January 1997

Root Page of Article: Notes on Defining of Computer-Mediated Communication, by John December

Views of the Internet

If you viewed Internet communication only in terms of technologies, you might be baffled by its rising popularity. After all, the technology necessary to communicate online is complicated, buggy, fairly expensive, unreliable, and often cryptically documented. What would possess people to engage in online communication if it takes so much effort? It must be that only geeks would want to use the Internet.

However, there is a different view that holds CMC on the Internet as not determined by technology, but shaped by human needs for communication. Human communication is chaotic, often irrational, but has seemed to be an activity that people have consistently pursued throughout history. People seem to do almost anything to be able to be in contact with each other. But that contact, as adoption patterns have demonstrated several times in history, show that people adopt communications technologies on their own terms, not in terms of the technical characteristics or capabilities of those technologies.

Ever since I first sent and received email more than ten years ago, I've grown in my understanding of the Internet. When I worked as a software engineer, I exchanged email with people I knew and worked with. I read Usenet news and read what people were writing about many subjects. I knew the Net wasn't like a library, and I knew that I could not rely on the truth of what I read without critical consideration, just as I didn't believe everything my neighbor told me, or believe all that I saw on TV or what I read in newspapers. I didn't have any expectations of the Net as a savior of culture, democracy, communities, or societies. The Net has been a way for me to communicate and my use of it has been situated strongly in the context of my work and interests. Far from being neutral technology, the Internet for me has become a part of my life.

So it comes as no surprise to me that many people like to use the Internet and that it has grown so much in popularity over the past years. Sure, Internet communication involves information exchange in its raw sense, as much as talking via the phone involves vibrating carbon particles. But there is something more to Internet-based CMC than data exchange. When I send and received email, it is out of a desire to be in contact with far-flung friends, to communicate with co-workers and colleagues, and even keep in touch with those people whom I may see face to face regularly. There is a context for my use of Internet-based CMC; there are reasons why I choose to use it. ^

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