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Computer-mediated communication: Literature review of a new context

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Abstract

Ever since computer-mediated communication came into existence in the 1970s, researchers have used it as a tool to examine its effectiveness within organizational, interpersonal, and mass communication contexts. This paper analyzes the existing literature regarding CMC, and finds no continuity. It therefore argues for the existence of a CMC context of communication, which would guide future research along a cohesive vein, encompassing all the different sub-contexts of CMC (such as electronic mail, computer conferencing, Relay, and Multiple User Dungeons).
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####### ######## ######## ###########
### ### ## ### ## # ### # Interpersonal Computing and
### ### ## ### ## ### Technology:
### ### ## ### ### An Electronic Journal for
### ######## ### ### the 21st Century
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### ### ### ## ### ISSN: 1064-4326
### ### ### ## ### April, 1994
####### ### ######## ### Volume 2, Number 2, pp. 31-49
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Published by the Center for Teaching and Technology, Academic Computer
Center, Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20057
Additional support provided by the Center for Academic Computing,
The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802
This article is archived as METZ IPCTV2N2 on LISTSERV@GUVM
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COMPUTER-MEDIATED COMMUNICATION : LITERATURE REVIEW OF A
NEW CONTEXT
J. Michel Metz, University of Georgia
ABSTRACT
Ever since computer-mediated communication came into
existence in the 1970s, researchers have used it as a tool to
examine its effectiveness within organizational, interpersonal,
and mass communication contexts. This paper analyzes the
existing literature regarding CMC, and finds no continuity. It
therefore argues for the existence of a CMC context of
communication, which would guide future research along a
cohesive vein, encompassing all the different sub-contexts of CMC
(such as electronic mail, computer conferencing, Relay, and Multiple
User Dungeons).
STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM
From a time when computer use meant entering punch
cards and receiving greenbar printouts without the use of
monitors, came the discovery of the ability to send one-line
messages between college campuses. Thus, to alleviate the
boredom, programmers then decided to try to create "chat
programs" which would also enable somewhat more reliability
in sending and receiving these messages (Kell, 1988).
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It is a common cliche that necessity is the mother of
invention. If this is true, then boredom must be one productive
mother. From these chat programs came more intricate Relay
programs -- programs which linked individual chats together --
involving several higher-level commands, allowing several people
to talk on individual channels at once, or "move" to private
channels for private discussions.
As with any new resource (i.e., telephones, radio,
television, fax machines), there is an awkward period when
even the people who develop them have no idea to what extent
their inventions will be used and, in certain cases, abused. The
developers of the Internet, for example, had no idea that the
most influential aspect was to be email (Metcalfe, 1992). It is
one thing to produce a program and eradicate bugs from it
(problems which hamper the effectiveness of the program), but it
is another to predict how it will be used. Once the element of
humanity is involved, the margin for error with control becomes
much greater.
Computer-mediated communication (CMC), for purposes
here, can be defined as any communication patterns mediated
through the computer. These include, but are not limited to,
computer conferencing, electronic mail (e-mail), relay chat
lines, and Multiple User Dungeons (MUDs). CMC has been in
existence since 1969, when the creation of the ARPANET produced
unexpected benefits regarding email. Even those who helped
develop the technology had no idea that communication would be
its most important asset (Metcalfe, 1992).
The impact came as such a surprise, in fact, that research
concerning CMC has scrambled along behind the technology and
the culture with no theoretical base to guide it. Much of what
has been studied, therefore, looks very disorganized. CMC
researchers have failed in their duty to organize and define
their field of study. Many researchers have struggled to get
their studies and opinions out into the forefront with (in
certain cases) disregard to what has been studied before, or what
needed to be studied. As a result, certain topics (i.e.,
computer conferencing) have been analyzed to an almost ridiculous
extent, while others (such as computerized bulletin boards,
online relays, and the newest member of CMC: Multiple User
Dungeons, or MUDs) have been alarmingly neglected. It is the
thesis of this paper that there is no cohesive groundwork for
studying CMC, and, as a result, there is no fundamental theory
which guides CMC research. There are no metatheoretical sources
available on CMC, leaving research about the research
nonexistent.
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Therefore, this paper is broken down into four major
sections. The first section postulates the work which has been
done considers CMC as a subset of previous communication
contexts, primarily organizational communication. The second
section gives evidence to support the hypothesis that much of the
work has been done in isolation to other studies concerning CMC,
and provide little or no continuity from one body of research to
another. Third, this paper will examine the few attempts to
combine CMC findings, and examine how such attempts have missed
the mark. Finally, this paper argues that CMC is a field of
theoretical study in its own right, not merely a channel to study
within other theoretical contexts (e.g., interpersonal,
organizational communication).
CMC in Organizational Settings
For the most part, research involving CMC has been
designed to determine worker productivity and effectiveness
within organizational settings. Rice and Case (1983) examined
the uses and effects of a computer-based message system within
an organizational setting. The study focused on a pilot program
for the introduction of the Terminals for Managers (TFM)
program at a major west coast university. The program was an
attempt to "facilitate communication within the university's
administration and eventually to provide other management
aids" (Rice & Case, 1983, p 132). They particularly discussed
the results related to managerial communication because "the
payoff... lies in the use by managers; (and) TFM was specifically
designed for managerial use" (Rice & Case, 1983, p. 133). In
essence, the report was broken down into three separate studies.
