Email, IM's, chatrooms, blogs, discussion boards. Today much of our communication takes place online. From MySpace to Yahoogroups to Blogspot many of us have relationships with people we may never meet in person. The researchers call this Computer-Mediated Communication. This blog will explore in laymens terms the findings of this research.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Treasure Trove of Information in an Unusual Place

The last couple of posts have dealt with virtual worlds. I mentioned one in particualar called "Second Life." Well, I was poking around and found, amazingly enough, an incredible research site there.

The project is the brain child of Aleks krotoski, a doctoral student at the University of Surrey. She is conducting research on the matrices of interaction online in the virtual world of Second Life, but she has also "built" a research library with links to 50 journals, research papers and web sites of serious research on Internet studies, Multi-user Gaming, and Computer Mediated Communication. I suspect that future posts in this blog will include downloads from this library.

It's also a lot more interesting than just a list of links. If you are a Second-Lifer, you can find the Social Simulation Research Lab at co-ordinates 188, 95, 23. To register for Second Life and download the software, go to

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Online Worlds as "Third Places."

I must admit that I skipped over this article the first time I saw it. I'm not much into computer gaming. Okay, I have a chess program and a Scrabble game on my computer, but when it comes to fighting wars with eight-legged dragon thingy's in some dark "sword and sorcery" virtual world, I yawn and leave it to the kids.

However, my involvement with the "sim" environment of Second Life has piqued my interest in these shared environments or what Constance Steinkuehler and Dmitri Williams (2006) refer to as "Third Places." In their study entitled "Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) name: Online Games as "Third Places" the researchers contend that the simulated worlds of massive multi-user online games (MMO) serve as "third places" for social interaction and as a place to build social capital in an environment outside that of the other two places of home and the workplace (or school).

They define third places based on a model developed by Oldenburg (1999). A third place is a place of interaction outside of those provided by the home (not necessarily the physical building but the social network of family relationships) and the job. Third places are not unique to cyberspace. Indeed, churches, clubs, support groups, even gyms, pubs and coffee shops have provided a venue for such relationships in the past. However, Oldenburg (1999) notes the decline of social engagement in such "brick and mortar" settings. Steinkuehler and Williams (2006) summarizes this phenomenon in the article:

In his seminal text, Oldenburg (1999) documents the decline in brick-and-mortar
"third places" in America where individuals can gather to socialize informally
beyond the workplace and home. The effects are negative for both individuals and
communities: "The essential group experience is being replaced by the
exaggerated self-consciousness of individuals. American lifestyles, for all the
material acquisition and the seeking after comforts and pleasures, are plagued
by boredom, loneliness, alienation" (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 13). Recent national
survey data appear to corroborate this assertion, with census data indicating
that television claims more than half of American leisure time, while only
three-quarters of an hour per day is spent socializing in or outside of the home
(Longley, 2004).

However, engagement online is on the increase. Some of this takes place in text-based virtual environments like chat rooms, discussion forums, blogs and email discussion lists. MMO's however, differ significantly from these other types of online communities in that they create a visual, virtual world in which you assume a character represented by an avatar that you manipulate in that world as if she/he/you lived there. Jane Dragonslayer isn't just a screen name, she is the shapely blonde in chain mail sitting on the other side of a table in a pub her conversation combining discussion of dragon repellent, lag time in loading a certain region of the world, and how her boss is a jerk.

These third places are actual places (albeit digitally produced on a screen.) The better sims provide a three dimensional environment where you can walk around objects, pick them up, modify them. You have pubs, clubs, castles, houses, town squares, cafes, inns and forums where you can meet and greet others. It is a much richer environment than a text-based chat room.

Characteristics of Third Places

Given these dynamics the authors say that such games and simulated environments meet the criteria set forth by Oldenburg (1999) for third spaces. He set forth eight characteristics of these spaces. These virtual worlds share most of them.

