03 | How do we communicate online? part 1

In terms of researching communication models (specifically online) I came across different perspectives which in my eyes are worth examining in my entries. I found a lot of literature about online communication from the years of approx. 1990-2000 which mainly focused on the differences of online and offline communication. Even Though there are further researches in recent years I find this fundamental quintessential for completely understanding my topic.

Computer-Mediated Communication or short CMC is basically describing human communication via networked computers. This communication form can be synchronous or asynchronous and is used to exchange text, audio, and/or video messages. The number of participants can differ from one-to-one, one-to-many or many-to-many. The separation in synchronous or asynchronous communication is of great relevance in the term of CMC. Synchronous communication like via video or audio calls includes all participants in real time and happens simultaneously. As soon as the sender does not receive an immediate response from the receiver the communication is asynchronous. Examples for that would be mails and text messages. 

Early research focused on how the communication channel ‘computer’ changes our communication and how it differs from the way we used to communicate. At first, relatively negative aspects were highlighted, such as the lack of socio-contextual information (I touched on this in the first semester). Alternative models later emphasized that the user adapts to the limitations of the channels and develops alternative strategies (such as the use of emoticons). Furthermore it became clear that the boundary between the real and the virtual communication was more and more blurred and is now becoming interactive instead. But how does this affect our way of communicating? What are the advantages? The disadvantages? 

To find out more about this question I started with early research about CMC. I read the paper “Computer-Mediated Communication: Impersonal, Interpersonal, and Hyperpersonal Interaction” of Joseph B. Walther from 1996. In this paper, the term CMC includes only text-based communication. The main research question asked if CMC causes a limitation or liberation of communication and interaction. 

One common sense at that time was that CMC is highly impersonal, task-oriented and can only stay on an informative level due to the lack of social context cues. Alternative findings showed a contrasting picture: CMC was stated to be just as personal as FtF (face-to-face) interactions or even surpassed them. This was especially a conclusion of the examination of virtual communities, online friendships and online dating. With these perspectives in mind CMC seemed to have no consistent effects because of the contrasting results at that time. Walther wanted to identify common elements that play a role in all these outcomes. Therefore he first examines about the terms interpersonal and impersonal interactions regarding CMC:

Text-based CMC seems to be more impersonal because of the lack of nonverbal / social context cues. The message receiver cannot alter the mood of text messages and needs to interpret it. Alternative findings show that the user starts to adapt their communication to the limitation of only written communication and finds other cues in punctuation or language. Walther comes to the conclusion that CMC is not certainly less personal than FtF interaction but requires more time investment. The effective outcome of a CMC conversation is dependent on the familiarity of the participants and the conversation context (mediated, non-mediated). Regarding group work he suggests that it could be helpful to start the first brainstorm project phase via CMC and come together for the evaluation and decision phase in real life. In his point of view the first phase of brainstorming ideas can benefit from the non-hierarchical and more or less anonyme structure of CMC because each idea receives the same attention. For him, the second phase of evaluation and decision making needs more social context cues because the discussion enters a more personal level.

Of course the paper is a bit older and nowadays group work is not only limited to only CMC or FtF interactions. But I think it could be worthy to think about it a little closer since I came from a working background with old structures of endless mail and meeting conversations and discussion with no conclusion. Do we always choose the right media to communicate? Could we enhance our meetings with evaluating our communication channel from another, more thought through perspective? We are so used to communicate via text messages and sometimes forget that everyone has another ‘decoding’ system for it. For example exclamation marks: Sometimes we use them more or less unintentionally but they can have a major effect on the sender’s interpretation of the intonation. Just look at this sentence and reflect how you read it and how you felt while reading:

  1. I don’t think so!!
  2. I don’t think so.

I could bet that the first sentence feels more aggressive than the second one did. Or did it didn’t bother you at all? I will never know, because my decoding system will always differ (no matter if in a large or small scale) from others. The same goes with the usage of emojis. Some of them seem to have a single minded message but can be decoded in different ways. An example for that can be the winking smiley 😉 For some it is just a blink of an eye, for others something ambiguous and for some it is even a passive aggressive gesture of provocation.

https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199756841/obo-9780199756841-0160.xml#:~:text=Computer%2Dmediated%20communication%20(CMC),%2C%20and%2For%20video%20messages (last review: 18.04.2021)
– Joseph B. Walther: “Computer-Mediated Communication: Impersonal, Interpersonal, and Hyperpersonal Interaction”, 1996, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/009365096023001001