Computer Mediated Communication: Social Interaction and the Internet
Author: Crispin Thurlow, Laura Lengel, Alice Tomic
Publisher: Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2004
Review Published: November 2006
The innovative approach and comprehensive content of Computer Mediated Communication: Social Interaction and the Internet are both stimulating and fitting given the relatively new status of CMC as a scholarly field. In a refreshingly creative fashion for a book of this kind, the authors, Crispin Thurlow, Laura Lengel, and Alice Tomic, begin by describing the use of fractals as a metaphor for CMC. As would be expected, they then go on to discuss the basic theory and central issues of CMC thoroughly.
A fractal is an image made up of an identical pattern that is continually repeated. The value of the authors' use of a fractal as a metaphor for CMC is twofold. First, it highlights a central theme that the book is about communication, not computers, and as such, not technologically deterministic. The authors note: "Fractals are digital and new-age, but simultaneously organic and prehistoric. The same is true of the internet. Sure, it's pretty new, sophisticated technology, but what's really interesting about it is the way it's being used to do the same old totally natural thing: communication" (1). Second, a spiral fractal is used to put the Internet into perspective as another step in the advancement of technology much like another turn in a spiral that simply builds on those that came before. The imaginative and interesting nature of these parallels serves to make these points memorable.
A second innovative feature of the book is that it is presented as a portal. That is, "a doorway to understanding, (and) a gateway to further investigation and first-hand experience" (4). Although this may not seem novel, one way this is accomplished is with a website that accompanies the book. Throughout the book, readers are directed to the website to find additional resources and examples of external webpages that illustrate the text. This element not only makes the book interactive, but provides the authors with the ability to keep examples current. However, while the links on the webpage appear to be well maintained, the list of key books in the field should be updated. An additional interactive element of the portal is the use of "Links" along the margins that provide further information, as well as websites that illustrate points or offer readers the opportunity to take part in online activities.
The book begins with two introductions -- one for students and one for course leaders. The tone and content of the introductions vary greatly. Each successfully targets its audience in describing how readers can use the book, what they can get out of it, and challenges for how to engage with CMC. Students are provided with a foundation from which to view the Internet realistically and are asked to reflect on what their role in studying CMC can be. Course leaders are introduced to the idea of a more interactive form of teaching and asked to consider "opportunities for 'deep learning' rather than 'surface' learning" (11).
In addition to the two introductions, the book also contains four strands. Each strands is anchored in one of Pierre Bourdieu's four pillars of intellectual life that provide readers with an overarching maxim to help them make sense of the swiftly evolving field of CMC research. The first strand, "Learn: Basic Theory," covers the fundamentals of CMC in six units: defining, situating, theorizing, describing, explaining, and contextualizing CMC. These units lay down the foundation for studying CMC beginning with an explanation of what it is and ending with a discussion of its role in everyday life. All of these units are appropriately basic and thorough. This strand is informed by Bourdieu's first pillar: The "demolition of simplistic either -- ors." As such, the limitations of polarizing CMC are highlighted throughout and readers are cautioned against doing so.
The second strand, "Critique: Central Issues," extends the study of CMC into current issues with seven units: online ethics and international inequalities; online identity; online communities; language and the internet; women and the internet; interpersonal attraction, cybersex and cyberporn; and antisocial behavior, online compulsion, and "addiction." These units build on basic concepts presented in the first strand and progresses into broader themes and concerns in CMC research. The online ethics and inequalities unit discusses such things as the role of CMC in promoting democratic discourse and privacy in CMC. Among other things, online identity looks at how identity is constructed online and if it can be considered real. The online communities unit tackels the question of whether or not online communities are beneficial for sociability. In languages on the internet issues of different languages and styles of language used in CMC are presented. Women and the internet describes the gendered nature of computer culture and how women are overcoming it. The unit on interpersonal attraction highlights the lack of scholarly attention given to the study of cybersex and cyberporn, two vast areas of CMC. The final unit on antisocial and complusive behavior describes how online activities can become problematic. In each unit, principal texts and arguments that contribute to the field are comprehensively presented and discussed with key quotes and images. Here Bourdieu's second pillar, "the critique of received ideas," comes into play because the authors believe readers have accumulated enough basic knowledge in the first strand to begin broadening their "critical awareness and understanding of CMC" (81).
