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Business - Written by on Tuesday, November 3, 2009 13:05 - 14 Comments

Gautam Lamba
Color coding the Internet

For all the different ways to communicate that the internet offers – blogs, wikis, tweets, status updates etc – it still lacks a rather basic functionality, the ability to convey emotion. In everyday, real life interactions, we unconsciously pick up on non-verbal cues (body language, gestures) and particularities of tone, inflection and stressed words to round out our interpretation of a message.

On the internet, however, these common tools are either unavailable or extremely hard to convey. For example, consider these variations of 1 sentence:

“Ever seen a polar bear?” vs. “Ever seen a polar bear?”

On its own, it seems to be a plain, if odd, query. Italicized and bold font clarifies the stress placed on a particular word and gives the message a depth of meaning not previously available. Similarly, happiness or sadness is conveyed via ‘emoticons’ or a side-ways smiley face [e.g. :) , :P , :O etc]. Inflection and tone can be conveyed by specifying the tone in brackets or maybe typing in capitals.

As you can imagine, such additions take time, effort and are as a result, often left out. Also, given that status updates on Facebook or Twitter are not something people generally want to be very verbose, these little additions are generally omitted or assumed to be apparent.

In my view, there is a fairly simple way to get around both, the ambiguity and the effort needed to enrich online communication.

My answer: Colour Code the commentary.

This is based on the assumption that certain colours are universally associated with certain moods, tones and emotions – red is anger/stop, white is peace, green is go. Essentially – a simple algorithm that would automatically change the background or a strip on the side of a comment as certain phrases are used.



I am extremely upset

I am p****ed off!

According to me the following benefits flow from such functionality:

  • Readers get a richer picture at a glance
  • Greater probability that readers correctly interpret the message
  • Speed of communication increases since readers don’t necessarily need to read every word
  • It would be invaluable for those who are looking to gauge the response to a product launch article
  • It would reduce, possibly eliminating, the ‘noise’ in comments sections. This noise arises from people having to clarify their intended message as people try to decide whether you are being sarcastic, funny or facetious.
  • It would be like emotion mining – in real time, upfront and open.

To kick off the discussion (and possibly such a development…are you listening wordpress?);

below are some color systems in existence today (notice they follow fairly similar lines)

Robert Plutchick: EMOTION – A Psychoevolutionary Synthesis
Mood Ring Convention
Colour Therapy (Modified. Original here)


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Kyle Maxwell
Nov 3, 2009 16:04

I’ve thought a lot about the issue of emotional content and context for modern communication, though I certainly wouldn’t ever claim to be an expert. The issue you describe really stems from the writer not putting the requisite time and energy into his communication.

We’ve evolved highly nuanced ways to communicate emotion, feeling, and sense stress via the written word over centuries, after all. Professional writers do it on a daily basis. As readers, we can pick up a novel or a poem or an essay and understand the author’s intent. But now that we all can write something quickly and publish it with the click of a button, we somehow feel that we should in fact do so, and immediately without stopping to consider how best to express our words.

In a related issue, most of us want to write like they speak, and so we don’t take note of the differences between verbal and written communication. We then insert emoticons and typeface changes (and colors) as direct compensation for the loss of body language, facial expressions, and voice tone.

Maybe if, as a culture, we put more value and emphasis on good communication skills and putting thought and effort into what we write (and say), we could address a number of widespread problems at once.

Nov 3, 2009 16:20

Somehow, I don’t think its going to happen. There is a premium placed on speed and brevity. Additionally, keep in mind that platforms limit the number of characters. Twitter has the now famous 140 or less, smart-phones are close to that (~300?)
However, I believe that if language should evolve according to how people choose to use it, as it has always been. It should not be an imposed and concrete structure.

Kyle Maxwell
Nov 3, 2009 16:25

I didn’t suggest that some nebulous arbiters of language should declare that we should all convert to ivory-tower wordsmiths, though of course if somebody wants to do that, then all the better.