Neutral ground. It's like the corner cafe. It's a shared space without obligations or entanglements. You hang out there and chat about the local politics, but nobody is going to call you if you fail to come in for breakfast for a week. These virtual worlds are often "game universes." The player doesn't feel an obligation to engage in the game regularly if they don't want to. Unlike home or work or even involvement with a service club or religious organization these are worlds without responsibility.

Leveler. One's rank or status in Real Life (RL) is irrelevant in these worlds. You build your own status here according to the social rules of the virtual world. In the game worlds, you do so by playing the game better than others, move on to higher levels, assume greater powers. In the "sim" community worlds like "Second Life" you build status by the house you build, the virtual money you earn, how you refine your avatar, and what you contribute to the virtual world.

A person with a modest social status in RL can rise to a high level of respect in the virtual world.

The authors of the study tell of a woman who is a "guild leader" in one game online but considers herself a cypher in RL. Here's a portion of their chat with her:

The authors comment about this:

Here, a renowned guild leader in Lineage I explains how avatar-mediated social interaction enables her to play a leader in the virtual world in ways she is typically unable (or, more accurately, not allowed) to in "real life." This sense of moratorium from stratified daily social life enables MMOs to function as kind of level playing field and, in part, may explain some of their popular appeal: Like sports, MMOs appeal to people in part because they represent meritocracies otherwise unavailable in a world often filled with unfairness (Huizenga, 1949). Players are able to enter a world in which success is based not on out-of-game status but on in-game talent, wit, diligence, and hard work.

Conversation is the main activity. Just like the local gossip at Mom's Cafe on Main Street, the virtual worlds online emphasize conversation. Even the role playing gaming sites have common areas such as pubs and town squares where plans are made for the mission and people just sit back and chat. Whether it was talking around a Neolithic campfire about the bison hunt or chatting in a virtual club about your new laptop, conversation binds cultures together wherever they form.

Low Profile. Third places are typically homey. You don't hang out at the four star restaurant to sip coffee and catch up on what happened at last night's council meeting. In RL third spaces tend to be unpretentious. The authors note, though, that in virtual game worlds the locals are decidedly fantastic. This is one place where the MMO's depart from the criteria. Yet, do they really? I would propose that the environment is "homey" in the ultimate sense of the word. You are at home when participating. It's not what's on the screen, but how much one feels like they are in a safe, familiar environment. What gives those feelings more than your own house? While one might "lose" oneself in the game, one is always still aware of the real world surroundings.

Also, some of the non-adventure-game sim worlds like Second Life and The Sims online are decidedly homey. Sure some people build castles, but most build homes. They may have a bit of weirdness, like the one next to my virtual property at Second Life which is an oval on top of a tall column with a teleporter pad at the bottom to send visitors to the top. But the house on the other side is a ranch style suburban abode and mine is a Swiss chalet. So, the hominess is emerging.

The Mood is Playful. Seriousness is discouraged in third places. The mood is light and playful. Jokes, word play, flirting abound. In this way, the virtual worlds are different than other types of online communities in which intimacy may develop quickly (see previous post on hyperpersonal communication). Maybe it is the cartoon look of the online worlds or the fact that many are game oriented (how much intimacy occurs while you are playing monopoly), but compared to my experience in email discussion groups and discussion forums, the mood is definitely lighter. Again, this is similar to many 3D third places. Bars, cafes, social clubs, gyms also discourage serious conversation. Everything is kept light and playful. "The gang" at the club is not a support group.

The Regulars. A third place has a regular clientele. Like the bar on the TV show "Cheers", you go "where everybody knows your name" or screen name in this case. At the very least you know the regulars on sight. There's the guy flirting with the waitress using the same lines over and over, the woman who is always upset about something happening in local politics, the guy who brings a book to read, but ends up joining in the conversation instead. The same thing occurs in virtual worlds. I wasn't in Second Life two days before I had a half dozen people in my friend list.

