Monday, October 10, 2005

Speed in CMC, plus a promise for future non-self-referential posts

So, here's a first roundup from IR 6.0, starting with the panel of which I was a part (excerpted, edited from here). Our panel was organized by Naomi S. Baron and titled "Rethinking Discourse in Cyberspace: The Role of Speed in Shaping CMC Behavior" (abstracts here). It was well attended (for which I’m grateful!) and very warmly received.

I presented my work on apostrophes as a linguistic variable in IM, and I got some good critical comments about the project that’ll help me craft this sort of research in the future, as well as any other versions of this paper. Basically I found that women used apostrophes much more than men (significantly more), and I tied it to the traditional findings in sociolinguistic research that women use more standard speech forms than men. This was kind of my attempt to start trying to applying sociolx methodologies to CMC, particularly with regards to variation, register, styleshifting, etc. So I was using a variationist type approach to see what would happen, and I was pretty happy with the results – though it’s only just a start. After this week I have so much else I want to start doing, who knows where all this energy will end up.

Rich Ling spoke about social dimensions of predictive text use and had some interesting things to report about the differences between those who use predictive text programs (PT) vs. those who use the “multi-tap” method, meanwhile reporting that studies have shown that speed of composition is actually minimally affected by PT. Speaking of cell phones, Erin Watkins then presented on “cellcerts” (“cellular phone” + “concert” = “cellcert”) among the Clay Aiken fan community. This is a phenomenon that seems like a high-tech upgrade on show taping and tape trading, but facilitated by cell phones and message boards (and hyperexcitable fans). Someone at the concert holds up their cell phone (we’ve all seen these people at shows) and the person at the other end writes about it on an online message board (like this one). The most interesting finding here, to me, is that about 2/3 of Watkins’ respondents preferred reading about concerts on the message boards – that is, those written by fans – than to read professional concert reviews. Now, there are undoubtedly a lot of reasons for this (like that Clay Aiken might not get the best reviews from traditional professional press, for instance), but it’s a nice suggestive finding that people would choose a fan as an authority over someone with established professional credentials. Or perhaps it just says that they’d rather read a narrative of the concert than a criticism of it.

Tim Clem and Brian Rabinovitz talked about their study on multitasking, the research design of which was stunning, if I do say so myself. They basically created an online survey which asks people to look, right now, at their browser to see what other programs they’re running, how many of them there are, what kind they are, how much they’re using each of them, where their attention is really focused, etc. Which is an excellent method, though of course it still has some of the self-report issues that any self-report study has. They also had interesting findings about multitasking behavior amongst their college-aged respondents: 89% were multitasking between being online and IMing, while 84% were multitasking between IMing and an offline (off-computer) task. Only 23% said that they often engage in only one IM conversation, whereas the average number of IM conversations is 2.5 going at a time.

All of which was wrapped up by Baron as an indication that much of online communication happens “under the radar”: it’s not our primary or sole activity engaged in whenever we’re engaged in it. It’s a backstage activity, in Goffman’s terms, or often even a backchannel activity, in ICT terminology. This means we get to choose who we talk to, and when, in what order we respond to all of those IMs. The allure of CMC, then, is not necessarily about speed in the sense of being able to rapidly communicate messages to people – but it is, I think, about being able to speed things up when we want to but being able to control the pace otherwise.

This is the same sort of thing I was trying to get at in my paper for AoIR 4.0, though less from the issue of speed than from the issue of communicative control overall. I have thought, and continue to think, that one of the most important effects of CMC and ICTs is that it affords us a level of control over the kind of interaction we have that hasn’t before been possible if we wanted to have extensive interaction at all. I’m just now going back to my 2003 paper, in fact, because I kept thinking of it this week when hearing what a lot of people were saying. So I find that a few things I wrote then are particularly applicable to the aspect of control that Baron is talking about, and since what I said then is basically what I would say now if I were writing anew, I’m just going to quote myself here:

[W]hile technology does not necessitate communication inferior to F2F communication (it is not so deterministic), each mode constitutes a unique domain—in technical characteristics as well as in users’ experiences with the media. Mode choice is a highly individual, contextual process; delegating certain content for discussion in certain communicative venues is a way to control information by choosing the realm in which the information will be exchanged. The technology users in this study are keenly aware of functional differences between technologies and choose to use media accordingly…

[T]he privilege formerly assigned to both visual and auditory cues in interpersonal communication may be weakening; what it means for a medium to engender “social presence” is also changing. Mediating technologies, and especially text-based forms, enable communication that is controllable to a higher degree than is F2F. If nonverbal cues are the least controllable aspect of communication, the fewer nonverbal cues it is possible to pick up or emit, the fewer uncontrollable elements (such as Goffman’s signals “given off”) enter the equation.

Baron engages us, rightly, to wonder what we gain or lose from gaining a certain measure of control over communication like this. How do ICTs upset, shift, negate, reinforce, etc. existing interactional dynamics (=social/power relations) as seen from this perspective?

Moreover, "under the radar" has a couple of different meanings. CMC not only can happen under the radar of our attention, as in multitasking between several tasks at once, but it also happens largely under the radar of traditional linguistic pressures. Which is where we come in.

As for the other really really awesome stuff that other people are doing, some of it terribly exciting to readers of this blog – I'll enthusiastically report back later in the week.

unrelated to this entry, but does this blog have an RSS feed??? my primary online identity is elsewhere . . .
I believe it's here in atom: And you can get RSS through Safari, at least. Prob bloglines too. And stuff.
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