Thursday, March 20, 2008

Electronic Pony Express

In the last few years I've read articles now and then describing how easily the intention of our electronic communication (email, instant messages, forum posts, etc.) is misunderstood. Tone is especially hard to get across. For example, something written sarcastically is often taken as harsh or offending.

I've experienced this myself on occasion. From time to time I have written things which I had believed to be well thought out and non-hostile, yet people took up arms about it. I find myself having to go out of my way to expressly and overtly state my true intention of not wanting to offend.

This problem has caused me to wonder how written communication has been interpreted in the past. It seems like it used to take a woman to start a Trojan war. Now you just post a comment on their blog. But was it always that way?

Letters were a common and important form of communication for many years. Did these written communiques have this same problem we see today with email? Or has the problem manifest itself due to differences in how electronic messages are sent and received?

If Ben Franklin wrote a letter to George Washington, would George have flown off the handle? "How dare he imply such a thing! Forsooth!"

It seems like one big difference is found in the effort and care taken in the art of writing letters. I say art because when you compare a handwritten letter with an email there tends to be a big difference. In our age of instant, prolific, electronic text have we abandoned the craftsmanship which carried our intent? Or do we just save time now, because letters never were any better?

In any case, it certainly seems like the world could greatly benefit from increased numbers of wordsmiths.