Communicating online presents unique opportunities and obstacles. When people communicate face to face, they have the opportunity for immediate feedback. For example, if I said, “The movie, Leatherheads was good,” you could reply: “In what way was it good?” Because of the opportunity to clarify our meaning through follow-up questions, many of us have become accustomed to not striving for clarity in our casual conversations. A typical conversation might go something like this:
Mr. Jones: “I had a bad day today.”
Ms. Smith: “What happened?”
Mr. Jones: “We missed a deadline.”
Ms. Smith: “Why.”
Mr. Jones: “Jimmy was just off.”
Ms. Smith: “Do you mean off work, or he was not very productive?”
This conversation is an example of interpersonal communication. The process works something like this: Mr. Jones starts with an idea that he wants to communicate to Ms. Smith. He goes through a process called encoding. That’s the process of changing ideas to symbols (symbols can be spoken words, written words, body language, etc.) Ms. Smith heard the words or symbols and decoded them into meaning for her. Because Mr. Jones’ symbols were ambiguous or vague, Ms. Smith provided necessary feedback. Mr. Jones continued encoding symbols until he and Ms. Smith achieved effective communication.
In mass communication such as with newspapers and radio, the sender of information and the receiver of information usually lack the opportunity for immediate feedback. If receivers don’t understand what they read in the newspaper or heard on TV, they often just put down the paper or change the channel. The lesson here is that in mass communication, the sender must chose the best symbols to be clear the first time or risk losing the attention of the receiver.
Blogs are unique. Communicating through blogs is similar to interpersonal conversation in terms of the casualness of the conversation and the opportunity for comments. Communicating through blogs is also similar to mass communications in that there is one sender and numerous receivers, and while the feedback opportunities exists, relatively few bother to take advantage of the opportunity. Even when receivers leave remarks seeking clarification from the blog writer, it is often too late to benefit everyone involved because bloggers participate in online conversations sporadically.
That said there is ample opportunity for miscommunication through blogging, especially as it relates to the writers’ tone, inflection, and connotation. Emotion is difficult to convey online. Bloggers may choose to use emoticons such as smiley faces to indicate emphasis and emotion. However, careful attention should be used for noobs or new bloggers, who may be unfamiliar with the less common emoticons. Some emoticons are easy to misinterpret.
Then there’s the abbreviated, text-message carry over to blogs. I remember years ago when I received a message with “lol” included. I wondered why my student was responding with “lots of love.” Fortunately before responding I discovered “lol” stood for “laugh out loud.” Another potential for miscommunication for writers and readers of blogs is a word in ALL CAPS. To some a word in all caps means an important term, to others it connotes shouting.
Because of the numerous opportunities for misunderstanding, those who write for blogs might consider how each word could be received by the reader. If, for example, sarcasm is intended, the blog writer might consider a parenthetical expression, ie (sarcasm). While this may seem cumbersome, the alternative is the potential for misunderstanding. If the goal is effective communication, blog writers should be careful to avoid vague, ambiguous terms or terms that may have unintended consequences. With all the online competition, attracting readers to your blog or website is difficult. But getting frustrated readers to return is a steeper hill to climb.
Dr. Robert Stevenson is a Professor of Journalism and Director of Student Publications for the Department of Mass Communications and Theater at Lander University in Greenwood, SC. He received the Distinguished Faculty of the Year award for 2007-'08, and the Lander University Young Faculty Scholar Award in 2005-06. Stevenson also serves as chair of the Lander University American Democracy Project. First and Formost I am a dad of two wonderful boys.