The regulars welcome newcomers, engage in in-world talk, know the ropes of the game, guide novice game players, and sometimes form volunteer groups which act as a sort of virtual "homeowners" group to help guide the future development of the virtual world.

Home Away from Home. Third places create a sense of rootedness. The local cafe where I hang out a lot in RL expects to see myself and my family regularly. When my Dad passed away, many of the patrons expressed their sympathy even though the obituary hadn't appeared in the small weekly newspaper yet. When my Mom hurt her knee and was unable to make it to the restaurant, the waitresses and patrons asked about her and sent messages of concern.

Online environments also create such homes away from homes. If a regular doesn't show up on line for awhile, private emails or IM's are often sent to follow up. Some virtual worlds like Second Life have taken the home away from home concept to it's logical conclusion allowing people to "buy" land and "build" virtual homes where you can invite people to "sit" and visit.

This article is fascinating and is much richer in information than I can give in this post. I really advise that you read this one, if you have any interest in online community building.


Oldenburg, R. (1999). The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through The Day. New York: Marlowe & Company.

Steinkuehler, C., and Williams, D. (2006). Where everybody knows your (screen) name: Online games as "third places." Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(4), article 1.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Don't Like your Life - Get a Second One

I must admit that in many ways I have lived a very sheltered cyber -- life. I haven't stolen cars, shot aliens out of the sky, Battle monsters with computer-controlled martial arts kicks. My idea of a computer game is more like chess or Scrabble. I haven't gotten into the role-playing type of computer games. So, I was rather unprepared for an experience I have had recently in a virtual world called "Second Life."

Second life is a virtual world in which you can interact with other people, build your own place, get a job, take or teach classes, and basically live a -- well -- second life. When you enter the second life universe, you choose an avatar. This is your doppelgänger in this virtual world. However, it was disconcerting was how quickly I was sucked into the experience. I found myself becoming part of this world. Even as I struggled with the keyboard controls to move my avatar round, I felt all the awkwardness of the new girl At school I wanted to make friends, but I was shy. So I stood in the corner and examined the art on the walls, read the virtual newspapers, and checked out the gardens.

Much research has been done into the concept of online communities which are built around discussion boards, and USENET, or e-mail groups. These text-based communities can build strong ties between individuals. They have a social structure, hierarchies, villains and heroes. Nevertheless, you lack the feeling of being there.

These virtual worlds, like Second Life and its predecessor The Sims, take these online communities to a different level. Earlier tonight, I was chatting with a woman in wings about clothing made out of "prims.” And even though I was physically sitting in a recliner chair with a laptop on my lap, while I talked to her, I felt the need to sit in a virtual chair because she was sitting in one.

These new interactive social virtual worlds would seem to be fertile ground for site for cyber-anthropological studies. The conversations seemed to be qualitatively different than what I have experienced in chat rooms over the past 15 years. They bear a stronger resemblance to the small talk you hear parties, and the more purposeful chat room conversations.

Of course, research methodology in studying such virtual worlds would have to involve qualitative measures more than quantitative ones. The participant-Observer approach which seemed to be the most practical. The researcher would be like the anthropologist who lives with a primitive tribe of people for an extended period of time taking part in their activities but still maintaining a certain amount of detachment in recording and observing the culture.

Other research opportunities of a more quantitative nature, could explore the characteristics of such cyber-citizens and whether or not such involvement in virtual worlds affects their face-to-face relationships.

I will probably visit second life once again or twice. Who knows? I might even get a piece of land and build a little vacation house. It isn't a bad place to visit. Oh, and did I mention that in the second life world I can fly!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Best Advertising is Word of Mouse???

[Author's note: I've been off-line for a couple of months while moving. But I'm back now and I will try to be posting at least one article review each week. ]

Marketing experts have known for years that word of mouth advertising is the most influential. The problem has always been how to get people talking. The more sophisticated marketer learned not to try to get everyone's attention, but rather to get the attention of the "opinion leaders" in a community.

