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This article appeared in Volume 6 (2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

SRB Insights: Computer-Mediated Communication

Brenda Danet

Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) is an important new form of human communication made possible by links between personal and mainframe computers, modems, and telecommunication lines. It transpires in "cyberspace," an abstract, disembodied space consisting only of information and electronic pulses, in which the ordinary coordinates of physical space and time are suspended. Although the technology of CMC has existed for 20 years or more, only in the last five years has "the Net" (for "network" or"network of networks") become a meeting place for millions of people. Remarkable new forms of "virtual culture" are now developing in this intensely social domain of human interaction.

Cyberspace is dominated by the Internet, a vast web of interconnected educational government, military, and commercial networks. The Internet developed out of ARPANET, a network created in the late 1960's by universities and the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the United States Department of Defense. While its origins would suggest that cyberspace is a highly centralized virtual environment whose resources can easily be mobilized by governments and other institutions for purposes of social control and even repression, in fact, the emergent culture of cyberspace is strikingly anarchic and frontierlike.

At the present time, CMC continues to be mainly typed and textual, as it was in its early days, although graphics and even sound and video clips are increasingly being added. The technology for video conferencing - oral computer mediated face-to face communication including visual images in real time - already exists, though it is still prohibitively expensive, and not yet widely used.

Interpreted broadly, the term CMC includes not only person-to-person and person-to-group communication, but also person-to-computer contacts, in which individuals access files or interact with programs on remote computers. Global computerization is breaking down the traditional distinction in print culture between the solo authored, decontextualized written text and the face-to-face personal conversation. Thus, within minutes or hours of examining a document via the World Wide Web, a system of links between digital files of text, sound, or graphics, effortlessly accessed on any computer around the globe, a person can contact its author(s) by electronic mail (e-mail) and begin a dialogue. In this article, however, only direct person-to-person and person-to-group communication will be discussed.

There are two main forms of CMC: non-synchronic, and synchronic. Private e-mail resembles ordinary letter-writing: the sender composes and sends the message at a time separate from that in which the recipient receives or reads it. However, whereas ordinary mail - disparagingly called "snail mail" by hackers and other initiates into computer culture - takes days to arrive, e-mail arrives in seconds or minutes.

Group communication based on the basic e-mail mode includes listserv discussion groups, Usenet newsgroups, and do-it-yourself bulletin boards (BBSs) run by hobbyists, especially children and teenagers. Thousands of such groups are in intense daily interaction. Electronic groups discuss topics ranging from (1) the professional or academic (Anglo-Saxon studies, astronomy) to (2) the recreational (e.g., Star Trek, vampires) to (3) issues requiring group support (single fathers, dieters). Discussion list messages are posted to a central address and automatically distributed to the personal accounts of all other subscribers. In some groups, a moderator edits and distributes messages in batches. In the case of Usenet newsgroups and BBSs, individuals read postings stored on a mainframe or a personal computer rather than receiving them in their individual accounts.

Synchronous modes of CMC enable individuals simultaneously logged on to "chat" by typing messages to each other in real time. For instance, just as face-to-face speakers hear their interlocutors formulating their messages as they are spoken, when the "talk" function is activated on the unix operating system, two individuals can read each other's messages as they are being typed. Group forms of synchronous communication include BITNET Relay, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), MUDs and MOOs (Multi-User Domains, Multi-User Domains/Object-Oriented), and the CB Scions' Bands Channel on Compuserve. The most popular chat mode is IRC. At any hour of the day or night, 1000s of persons, mainly young, male students, are logged on. Individuals divide up into channels with names based on geography ("russia", "england"), professional interests ("Unix," "mosaic") or playful fantasy and themes of popular culture ("hottub" "startrek"). MUDs and MOOs evolved from the computer game Dungeons and Dragons. They are realtime, collective role-playing fantasy games of long duration, in which individuals develop fictional personae, sometimes of the opposite sex, and interact in virtual "rooms".

Pioneering researchers on CMC in the late 1970's and early 1980's focused primarily on its instrumental aspects. Early research was concerned with the effects of the new medium on organizational functioning, for instance, on efficiency and on hierarchical relationships. Many perceived the medium as cold, anonymous, and lacking in "social presence," because of "reduced bandwidth" and the absence of non-verbal cues such as facial expression. Alongside this ongoing research tradition, newer approaches focusing on the linguistic, playful and expressive aspects of CMC, are of greater interest to students of semiotics, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, folklore and anthropology.

