Computer-Mediated Communication

Lara Lengel. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. 2009. Sage Publication.

Not much characterizes the 21st century more than computer-mediated communication. It’s difficult to recall a time, just a few years ago, when we didn’t spend up to several hours a day sending e-mails, participating in instant messaging (IM), or surfing the World Wide Web. Today, it’s not uncommon to check e-mail before breakfast, IM friends while working on a class assignment, glance at our Facebook and MySpace pages at lunchtime, entertain friends with our most recent discovery on YouTube in the evening, and add a new entry to our blog, logging off just before nodding off at night.

When and how did our computer-mediated communication (CMC) become so pervasive, so suddenly? Did we notice it becoming woven into the fabric of our lives—our learning, our work, our relationships? Did we sense our increasing connectedness to the world as more and more people, organizations, and resources were accessible to us online?

Do we remember a time when information and communication technology didn’t feature so heavily in the news? Countless news reports of the next greatest technological development, or the newest “killer app,” create the hype that has encouraged so many of us to consume, to upgrade, to get the newest, coolest gadgets in this season’s most fashionable colors, the most portable laptop, the fastest connection.

It’s provoked a lot of fear as well—early press reports indicated that much more than 85% of all online content is pornographic; predators and stalkers are more dangerous online than off; and if you’re online too much, you’re going to become an “Internet addict,” a recluse with eyes glued to the screen, fingers attached to the keyboard, neglecting friends and family, and eventually becoming a law-breaking hacker or a cyberpredator, or both. Gosh, what a scary place the cyberworld is!

Most of us have negotiated this hysteria as information and communication technology have become, well, a mundane part of our lives, a set of useful tools to help us connect with others, do our work, check the weather. Nevertheless, it is an important part of our lives. And even if it does seem mundane and we take tech for granted, if we take a few moments to look back on the past decade (or the past two decades, for many of us not-so-newbies), it’s clear that there has been an explosion of communication technology in our lives. And it’s not surprising that there’s been an explosion of research analyzing the impact of CMC on our lives. CMC research is pervasive in our discipline as well. Recall in the first volume of 21st Century Communication, the chapter “Communication as a Field and as a Discipline” cited nine subfields identified by the National Communication Association in 2004: (1) Communication and Technology, (2) Critical/Cultural Studies of Communication/Media, (3) Health Communication, (4) Intercultural/International Communication, (5) Interpersonal/Small-Group Communication, (6) Mass Communication Research, (7) Organizational Communication, (8) Political Communication, and (9) Rhetorical Studies. Whereas, obviously, CMC has featured heavily in the research in communication and technology it has been studied in all nine subdiscipli-nary areas, as well as numerous other disciplines including psychology, sociology, and computer science, to name a few.

A Brief Look at Early Computer-Mediated Communication Research

Although CMC research spans the breadth of communication studies and related disciplines, it has a relatively short history. Compared with other areas of media and communication research that have spanned half a century or more, CMC research is still in its infancy—a newbie, as the tech savvy might say. Even the concept of CMC has changed to encompass the different types of technologies and communicative styles that have developed in the past few years. For example, CMC originally was defined as human communication across two or more networked computers, through services such as e-mail, chat rooms, and IM. As technology became more pervasive and user-friendly, other forms of CMC were analyzed, such as Weblogs (now known merely as “blogs”), visual chat, Web-delivered chat, webcams, and Web pages. CMC grew to include online group decision-making systems, which will be expanded on in the next chapter of this volume. Later, the definition expanded to include additional forms of human interaction including text messaging via mobile/cellular phones.

Some of the first instances of CMC research were published in the 1980s. In these early days, researchers focused on the organizational contexts of CMC, primarily in the impact of decision making and leadership in local-area networks (see, e.g., Rice & Love, 1987; Siegel, Dubrovsky, Kiesler, & McGuire, 1986). At the first signs that CMC was becoming useful for recreational and interpersonal communication, researchers asked if CMC was appropriately suited for “social’ uses” (Baron, 1984, p. 136). Since CMC was so new, some researchers looked back to other technological developments to see how other forms of communication technology affected social interaction. Research on telephone usage, some decades earlier, compared the degrees of “social presence” of communicating by telephone versus communicating face-to-face (f2f).

