at the 2nd Workshop/Conference
TEI of Piraeus, Greece, October 12-13, 1995
SOCIAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL EFFECTS IN
Moses A. Boudourides
Although communication via computers is not a
new subject, the recent exponential increase of such an activity has
reached the point that for many people electronically distributed
communication supplants the postal service, telephone, and even the fax
machine. Accompanying computerized communication is an expected
convergence between electronic communication and media that is to lead
us to the long promised mingling of radio, television, and computer. As
all these technological innovations are drastically changing our world,
there is a necessitating challenge to comprehend their social,
psychological, and cultural impacts.
To this purpose, in the present article we
intend to review some of the social implications of computerized
communication. We start by discussing some important events in the
history of computer conferencing systems and we give a short
presentation of the main communication services on the world-wide
computer network of the Internet. Subsequently, focusing on
computer-mediated communication we review the main social and
psychological implications resulting from the fact that the computer
medium deprives communicants of social, physical, and contextual cues.
In addition, computerized communication creates a social information
processing environment, where a variety of relational and
socioemotional interpersonal interactions may flourish. Next we examine
the behavioral role of naming via pseudonyms or hiding personal
information by anonymity and the creation and recreation of identities
in the computer-mediated social space. Finally, we discuss some topics
related to gender differences in computerized communications.
Computer Conferencing Systems
The fusion of computers and telecommunications
over the past decades is based on the creation of a huge world-wide web
of computer networks, through which data are efficiently transfered and
people communicate with other people in novel ways. Human communication
through computer networks was predicted in 1968 by J.C.R. Licklider and
R. Taylor, research directors for the U.S. Department of Defense's
Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), who believed that "in a few
years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a
machine than face-to-face" (Licklider & Taylor, 1968).
When computing is used as a communication
device, one of the surprising properties is that it becomes a social
activity. People like to meet other people, to discuss with them, to
exchange opinions and information, to confer in a computer network.
Murray Turoff is considered by many (Rheingold, 1993)
as the father of computerized conferencing. While employed for war
games and other kinds of computer simulations at the Institute for
Defense Analysis in the late 1960s, Turoff was trying to computerize
the "Delphi method." Delphi was a process developed at RAND in which
printed questionnaries and responses were circulating among a group of
In 1971, Turoff moved to the U.S. Office of
Emergency Preparedness, where, during the Nixon administration's wage
and price freeze, he was involved in a project to construct a system
for rapidly collecting and collating information from geographically
dispersed branch offices. EMISARI (Emergency Management Information and
Reference System) was the result, a system considered, along with parts
of Engelbart's NLS (oNLineSystem), as the original ancestor of today's
computer conferencing systems (Rapaport, 1991, and Rheingold, 1993).
Later Turoff moved to the New Jersey Institute
of Technology, where the National Science Foundation (NFS) funded him
to research the uses, effects, and design of computer conferencing
software. Thus, Turoff developed the EIES (Electronic Information
Exchange System), which went online in 1975, an electronic
communication laboratory for use by geographically dispersed research
communities (Rheingold, 1993).
Another conferencing system developed in the
1970s was designed by a Californian think tank called Institute for the
Future (IFTF), where PLANET (PLAnning NETwork) was developed (Rheingold,
1993). PLANET was designed for use by planners in government and
industry, and later it evolved into Notepad, a private global
conferencing system still used by a number of large industries such as
Conferencing systems continued to evolve over
the next decade with the development of Control Data Corporation's
PLATO, the British educational system Caucus, an EIES expansion called
Participation and the WELL's conferencing software Picospan (Rapaport, 1991, and Rheingold, 1993).
Computer-Mediated Communication on the Internet
One of the most widespread innovations in
information technology is the use of computer networks to communicate
with other people. Such services are known in the academic literature
as computer-mediated communication (CMC), a term going back in the
literature of networks at least to Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray
Turoff's classical study The Network Nation: Human Communication via
Computers (Hiltz & Turoff, 1993, first published
in 1978). In fact, John S. Quarterman, in his definitive work on
computer networks and conferencing systems (Quarterman,
1990), categorizes network services as either (i) computer-mediated
communication or (ii) resource sharing (which involves sharing storage
space, processing, software, data, and peripheral devices).
