Terminological Obfuscation in Online Research

Terminological Obfuscation in Online Research

Patricia G. Lange (University of Southern California, USA)
Copyright: © 2008 |Pages: 15
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59904-863-5.ch033
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Abstract

Many concepts—such as “computer mediated versus face-to-face interaction,” “virtual versus real,” “flaming,” and “anonymity”—that scholars have used for decades have led to theoretical misunderstandings about online and offline communication. This chapter discusses theoretical problems that standard terms introduce. The goal is not simply to urge more precision by defining terms, but rather to show how concepts and their orienting frameworks complicate scholars’ ability to observe and analyze certain data. Use of ill-defined terms may obscure data that lies outside of an orienting term’s worldview. The chapter analyzes concerns with these terms and concludes with suggestions on how to resist unreflective use of terms that complicates open-ended empirical investigation of communicative phenomena.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Flaming: In the early days of computing, participants in newsgroups and Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) characterized certain hostile messages as “flames.” CMC researchers argued that supposed lack of communicative cues and resulting “anonymity” caused online hostility. Yet as O’Sullivan and Flanagin (2000) point out, “flaming” is often ill-defined in CMC scholarship and is associated with a range of culturally variable phenomena, including aggressive argumentation, curse words, hostility, and criticism. Further, demarcating flaming as solely an online practice risks obfuscating certain similarities between online and offline interaction.

Computer Mediated Communication: An umbrella term that refers to technological and social configurations in which people communicate through a computer over a network. Scholars have criticized this term for several reasons including: (1) the fact that people communicate over many types of devices—including cell phones and gaming devices—that people do not typically refer to as “computers;” (2) it is a misnomer because it emphasizes a computer’s rather than a network’s role in facilitating remote communication; and (3) it can lead scholars to ignore or de-emphasize hybrid online and offline interactions.

Internet: A configuration of networks that use the transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP) standard to connect devices and enable worldwide collaboration and remote access to information. The term “the Internet” has been criticized as an idealization when in fact individuals using Internet services may not have the same technical, social, and personal ability to connect with others or access information in the same ways. Some scholars are referring to “internets” to indicate the technical, individual, and social complexities of using Internet-related communication and information services.

Community: Refers to social groups located in a geographically-bounded area or to people who share practices, values, and interests. Having a geographical connotation leads many scholars to assume that local communities are more authentic, have little connection to online life, and offer richer possibilities for interaction than online arrangements. However, it is problematic to assume prior to investigation that social configurations located in small geographical areas are automatically more morally satisfying or communicatively rich than relationships and social groups that predominantly meet online.

MUDs: MUDs stand for multiuser domains or multiuser dungeons and are text-based, online environments in which participants interact in an ongoing geographical and social representation of a world. Participants may engage in real time chat, send private messages and e-mails, post to bulletin board discussion groups, and play games with other participants and with computer-generated characters. Many MUDs still exist although researchers have refocused their attention to graphical versions of multiplayer, networked, online games such as World of Warcraft.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT): Digital communications and communications technologies, including “computers” and devices not traditionally labeled “computers” (although arguably they have many of the capabilities and functionality of computers). These include servers, hand held devices, and mobile telephones. Part of the move in using this term for some has been to avoid particular research agendas and scholarship associated with the concept of CMC.

Web 2.0: This term was reportedly coined at an O’Reilly conference in 2004 to contrast the eras prior to and after the dot com economic collapse of many Internet-related companies. The term was coined to emphasize the increased focus on new Internet-based technological and social configurations—such as social networking sites and wikis—that rely on collaboration, sociality, and sharing. Scholars who use this term unreflectively may risk de-emphasizing or ignoring the collaboration, sociality, and sharing that formed an abundant part of Internet activity prior to the dot com collapse and appearance of specific social technologies.

Viral: Originating in marketing circles to describe widespread adoption of popular products, the term is now often used to describe e-mails or videos that are circulated widely, often for ephemeral or disposable consumption. The term may connote sickness and infection, similar to computer viruses. One concern is that scholars may characterize certain videos, prior to investigation, as “viral” because the researcher sees them as socially vacuous or morally wrong, whether or not participants would characterize the videos they forward or receive in this way.

MUDs: MUDs stand for multiuser domains or multiuser dungeons and are text-based, online environments in which participants interact in an ongoing geographical and social representation of a world. Participants may engage in real time chat, send private messages and e-mails, post to bulletin board discussion groups, and play games with other participants and with computer-generated characters. Many MUDs still exist although researchers have refocused their attention to graphical versions of multiplayer, networked, online games such as World of Warcraft.

