Book Review

D-Lib Magazine
November 1998

ISSN 1082-9873

Net Effects

A review of two recent Internet communications books

By Anne Hoag
[email protected]

Anne Hoag is Assistant Professor of Communications, College of Communications, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park.

Network & Netplay: Virtual
Groups on the Internet
Fay Sudweeks,
Margaret McLaughlin,
and Sheizaf Rafaeli, eds.
313 pages. Tables and Figures, Index.
Menlo Park, California and Cambridge Massachusetts:
AAAI Press and The MIT Press 1998, $35.

Culture of the Internet
Sara Kiesler, ed.
463 pages. Tables and Figures, Index.
Mahwah, New Jersey:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 1997, $39.95.

A couple of months ago, Carnegie Mellon University researchers released the findings of an Internet use experiment. One finding of the study was a link between Internet use and depression. Hundreds of news outlets published simplified accounts with headlines like, "Is Internet depressing or is it just Pittsburgh?"(1) Most stories overlooked the many other contributions of the study. As with most Internet stories, the media were only responding to demand for definition, an easy way to think about the phenomenon of the Internet. It is not just the media. Between the journals and academic presses, the volume of Internet research has reached something of an embarrassment of riches. So where does one turn to get a balanced, considered yet thorough definition of this phenomenon, the Internet? The publication of two recent books offers a welcome response.

Network & Netplay: Virtual Groups on the Internet and Culture of the Internet as a set, are a comprehensive compendium of scholarly thinking and social science research on Internet communications. The two volumes share common themes and objectives. Both volumes focus on Internet communication, as opposed to information distribution on the Internet. Each includes research from an array of social sciences, from communications to anthropology to linguistics to management. The editors included primarily empirical and theory-driven inquiries rather than critical, futurist, normative or policy commentary. Both emphasize group over individual uses of the Internet. Work and play activities in academic, corporate and consumer settings are studied. Data are derived primarily from text-based forms of Internet communication, while studies of a small number of multi-media or Web-based applications are included in each.

Both collections contain excellent examples of innovative research design and data analysis strategies. Several of the studies are ingenious in the way they devise research questions that can actually be answered and phenomena that can actually be observed. Several creative methods for data collection are described; analysis tools, both quantitative and qualitative are applied strategically.

A final similarity, each volume represents the outcome of long-lived (in Internet years, anyway), organized research communities. Culture of the Internet is a collection of writings emerging from "Computers in Society," a Social Science Research Council-sponsored group whose purpose was to promote research on computer/society effects. Sara Kiesler, the editor, reports that the group collaborated during a ten year period from 1984 through 1993. Most of the research presented in Network & Netplay was driven by ProjectH, an electronic research community of a larger group of scholars formed in the early 1990s. Two of the three editors of this book, Fay Sudweeks and Sheizaf Rafaeli, were the coordinators of ProjectH. For readers from IT disciplines, these stories in themselves will be of interest.

There are sufficient differences in scope and perspective, however, to make these two books complements. The objective of the editors of Network & Netplay was to aid the reader in developing an understanding of virtual communities. The book is notable in 1998 for what it deliberately excludes: the Web. Twelve chapters focus on text-based communication applications: Usenet, IRC, MUDs and email. A thirteenth contribution examines communication in a Web environment, "Modeling and Supporting Virtual Cooperative Interaction Through the World Wide Web," by Lee Li-jen Chen and Brian R. Gaines. An appendix details ProjectH, the initiative which drove much of the book's research.

The contributors bring a variety of perspectives to their questioning: linguistics, anthropology and communication paradigms are a few of those represented. As the title implies, the data are taken from both work environments and play spaces. The researchers posed questions on a range of social and cultural issues. Of particular interest to an audience of IT researchers and professionals is the chapter by Sheizaf Rafaeli and Fay Sudweeks, "Interactivity on the Nets." In this piece, the construct of interactivity is explicated with clarity and used to examine message exchanges as conversation.

Other articles will elicit reader interest for their unique lines of inquiry. "The Social Construction of Rape in Virtual Reality," by Richard MacKinnon examines the shortcomings of such a construction for purposes of theory building in virtual reality. "Practicing Safe Computing," by Diane Witmer describes newsgroup users' perceptions of privacy and security on-line. "Media Use in an Electronic Community," by Steve Jones, found that participants in newsgroups used electronic news sources predominantly. Other contributions describe speech and behavior or how it is regulated on-line ("Smile When You Say That," by Diane Witmer and Sandra Katzman; "From Terminal Ineptitude to Virtual Sociopathy" by Christine B. Smith, Margaret L. McLaughlin and Kerry K. Osborne; "Frames and Flames" by Edward A. Mabry; and "Telelogue Speech," by Alexander E. Voiskounsky).

