Friday, November 16, 2001

Journal 3: CMC Journal Article

For this assignment, I will respond to Lincoln Dahlberg's 2001 article, "Computer mediated communication and the public sphere: A critical analysis". I enjoyed this article, as I felt that the author rightly resisted the temptation to make of CMC something it isn't, either mankind's salvation or the downfall of civilization as we know it. He identified things accomplished very effectively by virtual communication, outlined the major problems, and pointed out the many areas where it's consequences have been mixed.

In this article, Dahlberg evaluates the utopian predictions surrounding the potential of the internet over the last decade, particularly the notion of internet-as-global-forum. To accomplish this, he analyzes computer mediated communication according to Jurgen Habermas's theory of rational communication and six qualities of a public forum. These are:
i. Autonomy from state and economic power.
ii. Exchange and critique of criticizable moral-practical validity claims.
iii. Reflexivity.
iv. Ideal role-taking.
v. Sincerity.
vi. Discursive inclusion and equality.
Not surprisingly, since Habermas's public forum is itself a utopian vision, when judging the real-world practice of computer mediated communication against it, Dahlberg's findings were mixed. Much of internet communication is under corporate control, so the first condition does not apply perfectly. However, there are also many free methods of CMC, so the entire discipline can hardly be said to be under authoritarian control. The discursive rhythm of most CMC encourages reflexive dialogue much more than exchanging papers does, but reflexivity is discouraged by the inherent pressures of the medium to give "snap" responses rather than taking time to give a more thoughtful one. On the whole, Dahlberg's paper suggests that the best quality of CMC is that the fact that it does, however imperfectly, allow dialogue between people that would never encounter each other otherwise. The least favorable characteristics are the tendencies of people freed from RL constraints to either be very rude to others or very misleading.

These last two problems reminded me strongly of Sherry Turkle's discussion of identity while "being digital". On page 179 of her book, Life on the Screen, she quotes a woman who is worried that an online friend won't like her when they meet offline because, "I didn't exactly lie to him about anything specific, but I feel very different online. I am a lot more outgoing, less inhibited...I feel more like who I wish I was." When you never actually have to see the person with whom you conversing, it is much easier to say exactly what you are thinking--and while this may be an attractive change in a very shy person, there are many thoughts that are better not expressed. However, unlike in real life, there is little incentive to practice self-control in this matter because any consequences for being rude or hurtful would be specific to a particular listserv/chatroom/discussion board, and so relatively easy to avoid. The same principle applies to people who radically misrepresent their identities. There is very little opportunity for virtual communication partners to obtain information about you that you do not choose to present, and if you are "found out", the consequences are specific to that forum. You can even, if you like, take on a new user name and come back to the same forum for a "fresh start". All of this, however, begs the question: Why does it matter? If you are in a virtual group discussing, say, the merits of a flat tax rate, why does it matter if participant X is really a twenty year old male from Texas, rather than a forty year old housewife from South Dakota? Or if participant Y is more outspoken than she is offline? Well, aside from the fact that it is easier to converse on any topic if everyone is polite and consistent, trust seems to be an essential element in the formation of community, online as well as off. In order for people to speak candidly, they need to feel that they are being dealt with honestly by those to whom they are speaking.

Sources:

Dahlberg, Lincoln (2001). Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 7(1). "Computer mediated communication and the public sphere: A critical analysis". Available: http://www.ascusc.org/jcmc/vol7/issue1/dahlberg.html 11/16/01

Turkle, Sherry (1995). Life on the Screen. Simon & Schuster, New York.