I Link, Therefore, I Am: Connection and Identity in Computer-Mediated Communication

By Susan Huelsing Sarapin
Submitted on October 22, 2006 to the On-Line Interaction and
Facilitation Seminar, Fall 2006, Purdue University
Dr. Sorin A. Matei via the I Think Blog
(http://www.matei.org/ithink)

Introduction

Today, people all over the world are connected, or “tethered” (Turkle, 2006), to a degree never before witnessed in the history of human association, primarily due to the emergence of the Internet and its channels of computer-mediated communication (CMC). Almost all of our online conversations used to be one-to-one propositions, but hardware and software innovations now enable us to engage in one-to-many and many-to-many exchanges.

Social scientists long ago proved that people have an innate need to connect with others. In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs (Boeree, 1998), the most basic physiological need for food, water, and shelter is first, and is followed by the need for safety and security. The third level, which is the first to recognize the individual as connected or affiliated to a person or persons other than himself, includes the need for belonging and love. Maslow’s fourth tier in the hierarchy is also directly related to connectedness because it involves the acquisition of esteem, approval, and recognition from others in one’s group or community1 through achievement and competency. The third and fourth levels suggest the beginning of self-identity formation as a reflection of one’s human links or associations outside of oneself.

For about 20 years, sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, theologians, and communication specialists have been studying online sociability phenomena, and developing explanations of users’ dialogic behavior. Theories have been posited regarding why people are migrating to cyberspace in such great numbers, what are their expectations of being so consummately connected, why people “talk” online, what benefits are derived from the use of the Internet in this way, and what positive and negative effects on society and the individual result from such widespread conversation.

However, most of the academic literature has missed what I believe to be some of the most important aspects of online associative behavior in need of serious investigation in order for us to ever fully understand how communication functions for individuals and for groups of individuals in cyberspace.

One is the fact that of those users “belonging” to social networks, online conferences, or blogs, up to 99% of these people rarely, if ever, contribute to the discourse. At any given time online, 95-99% of the discussion is contributed by 1-5% of the audience. For example, if a blog such as Drew Curtis’ FARK.com sees traffic of 1,064,063 unique visitors during one day (truthlaidbear.com, 2006), we can reasonably expect that fully 1,000,000 of them will not participate in the conversation. Rather, they will gratify themselves by “watching” and reading from the sidelines of the discussion, a behavior referred to as lurking. Granted, 64,000 people talking to and with each other during a given day would be considered a sizable conversation by anyone’s standards. But, then again, why are so many not participating? Technically, any one visitor is “connected” to a million other people on FARK.com during a 24-hour period, but what do those connections or linkages themselves signify for the individual? Does size really matter? If those within our own community know that we are linked to so many others, does that translate into high credibility and a corresponding increase in self-esteem? Or, is it simply enough of a boost to our self-esteem and self-identity to recognize, within ourselves, that we are connected to a substantial number of people…and that we could communicate with any of them if we ever had the need or motivation to do so. What impact does connectedness itself have on self-identity?

Another phenomenon that needs careful consideration is the nature of the conversations themselves. Are we talking to others within the context of the larger social networks or are we talking with others? In other words, are we engaging in monologue (self-expression; look at me) or dialogue (sharing; what can I do for you)? Although asynchronous, interpersonal, online interaction is often referred to as dialogue, it probably comes closer to what I would call a stratalogue, a multi-tiered conversation in which successive postings build upon and embellish previous ones but not necessarily as a direct response to the earlier posting…not a talking to or a talking with, but rather a talking around or about. If we are not engaging in true dialogue, are we missing necessary cues from others that would help shape our social identities?

The assumptions promulgated in the literature are deserving of review and analysis because they offer varied and significant insights into the behavior of and the effects upon those who do participate in online discourse, and some offer a little peek into the minds of those who do not. This paper will reference a segment of our literature to discuss a variety of perspectives on how online interaction informs and shapes our identity(ies), both positively and negatively, through sociability within our networks.