Some of the research debates occurring around factors influencing social interaction not only worked under the assumption that CMC was, in fact, inappropriate for “social uses” but also analyzed in what ways CMC is, to borrow from the Beastie Boys, “ill communication.” The popular press warned of all kinds of ills, “Internet addiction” ranking as the number one disease (without bothering to check if this addiction has ever existed). Debates centered on claims that CMC was asocial or antisocial (or both). Some critics of CMC argued that it is asocial because the quality of the communication is decreased due to technological constraints. Others contended that CMC is antisocial because it can have a damaging effect on “real life,” or “offline,” communication and relationships (Thurlow, Lengel, & Tomic, 2004). Researchers also questioned the “cuelessness,” or lack of nonverbal cues and indicators of identity (such as class, gender, and ethnicity), inherent in CMC. Howard Rheingold (1993), for example, discusses the limitations of CMC for cultures that rely more heavily on nonverbal communication to express meaning, respect, and social hierarchy.

Other researchers saw such “limitations” as liberating. Instead of harming communication, the lack of cues and identity markers enhanced communication because it broke down barriers resulting from classism, racism, homophobia, and other social injustices. The democratic potential of CMC arises from what Susan Herring (1993) calls its “social decontextualization.” According to Herring, the decontextualization inherent in CMC “neutralizes social status cues (accent, handwriting/voice quality, sex, appearance, etc.) that might otherwise be transmitted by the form of the message.” Although Herring admits that the lack of social status cues can make CMC less personal, CMC can equalize the social status of communicators. Thus, there is “the possibility that traditionally lower-status individuals can participate on the same terms as others—that is, more or less anonymously, with the emphasis being on the content, rather than on the form of the message or the identity of the sender.”

In debates countering the asocial and antisocial nature of CMC, researchers such as Joseph Walther (1992) argued that social interaction and bonding in an online environment is not only possible but, given time, relationship establishment and relationship building through CMC can equal f2f communication. This idea, which he termed the social information processing model, received a great deal of attention in the CMC research arena. A few years later, Walther (1996) argued that not only can CMC equal f2f communication for social interaction and relationship building, but CMC can actually be hyperpersonal—more intimate communication that “surpasses normal interpersonal levels.” How can this be?

Walther (2007) argues that “users exploit the technological aspects of CMC in order to enhance the messages they construct to manage impressions and facilitate desired relationships” (p. 2538). Many people find that they can take time to express their ideas with more wit and thought-fulness, edit out errors, and make sure they’re not going to blurt out something they may regret, compared with f2f communication. They can think about the most appropriate style and tone for the relationship they wish to establish or enhance with their communicators, before hitting “send.”

The hyperpersonal aspect of CMC also brings to mind the “social decontextualization” concept (Herring, 1993). Because online communication focuses on content rather than on physical appearance and other social status cues, some people may be more comfortable communicating online. Herring (1999) suggests that “the loose, fragmented nature of computer-mediated interaction constitutes part of its appeal, and may even lead some users to prefer it to [f2f] social interaction” (p. 13). In addition, because of the relative level of anonymity and/or because participants feel the comfort a safe haven of an online community of like minds, many people have disclosed some of their most intimate details of their lives online. This has usually occurred in community spaces such as bulletin boards, newsgroups, and chat rooms, where users are surrounded by supportive community members, similar in temperament and attuned to the same concerns and issues.

The hyperpersonal argument has been sustained through various studies that have extended and expanded research in this area to online group and organizational communication. For example Turner, Grube, and Meyers (2001) analyze the hyperpersonal nature of online communities. They suggest that “CMC enables close relationships to develop and flourish, most relationships do not occur in a vacuum but in the context of a network of supportive relationships inside and outside the virtual community.” These supportive relationships and shared experiences of the community members “interact with and cumulatively influence the development of hyperpersonal relationships” (p. 246). Walther’s own work (see, e.g., 1996) with online work groups attests that they outperformed f2f group efforts.

