sloppy speech acts

I was conversing with a friend on my Sidekick when we got into a discussion about speech acts. I was trying to explain Derrida and Searle’s seminal tiff over Austin when i got frustrated. It was not the actual topic that made me upset but my inability to convey the significance of their disagreement. She was on her computer typing at normal speed and i was trying to peck out shorthand on my Sidekick. I got frustrated that i couldn’t get across what i wanted to.

I’m fascinated by the kinds of speech that suit the Sidekick and which kinds don’t. Anything that requires debate or nuanced speech fails on the Sidekick because i try to type fast and end up with sloppy, shorthanded text that is easily misinterpreted. And then i get frustrated, type faster and thus more sloppy to try to correct the conversational path quickly. Spiral to uh-oh quickly ensues.

Today, i was writing an email to someone about something that was emotionally charged and i realized that i was using super staccato speech patterns. I took a look at some recent IM exchanges and saw more staccato – they had blurred… emotional speech had the same pattern. Yesterday, i ran across old zwrite debates from 1997 and when i looked back today, i realized there was a big difference in language patterns. No shorthand, more articulated speech. I was also thinking about how Tom Coate thought that his blogging speech had really changed when he switched from Blogger to MovableType. I was also noticing that i often fail to use complete sentences on my blog now.. just thought bursts with lots of ellipses. I wonder how much a switch to AIM and then to the Sidekick changed things.

And then i started thinking about how sloppy my speech has been lately. I speak like i IM on my Sidekick – short, curt, coded… My speech has gotten super sloppy in recent years and i use my hands even more when i’m talking. I use whatever word comes to mind even if it doesn’t fit well and i speak through impressions rather than using sound bites. I realize that my writing has gotten sloppier too and i find it far far far more painful to write now than before. I’m not particularly proud of either of these manifestations.

I’m not sure where all of the cause and effects are but i am definitely wondering if my always-on IM life is affecting my speech elsewhere. I certainly see this with students’ writing but i’d always dismissed it as them not having learned to write yet. But if my writing and speaking is starting to look all IM like, what does that mean? What if this is the root of my frustration with writing these days? How do i get back to being able to write 10 page papers in one night in a jam session? What on earth is going on???

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21 thoughts on “sloppy speech acts

  1. David Molnar

    To write ten pages in a single session: find a cafe without 802.11 access. That’s the only thing that seems to help me any more. I like Au Coquelet since it’s close to me (and open until 2), but Milano or Strada work too.

  2. Anne

    Happy New Year danah 🙂 Can you please explain more about how you see IM and the like as speech acts (and in whose sense)? What is it that they *do* that is different from, say, speaking or even typesetting?

  3. zephoria

    Well, most of the sloppiness of IM and my writing (i.e. the bulk of this blog post) is an issue of pure speech, but the title is meant to reference two things. First (and more obviously), it is meant to reference the origin of this thought process – dealing with Austin’s conceptions of performativity and Derrida’s snarky response in “Signature Event Context.” Second (and less visible because i didn’t end up finishing this aspect of the post), it is meant to reference the fact that my speech in IM has moved from conversation and sociability to the process of doing work with IM. I remember being startled when i spent a week at work doing nothing but IM. I started wondering if i was being lazy or otherwise failing at my job. I wasn’t writing reports, i wasn’t even writing for posterity. But i wasn’t just discussing work (or slacking off), but doing work. IM speech was no longer simply sociality, but a set of illocutionary speech acts. Yet, it wasn’t the kind of fluid speech normally brought out by giving lectures or writing a report. It had the same role, but it was utterly sloppy.. it felt like conversation and yet, it was not. It had a more performative aspect.

  4. Cliff Allen

    I’ve found that three things affect the quality of my writing: size of the screen, size of the keyboard, and whether I’m writing in “real-time” or have time to review and edit.

    My worst writing is done in IM or SMS on my phone. Next best is a full-sized keyboard on a PDA (small screen). Best is on a tablet in Word.

    So, for me size does matter.

  5. James Lawson

    The weird thing with me is that even when I am chatting (im, irc, etc.) that I still use proper grammar and syntax along with punctuation. I’m chalking this up to having an english teacher for a dad and a mom who was a lay leader at our church.

