Electronic Communication: Implications for Human Interaction and Social Change

This paper was presented at a panel at the American Anthropological Association meetings, December 2, 1998 in Philadelphia entitled Seeing Culture: The Anthropology of Visual Communication at Temple University. Do not cite without author’s permission.

Electronic Communication: Implications for Human Interaction and Social Change

There are a number of different theoretical approaches in the field of Anthropology that can make a contribution to the study of computer-mediated communication (CMC), including the anthropology of visual communication, cyborg anthropology, and sociolinguistics. These all provide valuable ways of thinking about CMC. Computer users are often perceived of as being “in their own little world.” And indeed, that is often the case. However, those users also reside in a day-to-day reality which informs and is the broader context for their communications. Since anthropologists are trained to focus on the subtle details of culture as well as place that culture in its global context, they are especially well equipped to theorize this complex dynamic. Unfortunately, much of the work done on discussion in the electronic realm fails to take this into account. Ultimately, computer-mediated communication is a reflection of the larger (even global) context in which it resides, and it needs to be theorized as such.

While the Internet started in military and academic institutions, its driving force is now commercial. For example, to go to the Walt Disney web site, you used to type . Now the http, www, and, most importantly the dot-com are assumed. To go to the Disney site now, you can just type disney. However, it is not possible to omit the dot-edu for academic institutions. Keep in mind too that addresses originating in the United States are the only ones that do not have country codes after them. That is, disney-dot-com is assumed to be a United States web site, or the URL would be disney-dot-com-dot-fr. These subtleties do much to indicate by whom the Internet is being shaped and controlled.

CMC encompasses many different forms of communication. And, while these forms have much in common, their differences must be understood before the communication that takes place within them is analyzed. These forms (such as email, Listservs, chat rooms, MOOs and MUDs) maybe be centralized or decentralized, moderated by an individual or a group, allow anonymity or fictitious characters, may be synchronous or asynchronous. Why individuals or groups may choose one form over another and how the constraints of the media may shape communication should all be considered before embarking on an analysis of that communication.

Most forms of CMC is that they are asynchronous, and consideration of this is absent in current discussions about the Internet and other electronic forums. Anthropologists engaged in the creation and analysis of visual media have begun to consider issues of audience and reception, including consideration of the unintended audience. Perhaps some studies of audience and reception might help elucidate some of the effects of asynchronicity on CMC.

In his essay entitled “Fiction as Truth: Viewer Use of Fiction Films as Data about the “Real” World”, George Custen demonstrated that many viewers associate the actor with the character he portrays in the film. Similarly, in her article on phone-sex operators, Hall discusses that clients calling into the service make associations and a connection to a voice despite its abstraction from a physically present human being. (p 335) Equally, language on the screen may become the concrete piece by which we come to know people, and we may forget that the individual who exists behind that text is infinitely more complex than their written words can reveal.

In her book The Argument Culture, Deborah Tannen expresses her concern that additional communication with strangers and the lack of face-to-face accountability in computer-mediated communication will lead to increasingly hostile exchanges. William Leap’s account of the development of anti-gay graffiti on a bathroom wall might also provide some interesting perspective, both on issues of asychronous communication, and the negativity which often seems to accompany it. While Tannen’s argument does not seem especially well grounded in fact (she is a linguist not a psychologist), such issues do ring true for many. Wilton Martinez’ essay “Who Constructs Anthropological Knowledge? Toward a Theory of Ethnographic Film Spectatorship” addresses just these issues. His study shows that audiences essentially see what they would like to see, and impose stereotypes at will. Much as filmmakers would hope to educate and inform through film, his study suggests that the gap between the creation of the film and its viewing will necessarily lead to misinterpretation.

We have been looking at the effects of different technologies on human society and human communication for quite some time. From the “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin to Rakow’s book Gender on the Line about women’s use of the telephone in the Midwestern United States. Cyborg Anthropology is one of the most recent trends, and while to-date it has been more philosophical and less applied than I would like, it can be useful for the study of CMC. In their essay entitled “Cyborg Anthropology,” Downey et al describe three main thrusts of cyborg anthropology: (1) it considers science and technology in the context of culture, (2) it challenges the traditional focus of anthropology on people, broadening the focus to include machines as subject, (3) it considers more thoroughly the effects technology is having on us, most especially different subjectivities it is generating within contexts familiar to anthropologists.

While I agree with some of these objectives, I am less clear that it serves us as anthropologists to shift our focus away from people as subject. It seems that such a shift could present some of the same dangers as systems theory. Systems theory and cybernetics provide useful models and ways of thinking about the big picture of networks, ideas, and processes. But the contribution of this theoretical approach remains a big picture without people; there is no element of human agency, and no room in the model for power relations, something I think that many anthropologists would find problematic. What is valuable about this notion is that it helps explain cross-fertilization of these worlds. It is not a one way influence of people building technology but rather technology shaping people as well.

I think that sociolinguistics must also be a central part of the analysis of computer-mediated communication. From conversational analysis to communities of practice, it can provide the concrete examples to look at all kinds of patterns of communication while at the same time couching that information in the broader social context. The danger in this work is getting caught in microanalysis.