Computer-mediated communication is the process
of one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many communicative discource
using a computer-based communication channel, taking place
predominantly in a text-based environment. The commonest world-wide
computer network used in CMC is the Internet. Other networks for CMC
include Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs), the UUCP mail network, the
USENET newsgroups (today most of them carried in the Internet) as well
as a number of specialized tele-conferencing or video-conferencing
systems in use in universities, industry and government designed to
support discussions, group decision-making and cooperative projects.
In the Internet, the most commonly used CMC service is electronic mail or e-mail (Carl-Mitchell & Quarterman,
1993) sent and received by individuals. Usually, electronic mail is
delivered to either a mailbox or a list of mailboxes. The latter is the
case when e-mail is addressed to an alias, i.e. a mailing list that
expands (redirects) to many mailboxes or even to other aliases (other
lists). Thus, mailing lists provide ongoing forums for discussion of
relatively specific topics and there are thousands of such lists on the
Internet (SRI, 1992). A huge collection of public
access (not distributed to individual users' mailboxes) mailing lists
is composing the USENET newsgroups or USENET News or Network News (Carl-Mitchell & Quarterman,
1993). In essence, USENET news is a distributed bulletin board system
set up on many hosts, so that users of each served host may access
newsgroups easily, without loading their own mailboxes.
All the above Internet services (e-mail, mailing
lists, and USENET news) operate on an asynchronous mode, i.e. on a
store-and-forward principle, in which messages are sent via batch
delivery mechanisms. However, there is another mode of delivery in the
Internet, operating on a synchronous, real-time mode of communication.
Such is the Unix "talk" program, allowing a user on one computer system
to open a split screen session with a user on another computer system,
in such a way that each person (maximum of two) can see (read and
reply-write) what the other types. Talk being the most basic example of
real-time interaction, there are more synchronous services on the
Internet (Wiggins, 1995).
One of the them is the Internet Relay Chat
(IRC), a mode of interaction on the Internet in which people are able
to communicate synchronously on different "channels" from disparate
locations, in a manner similar to CB radio (Citizen's Band radio);
people are able to send messages to all others who have logged into the
same "channel" at the same time (each "channel" being in principle
devoted to a particular topic of conversation).
Another interactive Internet service is the MUDs
systems. MUDs are networked, multiparticipant, user-extensible systems,
in which users are able to perform mostly textual real-time
interaction. So, a MUD can be viewed as a very low tech (textual)
virtual reality environment and it has roots in various text-oriented
adventure games. In these games, a user-player entering a room is
presented with a textual description of the room and its contents, and
a list of exits. Furthermore, players could communicate with one
another, could cooperate or fight against each other, and could create
new objects, or descriptions of objects, that others could interact
with. In this way, MUD differs from the IRC in allowing users to
construct and manipulate a wide variety of objects. The exact meaning
of the acronym MUD is not universally agreed upon; originally it stood
for Multi-User Dungeon, but some prefer the more generic Multi-User
Dimension or Multi-User Domain. A recently developed variety of MUDs
are the Multi-user Object Oriented enveronments or MOOs (Curtis & Nichols, 1993), which might be used in distance education applications too.
A recently developed category of real-time
Internet services are running under the Multicast Backbone (MBONE)
project, aiming to experiment with multicast audio and slowscan video
transmissions across the Internet. One of the most prominent MBONE
services is the Internet Talk Radio (ITR) transmitting radio programs
into the Internet. Transmitted ITR data are stored and can be available
asynchronously (through ftp, gopher or World-Wide Web).
A big part of the work on the psychological and
sociological impacts of CMC assumes that the computer itself in a
text-based medium are the sole influence on communicative outcomes.
Since this approach assumes the elimination of physical and social
cues, sometimes it is called the "cues filtered out" approach (Culnan & Markus, 1987; Walther & Burgoon,
1992). Because computer-mediated interactants in a text-based medium
cannot see, hear, and feel each other, the absence of regulating
feedback (such as gestures, nods, and tone of voice) may cause
coordination problems and deprive interactants of salient social cues.
