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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

Computer Mediated Communication, edited by Crispin Thurlow, Laura Lencel, and Alice Tomic, is a textbook for undergraduate students doing a first introductory course. It aims to examine the social and cultural transformations being brought about by computers and, more precisely the internet -- not a very modest claim. The textbook is an easy read, well structured and makes much effort to adopt a student's point of view. The authors do their best to make their book as well as their topic an interesting thing to follow. They repeatedly stress the "revolutionary" character of the internet, the power of the internet to transform our lives, and the role of the students as internet-experienced people to act as forerunners in this development. "My generation of students is very upbeat. They're all interested in new technology and innovations. I believe we'll probably be the ones to make a difference in the world" (student quoted, p. 3).

The authors consider their book to be a "portal." It features links, exercises, study questions and several other didactic devices. It intends thus to open up the student's mind to the variety of sources and opinions on CMC. The text is not only about CMC but also encourages the use of it. The book comes along with a web site that collects information and texts mentioned or discussed in the book. Furthermore, a lot of readings, and further study suggestions referred to, are found on the web as well. In so far, it is a splendid combination of teaching about a subject and getting students to practice the subject.

The book is structured into four strands: a) Learn: basic theory, b) Critique: central issues, c) Apply: fieldwork and d) Explore: focus areas. The headings are introduced via some quotes from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Though some other sociologists are quoted in the book as well (e.g. Giddens, Goffman), stressing the inter-disciplinary character of CMC, the overall focus is more on the psychological oriented literature.

In part one (Basic Theory), some approaches to CMC are presented, culminating in the Social Information Processing Model by Joseph Walther -- who also wrote a book dedication on the back cover. Thurlow et al. do not want to disturb the readers with too much quotations or too much theory. "Students are put off by too much theory, too much quotations" (6). Instead, they follow a rather simple story line. CMC is transforming our lives in a basically benign manner. Some people (early researchers on CMC, but especially lay persons with journalists in the front line) doubt this and smear CMC with wrong accusations. CMC in their minds is alienating, second rate, deviant, addictive, compulsive (e.g. p. 157). The authors try to help the students fight these "accusations" (their word, not mine) by giving them scientific approaches and empirical information.

Part two (critique) brings some flesh to this drama. Seven issues are discussed like ethics and inequities, online identity, women and the internet, and anti-social behavior in order to apply the learned concepts.

Fieldwork (part three) makes the student work with the internet. It tells them about searching on the net, doing online collaboration, developing a web site, etc. Six tasks for the students are presented that should make them feel at ease with the internet.

Part four aims to blend the different strands studied so far: having scientific approaches at hand, studying important issues with and on the net. Nine topics are presented ranging from political communication to new media developments in CMC.

The formal qualities of the textbook are beyond debate. With respect to the content, however, I have some reservations. As mentioned above, the book adopts as its motto statements from Bourdieu about the aims of science: the demolition of simplistic either-ors, the critique of received ideas, freedom with respect to those in power, respect for the complexity of problems. These aims are very well taken. But little of this sort of thinking can be found in the textbook.

The textbook adopts a largely uncritical attitude towards "the technology," i.e. the internet. This is most probably very helpful for making the book an easy read for the students. As mentioned before, the book considers its task to defend CMC against its "critics," meaning people who suggest that CMC is not the real thing compared to face-to-face communication. This might go down well with the worldview of the students who still hear their parent's voice arguing that they should not spend too much time with the computer (tv, video etc.). But I doubt that that is the point. In my mind, the world ticks differently. My daughter officially got acquainted with the computer in kindergarten some years ago. Now in primary school, a computer with internet access sits in her class room. My students are hard to move to look for material that cannot be found using google and is not somewhere on the internet. Wikipedia is their favorite reference tool. A friend of mine ponders to offer a class about where to find information and data for student research beyond the internet. My experience with students is that they in fact have a totally uncritical attitude towards the internet and a textbook which claims to instil critical thinking among its audience should attempt to question and shatter every day beliefs held by its audience.

This is to say that in fact some things have changed. But actually one finds little of these changes studied, attempts to explain them, or ways to investigate effects of these changes in the book. This is surprising, because the term "revolutionary effects" is repeated so often, but hardly substantiated. Scholars working on ICT or technologies in general, are used to hearing the words "revolution" and "revolutionary" on a daily basis and know that little of this actually materializes, but what really matters is the difference that technology in fact does make.

This points to a basic, theoretical dilemma of the book. On the one hand, the authors want to present the benign qualities and effects of the revolutionary "technology" i.e. the internet (e.g. p. 163 and p. 175). Part of the problem surely lies with how to treat the technology that is the platform for CMC. The authors want to concentrate on the Internet. The authors claim that the technology "Internet" has transformative power - insofar that the internet has to be treated like an actor who causes all the wondrous changes. But the authors also clearly recognize that such thinking gets them into trouble. They criticize technological determinism but also embrace it to a certain extent and defend it against social constructivism.