  6. museumfreak

    I’ve noticed the very same phenomenon in myself (and I don’t even have a sidekick), but always chalked it up to my ADD. As my volume of e-mail and connectivity goes up, my ability to sustain a thought goes down and writing gets more painful.

    Plus right now it feels like my only academic collaboration is over e-mail and IM, which I think is affecting my ability to discuss ideas and theory in a really pervasive, insidious way.

    It’s going to be interesting to think about how this speech-act stuff will backfire (or not), on the connected, globalized communities of practice businesses are trying to build.

  7. Ian

    Not only IM, what about what the search engines are doing to our language. Ask someone on the street “tokyo restaurant shibuya chinese” and they’ll wonder what planet you came from.

  8. MarkH

    Not so much a comment on the speech patterns, but a sidecomment on the tools. I recently reverted back from my PDA to my old Psion Revo, becuase I found the use of the keyboard so much better than the wand and touchscreen. This has helped me regain full sentence structures, if not prolonged thought patterns. There’s something more syntactically correct about the keyboard.

  9. Matthew Purdon

    I would like to broaden the context by saying that sloppy language is driven by our expected speed of communication. The tools are only a symptom of that expectation. To listen and respond in an acute manner takes time. We have to metabolize thoughts with our whole being. The speed of thought is faster than that process. Instant communication is driven by the speed of thinking, not being.

    Through meditation and contact with my body, I have that my speech patterns have actually slowed down. I am much clearer about what I’m saying if I allow myself the space to not respond instantly.

  10. Mark Federman

    It’s the medium is the message, kiddo. Every innovation, invention or idea changes the way in which we, as a society, interact with one another, and that affects the way we each experience the world, create meaning and construct knowledge.

    With conscious awareness of the effects imposed by the medium, each of us can take steps (if we so choose) to mitigate those effects, and thereby preserve our ability to construct the world the way we want to, as opposed to being at the mercy of our media.

    For those allergic to McLuhan-as-method (as opposed to McLuhan-as-content that is far more allergenic), try Latour’s “A collective of humans and nonhumans: Following Daedalus’s labyrinth,” in his 1999 Pandora’s hope: Essays on the reality of science studies (pp. 174-215), published by Harvard University Press.

  11. Ken

    Interesting problem. I’ve always tried to approximate proper English (or Spanish) in IM and email, but I’ve found that certain shortcuts are pretty handy (e.g., bc = because, pq = porque, etc). Of course, I modified the autocorrect in my word processor to complete those words when I’m writing offline.

    Still, I’ve always had a difficult time writing ten pages of anything really interesting overnight.

    Now, at the end of seven years of grad school, I’ve come to think of the brain as a garden hose – you can only stuff so many marbles into it before they start popping out the back end.

    Dana, would you say that IM and such has increased the *amount* of information you process? Shorthand sounds like a reasoned response to overload. Perhaps one strategy would be to try winnowing out the less-meaningful communication, to focus on eloquence in what really matters to you.

    Just a thought. Of course, I’ve lost most of my marbles already.

  12. Silona

    Wow I can so relate to this. Interface and context are so crucial.

    I have taken to using IM over phone conversations because then I have a record of what is said so that I can reread for missed details.

    But I am always amazed at what people thought they read… copy and paste becomes my friend sometimes.

    Other times when I am wrong -it is a way for me to apologize and explain my misconceptions — hopefully leading me on a path of fewer miscommunications in the future.

    I have also started blogging on LJ about significant personal issues (all friends only of course.) Because of the format and the ability to take time and do careful wording, I find it to be an ideal way to talk about sensitive issues in a way I normally would find difficult in RL. Simple body language and interruptions are too difficult to deal with when it is a sensative issue and I also know that when people are reading it – it is because they choose to. They are not simply being polite. So I like the pull format 😉

    It is also very useful to have the comment section where I can hopefully explain any difficulties or misconceptions about what I have written.

    thanks for the thought process!

  13. zala

    I have been through the same thing a few times, and crawled out of it eventually. I love how you described your students’ writing as them not having learned to write proper. I felt the same way.

