Illiterate Literacy: What I Learnt About Message Boards

The Internet, and Internet message board forums in particular, can seem like mentally stimulating place to hang out on. However, I have reached an epiphany about message boards, and that is that it’s simply too hard to for people to get a point, even a seemingly simple one. This idea begins there and ends at the outer reaches of human intelligence.

Much of my life, from my adolescence and the entirety of my 20s, was spent on hallowed boards throughout the Internet (and dailup Bulletin Board Systems) bickering with strangers. The emotional pull! The drama! The festering feeling in my gut that, by God, I have to show that poor deluded son-of-a-bitch where he went wrong in life.

With age, however, comes wisdom. Recently I realized that there was something funny going on with message boards, and it was simply this: A vast majority of participants have no idea what anyone was writing. The emotional pull! The drama! The festering feeling in my guy that, by God, was completely unjustified.

Inserting images can help maintain the readers’ interest and maybe even convey your point… but it shouldn’t be necessary for anyone with greater than a 4th grade education.

The problem is many-fold, and to try to generate a list in one sitting (as I am now) is likely to not produce a complete and all-inclusive list. However, here’s some of the more obvious things that come to mind that have lead to this situation:

  1. The simple limitations of language.
  2. The English Language has over 300,000 words, about three times as much as most other modern languages, and yet, it still fails to hold meaning in itself. It’s an abstraction, we say “tree” but the word does not encapsulate a specific tree down to every single knothole, and sometimes the difference trips us up. Language is merely a tool we use to try to convey meaning, but is still easy to misinterpret even today.

    On forums, syntax is the main offender. Something as trivial as forgetting to add a comma can totally change the meaning of a sentence. Here’s a story where a faulty comma was responsible for $2.13 million dollars in damage. This is just one example of a plethora of ways that language remains imperfect for conveying absolute meaning of a thing.

  3. Most people simply don’t make time to read.
  4. The Internet is big, far bigger than any forum reader has time for, and so it is extremely rare to encounter someone that would bother to read an entire post (let alone interpret what they read correctly).

    The current rule of thumb is to try to prevent your paragraphs from exceeding 4 sentences.  Even then, big blocks of text will scare people away.  I know this entry won’t be read by many people because it looks long and who has that kind of time?

    However, if you can’t trust people to take much time to do more than skim your messages, misinterpretations are inevitable.

  5. No matter how clearly it is stated, it’s always up for interpretation
  6. Lets say our audience did bother to read what we wrote. As modern Western thinkers, we like to believe that a clear, properly ordered sentence can be universally identified as having the same meaning to everyone. However, as we bridge the gap into postmodern thinking, we are coming to realize that the reality is actually the opposite:

    Everyone will interpret what they have in front of them differently based on their own life experiences.

    It’s cognitive psychology in action. It’s not just “stimulus” and “response” anymore, now there’s a “belief about the stimulus” in between. What’s read is the stimulus and the reader’s beliefs about the stimulus will radically transform their response. It does not really matter if that’s what you meant to write or not, what the reader believes they read is all that matters to them.

    For example, lets say you’re skimming the net and you come across the sentence, “Black people should not do road construction work.” The wheels in the head start turning and, before you know it, you’ve written a 95 page dissertation about racism. Yet, what you read was referring to studies done by the American Cancer Society that indicates that people of African American descent are actually particularly susceptible to the benzene ring aerosols released by freshly paved roads. Suddenly, the 95 page dissertation should have been about why people’s heath concerns should not deny them employment.

    It’s incredibly easy to misinterpret a sentence. You might be thinking to yourself, “Well, just be more specific then, so these little mistakes don’t happen.” It’s not so simple – what you’d really need to know is how every single reader is likely to interpret it, and that would require an understanding of their life’s experience you simply won’t have.

    Expand this beyond a single sentence and into paragraphs. The bigger the block of text you’ve written, the more supporting angles you have to prevent misinterpretation. However, so also are the sentences you’ve created that can be misinterpreted. Nit pickers, people who read simply to find the one sentence that offends them, are not uncommon on today’s Internet message boards.

Where I used to sit on message boards and bicker for hours with somebody, trying to get them to see things my way, I now realize that this endeavor is simply pointless.

For me to generate total agreement in someone who seems unable to do so, I’d likely need to overcome all three of these hurdles. I’d need to write paragraphs that cannot be misconstrued, I’d need to get the reader to read it, and I’d need their life experience to be compatible enough with what I’m writing to understand me implicitly. Fat chance.

The personal growth in accepting this realization is great. Applied to others, away goes all the stress of trying to convince them of anything. When I apply this lens to myself, I realize that I am also susceptible to these limitations as any other. It’s okay if people say I’m clueless or deluding myself – I am – and so, for that matter, are they.

Where there was once chagrin that some people could not seem to understand me, there is now a sense of humor, and this probably the best policy. Humor is a better policy because people are more likely to be open-minded to somebody they feel friendly towards than some bitter old sod quoting them inalienable truths. (I think I better understand why so many of those Zen Buddhists have a sense of humor.) A sense of humor also comes in handy to when dealing with the inevitability of being unable to be truly understood.

The Internet has become the focal point of the information age, a beacon of what we can accomplish if we gather humanity’s knowledge and put it up for all to access. However, in doing so, we’re coming to grips with the very fabric of what we call information and how we communicate it. We’re bumping elbows with our own human stupidity, how far we really have come since we descended from the trees, and it has not been very flattering.

One Response

  1. Excellent post, and consistent with my own experiences. Well done.

    You racist.


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