Limited language

Posted on Saturday, February 21st, 2009 at 5:57 pm by Nick in process, research | 1 Comment

We talked a bit in our last meeting about working with limited vocabulary and how it can change communication. This is an extension of one of my favorite design tools: rules. 

The idea of using rules sometimes causes a negative reaction in people who are used to being restricted by them, but a good set of rules does the opposite: they set you free. Setting up (or recognizing) restrictions on an action design sets up some useful dynamics:

  • Everything not covered by the rules is fair game. By cutting off the usual ideas, you forced participants to look in new directions.
  • Rules give you something to interact with and push against. 
  • The most interesting and revealing action usually takes place near the boundaries of a good set of rules.
  • Rules give you a common understanding with the people you’re working with. 
  • Rules give the people outside of your group a simple entry point to start understanding what you’re doing.
  • Rules are meant to be broken, thoughtfully. 

Because Turn Your Back on Bush became a larger event than we had originally planned for, Jethro and I couldn’t actually participate – we were in our offices running the media and logistical operations. We watched the news coverage and got to see waves of people turning their backs as the parade moved along. At the very end of the parade, there were two people who had taken our rule against wearing buttons or t-shirts with political messages and thrown it out the window: they had bright clothing and red hats and they had their backs turned with simple signs held above their heads. They broke the rules, and we loved it. What was important was that this was a small breach of the rules: just two people. Their disregard for the rules put an exclamation point on what everyone else in the action was doing. 

The same goes for rules concerning online discourse. Back when the internet was in its infancy, I used to talk to friends who were studying abroad in Germany through an early version of instant messaging. The rules were thrust upon us by the technology we were using: we were limited to the keys on the keyboard. But a technique from even earlier, when I used to dial in to local bulletin boards with my rotary phone and a 300 baud modem, could be used to bend those rules. 

On September 19, 1982, Scott Fahlman posted the following on a Carnegie Mellon bulletin board:

19-Sep-82 11:44    Scott E  Fahlman             : -)
From: Scott E Fahlman <Fahlman at Cmu-20c>
I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:
: -)

Read it sideways.  Actually, it is probably more economical to mark
things that are NOT jokes, given current trends.  For this, use
: -(


Fahlman gave us a way to express very basic emotions in text by breaking the rule that : is a colon – is a dash and ( is a parenthesis. Of course, you can take this much further and create entire pieces of art with just the keys on your keyboard, but it’s the small transgression against the rules that has proven durable and effective in helping us communicate online. 

When I first posted this, Fahlman’s emoticons were automatically translated into images by the WYSIWYG editor in WordPress. His originals did not have spaces after the eyes.

(Below: early emoticons printed in the magazine Puck in 1881.)



One Response to “Limited language”

  1. # On February 24th, 2009 at 11:15 pm Jeremy wrote:

    How are rules of play/conduct different and/or the same as a more general structure or framework? Or, better, how/where do these two concepts overlap when considering meaningful interaction in the public sphere(s)? (I want to talk about this on Friday.)