The first study examined the expected benefits of the program in
terms of the frequency (number of times per day), duration
(number of minutes per day), and experience (number of weeks
on the system) of the users on the system. The researchers
surveyed 89 managers and administrators, and 110 computer
science (CS) staff in two waves of questionnaires. They found
that managers may use TFM less over time, but became more
efficient by logging on to the system fewer times per day while
staying on nearly the same total number of minutes. Overall,
the researchers found no significant relationship between the
amount of time a respondent reported using a computer system
and their perceptions of how appropriate computers are for
communication tasks. However, heavy users found TFM
substitutable for face-to-face communication (Rice & Case, 1983).
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Rice and Case then investigated whether there was a
correlation between the duration of use and the benefits arising
from use. It was hypothesized that heavier users of TFM would
decrease the amount of telephone use and paper production.
Rice and Case also proposed TFM would affect the quantity and
quality of work. The second study, using the same sample,
identified duration of use as the independent variable, and the
amount of telephone use, production of paper, and the quantity
and quality of work as the dependent variables. Surprisingly,
heavy duration of use did not lead people to believe that
benefits outweighed the costs. Apparently there was a
diminishing returns effect on the use for low to medium level
users. Heavy users acknowledge benefits early on, and continued
use over time did not alter these feelings. Also, they found
that CMC may serve as an additional form of communication rather
than as a substitute for any existing one. This is perhaps the
first indication that computer mediated communication might be
seen as a separate entity, and possibly one worth studying, but
neither Rice and Case nor subsequent researchers followed
through with that hypothesis.
The third study found that greater duration of use was
associated with more positive benefits and impacts, albeit these
benefits and impacts were not reported to change over time.
There were several possible explanations for these results. For
example, equilibrium could have been attained rapidly after the
introduction of the new medium and was unrelated to the number of
weeks on the system. Or, people had unrealistic images of
expected benefits and impacts unrelated to actual usage over
time. A third possibility could be that there were more
complicated relationships among usage, media use, and reported
benefits and impacts (Rice & Case, 1983).
According to the researchers, the possible implications of
the study were threefold. First, positive impacts of CMC in an
organization that people report may not be related to their
actual use of the system. Essentially, what this means is that
users of CMC might sustain their preconceived notions about
communicating via the computer, and therefore perceived benefits
(read positive impacts) might have been attitudinal
rather than developmental over use and time. Second, computer-
based technologies should be used where they are appropriate to
organizational tasks and managerial styles, rather than
indiscriminately thrust into any communication activity.
Implementing a new technology, or any such new device, for the
sole purpose of having something new could be counter-
productive. Third, personality traits, job tasks, positions, and
media styles that affect how people use technology will be a
major factor in acceptance and consequences of computer
mediated communication within an organization (Rice & Case,
1983). For example, individuals who have already determined
that they are "computer illiterate" and completely inept with
new technologies might not find any perceived benefits,
regardless of the amount of time spent on the system.
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Steinfield (1986a) provides a second example of the
organizational pigeonhole for CMC research in his study of
electronic communication within a business organization. The
dependent variables in the study were task-related use, which
was the amount of use of CMC directly related to task-functions,
and the amount of social use of CMC, which was the
socioemotional use not related to task functions. There were
four independent variables: a) task and environment variables,
such as task complexity, routineness, standardization,
unpredictability, time pressures, working with new people, and
occurrences of crises; b) channel characteristics, which were
defined as "subjects' perceptions of the attributes of electronic
mail" (Steinfield, 1986a, pg. 788); c) individual and demographic
variables, such as e-mail experience, education, and level within
the organization; d) and access to the system. Two hundred
twenty randomly chosen CMC users, selected from a list of
registered system users, completed self-administered
questionnaires. Steinfield, like Rice and Case (1983), found that
task-related use depended upon availability of access, meaning
that completion of a task was dependent upon the accessibility of
a computer terminal. It was also found that the task
environment related positively to the measures of complexity of
the task, task interdependence, uncertainty in the environment,
and need for communication across locations (Steinfield, 1986a).
In addition, Steinfield found that the perceived utility of e-
mail had the strongest relationship to task-related use. In
other words, the more a user thought CMC was useful, the more he
would be likely to use the system for a specific task. The
individual and demographic variables played no part in
predicting task use.
Steinfield then examined the variables in terms of social
use. It was found that the accessibility of a terminal had no
effect on social use, nor was the task environment a factor.
Only the perceived attributes of the system, and the individual
and demographic variables were significant in predicting social
use. For example, newer and younger company members were more
likely to use CMC socially.
The difficulty in attributing these results to a CMC context
is the fact that they presuppose that CMC is a tool, rather than
an element which affects communication. In addition, this is a
study involving only one organization, and only one communication
program, whose features were not described. One is forced to
make an assumption, therefore, about the ease of use of the
program compared to others available. Also, if these results
were to be attributed to CMC as a whole, there would be a risk of
singling out specific groups as potential users of CMC (in this
case, newer and younger members of a business).
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Steinfield (1986a) noted that this research will help assist
in the future implications of electronic mail systems and help
create necessary applications for existing systems. I disagree.
