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4 Technical characteristics and social cues

An important element in the understanding of e-communities is the role of the technology. It is after all a necessary element in enabling CMC and thereby the formation of communities. This enabling role of technology is accompanied by a constraining role; the technology only allows certain forms of communication to take place. The limitations are however not something the users immediately accept; ways of circumventing them are sought, and this 'socio-technical negotiation' process results in some novel variants of conventional communicative patterns.

Technical limitations are therefore never absolute; via a creative social process these are often overcome, but at a 'price' of a certain modification in the way people interact. If one constricts one's analysis to the material domain, technical limitations are inevitably a negative thing. However, in the social domain such limitations may actually be perceived as a positive thing, as will be demonstrated in this chapter.

4.1 Face-to-face communication

4.1.1 Basic characteristics

Face-to-face communication is multimodal, involving several or all of the senses that humans use to represent the world (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, gustatory, and olfactory). Since face-to-face communication is potentially capable of involving all of these senses, and all other forms of communication involving some technical intermediary is not (at least for the foreseeable future), the former is often taken as the basic reference point for assessing the latter. This approach is seldom questioned, and face-to-face interaction is hardly ever problematised in CMC literature; it is explicitly or implicitly regarded as the 'ideal' and 'richest' form of communication (Sudweeks and Simoff 1999: 42). An exception is Giese (1998), who calls for more studies where other forms of electronically mediated communication are used for comparison, rather than the face-to-face variant.

It is unquestionable that face-to-face communication is richest in the material sense, since all technical intermediaries inevitably introduce varying degrees of loss of information. At present ICT can only transmit two 'modes' with reasonable degrees of fidelity, namely audio and video, whereas smell, taste or touch cannot be transmitted at all ('virtual reality' body suits is still too esoteric to be counted here). Moreover, face-to-face interaction can take place in a multitude of settings, and one may simultaneously engage in other activities. In the case of CMC one must be positioned in front of a computer, and concurrent activities are usually ruled out. Most computer users only have access to a single stationary computer, which means that the physical setting is largely invariant.

4.1.2 Problems of face-to-face communication

If one merely considers the material or physical domain, it is hard to argue against face-to-face communication as being the most ideal form. The complications arise when the social domain is being considered. In this domain one finds the socio-cultural interpretations and meaning-formations formed on basis of the sensory inputs, i.e. at the level of 'meaning' in fig. 2.4. Here one finds politics, authority, power, equality, discrimination, animosity, hostility, solidarity, submission, and so on. These socio-cultural traits affect face-to-face interaction in various ways. Two persons of different authority interact differently than two peers. Equality in status (horizontal relations) is usually associated with more mutually constructive interactions. Vertical relations based on superiority-inferiority are likewise often impeding communication-wise. Such negative aspects may result in a materially rich (in terms of sensory information) interaction being a socially poor interaction (in terms of constructive meaning exchange). In a society where there is a tendency towards asymmetry in the status of middle-class/white/heterosexual/male persons and working-class/black/homosexual/female persons, it is problematic to use face-to-face communication as a black-boxed reference point for analysing communication mediated in other ways.

There are in fact indications that material/technical limitations can provide relative social benefits by filtering out some of the negative traits of face-to-face communication. This lies at the basis for a great deal of what can be called on-line ideology, and which has had a significant effect on many peoples' perception of the Internet and its associated social aggregations.

4.2 The transformation and transmission of social cues

Our social cues, i.e. the signs and symbols used to communicate meaning to others, arise from growing up and living in a society where face-to-face interaction is predominant. When communication is mediated by technology, the medium must somehow, at least partly, be able to convey these cues. But a given medium is only capable of conveying information in very specific forms. In a digital transmission medium this form is a succession of 0's and 1's (represented by light-pulses or voltage levels). This means that there must take place a transformation or coding of social cues from the 'analogue' off-line domain to the digital on-line domain, and a reciprocal process at the receiving end, a decoding of the information back into conventional forms.

4.2.1 Mediation and information loss

So, when something is mediated, there is an associated process of transformation of physical entities that carry the communicated meaning-carrying elements. When for example a speech is mediated by amplifying equipment, the voice (sound waves of small amplitude) is transformed into electrical signals by the microphone, electronically amplified and retransformed back into sound waves of greater amplitude by a loudspeaker. Each transformation stage introduces a certain loss of information, the quantity of which depends on the quality of the mediating equipment. Some transformations retain the form of communication (sound in this case), but if the speech is for instance later printed as text, then the form is changed, but the content is retained, at least superficially. Such a change in form has associated with it an increased loss of information, since for example the speaker's body language and voice inflections are unlikely to be conveyed, unless this is attempted by explicit textual description. Moreover, the setting in which the speech was conducted is lost, which might profoundly change the experience of being on the receiving end.

