Computer Conferencing and Communication Theory

When computer software mediates human interaction
by collecting messages from individuals
and distributing them to communities of individuals,

the medium of human communication
is computer conferencing.

This study explores two general questions:

  1. What is the structure, use, and practice of computer conferencing on IBM's "IBMPC" computer conferencing facility? The focus of the study is on an in-house facility, in operation for over eight years, in which large numbers of people routinely exchange messages. While these features of IBMPC distinguish it from other computer conferencing facilities, and thus impose limits on the generalizability of the study, the size and long tenure of IBMPC provide a measure of what other facilities could become.
  2. What is the nature of IBMPC as an instance of a communication medium? What does the experience of IBMPC tell us about computer conferencing as a communication medium? These questions are raised in the context of other questions about the relationship between interpersonal communication and mass communication. Presented here is a theory of media organized around four interacting primitive concepts -- mediators, characteristics, effects, and practices -- that asserts that media are continuous reinventions of the people that use them. IBM's IBMPC computer conferencing facility can be regarded as an instance of a continuously reinvented medium. This study documents this reinvention, and the structures IBMPC has evolved to manage its own evolution.

Computer Conferencing as a Revolutionary Medium

For Hiltz and Turoff (1978), computer conferencing is a revolutionary medium of communication which will radically transform society, making McLuhan's (1964) "global village" an interpersonal reality (p. xxix):

We will become the Network Nation, exchanging vast amounts of both information and social-emotional communications with colleagues, friends, and 'strangers' who share similar interests, who are spread out all over the nation. Ultimately, ... we will become a 'global village' whose boundaries are demarcated only by the political decisions of those governments that choose not to become part of an international computer network. An individual will, literally, be able to work, shop, or be educated by or with persons anywhere in the nation or the world.

This enthusiasm is echoed by many others (including Englebart, 1982c; Grayson, 1984; Harris, 1984; Krasnoff, 1984a, 1984b, Lerch, 1983; Micossi, 1984; Stahr, 1985; Stone, 1984; and Taylor, 1984). For Keisler (1986) computer conferencing "has much in common with past technical innovations, like the telephone and the typewriter, that have had great social impact". For Feenberg (1986), computer conferencing "is the first technology to provide effective electronic mediation of small group activities." For Turoff (1988), it is "a new communications medium that will become as commonly used by the general public as the telephone is today."

Essential characteristics of computer conferencing

Essential characteristics of computer conferencing (at this stage in its development) include:

Asynchronous interaction
Contributions to a computer conference are stored and distributed in ways that allow unscheduled participation. Participants need not join the discussion at the same time or, for that matter, at any specific time. Simultaneous interaction is not prohibited. Indeed, some synchrony is inevitable as the number of participants in a computer conference grows. Some computer conferencing software even offers special capabilities when simultaneous interaction occurs. A computer conference does not, however, require simultaneous interaction. Many participants will read (and often reply to) the contribution hours, days, or even weeks after it is made. So long as a record of interaction is maintained, a participant who drops out of a discussion for a few months can catch up on and rejoin the discussion at any time.
Geographically distributed participation
The broad accessibility of computers via telephone and computer networks combines with the asynchronous character of computer conferencing to allow geographically distributed individuals to participate in a computer conference as peers. Lack of propinquity is not a prerequisite to a successful computer conference. The author has participated in successful computer conferences in which none of the participants were physically separated by more than a few hundred feet. Still, the ability to link diversely located communicators is an essential characteristic of a computer conference. Indeed, this study will report a level of geographic dispersal of participation that is far beyond that reported in previous studies of computer conferencing (see the chapter on methodology for more details).
Interpersonal Interaction
Although contributions to a computer conference are almost exclusively written, delivery of messages to other participants can be almost instantaneous. This, and the possibility of immediate reply, make the medium highly interactive. Even when reply follows initial contribution by weeks or months, the content of messages and the structure of interaction is much closer to conversation or small group discussion than it is to letter writing or publication. Indeed, attempts to keep individual conferences conversation free (restricted to news reports, for instance) are strongly resisted by contributors. Indeed, as will be seen in the chapter on rules, conferences are only kept conversation free with considerable effort.
Interconnection of large numbers of participants
There is no observed upper limit on the number of individuals that can successfully participate in a computer conference. Indeed, this study will confirm levels of individual participation in a computer conference at least an order of magnitude larger than has been reported in previous studies. A large numbers of participants is not a prerequisite to a successful computer conference. All that is required is a small group of committed contributors. Still, the ability to link large numbers of communicators is an essential characteristic of a computer conference.