Some History and Background of Digital Discourse

Since its earliest days as an online channel of communication, the Internet’s primary application has been e-mail, for the most part between two persons. In fact, e-mail is still referred to today as the Internet’s “killer app,” defined as “any computer program that is so useful or great that people feel they must have it” (Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English, 2006). Coming in second to the use of e-mail, the Internet is accessed for purposes of mining and collecting information.2 Today the number-one daily use of the Web is still the active participation in communication with another or others, including but not limited to e-mail (Pew Internet, 2006). “Talking” has increased dramatically as the instruments of communication have increased. Even the reasons for communicating online have expanded because we now have direct access to a vast and diverse cybercitizenry (many if not most of whom are strangers) as information resources, sources of emotional support, and as social contacts. The quietude of yesterday’s online library has morphed into today’s increasingly common disquietude of the Web’s mass conversation.

The constantly changing adventure of Internet discourse “is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” (Churchill, 1939). Millions of hesitant but curious people are enticed daily into the colonization of cyberspace, and once there, are captivated by the stimulating, and sometimes addictive, nature of the online dialogic experience. At one moment, it is circumscribed, systematic, and ordered as a community must be to function for the betterment of all, and at the next moment, it is seductively chaotic and awesome in its seemingly boundless opportunity for individuality and even self-actualization.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project (Pew Internet, 2006) reported that as of April 2006, 147 million or 73% of American adults use the Internet. Their earlier poll data from December 2004 marked the first time since Pew Internet began tracking such information that the number of American adults with home Internet broadband (high-speed) connections surpassed those with home dial-up connections (Pew Internet, 2006). Just 16 months later, a Pew poll reported that a whopping 62% of home connections were high-speed. (Pew Internet, 2006) MySpace.com, a tremendously popular online social network for college students, boasts 100 million members (Gefter, 2006). The blogosphere, the Web’s talk environment consisting of 57 million blogs (shortened from Web logs) or online journals, is another form of Internet social networking or “citizen medium,” which increases by 75,000 blogs each day (Technorati, 2006). Not only are more people more connected online, but they are more quickly connected as well. If we add the channels of text messaging from computer to cell phone, chat features, instant messaging, Web access via PDAs (personal digital assistants) such as the Blackberry, VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol), café hotspots offering Wi-Fi, and other connective tissues of digital communication, it is easy to see just how ubiquitous “talk Web” and “Web talk” are and how truly pervasive the worldwide gabfest is.

The Explosion of Talk

According to a timeline of blogging’s history (Thompson, 2006), the first blog, links.net, was created in January 1994 by Justin Hall, a Swarthmore freshman at the time. If he was not the very first blogger per se, then he was certainly a “pioneer among online diarists and Web loggers” (Harmanci, 2005).

Howard Rheingold, one of Hall’s mentors from 1994 to 2003 (Hall, 2006), was one of the earliest contributors to the dialogue on The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link or as it came to be called, the WELL, when he happened upon it in 1985, the year it was founded (Figallo, 1993). Although not technically what we refer to as a blog today, the WELL was definitely a functional prototype for the current public conversational environment on the Web. In the 1980s, it was called a computer conferencing system, and although Rheingold did not immediately warm up to the thought of accessing a community through his computer monitor, he soon became a passionate participant in what he referred to as the “apparently bloodless technological ritual” of electronically plugging in to the WELL and speaking with his faceless friends and colleagues for an average of two hours a day, seven days a week (Rheingold, 2000, p. xv). “Belonging” to this grand social experiment carried a cachet among Internet users that comes with being on the leading edge of “something new,” a sort of “virtual community”3 (Rheingold, p. xx) as he called it, that defied simple description. Somehow, you just had to be there. Rheingold continues:

Like others who fell into the WELL, I soon discovered that I was audience, performer, and scriptwriter, along with my companions, in an ongoing improvisation. A full-scale subculture was growing on the other side of my telephone jack, and they invited me to help create something new. (Rheingold, pp. xv-xvi)

Rheingold is conceding that he is an actor playing a variety of roles, and although he uses his real name while online, he is, perhaps, using a somewhat artificial or at least “edited” identity.