His research was valid and topical for the then-current existing
systems. However, the results fail to provide accurate
predictive power for the ever-changing world of CMC. By
orienting his research to organizational research, the scope of
Steinfield's research is outdistanced by the very medium he is
studying.
The third example in this review is a study which
examined the introduction of computerization (including
electronic mail) into a community-oriented nonprofit
organization (Rubinyi, 1989). The study followed 72 small sub-
organizations over a two-year period from their initial adoption
of computer technology. Surveys were administered at the
baseline, or adoption, point and one month, three months, six
months, nine months, one year, and two years after the
computer system was received. An "internal success" index was
constructed through a factor analysis of variables related to
successful internal implementation of the computer. These
variables consisted of frequency of use and organizational
productivity. The high- and low-scoring groups were analyzed
at the baseline, one-year, and two-year points to determine if
they differed significantly on various measures, such as
integration of the computer organization with productivity
(Rubinyi, 1989). The study found that organizations which had
successfully implemented the use of computer networking had
access to more resources than unsuccessful organizations. Also,
"the major obstacles to computer adoption faced by resource-
poor groups were the lack of staff time and lack of training"
(Rubinyi, 1989, pg. 118). Finally, the study found that the
computer did not create new and dramatic forms of interaction
among the groups involved in the project, although several
groups did benefit from implementing the internal applications
such as word processing or financial management. Rubinyi
concluded with a plea for investment in helping community-
based social service and interest groups implement new
information and communications technology (Rubinyi, 1989).
Perhaps the lack of finding in this study was due to flaws in the
methodology. In describing the study, at no point did the
researchers discuss the type of CMC used, what resources that
were available due to CMC, or any other communication-related
differences due to computer use.
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This study perhaps best exemplifies the problem with
identifying CMC as an organizational tool taken to its logical
extreme. The research has no ties to any theoretical background,
but rather is simply a report on organizations which attempts to
incorporate CMC into its day to day activities. As a result, the
study has little potential for inclusion into a mainstream of
communication literature, providing little assistance in
furthering understanding of CMC or organizational uses of the
medium.
CMC Research in Isolation
The trend towards a link-less research base is not reserved
to organizational studies, though. Sudden breakthroughs in
software and communication technology have raised much
curiosity concerning the new applications, yet much of the work
apparently has been done in isolation, providing no coherent
link to any other research.
A prime example of such isolation is a theoretical work on
the effects of computer mediated communication on human
linguistics. Baron (1984) studied whether the use of the
computer as a linguistic medium will affect the very shape and
functioning of traditional language itself. Analyzing and
comparing computer and linguistic research studies and
literature, Baron first examined CMC in the context of a broader
set of linguistic issues. She analyzed CMC as a formal modality
of linguistic communication, and made some general predictions
about the kinds of linguistic change we might expect as a result
of CMC. For example, she determined that "we might expect to see
an improvement in... speech. That is, the degree of logical
coherence and grammaticality in our speech might begin to
approximate more closely that of our written language" (Baron,
1984, p. 138-9). As evidence she examined the concept of
"professorial speech," where academians begin to "talk the way
they write" (p. 124) Baron considers the computer as one of the
"few moments in human history when technological innovation has
the potential for radically altering human society within the
space of a generation" (p. 139). Although she proposed that such
a change would be beneficial, she gave an inordinate amount of
credence to the power of the computer to change the linguistic
functions of human social interaction, determining that "computer
mediated communication may serve to discourage actual human
encounters" (p. 136). Her evidence for this rests shakily upon
the fictional work of Isaac Asimov where inhabitants of another
world never saw each other, but rather viewed their
conversational partners through videophones or computer
conferencing.
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A second example of a literary isolate would be Gratz and
Salem's (1984) study on the potential influence of emerging
information technologies on a psychological reality: self
identity. In their essay, Gratz and Salem saw that although
these technologies offer great opportunities, they must be
managed with care to avoid serious communication problems. As
evidence, they reviewed both popular literature and literature
on how new technologies have altered self concepts and identity
to a significant degree (Gratz & Salem, 1984). For example, they
cited Kosinski's Being There, where the hero Chauncey becomes
so influenced by television, that his responses "in the social
environment he was forced to encounter were simply orienting
reflexes directed at coping with the incoming social stimuli. He
was unable to present himself to others, because he did not know
a self capable of presentation" (Gratz & Salem, 1984, pp. 99-
100).
They concluded that computers cannot fulfill many social
functions, and, as a result, users may avoid negative
consequences. The authors suggested finding methods to
complement new technologies with opportunities to develop
relationship-building skills, but they fail to indicate what
those methods might entail. In addition, the authors relied too
heavily on these popular literature models, such as Burgess
Clockwork Orange, Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, and Kosinski's
Being There, as demonstrations of how a medium "cannot assist in
constructing the relationships that confirm self" (Gratz & Salem,
1984, p 100). As a result, many of their conclusions are based
upon fictitious character development, rather than actual studies
done to substantiate their claims.