In the absence of the social context cues and of the non-verbal
behavior, the computer-mediated communicative discourse is left in a
social vacuum quite different from face-to-face interaction; this is
often quite important in bargaining situations (Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire,
1984). Thus, cues-filtered-out theories characterize CMC as less
personal, lacking "social presence," and enabling very little
socioemotional and relational communication. Social presence theory
states that the fewer channels or codes available within a medium, the
less attention will be paid by users to the presence of other social
participants (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976).
The presumed lack of physical and social contextual cues results several further implications (Baron, 1984; Cheseboro & Bonsall, 1989; Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire,
1984). Interactants gain greater social anonymity, because their
gender, race, rank, physical appearance, and other features of public
identity and indicators of vertical hierarchy, status, and power are
not immediately evident (as they cannot be transmitted via computerized
text). Gone are the status and position cues, a situation that may have
a potentially positive effect on group behavior. As Kiesler et al.
(1984) note, "software for electronic communication is blind with
respect to the vertical hierarchy in social relationships and
organizations." Consequently, participation appears to proceed more
evenly distributed across group members. Some researchers see a
"democratizing" effect and equate this balancing of participation with
egalitarianism (Walther, 1992). Some others go further
to claim that computer mediation makes it difficult for people to
dominate and impose their views on others, thus, favoring women and
minorities (Baron, 1984).
On the other hand, the established
egalitarianism through computer mediation in a communicative discourse
may create some problems too. In fact, under these conditions,
sometimes it takes longer to reach a decision, complete a task, or
arrive at a consensus (Sproull & Kiesler, 1991).
Furthermore, the anonymity and lack of socioemotional information is
taken to erase established conventions and norms for interaction (Kiesler et al., 1984; Rice, 1984, 1989; Sproull & Kiesler,
1991). Because people cannot see or hear others laugh, wince, or
indicate any other psychoemotional reactions to their performances,
they become more socially insensible and sometimes quite rude by using
abusive language and by being apt to what in the jargon of the CMC
communities is called "flaming" (Baron, 1984; Kiesler et al., 1984).
However, there are several case studies of CMCs
showing the development of numerous personal relationships and
socioemotional behavior in CMC. Although some people often exchange
angry postings, there are some people falling in love online (Reid, 1991; We, 1993). As Rice & Love
(1987) state, "CMC systems can support socio-emotional communication
and the communication reflects the inherent communication traits of
users." This observation contrasts with the cues-filtered-out approach
and it supports Walther</a>'s (1992) social
information processing perspective, asserting the adaptation in CMC of
existing communication cues of relational management.
The social information processing perspective is also supported by research (Sherbloom,
1988) suggesting that CMC users adapt computer-generated textual
signals for specific purposes. Thus, computer-mediated communicators
are developing an electronic "paralanguage" (Walther, 1992) to express affective and socioemotional information. As Jaffe et al.
(1995) point out, these informal codes, which they call "emotext," may
include intentional spelling, lexical surrogates, grammatical markers,
strategic capitalization, and visual arrangements of text characters
into "emoticons." Intentional misspelling often includes the repetition
of a vowel or consonant to represent the accentuation of a word or
phrase (for example, "sssooooo good!"). Lexical surrogates function as
parenthetical metalinguistic cues (as "hmmm" might represent a
paraverbal expression of thoughtfulness). Grammatical markers include
repeated exclamation points and question marks to add affective
emphasis. Strategic capitalization is interpreted as a call for
attention, a warning, or sometimes an expression of anger. "Emoticons"
or "smileys" refer to short combinations of textual characters (often
punctuation marks) serving for facial expressions or vocal intonations
(as :-) for "smile"). In addition, the formed vocabulary in a CMC
textual environment tends to include an extensive catalogue of acronyms
(as INMHO for "in my humble opinion" and BTW for "by the way").
