Lacking some of the cues that are received in face-to-face conversation, and the formality and permanence of traditional writing, CMC (computer-mediated communication) carries the potential to create a space without prejudice. Some claim that the Internet is a social utopia (Fredrick and Nguyen).
This study by Fredrick and Nguyen sought to describe the ethos of two groups that communicate asynchronously online. Given that a user cannot be identified by gender, race, or class on the Internet, it is conceivable that an Internet society that is democratic and inclusive can exist.
These researchers studied two feminist Usenet newsgroups, analyzing messages to determine the ethos, or rhetorical behavior of the groups. Based on feminist theory, an egalitarian group would be inclusive and democratic, with free access to communicate without a reduction in status.
They discovered that this potential utopia does not yet exist.
Where questions appeared in the messages, they decided whether the question was sarcastic or meant to open up discussion. The sarcastic questions would be noninclusive, and thus detract from th ethos of the group, and the others were inclusive, and would promote democratic discussion of a topic.
In examples of disagreement, the researchers divided those which were argumentative and accusing from those which acknowledge another point of view and offered alternatives. Although they looked for examples of agreement and support, these were rare, and often changed through the thread into a noninclusive tone. There were also examples of both strong and attenuated assertions.
One of the groups studied was moderated, the other was not. In the unmoderated group, sexist comment appeared, in an ironic twist. Not only do these comments exclude, but they exclude women in particular, extremely offensive in a feminist group.
Krolokke approached the same idea using synchronous communication data. She observed CMC in groups that were geared toward race, gender and political topics.
Krolokke found examples of insulting speech as play, which she describes as pushing the barriers of appropriate language. Examples of gender play also appeared, where users switched back and forth between use of gendered language. Even though participants cannot see or hear each other, it is possible to attribute a gender based on language use and behavior.
I believe that the idea that the Internet can create and egalitarian space is misdirected. The Internet alone is neither good nor bad. It is a tool, it is what its users make of it.
Instead of being a potential land of milk and honey, social interaction on the Internet reflects social interaction in real life. Prejudiced people will always find someone to exclude, and the anonymity of the Internet may only encourage that behavior, instead of creating a classless virtual reality. It might be enforced if a group of communicators is moderated, but it is not true equality.
The really interesting part of Krolokke’s study was her discussion of the concept of IRC (Internet Relay Chat). According to theories of communication, this sort of conversation should be impossible. Turn-taking is based on how fast a user can type, redundancy occurs at times when someone types slower than another speaker, it is impossible to tell when someone is typing a message in response to another.
Yet it works. Users of IRC find the mode of communication meaning and entertaining, encouraging them to play with language and identity.
This is where the suggestion for further research comes in. What are the implications of an invisible society that reflects the physical one? What effects will CMC have on native languages? On speech or writing offline? How can a feminist and egalitarian society be created without destroying the democratic qualities? How do gender, race and class affect Internet interactions? If we can attribute these distinctions when all we have is text, can these lines ever be dissolved? What are the possible affects of online interaction in the real world? How can theories of communication be redesigned to include the phenomenon of IRC?