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Jeff Hancock

Jeff Hancock

ROFL

by Toby Butterfield, CIS student science writer

Retrograde Orbital Fluid Lines, or ROFL, represent the next wave of computational airflow solutions, and they will forever change the way cars are designed.

I made all of that up, but that’s exactly what Jeff Hancock’s research is about: how we use the new methods of communication afforded to us by the Internet, and how they, in turn, change the way we lie, laugh, and love. Much of what he’s discovered is counter to our intuitive understanding of the Internet as a detached, indifferent medium compared to the comfortable, fluid feel of speaking with someone face to face.

For example, one of Hancock’s studies found that people tend to lie more often in traditional media such as telephone calls and meetings, than in email or instant messaging. “In the same way that you may want to be face to face or at least synchronous for humor, so you can then detect if you’re tracking my humor, in the same way when I’m lying to you, I may want to track if you’re believing me or not. And if I can track that in real time, if I see some suspicion cues from you, I can make up details to support my story. Whereas in an email, I send it out, and I have very little sense of how you’re responding to it. I can’t adjust my message.”

This result is contrary to conventional wisdom on the subject of computer mediated communication, which holds that such communication is devoid of socio-emotional meaning, which causes users to become self-absorbed, and is thus a breeding ground for negative communication, like lying.

In the same vein, Hancock and graduate student Jorge Pena have researched online video games (widely panned as anti-social and violent), instant messaging, and the common ground between the two: the often trivialized language of emoticons and abbreviations (lol, =], etc.) which, although they appear shallow and meaningless, actually fulfill a very important purpose.

“They’re all about politeness… I want to be valued and respected, and I don’t want to have my will impinged upon… If I were to see you and we knew each other, you could say to me ‘How’s it going?’ and I would say, ‘Good.’ Completely devoid of actual information, but it’s all about this face notion of respecting and valuing each other. Twenty years ago, people thought mediated stuff was all very cold and impersonal, but part of that was because people didn’t do the lol’s and other little polite things that you would do naturally face to face.”

These new developments in the language of online messaging are actually a very fundamental part of the transformation of the medium. As acronyms propagate and as users lol at things that aren’t even funny, the tone is set for conversation, making it possible for genuine social and emotional communication to occur.

Pena and Hancock’s study found that, contrary to the two-decade old Cues Filtered Out approach, which holds that online communication will cause users to be negative and task-oriented, playing for leisure in an online video game actually leads to positive, leisurely talk. 77 percent of the online chatter they observed was social in nature, and 74 percent of that was classified as positive. This is in line with the newer Social Information Processing theory, which suggests that people can learn to communicate via just about any medium, given enough experience, and what they talk about is dictated by the context (work, school, fun).

Instant messaging has been adopted faster than any other means of discourse in human history. With the help of researchers like Hancock, we can understand just how we translate our speech into text on a screen, and learn to encode more and more social information into our messages. You can’t stop the signal—let’s make sure there’s something worth ROFLing at on it.