I came across a couple of articles at SCIAM and TechCrunch about Zlango, a new Israeli company that created a new language and associated application for SMS (short message sending) or, what we call text-messaging. The language is based on icons like Yahoo! smilies where each icon stands for a word so you can form picture sentences and send them to people via cell phones. Zlango has now created online picture messaging. Zlango Composer is a Flash based translator that translates what you type on your keyboard into Zlango’s picture language. Your messages can be sent to an email address or shared via community sites. Zlango’s zMess also lets you share your picture messages on your private blog or the public blog at the site. Anyway, this new language got me wondering, how do we effectively communicate on the web? The SCIAM article mentioned Zlango was not yet as rich as Esperanto, a universal lanugage that is apparently spoken by over two million people across the world and was founded by a Polish physician in 1887. Have you heard of this? Where have I been? Anyway, this Esperanto got me thinking even more about the problem of effective communication online. What problem? We take for granted that Internet users have the same habits offline that they do online. Seriously, we do.
As advanced as web applications and publishing platforms have become, Internet users are still humans. Our behaviors are not necessarily different because the medium is more instant than offline modes of communication like books, magazines and, dare I say, face-to-face interactions. We still have to process all the words, letters and features of the letters into meanings we see and hear, forming a big picture and connecting them with what we already know so we can understand what we’re looking at or what we hear, then respond accordingly. No matter how simple a picture or icon, a picture says a thousand words for every person who looks at it. So, it’s more likely than not that an icon can be misinterpreted than a word, provided you speak the language.
Case in point. Some months back I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the icons on prescription medicines printed on labels to help non-English speaking folk to understand the possible side effects of the medicines they take. Some of the pictures were completely ridiculous. One picture seemed to imply that exposure to sun while taking this medicine would be hazardous, but you really had to take a leap to interpret the image correctly. It looked more like someone being electrocuted. Anyway, unlike Zlango, it is more important that these icons be read correctly or serious harm might come to these patients. Given the cultural differences, why would the pharmaceutical industry think that these obscure symbols would be understood universally? How about investing in label printing language translation programs instead? What’s wrong with letters, words and sentences put in an order that makes sense?
The problem with communication is that people don’t take time to communicate. I believe you have to take time to understand what you’re looking at and take time to translate, and most importantly, ensure you are reaching your target audience. Reminds me of those bloody idiots who speak loudly and in English to people who don’t speak English as if they are either mentally retarded or hard of hearing rather foreign language speakers. Communication is all about context. If you know who you’re talking to (if you have any sense, you would), you can figure out how to make them understand you without making an ass of yourself or talking down to them.
Zlango and similar attempts of simplified web communication, on some level is a dumbing down of language. I think a universal pictograph “language” for the Internet is a trendy idea and on some level it might make sense if these symbols, like smilies, gave your writing a little punch or sense of humor rather than replacing perfectly useful words with silly little characters that don’t necessarily translate well. Of course, these icons are marketed to teens whose attention spans are already retarded by other forms of instant, abbreviated modes of communications. But, we’re adults and should want to communicate as adults…no matter how difficult it can be at times. The most amazing thing about the Internet is its convenience of sharing tidbits of information and being able to write your own content to share. I like to think that writing was a lost art that the Internet has found and redefined. You don’t have to write long diatribes (nor should you!) and research papers about any given topic to convince your readers that you know what you’re talking about, or that whatever you’re saying matters. Use plain language, be brief, be focused, be personal and people will read. Considering the hundreds of pieces of visual stimuli we receive everyday, we want to take information in small bites. Even information based sites, the good ones anyway (like SCIAM and About.com), cut up their information into tasty morsels so that we really pay attention to what’s being said and our eyes don’t glaze over and roll back in our heads, or trigger an aneurysm.
Once upon a time the Internet was all about text. Long, long, oh so long, text. Now, it’s still about text. But, short, engaging text. Or rather, the short engaging text that’s to the point and relevant is the kind of content we look for, or we just move on. I know my attention span is quite short because I’m an artist, a nerd and a geek. But, without fail, I’ll stop dead in my tracks, stand up and pay attention if I read pithy content that wakes me rather than induces a coma.