I was in one of the offices of the Walgreen Drama Center and picked up a newsletter – its headline caught my eye. The article was about the concept of “objectives” in acting. In theater, objectives are a specific way to think about a script. Also called “intentions,” they’re what a character aims, line by line, to get out of the person they’re speaking to. An acting teacher I know asks her students to find infinitive verbs for their lines: to unsettle, to entice, to distract. This method assumes that words are rarely careless, unconscious or random, and that people usually say things for a reason, in whatever guise that reason comes.

Linguistics, studying everyday speech, calls those words that have objectives behind them “speech acts,” pointing out that when we speak, we are not only stringing together expressive words; we are using them to do something.

A friend of mine pointed out the indirectness of a bit of Drama Center lingo – “trying to” can be used in place of “wanting to.” It nicely sidesteps the direct question, “Do you want to go grab some food?” with “Are you trying to grab some food?” It puts the onus on the person being addressed to assess what’s actually being asked, obscuring the objectives of the speaker in two equally likely possibilities: They want you to get lunch with them or they’re concerned about your potentially frustrated attempts to find food. The listener assumes the risk of choosing an interpretation.

The article compared an actor to a pitcher in baseball, noting that a stadium full of fans will scrutinize the pitcher’s stance and movements in between pitches, collecting a wealth of information that the pitcher, focused on winning the game, might be casually unaware he’s communicating.

For the pitcher’s part, he might resent the TV commentators for putting such emphasis on what are, to him, inadvertent movements. Just as easily, he might not consider his viewers voyeurs at all and might craft a suspenseful show.

Electronic actions have that same ambiguity: We watch the actions of others and have them watch us without directly acknowledging that we’ve given them permission in each case, person by person.

I disabled my Facebook account in November once I realized I was trying to underhandedly negotiate relationships that actually mattered to me – a rather painful realization. You can’t watch people you care about perform in front of a crowd without hoping they might have thrown in a wink or a joke just for you. Facebook, being a public forum with nominal avenues for private communication, feels similar to me. After I added a song lyric to my profile and someone called me out on the implications that lyric had as a communication from me to them, I realized that I wasn’t justified in feeling miffed by their false assumption. I had indeed imagined the lyric evoking something for a Facebook.com friend – just not that one. I was complicit in the (sometimes inconsequential, sometimes not) confusion over intentions.

The lack of social normalcy on Facebook, and even to a degree in email, lends itself to assumptions. There are many blanks to fill in – tone, facial expression, spontaneous response – and those missing variables can be taken seriously or lightly. Unfortunately, in electronic communication, the weight those blanks are given is subject to the needs of the listener (or viewer), not the speaker.

I got tired of feeding some of the tendencies I dislike most in myself. They were brought to light for me and for others this past weekend in an impressive (and free) technology/communication-themed show put on by School of Music, Theatre and Dance, and School of Art and Design students in the Duderstadt Center Video Studio. During one of the short, student-choreographed modern dance pieces, candid shots from Facebook albums played on a backdrop in a morbidly fascinating slideshow. In another, the dancers got entangled in a rope of dirty laundry.

At one point, several dancers lined up at the front edge of the stage and scrutinized their fingers, eye sockets and hard-to-reach spots on their shoulders using the fourth wall (where the audience is) as a mirror. They took the scrutiny we so easily have over other people’s posted information and pictures as we skim from the privacy of our own computers and turned it on themselves. The double edge to the Facebook sword was made uncomfortably plain – Facebook and things like it are just as much a way to send ambiguously heartfelt messages to yourself about who you are as they are to obsess over other people’s messages.

Intentions and objectives get lost and, sometimes worse, found as well.

Colodner actually disabled her Facebook account due to an uncontrollable Jetman habit. E-mail her at abigabor@umich.edu

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