Digital writing is strikingly dynamic, playful, and even speech-like. Ordinary e-mail is frequently experienced, paradoxically, as a form of "talking." CMC challenges currently held beliefs among folklorists and students of rhetoric, oral literature, and the history of literacy about the uniqueness of oral culture. They have assumed that its key features are dependent on the personal face-to-face interaction of individuals, e.g., a storyteller and his or her audience. Oral culture is believed, for example, to be agonistically toned, whereas writing, subject to processes of decontextualization, supposedly neutralizes this component of human interaction. Yet even in ordinal e-mail, both private and person-to-group, we find a striking tendency to sudden flare-ups of anger and insult known in cyberculture as flaming. Semantic elaboration of teh term includes: "flame on" to warn readers that a message may anger or insult them, and "flame off" to signal that the potentially controversial material has been concluded; "to flame" someone, as a transitive verb; "flamage" for flaming verbage; and "flame wars" for verbal battles. Sequences of flaming occur not only in synchronous modes of CMC but in non-synchronous, private e-mail messages and in public messages posted to electronic discussion groups, newsgroups, and bulletin boards.

One explanation for the phenomenon focuses on the fact that the speed and interactivity of the medium create the illusion of "conversation," yet correspondents cannot see one another and the text alone must carry the message. The absence of important cues to the intention behind a message, such as intonation, body language, the age, sex, and demeanour of the writer and physical features of the setting in which the message is composed, is thought to lead recipients to misinterpret messages. Thus, joking or ironic messages are taken too literally, with negative results. Advocates of this explanation sometimes recommend the use of emoticons, icons composed of typographic symbols to indicate emotion, as in :-), read sideways for a smiling face, or ;-) for a wink, to signal that the message is not to be taken seriously.

Another explanation locates the problem in the effect of the medium on the sender rather than on the recipient. It is argued that the anonymity of the medium disinhibits correspondents, releasing profanity and other aggressive material which could be suppressed in circumstances of more obvious social control. Writers would thus dare to include in their messages offensive content that they would never have included in the past or would only have spoken aloud, in informal social circumstances.

Yet another approach focuses on cultural factors: it is argued that the subculture of hackers, computer hobbyists, and computer professionals in industry and the universities fosters anti-establishment values and behaviour with a resultant blurring of conventional lines between public and private domains and between work and play. These trends, in turn, may encourage uninhibited behaviour. Thus, persons not belonging to this subculture who are socialized into the practices now crystallizing in CMC may be encouraged to behave more aggressively than they would in pre-CMC forms of written communication.

The preceding approaches tend to imply that flaming is "bad," and that if we succeed in understanding the reasons for it, perhaps it can be controlled. A very different approach takes a more neutral stance and emphasizes the playful, expressive, and even sporting aspects of flaming. In this view, flaming may be seen as one aspect of a partial return to oral culture in digital writing, which tends to be dynamic and playful and which encourages interlocutors to pay attention to how messages are packaged. Flaming may therefore have important affinities with a large variety of stylized oral forms of verbal duelling in which performance is central, such as "flying" in medieval England, or "playing the dozens" among Contemporary Black Americans.

There is a great need for research to investigate questions such as: under what circumstances does flaming tend to occur and how is it constituted? How do interlocutors know when an instance of flaming is happening? How do newcomers to cyberspace learn about it? Is it more common in public discussion groups than in private e-mail and if so, why? Might the presence of an audience foster it? How do people react to being flamed, and how does this affect their future communication style?

The dominant language of cyberspace is English, yet millions of persons whose first language is not English are communicating in this medium. Is flaming more common when one or more interlocutors is not a native speaker of English, or is it equally common among native speakers? Are there differences between the types of flaming which occur in the two cases? Is flaming, as a result of genuine misunderstanding, especially common when there has been no sustained electronic interaction preceding the incident?

Under what circumstances do elements of performance or sport become prominent? Does stylized, expressive flaming tend to occur mainly in situations of repeated, playful contact, as in the electronic pubs and cafes of Internet Relay Chat or commercial services like American Online and Prodigy? What forms does it take? Is there evidence that participants enjoy some forms of naming, rather than condemning it or becoming upset or offended? Careful ethnographic research is likely to show that naming is not a monolithic phenomenon, and that under different circumstances, each of the above explanations may be most appropriate.