Many researchers argue that users can adapt CMC to their purposes despite the limitations existing in online environments. Thurlow and Brown (2003) argue that a “communication imperative” is at work. In their research on text messaging, they found that despite its creation for commercial purposes, “texting”

is in fact yet another example of how the human need for social intercourse—a kind of “communication imperative”—bends and ultimately co-opts technology to suit its own ends, regardless of any commercial (e.g., the telephone) or military (e.g., the Internet) ambition for the technology. (para. 2)

Key Questions in Computer-Mediated Communication Research

The “communication imperative” suggested by Thurlow and Brown (2003) is one of the communication phenomena that kept researchers interested in the constantly new, fluid, and adaptable ways in which people engaged in CMC. It also confirmed that CMC is an important means of social interaction. At the dawn of the 21st century, most CMC scholars and practitioners alike were comfortable with the fact that CMC is essentially social, and they moved beyond the basic queries posed in the 1980s and 1990s. Having established the important social interaction functions of CMC, they directed their attention to other key research questions: How do we portray (or perform) our identity in a computer-mediated environment? How do we disclose highly personal information online? And new questions about the impact of CMC on our establishing, maintaining, or enhancing our interpersonal relationships emerged (Baron, 1998; Parks & Roberts, 1998). Research continues to analyze how people meet online, with subsequent f2f interaction in the formation of intimate relationships (see, e.g., Baker, 1998; Parks & Floyd, 1996).

Researchers also examined the nuances of CMC, for example, the different types of CMC and their impact—both subtle and explicit—on interpersonal communication. Differences between asynchronous (where there is a delay between messages and posts) and synchronous media (“real time”) were studied. Asynchronous media, including discussion forums publicly accessible through Internet services such as Usenet newsgroups, bulletin boards, and message boards were of interest. As synchronous forms of CMC such as Internet relay chat (IRC) became more widely used, research in this area expanded. IRC was followed by IM, which the CMC researcher Nancy Baym calls a “more targeted form of chat,” directed by “buddy” lists that indicate what friends are online at any given time.

Along with differences between asynchronous and synchronous communication contexts, researchers also acknowledged the various contextual elements that needed to be included in analysis (Thurlow et al., 2004). Is the communication between two individuals, within a small group, or across extensive multinational organization? Is the communication public or private? What is the topic, and how do participants react to that topic? How do participants, for that matter, react to using CMC? Are they new to computers, are they uncomfortable with technology, or do they feel more at home expressing themselves online than through “old” communication technology, such as pen on paper? And let’s not forget that a pen is a form of communication technology. It’s easy to take old technology for granted because it becomes “invisible,” meaning that the technology has matured to the point that you don’t think about it and the hype and hysteria about it have passed as more and more people started using that particular communication technology.

Impact of Gender, Ethnicity, Cultures, and other Aspects of Identity

Other aspects about CMC that can’t be taken for granted are the numerous factors that influence communication. In addition to contexts specific to CMC, other factors having an impact on communication come into play online. Recall the numerous “Factors Affecting Communication” in the first volume of 21st Century Communication: gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, culture, risk, freedom of expression, and globalization. Globalization has played a role in the hybrid nature of identities (Tsaliki, 2003). By interacting with people from other nations and cultures, we adapt our identities to reflect this interaction. Globalization also plays a role in our understanding of intercultural communication (Lengel & Murphy, 2000), diasporas, and languages. In the mid-1990s, up to 90% of Net users were English speaking. By 2000, that figured had dropped to 54% (Thurlow et al., 2004). Now the majority of Net users are non-English speakers. As information and communication technology (ICT) has advanced, the ability to communicate in other languages, such as Chinese, Arabic, and the several languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet, has become more accessible. In addition, there are efforts to use ICT to create new ways to articulate languages and raise awareness about languages that may be lost as older generations of speakers pass away.