A third example of isolated research involves an attempt
at determining whether CMC contributes new information in an
organizational setting. Sproull and Kiesler (1986) explored how
electronic communication related to self-absorption, status
equalization, and uninhibited behavior as well as these effects
on the contribution of new information in a Fortune 500
company. They used questionnaire data and actual electronic
messages sampled from users to examine CMC in all levels of
the organization. They found that decreasing social context
cues, such as the lack of nonverbal and facial cues, had
significant deregulating effects on communication. In their
study, Sproull and Kiesler used specific message attributes,
such as "length (of the message), opening, closing, positive
affect, negative affect, politeness, energy, and topic" (Sproull
& Kiesler, 1986, p. 1499) as the independent variables. The
dependent variables were partner attributes, absorption effects
(where the user was determined to be either self-absorbed or
other-centered), status equalization effects, and uninhibited
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behavior. For example, people overestimated the value of their
own contributions to e-mail communications, while underestimating
the value of their own group messages, and that people appeared
to focus on themselves more than on others in message salutations
and closings (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). Their findings
determined not only relatively weak social context cues in CMC,
but also that people preferred to use CMC to send messages to
superiors rather than to subordinates, and for sending bad news.
While confirming what had been a long standing belief that a
user's behavior is altered in CMC when compared to face-to-face,
the authors found that people behaved more "irresponsibly" using
CMC (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). When evaluating that behavior,
Sproull & Kiesler neglected to justify or even define the term
"irresponsible." As a result, the following questions arise:
what do the researchers deem "irresponsible behavior" on an
electronic mail service? Is the behavior deemed irresponsible
to an organizational setting, or in terms of basic human
etiquette? What effect, if any, did irresponsible behavior have
on the message as it was being perceived? Was irresponsible
behavior a hindrance in overall communication? These questions do
not necessarily undermine the results of the study, but one is
forced to contemplate the context in which a message is
"irresponsible."
A fourth example, by Reid (1991), concerned an attempt to
examine another context of CMC that had previously been
ignored. This context is called Relay or, depending upon the
network which facilitates its use, Internet Relay Chat (IRC).
Underscoring the lack of contextual and social cues, Reid (1991)
examined the behavior and attitudinal changes of "online"
communication, using actual messages sent via IRC. She found
that such a reduction in social context cues forces the users of
CMC to adapt and adjust by providing substitute nonverbal cues
and allowing "the shy and socially ill-at-ease" a way of learning
social skills in a non-threatening environment. Ultimately, she
argues for the existence of an emerging community of IRC users
into a subculture of its own. She refused to place a value
judgement based on that culture, since IRC is a medium in
which behavior that is both outside and in opposition to
accepted norms is accepted and encouraged (Reid, 1991).
However, while she managed to defy the temptation to morally
judge the IRC, it has come under attack in the past (as reported
by Kell, 1988). In addition, Reid offered no reasoning or
arguments for its continued existence in light of efforts to
remove IRC from CMC. As a result, her research is exemplary
within the context of new forms of CMC, but does not offer any
possibilities for future research, nor does it connect with any
previous form of CMC research. It is, effectively, isolated from
any other body of literature.
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A final example of completely isolated research can be
found in Furlong's (1989) survey study of senior citizen CMC
users at the University of San Francisco. There had been no
significant differences between these senior citizens and other
age groups who have been taught about computers. Her report
examined the possible uses and gratifications of CMC for these
people. Her study, which was simply a survey of an unknown
quantity of individuals, attempted to determine the population
of senior adults which was using the computer network, and
what they hoped or expected of computers to improve or change
their lives (Furlong, 1989). The rest of her report was a
qualitative analysis of senior citizens' messages, nine in all,
in order to establish exactly what type of computer communication
exists for these subjects. All in all, she found that CMC is
beneficial to this group, that CMC provides a "window to the
world," and that the information age cannot forget this
population (Furlong, 1989). Furlong attempted to apply the
atheoretical model of uses and gratifications to CMC.
Consequently, no theoretical advancement of CMC is
accomplished. This "study" provides the most poignant
evidence of how the problems befalling CMC "research." This
work provided no review of literature, and had no tie
whatsoever to existing research, indicating a "don't forget about
me!" flavor.
Interpersonal Communication via the Computer(1)
From the earliest beginnings of computer message
systems, one of the first and most influential discoveries was
the complete lack of expressive (nonverbal) behavioral cues
(Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). As a result, traditional forms of
communication, such as the nuances of a conversation created
with nods, smiles, eye contact, distance, tone of voice and other
nonverbal behaviors, become "mystery" variables, causing much
misunderstanding as a result of perceived meaning derived
from context and the tone automatically attributed by a human's
imagination.
For example, Reid (1991) stated that users must and do
compensate for the lack of these contextual cues. CMC users
have managed to develop "ways of sending computerized
screams, hugs, and kisses" (Reid, 1991). It is implied that
these "emoticons," a hybrid name inferred from the words "emotive
icons," are necessary for the comprehension of the meaning
behind the message. Emoticons have developed into an artistic
display of emotion and meaning, without which much of
computer communication would be spent verifying the intent of
each message. There are four different forms of emoticons, each
with its own specific purpose.
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First, there is the common practice of simply verbalizing
physical cues. For example, a humorous comment is difficult to
reply in genuine laughter, so the literal typing of "hehehe" is
considered acceptable. Second, physical actions taken by CMC
users are typically described within two asterisks (Reid, 1991).