Opinion leaders were not necessarily politicians or entertainers. They could even be virtual unknowns in terms of news coverage. However, they are the people that other people seek out for advice. For instance, everyone knows the guy or gal in the office who knows "all about computers (or cars or movies or home decorating or the latest trends in fashion, etc.) Those are the opinion leaders. I want to get the office computer whiz on my side if I am trying to sell software. I want to make the fashion diva at the club believe that my new line of clothes is THE trend for summer.

If I reach them, then they will influence others. This process is called "Two-Step Flow." (Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955)

A study just published in The Journal of Computer Mediated Communication suggests that the same process takes place on line, but with a much wider reach than is found in face to face communities. (Sun, Youn, Wu, and Kuntaraporn, 2006). Traditional word-of-mouth diffusion of information usually takes place within small groups through face-to-face interaction. Thus, if I find a new restaurant, and I am talking to a friend about fine dining, I might mention that restaurant to them as a possibility for their next night out. Likewise, if my friend knows that I am familiar with the local dining establishments, he or she might ask me for some recommendations.

The same sort of thing happens online. However, the individual providing the information and the individual seeking the information may have never met. In addition, the speed of the diffusion of information is much faster. If I discover an interesting web site, I may send out an e-mail to 30 people. By the end of the day, 15 of those people may have sent it out to 30 of their friends. By the end of the week several hundred people may have received the e-mail.

And e-mail isn't the only vehicle for this diffusion of information. We have blogs, e-mail discussion groups, newsgroups, discussion forums, and interactive review sites. And, there is a great deal of crossover. An individual receives an e-mail about a new product. Then they post that e-mail on a blog. Someone else uses that blog entry as the basis of a review on their personal web site. That review is read by others who begin to disseminate information off-line through the traditional word-of-mouth venues.

This is what makes online rumors, urban myths, and hoaxes so tenacious. Once the great Internet grapevine begins to operate information (or misinformation) travels rapidly, and it almost takes on a life of its own.

Word-of-mouth online is also powerful and believable. The social influence of word-of-mouth stems from the fact that the one receiving the information knows that the one providing the information has no known bias influencing their opinion. In contrast, an advertisement or company brochure is viewed more skeptically.

The researchers discovered that opinion leaders online tend to be innovators and skilled at Internet usage. The online opinion leader is among the first to adopt new products or services. These are the individuals who download the beta versions of software. They are the ones to purchase or update their computers with each improvement in hardware. They are the trendsetters in fashion, business trends, home decorating, etc.

They are also skilled in Internet usage. This means more than just being able to log on, fill out online forums, and find their way around the search engine. It also means that they are familiar with the Web resources available to them online in a given field.

The opinion leader, the researchers found, is also an opinion seeker. Online, even more than in face-to-face encounters, the line between the two becomes blurred. Additionally, there appeared to be more opinion leaders online than there are in face-to-face communities. Distinctions based on status are less important online. Additionally, more people have the means to influence others because of the communication possibilities of the Internet.

There are implications for online marketers in understanding the dynamics of this two-step flow of information. First, the savvy marketer needs to understand the dynamics of the opinion leaders in their marketplace, and craft their marketing message accordingly. Rather than trying to sell their product to*Everyone*, a more targeted approach aimed at opinion leaders may be more productive.

The marketing message, in addition to taking into consideration the demographics unique to each field,needs to emphasize the innovative aspects of the product or service. If you give opinion leaders the opportunity to be the first to try something new, and if that product or service is perceived as having value, then those first adopters will promote that product or service.

Whether it's word-of-mouth, or word-of- mouse, the research confirms that personal influence is still the best advertising.


Katz, E., & Lazarsfeld, P. (1955). Personal Influence. New York: The Free Press.