Rheingold is taken—“Writing as a performing art! I was hooked in minutes” (Rheingold, p.25)—by this virtual, contemporaneous pajama-party-meets-high-brow- symposium, where words on computer screens facilitate arguments, intellectual discourse, sharing of emotional support, gossiping, flirtation, befriending, the exchange of knowledge, and more. He boasts, “People in virtual communities do just about everything people do in real life, but we leave our bodies behind” (Rheingold, p. xvii). Leaving their bodies behind is an allusion to the egalitarian nature of the medium. Without a body, no one is unattractive, too fat, too thin, physically disabled, male, female, or too poorly dressed, and no one has bad breath, an accent or skin color. To Rheingold, the WELL is a utopia inhabited by minds and souls only, “the electronic agora, an ‘Athens without slaves’” (Rheingold, n.p.).

The WELL as a cultural experiment was the brainchild of two free thinkers who came out of the counterculture of San Francisco in the ‘60s, Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant. Although it was their hope that the forum would lead to some sort of social change, they wanted to allow it the freedom and space to grow naturally in its own inevitable and improvised way, uncontrived and unrestricted by its founders (Rheingold, p. 28).

In one respect, the members-only club called the WELL became an exemplar of McLuhan’s famous phrase, “the medium is the message.” Dozens of book writers, futurist philosophers and sociologists, editors, and journalists from the day’s notable magazines and newspapers, such as the Wall Street Journal, Harper’s, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Business Week, Byte, and others, flocked to the WELL to “listen” and learn, not so much about what was being said in the discussions and who was saying it, but about the new-fashioned medium itself (Rheingold, p. 37). It seemed that there was great promise in the capabilities of the medium for bringing like minds together to share information and knowledge, to mature, and to improve the world community somehow and in some as-yet-undetermined way.

Did the WELL experiment in cyberspace accomplish its goals? Rheingold believes that the WELL was, in fact, a community or, at the very least, he acknowledges that certain areas of it, such as the Parenting conference, nurtured community in its citizens in a variety of ways. (Rheingold, p. 3) The successful participants in the discussions about matters of the heart and soul learned to use their words to evoke emotions like compassion, sympathy, security, and empathy. In addition, the participants in the Parenting conference shared psychological and medical resources with their virtual companions.

The intellectual discourse in the categories within the Expert on the WELL section fulfilled the goal of sharing useful informational expertise with a diverse group of minds…individuals motivated to help others expand their understanding and advance their professional pursuits in a multitude of knowledge arenas by participating in a stimulating and thought-provoking dialogic exchange. For those who came to the WELL to mine the information only, with no intention of engaging in the repartee, the WELL provided a vast storehouse of knowledge. These are what Rheingold refers to as the cognitive and social aspects of this place on the Internet (Rheingold, p. 51).

Rheingold speaks of his identity on the WELL as being formed in part by the social capital he earned there. The more usefully he contributed to any particular discussion, the more highly valued he was by his virtual neighbors, and the more social capital from which he could benefit. His identity as an expert was a reflection of how he was perceived by the rest of the community. The following brief exchange on the WELL, in which Rheingold chides Seabrook, serves as an illustration, albeit a moderate one, of the deference paid to Rheingold (Seabrook, 1997):

    #189: Howard Rheingold (hlr)

Let’s hope this is the last article in which the writer uses his/her own cluelessness about the Net as a theme. We are at a point in history where cluelessness is not enough; in fact, considering what is at stake, cluelessness is a sin.

    #193: Tom Tomorrow (tomorrow)

Howard, I suspect we will see cluelessness as a theme for a long time to come, and I am not sure that this is a bad thing. You have to keep in mind that it is a very small percentage of the population that is aware of techie stuff as you are. (Seabrook, pp. 173-174)

Alluding to the idealistic goal of social change or any other benefit down the road for the whole of humanity, Rheingold says, “It’s far too early to tell what the tools of social psychology and sociology will help us make of the raw material of group interaction that proliferates in cyberspace” (Rheingold, p. 55).