And in fact, the limitations on character count or other constraints help turn us into better writers: brevity and succinctness matter. (Not that you could tell by my blatherings here!)

Nov 3, 2009 17:06

I wholly agree with your position on brevity and succinctness.

My position is that the onus to clarify communication lies on the platform that facilitates the exchange. Just as the telephone company should be responsible for ensuring static free networks, rather than the caller only calling from spaces where static is avoided.

Pallav Shishodia
Nov 4, 2009 14:32

What if wrong colour is used wittingly or non-wittingly!And how to convey ambivalent indeterminate moods!

Nov 4, 2009 18:08

A lot of the sentiment analysis software available today, would be able to associate colours automatically. Twitalyzer is one example of a free version of such capability (albeit without colours)

The indeterminate moods could be identified by exclusion (if nothing else fits). CAVEAT: I know very little about the nitty-gritty of writing code

Nov 5, 2009 12:06

Color is interesting and can be enriching, but as I’ve said in other posts, overly investing effort in it is problematic. As a father of 2 sons who both have red-green color blindness (of which a relativeley high % population of anglo males possess) and as someone who has worked a lot with sight-impaired populations (blindness or near-equiavelnt, through disease, injury, birth, etc.), designers MUST become increasingly facile with producing UIs and U/X conventions that ALWAYS work, regardless of the multi-sensory limitations of the user. Simply put, if you’re going to use color, make sure a color/blind person can use it.

Nov 5, 2009 12:17

That is an excellent point.
Perhaps there should be ‘text-to-speech’ capabilities. Somewhat like clicking on the pronunciation button in online dictionaries.
Maybe in the future, we may see easy voice-based comments and replies in addition to text (though that would bring new problems of accents and speech peculiarities)

Nov 5, 2009 12:20

G – and other interested readers:

tools like that are available – it is usually the designer awareness and skill to apply them that is missing. Here’s a good source for training: http://knowbility.org/train/

Nov 23, 2009 1:41

Color based on our style, in visual communication design actually. Hmm..in postmodern era, soft colour and minimalist style is a trend

nb: I have already had your book ‘wikinomics’, Do you have been publshed a new book? I hope u can visit my country and sharing about ‘mass collaboration’ based on your book in my community: ‘Belajar Kreatif forum’ –> creative learning community ;)

Nov 23, 2009 8:19

With regards to the color systems, which colors should be dominate in biz website, offering information services? Light green & Gold or Indigo & Silver? Please explain. Thanks.

Naumi Haque
Nov 23, 2009 15:16

Hi Maydina, thanks for your interest. Don’s newer book is called “Grown Up Digital” – it’s about the Net Generation (Gen Y) as customers and employees. He’s working on his latest book right now – it will be out in 2010.

Nov 28, 2009 1:27

I agree that there is a recurring problem with the misinterpretation of tone on the web particularly in shorter messaging applications like IM or twitter. However, color is unlikely to solve this problem. The meaning of a given color is not inherent, it is contextual. This explains why red can mean either love or anger while green can imply jealousy or balance, to say nothing of differing cultural meanings of specific colors.

Color palettes tend to communicate more predictably than individual hues in the same way that the content of a piece of music is more easily understood than the content of a single note. Unfortunately, a collection of hundreds of palettes each with multiple colors would be difficult to understand and more difficult to use. Typography is a more obvious and promising solution but it raises technical problems that the we are only beginning to resolve on the web.

The reality is that unclear writing will always be difficult to interpret. Add poorly chosen color and typography to bad writing and all get is bad design. The real solution is for people to become better writers. Imagine what Shakespeare could do in 140 characters or less.

Nov 30, 2009 10:27

While it is true thatt one color can and often does have multiple meanings, in this case, the words themselves would provide some context to lead the reader in the right direction. The idea is not to completely do away with the text comments, rather it is to aid correct interpretation.

Now available in paperback!
Don Tapscott and Anthony D. William's latest collaboration, Macrowikinomics: New Solutions for a Connected Planet. Learn more.

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