Academia: Internet-Triggered Death of Civil Society Not Predicted

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In this week of heightened Internet! Moral! Panic!, it’s worth a peek at whether the internet really is the creeping civil cancer that some believe it to be.

The JCMC (Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication) is available in fulltext online. It can be a fount of wanky sociology-speak, of course, but it also comes up with some useful talking points and snippets of data.

The latest issue explores social networking, with an emphasis on a critical examination of the mass-media panic of Internet use = civic disengagement. Popular predictions of all of us turning into vampirically-pale atrophied illiterate SuperPokers and WoW players living in our parents’ basements and eating nothing but pizza and data – just doesn’t seem to be panning out. Instead, the JCMC paints a picture of online social life as rich, authentic, active, and engaged. Language isn’t dying, people aren’t withdrawing from political and social life, and teens aren’t degenerating into hunks of mute, withdrawn, rotting flesh.

This should all go without saying to those of us engaged in the world of political and activist blogging, but sometimes it’s nice to have the data to back up your hunches.

I’ve extracted a few bits of abstracts, with links to fulltext. Enjoy.


“Gender and the Use of Exclamation Points in Computer-Mediated Communication: An Analysis of Exclamations Posted to Two Electronic Discussion Lists”

Past research has reported that females use exclamation points more frequently than do males. Such research often characterizes exclamation points as “markers of excitability,” […] The results indicate that exclamation points rarely function as markers of excitability in these professional forums, but may function as markers of friendly interaction


The results of the present study bring to mind Coates’ (1998) study of gossip, in which she points out that women’s uses of tag questions and other devices “had been interpreted as signs of weakness” (1998, p. 250). When considered in context, however, tag questions were found to “serve the function of asserting joint activity and of consolidating friendship” (Coates, 1998, p. 250). By considering the context in which exclamations were used, and by adopting a more nuanced methodology than has been adopted in the past, the present study has demonstrated that exclamation points do more than function as markers of excitability; they can also function as markers of friendliness.


“Online vs. Face-to-Face Deliberation: Effects on Civic Engagement”

There is a growing concern that modern democracy is in danger because citizens lack interest in politics and are little informed of political affairs and important policy issues (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996; Kinder, 2002; Putnam, 2000). Scholars emphasize informed public discussion or “political deliberation” as one cure to address this malaise of modern democracy (e.g., Barber, 1984; Fishkin, 1991; Gutmann & Thompson, 1996). Deliberation or, more broadly, “deliberative democracy,” refers to the concept that democratic practice and rule making should depend on informed discussion of citizens.


With the rise of new communication technologies, new deliberative potentials are being explored. Online interactions may enhance the scope of political deliberation while maintaining deliberation’s beneficial effects. This study reviews theories of deliberative democracy and computer-mediated communication (CMC) in an attempt to understand those new deliberative possibilities. An experiment was conducted to compare the relative outcomes of a deliberation performed in face-to-face and computer-mediated settings. The results suggest that both online and face-to-face deliberation can increase participants’ issue knowledge, political efficacy, and willingness to participate in politics.


“Online Communication and Adolescent Well-Being: Testing the Stimulation Versus the Displacement Hypothesis”

The aim of this study was to contrast the validity of two opposing explanatory hypotheses about the effect of online communication on adolescents’ well-being. The displacement hypothesis predicts that online communication reduces adolescents’ well-being because it displaces time spent with existing friends, thereby reducing the quality of these friendships. In contrast, the stimulation hypothesis states that online communication stimulates well-being via its positive effect on time spent with existing friends and the quality of these friendships. We conducted an online survey among 1,210 Dutch teenagers between 10 and 17 years of age. Using mediation analyses, we found support for the stimulation hypothesis but not for the displacement hypothesis. We also found a moderating effect of type of online communication on adolescents’ well-being: Instant messaging, which was mostly used to communicate with existing friends, positively predicted well-being via the mediating variables (a) time spent with existing friends and (b) the quality of these friendships. Chat in a public chatroom, which was relatively often used to talk with strangers, had no effect on adolescents’ well-being via the mediating variables.