Descriptive studies of the language of e-mail identify "oral" features (e.g. slang, expressions such as "well" and "o.k", fragmentation and a tolerance for misspellings that resembles dysfluencies of ordinary speech); "written" features (e.g., ellipsis, as in note-taking, lists); and uniquely digital features, including the use "emoticons," known popularly as "smiley" icons, citation of portions of a message from one's correspondent while replying (as a means to supply context) and stylized signatures including graphics. Devices such as multiple punctuation and eccentric spelling seek to imitate intonation in speech. Capital letters are interpreted widely on the "Net" as shouting, and are therefore usually discouraged. Written out laughter and third-person descriptions of oneself, marked off by asterisks (grins) resemble conventions of comics. Other features are play with the spacing of letters, and verbal and or visual puns like At Dh Va An Nk CuE (Thank you in advance). Except for smiley icons, third-person descriptors, and stylized signatures discussed below, all these devices are familiar; from the writing of children and even of teenagers and adults writing personal letters. To some extent, then, this new medium releases people to write in an expressive manner which was suppressed in the past by the schools when training children in the basic practices of essayist literacy.

Some researchers argue that the language of CMC is an emergent new register of English. This language is in a state of transition from the norms and practices of print culture to those of emergent computer culture. It reflects much confusion on the part of writers, who bring to basic e-mail and discussion groups experience with many pre-CMC genres of oral and written communication including the face-to-face conversation, the telephone conversation, the business letter, the personal letter, the telegram, the postcard, the ritual greeting card, and the intra-office memo. In comparison with paper-based written messages, the text of the electronic message carries a particularly heavy semiotic burden. Aspects such as the shape and size of paper or handwriting are not available to supplement the linguistic channel. E-mail messages automatically come with a memo-like, computer-generated header, which includes the sender, date, and subject line. This is a generalized use of the traditional intra-office memo. Whereas in the intra-office memo, no personal greeting was considered necessary, and writers proceeded directly to the body of their message, e-mail writers - mainly communicating globally and not just within organizations - often add personally chosen greetings and other openings, though practices are far from standard. If a greeting is to be used, should it look like the "Dear X" we associate with a written letter, or the informal "Hi, how are you doing?" of a personal conversation, or something new and different from both? Or should we learn to do without it altogether?

Stylized signatures are files specially created and stored by writers, inserted at the end of each message, as desired, and containing not only addresses, telephone and fax numbers but also a specially designed graphic image or logo, and even a proverb or other pithy saying. In part these signatures are meant to restore something of the trace of the unique individual which is lost when the handwritten signature is no longer possible. It is evident that, despite their intangibility, digital signatures partially resemble ancient and medieval seals, as well as modern business cards. While they individualize a message, in their present state they cannot fulfil the legal function of authentication.

Synchronous, descriptive studies of the language and generic features of e-mail messages do not suffice to identify the sources of confusion as individuals adapt to the new medium, or to document the crystallization of emergent new norms. Diachronic studies are necessary, to answer such questions as: how are practices in private e-mail and related modes crystallizing over time? To what extent is the communication style of today's initiates like that of the pioneers of e-mail technology in the 1970's? Are newcomers merely initiated into a pattern already set by pioneers or have important changes occurred? In what ways are the lines of demarcation between the decontextualized "business letter" and the contextualled"personal letter" becoming blurred in the new medium, and why is this happening? Does the medium encourage more rapid movement toward a personal, expressive style between a given pair of business correspondents than would happen in extended exchanges of pre-CMC business letters? To what extent are such developments also the product of a general cultural trend toward a preferred oral style of writing?

Playfulness flourishes particularly in the synchronous modes of CMC, which in effect become textual playgrounds. Individuals play with language, writing, and the computer keyboard, as well as with their own identity, the frames of interaction, and even with the commands of the computer programs which make their interaction possible. There are important affinities between computer-based, spontaneous playfulness and real-world, written genres such as graffiti and comics, on the one hand, and with face-to-face genres such as charades, carnivals and masked balls, parties, shows, and improvisational theatre, on the other. Yet most of what happens consists only of typed, interactive text - letters and typographic symbols on a computer screen - created by geographically dispersed persons who cannot see one another and who may never meet. In real-world carnivals, masks and costumes berate participants; here the ephemeral non-material medium, the typed text, and the prevalent use of nicknames provide the mask.

