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November 5, 2006

Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace

Gurak, L. J. (1997). Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace. New Haven: Yale UP.

This book examines two case studies on online persuasion and privacy: the direct-mail marketing database Lotus MarketPlace and the U.S. government-proposed encryption standard Clipper Chip. Online protests against both (in 1990 against Lotus and in 1993 over Clipper) erupted in varying degrees, tactics, and outcomes. Common among the two protests, however, were issues of persuasion (how consumers, citizens, and advocacy groups used the Internet to disseminate information and influence opinion) and concerns over privacy resulting from the availability and capability of new technology.

What could be called the first online protest was launched against Lotus MarketPlace in 1990. Stemming from concerns of computer privacy activists, the bottom-up protest here used online technologies, such as email to forward form letters, where information and opinion were quickly and widely disseminated to an audience of concerned and active participants, who then contacted (barraged, actually) Lotus. Add to this, the fact that management at Lotus were initially unaware of the campaign’s concerns (and the campaign itself), and latterly, were unequipped to respond in an appropriate fashion to the criticisms and concerns of the protest. That is, Lotus did not recognize the Internet’s ethos, its own rhetorical character. The company’s responses did not match the language and protocol of online communication, and as result, seriously lacked persuasive clout. As a result, MarketPlace was quickly defeated; in fact, it was never launched. Tagged as a “victory? for consumer and computer advocacy, nevertheless, the manner in which the protest was waged perpetuated some inaccuracies and introduced privacy issues for some of those involved in the protest. For example, erroneous information was vastly disseminated (the type of information that the database would make available and the number of names included in the basic subscription); and a leading organizer was later concerned over the privacy of his identity in the study.

While the MarketPlace protest’s structure was bottom-up, the Clipper debate was started and organized by two public policy groups, driving the debate in a top-down fashion. One of the groups, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), provided an online petition available on their web site. The protest’s focus was somewhat managed by the information available on the website. In addition, the web site provided specific suggestions for acting on this information, such as filling out the petition and sending it to policymakers. The government, unlike Lotus, was aware of the online protest. Even so, they did not participate in the online debate. Yet, despite these protests and the government’s lack of participation, Clipper was enacted as a standard.

Employment of case study methodology here is useful in examining broad issues of people’s perceptions of privacy in emerging technologies and the use of such emerging technologies in persuasive techniques. The case studies outlined here provide a wide and deep context for the social and political forces behind the two protests, rather than a more focused approach from an experimental-based methodology. What this work may lack in generalizability, it makes up for in providing a springboard for subsequent study—particularly as the cases examined here are seminal in online persuasion and perceptions of privacy surrounding Internet technologies.

The Wired Neighborhood

Doheny-Farina, S. (1996). The Wired Neighborhood. New Haven: Yale UP.

Doheny-Farina examines the social effects of virtual communities, coming out on what he calls the “middle ground? between utopian views of virtual worldwide communities as the answer to a wide range of problems and alarmist views that virtual communities tend to be damaging and isolating. His middle ground, however, sounds more pessimistic than optimistic. He states: “… I argue that we do not need electronic neighborhoods; we need geophysical neighborhoods, in all their integrity. The revolution that must be joined is not one that removes us from place but one that somehow reintegrates the elements of our dissolving placed communities? (p. xi). Throughout the book, he examines both the positive and negative effects of virtual communities within the arena of geophysical neighborhoods; specifically, the benchmark he uses in evaluating the effects of virtual communities is the ability to uphold, indeed advance, geophysical neighborhoods.

Yet, he is careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. He recommends “not shunning the net but steering it? (xii), and within this framework, he proposes “civic networking.? In his words civic networking describes “limited, focused, carefully applied efforts that attempt not to move us into cyberspace but to use communication technologies to help reintegrate people within their placed communities? (xiii). That is, avoiding blind acceptance of the continued “virtualization of everyday life? (ibid), and instead, adapting those technologies or applications that uphold or advance geophysical communities.

His hopes for a “wired neighborhood? begin to be outlined in chapter 9: The Communitarian Vision. Here he explores what constitutes community and builds on community nets. He reiterates that development of the net, with its tendency to isolate and abstract humans, is nonetheless inevitable. Those who wish to remain part of the culture will have to participate. However, there is a way to take control: “Given the inevitability of the net, the most fruitful path is to participate in it in ways that benefit our localities? (p. 123). Of course, this is no easy feat. In later chapters, he describes several community networks that have been ineffectual. Thriving networks, ones that benefit localities, not only have to be funded, built, and maintained; actual participation is crucial, and it is not a given. These networks, according to Doheny-Farina, must represent contemporary community life for potential participants to become involved. The argument becomes rather circular here. He seems to be saying that, to be valid, community networks must act like physical communities.

He ends with a call to action, listing 10 general guidelines to shape the net from a 1995 Morino Institute report. The last sentence of the last chapter summarizes Doheny-Farina’s stance on virtual communities: “Take part in it [the net] not to connect to the world but to connect to your city, your town, your neighborhood? (188).

Written at a time (1996) when there was mass of loud and relatively uncritical support of virtualization, Doheny-Farina’s attempts at reigning in the utopian view was perhaps a necessary and even noble effort. He states: “In immersing ourselves in the electronic net, we are ignoring our real, dying communities? (p. 8). Yet, one may wonder whether the benchmark he uses in promoting civic networking is as paramount as he makes out. His arguments for the superiority of physical communities, at times seem more personal than academic, and lack the rigor of the critique focused on virtual communities.

Interactive Written Discourse as an Emergent Register

Ferrara, K., Brunner, H., & Whittemore, G. (1991). Interactive written discourse as an emergent register. Written Communication 8(1). 8-34.

