Masthead CMC Magazine / February 1, 1996

Toward Broadening our Research Agenda in Cyberspace

by Laura Gurak

In the January 1995 issue of CMC Magazine, I wrote about technological determinism and the Internet. Since that time, competing visions of society's future in the online world continue to abound, tending most often to offer dichotomous scenarios of such a society: on the one hand are the cautionary tales of the new information technology as a potential danger, which "threaten[s] a loss of tens of millions of jobs in the years ahead" (Rifkin 1995, p. 33) and brings with it the potential to "isolate us from one another and cheapen the meaning of actual experience" (Stoll 1995, p. 3). On the other hand are the technological optimists who see great possibilities for community and humanity; for "drawing people into greater world harmony" (Negroponte 1995, p. 230) and creating orderly, efficient, and fun electronic worlds with few negative side effects (Gates, Myhnold, and Rinearson 1995) .

Such bi-polar forecasting about the technological future is certainly not new; as I discussed in my earlier article, one can look back and see similar concerns about computers and society at the very beginning of computer technology: Weizenbaum's 1976 work, for example, outlined the potential dangers of using computers as models of human thought because such thinking could easily strengthen our already strong rationalist outlook on society. At the same time, however, the business, science, and engineering world was excited about the potential of a highly efficient world enhanced by these new machines.

How, then, within the context of such dichotomous positions can we critically analyze the possible social and humanistic outcomes of life in cyberspace? In most cases, the problems and potentials of any new technology are far more complex than either the doomsayers or the optimists acknowledge. Part of the reason for this lack of complexity is that many of these positions rely on over generalizations and do not look at specific cases. From completely different perspective, however, is the ongoing research in computer-mediated communication, an effort to study the interpersonal, social, and organizational aspects of online communication. Hiltz and Turoff's The Network Nation, first published in 1978 and reprinted in 1993, is one of the earliest examples of an attempt to study online communication. Their work, along with that of Sproull and Kiesler (1986) and others, raises significant questions about the specific social interactions in cyberspace. Both bodies of work, for example, note that the "lack of social cues" and easy anonymity in CMC may account for the increase of hostile behavior ("flaming") often seen online. Research in CMC continues (Herring 1993; Lea et al. 1992; Rice and Love, 1987) in the social science and humanities, especially with the current interest in the Internet.

But while the "doom or glory" positions about cyberspace are often overly simplistic or generalized, the research positions on the other hand sometimes take too close a look, relying on experimental-style research methods to study small groups of computer users on limited computer networks. These studies have provided many insightful conclusions about online communication, but as some have pointed out (Lea et al. 1992), they often do not account for the context of the interaction and therefore may not offer insight outside the specific subject pool and experimental setting. Furthermore, until recently, these studies have favored the position that computer-mediated communication has the potential to act as the "great equalizer" in terms of status, decision making, and individual power, a position that is beginning to be called into question (Spears and Lea 1994) .

My hope, then, is that researchers in CMC will work to overcome the tendency toward technological determinism by situating their work between the sweeping and dichotomous yet interesting stories of the technological forecasters on the one hand and the somewhat narrow but more rigorous social science experiments in CMC. One way to approach this task is to analyze specific cases of life on the Internet by the use of rhetorical, anthropological, cultural, and language-based criticism. Such studies have "real evidence" to support their claims but are often broader than a discrete experiment because when well done, these studies retain the critical and somewhat broader lens of a narrative or literary critic. In my latest project, for example, I analyze the online protests over Lotus MarketPlace and later the Clipper chip. I do some from a rhetorical perspective, offering insight into what made these online protest communities function and what the competing visions of the Internet presented by these stories suggest more generally. I argue that two rhetorical features, community ethos and the novel mode of delivery on computer networks, are critical to rhetorical online communities because these features sustain the community and its motive for action in the absence of physical commonality or traditional face-to-face methods of establishing presence and delivering a message. These features of ethos and delivery are not new in the public speaking arena; both have been important since the early Greek rhetorics of Plato and Aristotle. But online, ethos and delivery take on new significance.

Research in computer-mediated communication is rich with possibilities, and the more interdisciplinary our efforts become, the more applicable and relevant our findings will be. The tendency toward determinism with respect to the Internet can only be countered by strong case studies of what is really happening in cyberspace, because these happenings suggest the various possibilities for what could take place in the not so distant future. After analyzing the stories of MarketPlace and Clipper, for example, I have little doubt that communication in cyberspace has the potential to dramatically impact our social, organizational, and political landscapes in ways that are different and perhaps more wide-reaching than any communication technology before. Yet as current media coverage indicates, people are concerned about what these impacts might be and how to think about the future in light of the onslaught of faster modems, bigger computers, more powerful software, and an ever-increasing number of access points to the Internet. Surveys of Internet usage vary greatly depending on their methodology, but most accounts indicate that the population in cyberspace is growing at a steady pace, both in the U.S. and worldwide. This trend is evident to those in power: U.S. government discussions about a National Information Infrastructure suggest that computer-mediated communication, widespread as it is today, will become an even more significant backbone of the country's economic and social structure, similar to highways, transportation systems, broadcast airwaves, and telephone lines. Corporations, also aware of the power and potential of communication in cyberspace, are attempting to put a commercial spin on what they see as a new marketplace. Given these competing visions and power bases, it is critical to analyze cases of online discourse now, while the system is still evolving and while policy decisions and legislation are being considered. [TOC]


Laura J. Gurak, Ph.D. ( is an Assistant Professor with the Scientific and Technical Communication Program at the University of Minnesota. In her forthcoming book, Cyberspace, Rhetoric, and Community: Privacy, Persuasion, and Online Action in the Virtual Forums of the Internet (New Haven: Yale University Press), she analyzes several case studies of online discourse.

Copyright © 1996 by Laura J. Gurak. All Rights Reserved.

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