A central reason why CMC is often considered to be ill-suited for establishing social relations between strangers is that it appears to be very difficult to adequately convey social cues that are crucial for such relations to be formed. In CMC such cues are predominantly transmitted indirectly, but still their effect can be to lower the 'mental distance' between interlocutors to a level "less than with colleagues working in the same office" (Sudweeks and Simoff 1999: 44).

4.2.2 Identity cues conveyed

What kinds of identity cues are conveyed in text-based CMC? First of all it is worth noting that even though the only thing that is actually transmitted in CMC is binary data (0's and 1's), the information loss associated with the transformation of printed letters into binary data is zero. Hence it is only necessary to look at the transformation of social cues into printed text. That it is printed should be emphasised, since hand-written text conveys more identity cues, as any interpreter of handwriting will agree with. Cues may be divided into form cues, content cues, and some hybrid form/content types. The following list identifies some of these cues:

  • Form cues: Writing style (complicated/simple sentences, small/big vocabulary, spelling and grammar), language and language variant, jargon use.

  • Content cues: Interests, opinions, friendliness, formality, self-centredness, sense of humour.
  • Combined content/form cues: Talkativeness (frequency and length of contributions), impulsiveness, chattiness/seriousness, loudness, abusiveness, intimacy.

There is also a range of cues that can only be conveyed indirectly, through description. These include looks, gestures and other movements; voice, laughter and other sounds; smell, taste (this is likely to apply to intimate encounters only), and non-verbal behaviour.

In synchronous forums (MUDding, chatting) there are a number of other cues which arise from their temporal dependency. These include dexterity (writing speed) and use of conversational pauses. Furthermore, in MUDs there are various manipulation methods (enacted via certain key combinations or via programming) that require some practice to master, so in this respect 'manipulation mastery' can be regarded as a social cue. This time dimension that some forms of CMC exhibit, might provide a methodological problem when one tries to study them, since there will be a "loss of dynamics, life and richness" if one for example just reads a print-out of the communication (Sundén 1998: 10).

4.2.3 Cue control and identity change

In the case of e-communities the transformation losses appear to be considerable, since all communication is either purely text-based or a combination of text and basic animation via graphical elements. This means that all social cues that are to be conveyed must be expressible via typing on a keyboard and displaying of the text on the receiving computer. This leaves the communicator much more in control over what to communicate, since most corporeal elements are filtered out. Body movements, touch and smell can only be indirectly conveyed through textual descriptions. These descriptions are unlikely to adequately represent the actual smells/movements etc., since even the best authors cannot describe them in a way that even remotely substitutes the real thing. Moreover, descriptions may be fictional, i.e. they may not even be attempts to represent actual smells or movements. Despite this, descriptions alone may invoke strong feelings in the person who reads them, as any literature connoisseur will agree to. This imagination activity of the reader is a central element in the formation of some types of e-communities, especially MUDs and their variants (after all the SH in MUSH stands for shared hallucination). In fact, media that rely on text-based descriptions rather than computer graphics are often regarded as more effective in conveying an "atmosphere". This centrality of imagination does not mean that the community itself is imagined, just that the common fundamental interest involves the creation of fantasy worlds. This particular aspect of MUDs is nicely coined by Gibson's "consensual hallucination" expression.

A consequence of the potential for fictional descriptions is the possibility for participants in CMC to fake their identity, or at least be selective in its presentation, and even to operate with multiple identities. These are phenomena that also occur in the wider society, but the apparent ease by which they can be undertaken in CMC has led to a belief that it is quite widespread in this medium. CMC literature has also been, perhaps disproportionately, occupied with case studies involving identity faking. This constitutes a problem for defenders of e-communities, for the implication is that a considerable portion of the apparent social relations seem be based on false grounds, leading to the view that e-communities are not real communities.

However, the extent to which identity faking occurs seems to be largely unknown, and there are numerous methodological obstacles in finding reliable estimates. An alternative strategy is to look at similar phenomena in the wider society, take into account the specifics of the on-line setting, and from this make a few conjectures. First, unless very skilfully done, identity faking is likely to be quickly revealed. The faker must be in possession of a certain talent for acting. Since an on-line identity must be carefully built up and maintained, operating with multiple identities demands considerable time and energy, and even more enhanced acting-competence (Turkle 1995: 205). It must also be questioned why people should fake their identities in the first place. Some people have a desire to live out more sides of themselves and perform some personal experimentation, some are unhappy with what they perceive to be their 'normal' identity and try to establish an alternative on-line identity, and some perform identity-faking as a kind of game. But such cases still probably account for only a small minority of CMC participants. In the wider society identity-faking is rare, and since there does not seem to exist widespread repressed 'identity-faking-drives' (that could find a release channel on-line), there is faint reason that it should be found in abundance in e-communities. According to this reasoning identity faking or multiple identities are likely to be rare phenomena, but perhaps somewhat more frequent on-line than off-line (since it is easier on-line).

