Making that Keyboard Work Harder


   The desire to form impressions of other people, and to manage our own impressions in social settings, are fundamental human characteristics that do not disappear just because we now do these things on the Internet. The difference is that we are not expert at using the cues at hand, nor are we sure how to manage our own self-presentations. This keyboard, for example, can be a rascal when it comes to the nuances of human communication. The Caps Lock key is, inexplicably, much too large considering how rarely we use it. If I slip and press it by mistake, my colleagues might think I AM SHOUTING AT THEM. The colon and right parenthesis:) are far harder to locate, but even this blunt socioemotional instrument can add a warmer and friendlier tone to a discussion.

   On the Internet, we are struggling with a very odd set of tools and pushing them as hard as we can. Homo sapiens are both set in their ways and amazingly adaptable, and right now, all of us are learning some painful and awkward lessons about impression formation online. I look forward to the time when the kinds of "interaction rituals" that Goffman described will stabilize on the net and the business of forming impressions will be more predictable, reliable, and familiar, and much less prone to those hazardous misperceptions. There is something reassuring about knowing instantly where people stand in a social situation - by their postures, their clothing, their business cards, or even their position in a taxi. But I also enjoy being a part of this highly unstable phase when the ground keeps shifting under our feet and the old rules don't apply.

   That online acquaintance I mentioned earlier sent me a few more messages during the next two years, none of which did much to improve the first impression he had made. But my lingering concerns about how inexperienced we all are in the online impression business made me avoid any abrupt, relationship-terminating replies. I did not want to make what social psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. We attribute other people's ghastly behavior to their basic natures, to their boorishness. When we, ourselves, do something embarrassing or rude, we blame unfortunate environmental circumstances. If I SHOUT online, it is because that Caps Lock key is so wretchedly misplaced by hardware manufacturers. If a stranger does it, I conclude that the person is unnecessarily brash.

   I finally ran into my email acquaintance at a conference and learned how mistaken my initial impressions about him were. His contagious smile instantly belied the cool and arrogant image he had projected at first. Stroking his graying beard, he said, "I don't really know how to do this Internet thing, but I'm learning." We all are.