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The Sound of (Online) Silence

When you write someone on WhatsApp and the person sees you have written but doesn't answer, this is called being seen-zoned. I love this great new word, and am going to be using it a lot.

Communicative Silence

It's not an entirely new phenomenon generally, like when you say something to somebody and know they heard you but there's no reply, just a wall of silence.

But there is a key difference with getting seen-zoned, as normally you would be able to gauge why a person isn’t responding – for rhetorical effect, they left the room, etc. And one also perceives facial expressions and body language, giving cues about a person's non-reply. We generally pick up well on whether silence we encounter from a person has to do with sheepishness, modesty, embarrassment ... or attitude.

But with WhatsApp and similar means of communication, 'radio silence' puts you in a zone where you have to stay for an indefinite period of time without knowing why. The seen-zone is thus a ubiquitous modern phenomenon in which non-communication is bound up with a potential play on the absence of the other person.

In earlier times, letter-writing could turn out similarly, with the difference that one could never know with certainty if the person actually got the letter ... or maybe the return letter got lost in the mail. It could take weeks for the realisation to set in that one had probably been seen-zoned. This process has now been shortened to minutes.

The seen zone is just one of several new non-response tactics found in chat communications (which are mainly written), including for example use of emoticons or ellipses ‑ and writing without sending so the other person can see that you are writing but never find out what. There is a veritable array of chat possibilities for implementing the semantic function of verbal silence into a written medium.

This is a good thing, as silence is a multi-layered tool of expression which we should cherish and preserve as we increasingly migrate to web-based communication. We should after all deliberately strive to retain our powers of expression in this process.

Some online media are not at all silence-friendly, offering no alternatives. For example, if you're on Facebook but don't post, like or comment on anything (a silence of no semantic value), you simply cease to exist, as the algorithms make you invisible and you no longer appear in newsfeeds.

Meaningful Silence

It is thus more or less impossible on Facebook to achieve such rhetorical silence effects like a panel discussion member withholding comment on principle or out of superiority or contempt. Then there is the low-grade faux-silence tactic of posting "I'm speechless!", which besides being a contradiction in terms has neither the same effect or meaning.

There are also forms of silence which the Internet to my knowledge is yet to accommodate. If love means being able to be silent together, then the web must be a pretty loveless place. How are you supposed to know, chatting to your significant other, if he or she is just being silent or has gone off to chat someone else? That must be why we now have videochat.

Nor have I yet heard of a Facebook minute of silence (i.e. on FB, not initiated by FB). This group silence creates a bond among people expressing their sympathy stronger than can ever be possible through mass social media sharing. Wouldn't it be a good idea, since more and more of our lives is taking place online nowadays, to come up with ways to translate enriching shared rituals for an online setting?

There could be for example "presence buttons" on either side of the keyboard which you keep pressed with both hands, thus assuring other chat participants that you are sitting at your computer on the chat site though otherwise inactive (due to not having a hand free). This could verify the simultaneous, minute-long presence of millions of people.

The problems involved in trying to translate the many functions of silence to a web environment do not comprise a fundamental argument against digital communication per se. What is important is to retain the good aspects of silence, finding refuge or replacement as needed to ensure that our communicative ability preserves its varied richness.

What we need is to rediscover silence in the digital age.


Author: Viktor Szukitsch

Viktor Szukitsch is a copy writer, Content Marketing Manager and freelance writer from Hamburg.