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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

 REVIEW 1: Antonina Bambina
 REVIEW 2: Mark D. Johns
 REVIEW 3: Michele Willson
 REVIEW 4: Monica Whitty
 REVIEW 5: Gerhard Fuchs

Those of us who teach courses in computer-mediated communication (CMC), particularly in undergraduate settings, have been challenged by a lack of traditional textbooks for our classes. While a variety of edited readers have been published in recent years, they are often more suitable for graduate students; traditional textbooks have been slow in coming to the market. Susan Barnes' Computer-mediated Communication: Human-to-human Communication Across the Internet (Allyn & Bacon, 2003) was the first entry from a major textbook publisher. The present volume, Computer Mediated Communication: Social Interaction and the Internet, followed shortly, in February 2004, to provide some competition in the marketplace. We who teach in this field can only hope that the publication of such texts by all of the major textbook suppliers will become a trend as courses in the social implications of computer communication become more mainstream.

Perhaps because the market is so sparsely populated at this time, Crispin Thurlow, Laura Lengel, and Alice Tomic have sought to be something of "all things to all people." The introduction suggests that the text can be adapted for use in courses from high school through the graduate study. This would be a wide stretch for any text, and the book suffers from trying to do too much. Teachers will find that much of the theoretical foundation material is over the heads of high school students, while a number of the suggested exercises will test the patience of college undergraduates, much less serve as challenging projects for graduate students.

A challenge for younger students in the U.S. is the writing style, which reflects the roots of the authors. Thurlow came to his current position at the University of Washington via South Africa and Ph.D. program at Cardiff University in Wales; Lengel, currently at Bowling Green, was previously at Richmond American International University in London, where she served in the department headed by Tomic, an Australian. The publisher has produced an edition using American spelling and punctuation, for the most part, and U.S. undergraduates can learn something about how the rest of the world speaks English. Yet less mature readers will find some phrases or idioms that are unfamiliar and perhaps even puzzling. Despite the claim for a wider range, this text is really meant for undergraduates.

Further, the publisher has not produced a separate instructors' edition, so material intended for teachers is also included in the text, usually as a sidebar or a separate section at the end of a chapter. While students will probably ignore these, they add to the clutter and to the perception that here is a book that is trying to be all things to all categories of possible readers.

The book is divided into four "strands." Strand 1 is entitled "Learn: Basic Theory" and contains six chapters (called "units") with key terms and concepts. Strand 2 is "Critique: Central Issues," and contains seven units on issues such as privacy, identity, community, cyberporn, etc. Strand 3 is called "Apply: Fieldwork," and in this strand the chapters are called "tasks" rather than "units." These chapters are exercises students are to conduct online, with appropriate discussion questions. The final strand, Strand 4, "Explore: Focus Areas," has nine "topics" for class discussion. The idea of the strands is to encourage instructors to mix and match material from the various strands as the course progresses.

McLuhan noted that new media initially imitate the forms and structures of preceding technologies. Had he survived longer into the computer age, he would have witnessed older media imitating forms and structures of new media -- in this case, books attempting to present material in ways that suggest hypertext. The distribution of the material across the four strands in this book is clearly such an attempt. While it is a valiant effort, as McLuhan would likely have predicted it must, the effort ultimately fails. Ink on paper simply lacks the technical properties necessary to successfully re-create a browser screen, and the reader is left just a bit confused by the various "units," "tasks," and "topics" to which one is invited to turn. Some good instructor resources might assist teachers in structuring a course with these resources, however the only such resources are included in the text itself, so one works with what one has.

This is not to say, however, that the material is not excellently written. The six initial chapters on "Basic Theory" are perhaps the best theoretical introduction to CMC this reviewer has seen anywhere. Beginning with a chapter on basic definitions, the theory strand lays out the fundamentals of communication and, clearly and simply, establishes the parameters for study of CMC within the broader field of internet studies. This initial chapter would be rather elementary for most students in a communication studies program, but quickly brings students from other disciplines up to speed on the rudiments. A second chapter on the history of technology not only traces developments from the telegraph to the internet, but also explains the evolution of thought about the place of technology in society and in the lives of individuals. The third chapter unpacks human-computer interaction basics from the perspective of symbolic interactionism, and in the process both illustrates and debunks utopian and dystopian extremes, and calls attention to the dangers of technological determinism. The following chapter takes up fundamentals of interpersonal communication and lifts up several "deficit models" of CMC for critique -- that is, theoretical models that focus on ways in which communication via computer lacks attributes of face-to-face encounters. Chapter five nicely does a similar unpacking of small group communication basics as applied to CMC. And the final chapter in the theory strand examines aggression and social identity issues online. These chapters are all solid theoretically and are exceptionally well-written for the undergraduate level. The only possible critique of these chapters is that there are only six of them, and that integration of this theoretical foundation with real issues requires shuffling in chapters from other strands.

