From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

April 22, 1997*The (Virtual) Shadow of Your Smile?

Don't get me wrong. I love movies. But I'm also the type of person who feels that movie versions ruin the pleasure of my favorite books. By attaching bodies and faces to heroes who, when they existed only in text, could assume any form I choose, the movies limit me and my ability to imagine those heroes and give them life.

And so it is with e-mail. On the numerous lists to which I subscribe I've learned to associate certain qualities to names that show up frequently. I come to know the frequent contributors to these lists as I do characters in a novel. Their characters unfold with time and with greater exposure, but what they look like, and their characteristics beyond the scope of the topic of the list, are open for me to determine, just as I do when I read a novel.

The story I'll relate in this issue of the Boidem is much less personal than Cathy's in the comic above, but at its root it relates to the same phenomenon - the ways in which virtual communication and face-to-face communication differ.

Anyone who's become familiar with my home pages (though of course there's no obligation to do so) knows that I'm married to Tzippi who is a professional horn player. For years she's been a member of the International Horn Society and avidly reads all the publications that come to us through that membership. When a fellow horn player told her a few months ago that there was an e-mail discussion group for horn players, she promptly subscribed. Since then we've been receiving around 70 messages a day related to different aspects of horn playing. Sometimes these messages are interesting, and most of the time they're quite the opposite. Though over the years I've learned to take an interest in the mechanics of horn playing, on the whole these discussions don't interest me. But about a month ago one post and the ensuing discussion around it definitely caught my eye:

As I've already noted, I enjoy the opportunity to imagine what people on a list look like and don't feel any need to see their pictures. But I certainly wanted to know what was going to develop from this post. I didn't have to wait long before the responses started pouring in: So it looked as though this was an idea which was going to take off. There were, however, some who seemed to take an approach similar to mine: And even the original poster seemed to think along these lines (please note the second paragraph): By far, however, the main objection wasn't that seeing what someone looked like wasn't important, or wasn't of interest (though personally, I think the attached example proves that quite well), but that the technology involved was too difficult, or that it would take up too much expensive download time. One example: And another: So on the one hand people seemed quite willing to have members of the list know what they look like, but on the other didn't want to become involved with the technicalities or the difficulties. The solution was sending scanned photos (or even photos for scanning) to volunteers who were more than happy to devote room on their web sites to photo galleries of members of the list.

Another approach, banal in its simplicity was also suggested (it came from Israel, and yes, we know him, and he's very nice guy):

Of course this isn't only a simple suggestion, it should also be self-obvious. Essentially, that's what signature files are for: to give some basic personal information. And since e-mail is text based, nobody should really have to be told that they can write a short bio of themselves. A short biography gives away much more information than a standard snapshot, though nobody said that you can't lie. For Tzippi, at least, signature files, short bios, or snapshots would give her some basic, important information about the participants on the list - information that some posters might prefer be left to the imagination, but that is very important from the standpoint of the professional advice often offered on the list: A number of active members of the list are well known professional horn players, and their input is welcomed very warmly. On the other hand, only after a few months on the list did Tzippi learn that a few of the most active participants who are willing and eager to express their opinions on every professional issue, are still high school students. One of them doesn't even own a horn yet.

It's often noted that in cyberspace you can assume any persona you choose - nobody knows who you really are. I enjoy the adventure of constructing my image of someone else's persona - for me that's part of the adventure of cyberspace. But I guess that it's pretty clear that sometimes it can be a good thing to have the basic information available, upfront and untainted.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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