Casual Fridays: Twinsult or Twompliment?

It's never been easy to communicate clearly online (or in person, for that matter). Often a statement meant as a compliment can be taken the wrong way. Or someone can mistake a statement made in jest for a serious statement. Now with tools like Twitter and texting limiting the total number of characters in a message, it may be even more difficult to convey nuance. Does everyone read these messages the same way? Or are some of us better-prepared to understand the nuances of online communication?

I think I may have come up with a (non-scientific) way to shed some light on those questions. You'll see a series of short statements you should imagine were sent to you on Twitter (or via email, if you're not familiar with Twitter). Your job is to decide whether you think the sender was complimenting or insulting you. Some of the statements should be quite obvious, but others may be more subtle -- your job is to cut through the rhetoric and guess what the sender was really thinking.

Click here to participate

As usual, the survey is brief, with just 13 short statements and a few additional questions. It should only take a few minutes to complete. You have until Thursday, May 28 to respond. There is no limit on the number of responses. Don't forget to come back next Friday for the results!

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Enjoyed that :) But now I'm worried that I might be missing textual clues as I don't think I found any of them insulting, and I'm sure some of them must have been. Perhaps this is in part due to my gormlessness or relentless cheery optimism.

Struggled a bit with this one "That's absolutely ridiculous. Only a complete idiot would agree with that statement" because the comment could have been insulting, arising from me being the idiot, or complimentary because I reported idiocy in someone else, and the message sender agreed with me.

I think it's just safer never to converse with anyone in order to avoid potential problems hehe.


You're supposed to assume all the statements are being directed at you. But of course the "that's completely ridiculous" statement could still be sarcastic.

I struggled these--they would really depend on who sent it. Most of my friends are really sarcastic, and the way we express friendship/affection is to insult each other, so the more insulting, likely the more complimentary, and vice versa.

The study is interesting and I enjoyed it, however, a tricorder in the Star Trek universe is a measuring device that records information, it's not a communication device.

By Weikei Yu (not verified) on 22 May 2009 #permalink

Not to pick nits, but smoke signals and drums are both actual communication devices, not fictional. And the Tricorder is a scanning/recording/analysis device, not a communication device. </geek>

By TheElkMechanic (not verified) on 22 May 2009 #permalink

(That was meant to read "I struggled *with* these")

I was a little worried about messing up the devices, and thought about making a "those aren't all communications devices" option, but I thought it would be more fun for my mistakes to get cataloged here.

I would submit, however, that drums and smoke signals, as used in old Safari/Western movies, are fictional communications devices.

14. My average response on the questions was 3.0. -Data

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 22 May 2009 #permalink

I did list Facebook, because I'm there, but it pales in comparison to LiveJournal, which is the number one social network site that I use (and which you didn't list...) :(

I see that Weikei Yu and TheElkMechanic have already addressed my other nit, so I'll just say that I answered 'tricorder' thinking in the spirit of 'communicator'.

I'm guessing there was a personal incident that inspired this post. ;)

Also... twompliment?

I couldn't finish doing this. Having no knowledge of which friend it is makes it impossible for me to answer it with any degree of certainty.

An explorer is trekking through the uncharted jungle with his native guide. There is a constant background sound of drumming, incessant drumming. He keeps asking his guide the meaning of the drums, and the answer is always the same: "Drums play: good. Drums stop: bad, very bad."
Then one day, suddenly and without warning, the drumming just STOPS! The explorer turns to his guide, who is shaking his head in evident anguish: "What is it? What's bad? What does it mean that the drums have stopped?!"
The sad answer came:
"Bass solo."

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 22 May 2009 #permalink

I found it very difficult to answer some of these, because I don't think "neutral" sufficiently covers "profoundly ambiguous." To me, "neutral" means "doesn't convey much either way," whereas a category called "ambiguous" would mean "could be either extremely insulting or extremely complimentary depending in the prior conversation."

Okay, I'm glad that others were in a similar boat; I couldn't finish it because I need context to be able to tell whether what was being said is intended as an insult/compliment or not. The same words coming from totally different people, depending on the conversation, could mean exactly the opposite of what's being typed. I *think* that "Thank God you and your big mouth only have 140 characters to express your dull platitudes" would be an insult--but, still, I could see it coming up in a snarky conversation with some friends.

"I agree" is neither complimentary nor insulting--it's a statement.

Anyway, okay, I did it but most of my answers are "neutral".

Liberal emoticon use will increase as people try to convey mood in just a few characters.

I use IM quite a bit, both for work and friends. Even in work situations, we sometimes use emoticons when soften something that is obviously critical.

Knowing that words alone without the benefit of non-verbal behaviour can be harshly interpreted, I tend to always go with the more positive interpretation of a message. Does anyone else do this? (Although this also works well in face-to-face interactions.)

I actually didn't imagine the comments being made in either Twitter or email... I imagined them being made via text or IM or as a comment to a FB or blog post. They seemed un-Twittery for some reason. Parts of conversation-like exchanges. And too short for email.

I didn't think they were terribly ambiguous, but that's likely because no one I know would use most of those sincerely. If someone I was communicating with one-on-one actually told me that something I'd said was completely idiotic, the last thing I'd suspect would be that they really thought that. Likewise the seeming effusive praise - you just don't use worlds like "incisive" unless you're making fun of someone, and you don't bring someone's attractiveness up out of nowhere unless you're calling them ugly.

