Something of a change of pace, today. This article was drafted for Campaign Mastery, but didn’t quite fit; was then revised to make it suitable for a blog about Social Media, where it was rejected at the eleventh hour (no hard feelings, it wasn’t quite “on message” for that site, either); and has now been re-revised to make it relevant to gaming again, even though it’s still not quite “on message” for Campaign Mastery, either. It’s offered here more in the spirit of “food for thought” than direct applicability to gaming.
Last night (as I write this), I was carrying on three separate conversations with the same person at the same time while having several other conversations with other people. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you combine a chat room with the concept of threaded statements to get Twitter. As I was ruminating over that fact in the light of morning, I found myself asking whether or not social media were changing the nature of conversation itself.
To a perhaps surprising extent, RPGs are all about communications. They are a spoken game, with various aides-memoir in the form of character sheets, GMs notes, rulebooks, etc. The Players have to communicate with the GM, they have to communicate with each other, and they have to communicate with any NPCs that they engage with. The GM needs to communicate with the players at a rules interpretation/refereeing level, at a narrative level, and in the guise of those NPCs. There’s a lot of scope for misinterpretation and miscommunication involved, and that makes the nature of communications itself a subject that should be of interest to GMs and players alike.
This has long been recognized, and many articles exist about adapting techniques from the writing of fiction, plays, television, and movies to facilitate the special needs of good GMing. I’ve written some myself – see, for example, Good Storytelling Technique Or Bad? – Chekhov’s Gun and RPGs and Adjectivizing Descriptions: Hitting the target.
Literary style 101 is to communicate clearly, to avoid the passive voice, and to make your statements clear and direct. One of the eternal struggles that Gamemasters face when writing Roleplaying Games and adventures is to resolve the conflict between accessible narrative and dialogue and providing players with the information they need for the formulation of a view of the scene or situation. It’s not like a novel, where you can spend a page or two describing the wonders of the landscape, after all.
Clear and Direct are often best interpreted as short and declarative. When this approach is employed in a press release or a statement to the media designed to get maximum coverage on the TV news, it’s called a soundbite. They are employed a lot in politics and business because they reduce the communication to a blunt, easily-digestible statement without room for foundation, equivocation, or nuance. The very best find ways to incorporate depth, subtlety, and humor into their soundbites – added value that makes the soundbite more likely to be broadcast.
Over time, this practice leached into business communications – press releases, product descriptions, brochures, and websites. So there has been a trend for a long time in the direction of shorter, more direct – and, it must be said, less substantial – communications. It was when it moved into advertising that it gained serious momentum.
Texting and Txtese
Then came texting, and with it the advent of txtese (also known by many other names including chatspeak). By making it more difficult to employ formal language and punctuation, mobile phones encouraged shorter lengths in social communications. Because an older generation, more schooled in the formalities of language, found this hypercompression harder to decode and employ, a “coolness factor” came into the equation and pushed short messaging to new heights of popularity.
It was into this environment that social media evolved from the existing concept of the chatroom. Dialogue between people on social media has some of the quality of a flurry of emails back and forth, in that the conversation can be disjointed and interrupted, with the most recent exchange waiting until a reply is made.
There are two platforms that are dominant in the field, and each has its own singular characteristics. Facebook permits longer, more substantial communications and more closely resembles a publicly-visible email service; and it also offers old-style person-to-person chat facilities. By facilitating a more traditional format for messages, it actually minimizes the impact that it has on the language itself.
The same can’t be said of the next most popular platform, Twitter. The hard limit of 140 characters places a premium on concision. You would expect twitter to perpetuate txtese, and yet for the most part it doesn’t. I think that there are three reasons for this, and they are worth examining.
The first is the popularity of Facebook. It has twice as many registered users as any other social media platform, and it doesn’t encourage txtese. The second is the popularity of Twitter. It hasn’t just attracted users from the younger generation, there are people of all age groups who use it regularly. And the third is that phone technology has improved, removing much of the imperative towards txtese.
The net result is that txtese, like most fads, has largely run its course. The best of it – emoticons and a few particularly expressive shorthand notations like LOL – have entered the mainstream language while the rest have been discarded.
The Length Of Tweets
And so we are left with a situation in which an existing trend toward short, declarative statements in reasonably plain English have become something of a standard form of communication. Corporate websites, tv advertising, statements to the press, and social dialogue are all being pushed in this direction.