Seabrook’s experiences on and opinion of the WELL (Seabrook, 1997) stand in stark contrast to that of Rheingold’s utopia. Initially fascinated by the medium and what fodder it might offer him by way of subject matter for a New Yorker article he was writing, Seabrook joined the conference in 1994, and shortly thereafter read Rheingold’s book The Virtual Community, originally published in 1993 (Seabrook, p. 148). Seabrook was impressed by an aspect of the WELL that distinguished it from the rest of the Internet’s social networking sites, its lack of anonymity. Although this feature ran counter to the norms of individual freedom on the Web (then and now), the necessity of using one’s real name lent a degree of accountability and reliability to the contributors and their postings. The members could use pseudonyms, but it was a simple task to find out the authors’ names IRL (in real life) (Seabrook, p. 149).

The WELL had tracked its members, and Seabrook attests to their findings: “[T]he lurkers on the system outnumbered the posters by about nine to one. A similar phenomenon could be observed on Usenet, where most of the postings were made by 2-4 percent of the population” (Seabrook, p. 151). On the fringes of the conversation, he was able to learn the language used, the “local slang, custom, and lore” (Seabrook, p. 151) that would allow him to communicate properly within the culture of the WELL if ever he should choose to enter the discussion. Seabrook also took this time to peruse the Archives conference to get a feel for the history of the WELL, the personalities of the founders and early posters, and what had come before in the conversation. Notes Seabrook, “[S]o much thought, emotion, effort, time, spite, and goodwill stored there” (Seabrook, p. 153). The pioneers were at turns parental and Big-Brotherly, unpretentious and condescending, devoted to all and chauvinistic.

In June 1994, after a few months of observing the WELL from the sidelines, Seabrook wrote a New Yorker article about the phenomenon of online flaming and the “strange feelings the flames had stirred in me” (Seabrook, p. 166). Preece (2000) describes flames as hostile or insulting “ad hominem attacks” (p. 83) sent within the framework of an online communication environment in order to vent anger toward another for his or her opinion, to assert authority, or to jockey for a position of superiority. Upon the publication of Seabrook’s article, reactions on the WELL were swift. Many of the regulars on the WELL began baiting Seabrook to come out of hiding and respond. Reluctantly, and with much forethought, Seabrook eventually jumped into the conversation on the WELL. The flaming against Seabrook intensified into a thrash4 and the whole unpleasant experience lasted about 10 days. It was this indignity that first clued Seabrook in on the possibility that his identity in the real world could be at stake as a result of the rhetoric in this digital place. Reflecting on the anger that had welled up in him, Seabrook says:

It was also about power, control, and authority. My authority in every sense of that word was being challenged here in this thread. By entering into this conversation, as a pern,5 , I might be surrendering whatever advantage John Seabrook had as a byline. (Seabrook, p. 172)

Eventually and much to his relief, Seabrook was accepted as a regular member of the group on the WELL. At one point, he begins to wonder what, exactly, are they all doing here. The unsatisfying answer comes from : “What is being transacted here is a series of personal relationships” (Seabrook, p. 185). Seabrook continues to log on to the WELL up to six times a day in the hope of discovering, he claims, the answer to what he really is doing there (Seabrook, p. 185). However, nearing the point at which he has been a participant on the WELL for almost two years, Seabrook begins to see that the unwritten rules imposed by the “groupmind” are creating a division between insiders and outsiders (Seabrook, p. 197). As free-form and liberating as the environment is, Seabrook acknowledges that the community does have its standards of speech behavior. On a recent episode of television’s most popular show, Law and Order, in his role as assistant district attorney, Jack McCoy argues to the jury, “You can’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded chat room.”