Many of the issues which exist in the study of literacy must also be considered when discussing CMC. Computer-mediated communication requires knowledge of the written language (which presumes a certain degree of literacy and access to education), but it also requires access to and learning of the technology by which that communication is transmitted. And, as is now well documented, illiteracy may lead to inequality in other ways. As Cameron points out in her introduction to The Feminist Critique of Language, this may result in an ever-widening gap: “the conditions are in place for a communicative practice originally dominated by men for material reasons (e.g., better access to technology) to go on being dominated by men for social reasons even after material conditions have changed.”
Of all of the theoretical models which can be applied to computer-mediated communication, the notion of communities of practice is perhaps the most valuable, because it provides a graceful way to conceptually transcend the limitation of geographic communities associated with traditional anthropology. It is important to understand that CMC is both situated in the larger socio-cultural context in which its participants and the technology they use reside, while at the same time it takes place within a self-contained subculture (with its own lexicon, space, sense of time). Some theorists (like Sherry Turkle and Bill Nichols) have already addressed this dichotomy, but many social scientists considering the implications of computer technology and electronic communication fail to consider and describe both aspects.

We have questioned the human capacity to cope with the technology we create. Not so long ago, criticisms were levied regarding the telephone and how it might affect human communication and creativity. Given this trend, it is not surprising to see similar pessimism about CMC. In the past several months, a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon gained national attention when researchers claimed that ongoing use of computer-mediated communication resulted in increased dissatisfaction and depression in “real life.” Deborah Tannen goes a step further in her book The Argument Culture when she argues that our advances in technology result in increasing isolation and contact with strangers, which will ultimately lead us to more violence and/or aggressive exchanges. I think that much of the backlash and fear about the Internet is based in ignorance and the fact that we are still learning to cope with and shape our expectations of these new modes of communication.

Sherry Turkle is a trained clinical psychologist and professor at MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. He work shows many ways in which computer-mediated communication has been useful way for people to process emotions. There are two important things to note about Turkle’s work, however. The first is that her research seems to be conducted primarily on MOOs and MUDs, which provide synchronous (real time) computer-mediated communication. In addition, her work provides specific examples couched in the broader context of culture and developing technologies. Turkle’s work helps clarify directions for research for anthropologists. Her work is accessible and concrete and not unlike an ethnography. Perhaps because of the philosophy of science influence in Cyborg Anthropology, little ethnography of the Internet has been done. Most of the work I have seen to date is theoretical in nature, with the few exceptions being in sociolinguistics. In addition to shorter language-focused essays, the work of Rakow and others on the telephone, Roger Silverstone on television audiences, and Hakken’s book Computing Myths, Class Realities are among the first to shape an ethnography around such issues.

Ultimately, what I hope future ethnographic work will answer is not how computer-mediated communication is different, but what about it helps elucidate behaviors and values that are already present in the broader culture. There are many issues under contentious discussion in electronic forums of all kinds. People express concern about the discrepancies in terms of race, class, gender, and about who has access to technology. There are ongoing concerns about how to legislate the Internet to protect individuals from harassment, to control proliferation of pornography, and so on. On one hand, many hope for the deregulation of Internet, but if this is to happen, it will have to be on a global scale. Thus it will be harder than ever before to reach consensus on social issues and effectuate social change. I hope that an anthropological approach to understanding computer-mediated communication will help to change that.


Cameron, Deborah.
1998. Introduction: Why is Language a Feminist Issue in The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader, 2nd edition, edited by Deborah Cameron. New York: Routledge. pp. 1-21.

Custen, George.
1987. Fiction as Truth: Viewer Use of Fiction Films as Data about the “Real” World in Visual Explorations of the World, edited by Jay Ruby and Martin Taureg. Aachen: Editions Herodot, Rader Verlag: 2-46.

Downey, Gary Lee, Joseph Dumit, Sarah Williams.
1995 Cyborg Anthropology in The Cyborg Handbook, edited by Chris Hables Gray et al. New York: Routledge. pp. 341-362.

Hall, Kira.
1998. Lip Service on Fantasy Lines in The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader, 2nd edition, edited by Deborah Cameron. New York: Routledge. pp.321-342.

Martinez, Wilton.
1992. Who Constructs Anthropological Knowledge? Toward a Theory of Ethnographic Film Spectatorship in Film as Ethnography, edited by Peter Crawford and David Turton. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 131-161.

Nichols, Bill.
1996 The Work of Culture in the Age of Cybernetic Systems in Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation, edited by Timothy Druckrey. New York: Aperture. pp. 121-143.

Rakow, Lana F.
1992 Gender on the Line: Women, the Telephone, and Community Life. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Silverstone, Roger.
1994 Television and Everyday Life: Towards an Anthropology of the Television Audience.

Tannen, Deborah.
1998 (Chapter 8) Fast Forward: Technologically Enhanced Aggression in The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialog. New York: Random House. pp. 237-255.

Wood, Kathleen.
1997. Narrative Iconicity in Electronic-Mail Lesbian Coming-Out Stories in Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality, edited by Anna Livia and Kira Hall. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 257-273.

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