“The Benefits of Facebook “Friends:” Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites”

This study examines the relationship between use of Facebook, a popular online social network site, and the formation and maintenance of social capital. In addition to assessing bonding and bridging social capital, we explore a dimension of social capital that assesses one’s ability to stay connected with members of a previously inhabited community, which we call maintained social capital. Regression analyses conducted on results from a survey of undergraduate students (N = 286) suggest a strong association between use of Facebook and the three types of social capital, with the strongest relationship being to bridging social capital. In addition, Facebook usage was found to interact with measures of psychological well-being, suggesting that it might provide greater benefits for users experiencing low self-esteem and low life satisfaction.


We also found an interaction between bridging social capital and subjective well-being measures. For less intense Facebook users, students who reported low satisfaction with MSU life also reported having much lower bridging social capital than those who used Facebook more intensely. The same was true for self-esteem. Conversely, there was little difference in bridging social capital among those who reported high satisfaction with life at MSU and high self-esteem relative to Facebook use intensity. One explanation consistent with these interaction effects is that Facebook use may be helping to overcome barriers faced by students who have low satisfaction and low self-esteem. Because bridging social capital provides benefits such as increased information and opportunities, we suspect that participants who use Facebook in this way are able to get more out of their college experience. The suggestion that Facebook use supports a “poor get richer” hypothesis, as opposed to the “rich get richer” findings reported in other contexts (Kraut, Kiesler, Boneva, Cummings, Helgeson, & Crawford, 2002), may be of special interest to Internet researchers.


“From Statistical Panic to Moral Panic: The Metadiscursive Construction and Popular Exaggeration of New Media Language in the Print Media”

It seems from the current survey that media reports about computer-mediated discourse [CMD] are seldom about CMD per se. Rather, CMD offers itself as the focal point—an idée fixe—for a range of public discourses about other issues, most notably here technology, language, and literacy. In fact, it appears that language and technology are (once again) not only being poorly represented, but also scapegoated for a range of adult anxieties about newness, change, and perceived threats to the status quo. In the process, the caricaturing of instant messaging invariably overstates the difference between online and offline communication, while the fetishization of texting unfairly underestimates the pragmatic subtlety and stylistic diversity of actual practice.

Categories: culture wars, technology

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5 replies

  1. In fact, it appears that language and technology are (once again) not only being poorly represented, but also scapegoated for a range of adult anxieties about newness, change, and perceived threats to the status quo.


  2. In my PhD I looked at the relationship between online communication and face to face interaction. Perhaps the biggest finding I made was (and this is so duh it feels silly typing it out) that people use technology to _facilitate_ social interaction. And even if they have lovely online relationships with people, they like to get together in person _as well_.
    My overall theory is that we are, first and foremost, social creatures, and that new technologies allow us to do the things we have always done -just faster and with more people.
    I’ve also been interested in how people adapt new technologies to suit their specific needs. So technological determinism is kind of pointless, as you can’t predict exactly what people will do, specifically, with new technologies… well, you can actually be reasonably certain they’ll use it to send each other pictures of cats.
    Btw, there’s a new report out by ACMA on gendered use of online technologies. It’s slightly dodgy, but still interesting. I’ve written about it here. The bit that I liked the best was the implication that children would far rather do social things away from the telly or computer or whatever than than they would sit by themselves in front of the telly. The implication being, of course, that kids like other kids and kids like their parents. Who’d have thunk it.
    dogpossum’s last blog post..acma’s report on families, gender and media technology

  3. I find the snippet about exclamation marks interesting, because the person I know who uses the most is (a) very very busy with his political career and (b) male. I’m pretty sure he puts lots of them into his otherwise v brief (almost to the point of brusque) emails because they tone down the brusque and make the emails friendlier. Knowing him, he’s probably actually thought that out too.
    Or my other theory is that each sentence gets one ! for each coffee he’s had that day. Afternoon emails can be quite astounding in the number!!!!!
    Rebekka’s last blog post..A friend for Kevin

  4. Rebekka: that paper hit me, too. I consciously use exclamation marks (single, not multiple) in certain online communications, exactly because they lighten the tone. For example, in one cut-n-poste moderation email for a mailing list which has many mailing-list-naive members, I finish the note with “Thanks!” instead of “Thanks.” I think it makes the email feel less like a spanking and more like a friendly reminder.

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