The focus on text-based forms of communication may seem outdated. However, as the editors point out, the Internet is essentially "a medium for conversation", despite the Web and its focus on "demonstration", rather than conversation. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that the book include primarily text-based communication. Still, some of the pieces are dated in terms of style, research focus and data. The Web is referred to as the "World Wide Web" throughout; even "email" is first written as "electronic mail" and in one place it is written, "the Internet or 'Net' (p. 13)" as if the audience would not be familiar with this shorthand. An entertaining and innovative piece on "graphical accents" seems somewhat irrelevant today since fewer users employ the :-) or @-->-->--- symbols. Finally, much of the data analyzed was collected in either 1991 (chapter 4) or 1993. While the analysis may inform on an internal reliability level, generalizing to today's or future user populations should be done with caution.

This book will be useful to both researchers and to IT professionals seeking to expand their understanding of what the Internet is: the culture of electronic collaboration and virtual community.

The editor and contributing authors for Culture of the Internet, would probably agree that as a communication medium, text-based applications provide better clues to what the Internet is. The editor, Sara Kiesler, (one of the investigators in the Carnegie Mellon study mentioned earlier) has selected 22 works, primarily targeting non-Web applications. Her purpose is similar to that of Network & Netplay: to contribute to a fuller definition of the Internet as a communication medium. The articles are categorized under five topics, "The Net as It Was and Might Become," "Electronic Groups," "Power and Influence," "Computer-Supported Cooperative Work," "Networked Organizations," and "Differences in Access and Usage."

D-Lib Magazine readers who wish to begin in familiar territory may jump first to chapter 16, "Organizational Dimensions of Effective Digital Library Use: Closed Rational and Open Natural Systems Models," by Lisa Covi and Rob Kling. Other pieces in the same category, "Networked Organizations," will motivate you to venture on. The other writings in this section cover intra-organizational communication and collaboration, "The Kindness of Strangers: On the Usefulness of Electronic Weak Ties for Technical Advice," by David Constant, Lee Sproull and Kiesler; "Media Use in a Global Corporation: Electronic Mail and Organizational Knowledge," by Robert E. Kraut and Paul Attewell; and "The Internet in School: A Case Study of Educator Demand and Its Precursors," by Janet W. Schofield, Ann Davidson, Janet E. Stocks, and Gail Futoran.

The section on the history and future of the Internet is preceded by Kiesler's reminder that computers were not devised as communication tools but as information processors. This context, in turn, provides a counterpoint to the diversity of evolving Internet uses studied in the section's four pieces: "The Rise and Fall of Netville," by John King, Rebecca E. Grinter and Jeanne M. Pickering; "Atheism, Sex, and Databases," by Sproull and Samer Faraj; "Pornography in Cyberspace: An Exploration of What's in USENET," by Michael D. Mehta and Dwain E. Plaza, and finally, "From the Couch to the Keyboard: Psychotherapy in Cyberspace," by Yitzchak M. Binik, James Cantor, Eric Ochs, and Marta Meana. The section also includes a short report on early evidence from the same Carnegie Mellon study mentioned in the first paragraph of this review.

The section on electronic groups differs from the later section on networked organizations in that the groups in the former were born in cyberspace; those in the latter existed before and outside of the virtual places. Of particular interest to IT researchers will be "Seeking Social Support: Parents in Electronic Support Groups," by Kristin D. Mickelson and "An Electronic Group Is Virtually a Social Network," by Barry Wellman. A third contribution by Sherry Turkle, "Constructions and Reconstructions of Self in Virtual Reality: Playing in the MUDs," is worthwhile if only because Turkle is a talented storyteller.

Under "Power and Influence," are three pieces on each of three phenomena implied by their titles, "Coordination, Control and the Internet," by Kling, "Conflict on the Internet," by Peter J. Carnevale and Tahira M. Probst, and "A Brave New World or a New World Order?" by Christopher R. Kedzie. These works should be read and considered by digital library designers as they consider privacy, democracy and related power issues.

We are all aware of the economics of scarce resources -- money, time and labor. But have you considered Warren Thorngate's contribution to the area known as attentional economics? The section on computer-supported cooperative work draws on this and other alternative perspectives. In Steve Whittaker and Candace Sidner's, "Email Overload: Exploring Personal Information Management of Email," user strategies are analyzed to show how this variety of communication affects and is affected by the workplace.

Finally, the difference between having access to and using the Internet are examined in the last section. There are two articles, both of which will be of use to those readers working on problems of access to and distribution of digital library content. "Computer Networks and Scientific Work," by John P. Walsh and Todd Bayma looks at how communities of scientists use the Internet in their work. The other work, "Computers and Connectivity: Current Trends," by Tora K. Bikson and Constantijn W. A. Panis, focuses on household access and usage. Their inquiry reminds readers of implications for a society where many cannot afford access. As a social issue at the core of information science, this final section serves as an appropriate conclusion to a volume dedicated to Internet culture.

In sum, both Network & Netplay and Culture of the Internet are worthwhile reading. If time affords only the opportunity to invest in one, the decision comes down to the reader's priorities. For those interested primarily in innovative research design and creatively imagined data sources, Network & Netplay may be a better match. If, however, you seek stories and lessons, Culture of the Internet may offer a more convenient, usable resource.


(1) "Lifeline", August 31, 1998, USA Today, D1.

Copyright © 1998 Anne Hoag

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