Selective identity presentation, i.e. an accentuation of one's perceived good sides and hiding of bad sides, is likely to occur on a much larger scale, especially since this is also common in the wider society. Examples are use of make-up, way of dressing and modification of behaviour. On-line this accentuation/hiding process is likely to be more pronounced, since physical looks must be explicitly described, and behaviour is limited to verbal expression, giving more control over one's self-presentation. It is worth noting that this is not always an advantage, since many people acquire their most important positive identity elements from their physical looks, not their verbal communication abilities. CMC is hence likely to be more attractive for people who are more endowed verbally than physically.

There are many grey areas between identity faking and selective identity presentation; 'modification of behaviour' may glide over into full-fledged identity change. These greyscales exist both on-line and off-line, and it is important to realise that identities are malleable in both realms, and not something that is particular for on-line settings, although the off-line identity is often perceived to be more stable (Kendall 1999: 61).

4.3 The off-line roots of on-line features

[W]e get imprinted by our geographically proximate communities and transfer our patterns of perception and reception in the virtual community. (Interrogate the Internet 1996: 126)

A lot of the rhetoric around cyberspace has focussed on the alleged possibility to become disengaged from one's conventional off-line world, with all its troubles, and immerse oneself in an alternative and better world, where identities may be freely chosen. But as Kendall (1999: 60) points out, this is a quite misleading view; in fact one's off-line persona and environment are crucial determinants for on-line behaviour.

4.3.1 Language and symbols

Perhaps the most important factor transferred from the off-line to the on-line world is language. Nguyen and Alexander (1996: 104) maintain that language that does not have a verifiable correspondence to physical reality becomes problematic as a communication tool. So, if CMC is as rootless or transcending as some people claim, then there must exist a profound on-line linguistic problem. But since such a problem appears to be non-existent, CMC cannot be rootless, at least not linguistically. And since language is arguably the most fundamental element in communication, something which is even further accentuated in CMC (since it is almost exclusively text-based), CMC must be fundamentally and unavoidably linked to the 'conventional' world (Breslow 1997: 244).

It must be emphasised that this does not rule out the possibility that some linguistic developments may take place that are specific to the on-line sphere, but this aspect is bound to be marginal. An example is the use of emoticons (emotional icons) which are symbols representing emotional information that in face-to-face communication is typically expressed by body language. A normal smile, for instance, can be represented by ':-)', a sideways smiling face. This symbol in this specific form originated in CMC, but drawings depicting a smiling face are hardly new. So the generic symbol (smiling face) has its roots off-line, but the specific on-line version (sideways smiling face depicted by a colon, hyphen and right parenthesis) has developed as a result of adapting the generic form to the limitations of the technological interface. Further examples are that in order to indicate emphasis italics and bold are usually replaced by _italics_ and *bold*, and all upper-case is used TO SHOUT SOMETHING.

The cultural imprinting of CMC symbols is highlighted by the fact that a Japanese female version of the smiling face symbol is '(^.^)', i.e. a right-side-up smile with a dot for a mouth, since it is often regarded as impolite for women in Japan to show their teeth. There are also some uniquely Japanese emoticons, e.g. '(^^;)', which denotes a cold sweat (Donath 1996: Ch. 2.2.1).

Other examples of expressive peculiarities (but again with off-line roots) are the use of special acronyms and 'stage directives'. Due to the requirement of speedy response that exists in some forms of CMC, especially in synchronous forms (e.g. chatting), certain often used expressions are made into acronyms. Examples are "IRL" ("in real life") and "IMHO" ("in my humble opinion"). Stage directives are used to represent body positions and movements, e.g. "rolling on the floor with laughter" (or its acronym "ROFL"). Incidentally, the use of special acronyms has also arisen in text messages sent between mobile telephones, e.g. "BFN" ("bye for now"). In this case it is the limited display space that is the primary reason, rather than response speed.

The rootedness is also manifest in other Internet phenomena: Web-page design is in many ways 'inherited' from traditional printed media (Windrum 1999: 14). One example is the de facto convention that the contents menu of a web-page shall be positioned on the left-hand side (which, incidentally, is unpractical, since the scroll bar is on the opposite side).

The examples given are but some of the most obvious linguistic/symbolic developments in CMC, and there is likely to be a range of more subtle developments. The point has been to demonstrate that although there are communicative elements that are specific to the medium, they are not generically specific. Other variants are found in other media, and all variants arise from generic forms that come from the 'conventional' off-line world.

