Why is it that people open up so much, online? That we make friends faster, may fall in love more readily, that we are faster to trust someone online, whom we do not know. Why we open up to each-other, and exchange more private and intimate details and ideas than we would with any person offline?
You could attribute it to a small measure of relative safety given by pseudonymous identities giving people the freedom to be their genuine selves, but that’s not it. Or, rather, that isn’t all of it. The written word is key.
The written word is almost magical. Unlike the spoken word, written words fire off all the same patterns in the brain that happen when you think the words spontaneously. Unless you have additional associations to place on them (like having heard the writer’s voice, or associating them with a voice that you know), the written word is in your voice as you read it, for all practical purposes.
This process also fosters a certain amount of projection. Since the words become a part of our own inner voice, we project (rightly or wrongly) our own motivations and intents on the writer. We feel that they are more like us, possessing similar, unspoken, noble or reprehensible characteristics. Unless the illusion is broken by baroque word-choices or alien structural forms.
Even after other forms of communication became more convenient, there was still a great demand for intimate thoughts and expressions and poetry to be in writing. We still give cards and notes that say what we could just say with our voices – but the written word has this power that the spoken word lacks.
That’s not to say that the spoken word doesn’t have its own power. Your kids know that every time you read them a bedtime story, you know it from the lips of your lover, and you hear it throb and wail in the tones of the poet on the stage.
But that’s an entirely different kind of power. That’s not speaking in your head in your own voice, lighting up your brain in the same ways that you do. The written word is the closest thing we have to telepathy so far, even though it can be easily misunderstood and misinterpreted. Nothing else gets under your skin like words on a page, or what passes for a page in the 21st century; any carrier of text.
All other things being equal, people are statistically more likely to trust someone who communicates in the written word rather than in the spoken word. That isn’t universal, I hasten to add. Some people only trust the spoken word, and some only trust the written word after they’ve heard the speaker actually speak first.
Having heard the spoken word, our experience of their written words is forever changed. New neural patterns start to fire instead of those that were there before. The words are clad in a new voice, and our relationship to those words is changed forever, for good or ill.
However, for most of us, the written word brings us closer and more quickly into intimacy than just the spoken word. The voice in my head becomes the voice in yours, just as yours does in mine.