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English

Social change and technology

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Face-to-face vs multimodal talk

A teenager composes a text message on a mobile phone using abbreviations

Multimodal talk is any kind of conversation that is not face-to-face. It means texting on mobiles or smartphones [smartphone: A mobile phone that can access the internet, send emails and download applications. ]. It also means tweeting, emails and all kinds of online chat services.

Here are some of the features you will need to consider when you compare multimodal talk with face-to-face talk:

Turn-taking - We have already noted that speech is never like the clear, crafted dialogue of films or novels. There are false starts, interruptions and repetition. People talk over each other, finish each other's sentences or mishear other people. Unlike face-to-face conversations, multimodal interactions obey strict rules of turn-taking as lines cannot appear at the same time. Often this means communicators have more time to craft their responses. In multi-person chat-rooms, however, it can be difficult to follow the different threads of conversation as everyone types at once, but the contributions appear in sequence.

Speed - even in quick, one-to-one forms of communication, most people still talk faster than they type. In order to improve the speed of response in 'multimodal conversations', people use short forms, for example:

  • Contractions, (eg 'uni' for 'university')
  • Clippings ('goin' for going or 'hav' for 'have', 'tmrw' for 'tomorrow').
  • Abbreviations such as acronyms or initialisms for physical reactions ('LOL' for 'laughing out loud').
  • Letter and number homophones (words that sound the same as others) are also ways of speeding up typing ('B' for be or 'gr8' for 'great'.).

This kind of spelling has been partly driven by the difficulty of typing on small handsets. As technology changes and typing on phones becomes easier (for example, with enhancements to predictive texting or better onscreen keyboards) it is possible the way we spell in multimodal chat could change again.

Accent and dialect - one reason for giving alternative spellings to Standard English is to express a strong online identity (not always the same as 'real-world' identity). This may be an expression of non-conformity. It may also be an expression of accent. Spelling can therefore become 'phonetic' - spelt according to how it sounds, rather than how it is represented in Standard English.

  • 'Coupla' for 'couple of'
  • 'Nuff' for 'enough'
  • 'Da' for 'the'
  • 'Gotta' for 'got to'
  • 'Dya' for 'do you'
  • 'tonite' for 'tonight'

Tone - personal and personalised forms of spelling and expression dominate multimodal conversations. Emails often do not begin with the formal address of the letter (Dear Sir or Madam). They instead begin with 'hi' or 'hello', even to people we may not know that well.

The reason is because the technologies themselves are personal and personalised. They have also been embraced most enthusiastically by young people, from teenagers to 'young urban professionals'. Language and tone therefore become informal.

Multimodal technologies have become so central to the way we live and communicate that the informal multimodal tone has started to influence face-to-face interaction. An example of this is when politicians call themselves by their first name and do not wear ties. Also, high street banks have started using their own 'ordinary' staff as the face and voice of big advertising campaigns.

Emoticons - one way of communicating non-verbal signals is through small images called emoticons. These express a writer's mood or signal a change to the meaning of plain text (for example ';)' is a winking grin used to show someone is not serious or is sharing an in-joke). Emoticons are a way of preventing multimodal statements from being ambiguous. For example, is a comment positive or negative about something? Emoticons are a way for multimodal talk to compensate for not having any non-verbal communication.

The range of emoticons increases all the time. Emoticons offer a softer, cartoon-like quality to gestures and can make multimodal conversation less confrontational or aggressive.

Raised volume: writing in capital letters can signify shouting in an aggressive way. Therefore you can make multi-model talk more or less confrontational using emoticons or capital letters.

Final thoughts

Multimodal conversations have developed a whole new form of communication. Consider the following questions about multimodal talk.

  • Does the informal tone of multimodal communication mean remote conversations are generally more personal or intimate than face-to-face conversations?
  • Are digital technologies empowering? Do they give people more and better ways of expressing themselves? Or do they stop people having real one-to-one conversations where they can share real emotions?
  • What will the impact be of future technologies? It is now possible to have live, face-to-face conversations over our mobile phones. But will everyone want to?
  • What are the implications of communicating with someone without looking at them?

Key Terms

  • Turn-taking - the way people take part in a multimodal conversation
  • Sound representation - used when typing (EEK, woooow)
  • Emoticons - symbols used to express facial or emotional reactions
  • Abbreviations - internet slang, eg LOL for laugh out loud (also known as an initialism).
  • Phonetic spelling - spelling words according to how they sound, not their 'correct spelling' (eg 'hav' instead of 'have', 'gr8' instead of 'great').

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