Anonymity, Pseudonymity, and Identity Formation
Anonymity or use of pseudonyms (noms de plume)
in CMC sometimes has been used in educational and business applications
to encourage frank response or unbiased exchange (Harasim, 1993). However, there are networks discouraging anonymity; such is the WELL, for example (Rheingold, 1993).
Furthermore, it has been also argued that
anonymity can be seen as of positive value, when it creates
opportunities to invent alternative versions of one's self and to
engage in untried forms of interaction (Myers, 1987a, 1987b; Reid,
1991). In role-playing CMC forums, the use of pseudonyms or "nicks"
(for "nicknames") sometimes is believed to "allow people to be other
than 'themselves,' or more of themselves than they normally express" (Danet & Ruedenberg, 1994). Moreover, Matheson & Zanna
(1990) support that anonymous or pseudonymous communicants feel more
confortable and willing to reveal personal information, thus,
developing social interdependence and perhaps even intimacy, by
reducing the constraints of stereotypes that prescribe more socially
On the contrary, in CMC often happens that the
use of anonymity or pseudonymity hides identity for the purpose of a
decrease in social inhibition and an increase in flaming; for example,
people are found more insulting when using an anonymous CMC (Baym, 1995; Myers, 1987a, 1987b; Reid,
1991). Usually, the practice of hiding identity is protecting a
communicant in a public forum from adverse social reactions to the
expression of views which might be considered socially deviant or from
being identified as participating in a CMC forum popularly perceived as
socially deviant. The latter is the case of certain sexually explicit
or pornographic USENET newsgroups (Jaffe et al., 1995).
The fact is that sooner or later even anonymous
communicants do build identities for themselves. The general tendency
is that in CMC both anonymous and non-anonymous communicants creat
their own identies actively and collaboratively by processes of naming,
signing signatures, role creation, and self-disclosure (Baym, 1995). According to Myers
(1987b), CMC users' names are "transformed into trademarks, distinctive
individual scents by which their users are recognized as either friends
or enemies within an otherwise vague and anonymous communication
environment." In this way, not only fictional identies can be created,
but anonymous users can switch genders, appearances, and countless
other usually integral personality aspects (Carpenter, 1983; Reid, 1991). Finally, the so called "signature files," attached to the bottom of posts, represent, according to Baym
(1995), "one of the most immediate and visually forceful cues to
identity." These signature files, besides the poster's name and e-mail
address, usually include quotations, personal or company disclaimers,
and illustrations created using ASCII characters (punctuation marks and
From the above, one may conclude that
computer-mediated communication does constitute a social space, where
people interact by inventing new personas, recreating their own
identities, or both, in the course of communication practices. Although
these types of identity managing processes are common to almost all of
the discursive practices of mass media, it is assured by Poster
(1995) that textual CMCs "go considerably beyond." According to Poster,
"the individual's performance of the communication requires linguistic
acts of self-positioning," in which "individuals read and interprete
communications to themselves and to others and also respond by shaping
sentences and transmitting them."
Some Gender Issues
One of the most interesting topics in
computer-mediated communication is the question of sex differences and
the relation between gender and computer networking. In general, the
statistics for women in the computer science fields are estimated
rather low and this is attributed to the early stereotyping of roles
(for example, through toys for boys and girls) and to existing social
attitudes in workplaces (Shade, 1993). Moreover, women
are considered not to be very well represented on most computer
networks, although there are exclusively women-only mailing lists and
computer conferences (Shade, 1993; Smith & Balka, 1991).
As we have already seen, computer-mediated
communication has been claimed to be a medium that, in the absence of
physical and social cues, it allows more democratic communication and,
thus, more equitable gender communication (Graddol & Swann, 1989). Moreover, CMC has been argueed to be "anarchic," lacking in established conventions of use (Ferrara et al., 1991), resulting in a breakdown of traditional hierarchical differences in communication.
Contrary to these claims, Susan Herring
(1993) presents results about activity on two academic e-mailing lists
(Linguist and Megabyte University or MBU) illustrating that, even in
academic CMC, men and women do not participate equally. Rather, she
claims, a small minority of men still dominate the discource and choice
of topic, as well as exhibiting a self-promotional and adversarial
rhetorical style. Thus, Herring concludes that "because of social
conditioning that makes women uncomfortable with direct conflict, women
tend to be more intimidated by these practices and to avoid
participation as a result" (Herring, 1993).