In synchronous modes, writing becomes performance: participants invite others to pay special attention to how their messages are packaged. Typed, online improvisation sometimes reaches virtuoso heights, with participants handing out compliments to one another. Highlights from a textual virtual party observed on IRC, show two persons, nicknamed <> and <>, using both words and emoticons to simulate smoking marijuana. These nicknames successfully disguise the gender of the players. In the first example, simulation is mainly verbal with smiley icons used supplementarily to express emotion. Thus, <> types "thanx dude *puff * * hold* ," and later winks ;-), pleased with his own improvisation. In the second example, icons are mobilized to pictorially represent the various stages of smoking. Thus, in the last line, <>, inspired by his improvisational partner <>, has graphically represented the entire sequence of putting a roach into one's mouth (using an icon based on the letter "Q" in which the tail of the "Q" represents the cigarettes inhaling and holding the smoke in one's lungs, exhaling, observing the curling smoke represented by the sequence of s's; note that the repeated letter "s" also represents the sound of smoking itself and that "s" is the first letter of the word "smoke"), and finally, the smile of pleasure resulting from the inhaled smoke. Participants' delight at their performance was no doubt enhanced by the knowledge that they simulated an illegal, counterculture activity. The juxtaposition of fantasy with high technology, as illustrated by this example, produces a distinctively post-modern form of communication, a disembodied play of signs often without obvious or unequivocal referents (e.g. the masked identity of the players in this case), distinguished by a style of playful rebellion and irreverent subversion.

Although improvisational performance predominates in synchronous modes, there are also experiments with scripted performance. A group calling themselves the Hamnet Players is experimenting with online theatre on IRC, virtual cast party included. They have scripted outrageous parodies of "Hamlet" and "Macbeth," called "Hamnet" and "PCbeth," respectively, juxtaposing Shakespeare's canonical plots and poetry with clever puns, speedwriting conventions, obscenity, and IRC computer jargon. At a signal from the artistic director, persons already in "disguise" in their regular IRC "nicks" (nicknames), don the "costumes" for their stage roles; that is, they change their "nicks" to the names of the characters they are about to "play" The performance is semiotically most interesting and most complex when players improvise on their scripted roles. Their aspirations go beyond having fun; they seek to develop a new form of performance art.

In its many varieties, CMC is generating new forms of popular culture. Even asynchronous electronic discussion groups of a relatively non-controversial character develop their own ambience and cultural practices. Some combine virtual communication with occasional realworld encounters such as clambakes and potluck suppers. Of course, this is greatly facilitated if the majority of group members live in close geographical distance of one another as is the case for the WELL, a pioneering virtual community based in San Francisco. But even members of geographically dispersed groups are known to make an effort to meet in person. Moreover some groups concrete their visual communal experiences with the design and wearing of group T-shirts. With respect to the synchronous modes, dozens of electronic "pubs" and "cafes" have crystallized, with "regulars" setting the tone for new forms of virtual convivality. Real world cafes are installing computers and modems so that customers can log on to virtual cafes or check their e-mail while drinking coffee.

In the coming decade there will be extensive research on the long-term social implications of CMC. Among the many issues to be studied are the following: what criteria can we use to evaluate the quality of "community" in cyberspace, and the effects of extended participation on individual well being? Are low risk virtual relationships being substituted for real-world relationships, or are people enriching their real-world experiences with new forms of socialization? While social isolates may escape into cyberspace, instead of cultivating real world ties, friends and family can now keep in touch on a daily basis at low cost. Thus, this medium might prove to strengthen weak, extended family and community ties, among geographically dispersed persons who kept in touch in the past only by the occasional letter or telephone call, supplemented by infrequent reunions at holiday or birthday times. It is already clear that cyberspace is not an entirely benign place: sexual harassment, racism, deception, molestation of children, etc., are common and difficult, if not impossible to control. It remains to be seen whether we can contain such problems and, at the same time, preserve the openness of the emergent culture of cyberspace.


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Brenda Danet is Professor in Sociology and Communlcations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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