Charting New Media on a Vulnerability Spectrum

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The Vertical Axis - Vulnerability and Safety

Evolutionary psychologists would say that avoiding risk is likely what kept our ancestors alive long enough to procreate to eventually lead us to this moment right now, to you reading this. In other words, our protective instinct is what keeps us alive. When we communicate, our lives may not be specifically hanging in the balance, but our perceived risk of interactions can create physical reactions that emulate or trigger flight or fight responses. It’s a rare person who hasn’t lost their cool while talking to their crush or speaking up during a business meeting full of suited people with serious faces — and there’s a reason public speaking is ranked higher than death on many people’s list of fears. We’re hardwired to both recognize and avoid risk. When it comes to asynchronous mediated communication (using a device where there is a lag between sending and receiving messages, like texting or email), we are afforded a pause button on interaction, a means of protecting ourselves from the potential dangers of Face to Face (FtF) communication. On one end of that spectrum is what I call safety , the relatively known plateau of communication. On the other side is vulnerability, simply defined as the level of risk one might be exposed to within an interaction.

Aside from the actual physical barrier of using a device to communicate, mediated conversation also offers a buffer of time and the removal of tone and non-verbal cues. Sure there are replacements for these in the online world. As John McWhorter discussed in his TedTalk [Txtng is Killing Language. JK!!!](https://www.ted.com/talks/johnmcwhortertxtngiskillinglanguagejk?language=en), language use is evolving in the digital world and we’re creating new cues, new ways of inflection. However, they are still largely open to interpretation. For example, the pragmatic particle McWhorter referenced, “LOL” can be interpreted many, many ways. Context clues can help, but the intent and interpretation of such could be problematic. Again, an argument could be made that FtF interactions also involve a high level of interpretation, but I often return to the idea that there are six basic emotions that are recognized across all cultures (Ekman, 1992). Infants, for example, can often read a person’s facial emotion with some accuracy (Farroni et al, 2007). Because of the barriers in place, the removal of immediacy required in FtF communication and the level of anonymity available, mediated communication can remove vulnerability and build safety within asynchronous conversation.

It’s important to recognize, though, that the level of safety one experiences in an interpersonal communication (say an email exchange with a potential partner from a dating website) may be in opposition to the level of vulnerability their communication partner may experience. That is to say, as a message sender, one’s level of safety may be high. However, as a message receiver using that same form of communication, one may experience a level of risk inherent in trusting that what the other person has presented is actually true. When plotting the communication on the vulnerability/safety axis, roles within communication are important to distinguish.

It’s also important to understand the power of vulnerability. Within the computer world, vulnerability carries a negative connotation, and one that has spread to colloquial use. Perhaps this is because we use the use the term vulnerability to describe a flaw or weakness in a system that someone could exploit, thus taking over the system and accessing things we don’t want them to access. However, while we may be risk averse because it helps us survive, vulnerability offers a proving ground for connection and growth. To live without risk is to live a mediocre existence. Vulnerability is needed. “People perceive it as a weakness, but new research reveals it’s the master key to an extraordinary life…” said Social Scientist Brene Brown in her video The Power of Being Vulnerable.

The Horizontal Axis - The Digital Clean vs. the Human Messy

Within the new media realm, the idea of “clean” interactions stemming from the online/digital seems to be positioned against the idea of “messy” human interactions. That diametric relationship creates the horizontal axis of the vulnerability/messy scale. Whether human interactions are in fact messy or not, is a question worth exploring. However, I’m working from the assumption that it is culturally accepted. For example, a Google search returns many hits on the concept that human interactions are understood as messy.

Further, the study of information and systems is essentially built on the principle of “cleaning” things up. The digital world remains one we can control and build similar to organizing a closet; the human brain, reactions and emotions still elude such structure. What exactly does messy mean when we refer to human interaction? In a conceptual sense, it refers to interactions that are not controlled, that are confusing, that may be difficult. I would operationalize messy communication as the level of control one has over the situation...


Stephanie A.

Stephanie A.

Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States

The bottom line: fresh content from an experienced writer + editor + strategist. While others in math class were groaning about story problems, I would gleefully read about Juan and his oranges or Rebecca and her favorite pencils. When Juan gave away four of his oranges and t...

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