    I feel it is like learning a new dialect, where your brain automatically maps out the language. And then eventually you start thinking in that dialect.

    The main problem for me was that it has a much reduced vocabulary and grammar structure, so expressing complex ideas follows a torturous, circuitous path. And often word would fail me because I didnt have the vocab. 🙁

    Eventually I adopted a philosophy of only interacting using ‘proper’ english, (which ruled out most IM and simple email) and I haven’t backtracked yet over the last 2 years.

  14. Ken

    As an undergrad, I had a prof that would say “writing clearly is thinking clearly,” as she would fill us to the brim with Strunk and White, and discussions about “professional language communities” and techno-jargon.

    While I’m not sure that IM qualifies as a professional community, shorthand does reflect a culture of sorts. I suppose the problem Dana writes about could be a form of “dual consciousness” (apologies to Du Bois).

  15. Ged Carroll


    Interesting post which touches on a number of areas. It reminds of research I read about that was done back in the day on school and university students writing had been changed by the tools that they used. When they had a pen and pad or a typewriter the writing was more structured, but was not as creative as the work done by students using word processing software. Technology like email and IM, by their immediate nature encourage us to develop an immediate response (hence the speed and sloppiness as you call it). Also if you wrote long-winded prose you would probably end up with ‘Blackberry thumb’.

    Bottom line is that we are both influencers and influenced by our environments. Keep on blogging /Ged

  16. Uno de Waal

    The short-hand language phenomenon has been running through my mind as well for the past year or so. My main “other” (apart from PC or other communication) is probably sms’ing. I have a P910i which has the keyboard and I regularly get comments on how i always have properly puncuated SMS’s, but I still feel and see how my language becomes watered down (eek! Are we already trying to say it’s a negative thing?).
    Often, mostly in IM conversations, I’ve found myself ditching the Subject. It no longer is “I am going to make a sandwhich, see you soon.” The sentence becomes “Gona make a sandwich.” All actions that I refer to lose the original action.
    Another thing bothering me is the possibility of working out emotion and adjectives. How many times have you tried to convey your real emotion over an SMS? It reminds me of Orwell and New Speak to some extent. Sheez, at the same time though, I am quite excited because for me I can definately see more communication happening, i.e. more people are talking to each other, but I’m still a bit skeptical about the quality of the communication.

  17. Tigerblade

    Interesting thoughts. I agree with Ged on this, that it’s because of the medium that we’ve adopted a strategy of shorthanding everything. We are expected in virtual environments to have a more or less immediate response, so we resort to much faster means of “communicating.” Time is at an all-time premium – the less time it takes us to do something, the better, right? I’ve noticed in my own online conversations that I tend to do as you mentioned – short bursts of thought separated by the all-powerful ellipsis. It seems so much more convenient to do so than attempt to form full and proper sentences, even though it detracts from our overall… intelligence? metabolization of thought? I don’t have a Blackberry or any other such device, but I do occasionally send a quick text message from my cellphone. It takes determined thought to not type ‘i dunno-u?’ in place of ‘I don’t know – what about you?’

    Interesting post. If you’re curious, I found your site through… I’ll be linking your site from mine if you don’t mind.

  18. Tigerblade

    What is lost in the shorthand is typically the emotion, the full meaning of what is being conveyed. Instead of “hello, how are you doing today?” we’ve allowed ourselves to get by with “sup?” – much less sophisticated by any measure. We’ve lost the extended meanings of our sentences, the details, the emotion.

    And of course with any electronic communication channels, we lose the ever-important non-verbal signals. Facial features, gestures, intonations (less so with phones, but still), etc… none of those come across, meaning it can be that much harder to determine what the original intent of the message was. Sarcasm? Irony? Cynicism? Wit? Who knows. All we see are the pixels on the screen.

  19. stefanos

    expect them words to be short
    as time is cut
    and minds read doublespeak of the
    phrases that emotively
    become new languages upon
    fingertipped tongues
    search engineered predictive
    austin hammering them words
    to sculpt meaning somewhere
    in collective moments at different
    clocked speeds of reading thoughts
    of perpetual “I do’s”

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