Sun, T., Youn, S., Wu, G., and Kuntaraporn, M. (2006). Online word-of-mouth (or mouse): An exploration of its antecedents and consequences. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(4), article 11.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Beyond the Numbers - The Need for Qualitative Research in CMC

Abraham Maslow once said, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat everything as though it were a nail."

In this essay, I will depart a bit from my review of the research. In this essay, I will focus more on a critique of it and on the limits of scientific method in social science research.

Modern social science research has been dominated by quantitative methods of research. This is true of CMC research as well. Chi square, standard deviations, co-efficients of correlation are everywhere. Indeed, it's as if it can't be counted, it doesn't count. Quantitative research has become the only tool in the toolbox and ever research question has become a nail.

Certainly scientific method and quantitative studies have their place. However, sometimes they leave important questions unanswered or, worse, they appear to lead to an answer which later is determined to be obviously wrong.

There are limits to scientific inquiry and quantitative research. Let's take an everyday example. If you wanted to know what I had for breakfast, you could pump my stomach and analyse the results. If you wanted to be less intrusive, you could sit at my breakfast table, measure everything on my plate and watch me eat it. However, if you wanted to know if I enjoyed my breakfast, you would have to ask me. It would be unscientific, subjective, and imprecise, but it would be the best way to get the answer.

Of course, you could do a survey of 1000 people and find out if they liked a certain food and if a majority of them did, that would mean I did as well. But you see the problem, that assumption would probably be even more unreliable than asking me. It would be more scientific, more precise, and more prone to error. You used a hammer to saw a piece of wood.

So, what's the alternative? Unfocused theorizing? Purely subjective reporting of impressions? Certainly not. We need systematic ways to understand the functioning of CMC and virtual communities without depending entirely on quantitative measures.

One may argue, correctly, that qualitative measures such as phenomenology, participant-observer, hermaneutics and other forms of naturalistic inquiry are limited in terms of broad applicability. For instance, the anthropologist studying a single tribe by living with them for several years may understand that tribe well, but not necessarily the one on the other side of the hill.

This is true. However, any avid reader of quantitative research in the social sciences knows that simply because a study is statistically-based doesn't mean it necessarily has wide applicability either. For instance, much research about online education is based on the experiences of a single class. Additionally, in most studies, the majority of subjects are students at major universities where the studies are being conducted. Generally, social scientists know a lot about white, middle class, college students, but not much about anyone else.

What is true in terms of size and diversity of subjects in the studies is also true in terms of time. Many studies of virtual communities are more like snapshots than movies. They often focus on a few days to a few weeks of messages. These messages are lifted outside the social context of the virtual community and may be misunderstood because of that lack of context.

So, what are some alternatives?

First, participant-observer studies. Popular for years among cultural anthropologists, the participant-observer lives with the cultural group they are studying. It may take several years to fully understand that group. Certainly, they stay around long enough to understand the shared history of the group. It is a tricky approach. the participant-observer must be in some way engaged in the life of the group, but must always remain somewhat aloof from the group. Nevertheless, by developing a careful approach to notekeeping and self-discipline, the participant-observer can often understand many things that the quantitative researcher might miss.

In CMC research, being a participant-observer, could mean being part of several online communities, interacting with them, but maintaining a certain amount of social distance from them. Notetaking would include not only content analysis of specific messages in the group, but also recognizing and recording interaction patterns between group members, tracking the social history of the group, watching the reaction of long-time group members to "newbies," and paying attention to the cycles and "seasons" of group activity.

A second approach, suggested by Quentin Jones (1997), is called cyber-archeology. Jones postulates that virtual communities exist in virtual settlements and they leave cyber-artifacts behind. These artifacts include communication structures, nonverbal aspects of an essentially verbal medium, standards of practice and terms of service for groups as well as behavior patterns of members of the group. While Jones lacks specificity concerning procedures for conducting a cyber-dig, it is an intriguing idea.

