The forgetting test

I was having a conversation with a colleague this afternoon about the use of different media. We all know that there is a different feeling to a phone chat than there is to, say, face to face conversation. And both are very different from an exchange of letters.

Every medium brings with it certain affordances. I can spend all the time I want carefully composing an email response, a luxury that I do not have in face to face conversation. On the other hand, email does not let me use facial expression, body position, gesture or voice modulation to convey subtle shades of meaning.

At some point my colleague and I started talking about the phenomenon of having had a conversation, and then not being able to remember whether that conversation had been in person. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we think of in person face to face discussion as a kind of gold standard. Then it is arguably a mark of success for any medium if that medium feels more like a conversation between two people who are physically face to face.

In particular, if you’ve had a conversation over, say, Skype, and you mistakenly remember it as an in-person discussion, that would mean that Skype is doing something really well. In practice, I think, this doesn’t happen very much. A face-to-face over Skype or Google Hangouts feels very different from the real thing — and that’s how we generally remember it.

But my colleague said that back when he and others were using Second Life, those who stayed in the experience for long periods of time — say, at least eight hours all together — sometimes started remembering their conversations in Second Life as having taken place in person.

I think this is a very important data point. It suggests that there is something in particular about the illusion of physical co-presence — as opposed to simply seeing a face on a screen — that can trick our memory into believing that we have been physically present somewhere.

We might therefore apply to conversation in any medium the “forgetting test”: After having had the conversation, how likely is it that you might mistakenly remember it as having been an actual face to face encounter?

It has not escaped our notice that this question immediately suggests a possible benefit of shared immersive virtual reality.

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