One of the last straws for Seabrook is a thread of conversation begun by a woman who is caring for her sick daughter. Midway through the thread, the daughter, herself, posts some comments showing gratitude for the outpouring of sympathy from the community. The members become suspicious and question “aloud” the truth of the mother’s story, her identity, and even the existence of the ailing daughter. The daughter logs on to defend her mother’s character. Seabrook says, “[T]he suspicion that some posters might not be who they said they were lurked around the corners of the medium, always there, a dark undertow” (Seabrook, p. 206).

In another situation involving people’s identities, Seabrook describes a common rite of passage in online communities, a meeting of members face to face (f2f). He calls it “a coming-out party for your body” (Seabrook, p. 208). He wonders, “Do you really want to be friends with the pern IRL? Have their ASCII souls touched you deeply enough so that it doesn’t matter what they are ‘really like’?” (Seabrook, p. 208) In the end, Seabrook concludes that he has not been touched deeply enough to continue his adventure on the WELL.

So, we are left to wonder once again what truly is going on with relationships in cyberspace. Do these aggregations of like-minded people resemble real-life communities? What happens to real-world identity and self-actualization when one enters the digital realm?

The Tension Between the Individual Identity and the Community Identity

Matei (2005) and Weinberger (2002) are both descriptive and supportive of Rheingold’s opinions about the countercultural origins of online communication and the digital community’s deliberate attempt to form a balance between “autonomy and conformity” and ultimately to solve the conflict (Matei, 2005, n.p.). Their perspectives align with Seabrook’s observation of the tension between the individual and society. The more power Seabrook notices as being characteristic of the WELL community as a whole, the less power he sees as far as the individual is concerned (Seabrook, p. 197). Weinberger agrees in part with Seabrook, acknowledging that the larger the group or community, “the more faceless we each become” (Weinberger, p. 98). He continues, “We are proud of being unique individuals, yet we understand that when you put us all together, we become something different. But we can feel the tension between our individuality and our massness sometimes quite clearly” (Weinberger, p. 98).

Matei (2005) states that the objectives of the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s were the idealistic intentions of restoring an older version of society as a simple, egalitarian, and personally close social place. In other words, their new democratic environment would represent the antithesis of modern society with fewer rules, restrictions, and group orientations (Matei, n.p.). The countercultural movement inspired a countercultural sociability milieu online whose citizens enjoyed the ideals of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. The WELL, an “electronic commune” (Matei, n.p.), was an offshoot of the “techno-reversionary” branch of the anarchic counterculture, the segment that was accepting of high technology and its potential contributions to the advancement of their online community (Matei, n.p.). Ironically, the techno-counterculturists promulgated a creed of freedom of personal expression that promised an absence of judgmental commentary, and yet this approach often ran amok on the WELL. Matei explains the concept this way:

The non-hierarchical and socially “transparent” structure of computer networks generates an environment of “open communication” where, freed from the social masks of class, gender, and race which model face-to-face interaction, people are more likely to express their authentic emotions and concerns. Taking advantage of the fact that identity in computer-mediated communication environments can be hidden or manipulated, social actors can explore unknown facets of their personalities. (Matei, n.p.)

It’s a beautiful idea and ideal, but unfortunately, we have seen anecdotal evidence of artificial identities simply allowing us to assume fantastic, unauthentic roles online, which accomplish little by way of developing deep, trusting, and permanent social relationships. Walther & Parks (2002) cite a 2001 poll published by the Pew Internet & American Life Project:

Fully 56% of online teens have more than one email address or screen name and most use different screen names or email addresses to compartmentalize different parts of their lives online, so that they can experiment with different personas. (Walther & Parks, p. 551)

Huelsing (2006) asks,

If a community is a group of people who share a similar social background and [presumably] have similar goals and aims, then what does it mean when the community is composed of people who have no way of verifying the identity of anybody else involved? (Huelsing, 2006)

Matei (2005) recognizes the failings of the WELL experiment by stating, “The virtual community vision that emerged on the WELL was animated by generous ideals: freedom of expression and egalitarianism. However, the actual social life of the WELL was characterized by debate and even conflict” (Matei, n.p.). The community was illustrative of the tension between individualism and society, self-expression and conviviality, and self-actualization and community actualization (Matei, n.p.). Weinberger (2002) sees this tension as helping us to understand our own identities in that even in solitude, “we understand our aloneness in relation to the world of others to which we are going to return” (Weinberger, pp. 118-119). At least part of our identity is a reflection of the others’ perceptions of us.

