Most of the literature about online communication has split into two camps: the utopian view that the Internet is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and the dystopian view that it’s the worst thing since white bread. Neither side gives much serious thought to the other’s position, nor does either side posit any theory, hypotheses, or tests of its own tenets.
The utopian vision of online communication has existed since at least 1879, when Punch magazine published a drawing of a video window above the bedroom mantelpiece of a Victorian villa, calling it “Edison’s Telephonoscope” (Mitchell, 1995, p. 32). In the 20th century, the utopian vision often focused on the democratizing potential of online communication, as exemplified by futurist R. Buckminster Fuller’s remark: "Devise a mechanical means for voting daily and secretly by each adult citizen of Uncle Sam's family, then--I assure you--will democracy be saved, indeed exist, for the first time in history" (Fuller, 1963). More recently, others have hailed online communication as an “electronic agora” (Rheingold, 1993, p. 14), a “profound” force in macrosociology (Beniger, 1991, p. 258), a haven for the homeless (Schmitz et al., 1995), and “a shopper’s heaven” (Gates, 1995, p. 158). Another huge section of “literature” that more subtly espouses the utopian vision of online communication comprises the how-to books, manuals, and articles, all of which implicitly argue that computers are ultimately good and useful things, albeit aggravating in the details.
In the last five years, however, a minor backlash has emerged in response to the increasing commercialization and colonization of the Internet, along with the increasing monopolization of the computer industry by Microsoft, Intel and America Online. These philosophical articles and books interrogate the realities of new media development. They have drawn a dystopian vision of online communication, as exemplified by Clifford Stoll’s Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway (1995). Mitchell says the specter of Orwell’s Big Brother monitoring has been replaced by a swarm of automated little brothers at the other end of our online connections. “We entered the era of dataveillance,” he declares (1995, p. 157). Other dystopians (Spears & Lea, 1994) (Edwards, 1988) (Tehranian, M. & Tehranian, K., 1995) have explicitly invoked Michel Foucault’s concept of the panopticon as an analogy of how computer-mediated communication can be used for surveillance by those in power. Established institutions such as schools and businesses have increased their reach by giving people access to computers but only sanctioning certain uses for them, Edwards says. “People who think they are being watched tend to do what they think they are supposed to do" (1988, p. 31).
The dystopians are also highly suspicious of the claims that online communication will resuscitate democracy by creating a cybersphere. Based on the way women are often harassed or dismissed online, the cybersphere is not likely to be any more inclusive than was the Greek agora or the bourgeoisie public sphere that Habermas (1989) idealized (Heroux, 1997, p. 12) (Landes, 1995). At best, there will be multiple public spheres online based on narrow interests, each of them struggling to reach consensus on anything (Fernback & Thompson, 1997b), with any single argument so swamped by the flood of daily data that it is “a lot like spitting into a tornado” (Heroux, 1997, p. 10).
The literature of online dystopia, however, is nearly as anecdotal and a-theoretical as the utopian vision. Also, the dystopians have been unable to quell the hype surrounding the Internet, or even arouse a meaningful debate about its course of development, as Slouka noted in the quote that opened this paper (1995, p. 9).
A few years after Slouka’s complaint, a team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University did publish one of the few pieces of quantitative research that questions the Internet’s value for fostering democracy (Kraut et al., 1998). They concluded that greater use of online communication leads to less talking with family members, a shrinking social circle, fewer friends, loneliness, and depression. Initially, the researchers cautioned that this pattern of atomization needed to be corroborated with other studies, but that didn’t stop them from recommending that government programs be developed to shore up communities and families threatened by “the Internet Paradox.” They suggested people monitor and limit their Internet usage, lest they become too disengaged from real life.
Such sweeping recommendations drew immediate fire from many Internet users and from other researchers. Online enthusiasts recounted anecdotes of how their Internet use had vastly broadened their circle of friends (Schwartz, 1998b). Researchers criticized the Carnegie Mellon team for trying to extrapolate their findings beyond the 169 Pittsburgh-area people in the study, noting their sample was not randomly selected nor compared with any control group of non-Internet users (Caruso, 1998). I would also argue that the Carnegie Mellon researchers blurred the line between causation and association, and they did not overtly state any hypotheses before their results. In fact, they acknowledged being surprised to get results indicating that this new medium with the vast capacity to be used for socializing was instead isolating its most ardent users. That surprise should have moved them to seek an unanticipated intervening variable that would explain their results. At least, they should have conducted another study specifically aimed at testing their initial findings before publicizing their results and using them to make policy recommendations.
The findings of the Carnegie Mellon team directly contradicted a more rigorous study published a year earlier (Katz & Aspden, 1997). That study was based on an October 1995 nationwide phone survey of a randomly selected sample of 2,500 media users, plus a random oversample of another 400 Internet users. It found no evidence that Internet users were less involved with their surrounding community organizations or atomized in any other way. In fact, the Internet seemed to help them keep in touch with distant relatives and meet new friends. "Far from creating a nation of strangers, the Internet is creating a nation richer in friendships and social relationships," Katz and Aspden concluded (p. 86).
What makes these last two studies particularly relevant to my research is their inherent notion that online communication mediates our culture, and that it may or may not empower us to “win friends and influence people.” Although neither study offers overtly stated hypotheses, they both include rare critical analysis of how online communication is changing our lives and what we might do about it.
More than 15 years ago, Rogers and Chaffee predicted that research methodologies applied to “computer-mediated communication” would follow the same sequence as they had with every other medium when it was new: user demographics, uses and gratifications, effects, content analysis, histories, and critical analysis (Rogers & Chaffee, 1983). By and large, they have been correct. Only in the last three years have there been any research studies of the Internet that build on qualitative studies by using quantitative assessments and critical analysis. My study aims to continue that progression. Online communication continues to grow and evolve so rapidly that it remains the subject of many studies assessing the demographics of its users and how they use this new medium. My aim, however, is to build theory that transcends the quotidian, incremental changes in the Internet that are so enrapturing to marketers.