This form of expression usually is determined within the
context of the communication, however, and is primarily
utilized in on-line interactive situations, such as Relay and
MUDs.
For example, a hypothetical conversation between two
individuals might read something like this:
<MaidMarion> *Lady Marion arrives in the room
with a flair and arrogance fitting of her status*
<Lancelot> *Bowing low in respect to Lady Marion's
presence* How fair thee, Lady Marion?
where the two individuals use pseudonyms to hide their
true identity and are engaging in a role-playing game. In
academic use, however, asterisks play an important part in terms
of stressing what would have normally been a speaker's vocal
emphasis. Here, an example would be:
... and I find it ludicrous that some system
administrators would have the utter *gall* to
censor material to a public forum. Such behavior is
unethical, immoral, and I _won't_ stand for it.
Here, the terms 'gall' and 'won't' are to be represented as
stressed for emphasis to compensate for the lack of vocal
ability.
Likewise, the third form of visual expressive content
includes the ability to stress, but with a subtle, yet important,
difference. This is the inclusion of terms addressed in all
capital letters. Here, the stress of the word is to be perceived
as near-yelling, and quite frequently other computer users will
comment as such. An example from a Relay episode:
<2hot4U> HEY EVERYBODY, WHAT'S UP?!?
<Maurice> 2hot: Why are you yelling?
<Bear> 2hot: Quit yelling! You're giving me a
headache!
<2hot4U> Sorry everybody, my caps lock stuck.
Finally, the fourth form of emoticons is a "shorthand" for
the description of physical condition (Reid, 1991). Commonly
called "smileys," these characters placed together represent the
sentiment within a message, or to lessen the impact of a
sarcastic comment, or sometimes just for esthetic effect. Some
examples of this are described by Reid (1991):
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:-) or : ) a smiling face, as viewed side-on
;-) or ; ) a winking, smiling face
:-( or : (an 'unsmiley': an unhappy face
:-} or : }someone having a so-so day
:-(*) someone about to throw up
8-) someone wearing glasses
:-P someone sticking out their tongue
>:-O someone screaming in fright, their hair
standing on end
:-& someone whose lips are sealed
@}-`-,-`-- a rose
[Author's note: Examine the icons by looking at the page 90
degrees counterclockwise]
Overall, there are well over 500 of such icons, although
only about five to nine of the ones represented above are in
constant use. It would seem relatively obvious to trace back
these icons to handwritten notes where smileys were drawn as
circles with features. Nonetheless, the sheer quantity of these
icons goes beyond such humble beginnings into a depth of
imagination and creativity that defies such a simple explanation.
It is Reid's (1991) hypothesis that such inventiveness and
lateral thinking demands skill. An inference about the
communicative competence of these users would be a logical
conclusion, but she refrains from attempting to do so, leaving
conclusions up to the reader. However, such creativeness implies
that computer users have the ability to adapt to limited
communication situations, and even substitute graphic
symbolic cues to replace conversational shortcomings.
Reid (1991) indicated that computer-mediated communication
led to the behavior disinhibition due to the lack of regulating
cues, yet she was not the first to do so. Sproull & Kiesler
(1986) found that much of the information distributed through
electronic mail was unique in that it could not be conveyed
through another medium. As Adkins (1989) defines, deregulating
is when "regulating" cues, such as speaking when spoken to or
recognizing when one comprehends the message and moving on to
another topic, are absent from a conversation. In email
conversations, for example, it is not uncommon to witness the
practice of inserting responses in the midst of the original
message, addressing each point as it is presented. More drastic,
however, are realtime conversations, where individuals can send
single-line messages across the network to each other.
Empirically, it is feasible to conduct more than one conversation
at the same time with the same person, due to the time
differential in receiving feedback to statements. One individual
might move on to another topic, and then receive a response to a
statement sent several minutes before, and respond to the
previous topic. Maintaining cognitive awareness of each
conversation becomes a balancing act at which some CMC users
become quite adept.
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Even so, the tendency to deregulate behavior has
concerned several researchers (Adkins, 1989; Kiesler, Siegel, &
McGuire, 1984; Reid, 1991; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). Reid (1991)
has gone so far as to say that Relay encourages disinhibition
among its users. The lack of social context cues are read as an
obscuring of the boundaries which delineates the forms of
behavior which are acceptable or unacceptable. She determined
that "with little regulating feedback to govern behavior, users
behave in ways that would not generally be acceptable with
people who are essentially total strangers" (Reid, 1991).
Possible future research along this vein might examine the
motivation behind such behavior.
Not all uninhibited behavior or communication is so
negative, however. Many researchers (Adkins, 1989; Kiesler,
Siegel, & McGuire, 1984; Reid, 1991; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986)
indicate that there are advantages to disinhibition. For
example, the anonymity associated with conversing with a terminal
between the participants is a boon for those people who suffer
from shyness (Reid, 1991). Computer-mediated communication
can allow users the freedom to "open up" to a complete stranger,
disclosing information that one would hesitate to mention tete-a-
tete to an individual of the same acquaintance level.