On the other hand, the authors dismiss a detailed discussion of the internet technology which then would be necessary, and instead refer to the many applications and services run over the internet. The internet in this sense is what users want to do with it. But this begs the question: why is the technology then considered to be the transforming force? They in fact repeatedly claim that what matters in the end are applications, the way people use the technology and embed it into their daily practices: "We can examine how the internet is embedded in our lives and how it affords a space to enact ordinary types of day-to-day activities and communication" (158).

Given this undecidedness, the book neither offers a clear view of the technology, its development, and its components linked to specific, unique effects, nor explains why people use specific technologies in very different ways. The authors start with Bourdieu and stress the development of a critical attitude. But Bourdieu would have been interested in social structures, inequalities, and injustice not caused by technology but by humans and society. Little of this is to be found in the textbook. Instead, the authors claim, "you have the chance to construct your own online identity, to make your relationships online, and build your own sense of online community. These activities represent precisely the kind of independent search for knowledge that Bourdieu is talking about" (162). Really?

I guess we are dealing here with the question of how much complexity is considered to be digestible for students and how intensively can they be confronted with scholarly discussions at an early start of their studies. In this sense, little of the wealth and insights of studies on CMC can be found. Take, for example, the insights of Patricia Wallace's relatively new book, The Internet and the Work Place. Sure, this is not a textbook, but in equally plain language she summarizes the results of CMC studies by giving an engaging idea about what science is and can be. And: with a clear view of the complexities involved in answering seemingly simple questions.

Another example is the treatment of the effects of the internet on political participation. The authors claim that the internet "can also serve both to politicise us and to enable us to participate more actively in political processes" (199). They stress the possibilities and options, and fancy about what actually can be done via the internet: "Researchers have found that online communication can indeed help increase political awareness, participatory democracy, mutual tolerance and more open, peaceful dialogue between people" (200). However, in principle, you could also say legitimately the very opposite. Meaning that the book falls short of an answer or even pointing towards a way on how to answer the questions -- does the internet really make a difference for political participation? Are more people participating in politics thanks to the internet? Are different people participating? Do they use different tactics with different effects and chances for success? Further reading suggestions are given by the authors, but like in many others cases, they fail to mention what I would consider "classical texts" on the subject.

Or take the issues surrounding online communities. The debate is not how online communities might work, but rather the issue taken up by the authors is to defend the argument, that online communities can exist at all. What gets lost are the practical issues in which CMC must be interested: under what conditions online communities can in effect work and what is the relationship between online and offline. My own research on virtual cooperation and virtual organizations showed that to make virtual cooperation happen is not an easy but a very complicated task. In my research on virtual organizations, many of which failed, a lot of problems were identified why cooperation was not successful and some clearly were related to the aim to do as much as possible via the internet, but stating these problems is not "accusing" CMC. Over the last years, a number of new strategies and devices have been developed to make virtual collaboration more successful. In my mind, the crucial scientific debate is not whether communities are possible at all, but under what circumstances, with what limits, with what involvement of off-line elements, etc.

In my mind, the authors clearly overstate the importance of the internet. Again, this might be a helpful didactic device, but to say in a single paragraph that the authors want to avoid concentrating only on Western attitudes towards and experiences of the technology and then to continue to argue that every person's lives are transformed by the internet is a little bit over the top(2). The majority of the people living in, say, Asia, Africa, and even South America are not be very much affected by the Internet -- their lives will definitely not be transformed by this new technology. Even thinking about our own lives, we can argue over what transforms our lives more: developments discussed under the headings of globalization, organizational reforms, organizational restructurings, or the internet. Which one is it?

Another claim in this regards is that teaching is being transformed by the internet: teachers become students, students become teachers (well, I have heard that some time ago), and hypertext structures reorganizing the way we teach and learn. Or, in the authors words: "One thing's for certain: the internet and web have brought about whole new ways of learning" (3); and, when deep learning is enabled, "a radical transformation of learning about ourselves" (11). But one of the first recommendations of the authors on how to work with the book is to start with chapter one and read continuously until the end of the book: "We recommend you follow the units in the order in which they are presented here" (13). So much for the transforming experience of hypertext. In spite of the fact that transformation is quoted repeatedly, they also have to acknowledge, "from what we know of things, it's our impression that there's actually not a lot about CMC which is truly unique" (75). Now, what is the point here?

I still think that the book is a very valuable textbook for undergraduates with a limited computer experience and little knowledge about ongoing discussions. But I would have preferred the authors to state openly that the book's primary aim is to get students accustomed to the internet and to help them use the internet, rather than a text that wants to instil critical thinking about our ourselves and technology. This would have been a worthy aim in itself and the book would have fulfilled it perfectly.

Wallace, Patricia. The Internet and the Work Place. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Gerhard Fuchs:
Dr. Gerhard Fuchs works at the University of Stuttgart (Department of Social Sciences). Before that he acted as a Deputy Director of the Department Technology, Organization, Work at the Centre for Technology Assessment in Baden-Württemberg, Stuttgart. Research interests New Information and Communication Technologies, Regional Innovation Systems and the development of new industries (e.g. ICT, Biotechnology). His research interests have found its imprint in the development of several long term research programs, a wide variety of ensuing publications, and an involvement in various international projects.  <isf78gf@sowi.uni-stuttgart.de>

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