cover art for cybersociety book

Computer-Mediated Communication and Community: Introduction

by Steve Jones (

This excerpt is the introductory chapter from the book CyberSociety:

Computer-Mediated Communication and Community from Sage Publications
(Newbury Park, CA). It is © by Sage Publications and Steve Jones, all rights reserved.

Our concept of cyberspace, cyberculture, and cyber-everything is,
more than we care to realize, a European idea, rooted in
Deuteronomy, Socrates, Galileo, Jefferson, Edison, Jobs, Wozniak,
glasnost, perestroika, and the United Federation of Planets.

-- Neil Stephenson, "In the Kingdom of Mao Bell."

The ubiquitous nature of electronic communication has firmly manifested itself in computer-mediated communication (CMC). Through communication services like America Online, MCIMail, the Internet, Usenet and numerous other mail, messaging and bulletin-board services (BBSes) electronically-distributed, almost instantaneous, written communication has for many people supplanted the postal service, telephone, even fax machine. There are over two million Internet host computers, and it is estimated that some three million people use the Usenet news service accessible via Internet. Other computer-communication networks spring to life seemingly every week, and even cable companies now venture into the networks to provide cable subscribers CMC connections.

Accompanying this manifestation is a resurgence in prophecy related to computers and computing. A large portion of that prophecy relates to virtual reality (VR) technology, which promises all flavors of reality on demand. Some of it is associated with the combination of audio and video in the computer which is to lead us to the long-promised connection between the radio, television and computer. But increasingly there are fewer comments about the wonders of technology and more about the new forms of community brought about by CMC, about the new social formations I have termed "cybersociety." This notion of community depends on CMC and on the ability to share thoughts and information instantaneously across vast distances.

James Carey has eloquently argued that prophecy has accompanied the arrival of most every new communication (not to mention other) technology. What Carey and collaborator John Quirk argue is that "electrical techniques (are hailed) as the motive force of desired social change, the key to the re- creation of a humane community, the means for returning to a cherished naturalistic bliss" (Carey, 1989, p. 115). Perhaps technology's numerous unfulfilled promises have led us to expect less naturalistic bliss, but expectations for social change and community remain. Evidence of the expectations for social change can be found in the sublimity with which electronic mail was said to have been important in the 1992 U.S. presidential election, and in the speed with which the Clinton White House implemented an electronic mail system. As a press release touting the White House's email connection claimed:

Today, we are pleased to announce that for the first time in history, the White House will be connected to you via electronic mail. Electronic mail will bring the Presidency and this Administration closer and make it more accessible to the people. (Letter from the President and Vice President in announcement of White House electronic mail access, June 1, 1993)

Our hopes and expectations for community are evident in the everyday discourse on thousands of BBSes, on Usenet, in mail messages and interactive media like Internet Relay Chat (IRC). More importantly, these hopes lurk between the lines of that discourse, in the assumptions CMC users make about the connections they have to other users.

To examine those assumptions is to understand fundamentally human needs for contact, control, knowledge, the social and sociological elements of communication and community. Each essay in this volume adds another facet to that examination, provides another glimpse of how the promises of technology and the reality of its use mesh, collapse, and reorganize, and of the forms of cybersociety that are conjoined with that promise.

The Net

Cybersociety relies, of course, on the forms of CMC allowed by current computer network structures, and some discussion of those is in order. Excellent introductions to electronic mail, the Internet, and a host of other computer networks and software are readily available and I will not cover the ground they do. Each can readily assist with connection to the variety of computer links described in CyberSociety's chapters, and I suggest that reader use this technology (if you have not already) to experience electronic mail, to examine the bulletin boards, lists, and newsgroups about which the contributors write. Unlike many other analyses and studies of contemporary society, one may enter the communities and discourse described in these chapters with relative ease. The issues with which sociologists and anthropologists, among others, have traditionally engaged when conducting their research are part of that discourse, for it becomes necessary to cover ground concerning participant-observation, privacy, and biography. The best way to come in contact with those issues is to experience CMC.