In fact, an uncommon, but nonetheless true, phenomenon is
the emergence of what may be called "net.romances." Here, self-
disclosure among CMC participants results in attachment and,
ultimately, involvement. Going beyond even the professional
involvements, which in and of themselves are most notable, these
relationships, which hold all the subtle nuances and difficulties
that close proximity relationships have, are long distance
romantic relationships carried out over e-mail or Relay. As
Reid (1991) warns, "such expressions of feeling are not in any
way thought to be shallow or ephemeral." Relay has been known to
create and foster extremely emotional bonds between people,
eventually leading up to successful marriages.
These romances are indeed computer-mediated interpersonal
relationships at their most idyllic. A seedier side of the
communication medium also exists, with little attention
paid it due to its nature. However, the sexuality which pervades
CMC is a force to be reckoned with. Human sexuality seems to
bloom outward over the computer, with little appearance of
being hindered by system administrators. Only one researcher
(Reid, 1991) has acknowledged its existence, attributing the
label "net.sleazing" to the attitudes and situations involved.
It is also known by "CompuSex." or "link-sex," where descriptions
of sexual behavior are graphically depicted, written in the first
person and directed towards one another. Whether this is a
result of disinhibition or a cause of it is uncertain, as are the
effects of this behavior on attitudes and perceptions of each
other. Given the frequency of this behavior, sexual
communication via the computer would be a rich area of future
research.
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Conclusions and Future Research Questions
The lack of an underlying theory regarding CMC research
makes prospective research questions difficult to ascertain,
since much of what has been studied has little or no continuity
(i.e., Baron's study of computer linguistics). Perhaps there is
no theory of CMC because all other theories support different
models of communication. CMC's "models" are delineated by
the structural definition of the programs which support
electronic communication. Therefore, an electronic model
replaces a theoretical one, and a theory, up until now, has not
been seen as necessary. CMC theory has been usurped by the
concreteness of the program "models," thereby placing CMC under
contextual formats rather than theoretical ones. For example,
the models are used to place an image, or method, of examining a
specific context of communication. In CMC, however, such
concreteness is provided by the actual software, and not by
imagination. As a result, there has never been a perceived need
to organize a theory.
The research thus far has indicated that this not need be
the case. If future studies examined CMC not as part of a
broader set of communication (e.g., organizational communication
research), but rather as its own context, a major step will be
taken in grasping the gestalt of CMC. The first step in
achieving this is recognizing that CMC does *not* equal
electronic mail, a serious mistake made by nearly all early CMC
researchers. Electronic mail itself is but one small subset of
CMC, and is not all inclusive.
CMC itself is made up of two distinct classes of
communication: synchronous and asynchronous. Sproull and
Kiesler (1986), among others, made that mistake when defining all
CMC as asynchronous. Such is not the case. Asynchronous CMC,
such as email, and the findings resulting from studies of such
material, cannot explain the occurrences of culture within ReidUs
(1991) analysis of Internet Relay Chat, a synchronous form of CMC.
While the two are both CMC, as well as legitimate forms of
communication, the results of the former cannot begin to address
the issues brought up by the latter.
In this way, CMC studies should address the medium first, in
order to understand the consequences of its two subsets (e.g.,
asynchronous and synchronous forms of CMC). Only at that point
in time can the full scope of CMC interactions been completely
revealed. As indicated earlier, one of the main criticisms of
CMC research is that the majority of findings cannot be used to
explain the empirical experience across CMC platforms.
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At certain points in CMC research history there have been
points of contact where researchers have managed, or at the very
least attempted, to tie up many loose ends in nearly exhaustive
analyses of existing research (Chesebro & Bonsall, 1989;
Steinfield, 1986). It is from there that we should re-address
the questions they raise. For example, examination of electronic
bulletin boards has not increased since Steinfield's (1986)
essay, although the usage of them have increased exponentially
since that time. It is also necessary to examine the
implications of multiple-organizational research involving CMC.
Much of the emerging research concerns the controversial topic of
CMC cultures (Reid, 1991), and a combination of research in these
areas could facilitate the continuity which is desperately
needed.
On a positive note, the myths and superstition regarding
computers and computer technology appears to have been
phased out of research involving CMC. While this may appear
to be inherently logical and self-evident, it indicates that a
shift has taken place; computers are no longer regarded in a
mystical, glorified manner. As has been indicated by Chesebro
and
Bonsall (1989), there is now a notion of responsibility which
permeates human-computer based communication. Perhaps
with this theme, researchers can take responsibility of their
studies and guide them toward an underlying theory which up
until now has been largely undocumented.
Cathcart and Gumpert (1986) provide a starting point with
their discussion of mediated interpersonal communication,
which could have lead directly into a method of examining
CMC. According to the authors, definitions of communication
"have minimized the role of media and channel in the
communication process. The focus has been on the number of
participants, source and receiver relationships, and forms and
functions of messages. The media of communication have been
accepted, more or less, as fixed or neutral channels for the
transmission of messages among participants" (Cathcart
& Gumpert, 1986, pg. 27).
It is important that research emphasize the role of the
individual in the mediated communication process rather than
on the role media plays in shaping interpersonal behavior
(Cathcart & Gumpert, 1986). Even so, all too often the term
+ Page 46 +
"media" is used synonymously with the term "mass media,"
when the two are distinctly separate. As a result, the authors
attempt to bridge the definitional gaps and reconcile the role of
media in human communication by making some
generalizations:
1. There are interpersonal situations which require media for
the purpose of communication.