These examples also demonstrate that technical limitations of a medium are counteracted by a creative process, where new variants of the generic forms are developed. This is something that is often overlooked by technologists who are likely to regard a technical limitation as absolute. Such limitations cannot only be overcome by improving the technology, but also by social adaptation.

4.3.2 Dysfunctional social relations - the case of on-line racism

An important part of the ideology surrounding e-communities is the supposed lack of dysfunctional social relations that are features of the wider society. CMC is even occasionally accredited with potentially eradicating certain negative socio-cultural identity-related phenomena, like racism and sexism, and improving the democratic content of communities. It must here be noted that a common problem with such claims is that their scope is not specified; whether they are meant to apply to just e-communities or communities in general (presumably by somehow spreading from the former) often remains a mystery. In order to test these ideological claims, racism will be taken as a case.

Since there is a lessened amount of identity cues available in CMC (skin colour is not readily detected, for example) it is more difficult for racists to find victims for personal racist verbal attacks. It is not impossible, though, since participants might either explicitly reveal their ethnic background, or this background might be indirectly inferred from other social cues. As for impersonal racist attacks, the anonymity of participants in on-line discussion groups has sometimes made racist remarks easier to express, to the extent that many black people have avoided the Internet. There are also indications that people to some extent 'act white' in on-line interactions (Kendall 1999: 66). Hence, a reduction in identity cues works both ways, and it should be clear that CMC does not in any way get rid of the problem.

The logic of the racism-eradication-argument is essentially: if no identity cues, then no racism. This reasoning seems to be founded on the notion that racism in the wider society arises due to the availability of identity cues. Apart from this itself being a racist argument, it overlooks the fact that racism has its roots in certain social, political and historical realities, which the use of the Internet alone is highly unlikely to fundamentally change. Application of the same logic leads to the ludicrous conclusion that racism would be eradicated if people wore bags over their heads, thereby hiding their skin colour.

On a further note, there are no indications that CMC makes people less racist, either on-line or in general. As stated above, the characteristics of CMC are likely to make personal racist attacks become more latent and impersonal attacks more frequent. There also exist overtly racist discussion forums and web-pages where racists may express their views with less possibility of being resisted by the public than in the wider society, due to the difficulty in locating the physical source of the material (unlike a conventional meeting or newspaper, for instance). In Germany, for example, the number of web-pages containing extreme rightwing material is reported to have increased from 200 in 1997 to 300 in 1998.

In a further testimony to how on-line behaviour is rooted off-line, participants in CMC are seldom unprejudiced with respect to the identity of other participants. Instead they carry with them certain assumptions regarding these identities, assumptions based for instance on on-line demographics, which lead to the effect that participants are often "white and male until proven otherwise" (Kendall 1999: 66).

4.4 Influence of e-communities in the wider society

The last section looked at some ways in which the on-line sphere is influenced by the environment. The discussion indicated that the primary 'direction' of influence between the Internet and the wider society goes from the off-line to the on-line realm. But the Internet manifests itself in various ways outside its own confines. Perhaps most conspicuous is the increased presence of WWW addresses encountered in printed newspapers and magazines, in commercials, on television and so on. People talk about the Internet in ordinary conversations and new words are created, like "outernet", which denotes the world 'outside' the Internet. Many people use e-mail rather than telephoning or writing letters. Information is more and more often obtained from the Web, rather than from printed sources or by asking other people.

This is just to mention a few of the most readily observable influences of the on-line sphere on the on-line sphere. These manifestations should not be regarded as 'impacts' of the technology, but rather as results of human agency and decisions based on the availability of a new medium in a given socio-cultural paradigm.

The ability of e-communities to reach beyond their on-line confinement seems, however to be more limited. Individuals are affected by their on-line interactions, and they may through this be instigated to behave or think somewhat differently in the general society. Watson's example with the fan e-community, which is based on discussions around a particular music group, illustrates that an e-community is also to some extent able to take collective action in the off-line world, by appearing at the concerts and use traditional methods of influencing other people (Watson 1997). However, the extent of this influence is, rather limited, and in order to achieve it the e-community had to transcend its electronic boundaries and transform itself into a conventional community. Members had to meet face-to-face and show up in a physical location in order to interact with the wider fan community. These interactions had its origin in discussions within the e-community, but the e-community itself had to transcend its medium-imposed limitations to achieve this influence.

This indicates that the political potential of e-communities is fairly limited. Political influence is only to a small extent exerted exclusively through CMC (e-mail bombardment is a tactic in this respect); traditional communities are much stronger political actors. To gain comparable strength, e-communities must convert themselves, at least partially, into traditional communities, something which unfeasible in most cases. On this background Watson's suggestion that rethinking the distinction between on-line and off-line communities may bring about "changes in the power structure of our nation and culture" (p. 130) seems to be a considerable exaggeration of the potential of e-communities.

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