t have solutions. But I think now I have a better idea what the problem is.