November 5, 2006

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.

October 1, 2006

The strange case of the electronic lover

Van Gelder, Lindsay. (1990). The strange case of the electronic lover. Talking to Strangers: Mediated Therapeutic Communication. Ed. Gary Gumpert and Sandra L. Fish. Norwood: Ablex, 128-142.

This case study outlines how anonymity over the Internet, previously perceived as an advantage of the medium, shattered the trust of a social network in the mid 1980s when a man adopted the online identity of a disabled woman, unbeknownst to others (mainly women) in the network. The man conversed online with various women in the group, gaining trust and winning affection. At first, contact was merely online conversation, but later, contact was made with several women for online sex and even for a face-to-face meeting, as a supposed blind date, set up by the “woman� known as Joan to meet her friend, Alex, Joan’s actual identity.

Once Alex’s actual identity was uncovered, the group felt varying degrees of betrayal. Although a rather extreme example of online subterfuge, particularly for its time, when the Internet was viewed perhaps more optimistically (or naively), it highlights issues that are still relevant today. Anonymity can be a positive feature of online communication (allowing for otherwise shy persons to take on different, more social roles); yet, it can also be potentially harmful (in cases of fraud, for instance). How is trust gained on the internet? What is considered acceptable behavior and how can it be monitored and/or policed? Should it be? The author of this article describes the Alex/Joan story in detail, but provides little commentary in terms of implications. She closes with comments from a feminist perspective relating to trust, intimacy, and sharing between the sexes, admitting that gender remains a major issue in power and communications. But she offers little, other than to “personally applaud� those who actively dismiss categorizing their gender online.

September 2, 2006

Flaming in computer-mediated communication

Lea, Martin, et al. (1992). “Flaming� in computer-mediated communication: observations, explanations, implications. In Contexts of Computer-mediated Communication. NewYork Harvester Wheatsheaf. pp.89-112.

The authors argue that flaming, “the hostile expression of strong emotions and feelings� (p. 89), is not as widely prevalent or inevitable in CMC as had been reported. Instead of CMC promoting such behavior, the authors state that “flaming is in fact both radically context-dependent and relatively uncommon� (ibid.). With anecdotal accounts and a survey of research literature, they present a theoretical perspective of flaming as normative, social behavior. Previous studies explained flaming as a result of the reduced availability of social cues (Kiesler et al, 1984) and the social influence of computing’s subculture (Kiesler et al, 1984; Dubrovsky et al, 1986). However, when re-examining various studies, the authors cite several potentially confounding factors: a lack of a standard definition of flaming and greater time constraints in CMC vs. FTF groups in task-completion experiments (leading to increased stress in CMC groups, perhaps contributing to greater instances of flaming) (Kiesler et al, 1985, Siegel et al, 1986, Spears et al, 1990). In addition, observed or remembered instances of flaming appear to be overcompensated, contributing to a sense of greater occurrences.

In addition, the authors argue that CMC is not devoid of social cues and group norms (Spitzer, 1986; Walther, 1992; Lea and Spears, 1993), and that communicators are aware of their audience. Instead, the authors propose a social influence theory of flaming: flaming tends to occur “within a social context that is pre-defined or communicated via the medium� (p. 109).

Gender and Democracy in Computer-Mediated Communication

Herring, Susan C. (1993). Gender and democracy in computer-mediated communication. Electronic Journal of Communication 3(2): available at

In this study, Herring examines the democratizing claim of computer-based communication, focusing on gender, in the context of academic listservs. Drawing on Habermas’ “rules of reason� (1983), Herring breaks down four characteristics claimed to foster democracy in CMC:
• Accessibility
• Social decontextualization
• (lack of) conventions of use
• (lack of) censorship
Herring’s research question is: how democratic is CMC in practice; specifically, does it produce gender equality in communication? Using mixed methods of ethnography, discourse analysis, and survey in analyzing two academic listservs over one year, Herring finds significant differences in:
• Amount
• Topic, and
• Manner of participation
That is, men participate more than women; men’s comments are responded to more frequently than women’s; men contribute more on theoretical topics while women contribute more on topics of real-world consequences; and that there are sex-based features of language where women tend to avoid confrontation and men engage in adversarial rhetoric—all of which point to a greater lack of democracy in CMC than previously thought. Herring concludes: “male and female academic professionals do not participate equally in academic CMC.�

This study is striking in its findings, particularly in light of the era in which it was conducted. Optimism in the medium was high. CMC was touted as a truly democratizing form of communication. Herring’s study was one of the first to test these early optimistic assumptions and studies (Kiesler et al, 1984; Graddol & Swann, 1989). In truly democratic discourse, according to Habermas, there can be no censorship: yet, Herring found internal and external instances of censorship in academic CMC. Of course, once again, we find claims made based on academia, a shortcoming for generalizability in this, and many other studies.

August 7, 2006

Social Psychological Aspects of Computer-Mediated Communication

Kiesler, Sara, Siegel, Jane, and McGuire, Timothy W. (1984) Social psychological aspects of computer-mediated communication. American Psychologist, Oct. 1984, 1123-1134.

This article is among the first that note changes in organizational communication within digital environments:

  • centralization of control because it is easier to keep tabs on co-workers and subordinates
  • flattened hierarchy due to universal access within the organization
  • lack of social cues
  • anonymity and attendant uninhibited verbal behavior (i.e. flaming)
  • norms and etiquette based on programmer/hacker culture
They also note changes in group communication dynamics that are generalizable outside the organizational context:
    changes in coordination of discussions (turn-taking, etc. Also, cmc groups took longer to reach consensus than did f2f groups, and exchanged fewer remarks in the time allowed to them [1128])
  • changes in the participation and/or influence of dominant individuals
  • changes in normative control
  • again and always, uninhibited verbal behavior
There is an early reference to speed and reach on 1127.

There’s a quote on 1131 that seems relevant to my work with IP:

.. For example, absence of computer etiquette is a transient problem, but it is one that raises significant policy debates over rights of computer users to privacy and freedom of exploration. A more permanent effect might be the extension of partiicpation in group or organizational communication. This is important because it implies more shared information, more equality of influence, and, perhaps, a breakdown of social and organizational barriers.
Finally, they call for interdisciplinary research in CMC — interesting, considering the fact that so many disciplines were trying to stake their claim to (or within) the field at that time.