Gender is another factor that has been widely analyzed (see, e.g., Herring, 1993, 2003, in press; O’Brien, 1999. Technology has been constituted traditionally as a male domain. Jonathan Sterne (1999), analyzing Internet research from a cultural studies perspective, attests, “No doubt, the Internet was originally a men’s club and is still male-dominated in many places” (p. 273). Men and boys constituted the majority of the early adopters of the Net and of CMC. Many gender studies, women’s studies, and feminist studies scholars of ICT have brought to our attention that, historically, there have been relatively few women-focused or women-only online spaces. They also suggest that we go beyond basic gender analyses to look for a distinct social and cultural vision for women’s online roles and communicative agency (see, e.g., Miller, 1995).

This is likely an extension of the gender bias found in most computer programs and games, at least until recently. Whereas online fantasy and science fiction games are almost invariably populated by young men and male teenagers, research suggests that e-mail has a much more balanced usership. Some research suggests that women are more likely to use e-mail and IRC than are men, which is perhaps related to the concept that women are more prone to relationship building and maintenance than are men.

Communicating Identities Online

Recall the social decontextualization of CMC discussed above, which would suggest that identity markers such as ethnicity, age, and gender can be “invisible.” We choose to communicate, or perform, our identities online by revealing aspects of our identities explicitly or by maintaining the anonymity afforded by text-based CMC. Researchers initially hypothesized that participants in CMC would prefer to benefit from the anonymity of cyberspace, which would make for a more equal playing ground than would f2f communication. Through years of study, however, some scholars argued otherwise. Susan Herring (2003), for example, commenting on the gendered nature of CMC, claims that “traditional gender differences carry over into CMC, in discourse style and patterns of disparity and harassment, and on the Web, in images, content, and patterns of use” (p. 218). She also attests, “Women themselves choose to reveal their gender when they could remain anonymous, and produce gendered images (including pornography), just as women choose to frequent commercial Web sites that offer mainstream, gender stereotyped content” (p. 218).

Much research has examined how communication contexts affect the way we perform aspects of our identities online. Earlier research on constructing online identities focused text-based communication spaces such as MUDs (multiuser dimensions) and MOOs (MUDs, object oriented), where role playing and identity play occurred. It is the identity play and identity construction, originally examined by researchers of MUDs and MOOs, that opened up a vast research arena. Arguably, the study of online identity construction also brought cultural studies scholarship into CMC. Cultural studies scholars helped us understand the complex, fluid, and ever-changing nature of identity. Researchers extended the ideas of theorists such as Michel Foucault, whose notion of technologies of self (originally intended to explicate how we represent ourselves through personal letters and diaries) forwarded the thinking on how we represent ourselves through CMC.

Chang (2000) argues that cyberspace is “a massive Web wherein people constantly construct, reconstruct, and co-construct the meaning of their existence through their seemingly contradictory attempts … to maintain their identity while at the same time extending themselves into multiple domains of experience” (pp. 49–50). The reconstruction and co-construction emphasize the fluid and collaborative nature of online identities.

Early research focused on the disembodied nature of CMC. An article by Myers (1987), “Anonymity Is Part of the Magic,” addressed the potential for identity play online. The title of the article came from a quote of Myers’s respondents, who spoke about the captivating nature of identity fluidity. Nancy Baym (2006) argues,

By divorcing our selves from our bodies, from time and from space, the computer opens a realm in which the multiplicity of identity that is taken to characterize contemporary life reaches an apex. We can be multiple people simultaneously, with no one of these selves necessarily more valid than any other. (p. 67)

Sherry Turkle was one of the first scholars cited widely for her work on online identities. In her groundbreaking book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1996) and subsequent work (see, e.g., Turkle, 1997), she writes of the “intoxicating,” cathartic, even therapeutic nature of anonymity and identity: “You can be who you want to be. You can redefine yourself if you want” (Turkle, 1995, p. 184). Before chat and other forms of CMC had the capacity to easily include images, text was the primary way in which people could represent themselves. “All they see are your words” (Turkle, 1995, p. 184). It is through those words, Turkle and others suggested, that we not only create our identities but through our social interaction online identity construction is a collaborative process between communicators.

