Communication Magazine /
Volume 2, Number 1 / January 1, 1995 / Page 5
Transitions in Studying Computer-Mediated Communication
The world of on-line communication has changed since the
emergence of widespread global networking in the 1970s.
During that decade, while the Internet grew and evolved as an
outgrowth of ARPAnet, researchers explored
the consequences of human communication via computer.
Jacques Vallee and others studied
computers as communications devices and the use of electronic
meetings (Johansen, Vallee, and Spangler, 1979).
In that same decade, Hiltz & Turoff (1978) in their
book, The Network Nation: Human
Communication via Computer, explored the
effects of CMC and provided a vision of a future in
which networked communication played a role
in society. These initial steps toward studying and
explaining CMC broke new ground and engaged scholars
in a journey of exploration that continues today.
the possibilities for on-line communication now are much
different than what they were in the 1970s.
Not only do new technologies provide new ways for people to
communicate, interact, and retrieve information,
but there is a much broader range of contexts in which
people put these technologies to use. Unlike the 1970s dreams of
on-line media as conduits for "products" delivered to consumers
(Hiltz & Turoff, 1978), the reality of the 1990s involves more complex
interactions, many of which take place for non-economic reasons.
This growing diversity in how people use on-line communication challenges
those studying CMC.
New worlds: Communication, Interaction, and Information
Internet-based CMC seems to foster information and communication
communities much more readily than products.
Tools for CMC give people the ability to create "spaces" for a broad range
of activities that overlap and intertwine. These spaces include:
As occurring on the Internet, for the most part,
activity in these spaces is neither centrally coordinated nor
the spaces themselves are multi-dimensional--they
cannot be completely characterized
by the technical details of network infrastructure
or computer software and hardware alone, but encompass a
broad range of human and social dimensions, including
the psychological, linguistic, cultural, and political
dimensions of the experience.
Communication in these spaces also takes
place in a variety of contexts--ranging from
individual perception of information
to dyads of interaction, group communication, community
formation, and societal or mass communication.
- communication spaces: for scholarly
activity and research; personal or group
communication and discussion;
- interaction spaces: for social activity,
group interaction and education
- information spaces: for the dissemination and
retrieval of network-based information on
a wide range of human activities and knowledge.
So unlike many of the past studies of CMC that focused on
single aspects of some of these spaces, dimensions, or contexts,
new studies can recognize the myriad of approaches
and the issues, experiences, and applications that can occur
in complex interactions in these spaces.
New Domains of Study: Experiences and Applications
The burgeoning presence of collaborative and individual
on-line activity in the mid 1990s may be looked upon as a
watershed time for changes not only in societal structure
and practices that the widespread use of Internet-based CMC
have brought, but also in changes taking place in existing
While Electronic Meetings (1979)
explored the implications of network mediated communication,
the world of on-line communication today includes patterns and choices
made in our society that have grown routine.
Electronic mail, while still an unexhausted domain for scholarly inquiry,
has become so routine for some people
--although still a fairly small fraction
of the total population--that email
is no longer a novelty. Its use is so pervasive that the simplistic
messaging studies of the 1970s make little sense because
email use cannot be artificially isolated in a laboratory
or neatly separated out in studying actual practice.
Scholars have stepped up to the
challenge of starting scholarly inquiry into
some of these new domains and of bringing fresh perspectives to CMC
(Jones, 1995; Berge & Collins, 1995; Harrison & Stephen, 1995;
Herring, 1995), and these broadening perspectives
will continue as human practice (and scholarship)
extends to new technologies.
Domains offered by information protocols and systems
such as the World Wide Web open up other possibilities
and domains for more study. The
US White House
has a web, as do many organizations.
Communication, information dissemination, and publishing
on the Web grows along with the burgeoning infrastructure
of global networks.
Moreover, the popular press now routinely covers Cyberspace,
at least in popular terms, (e.g., Newsweek's
"Cyberscope"). Thus, the idea of and activity involved
with on-line communication
has become, for many people, already a cliche.
Even Web-based communication,
still relatively rare a year ago, is becoming routine (and even
the expected means of information delivery) on the Internet.
The result is that CMC studies have the chance to shift toward
a more multidisciplinary approach embracing these new media and
changing use patterns.
No longer can researchers focus only on
electronic mail or terminal-to-terminal text communication
as contexts for research. No longer are experiences
of global networks limited to only a few scientists at
Instead, a wider diversity of CMC activity calls for
a wider diversity of study and research.
New Issues for Society: Education and Access
Along with the growing diversity of on-line activity,
communication patterns and possible choices
cause shifts of power and opportunity.
It is not technology alone that seduces people to get
on-line. Part of the pull of the Nets is the critical
mass that exists on them---lively, vibrant communities
that can fill real needs for human communication.
As a result, educators must recognize the need for on-line literacy.
Skills in shaping information for networked environments, whether
for communication, information, or interaction
will be key to opening opportunities for all to participate.
So while the changing way people use technology will bring
new challenges for scholars and practitioners in the field,
there will also be some specific shifts that alter the
In keeping with the goal of
providing some specific predictions,
I include the following list as predictions for
shifts and events to watch for during the course of 1995.
- There will be a
continued rapid growth in the number of
on-line scholarly publications,
with a very fast growth rate for Web-based ones.
- CMC scholars will continue to
meld theoretical approaches from
other disciplines to
examine the experiences, expressions, and contexts of
CMC possible on the Internet today.
There will be a continued emphasis on context (Lea, 1992)
as a frame for understanding CMC.
- There will continue to be a
a gradual increase in the recognition of on-line
scholarship within the social-power structure of academia.
- Areas of study will find
new applications on the Nets: for example,
on-line cartography and
space planning and design
- A "killer app" for human-human interaction
will emerge. This interface will be
a well-done graphical user interface to text
conferencing, perhaps growing out of
MU* interfaces melded with Web interaction
(synchronous interchange) or
a "killer" Usenet interface (asynchronous interchange).
The application will bring as much attention as
drew in late 1993.
- Large, highly-visible commercial ventures (such as
MCI's Network and
IBM's Global Network)
will continue to draw new commercial
organizations to the Internet.
Integration with the critical mass of users on
the Internet will foster the rapid growth of
this commercial activity.
- People will continue to talk about
- Institutions will continue to move onto the Nets so as
not to lose their power and influence to on-line
counterparts. Net use for political
activity will increase rapidly.
- Legislation and codification of on-line behavior will
be called for, but will be impossible to implement.
There may be a major court case involving on-line
activity and debate within international organizations
about on-line behavior.
- On-line literacy will grow in importance as
a important component of education at many levels.
John December is a PhD Candidate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and
co-author of The
World Wide Web Unleashed (Sams Publishing, 1994).
- Berge, Z.L. & Collins, M. P., Eds. (1995)
Computer-mediated communication and the
online classroom. 3 volumes. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Hiltz, S. R. & Turoff, M. (1978).
The Network nation: Human
communication via computer.
Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Johansen, R., Vallee, J., & Spangler, K. (1979).
Technical alternatives and social choices.
Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Jones, S. G., Ed. (1995).
Cybersociety: Computer-mediated communication and
community. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Lea, M., ed. (1992).
Contexts of computer-mediated communication.
New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
- Harrison, T. M. & Stephen, T., Eds. (1995, in press).
Computer networking and scholarship in the 21st
Series in Computer-Mediated
Communication in Education, Work, & Society.
Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
- Herring, S., Ed. (1995).
Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.
Copyright © 1994 by John December. All Rights Reserved.
This Issue /
CMC Studies Center