A third method is the phenomenological method. In the phenomenological approach, the researcher conducts in-depth interviews with a few subjects to gain a deep understanding of the experience of that person from the inside out. Rudestam and Newton (1992) put it this way:

When phenomenology is applied to research the focus is on what the person experiences in a language that is as loyal to the lived experience as possible (Polkinghorne, 1989) Thus, phenomenological inquiry attempts to describe and elucidate the meanings of human experience more than other forms of inquiry, phenomenology attempts to get beneath how people describe their experience to the structures that underlie consciousness. (p.33)

Early erroneous observations which denied the existance of true community online or discounted anecdotal evidence of intimacy bonds existing in cyberspace might have been avoided if someone had thought of the simple expedient of actually talking to some netizens in depth about their online experiences.

We can learn much from quantitative approaches to CMC research, but we must not forget the value of qualitative approaches as well. There is a place for a hammer, but also one for a scalpel.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Getting to Know You -- Again -- Online

Remember that guy you went to the prom with in high school? What about that second cousin you hung out with at the last family reunion five years ago? And whatever happened to those people on your college debate team? Where are they now? What are they doing?

One of the interesting phenomena of computer-mediated communiation is how it has facilitated the ability to reconnect with people with whom you have lost touch. If you have ever searched for a former class member or renewed an acquaintance with a long-lost relative, you are not alone.

A study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project (2000) found that people are using the internet to improve communication between family and friends and to reconnect with those with whom they have lost touch. Unlike many research studies where the sample size is limited to a few college students, the Pew study had over 3500 respondents to their survey. (Just a note: The Pew Internet and American Life Project provides many different "snapshots" of the impact of computers on everyday life from online dating to religious uses of the internet.)

The survey also had the unique feature of not only asking what people did online in general, but also asked what they had done "yesterday." (p. 9)

Over half of those online (55 percent) said that the use of email has improved their connection with family members. Almost 60 percent say that they communicate more frequently with family members after obtaining email. (p. 7)

A similar pattern holds for significant friends. The survey found that 66 percent of have improved our relationships with significant friends through the use of email and 60 percent of us communicate more frequently with friends because of it. (p. 7)

But we are not only keeping in touch, we are also reaching out. Pew (p. 8) estimates that 26 million Americans have used the internet to reconnect with a family member and to begin communicating regularly with that person. According to the report, 24 million have used the internet to search for a family member online. (p. 8)

One interesting detail was that an estimated 16 million Americans say they have learned more about their family members since obtaining email. (p. 8)

Email is becoming the primary mode of communication for some families. Among those who email relatives 40 percent communicate more with that person by email than in person (p. 8). Siblings email more often than than they talk on the phone. (p. 8) Parents and children talk on the phone about as often as they email each other. (p. 8)

Some of the reasons for this are interesting as well. One is the question of time. For both family members (62 percent) and friends (72 percent) respondents said that they liked email because they "can stay in touch without having to spend so much time talking to them." (p. 8) I don't know if this is a commentary on our busy lives or the relationships we have with family and friends, but I find myself preferring to fire off an email to a freind rather than pick up the phone and call, especially if it is a minor item like confirming the time of a social event.

Also, nearly 1/3 of the respondents say that it is easier to say frank or unpleasant things in an email than face to face. They also believe that blunt emails are good for their families.

When I was a kid in the --- well sometime before the advent of the internet --- the computer was the stuff of science fiction. The idea of a "personal computer" was so exotic that it was something out of Star Trek . We have come a long way in terms of how the computer has become embedded in daily life. The fact that we communicate with our families as much, if not more, online as we do in person or on the phone shows that the computer has moved from being a technological marvel to being a household appliance.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Internet Use and Social Isolation: Unravelling the Paradox

Internet users are isolated...
no wait...
Internet users are social...
no wait...

Reading social science research can be confusing. And this is not exclusively because of the big words they use to describe everyday activities. The most confusing thing about social science research is that two researchers investigating the same phenomenon will come up with contradictory results.