There are various ways in which CMC can be a collaborative space for identity construction as well as open dialogue. Douglas Kellner (1998) argues that the Internet has “produced new public spheres and spaces for information, debate, and participation that contain the potential to invigorate democracy and to increase the dissemination of critical and progressive ideas.” Whatever the CMC means used—e-mail lists, newsgroups, Web pages, there is potential to engage others in dialogue that would, in other social, political, and cultural contexts, be silenced.

Blogging is a means for portraying identity and a key form of CMC for what Kellner calls “critical or progressive ideas.” Of course, bloggers have many different motivations to share their stories with the world. Those who create and maintain blogs have used their online narrative spaces to “document their lives, provide commentary and opinions, express deeply felt emotions, articulate ideas through writing, and form and maintain community forums” (Nardi, Schiano, Gumbrecht, & Swartz, 2004, p. 41). Blogging keeps people (research indicates more women than men) connected with their communities, whether their communities are down the street or across the globe. With the development of diasporas, or large-scale movements of communities and populations, entire cultures have become displaced from their historical and geographical roots. CMC allows these communities to expand globally while maintaining contact with others of their heritage (Newsom & Lengel, 2003).

Social-networking systems are a particularly collaborative way to construct identity. Facebook, a popular online social-networking system used by millions of adolescents and university-aged men and women, has received recent attention by researchers of online impression management (see, e.g., Ellison, Steinfeld, & Lampe, 2007). This is a particularly exciting research area because it allows collaborative identity construction. Once a user puts up an online profile, others can contribute to it. For the most part, these contributions are favorable; however, “friends” have also been known to “post discrediting or defamatory messages on users’ Facebook websites” (Mazer, Murphy, & Simonds, 2007, p. 3). In a study conducted by Walther, Van Der Heide, Kim, Westerman, and Tom Tong (2008), the researchers found that “complimentary, pro-social statements by friends about profile owners improved the profile owner’s social and task attractiveness, as well as the target’s credibility” (p. 44). The researchers note,

It is less costly to alter or distort claims that one makes about oneself (e.g., one’s own profile) than to modify or manipulate statements made by others (e.g., their pictures and wall postings). Thus, information reflected in others’ “testimonials” should be of special value to an individual making a judgment about the profile owner. (p. 45)

Seeking Safe Havens Online

The testimonials in social-networking systems, and various other ways to make and articulate judgments online, can be either beneficial or injurious. Some research, and a vast amount of popular press, has alerted us to the potential dangers lurking online and unethical CMC. Online harassment (see, e.g., Li, 2005), hate speech online (see, e.g., Lengel, 2000), and online ethics (see, e.g., Thurlow et al., 2004) have been analyzed since the early 1990s and continue to be important topics of research (see also the chapters “Unwanted Communication, Aggression, and Abuse,” “Sexual Harassment,” and “Ethical and Unethical Communication” in Volume 1). Online harassment also includes flaming, defined as “hostile and aggressive interaction via text-based computer mediated communication” (O’Sullivan & Flanagin, 2003, p. 69). The phenomenon is so named to represent “a metaphorical flamethrower that the sender uses to roast the receiver verbally” (p. 70). O’Sullivan and Flanagin suggest that we are careful—many different definitions of flaming are evident in research. Furthermore, flaming is subject to misinterpretation. Postmes, Spears, and Lea (2000), in a study of a group of students’ CMC, argue,

Although a message might seem rude to an outsider examining it out of context, it is not certain that rudeness was either intended by the sender or perceived by the receiver. This underlines the importance of looking at the context and meaning of messages. (p. 357)

Again, the importance of context emerges. O’Sullivan & Flanagin (2003), analyzing the different definitions and the potential problems with flaming, suggest that “flames’ are intentional (whether successful or unsuccessful) negative violations of (negotiated, evolving, and situated) interactional norms” (p. 84).

The anonymity factor has been flagged as having the greatest capacity to do harm. Young persons have admitted in research that they are more likely to say disparaging comments online than f2f. In addition, as identity theft has become more of a concern since the time of early CMC research, so too has the potential danger of identity play. Although much of early CMC research critiqued the hype and hysteria (see Thurlow et al., 2004) resulting from the way the popular press has reported on ICT developments and on CMC, there have been all sorts of reasons to be concerned, some coming as a surprise, as the next story indicates.