In each of these two strands, the authors incorporate a number of practices that can be very helpful for students starting out in the study of CMC and academics in general. The authors clearly and purposefully describe concepts before they discuss them in depth or introduce work that uses them. This ensures that students have a clear understanding of a concept before they are asked to contextualize it. They also direct students to connections they can make between different concepts and research that have been discussed both within a unit and between units. Drawing these connections helps students see how to move beyond simply reading about ideas to engaging with them. Additionally, the authors use bullet points to highlight the kinds of questions students can ask to critique what they have read. These examples demonstrate the kinds of things students can consider when reading with a critical eye.
The third strand, "Apply: Fieldwork," departs from the format of imparting information and offers a wide variety of exercises to engage with CMC. These are presented in six task sections: searching and researching on the internet; online collaboration; creating a webpage; making conversation; building community; and constructing identity. This strand does an excellent job of moving readers from learning about CMC to actually doing it. Participating in a variety of CMC is essential to a deep understanding of such an activity-based subject. The tasks included here not only encourage readers to engage in CMC, but inform them of ways to do so they may not have considered or known how to accomplish. For example, working on a online collaboration project with someone they've never met or using IRC chat rather than web-based chat. These tasks also incorporate and animate ideas discussed throughout the book, giving readers the opportunity to experience them firsthand and reflect on their encounter. Bourdieu's third hallmark, "freedom with respect to those in power," is invoked here to inspire readers not only to passively take on the information imparted thus far, but to exercise the freedom to put it into practice.
The final strand, "Explore: Focus Areas," contains eight topics on various kinds of communication in CMC: political, legal, organizational, health, lifespan, instructional, visual, and new media. Bourdieu's fourth pillar, "respect for the complexity of problems," is referred to in this strand to remind readers that CMC is continually expanding and growing in complexity. Accordingly, this strand presents specific areas of research using CMC and invites readers to investigate topics for themselves. Some examples include e-democracy, cyber-crime, telecommuting, e-medicine, children online, silver surfers, virtual learning, human-computer interaction, and wifi. The strand provides a preliminary introduction to each topic of CMC research and includes detailed assignments that can help readers learn more on their own. Although the authors maintain topics are only meant to be "snapshots," these sections would benefit from more information, considering they are introductions to various areas of research not previously discussed in the book. In this way, this is the weakest strand of the book. On the other hand, it does provide a broad overview of research using CMC and challenging assignments that will result in greater knowledge of specific areas of study if completed.
There are other substantive features of the book worth mentioning. First, the book purposefully brings an international perspective to the study of CMC. Throughout the book there are references to statistics, media outlets, and webpages of different nations. There are also discussions of how the digital divide affects countries and languages, not merely individuals in the United States who do and do not have access to the Internet. Second, at the end of each unit there is a section titled "ideas for further discussion and investigation." The ideas and activities tend to be both interesting and educational, making them a good device for helping students engage with the material in a hands-on way that is appealing and memorable.
The overall structure and layout of the book is also well presented. The organization of strands is such that readers' knowledge and the demands made on them progresses and builds logically. The first strand covers the fundamentals of CMC, the next strand progresses further into the field introducing a critical perspective, the third strand provides the opportunity to apply what has been learned, and finally readers are challenged to use the tools they have acquired to independently explore CMC. At the same time, the book is set up so that readers can jump around within or between strands to engage with material in a manner that suits them. Lastly, each unit begins with a clear and concise overview that includes key terms and main objectives. These promote focused reading and are useful to readers selectively choosing specific units rather than simply reading chronologically.
Overall this book does a good job of providing what you would expect from an introductory or basic text of CMC, and does it with style. The content is suitably basic and thorough, while the approach is innovative and inspiring.
Antonina Bambina is a Research Associate at the Center on Organizational Innovation at Columbia University. She earned her Doctorate degree from Columbia University in 2005. She has worked in media research in the private sector and her academic research interests include social network analysis, Internet studies, and medical sociology. Dr. Bambina's book, Online Social Support: The Interplay of Social Networks and Computer-Mediated Communication, is forthcoming in the spring of 2007. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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