One of the earliest utilities to twitter was a way around the 140-character limit. It’s a simple proposition: use a piece of software to store the tweet in a database with a web interface, then combine the start of the message and a link to the rest of the text as the tweet. Combining this with a URL-shortening service makes it feasible for the 140-characters capacity to contain enough of the message to make it clear whether or not a user is interested in reading the full tweet.
There has been a lot of speculation in recent times that floating Twitter on the stock market may cause the social media service to extend the 140-character limit, which was originally established because that was the maximum length of a mobile-phone SMS message. The latter limit has long ago been abandoned, so the 140-character limit is largely viewed as a dinosaur, a hold-over from a now-extinct era, and extending it is thought to make the service more attractive to business users – see
- IPO may force Twitter to drop character limit: Analyst and
- Twitter tipped to increase 140 character limit to accommodate adverts after stock flotation.
For every analyst who moots an increase, there’s an expert who defends the 140-character limit. It forces concision, some say. It is part of the character of the service, others state. This discussion dates from almost three years ago (950 days at the time I accessed it) but the essential talking points have not changed. It’s worth noting that the final complaint about the absence of a built-in link shortener is no longer relevant, though.
(BTW, don’t be fooled by a couple of spoof articles out there claiming that Twitter have already announced plans to extend the limit. They haven’t.)
Personally, I feel that it’s the presence of a limit that is often encroached upon that defines the contribution to the ‘character of the service’, and a change to 160 characters would not make a substantive difference in that respect. YouTube has a character limit of 500, and that is rarely insufficient, so any increase to that length would change twitter substantially.
There is added pressure to extend the length with the advent of the capacity to simultaneously post a message to multiple social media platforms. The essentially-unlimited capacity of Facebook and the 500-character limit of YouTube both make extending Twitter’s limits more enticing, and some increase is commonly seen as eventually being inevitable. Not many people seem to appreciate that there is an equal amount of pressure going the other way – the smallest common denominator dictating shorter Facebook and YouTube posts – and that this equality means that external factors will make the decisive difference. External factors like an existing historical trend – and the potential need to woo advertisers following a stock market flotation.
The Impact On Conversation and Narrative
The longer that the 140-character limit persists, the more adept people will become at breaking their communications into small, more easily-digestible slices. The restriction will enter the mindset and become more habitual and will then flow into other forms of communication even where no limit exists. More text will be broken into bullet points or short, declarative sentences.
This is the literary equivalent of the shortened attention span that has been afflicting visual media for quite some time.
Another phenomenon that can be observed with any breaking news story or development is something I call ‘conversational smear’. When the first news breaks, everything is relevant and current, all announcements and opinions are current. Fast-forward a day, and you still have people discovering the event for the first time and retweeting the initial statements, which – in a fast-moving news story – may be out of date, and people responding to the early news. Go forward a second day, and almost half the commentary is reaction to or re-announcements of, old news. The conversation has become smeared, polluted with its own past. By the third day, it has become so hopelessly entangled with past updates that those interested in identifying updates have to winnow through ten or twenty or more responses to old news to find anything current. It’s almost impossible to track, and so the story slides out of the immediate awareness of the public, to resurface only when there is a significant new development which can be treated as a news item in its own right. Anyone who has used Twitter for any length of time has observed this phenomenon.
This requires a new conversation initialization protocol, which develops spontaneously. Whenever two people want to discuss the issue, the first thing they need to do is synchronize exactly where their awareness of the issue stops – “what’s the latest you’ve heard about [the subject]?”. Only once they have brought each other up-to-date can the conversation itself move forward.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have noticed this conversational habit intruding into conversations outside twitter. I’ve seen it in television and print journalism and in face-to-face conversations: the need to precede a discussion with a brief recap of past events. When news was slower-moving, people had time to synchronize their understanding of situations; in modern times, the discussion moves as fast as events.
This becomes significant when the conversation itself is important. If a decision needs to be made, for example in response to an offer of some sort, both sides have to have an understanding of the context within which that offer is put forward, or there is too great a risk of miscommunication.
In the context of this conversation, contemplate this: the shorter and more direct the statement (within limits), the more it can carry its own self-evident context, and the less susceptible it is to Conversational Smear.
