Computer-Mediated Communication and Community

Steven G. Jones (editor)

Sage 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 1995
CyberSociety claims to be the first volume "to focus on the construction, maintenance, and mediation of community in electronic networks and computer-mediated communication". Jones' introduction, "Understanding Community in the Information Age", is a survey of some of the broad questions raised by such communities (including whether they should be called "communities" at all). I was a little dissatisfied with this paper: it draws on too many different theoretical sources without any attempt to synthesise them, and the jargon introduced as a result is not always clearly anchored. Given the limited amount of work that has been done in the field, however, perhaps this eclecticism is a good sign rather than a bad one — presentation of a single theoretical framework with claims that it was capable of answering all the questions would have been a lot more worrying! Jones is to be commended for having compiled this volume, anyway.

The first three papers don't connect directly to the ostensible topic of the volume, being about individual activities such as computer games rather than about society or community. Kramarae's "A Backstage Critique of Virtual Reality" is a feminist critique of some of the claims made on behalf of virtual reality. While it is on the polemical side and, in my opinion, sometimes stresses minor issues while overlooking more important ones, it is a valuable warning about some of the hidden dangers often overlooked in uncritical euphoria about technological possibilities. I would like to have seen some discussion of how gender differences influence formation of on-line communities and power distribution within them.

"Nintendo and New World Travel Writing: A Dialogue" (Fuller and Jenkins) is a rather weird attempt to draw a parallel between the early narratives of North American colonisation and exploration and Nintendo games. While both subjects are interesting, the connection between them is really too tenuous to provide a clear focus for the paper. Also, I can't see the connection with "construction of community in electronic networks": I know nothing about Nintendo games, but everything in this essay suggests they are single-player. The same could be said of Friedman's "Making Sense of Software: Computer Games and Interactive Textuality", which presents a theory of computer games which is applicable to simulations as well as to adventure games. I really liked this paper, however: Friedman argues convincingly for the significance of computer games without building complex theoretical edifices around the idea.

"Standards of Conduct on Usenet" (McLaughlin, Osborne and Smith) constructs a typology of conduct-correcting episodes in five newsgroups, based on analysis of all posts to them over a period of weeks. This is used to explore the origins of codes of conduct (formal and informal) in Usenet, and is set in the light of broader questions, such as whether newsgroups can really be considered communities. I'm dubious about the deliberate selection of newsgroups with low crossposting ratios on the grounds that these are the best candidates for group identification and cohesiveness (my experience is that interactions and boundaries between groups play a significant role in defining their identity), but that's a minor quibble. The subject is one that is endlessly debated in Usenet newsgroups themselves, and this paper will interest anyone after a well thought-out comparative perspective on it.

I'm a bit unsure about the most abstract part of MacKinnon's "Searching for the Leviathan in Usenet", a parallel between Hobbes' Leviathan and censorship or moderation in Usenet. The paper isn't heavily dependent on this, however, and MacKinnon uses Hobbes' ideas as the basis for an insightful exploration of the nature of participation in Usenet. The focus is on the idea of personae and on the presence of "coercion" or acceptance of constraints on behaviour (at a more abstract level than in the preceding paper); the approach is theoretical but not excessively abstract, and nicely complements the other papers on Usenet in the volume.

Baym's "The Emergence of Community in Computer-Mediated Communication" and Reid's "Virtual Worlds: Culture and Imagination" are about the construction of communities based on computer-mediated communication; both are critical of older work on CMC which was dismissive of its ability to support social interaction. Baym focuses on Usenet (and in particular the newsgroup and Reid on MUDs, and both provide excellent introductions to their subjects (with which they have clearly had extensive first-hand experience). Despite the limitations of space, they also manage to outline some of the important theoretical issues involved.

Some very poor articles on the Internet have been produced by journalists, but bad academic writing on the subject has an awfulness all of its own. Aycock and Buchignani's "The Email Murders" — a study of the Usenet discussion centred on the Fabrikant "affair" — may be the single worst piece of work on Usenet I have seen. Among other failings, it is poorly researched (Kehoe's Zen and the Art of the Internet is its only source for information about Usenet, which is described as part of the Internet), makes no attempt to identify with its subjects (if any ethnic group were treated in such a patronising fashion there would be an outcry), and has a poorly concealed agenda of its own (there are repeated gibes at Usenet posters for being "empiricist" and "scientific", although the authors themselves assume a position of complete detachment). If this is postmodern ethnography (and it claims to be), then so much the worse for postmodern ethnography.

CyberSociety is an attractively presented volume (though the mail, news, MUD and IRC quotes really should have been in a mono-spaced font). Whether it is worth reading will depend on your interests: I would recommend the paper by Friedman as an introduction to computer games and the papers by McLaughlin et al., MacKinnon, Baym and Reid will be obligatory reading for anyone interested in net anthropology (the full theses on which the Reid and MacKinnon papers are based are available on-line).

Note: a second edition of CyberSociety was published in 1998.

April 1995

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%T CyberSociety
%S Computer-Mediated Communication and Community
%E Jones, Steven G.
%I Sage
%D 1995
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0803956770
%P ix,241pp