In summary, computer conferencing allows large numbers of geographically distributed individuals to converse in an asynchronous manner. Restated slightly, we might say that computer conferencing provides for interpersonal interaction among members of a mass media audience.

Counter-Theme: Interpersonal Communication and Mass Media

For Rogers (1973, p. 192) and the historical field of human communication, there are "two different types of communication channels: interpersonal and mass media". In characterizing these channels, Rogers notes (p. 193) that:

Word-of-mouth communication that occurs in face-to-face interaction between two or more individuals is classified as interpersonal. The channel in the interpersonal situation becomes the individual through whom the message is flowing. Mass media channels are all those means of transmitting messages that involve a mechanism to reach a wide and often noncontiguous audience.

For Reardon and Rogers (1988) this distinction, as fundamental as it may be to the field of communication, is a reified accident of history and politics. Proposing that the distinction "has had detrimental effects on communication theory and research" (p.285), they assert that it is time "to question the viability and utility of the categories that divide us" (p. 300).

Writing in the same issue of Human Communication Research, Berger and Chaffee (1988) join Reardon and Rogers in advocating more conceptual integration between interpersonal and mass communication, but question whether the gap between mass media and interpersonal communication can be bridged. Equating the division to that of "two sovereign nations," they note that "the two sub-fields have different purposes, different boundaries, and to some extent different methods. They also have somewhat different theoretical orientations" (p. 312). This last difference is most problematic, as theory is the only "path toward integration of communication study" (p. 312).

The problem of interpersonal mass media

"Interpersonal and mass media communication have been divided mainly on the basis of (1) channel type, (2) the number of potential recipients of the messages transmitted, and (3) the potential for feedback" (Reardon and Rogers, 1988, p. 285). Interpersonal communication is unmediated (or mediated by the individual), transmits messages to a comparatively small number of recipients, and has a high feedback potential. Mass media is technologically mediated, transmits messages to a comparatively high number of recipients, and has a low feedback potential.

Paradoxes and problematic cases

Paradoxical elements of this typological distinction have traditionally been ignored. It is not possible to communicate in a completely unmediated environment (isolated individuals in a vacuum without light or technological intervention). Neither sound nor smell will cross a vacuum. Sight is contingent on reflected light. Touch and taste of another individual cannot occur when isolated from that individual. It seems clear that any communication depends on some form of mediation, yet we frequently assume, perhaps because there is no technological intervention, that face-to-face communication is unmediated.

Problematic cases have also been ignored. Despite early attempts to market it as a broadcast medium (Pool, 1977), the telephone has evolved into what is clearly an interpersonal medium. Feedback potential is high. Participation involves small numbers of people (almost always two). Yet the telephone is clearly mediated by a telephone network that allows us to speak with distant others. Perhaps in part because of its problematic status, studies of the telephone as an interpersonal medium remain few. Pool's frequently cited (1977) The Social History of the Telephone is primarily a mass communication document. Only two of twenty-one chapters are devoted to the telephone as a means of interpersonal communication.

Citizen's Band radio provides an even larger challenge. Like the telephone, C. B. is mediated. Unlike the telephone, its mediators (transmitters, radio waves, and receivers) are also key elements of major mass media (radio and television). The challenge is in the contrast of feedback to number of recipients. Communication on the medium is clearly interactive, entailing high levels of feedback potential, but that interaction is broadcast to what is potentially a fairly large audience (almost certainly tens, possibly hundreds, and conceivably thousands).