2. Second, the media are part of a complex of variables that
influence behaviors and attitudes.
3. The content of media is both a reflection and projection
of interpersonal behaviors.
4. An individual's self image and its development is media
dependent (Cathcart & Gumpert, 1986, pp. 27-8).
It is then argued that if the above claims accurately
reflect the realities of the media, in this case CMC, then what
would be needed is a new topology which would include media
technology.
First, research needs to address the possibility that heavy
users of CMC (including relay and chat lines) have modified the
symbolic realm of communication. As indicated by Reid (1991),
symbolic emotive messages have been established in order to
compensate for the lack of social contextual cues. Also, users
have abbreviated traditional sentence structures, almost forming
a separate language code. It will be important to determine
exactly how these modifications affect the perceptions of the
users.
Second, and more importantly, it needs to be determined
whether CMC users, Relay users in particular, are less proficient
at interpersonal communication than other people who do not
use the computer as often, or at all. Because research has
delved only slightly into the area of behavioral modification due
to computer use, the next logical step would be to determine what
behaviors might arise, and how those behaviors affect
communication both via the computer and interpersonally. At
that point we should be able to take the concept of computer
communication and its effects out of fiction and regard the
importance of this new area with the attention it deserves.
+ Page 47 +
As has been stated previously, CMC research falters
primarily when examined as a "tool," rather than a context in
itself. For example, the telephone has become a likely metaphor
when describing CMC interactions. However, such a paradigm
seriously limits the way in which CMC is analyzed. If, for
example, CMC is examined within an organizational
communication setting, only the task-oriented aspects will get
analyzed; social functions of CMC become ignored. If examined
under the social aspect of Internet Relay Chat, only the
conjectures of social behavior will be examined.
Instead, it is imperative that CMC become examined as a
context, an umbrella under which electronic mail, computer
conferencing, MUDs, and Relay/Chat lines would be examined.
The advantages of such a perspective are obvious. First, it
would be easier to theorize communication patterns across each
individual subcontext of CMC (e.g., from electronic mail to
computer conferencing, from MUDs to Relays). Second, there
would be predictability across each CMC sub-context. Due to the
high amount of change involved when examining CMC, as in
the constant changing, modification, and updating of computer
communication software, current research has been limited in
terms of this predictability power. Once a study has been
published, the conclusions and predictions were no longer valid
either because a) the program being used is not universally
utilized in all businesses or universities, or b) the program has
been modified, undermining the assumptions on which the
conclusions are based.
Perhaps the best way to examine such a new context is
under the human action perspective. What rules do users of
CMC follow, both written, unwritten, and within the limitations
of computer programming? Communicators have been able to
begin conversations with other users, and while waiting for a
response, begin a second conversation with that same person by
asking another question, or initiating a change in conversation
while continuing the original conversation. Under a rules
perspective, what rules do users create and follow in order to
maintain conversations which multiply, even between the same
two conversants?
In order to demonstrate how CMC is distinct within its
own context, we must first acknowledge that it is not merely a
channel through which people communicate. CMC is unique in
that it is perhaps the only medium that its users change the very
nature of communication. A perfect example is the aforementioned
+ Page 48 +
interspersing of conversations within conversations during
realtime communication. In no other form of communication do
conversants 'flip-flop' topics with such rapidity. In addition,
there are the rare cases (yet not improbable) where an
individual's programming ability can modify the very program
which people use to communicate.
Also, it is important to note how users of CMC perceive
that medium. In that sense, it would be ridiculous to force-fit
a telephone paradigm onto a medium whose users wouldn't look
at it as such. Users of CMC change their medium(2), evidenced
not just by the advent of emoticons, but also the choice of
immediacy and interaction. Both asynchronous email and
synchronous Relays are CMC, yet the level of interaction varies
between the two. In no other medium does communication become
subject to personal modification; in what way does the viewer
change the way a message is broadcast over television? How many
different ways are there to write a letter?
Most importantly, treating CMC as its own context raises
different communication questions than if used as a subset of
another context. For example, under organizational theory,
CMC is used under two criteria: Task-related use and social-use.
As shown in this paper, not all computer mediated
communication can have both elements. In interpersonal
communication, for example, under standard theory criteria, the
nonverbal cues provided by emoticons would be ignored, since
they aren't "true" nonverbal cues. There is no current system of
analysis which can completely cover all aspects of CMC. The
reason for this is because computer mediated communication has
come into its own as a valid form of communication, and is
permeating a global society. It would be foolish to ignore the
potential for this medium by underestimating its value.
Notes
(1) Unfortunately, for the most part, little has been published
concerning interpersonal communication via the computer. That is
not to say, however, that little has been written. In fact, as
previously stated, much of the research involving human behavior,
interpersonal communication, and communication subcultures has
been presented at conferences. While this implies that awareness
and consciousness of the phenomenon is increasing, the
availability of such material leaves much to be desired.
+ Page 49 +
(2) Here it is crucial to make a distinction between CMC-as-
medium and computer-as-medium. One of the common
assumptions which have been in error prevalent in the above-
mentioned sources, is that the computer is the medium through
which people communicate. This simply is not accurate.
Communication via the computer is *dependent* upon the software
available and chosen. As a result, the *medium* of CMC is
changed by the users based upon form, immediacy, and interaction.
