WRITING 'CONVERSATIONS'

MUDs allow writing to take on a function traditionally thought to be the unique domain of speaking: two-way instantaneous communication. The metaphoric terminology of MUD refers to characters 'speaking' to one another, but what users are really doing is writing. This distinction would not be lost on Walter Ong or other scholars who traced the change in human expression from pre-literate societies to those that have developed writing systems. Ong showed that the way thought is structured by people in cultures without literacy is different than in those that have adopted writing systems (Ong). When writing, the same people use different syntaxes and word choices than they do when speaking the same idea. Thus, not surprisingly, the written "speech" on MUDs is different than oral speech in face-to-face encounters. This was confirmed in a recent study of computer conferencing done at MIT:

Among experienced users, the "written equivalent" of the language content tends to be somewhat better organized and more fully thought out than comparable statements recorded from a face-to-face conversation. This is because the participant has a chance to take as long as desired to think about a response or comment, to reorganize and rework it until it presents the idea as fully and succinctly as possible. . . . on average the written channel will tend to have a somewhat richer and better-organized content than spoken conversations, in terms of topic-related information (Hiltz, 82-3).

Just like when writing notes in class, the time between messages is longer than in face-to-face oral communication. Whereas in face-to- face questions, long pauses make participants uneasy and are one of the most severe "faultables" of spoken interaction (Goffman, 225), written notes are expected to take longer to produce. The result is indeed a different looking/sounding content of communication, an insteresting mixture of what in speech would be stilted language, mixed with a few typical typos.

The conversational aspect of MUDing is so strong that many 'newbies' transfer 'inappropriate' conventions from face-to-face communication to the textual world. In some instances, forgetting that responses in MUDs are written, not spoken, results in inefficient use of the text world. Take the scenario from this help file on LambdaMOO, for instance:

When paging, just page the question. You don't need to start with "Can I ask you a question?" (Answer: you can and you just *did* --- this is an example of a real-life courtesy that actually becomes counterproductive when translated to the MOO; if one sees an actual question, it is possible to deal with it relatively quickly, whereas if the page is merely a "mind if I interrupt?", time is lost waiting for the actual question to appear) (LambdaMOO help file).

It seems that MUDs present a confusion of expectation in language experience. As users translate their conceptions from real life to the virtual text world, they often 'forget where they are' so to speak. Though the interactivity of MUDs causes the partial illusion of face-to-face, spoken dialog, MUDers are quick to condition each other to keep the written aspect of the computer conferencing closest in mind. Just as literate cultures look condescendingly at primary-oral cultures as being 'wrong' in their thinking, MUDers who forget they are writing, not speaking, when online are brought back in-line.

In the content-density and mannerisms of MUD conversations, players are clearly a community of writers, not speakers. Though their interactions resembles face-to-face communication more than writing ever has, MUDers carefully maintain the distinction of literacy. Though they 'act' together communally on the MUD, they are also clearly writers in isolation, carefully forming phrases before sending them out over the net into the public conversational space.