Conversational Smear is a phenomenon that occurs because of the propagation rate of information within a closed environment. Before this, the only phenomenon deriving from this source was the game of Chinese Whispers, which I used as the foundation of a reader’s tip about the handling of rumours in Roleplaying Tips Issue #322, and which I have referred to several times in other articles, such as Ask The GMs: Giving Players The Power To Choose Their Own Adventures, and A Monkey Wrench In The Deus-Ex-Machina: Limiting Divine Power.
The delays are not in the broadcast medium itself, but in the readers/audience awareness of the event and rebroadcasting it as though the event was precisely contemporaneous with their awareness of the story. Cognition of the timeframe is the critical factor. In other words, someone is always becoming aware of the story/event for the first time, and reacting as though it had just occurred – and then reacting to the reactions of others, which in turn prompts still others to react to those communications, and so on. Awareness of the event spreads like waves in a body of water, and those waves reflect and refract and interact with each other. What was initially a clear wavefront of initial awareness becomes muddled and tangled; and the bigger the initial wave, the longer these reverberations persists.
Another good example of this phenomenon is the propagation of both information and misinformation in the wake of the Tsunami and subsequent nuclear emergency in Japan.
Conversational Smear At The Gaming Table
This phenomenon also occurs at the gaming table whenever one person doesn’t hear another properly, or wasn’t listening, or arrives late, or even simply has to relay information they have received in a side-conversation with the GM. I’ve lost count of the number of times a player has heard part of what I’ve had to say, has interpreted only that part, and has filled in the rest with his own interpretation or assumptions even when clearly contradicted by the information they have not absorbed and retained – and then reported the whole melange as fact to the rest of the table. Even when spelt out in a written summary or transcript, this occurs.
There are times when it doesn’t alter anything significant, times when its comedic, and there are times where the player’s misinterpretation of information they received quite succinctly risks leading the other participants down the garden path, with potentially dangerous or even deadly consequences.
This is something that can be tolerated at the game table only within limits, or it risks damaging the entire campaign. Whenever it occurs, I employ a three-step process:
- Is the miscommunication a miscommunication on my part? If so, correct it immediately.
- Is this a mistake that the character would potentially make? If not, correct it immediately.
- Is the miscommunication of vital importance to the campaign (or, to a lesser extent, the adventure)? If so, correct it immediately.
Otherwise, I generally let it go but start dropping hints that events are not matching the developments expected by the PCs whenever it’s appropriate. Misunderstandings and mistakes happen all the time in the real world; the limited safety net I offer is to protect everyone’s fun – anything more is unwarranted interference.
Sometimes players fall in love with these misinterpretations so much that when recalling the events at a later time – when the incident in question becomes an important and relevant factor to some current situation, they will remember and act on the misinterpretation even if it has already been shown to be in error. The conversational smearing has become entrenched in their minds.
There is always a difference in the world as the GM sees it and the world as the PCs and Players perceive and interpret it. When one of these worldviews contains factual errors of relevance, it can disrupt the adventure or even the campaign. The best way to combat this is to make sure that the correction of the interpretational error is not just a matter of a die roll and some narrative, but pivots the entire adventure in such a way that it becomes a memorable event – and to make sure that this occurs before the misinterpretation can become entrenched.
Nevertheless, occasionally something will slip through the cracks. A player will remember the wrong interpretation and not the subsequent correction. Whenever that happens, I apply the same three-step analysis of the situation described above. Eventually, one of the other players will realize the flaw in their understanding of the current situation and correct the misinterpretation, reinforcing the correction by making it a significant turning point in the current adventure, or the situation will become of critical importance, warranting more than a vague hint by the GM.
But it’s always better to prevent these misunderstandings in the first place, and the key to doing so is always clarity communications.
Success in communication of any kind continues to be measured by how well the information that you are offering is absorbed and taken on-board by the audience, whether speaking to someone face-to-face, tweeting to someone, posting to a corporate website or a facebook page, or employing narrative or dialogue in a roleplaying game, documentary, or TV drama. Such success always comes from an optimal use of language, which is not easily achieved; the goal posts continually change as the language itself continues to evolve. Those who are most effective at mastering the nuances of language in its most contemporary and ubiquitous form will always have an advantage. And so will the campaigns that they game in.