Similar conclusions to those of Herring were reached by Lynn Cherny
(1994) in her study of gender differences in the text-based virtual
reality environments, as MUDs and MOOs. Cherny found that indeed there
are differences in how men interact versus how women interact: "men use
more physically violent imagery during conversation and women are more
physically affectionate towards other characters than men are" (Cherny, 1994).
Kathleen Michel (1992)
investigated gender differences in KIDCAFE, a networking project that
links children around the world. She sought to apply linguist Deborah
Tannen</a>'s theories of the gender differences in conversation:
the "rapport" (cooperative, intimate style) versus "report"
(information giving) styles of talk. In general, more women favor the
"rapport" style, while more men favor the "report" style (Tannen,
1990). Michel concluded that, although there are different
conversational patterns between boys and girls, they are not as
discrepant as Tannen would indicate. Moreover, she observed that CMC
can have very positive effects for cross-gender communication among
school children (Michel, 1992). However, the findings of Kaplan & Farrell
(1994) have supported Tannen's work; in particular, they observed that
young women's messages are quite short and their participation is
driven by their desire to keep the conversation going than the desire
to achieve consensus on some issues (Kaplan & Farrell, 1994).
J. Michael Jaffe and his group (1995) have
investigated whether the use of pseudonyms migates gender-based
differences of CMC patterns. They found that "women tended to mask
their gender with their pseudonym choice while males did not," an
observation underscoring "the implicit social pressure that women feel
when interacting in mixed-gender situations" (Jaffe et al., 1995).
According to Leslie Regan Shade
(1993), "despite the relative anonymity of CMC, though, some women
report that they are often harassed and intimidated from posting and
participating on conferences via e-mail" (Shade, 1993). Gladys We
(1993) too refers to cases of sexual harassment and abuse against
women, as, for example, one woman reported to her that "in response to
my postings he sent e-mail calling me 'hairly legged feminazi'... and
did lots of innuendos about the probable deficits of my personal life" (We, 1993).
Amy Bruckman (1993) has
conducted research on social interactions and gender swapping in the
text-based virtual reality environments of MUDs. She has found that
female MUDders are often "besieged with attention," including unwanted
sexual advances, and that male players will often log on as female
characters and behave suggestively, further encouraging sexual advances
(Bruckman, 1993). Pavel Curtis (1992) has noted that in MUDs the most promiscuous and sexually aggressive women are usually played by men (Curtis, 1992).
There are many well-publicized stories and
folklore about people who created entirely new persona online
(including gender swapping) and about the reaction that followed the
identity disclosure. In 1985 Lindsy Van Gelder
reported the case of a man who used the network to play out assumptions
about gender roles. In real life he was a prominent New York
psychiatrist in his early fifties, called "Alex," and on the network he
presented himself as a female neuropsychologist, "Joan," who had
recently been severely disabled in a car accident. Over the two years
that Joan was online, she developed intimate relationships (in some
cases online romances) with other women, although never face-to-face,
and "she served both as a support for other disabled women and as an
inspiring stereotype-smasher to the able-bodied" (Van Gelder,
1991). Eventually it was revealed that Joan was not only not disabled
but he was Alex, "who was engaged in a bizarre, allconsuming experiment
to see what it felt like to be female, and to experience the intimacy
of female friendship" (ibid.). The response to this revelation was
intense: many felt betrayed and outraged. Others felt disappointed,
regretted the "death" of the virtual friend "Joan," and wished to
continue a friendship with that person, "to relate to the soul, not the
sex of the person" (ibid.).
As Lesley R. Shade and Gladys We (1993) wrote,
"the new 'electronic frontier' is unfortunately still a very masculine
dominated space, one in which many women may feel uncomfortable at the
best of times. Ensuring equitable gender access to the Internet should
be a prerogative of this information age" (Shade & We, 1993).
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