Inconsistencies that have been ignored for citizen's band radio and the telephone become much more problematic in the study of computer conferencing. It is possible, in studying the telephone and C.B. radio from a mass communication perspective, to ignore their fundamentally interactive character and focus on their audience, regulation, functions, and effects. It is possible, in studying citizen's band or the telephone from a interpersonal communication perspective, to concentrate on the nature of the interaction, which usually involves only a small number of contributors on any given band at any given time, while ignoring the technological mediators which make them possible.

A Mass Interpersonal Medium

The characteristics of computer conferencing make this approach impossible. The large and widely distributed audience that is an inherent possibility in computer conferencing demand attention to the concerns associated with mass media studies. The potential for that entire audience to interact demands attention to the concerns associated with interpersonal communication studies. It is exactly this kind of problem that drive Reardon and Rogers (1988) to declare that new communication technologies like computer conferencing which "cannot be easily categorized as either interpersonal or mass media" (p. 297) will "force basic changes in communication models and in research methodologies".

Limitations in the computer conferencing literature

Large audiences remain potential in the existing computer conferencing literature. Although the computer-mediated communication literature (including computer conferencing) has grown substantially in recent years, most studies involve "only relatively small numbers of users" (Kerr and Hiltz, 1982, p. 93); rarely more than a dozen people. The conferences studied are, moreover, usually of fairly brief duration (a few weeks or months from beginning to end), and usually with participants who have little real investment in what occurs (most often student experimental subjects).

Recent literature, which will be reviewed in somewhat greater detail in a coming chapter, has started to remedy this situation:

These studies remain exceptional in their focus on comparitively large ongoing computer conferences. Most computer conferencing studies continue to examine small conferences of limited duration. There is nothing inherently wrong with studies of small and short to moderate duration computer conferences. A computer conference involving only a few people can be quite functional for its participants. Studies of small computer conferencing can, moreover, reveal a great deal about the nature of the medium, at least some of which will be generalize to larger computer conferences.

If there is a problem, it is the inherent contradictions computer conferencing presents to the field of communication. It is possible, so long as we continue to study small computer conferences, to ignore its status as a mass medium and restrict ourselves to the traditional models and concerns of interpersonal communication. It is possible, so long as we continue to study computer conferences of short duration, to treat the interaction as if it were programming (in the sense of television programming); to ignore its status as an interpersonal medium and restrict ourselves to the models and concerns of mass communication.

Overview of IBM's "IBMPC" computer conferencing facility

This study seeks to clarify these contradictions in a six year study of what may be the worlds largest and most active computer conferencing facility. IBM's "IBMPC" computer conferencing facility is a large unmoderated in-house computer conferencing facility that has been in operation for over eight years. IBMPC was the first such facility in IBM and remains the largest. It contains over 1500 active conferences (called "forums" on IBMPC), each covering a range of subjects within a well defined topic or purpose. Well over 10,000 IBM employees, located at hundreds of locations on six continents (and a fair number of large and small islands), have made contributions (called "appends" on IBMPC) to these forums. Over 1000 appends, totalling around 460 single spaced typewritten pages, are made each working day. As many as 100,000 IBM employees may read one or more of these forums on a regular basis.

A number of "mediators", each of which will be described in greater detail in a later chapter, enable this massive participation, including:

The "VNET" wide area network
A computer network, similar to bitnet, csnet, usenet, and other computer network, that interconnects thousands of computers throughout IBM. VNET is used for sending programs, data, documents, electronic mail, and other information around IBM. The information on the IBMPC computer conferencing facility is received and distributed through VNET.
The "TOOLS" computer conferencing software
A software package that maintains shared information on one or more "disks" (conferending facilities) and provides a variety of functions that allow that information to be contributed, maintained, and distributed across a wide area network like VNET.
The "IBMPC" computer conferencing facility
One of many conferencing facilities in IBM that maintain information using the "TOOLS" software. At one time IBMPC distributed both software and information related to personal computers. Starting in 1985, however, the software distribution function was transferred to a new software distribution conference, PCTOOLS, and IBMPC focused its information function. Today's IBMPC maintains approximately 150 million characters of active information and a much larger archive stored on two computer "disks".
A copy of the contents of the IBMPC disk stored on another computer and maintained through VNET by the TOOLS software to be exactly the same as the "master" copy of IBMPC. It is estimated that there are over 700 shadows of IBMPC at various locations throughout IBM, each of which allows individuals at those locations to treat the contents of IBMPC as a set of files rather than mail.
Literally a file that contains a series of contributions called "appends". Appends are ordered within the forum according to the date and time of their contribution. This sequencing allows a forum to be read as a temporal transcript of, in effect, a conversation between participants.
Individual contributions to IBMPC. At one time each new append received was "appended" to the end of the file (hence the name "append"). Today appends are inserted into the file based on the time and date they are sent (adjusted, company wide, to Greenwich Mean Time), but the basic concept remains. Each append contains a "subject" line that summarizes the subject matter of the append and ties it to a sequence of other appends. Most appends contain a reference line that indicates which prior append is being replied to (if any). Each contains a header that indicates who (userid and node) made the append and when it was made. The body of the append is a message composed by the contributor.

