Research Program

Davis Foulger

There are two primary themes in my research program, the study of computer-mediated communication systems and developing a general theoretical perspective, rooted in my research in CMC, that attempts to explicate the processes of media invention and evolution.

Research Theme 1: Computer-Mediated Communication Systems

Much of my recent effort in CMC has focused around Wiki collaborative composition systems and instant messaging, as featured in "Practical Telepresence and the Online Office" (ICA, 2003) and "Time in Interpersonal Media" (NCA, 2003). Other recent work has proposed new ways of testing the efficacy of ethics instruction using "intelligent" online testing systems ("Measuring Complex Ethical Decision Making", 2003). My 1996 study of computer conferencing with Phillip A. Thompsen, "Effects of Pictographs and Quoting on Flaming in Computer Media" (Published in Computers in Human Behavior) continues to be widely cited, and was recently treated at length in the book "The Psychology of the Internet" (Patricia Wallace, 2001). My 1990 dissertation study of computer conferencing has also been widely cited, most prominently, perhaps, in the latest edition of "The Network Nation" (Roxanne Starr Hiltz and Murray Turoff, 1991).

Other recent research has treated computer mediated as a group. The papers "The Cliff and the Continuum: Defining the Digital Divide" and "Seven Bridges Over the Global Digital Divide" take a hard look at the obstacles to overcoming the digital divide. In the latter study, path analysis is applied to an archival data set of "digital readiness" indicators for over 190 countries. The results suggest a simple formula which predicts, with considerable accuracy, the extent to which the general population of various countries has been able to take advantage of computer technology and the Internet. The formula also suggests that systematic improvements in literacy and infrastructure provide the best path to overcoming the global digital divides. The former study, a reaction paper written in response to one of the primary questions to emerge from the conference at which the latter was first presented, uses that same data set to illustrate two very different versions of digital divide. Both papers are currently proposed as a part of a book coming out of that 2001 conference.

Another recent paper, "Relationship Equals Sum Media", explores the ways in which people are using media, including computer media, in combination to build relationships. It proposes that a relationship can be usefully viewed as an ecology of the different media which the relational partners use to interact with each other, and that one of the ways in which we enrich our relationships is to add new ways of sharing information with and interacting with each other. This ecological view of our use of media within our relationships is made obvious by our use of computer-mediated communication systems to build and manage long distance relationships. The paper demonstrates, however, that use of multiple media to build relationships is nothing new. Our shared media grow as our relationships grow. Our shared media decline as our relationships decline. The nature of our relationship determines, to some extent, what media we use. The media we use determine to some extent, the nature of our relationships.

The notion that media combine to form ecologies is one that I continue to explore. I have started to explore the ways in which organizations and communities are built and maintained in the intersection of multiple media. The presentations "Communication Technologies, Relationships and Communities" (University of Texas at San Antonio, 2003) and "Communities As Ecologies Of Media Use" (SUNY Oswego, 2003), start to examine questions of how adding new interactive media to a community strengthens that community, how the decline of shared media within a community weakens that community. Students in my Organizational Communication classes have been applying this concept to the study of organizations with excellent results. Students in my Communication Relationships and Communities class have applied it to the study of communities with fascinating results.

It is no surprise that my students found that a range of media, including interpersonal, mass, and other media variations, were used in different communities and organizations. It should be no surprise that different media were used to reach different stakeholders. What has surprising is the revolution that new media are enabling in some organizations. The most extreme case my students looked at, Universal Music Group, has leveraged a variety of new media, including e-mail, federal express, conference calls, and web sites, to shift their day to day business almost entirely to distributed teams that often work together without ever meeting face-to-face. While it is hardly the first organization I am aware of that has turned face-to-face interaction and proximate group meetings into secondary media, it is both the largest and most extreme case that I know of. If an organization is, as I hypothesize, characterized by the sum of its media, the experience of working at Universal Music Group is very different than it used to be.

Research Theme 2: The Invention and Evolution of Media

These studies explore the details of my larger theoretical research program, which is currently focused around the production of at least two books (both of which are fully outlined). The theoretical perspective posits that media are invented users in five interrelated spheres of invention. The first book, "Characteristics of Media: the message beneath", explores one of these spheres, the attributes (following Simon's "The Sciences of the Artificial") or characteristics that emerge from the way technologies are combined to create the medium. The book explicitly attempts to explore the ways in which these attributes create the message within the medium (following McLuhan's vocabulary from "Understanding Media". Characteristics, within my theoretical perspective, are a fundamental statement of a medium's potential; of the kinds of things that a medium can be used for. In "Characteristics of Media", 207 characteristics of media are operationalized and used to compare and analyze relationships among 167 media. These characteristics emerge from within a variety of perspectives within which media can be usefully viewed. The families of characteristics within which characteristics have been identified included sensory and extended modalities, user interfaces, common media building blocks, the role participants that enable messages within a medium, and a variety of storage, transmission, performance, production, and edition characteristics. Each family of characteristics has value in its own right, providing another way in which we can think of media as a part of continuum of communication systems. Among the more interesting results that have already emerged in this work:

A second book I have planned and outlined, "Building time, space and scale machines: the invention and evolution of media", expands on these themes. Characteristics are only one of five sphere of invention within which we create, use, and evolve media. This second book paints this broader canvas, detailing the workings and interrelationships of these five spheres. My NCA paper this year, "The Invention and Evolution of Media", is a précis of my book outline that focuses on the relationship of these spheres to existing theories of communication within a variety of perspectives: It shows connections between uses and gratifications approaches in mass media and ethnographic studies of practice within interpersonal contexts; the path by which systems theory translates into uses of media, the path through which effects change our media practices, and sometimes the structure of media. It connects genre theory in art, music, and literature to stakeholder theories and the coordinated management of meaning.

One of these spheres of invention, mediators, is the domain of systems theory, information theory, and design engineering. The characteristics of media, which emerge from the way a medium is engineered, are a second. These characteristics enable a set of uses. These uses inevitably entail a set of effects. We react to these effects through our practices of message building within the medium. A medium evolves as we use, are effected by, and use best practices within that medium. Most of this evolution occurs within a cycle of genre that primarily involves reciprocal invention within the spheres of uses, effects, and practice. Some of this evolution occurs, especially in the early history of a medium, within a cycle of media in which all of the spheres of invention vary. Recent extensions of this work have looked at the problem of bridging the digital divide and some of the thornier issues associated with software development.

This theoretical research program is not constrained to writing books. Recent papers that are directly associated with this research program include "Roles in Media" (NCA Summer Conference, 2001), "Emergent Role Structure in Media" (Submitted to ICA, 2004), and "The Invention and Evolution of Media" (NCA, 2002). Recent papers that extend this perspective as they explore computer media include "Relationship Equals Sum Media" (ICA, 2003), and "Time in Interpersonal Media" (NCA, 2003). The competitively selected panel "Borderlands in Communication Theory: Crossing The Boundary Between Personal And Mass Communication" (ICA, 2003) also falls within this research tradition. So does my widely cited "Bridging Media: Computers and Human Communication" (Published in Visions of the Future, edited by Cliff Pickover, 1992).