Saturday, February 14, 2009

Telling a Tattle Tale

"Anyone telling about his travels must be a liar, for if a traveler doesn't visit his narrative with the spirit and techniques of fiction, no one will want to hear it."

I was thinking of this quote the other day while I was busy not paying attention in class (an act I will surely regret). Surely some things are not the works of fiction? Someone's travels must have been true and still exciting to the listener.

Then I thought that perhaps what the person was really trying to get at was that we ourselves like to spice up our stories. Who would want to hear of someone who just randomly drove up and down a river looking at static objects and AFK avatars? No one, that's who. It's boring, no matter how pretty the photos are. No, it's much more entertaining to add some flair to it and try to impress someone.

Even in real life. When the police busted a party I was at once, what really happened was they came up and told everyone to knock it off and everyone just kind of left. To hear my friends tell it, however, you would think it was a shocking case of police brutality with the cops breaking down the door, beating everyone with their beatsticks (heh, 'nightsticks'), and cuffing us all up and into jail where many bad and terrible things happened which is sure to haunt us for the rest of our natural lives!

So while some may argue it's bad that we can't tell the straight truth, I say to hell with that. That's boring. I'd rather hear something incredibly unbelievable and exciting than your mundane trip to the grocery store. You only live once, might as well ham it up and add something about flying elephants or the hoardes of robotic cyborgs you had to fight in the dairy aisle. Nah, don't go to that extreme. But have some imagination. Otherwise life is boring.

The only problem, though, is what exactly is true and what isn't? History would get awfully distorted with tall tales. You are probably wondering: if this is what she believes, then can we really believe anything that she says or writes? You have a point. You have no way of knowing. But doesn't that make it much more fun? At the least, you can say you're never bored. Also, we can consider: If I am a liar, and everything I say is a lie, and I admit it, then am I a liar?

The simple answer is yes, you're a liar because just four minutes ago you said to take the first left at 5th street which led me around in a circle.

I think the line needs to be drawn when things turn serious. A clever and exciting tale is good when nothing is at stake. But imagine how angry you would be if I told you the Lindens were going to consolidate all islands into a small continent, forcing you to give your sequestered island neighbors who might pester and annoy you? So you sell your island and leave, only to find out I was kidding. Or if I told you your dog was hungry when in reality a gigantic bus came up onto the sidewalk and squashed him into paste? Leaving out the fact, of course, that the bus was really my Toyota and the driver was actually me.

We can only hope, I assume, that people tell the absolute truth when the chips are down. Otherwise we'd have no trust in what anyone else is saying. And if one doesn't, then we do brand that person as a liar. Because it's not funny anymore.

There are subtle clues, though, that allow us to spot when someone is bullshitting us. The person may fidget a lot, or break into a sweat, or search for words, or cross their legs back and forth. There's a lot of bodily clues you can use. Tone of voice, sometimes, too, can give someone away. The game can be given away in several ways when you're up close and personal.

But over the internet, you don't have those things. All you have is text. I know some people (myself included) have sometimes argued that over the internet, there is no body language to get in the way of your message, that it becomes distilled. And that is true to a certain extent. There's no misunderstanding me here, for instance, for you can come back and reload the page as many times as you want and analysis every sentence fragment of mine. It's out there, on the record. There's no mumbling to one's self. Even if you make it the tinest little font, you can copy and paste it somewhere else and enlarge it. Speak a foreign language? Babelfish and Google translator can give someone a hint of what you are talking about.

With nothing in your message, no body language or facial expressions to get in the way, I can quite clearly see exactly what you are trying to say. However, that's a double edged sword. Unless I make it immediately obvious through some means ( :) ), you can't tell my tone of voice. This has gotten me into much trouble. People can't tell when you're joking, when you're being sarcastic, or when you're being serious. People can read your message more clearly, but they also can't tell the attitude with which the message is being said. Only by familarity can you figure it out, and even then sometimes it's hard.

In Second Life, you have an avatar. You can make your avatar look like whatever you want, but almost everyone makes one that is human to some degree (even furries are humanoid in shape). You would think this would add some clue of communication and perhaps reduce down some errors. After all, you can create an animation override. But that's not true. It's the same as any other place on the internet. You have to resort to smileys or outright telling the person what kind of delivery you are giving (*sarcasm*). Plus, with an animation override, I can have my avatar give you a false impression of what I am actually trying to say. It's very hard not to think I am being consistently sarcastic when my avatar is slouched back, arms crossed, with a detached look on my face.

One thing, though, that I think helps some is gestures. With gestures, you can add that layer of emotion. I can '/clap' or '/laugh' at the bare minimum and others have created ones of all shapes and sizes and flavors. It is not like smileys or outright braining the person over the head with just telling (*smiles sinisterly*). It does not solve the problem of determining whether someone is telling the truth, because just like text, gestures can be manipulated into conveying whatever message I want. Unlike in real life, where I have no control over when I blush, in Second Life I have complete and total control over it and thus appear emotionally detached all the time.

But like in real life and telling tales, one can only trust that in Second Life (and the internet in general) everyone is not actively lying to you. Otherwise, it would be a cruel world indeed. You would have no trust and not much would get done. There's that layer of trust, again. But how to tell just how the person is delivering the message? You still can't.

Wikipedia has a policy: "Always assume good faith". In some ways it's naive, because some people you should assume bad faith. A NeoNazi (Godwin) editing an article on Judaism cannot really be trusted to provide an unbiased encyclopedia article. But overall, it's a smart idea. If we all assume good faith then communication is much better, you can know the person on the other end isn't trying to piss you off or deceive you. On the other hand, it is suspectiable to the tragedy of the commons. A liar could easily take advantage of the fact that everyone will assume what you say is true unless otherwise proven, how would we know?. And then we're right back where we started.

In the end, I suppose we really can't do anything. Miscommunication will just have to be a part of life. And we just have to believe that what you are saying isn't a malcious lie, and you have to believe that I'm not a horrible liar or writing in an attitude other than simply stating my thoughts. Or that you can't detect my anti-cat agenda.

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