Barbatsis, Fegan, & Hansen (1999) offer observations about cyberspace and Wellman (2001) focuses on cyberplace as those constructs that contribute to our conceptualizations of our identities as individual selves and as members of a larger group, boiling down to what I call the necessary perceptive capacities of space, place, and face. Barbatsis et. al explain that the space we enter online for the purpose of making connections and acquainting ourselves with others is one in which “we experience a sense of ‘being there’” just as a child playing a video game perceives that there is an actual space behind the material plane of the computer screen (Barbatsis et. al, n.p.). We connect with an imaginary space or “a ‘sense’ of presence in an ideated or nonmaterial reality” (Barbatsis et. al, n.p.), which exists simultaneously with the real, physical presence of the computer. The researchers further explain:

Although the “space behind the screen” may be made to function as a place where we go to access stored information, to send mail, to meet with other people, or to take part in cultural rituals, it is, in its proper unreified sense, a figurative place filled with figurative entities. (Barbatsis et. al, n.p.)

Wellman (2001) defines “‘community’ as networks of interpersonal ties that provide sociability, support, information, a sense of belonging and social identity” (Wellman, p. 228). He sees our communities becoming more available as a result of ubiquitous, portable communication devices that will enable us to have online accessibility just about anywhere we go (Wellman, p. 230). On the mostly positive side, by living in these movable networks, we will be afforded connection to a variety of spheres, be subjected to looser control over our behavior, be able to re-establish links with friends and relatives we haven’t seen in a long time, and be able to connect with people on the basis of shared interests without the complications and distractions of ascriptive traits. On the negative side, there will be a “reduced sense of palpable group memberships that provide a sense of belonging” and “reduced identity” (Wellman, p. 234). Wellman cites a personal communication to him from James Witte: “The scarce resource is attention not information” (Wellman, p. 234). Unfortunately, we will experience an overload of input and less time to deliberate on it. What does this portend for the strength of ties and sense of place?

Without a doubt, Wellman’s most pertinent and thought-provoking implicit assumptions related to the topics of identity and connection are contained in the questions he poses: “Are good online relationships equivalent to good face-to-face relationships where people can see, hear, smell and touch someone…? Can people emotionally and cognitively respond to online relationships in the same way they respond to face-to-face relationships? Are relationships based on online communication as authentic and reliable as those in which online communication is only one form of interacting? To maintain anonymity and freedom of choice, will many people not want to be always—or often—connected?” (Wellman, pp. 243-244)

In their book of radical theses about how the Internet is turning corporate America on its head, The Cluetrain Manifesto (Levine, Locke, Searls, & Weinberger, 2001), its authors warn us that “[The Web] throws everyone into immediate connection with everyone else without the safety net of defined roles and authorities…” (Levine et. al, p. 11) That is, there are no expected roles for us. We must contrive them. Does that mean we should be given the latitude to create new identities, artificial or partial selves to fill whatever roles are attractive to us? How can we engage in conversations that “occur only between equals” (Levine et. al, p. 12) unless we fabricate identities that are equal to the ones with whom we wish to converse? Wellman (2001) posits this perspective on role-playing: “Many interpersonal ties are based only on the specialized roles that people play—not the whole persons. These relationships are between fragments of selves, rather than between whole selves” (Wellman, p. 244).

