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Who is Who in the Culturelink Team

Culturelink review, Special Issue 1994 - imprint - archive

(This is Part II of the article, exploring the social impact of computer networking.
Part I, written by Aleksandra Imogen Ivir, covers its technical aspects.)

Some Thoughts on Computer-Mediated Communication

Pavle Schramadei is Research Assistant at the IRMO. He holds B.A. in sociology from the University of Zagreb, and he is now working on M.A. degree. His interests include small group interaction and microsociology in general. He is working in the area of sociological aspects of communications, especially computer networks, and in the areas of cultural policies and socio-cultural development.

Introduction

Computer networks are the media for transferring information across the planet. There is no doubt about it. But computer networks are not only a system of computers connected to telephone plugs, sending and receiving numerous and anonymous data. They are a lot more. We are talking now not just about the Internet, the global umbrella for all networks, but also about local networks, even when they are as small as those within one firm or institution. A computer network has the ability to serve as a super-fast mail service for people from very distant areas, helping them to communicate by written messages (which function as letters). It also allows people to communicate in a synchronous mode, exchanging written messages in real time (almost as a telephone conversation), and, in its most 'user friendly' approach, it enables communication by pictures and illustrations (the closest comparison being, naturally, with a TV set). It is noteworthy that there are numerous electronic magazines (often quoted by network users), not to forget the possibility of 'gatherings' on the network in order to discuss different topics in real time, which is very similar to running a conference or a seminar. And further still - developments in this sphere of technology will lead to a unifying interactive system capable of managing all three ways of communication at the same time - the written word, the picture and the sound.

But all this still does not fully justify the statement made at the beginning of this text - that the computer network is more than it seems, more than just an almost perfect medium of communication. This brings us to the fundamental questions concerning human communication and the meaning of the media in that process. It will suffice, at this stage, to remember that there is a human being sitting in front of every screen, be it monochrome or colour, typing his/her messages to a distant business partner, seeking information from a database, or simply trying to find some fun a bit further away from the nearest neighbourhood. A human being with its thoughts, emotions and ideas. Furthermore, this being represents the culture and social environment that surround him/her and that is exchanged together with the message in any communication process. On the other hand, there is another set of facts that determine the role of the media in that process. These phenomena are part of the social situation which we usually call the 'social impact of computer-mediated communication on society', and which will be the subject of the second part of this article, entitled The Social Aspects of Computer Networking. In the first part, though, we shall present the variety of possibilities offered by computer networks, possibilities that create the scene for all of the above mentioned social events.

Part One: The Internet

Part Two: Social Aspects of Computer Networking

Traditionally, neighbourhoods, buildings, and rooms have confined people, not only physically, but emotionally and psychologically as well. Physically bounded spaces are less significant as information becomes more able to flow through walls and rush across great distances. As a result, what one knows and experiences has less and less to do with where one is. Electronic media have altered the significance of time and space for social interaction. As J. Meyrowitz shows in his book No Sense of Place, the situational analysis describes how electronic media affect social behaviour - not through the power of their messages, but by reorganizing the social settings in which people interact and by weakening the once strong relationship between the physical and social place. The structure of social settings is shown to be a key element in all group identification, in transitions from role to role, and in the ranks of social hierarchies. But here we will not go so deeply into the analysis of the social impact of computer networks on society. Rather, it is our aim in this article to show what questions can arise in that sphere of social experience and how complex and interesting are the things that happen in front of our noses (literally).

Computer-mediated communication uses computer and telecommunications networks to compose, store, deliver and process communication. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) systems are a recent development, with widespread availability only becoming possible within the last decade. Consequently, little has been written about them apart from the technical discussions of their design and implementation. The few articles that have addressed the subject have tended to do so from a commercial orientation - discussing the impact of CMC on problem-solving techniques, office communication and corporate structure. An assumption that is commonly made by researches of computer-mediated communication is that the medium is not conducive to emotional exchanges. This may have been found to be the case in some instances, and may reflect the overall concern among researches studying CMC in business environments. But computer-mediated communication systems are neither theoretically nor in practice limited to commercial use. They are also used for social interaction.

The most spectacular way of making someone realize this fact is to connect him/her to the Internet Relay Chat (IRC). The IRC, however, deals only in words. CMC relies only upon words as a channel for the conveyance of meaning. The users of these systems are unable to rely on the conventions of gesture and nuances of tone to provide social feedback. They cannot rely upon the conventional systems of interaction if they are to make sense to one another. Words, as we use them in speech, fail to express what they really mean once they are deprived of the subtleties of speech and the non-verbal cues that we assume will accompany them. Still, researches of human behaviour on CMC systems have often noted that the users of such systems tend to behave in a more uninhibited manner than they would in face-to-face encounters. The IRC reflects this observation. Protected by the anonymity of the computer medium, and with few social context cues to indicate 'proper' ways to behave, users are able to express, and experiment with, aspects of their personality that social inhibition would generally encourage them to suppress. Also, in the field of social surveys, which is a frequently used tool in the hands of sociologists around the world, it has been apparent that interviews conducted via computers reveal much more sensitive information about the person than those conducted in 'conventional' ways. What is more, users of the IRC often form strong friendships. Without social context cues to inhibit a free exchange between people and encourage shyness, computer-mediated interlocutors will often 'open up' to each other to a great degree. Freedom is given to be either someone who you are not or to be more yourself than would usually be acceptable. Anonymity makes the possibility of social punishment for transgression of cultural mores appear to be limited.

Now we can say that computer networks really play an important role in everyday communication for many people. Of course, not all of them are IRC fans, even fewer are hackers or computer wizards. But still, a significant number of people are involved in a process that is more than just managing information - they are active in creating a new culture of computer networking. By saying that we do not want to impose some new paradigms for rethinking the whole of human potential or endanger any major theory of cultural development, we simply wish to stress the fact that if culture includes not only the systems and standards adopted by a group for perceiving, believing, evaluating and acting, but also the rules and symbols of interpretation and discourse utilised by the members of the group, then the users of computer networks constitute a community. For example, on Internet every beginner has the opportunity to read many electronic brochures or manuals, some of them detailed almost as an encyclopaedia, all written in an effort to socialize the user-to-be as soon and as much as possible with the new electronic surroundings he/she is facing. Whether the above mentioned community will play a role in the 'outer' world, remains another question.

And that question can be reversed, too. With the ongoing development of the telecommunications technology, it is to be expected that in less than a decade from now, we shall have a new generation of interactive media. The result of the conglomeration of technologies will be a hybrid that could be called 'telecomputer', linked to a vast network of other telecomputers and databases providing numerous libraries of information, entertainment, and communication services, some not yet even imagined. These new configurations will allow the presentation of plain text, spectacular audiovisual displays, and three-dimensional imagery. If television has helped to alter the balance between public and private spaces and lifted many of the old veils of secrecy between children and adults, men and women, politicians and average citizens, resulting in a series of changes, including the blurring of age, gender and authority distinctions, a mega-device such as that imaginable telecomputer could bring a lot more.

What will happen to our norms, values and conventions then? Will it mean the end of culture as we know and like it, compare and exchange it with others? Or will it mark a new era of global individualisation, hand in hand with the total mixture of gender, race, origin and ideology, which some authors call the 'postmodern cultural pattern'? Or will this possibly mean just a final step in human alienation from each other and the creation of total manipulation by those who control the system. We shall see. Or even better - we shall read it on our screens!