Contributed Paper
at the 2nd Workshop/Conference
"Neties '95"
TEI of Piraeus, Greece, October 12-13, 1995




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 experts.

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 Shell Oil.

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).

Computer Effects

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 independent behavior.

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 letters).

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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