AIM's Inability to Convey Inflection
Or: Why You Should Get Out More and Talk to People

AIM. On a college campus, it's an essential form of communication. So popular that AOL doesn't even need to mention its success on their site; it's just a given that everyone uses it. With a massive host of features including chat, file transfer (it was notably implicated as a major MP3 transmission utility by the RIAA a few months back), and multi-person conference, it offers an inexpensive way to communicate with friends. Granted IRC did all of this before (good point rp), but AIM made it easy enough for everyone to use it.

And yet it remains a piss poor medium for truly interpersonal communication. Although the gist of a conversation can be conveyed through written form, the minute details that humans depend on are lost or horribly muted. Inflection, tone, and attitude are all horribly mangled as the user attempts to write as if he or she was speaking. The end result is a loss of intensity and sensitivity. For example, comments intended to be mildly sarcastic are instead sometimes percieved to be direct insults. Another example can be seen in flirting online; a great deal of the innuendo and many of the signs are lost because of the crude form of communication used.

So why do we try? Why not pick up the phone, which at least allows your tone of voice to provide far more information? Perhaps it has something to do with the medium itself; people are comfortable using it. When you IM a friend, it's correspondence. There's a level of detachment there that other forms of conversation are incapable of producing. Especially in the case of flirting with an attractive member of the opposite sex, you often find as many forms of security as you can. Another advantage that since instant messaging is not truly real time, you have plenty of opportunity to compose your thoughts before forming a statement. Often you do not have this luxury in the analog world. Of course, there's also the issue of bandwith. Voice and video require streaming connections that would massacre a modem, while a text message is a few bytes in size.

Perhaps in the future, when bandwith is as plentiful as water, we'll look back and wonder how we got along. Or maybe we'll just assume things were weird back then, and laugh. Technology does that.

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