This study examined 23 experienced users as they made travel plans with a central agent. Coding of the rates of usage for subject pronouns, copulas, and articles (and the omission thereof) showed that CMC was beginning to demonstrate characteristics of oral discourse. The authors claim that this sort of discourse exhibited enough consistent norms to be considered an emergent register, and that these norms may grow to influence or replace more traditional written styles. (And indeed, these things have become of great concern in some factions of writing instruction.)

Reducing Social Context Cues: Electronic Mail in Organizational Communication

Sproull, L., & Kiesler, S. Reducing social context cues: Electronic mail in organizational communication. Management Science, 32(11). 1492-

The authors conducted a field study on electronic mail at a Fortune 500 company, examining exchanges at all organizational levels. Working from a social/psych perspective, they coded the sample for self-absorption, status equalization, and uninhibited behavior. The results confirmed previous work on the effects of removing social cues from communicative exchange (see Hiltz & Turoff), and they concluded that electronic mail “does not simply speed up the exchange of information but also leads to the exchange of new information as well.” This new information would not have been conveyed through any other medium, since social cues would have prohibited it.

Researching Internet-Based Populations

Wright, K.B. (2005). Researching Internet-based populations: Advantages and disadvantages of online survey research, online questionnaire authoring software packages, and web survey services. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(3), article 11. http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue3/wright.html.

Wright covers advantages and disadvantages of conducting online survey research. Additionally, he provides a guide to numerous online survey applications, explaining the requirements, benefits, and issues with each.

The article lists three specific advantages of online survey research:

  1. Access to unique populations: The Internet provides access to a broad spectrum of groups, including communities that only exist in cyberspace. Examples include communities devoted to specific virtual issues (cyber-stalking, online stock trading, virtual dating) and support groups for health issues that are stigmatized offline.
  2. Time: Internet-based survey research may save time for researchers, since you don't have to wrangle paper and issues associated with distributing it. Electronic data doesn't require time or funding for manual input, and the data is often more easily manipulated.
  3. Cost: obvious savings on postage, printing, data entry, transcription, recording equipment, travel, and long-distance calls.
Disadvantages discussed are:
  1. Sampling issues: Contacting participants may be an issue, depending on community support of your project. Response rates may vary drastically. Incentives may provoke repeat surveys (see Konstan, et al.) Self-selection can lead to systemic bias, since some individuals are just more likely to participate than others.
  2. Access: Gaining access to a community can be problematic, since members may consider you to be an unwanted intruder and your requests to be spam.

The remainder of the article is taken up with discussion of current web survey software packages and services.

November 4, 2006

Legitimacy, Authority, and Community in Electronic Support Groups

Galegher, J., Sproull, L., & Kiesler, S. (1998). Legitimacy, authority, and community in electronic support groups. Written Communication 15(4), 493-530.

Galegher, et al perform discourse analysis on threads from three distinct Usenet support groups. Questions of legitimacy and authority are particularly interesting in this context, since participants must establish enough legitimacy for their advice to be trusted, and they cannot rely on many of the usual markers of legitimacy (clothing, mannerisms, obvious physical attendance, etc.) In such a situation, one must make a point of participating often in the conversation in order to even be counted present.

Shared experience is paramount in a support context, and the question-and-answer sequence is a frequent discourse feature (510). Both questions and answers are rooted in personal experience. These personal narratives are typically straightforward and unambiguous (511). Stating length of membership and remaining on-topic creates legitimacy, as does making legitimate claims (512). Simple requests for information that did not contain personal information or claims to membership often did not receive replies.

Authority stems from providing scientific information with explicit reference to scientific studies and, to a lesser extent, from personal experience (515). Challenges to authority often include requests for citations. Personal experiences are rarely challenged. Praise from other members and being quoted by them obviously bolsters one's authority within the group.

The authors note that establishment of legitimacy and authority increases the sense of belonging to a community. This is particularly important in support groups — there was a frequent incidence of comments such as “I no longer feel alone!” Discourse characteristics mirror those within f2f support communities: politeness, question-and-answers, and challenges to controversial or incomplete answers (524). Participants learn and reinforce group norms over time. One significant difference from f2f support groups is noted: permeable boundaries. No references, membership fees, or written constitutions are required for the support groups studied, rendering them far more open to newcomers.

The Story of Subject Naught: A Cautionary but Optimistic Tale of Internet Survey Research

Konstan, J.A., Rosser, B.R.S., Ross, M.W., Stanton, J., & Edwards, W.M. (2005). The story of subject naught: A cautionary but optimistic tale of Internet survey research. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(2), article 11. http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue2/konstan.html

This article documents the verification process of The Men’s Internet Study (MINTS). Subjects were recruited through a banner ad on gay.com and offered $20 to complete an online survey. Manual validation was completed for residency, IP addresses, payment addresses, ZIP codes, age, birth dates, and email addresses. Duplicate surveys were weeded out by checking for duplicate IP addresses, email addresses, names, payment info, and e-payment receipts. Finally, surveys were checked for suspiciously quick completion times. These checks led to identification of 119 repeat surveys, 65 of which were completed by “Subject Naught”.

Four lessons were learned about validity threats in web-based survey research:

  1. Validity checking is absolutely essential when conducting Internet studies.
  2. Although automated testing can flag suspicious survey completion patterns, manual review is essential and the final decision to exclude should be a human one, not an automated one.
  3. Use of a rigorous validation protocol provides greater confidence in the study sample.
  4. Web-based survey research is still highly worthwhile, and can achieve high validity.