Body language without the body:
situating social cues in the virtual world

Judith S. Donath


Virtual worlds are synthetic spaces. Today's designers have the opportunity to create the foundation of new social structures. How social cues will evolve in these new worlds is in part a question of how the worlds are designed. Understanding the roles that such cues play in the physical world is necessary in order to build environments that draw from the best of the real world, without replicating its least desireable traits. I will outline how social cues are embodied in the physical world and show ways that such cues are emerging in today's virtual world.
I am a designer. I design online environments. What I am interested in is the problem of designing sociable environments, places where people can communicate and where real societies - potentially - may be able to develop. The premise that I am working from is that social cues are really essential to have any kind of very vibrant society that is mediated (Donath 1996). In the context of this panel what I want to address is the issue - and it is a very fundamental issue for things like this - is what are the aspects of social cues that can transcend the problem of a disembodied environment.

Embodied social cues

The physical self is the locus for a wide range of social cues: gait, race, gender, hairstyle, gestures, etc. which all place the person in a particular location in society. This Hockney painting gives an interesting example of embodied social cues. If you are in a particular culture there is so much you can read into simply this arrangement of two people. You can read things into the type of setting that they are in, you can read things into his posture and haircut. If you are not in that culture there is all the issues of what you can't read into it. It is an example of the huge number of very rich cues that we get both about social class and the relationships between people. All kinds of things come in embodied social cues. There are many axes we can think of. These are just three which I thought we should keep in mind:

innate ---------- aquired
deliberate --------- subconscious
universal --------- subcultural

One of the axes that these cases can come off is the line between deliberate and subconscious. The social theorists Erving Goffman wrote a lot about social cues and he distinguished between what he called cues that are "given" versus the cues that are "given off". What he was interested in was the difference between things people did deliberately to present themselves in a certain way and the types of cues people gave off inadvertantly They were what people read into others' actions and they gave them their own interpretation of them. Another axe is the difference between cues that are very widespread and cues that are subcultural. When we looked at that picture before we have been able to read the cues that are in the painting being involved in a paricular culture. There are certain cues that are obvious to almost anybody. In many cultures they could cross very easily. There are other cues that are particular to certain groups or very small subcultures.
This is a very quick way of introducing the idea that cues themselves can be interpreted as a kind of language. The whole process of how this language is disseminated, how it develops, how it evolves, how particular groups get to know a particular language or dialect of social cues as a whole are a study in itself. Finally going back to the first axe which is a particular interesting one for a women's conference is the difference between innate cues and aquired cues. It is a very interesting one in terms of the body because many of the social cues that we have in real life are things that aren't inherently social initially but they have to do with one's body type, for instance what race you are, what gender you are, how tall you are - all kinds of things like that simply have to do with the state of your body which have then became important social cues because of the way that society interprets these particular things versus the types of social cues that are aquired through life and are somewhat more under one's control. Especially in terms of being a designer of on-line envornments this is obviously a very interesting issue. In the real world a huge amount of what we do - and certainly one does as feminists - is trying to reajust how the world reacts to a certain social cue such as "I am a women" whereas in virtuals worlds as designer one of the issue you have is this property of being able to say "What kind of cues do I want to have in this environment?" You are not starting with any sets of givens like that. You can say "Do I want to create an idealized world in which people are represented only by characteristics of their chosing, characertistics based on their history as opposed to characteristics that are accidents of their birth?"

Contemporary online social environments

Embodied social cues are sparse in the virtual world. In text-based environments, one's utterances emerge independent of any visible, palpable self. And graphical environments, while they hold out future promises of subtle gestures and virtual fashions, are still far from that stage; today's graphical environments with their simplisticly rendered avatars provide even fewer social cues than their textual counterparts, for they are missing the nuanced cadences of the written, conversational word.
This dearth of social cues is both good and bad. One of the most widely hailed features of on-line communication is its democratic leveling: one's thoughts and ideas, rather than one's age, race, gender, etc., are the first things known about one. Yet social cues are not simply vehicles for prejudice; they play an essential role in the formation of community and in our comprehension of social interactions. In particular, cues that reveal who one has become, that show one's affiliations, beliefs and interests, (as opposed to those based on one's genetic traits) are an integral part of commmunication.
I want to briefly review three types of current on-line environments. Obviously this is still an age where these environments are very primitive. But what is interesting to look at is the types of environments that people have been building und the types of cues evolved or starting to evolve within in these primitive virtual environments to get some sense of the different types of cues and how the environments influence them. One of the things that I am particularly interested in is - given a particular design of a particular type of on-line environment - what types of cues you get out of it and what types of society evolve in it.