As background to the following chapters, though, some introduction to the history of computer-mediated communication is useful. The connections in place for the most widely discussed computer network, the Internet, were formed in the 1960s and early 1970s when the U.S. Department of Defense and several research universities, via DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Program Agency) linked computers. The resulting network, Arpanet, allowed for access to each site's computers not only for communication but for research. The latter role, though, took a back seat to the use of Arpanet as a means for researchers to share information by way of electronic mail. Initially such mailing was in the form we are accustomed to from using the post office; individual messages are sent from one person to another.

However, it quickly became clear that messages often contained information to be shared by many users, and thus mailing lists were created. These lists allowed one person to mail one message to a central point from which that message was "bounced" or "reflected" to others who subscribed to the list. Eventually lists became specialized to particular topics, and the terms "bulletin board" and "mailing list" came to have some interchangeability. Bulletin boards, though, generally referred to computers one could reach by dialing through standard phone lines with a computer modem and linking with another computer. The effect of each, board and list, was similar in many ways, as both provided news and information to users and came to be subsumed under the category of "newsgroup." Newsgroups gather the messages posted by users in a centralized fashion and permit interaction with posted messages by way of simple means of reply. Lengthy threads are created by individual messages that generate dozens, even hundreds, of replies. The largest manifestation of newsgroups is known as the Usenet, a massive repository of thousands of newsgroups accessible from most any computer with a connection to the Internet.

Other computer networks grew during the 1970s, and various software and hardware protocols were developed that enabled them to connect to Arpanet, and it, in turn, morphed into the Internet thanks to the National Science Foundation's appropriation of advanced computing.

The Internet essentially serves as the main connecting point for many other networks. It has, in a sense, come to be a "backbone" by which networks link up with each other. A common estimate is that there are over 30,000 computer networks with over 1.5 million computers connected through the Internet, and the Internet's number of users grows by 10 percent monthly.

The Internet is a decentralized network, and its management occurs via the NSF. However, no one group manages it. Instead, a variety of groups, such as the Internet Society and InterNIC, circulate information, resolutions, and do research on the network's needs.

There are several purposes the Internet can serve, but the two its users most frequently engage with are electronic mail and newsgroups. Not coincidentally, these two purposes form the basis for CMC and are the ones most discussed in CyberSociety, and it is those I address in the book's opening chapter.

However, they are not necessarily the place to begin to understand all of the connections between CMC and community, especially as technologies continue to converge. Virtual reality (VR) technology and even computer games like Nintendo's and Sega's, for example, provide still more arenas for communication and interaction. As Cheris Kramarae points out in the second chapter, VR "affects even those of us who have no intention of putting on VR glove and headset."

Indeed, the creation of new worlds is at the heart of what all new communication technologies seem to be destined for. Part of that creative process involves narrative, part involves technology, and part involves social interaction.

Kramarae finds compelling connections between the "information revolution," VR, entertainment, and sensation, strongly evoking critiques of the direction we seem to be pushing new technologies. For her, VR may portend "an interest in moving to a more sanitized world without the messes we've made," or, to put it another way, in distancing ourselves from the physical world we have just as equally created as the virtual worlds we may create.

Indeed, the creation of new worlds is at the heart of what all new communication technologies seem to be destined for. Part of that creative process involves narrative, part involves technology, and part involves social interaction. As Mary Fuller and Henry Jenkins note, the impulse to create new worlds is deeply rooted in the human psyche. Their insightful connections between exploration of space, new world narratives and graphic interfaces like Nintendo point out that our efforts at electronic discovery through technologies like VR or other CMC forms have strong historical roots. They identify "the appetite for encountering a succession of new spaces," and such an appetite also motivates the development of new communication technology. They borrow from De Certeau to claim that "spatial relations (are a) central organizing principle of all narratives." As CMC is rooted in narrative, it is clearly important to understand the travel stories users tell, implicit ones as well as explicit ones, and Fuller and Jenkins provide a basis for that understanding.

Narrative is an important focus of study for anyone seeking to comprehend the variety of CMC available, as it is important to ask questions about power in relation to it. Who will secure the "master" narrative (if there will be one) concerning CMC? Some say software will enable all users to contribute to, or create, an unlimited amount of narratives and texts. The development of Mosaic software by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois, for instance, links still images, video and audio to text- based documents and is not much more difficult to use than a fancy word processor. It is, though, only in its formative stages. Most other software used for CMC relies exclusively on text, and consequently we must examine the forms of textual interaction provided via the computer screen. As Ted Friedman writes in chapter four, perhaps some type of "software theory" is needed, a kind of intersection of literary criticism and computer-mediated text, to engage questions of self and identity via the cognitive mapping that takes place while one "plays" computer games. Friedman finds that computer games "mark a fundamental challenge to familiar conceptions of individual autonomy," at least in part due to the constraints placed on one's conception of self within a game created by others (software designers).