Certainly, not everyone has been starry-eyed about the potential benefits of the digital medium, but in the mid- to late 1990s, the public had signed on to the vision of a global village. It would be a new world of online superconnectivity with vast stores of valuable information accessible at the click of a mouse, and as many business and social associations as one could want. Human “contact” was as close as one’s fingertips at any time of the day or night. The potential for good was undeniable, almost tangible. Cross-cultural alliances would foster personal growth through the sharing of opinions and perspectives. Contacts in appropriately themed conferences would provide opportunities for tapping into empathy, consolation, admiration, affection, and commiseration. Chatting would lead to strong, meaningful ties with others of different races, genders, ages, and social backgrounds.

But in 1998, the pro-Internet culture was shaken to its very core when research by Robert Kraut and his colleagues was published in American Psychologist (Walther & Parks, p.529). Their two-year study of the social impact of online connectivity on 93 families found that their Internet use had resulted in significant increases in loneliness, social isolation, and depression. These findings were a denial of the prevailing assumption that online relationships were indeed strong. In fact, the study concluded that the cause of the deterioration of the families’ social well-being was the replacement of closer, off-line relationships by the online ones (Walther & Parks, p. 529). According to the authors, “For some, Kraut et al.’s findings were a direct challenge to their prized ideological positions about the Internet as a source of meaningful relationships, social support, therapeutic engagement, and identity growth” (Walther & Parks, p. 529).

Walther & Parks present the above-mentioned story at the beginning of this chapter in their book, not for the purpose of convincing us to dismiss out of hand the potentiality of online interaction as a conduit for relationship development and enhancement. On the contrary, they explain the academic event to illustrate the point that the Internet community instinctively senses that some very real process of human connection and attachment is, in fact, operational online, although the social scientists are not yet empirically equipped to fully explain the mechanism. The authors then explicate some current theories about how humans perform and connect within the framework of text-based systems in the absence of nonverbal cues. Their own social information processing (SIP) theory of computer-mediated communication is then presented to explicitly reject other views that infer that the “absence of nonverbal cues restricts communicators’ capability to exchange individuating information” (Walther & Parks, p. 535). In fact, they maintain that social information is exchanged by means of moderating variables such as message content, writing style, frequency and timing of online verbal communications (Walther & Parks, p. 535). Theirs is a fascinating presentation, which includes suggestions for further avenues of research, but most important is their demonstration of empirical proof of strong ties being formed online using even a lean medium such as e-mail. People tend to disclose more about themselves and carry on less superficial dialogues online as opposed to how they behave in face-to-face interactions (Walther & Parks, p. 533). In addition, they offer encouraging insights into how online communication is, in fact, enhancing peoples’ off-line relationships:

[T]he first report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (2000), which presents survey data from 1,690 Internet users, indicates that communication with family members and existing friends via e-mail accounts for a significant proportion of Internet use. Focusing on the nature of on-line communication, the report also states that more than a third of the sample agreed that they may find it easier to communicate frankly with their family members via e-mail than by alternative modes, and that the ability to do so improves their relationships (Walther & Parks, p. 544).

Other surveys support these conclusions, too. Ten years ago, according to a 1996 survey about the way people use online applications and resources, almost half (46.1%) of the respondents said that since coming online, they had begun to feel more connected to people who share their interests (GVU Center, 1996). Along with the fact that the main use of the Web then (as it continues to be today) was e-mailing friends and relatives (equal in 1996 to the use of the telephone), a feeling of greater camaraderie provides evidence that the Internet is more than just a source of information, as some people have claimed. It was and is being used to build new people networks in cyberspace based on common interests.

The spaces of the online conversational world have become woven inexorably into the fabric of our real-world lives, thread by thread. Contrary to Gibson’s (1984) vision of cyberspace (a consensual hallucination) as a “space apart from the corporeal world” (Agre, 1999, n.p.), the Internet is becoming an increasingly central and essential part of it. “Computing, in short, is increasingly about the activities and relationships of real life, and the boundary between the real world and the world of computer-mediated services is steadily blurring away” (Agre, n.p.). Just as we begin to think we’re getting a handle on our sense of space (the nonmaterial, otherworldly environment of interaction), we find that so many of our online connections are able to come to us through our cell phones, PDAs, and other portable devices that we keep on our persons or in our vehicles wherever we go. How can we, then, maintain a sense of place (the human network) and a sense of face (identity) if we function in multiple ways in each world, and those worlds overlap? Can we find equilibrium?

