2003/01/11
 
13:51

Intentionality

I have been meaning to write about something called "Intentionality". If you don't have time to read the article I've linked to, here's the short version: it's about knowing that somebody else knows something.

Knowing what somebody else knows is useful, but it's not everything. Knowing that somebody else knows something is an important social skill. For example, it enables us to say, "No, that dress does not make you look fat" and figure out whether or not we should flee.

Alas, this is a skill that is sorely missed in the online world. Have you ever been in a busy chat room? You have fifteen people typing at once and then suddenly somebody types "I agree". Huh? You agree that flouridation is bad, or that Mary's cat is a sweet little snookums?

The problem doesn't only crop up when there are many people in the room. I was playing an online game yesterday and I asked the only other person present how he had typed some odd-looking letters. His explanation was, shall we say, minimalistic. "F6 n regi n copy alphabets." I eventually deduced that he wanted me to press F6, then click the "Regiments" tab, and then ... what!?

His "clarifications" merely added more text to the screen. I decided that there was no chance this fellow could explain what he had done because he didn't know what I knew. Or to put it in terms of "intentionality", he didn't know that there were certain things I didn't know. Like how to decode some of his tortured chat abbrevations. (It took me a minute to figure out, "I noe I saw u ths morn". It means "I know, I saw you online here this morning.")

I see the issue of intentionality raised in many situations related to computers, such as user manuals. When I write a manual, I assume that the reader first opened the book at that particular page. Of course, you have to make some assumptions (such as that the person can read), but surely there's a happy medium. Most of the time, though, I'm unhappy with the medium. The worst offenders have to be the people who wrote the user manuals for old IBM mainframe computers, back in the 1970's. Each one was a masterwork of non-clarity and could only be understood if you memorized the entire thing ... and then gave your mind a few days to grasp the connections.

Getting back to the online world, you have probably received an email that responds to something that is quoted below, but it's not clear what is being addressed. I talk about this problem in my Internet Writing Guide and suggest that people interleave their comments and the quoted text.

The Internet is all about communication, but it seems that many people have not yet mastered the fine points. I think that things would improve if people acquired a greater awareness of "Intentionality".

Of course, you know that I know this won't happen ... y' know?

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