January 1997

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

CMC Involves Communication Via Computers

Since the word computer is the first word of "CMC," it would seem important to know exactly what we are talking about when we say a particular communication act is computer-mediated.

The definition of the word computer is clear enough: "A machine that can be programmed to manipulate symbols" (FOLDOC, 1995). However, trends in computers over the past decades have brought an increasing computerization in network communications. This is best summed up by Sun Microsystem's corporate tagline, "The Network is the computer" [emphasis mine] (Sun, 1996). No longer are dead wires used to connect telephones. ISDN communications and smart networks shunts almost all telecommunications traffic through a machine that manipulates symbols at one point or another. A slippery, yet simple, questions such as Are you engaging in CMC if you are using a telephone for voice communication? requires an answer of yes.

But the significance of this definition would depend on the particular research study design. For example, does human voice communication via telephone party lines resemble, in semantic structure, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) communication? It is irrelevant that the data flow for the IRC communication may flow over the very same phone lines over which the voice communication may flow. So while in terms of data flow, IRC and voice communication are technically similar, this says nothing about the semantics and structure of the content communicated. Picasso and Monet might have painted with the same colors, but the resulting paintings may be very different. A definition itself doesn't prove a theory or a change the relationship of what is under study.

Therefore, I don't see that CMC researchers need get too wrapped up in splitting hairs about what is CMC and what isn't. CMC in the broadest sense involves a wide range of telecommunications activities as well as non-networked transfer of information such as via computer diskettes. CMC however, shouldn't be taken as a catch-all category under which anything mediated by technology falls. The scoreboard at a baseball game? There's circuitry inside, and a keyboard on which the operator totals up the runs, but what would be the significance of calling this CMC? Is a baseball scoreboard CMC? Sure, but so what?

Ultimately, the definition of an activity as computer-mediated relies for its validity on its value for shedding meaning on the communication act. ^

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