One recent case suggests the potential of identity play gone wrong. Called a “21st Century Parent’s Nightmare” (Los Angeles Times, 2008), it is the story of Megan Meier, befriended by “Josh Evans,” an attractive 16-year-old boy on MySpace. The online relationship went sour, with “Josh” hurling abusive affronts, including “The world would be a better place without you” (Pokin, 2007). Megan hanged herself in her bedroom closet, dying a day before her fourteenth birthday. Six weeks later, Meier’s grieving parents learned that “Josh” was, in fact, an amalgamation of a few neighborhood girls in the small Missouri town. More surprisingly, “Josh” also comprised Lori Drew, the mother of one of those teenage girls, and Drew’s part-time employee, Ashley Grills. Drew was indicted by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles (the location determined as the jurisdiction since the MySpace headquarters are in Beverly Hills) on charges—not of murder—but of conspiracy and unauthorized access to a computer.

Megan Meier’s story, becoming widely known as the “MySpace Suicide,” is not only a parent’s nightmare but also a wake-up call to participants and legislators on the phenomenon of cyberbullying.Cyberbullying has been defined as “the use of the Internet, cell phones, or other technology to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person” (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finklehor, 2007, pp. S51-S52). At the time of Lori Drew’s indictment, cyberbullying legislation was rare, with notable exceptions such as a Vermont cyberbullying law, passed in 2004 after the suicide of another teen, Ryan Patrick Halligan (Ruedy, 2008). Several states did have cyberstalking laws in place by that time. Although cyberbullying has received attention for several years, it is the Meier case that could have lasting legal effects and highlights the evolving nature of CMC, the Internet, and the governance of online behavior and communication. It also distinguishes the “real world” from the “cyber world.” This distinction is particularly noteworthy because in early CMC research, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, there was much attention to the “real” versus the “cyber.” As CMC and the Internet became more embedded in our lives, the borders and boundaries of these “worlds” blurred. Now new borders and boundaries are being drawn. Ruedy (2008) argues,

Just because an online behavior is analogized to a legal “real world” behavior does not necessarily imply that the online version should also be legal. This distinction between “real world” and “cyber world” behavior shows that analogies of computer crimes to traditional crimes are not always valid. (pp. 337–338)

For CMC participants, the emerging legislation could have serious implications for online identity and anonymity. Whereas many would like to see Lori Drew and Ashley Grills behind bars for their alleged involvement in the cyberbullying of Megan Meier, the case could have a widespread impact on any Internet user. Legislation from this case could be used in the future for various types of anonymous CMC (Los Angeles Times, 2008). There are many good reasons why someone would want to maintain anonymity—think of women trying to escape domestic violence, for example—and many ways they, too, could be charged. It depends on the court decision and how the precedent of this case may affect those in the future.

This is the way of CMC—so much is transforming in the way we communicate online that it is virtually impossible to keep on top of the changes. We don’t know what the future holds, both the distant future and what is just around the corner.

Conclusion

Because CMC is one of the newest and most frequently changing areas in 21st-century communication, this chapter has merely touched on a few developments and issues—tomorrow an entirely new chapter could be written! This is what makes CMC so fascinating to communication researchers.

In this chapter, you have been introduced to the historical roots of CMC research, the key research questions and debates. You’ve learned about the different types of CMC, from early newsgroups, MUDs, and MOOs. You’ve thought about the current online spaces such as Facebook and MySpace, which have had a massive increase in participants in just a couple of years. These and other social-networking sites are growing in scope and importance so quickly that it’s challenging to even touch on the phenomenon, let alone research it.

Other aspects of CMC, although changing, have persisted as important to communication researchers. One aspect that has been addressed here is the role of online communities and the social support they provide to community members. Another aspect is how various communication contexts affect CMC and how the factors affecting communication—gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, culture, risk, freedom of expression, and globalization—play a role online. The chapter has explored the nature of online identity, particularly the fluid nature of self, and impression management. Finally, it has addressed both the privileges and the abuses of anonymity, with a specific focus on safety online, and has looked to the future of the ever-changing ways we engage in CMC.