While the authors have found a good balance between their own summaries and pointing to primary sources outside the text, an irritant is that almost all references to web sources are stripped of the original URLs and instead are made via a somewhat opaque set of pointers to pages on a web site. Using the publisher's site as a portal may simplify navigation for some students, and offers a certain amount of protection from "link rot" (assuming that the publisher's site is well maintained). However, the system isolates the student from the realities of navigation and verification on the internet. It just seems rather odd to design a book about the internet, complete with an exercise on how to conduct a web search, but then to include nothing but strange portal numbers for all of the referenced sites throughout the book. At the very least, it would have made sense to include the entire URL and offer the portal number as a possible short cut for those having trouble finding the site, or those who preferred that option. The best way to teach the internet is to have students actually use it. But, oddly, the publisher even provides only a portal number to steer students to Google -- you'll find it at link FW1:25 on the textbook site.

In addition to the rather constricted, portal-based search exercise, other tasks in the fieldwork strand include participation in an online chat, building a personal web page, conducting an analysis of others' homepages, and entering a MOO. As noted earlier, most of these tasks are quite simple -- the first being to compare searches on several different engines, from Alta Vista to Yahoo!, and discussing how to identify credible sites. While a valuable exercise, generally these tasks tend to underestimate students in contemporary classrooms. While some may be challenged by building a web page, and MOOs are foreign to many students today as the technology has moved to other types of social environments, one would be hard pressed to find, in today's classrooms, students who have not used a search engine, engaged in IM chat, or examined Facebook or MySpace pages. Most students take such activities as matters of course in daily life. Because technologies change rapidly, and students vary widely in their experiences, the selection of field activities would be better left to instructors, rather than included in the text. Further, a much longer list of possibilities from which to choose could be provided in supplementary instructors' material.

The "issues" strand, similarly, offers something of a mixed bag for use in the classroom. The issues identified as critical include a "unit" on "ethics," which discusses the digital divide, free speech and democracy, corporate power, spam, and privacy. These are certainly vital concerns, and there are relationships between them, but it's quite a catalog for one brief chapter. The following unit, on identity and virtuality, is very nicely written, but it is difficult to understand why this particular unit appears as an issue rather than in the basic theory strand. The same could be said about the next unit, on community. Another chapter is this strand deals with language on the 'net -- some fundamental linguistics, the dominance of English, and the unique grapholects (to use Walter Ong's (1982) term) of CMC. There is overlap between issues discussed in this chapter and some dealt with earlier in the "ethics" unit. The same is true for the chapter on women's issues, which follows, and the chapters on cybersex/cyberporn and antisocial addictive behaviors that complete the units in the "issues" strand. All of these, ultimately, are matters of ethics.

The "focus areas" strand includes "topics" on political and legal issues, an organizational communication chapter that addresses corporate dominance of the internet (which again has some overlap with the segment on privacy issues in "ethics" unit in the "issues" strand), and a health communication chapter. Also included in this strand are two chapters dealing with, what the authors term, "lifespan communication" -- one dealing with children and the other dealing with the elderly. These chapters actually are a rather unique contribution, as age issues are seldom a central focus of CMC research, and certainly not often in the spotlight in introductory courses. Education, visual communication, and "new developments" round out the topics in this strand. Each of these topics is presented in three to five pages which include long lists of links (again, just code numbers on the publisher's site). These chapters do little more than raise the issues, and do not examine them in depth. While the strand notion provides instructors with some flexibility about when to insert these topics into the syllabus, most could have easily been incorporated into the various units just as easily.

Crispin Thurlow, Laura Lengel, and Alice Tomic have provided a text filled with treasures. The range of ideas selected for inclusion encompasses all of the significant issues that sociologists or communication studies scholars are currently wrestling with in the field of computer mediated communication. The firm theoretical foundation, and the excellence of the writing, provide the instructor with content that is solid and provocative. Despite the awkward organization of the material across the various "strands," and the attempt to address too broad an audience, these authors provide a text that creative teachers of undergraduates can use effectively. As textbook publishers continue to recognize courses in CMC becoming part of the mainstream undergraduate curriculum at colleges and universities, this book will be one against which new competitors will measure themselves.

Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge.

Mark D. Johns:
Mark D. Johns (Ph.D. University of Iowa, 2000) is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research interests include social impacts of new communication technologies and intersections of media, religion, and culture. He is co-editor of Online Social Research: Methods, Issues, and Ethics, published in 2004 by Peter Lang.  <johnsmar@luther.edu>

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