Anonymity: Under-theorized in social science research, anonymity generally refers to not knowing “the identity” of another person. Often a vague and imprecise notion of “anonymity” is cited as the reason why people are hostile and “flame” each other in online interaction. Although identity is acknowledged as complex, anonymity remains undefined. If anonymity is not defined in research, then it is difficult to know which aspects of missing identity cause hostile interaction.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT): Digital communications and communications technologies, including “computers” and devices not traditionally labeled “computers” (although arguably they have many of the capabilities and functionality of computers). These include servers, hand held devices, and mobile telephones. Part of the move in using this term for some has been to avoid particular research agendas and scholarship associated with the concept of CMC.

Virtual: A polysemous concept that collapses numerous meanings, each of which may not be intended in a particular research project. The term virtual has been used to characterize dispersed groups that interact either entirely online or in some hybrid on and offline arrangement. Scholars often use this term to characterize what happens online as “not real” and assume that what happens offline is automatically “real.” Yet real events, such as an e-mail to one’s boss, occur online. Further, many offline encounters are playful or deceptive.

Viral: Originating in marketing circles to describe widespread adoption of popular products, the term is now often used to describe e-mails or videos that are circulated widely, often for ephemeral or disposable consumption. The term may connote sickness and infection, similar to computer viruses. One concern is that scholars may characterize certain videos, prior to investigation, as “viral” because the researcher sees them as socially vacuous or morally wrong, whether or not participants would characterize the videos they forward or receive in this way.

Virtual: A polysemous concept that collapses numerous meanings, each of which may not be intended in a particular research project. The term virtual has been used to characterize dispersed groups that interact either entirely online or in some hybrid on and offline arrangement. Scholars often use this term to characterize what happens online as “not real” and assume that what happens offline is automatically “real.” Yet real events, such as an e-mail to one’s boss, occur online. Further, many offline encounters are playful or deceptive.

Face-to-Face Communication: A misnomer that is often used to mean communication that takes place in the physical presence of another person, whether or not the interlocutors actually interact while facing each other in an intimate, attentive setting as the term connotes. Face-to-face is typically contrasted to CMC to prove an a priori assumption that in person communication offers a richer technical and social channel and is more authentic than CMC although the particulars of the social context are not necessarily considered.

Internet: A configuration of networks that use the transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP) standard to connect devices and enable worldwide collaboration and remote access to information. The term “the Internet” has been criticized as an idealization when in fact individuals using Internet services may not have the same technical, social, and personal ability to connect with others or access information in the same ways. Some scholars are referring to “internets” to indicate the technical, individual, and social complexities of using Internet-related communication and information services.

Flaming: In the early days of computing, participants in newsgroups and Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) characterized certain hostile messages as “flames.” CMC researchers argued that supposed lack of communicative cues and resulting “anonymity” caused online hostility. Yet as O’Sullivan and Flanagin (2000) point out, “flaming” is often ill-defined in CMC scholarship and is associated with a range of culturally variable phenomena, including aggressive argumentation, curse words, hostility, and criticism. Further, demarcating flaming as solely an online practice risks obfuscating certain similarities between online and offline interaction.

Computer Mediated Communication: An umbrella term that refers to technological and social configurations in which people communicate through a computer over a network. Scholars have criticized this term for several reasons including: (1) the fact that people communicate over many types of devices—including cell phones and gaming devices—that people do not typically refer to as “computers;” (2) it is a misnomer because it emphasizes a computer’s rather than a network’s role in facilitating remote communication; and (3) it can lead scholars to ignore or de-emphasize hybrid online and offline interactions.

Anonymity: Under-theorized in social science research, anonymity generally refers to not knowing “the identity” of another person. Often a vague and imprecise notion of “anonymity” is cited as the reason why people are hostile and “flame” each other in online interaction. Although identity is acknowledged as complex, anonymity remains undefined. If anonymity is not defined in research, then it is difficult to know which aspects of missing identity cause hostile interaction.

Face-to-Face Communication: A misnomer that is often used to mean communication that takes place in the physical presence of another person, whether or not the interlocutors actually interact while facing each other in an intimate, attentive setting as the term connotes. Face-to-face is typically contrasted to CMC to prove an a priori assumption that in person communication offers a richer technical and social channel and is more authentic than CMC although the particulars of the social context are not necessarily considered.

Web 2.0: This term was reportedly coined at an O’Reilly conference in 2004 to contrast the eras prior to and after the dot com economic collapse of many Internet-related companies. The term was coined to emphasize the increased focus on new Internet-based technological and social configurations—such as social networking sites and wikis—that rely on collaboration, sociality, and sharing. Scholars who use this term unreflectively may risk de-emphasizing or ignoring the collaboration, sociality, and sharing that formed an abundant part of Internet activity prior to the dot com collapse and appearance of specific social technologies.

Community: Refers to social groups located in a geographically-bounded area or to people who share practices, values, and interests. Having a geographical connotation leads many scholars to assume that local communities are more authentic, have little connection to online life, and offer richer possibilities for interaction than online arrangements. However, it is problematic to assume prior to investigation that social configurations located in small geographical areas are automatically more morally satisfying or communicatively rich than relationships and social groups that predominantly meet online.

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