The notion of self and its relation to community is one that must be taken up critically, and the other contributors to CyberSociety do so. Given, for instance, the mutability of identity in Usenet, where it is possible to post messages anonymously and pseudonomously, how are we to negotiate social relations that, at least in the realm of face-to-face communication, were fixed by recognition of identity? One answer to that question comes in the form of the previously mentioned constraints on CMC users. The developers of Eudora, an electronic- mail software package, for instance, in early versions made it possible to send messages adopting anyone else's name by using their e-mail address. Later versions of Eudora circumvented this software loophole by appending the word "unverified" in parentheses next to the e-mail address of the sender if the message originated without a password.

Still other means of fixing identity and conduct have developed over time, and in chapter five Margaret McLaughlin, Kerry Osborne and Christine Smith examine the evolution of standards of conduct on Usenet. Their work, like others in CyberSociety, begins to ask questions about power in the social relations being formed via CMC. Such work speaks directly to the creation of community via CMC, as the development of standards of conduct is in a sense the development of a moral code, a system of values, akin to the ones that arise and are revised in most social formations. For McLaughlin and her coauthors, the patterns of conduct that accrete on Usenet point "evidence of community" similar to "the discursive working-out of community standards of behavior." Such evidence does not, however, make Usenet communities any less amorphous and ephemeral, and consequently the question that needs to be asked is: In a near-entirely ephemeral world how does an individual, much less a community, maintain existence?

Pointing toward one direction that may answer that question, Richard MacKinnon in chapter six examines the notion that individuals exist as "persona" on Usenet, and "at this level...the fear of vanishing from existence is ever present and near." MacKinnon uses Hobbes' Leviathan to examine the relationship between online and offline identity, and power. Though Hobbes' seventeenth-century political theory may lack immediacy in relation to twentieth-century CMC, the connection between Hobbes' proposal for monarchy as the ideal for social organization and MacKinnon's use of Gene Spafford as a Usenet "monarch" and newsgroup moderators as themselves monarchs makes for a compelling argument that Leviathan may be among Usenet's personae. An earlier version of MacKinnon's work has sparked a great deal of discussion on Usenet and is available electronically at numerous sites on the Internet. In this version he focuses his arguments and furthers his search for Leviathan.

MacKinnon's efforts point to one of the most compelling questions concerning CMC: Who are we when we are online? The question becomes even more important as new technologies are developed for creating "agents" or "alters" that roam the network for us when we are away from our terminals. Each of CyberSociety's last three chapters seeks to address this question. As Nancy Baym notes in chapter seven, members of a newsgroup dedicated to discussion of soap operas "creatively exploit the system's features in order to play with new forms of expressive communication, to explore possible public identities." Interestingly, Baym finds that rather than fearing a loss of identity, newsgroup users value anonymity "because it creates opportunities to invent alternative versions of one's self and to engage in untried forms of interaction."

The preeminent arena for realtime interaction on the Internet is the MUD, or Multi-User Dimension. In a MUD many users can interact using a text-based communication system and collaboratively created spaces. Elizabeth Reid's examination of MUDs in chapter eight points to an active process of community- building in what is essentially a virtual reality environment constructed through texts. The latter may not be particularly surprising; after all, we have, in a sense, created virtual worlds since the invention of writing. The former, though, is startling, because rarely have those worlds been created simultaneously among people at such great physical distance from each other. Importantly, Reid notes that MUDs "rarely resemble scripts or books." In other words, though text-based, MUD discourse combines elements of the written and spoken, which itself points to the "naturalness" of the environments MUD users create. The spontaneity with which discourse and dialogue can occur affects the text itself, and MUDs are an arena within which users communicate in real-time and with little time to construct carefully written texts.

