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Introduction to Computer-Mediated Communications & Distributed Networking

Computer-Mediated Communication
Computer-mediated communication and its relationship to distributed networks is possibly one of the major technological innovations of the late 20th century. We see the powerful effects of digital technologies on education, business, politics and culture. The ubiquitous PC is transforming the way professionals work, and the kinds of work they do.

Critics of these developments point to disruptive shifts in the workforce and lost efficiencies, new patterns of exploitation, poor software design, wasteful hardware upgrades, and new versions of social alienation. At the same time, there is an active campaign in the media to promote the digital revolution as good for the economy, and it is sometimes difficult to gain a perspective on how one should navigate these transformations.

Graphical user interfaces (GUIs) have made computing more user-friendly, and have converted the word processor from an intelligent typewriter into a multi-tasking, multimedia production centre capable of importing charts, graphs, spreadsheets, images, photographs and maps into our reports. Simultaneously, the layout options which come as standard features in most contemporary word-processors have raised the general standards of document design and production. These technologically-supported competencies mean that graduates, even for entry-level jobs, are required to demonstrate skills that were only recently the province of specialists like statisticians and graphic designers.

Electronic mail has had an equally powerful and widespread impact on communication within and among organizations and businesses. As Don Tapscott documents in his 1995 book The Digital Economy, distributed networks with e-mail at their core are revolutionizing how corporations and organizations are doing business. In trades and technologies, e-mail is routinely used for joint international research projects as well as for problem-solving. Businesses, organizations, and professionals of all stripes increasingly use international listservs (a form of e-mail) to discuss current developments in their fields. New applications for working collaboratively on the internet are being developed for both work and play.

Access to the Internet is rapidly becoming the norm in business, technology and the professions, and with that access comes a demand for new research and communications skills. Prospective employees will need to know not just how to find information on the internet, but also how to discriminate among competing masses of information. And as businesses and services flock to the newest version of the internet--the multimedia World Wide Web--graduates will need the skills to produce electronic documents which are both informative and persuasive for that medium.

There are also some troubling social effects associated with these changes that continue to pose problems for individuals, employers, and governments. Surveillance, censorship, and increasing intrusions into what were formerly private spaces will have unforseen social impacts. New demands on accessibility and time--for example with cell phones and email--are placing additional stresses at home and in the workplace. As new social hierarchies and patterns of power evolve, the digital revolution will require new interpersonal communication skills and ways of managing conflict and change.

The ability to use these new applications is not a simple matter of adding on discrete skills to an existing knowledge base. These new media alter the messages they deliver. They have created a new rhetoric and workplace demand for highly-focused writing and research abilities. In addition to the practical skills needed to use these applications, graduates need a strong theoretical base enabling them to understand the potential and applicability of these systems so they can make appropriate use of them. This course, consequently, is built on a strong foundation of writing, research and critical thinking skills students have developed in their first year English courses.

Online Communities

Your first extended assignment for the course is to write a profile of an online community. Online communities are too numerous to categorize effectively, but you might think of them being organized by a particular interest--gaming, sports, buying and selling (eBay), science, law, writing, art, hacking et al; or by a medium: MSN, ICQ, chat, file sharing, P2P (peer-to-peer), newsgroups, email, MUDs, virtual worlds, linked websites (webrings), blogs, alternate news sources, magazines etc. Most online communities are similar to cultures in that they demonstrate a style, particular uses of language, a repertoire of activities and rituals, jargon and insider references and jokes, a history, famous individuals and leaders, and sometimes an archive of secrets, or at least FAQs (frequently asked questions).

For an excellent early overview of the subject, see Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community.

For a well-reviewed online gaming community, check out the The Sims Online.

Some Background: Since its early days, the internet has represented a strong vision of community-building: the network of nodes and links which hoped to withstand a nuclear attack connected a community of researchers and scientists, first across the United States, then around the world. In many accounts, email was the killer application of the internet, allowing those with access to large mainframes to share not only research findings, but to communicate about everything from new software to their favorite science fiction stories. Over 30 years later, email continues to be a widespread communication medium reshaping how people communicate and how they spend their time.

The creation of the Usenet hierarchy of newsgroups enabled the whole phenomenon of online discussion groups:

In the world of online communication, a distinction is made between synchronous and asynchronous conferencing. Synchronous conferencing describes applications where the people involved are online at the same time, and includes such technologies as video conferencing, networked games like Quake, MSN Messaging, CHAT, ICQ, and other conferencing systems such as First Class. Asynchronous conferencing allows people to communicate with one another at any time, and does not require that everyone involved in the communication be online simultaneously. These applications include bulletin boards (BBSs), Usenet (newsgroups), Listservs, hypernews, and email.

Each of these applications - both synchronous and asynchronous - have their unique characteristics, but we might hazard a few comparisons:

Various synchronous and asynchronous applications support one-to-one or one-to-many communications, and this distinction will certainly have a bearing on the nature of the message. If we know that many people will read a newsgroup posting, for example, we might take more care in our preparation of it. The ability to respond quickly in either model often leads to ill-advised communications - resulting in "flame wars" - and different expectations regarding response time. For example, if you post a message to a newsgroup, you might anticipate an immediate response, and you might feel disappointment when it is not forthcoming. It is in this respect that online communication forces us to rethink our notions of performance.

Since both synchronous and asynchronous media are "computer-mediated," your identity and appearance are often open to interpretation. Much has been written about the nature of identity on the Internet, about avatars (digital substitutes or representatives), and impersonators. (For example, see Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community, Judith S. Donath. In Kollock, P. and Smith M. (eds). Communities in Cyberspace. London: Routledge, 1996.)

Cartoon by Peter Steiner, July 5, 1993 The New Yorker (p. 61) reproduced for academic discussion. Fair dealing provisions apply