Computer Mediated Communication

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Units of Analysis for Internet Communication

John December
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Table of Contents

Introduction
Defining Internet-based, Computer-mediated Communication Approaches to Defining Communication
Figure 1. Basic operation of the Internet's TCP/ IP switching protocols Figure 2. The client-server data communications model Integration
Examples of Internet Communication
Units of Analysis for Internet-based Communication
The Server-Client-Content Triad
Contextualizing Media Units of Analysis
Figure 3. Symbols for graphic representation of media classes and objects Figure 4. Graphic representation of a media class Figure 5. Graphic representation of three media objects. Integrating Diverse Landscapes

References

When communication researchers make claims about the relationship of media to individuals or society, they use the term media to mean a variety of things. For example, a researcher might try to prove the claim "television causes X," where X might be anything from aggressive behavior to bad vision or a crisis in a sense of self. In this case, is the researcher talking about the television signals in the air, people who work at television stations, people who produce or act in television programs, the television programs themselves, television receiving sets, or some or all of these things?

Of course, the research context, setting, and constraints usually define what is meant by the term television as a medium, but how can researchers talk about new media that involve communication on computer networks? The Internet, a cooperatively run, globally distributed collection of computer networks, provides a communication forum in which an estimated 20-40 million people in 90 countries (Society, 1995) participate. The Internet provides an array of tools for people to use for information retrieval and communication in individual, group, and mass contexts, but can current notions of media be used to define communication on the Internet?

Researchers in past decades have taken many approaches to analyzing human communication on computer and networked communication systems. Using a variety of frameworks for defining units of analysis, these researchers have examined an array of communication settings. For example, some research has explored the relationships between the characteristics of media systems and the characteristics of individuals using them (Hiltz & Turoff, 1978; Johansen, Valle, & Spangler, 1979). Other researchers have examined the human component of computer-mediated communication processes in detail, examining social-psychological factors (Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire, 1984; Kling & Gerson, 1977; Lea & Spears, 1991a, 1991b; McGuire, 1983; Spears & Lea, 1992; Spears, Lea, & Lee, 1990), as well as social context factors (Feenberg, 1989, 1992; Fulk, Schmitz, & Steinfield, 1990; Fulk, Steinfield, Schmitz, & Power, 1987; Georgoudi & Rosnow, 1985; Lea, 1992; Martin, O'Shea, Fung, & Spears, 1992; Schmitz & Fulk, 1991), and social cues (DeSanctis & Gallupe, 1987; Kiesler, 1986; McGuire, Kiesler, & Siegel, 1987; Rutter, 1987; Siegel, Dubrovsky, Kiesler, & McGuire, 1986; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). This body of work presents a mixture of results that are very dependent on the context of the research setting. Integration of results, particularly at the theoretical level, is difficult.

Research focusing on media has likewise lead to insights, but little theoretical integration or comparison of results from study to study. Researchers have examined the diffusion and adoption of interactive media and found factors contributing to media technology adoption as well as patterns of how technology use develops in a community (Markus, 1987, 1990; Miles, 1992; Rogers,...
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