On another front, newsgroups do allow users time to consider messages and responses, and in chapter nine Alan Aycock and Norman Buchignani examine a Usenet incident involving the posting of messages and responses to them that calls into question whether we will alter our notions about the conventional categories of authority, genealogy and madness. Aycock and Buchignani find strong conservative impulses in all three realms rather than a willingness among Usenet users to question those categories. As we seek to know whether the social formations we encounter online are indeed new ones their work is critical.

And, indeed, CyberSociety is at heart an attempt to understand and probe into these formations. One reason such an attempt is needed is to understand the framing of reality that CMC brings about. As Mary Chayko claims:

In modern everyday life, it is difficult (and becoming impossible) to definitively classify experience as "real" or "not real"; it is more helpful to determine the degree or "accent" of reality in an event. The frames we once used, conceptually, to set the real apart from the unreal are not as useful as they once were; they are not as sturdy; they betray us. As they become ever more fragile, we require new concepts and understandings. (1993, 178)

The purpose of this book is to provide a few such concepts and understandings. It also emphasizes that new social formations may require new forms of inquiry, too. How will sociologists, ethnographers, communication scholars and anthropologists, for instance, grapple with issues related to studying electronic communities? The essays in CyberSociety are evidence of some answers to that question. They are descriptive, but not prescriptive. The interest is to understand the everyday life of the network and its citizens, to, as Carey puts it, engage in "a sociology of border crossing, of migration across the semipermeable membranes of social life that constituted...disorderly fronts..." (1993, 179). In this case the fronts are on our computer screens, beckoning us to go from the "where" of our own boundaries to a "who knows" that, like any new frontier, is colonized first by our imagination and thought.


Among the best of these introductory texts are the following:

Badgett, T. and Sandler, C. Welcome To...Internet: From Mystery to Mastery. New York: MIS Press, 1993. 324 pp. ISBN 1-55828-308-0.

Braun, E. The Internet Directory. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994. 704 pp. ISBN 0-449-90898-4.

Dern, D. P. The Internet Guide for New Users. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994. 570 pp. ISBN 0-07-016511-4.

Engst, A. C. Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh. Indianapolis, IN: Hayden, 1993. 641 pp. ISBN 1-56830-064-6.

Estrada, S. Connecting to the Internet: A Buyer's Guide. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly & Associates, Inc. 1993. 170 pp. ISBN 1- 56592-061-9.

Falk, B. The Internet Roadmap. San Francisco: Sybex, 1994. 263 pp. ISBN 0-7821-1365-6.

Fraase, M. The Mac Internet Tour Guide: Cruising the Internet the Easy Way. Chapel Hill, NC: Ventana Press, 1994. 288 pp. ISBN: 1-56604-062- 0. Ventana has published a similar book by Fraase for the DOS- based computer.

Gilster, P. The Internet Navigator. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1993. 470 pp. ISBN 0-471-59782-1.

Kehoe, B. P. Zen and the Art of the Internet. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: PTR Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1993. 112 pp. ISBN 0-13-010778-6. An early version of Kehoe's book is available in electronic form at a variety of Internet sites.

Krol, E. The Whole Internet Catalog & User's Guide. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly & Associates, 1992. 376 pp. ISBN 1-56592-025-2.

Quarterman, J. S. and Smoot, C. The Internet Connection: System Connectivity and Configuration. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1994. 271 pp. ISBN 0-201-54237-4.

Smith, R. and Gibbs, M. Navigating the Internet. Carmel, IN: Sams Publishing, Inc., 1993. 500 pp. ISBN 0-672-30362-0.

Some, such as Engst's book, come with a floppy disk containing essentially all of the software required to get any computer with a modem hookup connected to the Internet or commercial networks like CompuServe, Delphi and GEnie, which themselves provide Internet access.


Carey, J. (1989). Communication as culture. Boston: Unwin-Hyman.

Chayko, M. (1993). What is real in the age of virtual reality? "Reframing" frame analysis for a technological world. Symbolic Interaction, 16 (2), 171-181.

Letter from the President and Vice President in announcement of White House electronic mail access. (June 1, 1993).

Stephenson, N. (1994, February). In the kingdom of Mao Bell. Wired, 2 (2), 100.

Steve Jones is associate professor and chair of the faculty of communication at the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Copyright ©1995 Sage Publications. All Rights Reserved. Reproduced by permission.

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