January 1997

Root Page of Article: A Rose by Any Other Name , by Peter J. Murray

CMC research: some findings and a critique

There are several seminal studies in CMC which it seems de rigeur for any new article on CMC to cite, irrespective of the nature or context of the article. I will mention just two here to illustrate my point.

Sproull & Kiesler's 1986 article is cited by many as evidence that CMC is a less rich or powerful communication medium than face-to-face (F2F) due to the absence of the many communication cues present in the latter. While it is true that this was one of their findings, we have to remember that this study was undertaken in a particular context, ie the use of electronic mail within a business organization. Data collection occurred in 1983. Are their findings applicable to email use over the Internet, over 13 years later; thirteen years which have seen the widespread dissemination of a vast array of smileys and other such communication devices? One of the other findings from this study, less widely cited, was that, in this context, email use resulted in the exchange of additional information that the authors felt would not have been communicated by other media.

Siegel et al's 1986 article is frequently cited as an early example which showed that CMC resulted in much more uninhibited and anti-social communication behavior than did F2F communications. Again, their research was conducted in or before 1983, but more importantly, they were examining groups who were trying to reach consensus communicating face-to-face, and in simultaneous computer-mediated discussions or through computer mail. They used groups of three people who did not know each other. Again, are these results still applicable?

Joseph Walther, writing in Communication Research in 1992, was one of the first CMC researchers to question the wider application of many of the early research findings, and in particular to critique the practice of applying the results of experimental studies to field conditions of CMC use. He stated that field research on CMC (i.e., on communities of real users) suggested much more positive findings.

Aspects of CMC which the research so far has generally failed to address are the effects of changes over time and changing technologies. There seems to be, despite all the changes that we can transparently see have occurred in levels of use and interface design, a belief among some CMC researchers and users that findings from CMC research undertaken 10 or more years ago can be applied unchallenged today. Much CMC research has failed to take account of the nature of the user group (ie who is communicating), the interface design (ie text only, GUI, Web etc), and the type of CMC (ie conferencing, listservs, MOOs etc) being researched, and has suggested far wider application of the findings than are often justified.

While it may be true that some of the older findings are still applicable, each claim must be examined carefully. When looking at any piece of existing CMC research for the continued applicability of its findings, we must ask questions; among these questions, including:

  • are findings from a text-only interface applicable to a GUI or Web interface?
  • are findings from one form of CMC (eg asynchronous computer conferencing) applicable to another (eg MOOs)?
  • are findings from experiments with email use by mainly male computer science students applicable to listerv use by mainly female qualified healthcare workers?
  • are findings from CMC research conducted on a small group of selected subject in a closed environment applicable to communication in an open, worldwide environment?
  • what effects might changes over time in familiarity with CMC systems have had on levels and types of usage?


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