You had us rating these on a scale from very complimentary to very insulting. However, from the preamble it rather seemed as though what you were really looking for was something more like a rating on a scale running from clearly complimentary to clearly insulting (with something like I don't have a clue in the middle, rather than neutral). I rated them on the latter scale. Did I do right? The issue was complicated by the fact that some of them, whichever way one took them, were clearly stronger than others, so some people may indeed have rated on the strength rather than the direction of the statement. To me, that did not seem like what you were really looking for though.

There is an interaction between these two scales, but not necessarily a straightforward one. For instance, other clues being equal (though, of course, they rarely are), I would tend to see what looks, if read literally, to be a very effusive compliment as meant sarcastically, whereas I would read most strong insults (unless, perhaps, very far over the top) as intended literally. On the other hand, milder compliments seem more likely to be sincere, and milder insults might often be meant in a teasing, ironic way.

As others have noted, I found it completely impossible to find insult or compliment without the context of the conversation and, more importantly, knowledge of the person sending the message. Is that friend typically sarcastic, cynical, disingenuous, etc? The only comment I found completely unambiguous was the one that started "Thank God you and your big mouth..." But then again, I have friends who I know wouldn't hesitate to share a comment like that with me. If a friend, in the context of the friendship, makes an insulting comment in an effort to tell you you're being an idiot, is it truly insulting?

C'mon guys, tell us the truth, you are 'studying' something besides whether people can effectively communicate nuance using twitter. This survey is simply too ambiguous for that.

By Mark Sletten (not verified) on 23 May 2009 #permalink

I agree with briang that we will see an increasing use of emoticons in professional communication. When I was in grad school a few years ago, we received a tip sheet on e-mail etiquette. It stated that emoticons were not to be used, as they are unprofessional. Yet I have had SO many e-mail statements misinterpreted as negative, demanding, critical, etc. - when in reality, they were neutral or even complimentary. So I finally gave up and started using them occasionally. I've noticed increasing numbers of professionals doing the same. I think that as the younger, "grew up on texting" generation enters the workforce, the emoticon stigma will be reduced. After all, it's just another way of communicating intention.

By Danielle Rudder (not verified) on 23 May 2009 #permalink

I think this study is really about how emoticons influence our perception of text. Or which is more important in coloring affective tone, words or 'nonverbal' text. Or something along those lines.

I think it would have been easier to answer these questions if you had also shown the initial message that these quotes were allegedly in response to. Without that context, the statements could mean pretty much anything.

Of course, as others have already pointed out, deciphering the intent based on the words is almost certainly *not* what you're attempting to measure here. You psychology types are always so devious! ;)

i hope the last question isn't central to the purpose of this survey, because if you meant communicator instead of tricorder, i did not select the correct item.

also, the actual meaning of something is highly contextual. was the original statement, to which these are responses, obviously sarcastic? a quote? a repetition of something that has come before? what is the relationship between writers? what is the culture surrounding this conversation? (stuff means different things on 4chan than on a research-based livejournal community where the average poster's age is thirty-something.)

By libbyblue (not verified) on 23 May 2009 #permalink

For me, pretty much every statement that ends with a smile means the exact opposite of what is being said. Only example I didn't rate like this was the last, because people usually aren't sarcastic in that way.

i don't use twitter and these all reminded me more of comments after a blog or a youtube video.. reading youtube comments is a modern guilty pleasure..

the social site I use are livejournal since '02, but I have an old blogspot since '98, and I do have a profile in linked-in that's brand new.

And I used to instant message tons. I did chatrooms on AOL and BBC boards, aim, IRC, ICQ, yahoo, msn... I remember when the young kids used |33T instead of LolCat.

Anyway, that I stay away from Myspace & Twitter just makes me oldschool, not analog ;)

Just two things.

I, too, struggled with the comments - and I realized that I need to actually LIKE the person to perceive a comment as a compliment. As a result, I was unsure how to respond to obviously positive comments if they were expressed in an inane way (I can't remember any specific phrases, but "omg u so cool!!" would be a good example - I would't perceive that as a compliment even if it was meant that way).

And just a note about the last question - well the black monoliths are the coolest communication devices, but not perhaps the quickest or most useful...

(English is not my first language, so sorry for any mistakes!)

I had trouble with trying to distinguish an insult from simply not agreeing with the original post. The most direct ones were negative, but I wouldn't say they were negative in an insulting way. The more snarky the statement, the more insulting I thought it was. Therefore, the most subtle comments were the worst.
Normally I take winky smileys to be "I'm dissing you, but only in a joking kind of way, I don't really mean it", but they didn't seem to really go well with some of the statements they were attached to since some were positive statments. A nice statement that could have an insulting tone but then had a winking smiley just got too meta.

I chose ansible, but with Ender's Game in mind, rather than Rocannon's World.

Statements that are tongue-in-cheek are not meant to insult per se, but they are not meant as compliments either. The tongue-in-cheekiness of a tongue-in-cheek compliment (for example, a sarcastic compliment with a wink) is often there precisely to turn an insult into a friendly joke so that the other person doesn't take offense. It's certainly not a compliment, but the intention isn't to insult or hurt someone's feelings.. so this survey was surprisingly difficult!

I am shockedâshocked, I sayâthat it took until comment #4 to correct a Star Trektrivia item! What has happened to my internets?

By Robert Rushing (not verified) on 28 May 2009 #permalink