Usenet newsgroups

The first thing I want to look at is Usenet newsgroups and how in this extremly minimalist setting what types of cues have evolved (Donath n.d.). In terms of your representation of self on-line this is what it would look like visually:
Example 1: A Usenet Posting
header (Owen Koslov)
	Re: Brine Shrimp
	Mon, 24 Jan 1994 09:38:23 GMT
	Newsgroups: sci.aquaria,rec.aquaria

Message body	In article (F. Dorrance) writes:
	>>  I tried to hatch some brine shrimp for my fish. I could
	>> only get the shrimp to live for 2 days. Could someone
	>> tell me what to feed them and give me details on
	 >> hatching them.

	You are not supposed to keep them alive for longer than a day or so.
	They should be fed to the fish as soon as they hatch. Otherwise,
	you need the type of set up you'd  expect in a regular saltwater tank:
	low bio-load, plenty of water circulation, and adequate filtration.
	You can feed the shrimp OSI's APR or other commercial invert
	foods, or use green water. In all cases, unless you are doing it
	on a large scale, buying live brine shrimp at a shop is simpler,
	faster and easier.

Signature 	--
	Owen Koslov at home ( or work (
Usenet postings are separated into parts. These is a header, the messeage and a signature. In comparison to a body where you can move and you can express it is not a particularly rich environment but what has been faszinating to me is how complex the cuing mechanism are that have evolved and that people are able to interpret here. For instance, in the header in terms of cuing one of the most important cue is the type of address that someone's on-line address is. Within something like this alone there is a vast amount of cues that people - if you look at how people respond to particular articels - do pick up on. You can tell from which country someone is from, possibly. There is the fact that someone might be at an educational institute versus at a company. If it is a company is it something you have already heard of or is it a big company that is known for being a huge manufacturer of military equipment versus one that is known of being a very green, environmental one. There is the fact that there are identities that because they come from certain types of on-line services you have very little tie to who that person is in real life. The types of behavior you often get with this type of address may be very different than this one which is an IBM address which is connected to someone's real name. Already that particular small cue about identity brings in a huge numbers of issues about how well connected the actual body is to the virtual self. This is just one of the pieces of information in the header.
In the body of the message itself you see things of "expression given" versus "expression given off" (Goffman 1995). You can hear something of a voice in people's writing alone. In the design world sometimes there is a big schism between those who are interested in very visual environments and others who are interested in text environment. There is the strong argument that the textual world though it is completely lacking in many of the visual characteristics that we often think of when we think of expressiveness because of our power to control language while it is fairly simple visually you get to see a great deal of the person because of their writing you get to hear a great deal of their voice. In an on-line world there are whole phrases that have evolved and dont't exist outside of the virtual world that show people's group identification. These are abbreviations such as IMO ("In My Opinion"), YMMW ("Your Mileage May Vary") that are on-line equivalents of real world almost like fashion that people show how they identify with particular groups.
Signing things on-line is also a way of showing particular affiliations with different groups. This is a "geek" identity.
Example 2: A programmer signature
Dave Mescher
GCS d H>+ s+:- g+ p3 au a-- w+ v,--->! C++++,++ UU++++,
A$ P-- L-3- E--- N++ K- W--- M V-- po Y+ t--- 5 jx R G+
!tv b++ D- B--- e+,* u+ h- f+ r(+,++)@ !n,--- y?
People fill out all these templates about themselves in a parody of computer programming. It is a whole code which is actually interpretable. It tells you how tall someone is, what their hair color is, what type of cloths they wear. Simply using that code in signing your name is a very strong sign of identifying with a particular type of group.
Another signature says:
Joan (and Mike, May 27, 1997)
It is from a newsgroup that dealt all with weddings where women were signing their names with their fiancé's and the date at which they were going to get married. This again is about the development of a particular set of cues. If you came into this place from the outside you would have very little idea of what was going on but that within this minimalist environment people have started to develop whole different language systems that let them identify themselves as members of that group.