Studying an Interpersonal Mass Medium

The kinds of participation volumes associated with IBMPC make it difficult to ignore the essential ambiguity of computer conferencing relative to historic definitions of mass communication and interpersonal communication. This study seeks to directly address this ambiguity by studying IBMPC as a hybrid; a medium with characteristics of both interpersonal and mass media. Bridging the traditions of interpersonal and mass media study is, as both Reardon and Rodgers (1988) and Berger and Chafee (1988) point out, a difficult problem itself. Hence the grounding of this study has ultimately entailed the construction of theory of media that integrates interpersonal and mass media in a single construct.

Integration of this theory of "medium as process" and the observation of the IBMPC computer conferencing facility in a single document results in a minor paradox of presentation. The theory derives, in large part, from principles abstracted from the observation of IBMPC. The theory provides, in turn, a set of organizing principles that ground the observation. Viewed temporally, it makes sense to present the theory after the observation, as the observation reported was essentially complete before any of the theory was written down. Viewed organizationally, it makes sense to present the theory before the observation, as the theory organizes the presentation that follows it. This study has opted to take the latter approach, delaying additional discussion of the IBMPC computer conferencing facility until after an initial discussion of the theory that organizes the presentation.

Organization of this document

This document is organized in five parts:

The present chapter is followed by a statement of methodology, an overview of the theory of media as process, and a review of the relevant literature which is organized by the key constructs of the theoretical perspective.
A Theory of Medium as Process
These chapters describe a medium as an iterating system which changes in response to the needs of its users. Four key elements or views of media are explored here, including:
The constituative elements of which the medium is formed.
The essential qualities of a communication medium.
The actual effects that a medium (separated from the specific effects of the messages directed through it) has on those that are directly and indirectly associated with it.
The mutually agreed upon constraints that communicators adhere to when making use of a medium of communication.

An initial discussion of the relationship of these constructs can be found in an overview of the theory of medium as process. Specific interrelationships between constructs are documented in the various chapters of this theoretical section.

Three typologies of media are presented in this section. The first, an informal typology based on criteria suggested by Reardon and Rogers (1988), is presented in "Characteristics of Media". A formal typology, generated using the techniques of numerical taxonomy, is also presented. This formal typology is then tested against a third typology, generated on the basis of user perceptions of media according to the dimensions of the second typology. The second and third typologies, which are highly similar, both support the notion that computer conferencing, and computer media in general, are neither interpersonal nor mass media, but a hybrid of the two.

The "IBMPC" Computer Conferencing Facility as a Medium in Process
This section explores the IBMPC computer conferencing facility using a mix of several methodologies, including participant observation, archival data, and surveys of the participants in the facility. There are two detailed examinations of specific events on the facility. These are documented in "A Simple Query" and "Four Hours in Community". Other chapters explore:
Reflections on Theory and Observation
The entire study, and particularly the relationship between the theory and the observation, is summarized in a discussion. Some additional conclusions are drawn in the final chapter.
Listings of 1986 and 1988 surveys of IBMPC participants can be found in the appendix. Some interesting demographics of IBMPC participants are also documented there. Appendices also present the characteristics and media used in preparing the typology of media.