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
At the risk of stating the obvious, the field of computer mediated communication (CMC) research has grown exponentially. This means that not only have the issues raised by the increasing ubiquity of CMC expanded dramatically but also that the range and depth of literature examining and theorizing these issues have become progressively more wide-ranging and complex. Students of CMC are therefore being asked to not only understand but critically engage with processes that are increasingly constitutive of their everyday social practices and understandings. This poses a significant challenge for anyone teaching students about CMC. As such, a book that comprehensively outlines the field and some of its central issues is welcomed.
Computer Mediated Communication: Social Interaction and the Internet is an introductory text that is intended to expose students to a range of ideas, issues, and practices that underpin much of CMC study. Crispin Thurlow, Laura Lengel, and Alice Tomic make no bones about the fact that they are not able to address all of the issues, literatures, or indeed technologies that are engaged in the study and practices of CMC. However, they offer a clearly structured, multi-dimensional approach to the study of CMC and social interaction with a particular focus on "how identities, relationships and communities are being changed or influenced by the internet" (2).
By multi-dimensional, I am pointing to the ways in which the book approaches its pedagogical, practical, and conceptual aims. The authors describe the book as having a portal structure, whereby the printed text is viewed simply as an entry point that leads to possibilities for further external investigation. The text is littered with links and references, it is modularized and therefore not reliant upon linear navigation, and it incorporates a supporting website. The approach works reasonably well. In large measure, the use of external resources obviates the need to cover all the material in the text; those who are interested can explore individual issues or tasks as needed or as determined by their instructors. Indeed, the authors are to be commended for their commitment to this venture for as they note, "The focus is on getting students to research about the internet on the internet" (11). An integrated approach to the study of CMC is absolutely essential. It is only through hands-on application and personal experience with the various aspects of CMC that students are able to effectively understand and apply the more theoretical constructs and claims with which they have been presented.
However, there are several issues raised by the process of straddling print and online media. For example, there is the issue of who hosts the supporting website; a broader issue for these types of "boundary crossing" media initiatives and particularly important for something as ephemeral as internet content. The book lists a Sage site, but the actual site is currently hosted at the University of Washington. Each webpage has a request for readers to notify the authors of any link rot or difficulties accessing linked resources (an ongoing problem with the use of non-affiliated links). This raises issues also about the authors' ongoing commitment and responsibilities for site maintenance -- not necessarily an issue for the efficacy of the book but certainly a new dimension to the role of authorship. Also, the portal approach means that each topic is covered (in print) briefly, sometimes consisting of only a paragraph or two, at other times, one or two pages. Taken on its own, the text is at times unsatisfying and offers a fairly surface engagement with some issues; the online resources are therefore essential.
The book is divided into four strands that have quite specific roles to play within the book's overall pedagogical framework. Each strand (and the sections within) follows a similar structure. Key terms and learning objectives are noted, some contextual or background material (with links) is presented, followed by a review, stimulus reading and resources, and ideas and questions for further discussion.
These four strands are described as 1) learn: basic theory; 2) critique: central issues; 3) apply: fieldwork; and 4) explore: focus areas. Strand 1, learn: basic theory, introduces students to some of the underlying theory upon which CMC research is built. This includes outlining the field of CMC itself through an overview of topics, theoretical approaches, and key people and publications. It includes a brief study of communication theory, and of understandings of the socio-technological relationship (in terms of technological determinism and social constructivist approaches). Technologies, group and interpersonal dynamics, and flaming are also discussed. The current focus on recognizing the embedded nature of CMC practices within the everyday is also emphasized. This section builds a conceptual foundation from which to approach the rest of the book.
Strand 2, critique: central issues, discusses some of the dominant debates in scholarly and public media. These include issues about ethics, inequity, gender, identity, community, and relationships. It also includes some critical discussion of those recurring fears around cybersex and cyberporn, antisocial behavior, online compulsion, and "addiction." In some ways, it is strange to see community and identity to be included here and not in the basic theory, given the book's stated focus. However, it is also recognized that these are indeed issues that much debate has focused around. For example, are online communities real communities? Is identity as easily constructed online as is presented by some writers? These and other issues are presented in a way that positions the debates and shifting perspectives historically. It also works to problematize simplistic either/or understandings.
Strand 3, apply: fieldwork, is the practical section of the book. This section is devoted to providing students with the skills necessary to research, interact, share information, undertake collaborative projects, and construct an online presence. Using research tools, assessing online resources, working with html, collaborating online, building community, and constructing homepages are all covered (albeit very briefly) in this section. The rationale of this section is noted above: Students need to learn about the internet through using the internet. The authors take this hands-on aspect to the level of students designing their own simple home page and using html and web editors. While this may be useful (and pedagogically sound) for students to know, it isn't essential to the learning outcomes and in some ways took away valuable space for other material. Instead, it may have been more productive to simply point to some resources for students to undertake their own self directed study.
Strand 4, explore: focus areas, is the book’s culminating section. Students choose one of more focus areas (which are "thematic snapshots") to apply their learned practical and conceptual knowledge. The section offers a choice of nine topics, including political, legal, organizational, health, visual, and lifespan communication. As Thurlow et al note to students, "This is your opportunity to be a CMC researcher and to find out what’s new in cyberspace" (197).
An indexed glossary, list of stimulus and task reading, and a list of "all other references" are included at the end of the book. The modularized structure of the book means that one or more sections of the book could be used or that the book in its entirety could be the basis around which a complete course could be built.
I was surprised not to see more discussion of gaming and, in particular, more work on MMORGs. This is a rapidly growing field of study germane to many of the issues covered in the book. Consideration of governance and regulation issues (both technical and social) would have been useful. Further work on race and the construction of identities, and some mention of the current interest in social capital and issues of online trust for virtual communities and relationships would also have been welcomed.
However, there is an impressive range of material covered in this book. What I have offered above is a descriptive outline of the book's approach and contents and some overall impressions about its usefulness as a CMC text. Some sections perhaps are less rigorous or do not cover theorists and topics that I would feel to be important. For example, the authors' interpretation of Tönnies' gemeinshaft and gesellschaft distinctions or their glossary note on Anderson's imagined communities are not strictly accurate, according to my reading at least (Anderson suggests that perhaps even face-to-face communities are imagined in some ways, whereas Thurlow et al posit that, "all communities are imagined if they are larger than traditional" (248)). These sorts of criticisms, however, feel rather niggly and ignore the breadth of the book's contributions. The nature of any introductory text on such a dynamic and vast field of CMC means that the authors have had to make some very specific choices, opening avenues for everybody to critique something.
Crispin Thurlow, Laura Lengel, and Alice Tomic have produced a functional, practical and effective text. The tone is intended to be approachable and conversational and it manages this quite well. This is a good first year introductory text into CMC for undergraduate or secondary school in communication, sociology, and media studies. There is a set of separate instructions for teachers or instructors to help them effectively use the book, and is particularly helpful for those who are less confident with some areas of the literature or aspects of the technology. The book is useful historically too in terms of its documenting and positioning CMC debates and the changing focus of these over time.
Michele Willson lectures in Internet Studies at Curtin University of Technology. She is the author of Technically Together: Rethinking Community within Techno-Society (Peter Lang, 2006) and is interested in exploring issues of technological sociality, virtual community, and different ways of thinking and practicing being-together. <M.Willson@exchange.curtin.edu.au>
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