References
Baron, N. S. (1984). Computer mediated communication as a
force in language change. Visible Language, 18, 118-141.
Cathcart, Robert, and Gumpert, Gary. (1986) Intermedia:
Interpersonal Communication in a Media World. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Chesebro, James W., & Bonsall, Donald G. (1989). Computer-
Mediated Communication. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of
Alabama Press.
Furlong, Mary S. (1989). An Electronic Community for Older
Adults: The SeniorNet Network. Journal of Communication: 39,
145-153.
Gratz, R. D., and Salem, P. J. (1984). Technology and the crisis
of self. Communication Quarterly, 32, 98-103.
Kell, Jeff. (1988). Relay: Past, Present, and Future Paper
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Metcalfe, B. (1992, September 21). Internet fogies to reminisce
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Reid, Elizabeth M.(1991). Electropolis: Communication and
Community on Internet Relay Chat. Unpublished thesis,
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Rice, R. E. and Case, Donald.(1983). Computer-based messaging
in the university: A description of use and utility. Journal of
Communication, 33: 131-152.
Rubinyi, Robert M. (1989) Computers and Community: The
Organizational Impact. Journal of Communication, 39: 110-123.
Sproull, L., and Kiesler, S. (1986). Reducing context cues:
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Steinfield, C. (1986a). Computer-mediated communication in an
organizational setting: Explaining task-related and
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Interpersonal Computing and Technology: An Electronic Journal
for the 21st Century
Copyright 1994 Georgetown University. Copyright of individual
articles in this publication is retained by the individual
authors. Copyright of the compilation as a whole is held by
Georgetown University. It is asked that any republication of
this article state that the article was first published in IPCT-J.
Contributions to IPCT-J can be submitted by electronic mail in
APA style to: Gerald Phillips, Editor IPCT-J GMP3@PSUVM.PSU.EDU
... A couple of decades ago, when email stands among the few electronic interactional technologies, many scholars criticized it as it lacks social contextual cues such as nonverbal behavior and the physical environment (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986); however, by the development of electronic paralanguage, such as emotions and emojis, many researchers pointed the important role and the benefits of such features in electronic interactions, (Hsieh, 2009;Metz, 1994). ...
... Culpeper (2009) drew on the benefits of virtual interaction communication mediated through computers and declared that "people who hesitate to express their opinion in face-to-face setting can be more willing to voice their opinion online" (p.41). Hayes et al. (2020) and Metz (1994) illustrated four main usages of electronic paralanguage, the emotional icons or emoticons: (a) verbalizing the physical cues, (b) describing actions, (c) emphasizing, and (d) signifying facial expressions. ...
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... Thus, the challenge of "time and space" is not an impediment for learning anymore in which using technological features facilitated the spread of information, and thus, teaching and learning can occur anywhere at any time. Accordingly, any interaction that occurs through a technological device refers CMC (Metz, 1994). CMC, then, is an invaluable tool for communicating and connecting people across the world. ...
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... This indeed would raise a point of singularity on several claims always found in software engineering papers and books, asserting that in person communication is necessarily better, as argued in the Agile Manifesto "individuals and interactions over processes and tools" [12]. This issue has been partly discussed, in the early '90s, by proponents of computer mediated communication [88]- [90] and, more recently by [91], [92]. However, it has remained largely unexplored in Software Engineering. ...
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... They are surrogates of verbal, non-verbal, paraverbal cues in CMD. Metz [43] mentions four forms of emoticons: (a) verbalizing physical cues (e.g. 'hehe' for laughing), (b) using asterisks to describe physical actions (e.g. ...
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... Individuals can develop cultural competence through a variety of learning activities (Kohls & Knight, 1994), including computermediated learning environments. According to Walther (1992), computer-mediated communication (CMC) is a dialogical interaction between individuals that occurs through computer technology to exchange messages synchronously (at the same time) or asynchronously (at different times), such as chat, video conferencing, writing emails, or online discussion boards (Metz, 1994). There has been considerable debate among scholars as to whether CMC can be as beneficial as face-to-face communication for educational purposes. ...
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... CMC is defined in different ways; for instance, CMC is defined as human communication via computer [2]. CMC also refers to any communication pattern mediated through the computer [3]. According to [4], CMC is a method of communication using a computer as a transfer medium which permits individuals to communicate without geographical or time restrictions. ...
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... Multiple threads, called interleaved exchanges by Herring (1999:online),is the feature in CMC for two or more unrelated threads of conversation to be running together.This tendency,closely associated with the development of the conversational floor,is a feature of multi-party CMC when more than one conversation is happening at a time within the same space on-screen.Multiple threads are discussed by Simpson(2005a),where they are considered as the surface realization of conversational floors.See the example below (Simpson 2005b )turns 1, 4, 6, 2, 9 and 10 belong to one thread,while turns 2, 3, 5 and 4 are of the second. 2 )lack of immediate feedback due to absence of social cues and physical and social presence as in face to face interaction (See sproull & Kiesler 1946in Metz 1994. Gumperz (19429131;19929230-231) (Bays: 1994).Therefore,interpretation becomes a feature of human's creativity and imagination based on the current communicative situation (Metz,1994 : 41). ...
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