Rheingold (2001) speaks enthusiastically of his online role as an actor in an improvisation. Many of today’s professional actors have given interviews in which they describe preparing as long as a year for a particularly challenging movie role. If one is to play a real-life character, he reads about the person, listens to audio for voice intonation and speech traits, and watches videotapes to catch idiosyncratic physical gestures. He gets deep into this person’s head in the hope of learning how to portray him realistically to the nth degree. Then, after the film has been shot, the actor needs considerable down time to accommodate reacquainting himself with his own authentic self.

Many people who become members of blogs or social network venues online use artificially constructed identities in cyberspace. They revel in the freedom of anonymity. However, it is as these other selves that they communicate with other partial or totally false selves within their online community. If we as human beings form our identities in part from the mirrored perceptions of and socially communicative exchanges with the others of our communities, and these people with whom we connect online are not who we think they are, are we actually giving them too much power over us? What do our connections with them do for us in a positive sense, and what do those connections detract from our life experience? Agre (1999) comments on this very subject:

And so long as we focus on the limited areas of the Internet where people engage in fantasy play that is intentionally disconnected from their real-world identities, we miss how social and professional identities are continuous across several media, and how people use those several media to develop their identities in ways that carry over to other settings (Wynn & Katz, 1997 (Agre, n.p.).

The problem with this observation, though, is that the nature of communication and engagement on the Internet changes almost every day. When he spoke in 1999 about the “limited” areas in which people volitionally disassociated from their real-world identities, those areas probably were indeed limited. However, that was almost eight years ago, and eight years’ time on the Internet is an eternity. The opportunities for online users to create new identities for themselves have grown exponentially.

For the most part, the authors cited in this paper show optimism for the potential of the Internet to do good in many aspects of our lives. It’s a wonderfully powerful tool. However, they are careful to temper their enthusiasm. Rheingold leaves us with this caveat:

Failing to fall under the spell of the “rhetoric of the technological sublime,” actively questioning and examining social assumptions about the effects of new technologies, reminding ourselves that electronic communication has powerful illusory capabilities, are all good steps to take to prevent disasters. (Rheingold, n.p.)

There is much research we can conduct in the area of computer-mediated communication. I would like to suggest that social scientists study the 95-99% of users who never, or hardly ever, engage themselves in online conversational activity. No online behavior can be considered typical if it actually characterizes only a tiny minority of the logged-on population. The bulk of those online are lurkers, and I’d like to know what this behavior says about the way these people perceive the concept of “self.”

Matei (2005) gets to the crux of the Internet’s dilemma when he states that there will always be a tension between the individual and community. This struggle is evident in every serious investigation into communication online. It is and will always be at the core of the human condition. But the essence of this issue can be reduced even further. According to Walther & Parks (2002), “The connection between who we are and who we claim to be on the Internet is by no means obvious” (p. 551). We do need to know how we can and should operate within a community, but we first need to know enough about ourselves, our needs, and our expectations before we ever contemplate presenting ourselves as something we’re not online.

We do, indeed, need to belong, but we also need to be.

Notes

1. There is no scientific consensus on the definition of “community.” For the sake of simplicity, this paper uses the Random House definition as follows:
[A] social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually prec. by the): the business community; the community of scholars (Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2006)
2. All statistics in this paper (and in most academic treatises that deal with how the average American uses the Internet) disregard the use of the Internet for accessing pornography.
3. Rheingold defines “virtual communities” as “[S]ocial aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace” (Rheingold, 2000, p. xx).
4. A “thrash” is an unrelenting verbal attack on an online member of the community.
5. A “pern” is “a slightly sardonic genderless pronoun invented to replace the politically problematic ‘he/she’ formulation” (Seabrook, 1997, p. 151).

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