6.1 Aspects of CMC

Computers used to facilitate communication between humans and build virtual communities constitute the technical foundation of computer-mediated communication (CMC) (Rheingold, 1993). "CMC systems use computers and telecommunication networks to compose, store, deliver and process communication. There are three basic types of computer-mediated communication systems: email, news, and chat programs" (Reid, 1991). Email allows users to send messages to each other. News groups allow multiple users to discuss the same issues by grouping related discussions into a database divided by subject headings. Both email and news are asynchronous types of communication in that users can send, receive, and read messages at widely separated times. Chat on the other hand is synchronous and real time. Messages are almost immediately transmitted from one user's computer directly to the display of another user or group of users.

Though not originally intended, chat systems have had a tremendous affect on the social nature of computer-mediated communication. It is usually assumed that computer-mediated communication is not conducive to emotional exchange because of its lack of social context cues, and though originally thought to limit 'social presence' and encourage more serious, business-like, and task oriented communication, social interaction has actually emerged as an integral part of CMC systems (Rice and Love, 1987). Chat programs and virtual communities focus on the more social nature of CMC. BBSs, IRC, MUDs, and the Web are all CMC systems which exhibit varying degrees of social interaction. In each of these systems users are allowed and encouraged to communicate and interact with each other. In fact, in the case of IRC and MUDs, the majority of communication on these systems is not business-like, or task oriented at all, but is rather more akin to play.

When compared to conventional forms of interaction, computer-mediated communication was found to have four distinct features: an absence of regulating feedback, dramaturgical weakness, few social cues, and social anonymity (Kiesler et al., 1984). Instead of having the conversational resources of real life encounters, such as a shared physical environment, eye contact, physical touch and non-verbal cues, users of CMC systems are forced to interact and channel all their various means of communication through a text-only medium, or at most very rough graphical representations.

If CMC systems are going to be used to foster interactions between people and create virtual communities, a shared context must be created between the users of such a system. As most CMC systems are textual in nature, the "dramaturgical weakness" of a text only medium must be conquered. Words create the shared context between users and therefore must take the place of the traditional real life methods of communication we have become accustomed to. Not only must words replace our verbal communication, they must also replace non-verbal communication such as gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, body language, and other nuances of tone. In essence a verbalization of the physical condition is needed (Reid, 1991). Without the social cues, or feedback of conventional face to face interaction, users of CMC systems are forced to abandon their traditional interaction protocols, and must create alternative means to communicate and interact with each other.

6.2 Anonymity and Disinhibition

In many CMC systems, users are generally not known by their real life names. The convention on such systems is to allow users to choose a nickname or handle, or create a completely fictions character or avatar. The information one user can gain about other users consists almost entirely of information each user is willing to give. In completely anonymous systems, the only information known about a user is the information they choose to make known. In other words, users can create any information, characteristics, or personality they like and can quite literally be whomever they wish.

One immediate effect of such anonymity is an observed feeling of safety among users (Reid, 1994). Separated physically by potentially great distances and interacting strictly through computer systems, users are aware that their virtual lives will rarely intersect with their real lives. There is a sense of removal from on-line activity when it is realized that there is little chance of a user's virtual actions resulting in real world response. Users may feel as if they have little or no accountability for their on-line actions. "No one can be embarrassed or exposed or laughed at in their day-to-day lives. There are no sticks or stones to contend with, and although words my hurt, players can always resort to the off-switch on their computers" (Reid, 1994). The safety, protection and anonymity provided by CMC systems seems to encourage less inhibited behavior than one would exhibit in real life, and enables user to explore aspects of themselves they may have never explore in real life.

If there is one characteristic researchers of human behavior have observed in all computer-mediated communication systems, it is that users tend to exhibit less inhibited behavior than they would in face-to-face encounters. It is thought that the disinhibited behavior observed in computer-mediated communication may occur "because of the lack of social control that nonverbal cues provide" (Rice and Love, 1987). Whatever the reason, disinhibition appears to be a common occurrence. As common as it is however, it should be noted that there is no one type of disinhibited behavior as it comes in many forms and flavors. Disinhibited behavior can manifest itself in increased aggressive and disrespectful behavior, or increased friendliness and intimacy. Users of a virtual community can be both more intimate and more hostile with each other than would be socially acceptable in real life encounters. This is particularly noted among users who are meeting for the first time. The anonymity of the encounter, and the natural disinhibition of all computer-mediated conversations, allow them to side step any initial small talk and explore the budding relationship in far less time than would have taken in a real life encounter.

Socially interacting strictly via computer and potentially great distances "forces an escape from traditional paradigms of social interaction by reference to an architecture that allows relative anonymity" (Reid, 1991). Therefore, social interaction through computer-mediated communication systems involves a deconstruction of traditional assumptions about social boundaries in which anonymity and disinhibition have dramatic effects on the virtual communities created within those CMC systems.

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