Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 1 / January 1, 1995 / Page 5

Transitions in Studying Computer-Mediated Communication

by John December (

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.

However, 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 directed. Moreover, 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.

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 possible, 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 on-line spaces. 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 research institutions. 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 on-line landscape. 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.
  1. Scholarship
  2. Technology
  3. Society ¤


John December is a PhD Candidate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and co-author of The World Wide Web Unleashed (Sams Publishing, 1994).

Copyright © 1994 by John December. All Rights Reserved.

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