Home pages

Looking at home pages is an interest contrast because in something like the Usenet environment you have very little to work with execpt these texts and there still are many cues that can be there. You also have this evolution of these different types of signatures because it is a communicative system. Home pages are the epitome of the Goffman "expression given off". They are highly self-conscious ways that people have said "Here is my representaion of how I am going to show myself on-line. I can put anything I want about myself. This is what I choose to do." They are also quite in contrast with Usenet newsgroups because they are not about communication. They are persistant but it is not something where it is a process of social communication. What I want to show in these examples here was how almost a fashion system is developing on the web. This is some radom page that I found. It's called "Shirley's World" and an immense system. She has this whole thing that she started using frames which was this new technology. She is part of the Internet Link Exchange which is a whole system for getting people's pages to link together with other people's pages. She has put in icons and connections that she has from all these different software providers. Shirley's page is not saying that much about herself but what it shows is someone who is very interested in buying into the latest of what is coming out of the development corporations. She has links to Netscape and to Internet Explorer. She is showing that she is really up-to-date with things that are coming out on the net.
Here is another page that is probably from a teenage boy. He has a whole list of things which he thinks are cool. This is in itself a very common thing to see on peoples' home pages and a very good way of getting some sense of type. It gives a way for people to show "I want to associate with this particular group." Here he has a big sign that says "This site is frames free." He has a parody of the browser icons. For those of you who are interested in subcultural analysis, it is an interesting example in this very nascent fashion world very similar to, for instance, the tensions between different types of dance music and music subcultures where one always sets itself against the other. In many ways these two pages resemble each other in terms of the type of information they are giving. But you can see in these examples different subcultures of technological identification on the home page.

Graphical MUDs

Graphical MUDs are conversational systems which are - like the newsgroups - about actual interaction between people whereas home pages are static, independent representations. What is interesting is that here are attempts at gesture and expression. Two examples of commercial systems are the Microsoft Chat ( and WorldsAway ( People doing development in the direction of expressive gestures have gone for extremely literal representations of the real world. They are caricatures of human types. These are the systems that are the most self-consciously aware of trying to bring in social cues in expression and gesture and, I think, in reality end up being the weakest in that way because they take a very heavy handed approach to it by saying "Okay, we can put this picture and this expression up. Here it is. We have a smile, we have a frowning system." They give a very limited palette of expressions in their attempt to actually bring in more cues. Will Eisner (1990) is a comic strip artists from the 40s. His illustrations show how variations in facial expressions transform the meaning of words they accompany. For instance, he shows five faces with different expressions all saying the same thing: "I am sorry."
Example 3: Facial expression effects the meaning of words
This example gives a very interesting way of seeing the importance of understanding any type of visual cuing, especially something that is based off on actual human facial expression. We are so good at understanding it and in real life we are so good at producing it. To translate that type of literal expression into cuing on-line is very problematic. For instance, you say "Let's just put a smile on this face" whereas people who have actually looked at the physiognomy of smiles have found that a single person can produce hundreds of smiles each of which will seem quite different to other people. It is very hard to represent that in a mediated world.
I hope that these examples have given some ideas of the very many ways that the different types of virtual environments can possibly evolve into very different types of social cuing based on the affordances that people choose to design into it. For the designers of the next-generations of on-line systems there is an immense set of things to explore between both how we indicate what the cues are, how they actually end up being expressed and the type of enviroment ranging from how persisting it is and what types of interaction there are.


Donath, J.S. 1996: Inhabiting the virtual city: The design of social environments for electronic communities

Donath, J.S.n.d. Identity and deception in the virtual community. Forthcoming in P. Kollock and M. Smith (eds.) Community in Cyberspace, Berkeley.

Goffmann, E. 1959: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York.

Eisner, W. 1990: Comics and Sequential Art. Tamarac, Fl.