Computers and Communication

One of my interests since I first became a PhD student was the process of organization through computers. I am actually not sure where this interest comes from precisely as I haven't had a huge amount of experience organizing with others over computers. When I was in undergrad, I took a course called Organizational Communication which I found extremely interesting. The focus of the class was mostly on the ways in which we fail  or succeeded at communicating within organizations. An example in class was how poor communication has led to helicopter crashes or accidental shootdowns.

A part of this course was focused on groups that communicate over the internet. The course was taught by a researcher that studies Wikipedia and the course was partially taught through the Human Computer Interaction group. After taking this class, I became more interested in this topic, literally in the academic sense. I still don't participate in much internet organized work and am notoriously bad at keeping up with friends. While I was working on a book chapter about the rise of the globally distributed group, I was part of one as my adviser spent some time at other schools. This was a period when I severely lost my way in my focus and ended up going through one of the roughest paper proposals I think there has been in my program.

I'd like to discuss some old, but interesting work on the way that people use computers to interact with one another. Sara Kiesler is a prolific and diverse researcher. When I first met her, she discussed how she had recently returned from a trip to Africa where she was interested in their nascent educational system and acted as an adviser. She taught us interviewing techniques, how to engage with subjects and find out what their true reasons were for their actions or thoughts. She seems to have a deep interest in increasing the quality of life for people wherever they are and through many different mechanisms.

She was part of a group of researchers that were interested in how the internet would influence the lives of those that had ready access to it. In this study, the researchers gave internet access to a large number of families in the Pittsburgh area for free. The researchers then looked at the outcomes for each family member and tracked their individual usage. Initially, the signs were not good with several negative outcomes (primarily depression), specifically for adolescents in the household. After more time, however, the positive effects of the internet on the families became more pronounced. Of all possible uses for the internet, the most common was interpersonal communication. The researchers concluded that using the internet to make new ties had a relationship to increased depression but using the internet for other uses decreased depression:

Another interesting study that Sara Kiesler performed that is even older than the Internet study focused just on the nature of the communication that individuals engaged in with one another. In this study, the researchers compared the communications of groups that did a task when the members were either in the same place or communicated over computer text messaging. The use of computers had various effects, positive and negative. Group members were more likely to get angry with one another, make extreme statements, and they had trouble coming to a collective consensus. This was partially that people seem more real when they are in person so it is harder to criticize them so heavily directly. Another way to think about the phenomena is instead that the ability to communicate distributively led the group members to speak their mind more freely.

Another interesting finding was the amount of discussion that was contributed by females in the group. In the face-to-face groups, men were dominant and their opinions were used more as the basis for the decision making process. When the groups instead used a computer, however, the women spoke more and contributed more to the discussion. The researchers suggested that the relative anonymity that the computer mediated communication allowed for let women not feel as self conscious about sharing their opinions. They also suggested that because there were fewer obvious status cues, women weren't in a position where they felt their opinions were less valuable.

Lastly, the researchers were curious if the change in the way people communicate changes the kinds of decisions that they are likely to make (instead of just their ability to make a decision). The researchers found that there was a definite 'risky shift' such that members were more willing to take on ventures that seemed risky if they were communicating online as opposed to face-to-face.

Though this research was published in 1992 (22 years before the publication of this article), we can see that people are using the internet to communicate and engage with one another in the same kinds of ways. Discussions on the internet often devolve into 'flame wars' quickly get off topic, and is full of overly superlative language about the love or hate of particular topics. Risky or at least random decisions being made by groups coordinating over the internet are not uncommon to hear about. It is comforting to a certain extent to consider that we have always found computer mediated communication to be just disconnected from others enough to be incredibly mean to one another. This is not a new phenomenon, it is inherent in human nature. Us humans who have evolved to recognize faces and see truth in one's eyes are sullied by using online communication,...but it does have its benefits. The convenience is unparalleled and studies have shown that we are much more civil when we know who the other person is we are talking to, which is something.