This is especially true of one area of CMC research relating to the sociality of Internet users. While the popular image of the heavy Internet user continues to be that of the social outcast, loner, without any "real world" relationships, researchers have been painting a more complex picture.

Some of the research into this area indicates that heavy Internet use correlates with greater social isolation. (Kraut, et al., 1998) However, other research indicates that Internet users have more social contact than nonusers. (Robinson, Kestnbaum, Neustadtl, and Alvarez , 2000) So, what's going on here?

Perhaps you've heard the story of the four blind men who were trying to describe an elephant. One man grabbed a hold of the elephant's trunk and said, "An elephant is very much like a tree." The second man put his hand against the elephant's side and said, "No, an elephant is very much like a wall." The third line man grabbed a hold of the elephant’s ear and argued, "You are both wrong. An elephant is like a leaf." The fourth man, holding on to the elephant's tail, contradicted them all by saying, "No, an elephant is definitely like a rope."

Recent research by Shanyang Zhao (2006), of Temple University, indicates something similar has happened with the study of social isolation and Internet usage. The problem according to Zhao is that researchers have typically not differentiated between different types of Internet use.

Zhao (2006) divides Internet use into two broad categories: social and nonsocial. Social Internet use includes e-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging, discussion boards and newsgroups. And nonsocial use would be like Web surfing, listening to Internet radio, downloading music, and checking the news.

The study found that those who use the Internet primarily for nonsocial activities that fewer social contacts than those who did not use the Internet at all. Heavy nonsocial users experienced the greatest social isolation.

However, social Internet users have more social contact than either nonsocial users or people who do not use the Internet at all. Heavy social Internet users showed the greatest amount of social contact of all categories.

One could assume that the majority of this social contact came from online sources. However, that assumption would be wrong. Zhao found that social Internet users also maintained many of their social contacts by the more traditional means of telephone and in person visits. E-mail users, particularly, used e-mail to stay in contact with people with whom they had a face-to-face relationship. Chat users also had significant numbers of face-to-face contacts, however, they also had many contacts which were exclusive to the Internet.

By contrast, nonsocial users had fewer face-to-face or telephone social contacts than the social Internet users.

Zhao (2006) was careful to point out that his study was descriptive in nature and did not imply anything about causation. Indeed, one might assume that Internet use is driven by the personality of the Internet user. In other words, someone who is a social person will engage in social activities online as well as off-line. That would explain the higher number of social contacts in face-to-face settings. Likewise, those who are more solitary in their "3-D" life would probably follow more solitary pursuits online as well. Thus, the Internet becomes an extension of one's personality. Of course, that could be the substance for a different type of study.

There is another possibility for differences in the research results, as well. Many of the studies finding that internet users had fewer social contacts came from a time when there were fewer internet users. Consider that in 1999 about 28 percent of households had internet service in the US. In 2005 that number had nearly doubled to 55 percent. Additionally, nearly 73 percent of Americans use the internet on a regular basis. The internet is no longer the exclusive domain of technically oriented individuals, academics and business people taking care of business. The internet population has broadened out to be more representative of the culture at large rather than being a culture unto itself. That means that the internet, today, has a different, more diverse population than it did just a few years ago.

For the time being, the lesson may well be that when we evaluate studies of CMC, we may need to pay more attention to the selection of subjects in interpreting the results.


Kraut, R., Patterson, M., Lundmark, V., Kiesler, S., Mukopadhyay, T., & Scherlis, W. (1998). Internet paradox: A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being? American Psychologist, 53 (9), 1017-1031.

Robinson, J. P., Kestnbaum, M., Neustadtl, A., & Alvarez, A. S. (2002). Information technology and social time displacement. IT & Society, 1 (1), 21-37.

Zhao, S. (2006). Do Internet users have more social ties? A call for differentiated analyses of Internet use. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(3), article 8.