The Relcom Network: An Investigation of Its Users

Authors

  • Alexander E. Voiskounsky

    Corresponding author
    1. Alexander Voiskounsky (PhD in psychology, Moscow State University) is in the Faculty of the Psychology Department, Moscow State University and deputy head of the General psychology chair. His research interests and publications include psychology of human communication, psychology of thinking, and methods of psychological research. His main research interest is now in the field of CMC. He is the author of over 70 research publications, mostly in Russian.
      Address: Department of Psychology, Moscow University, Mokhovaya str. 8, Moscow 103009, Russia.
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Address: Department of Psychology, Moscow University, Mokhovaya str. 8, Moscow 103009, Russia.

Abstract

Relcom is the most intensively used network available of the former Soviet Union, and its users form a sample of highly active and educated citizens of the newly-formed independent states. To describe this newly-formed sample, surveys of the users were conducted via the network. The results include data on demographic characteristics of users, their attitudes, motivations, and typical ways of network usage. Attitudes towards possible social monitoring service functioning in the network are also investigated, and the potential directions of its functioning are rated by the respondents.

Relcom Network

One of the dominant networks in Russia is Relcom. From the beginning, Relcom (which means Reliable Communications) was a non-government enterprise, developed by a group of Unix computer programmers. For the sake of close and efficient collaboration, small dispersed teams of computer programmers started to communicate via computers and telecommunications links. This enterprise was the beginning of commercial networking in the former USSR. Having no government support, Relcom struggled for survival. The real victory was the start of world-wide networking. As Press (1991) expresses it, Relcom “established a link to EUnet through Helsinki, Finland, on August 22, 1990, thereby connecting the Soviet Union to the rest of the world”.

It was neither prohibited nor censured, even during the August 1991 coup when the President was arrested and the junta suppressed and/or censured most media. In fact Relcom users exchanged both news and personal comments about the opposition to the junta defenders in a free manner (for more details see the Appendix in Press, 1991). Relcom gained a good reputation and, after the coup, most information agencies, newspaper editors, and magazine/journal publishers initiated their connections to Relcom.

The last two or three years prior to the disbandment of USSR in 1991 might be characterized as a period of rapid computerization. Relcom enjoyed a period of rapid expansion during this period for two reasons. First, in a short period of time, the number of desktop PCs grew rapidly and computers became accessible (though not as numerous and as reachable as compared to more developed states). Second, the mail service and telephone connections were suffering an unprecedented shortage and unreliability. This latter factor is ambiguous. On the one hand, a great need is expressed to gain fast and safe connections and, on the other hand, computer networking is extremely dependent on reliable communications. Thus computer networking service gained its attraction among users due to the rapid transmission of messages, due to being rather reliable and inexpensive, and due to the fact that computers became available. It is therefore extraordinarily important that Relcom give access to the Internet and Usenet.

Based on a highly primitive communications system, Relcom has inherited most of its disadvantages, the most serious being insufficient reliability and long traffic delays. Efforts to improve reliability and hasten the message exchange process never stop. Despite serious and crucial technical problems, Relcom has survived. It operates in more than 100 cities in Russia (and in the former USSR), and it reports the greatest number of users, approximately 200,000 (McHenry, 1994). The latter fact is important to an investigation of global computer network users.

Characteristics of Relcom Netters

The community of Relcom users is actually a specific sample of Russian (and ex-USSR) citizens. The community represents an active and intellectual (or educated) section of the population so an investigation of this sample is both provocative and important.

Strange as it may seem, although initiated as a media for the professional communication of computer programmers, Relcom gained dozens of purely trading teleconferences (i.e. newsgroups). They are as diverse as a catalog of goods and supplies can be expected to be. At the same time Relcom also remains a means for computer programmers to communicate - its first and primary functional role - and promotes the professional communication of researchers and educators. RELARN Association (financed mostly by government sources) provides important financial support for educational institutions to establish connections and participate in computer networking. Thus it is usually concluded that the users of the polyfunctional Relcom - educators/researchers, trading/financial elite, journalists, and computer programmers - represent the active and/or intellectual population of the ex-USSR.

Aims and Methodology

The aim of this research was to initiate a type of sociological and psychological monitoring. Thus the goal of the research was to gain some knowledge of Relcom users, including their interests, attitudes, devotion to computer-mediated communication, need for remote database access, satisfaction with the partners, with the teleconferencing system, and with the kind of hardware and software used, the users' competence and the sources of competence, and their willingness to deliver and/or acquire expert knowledge. This kind of knowledge was intended to form the basis of the monitoring service.

The research was conducted by a special interest group, formed in 1992, consisting of faculty members of the Psychology Department, Moscow University and headed by the author. The first tasks were to develop a questionnaire which would be emailed to a sample of netters or presented to selected teleconferences, and to collect and process responses. To develop the questionnaire it was considered essential to observe the processes of message exchange in teleconferences. Thus the participant observation was considered to be an important principle of research methodology.

It was important to develop a questionnaire consisting of closed questions. To formulate the questions with an adequate menu of answers, it was necessary to conduct face-to-face interviews, consultations, and pilot surveys - both paper-and-pencil and via the network. In the latter case it was sufficient to address the questionnaire items to the small samples of respondents. The samples might be constructed, for example, either of netters who were selected by chance or of netters who expressed their willingness to collaborate with the researchers. During pilot surveys, special messages were sent to respondents asking them to disclose their motivations for the choice of the answers.

Finally, two types of surveys were devised:

Local surveys: short, specialised and, in most cases, monothematic questionnaires sent directly to samples of netters. The samples were constructed according to respondents' age, profession, and experience in network usage.

Global or universal surveys: questionnaires containing more questions, multithematic, and nonspecialized (i.e. universal). These surveys were to be sent to teleconferences, not emailed to any of the potential respondents personally. This way of administering surveys was necessary as Relcom is a commercial network, and users pay for each message received and sent. The universal survey was intended to limit the community of would-be respondents to those who subscribe to the teleconferences. Those who did not subscribe were assumed to be too passive to take part in group discussions.

After developing the methodology for obtaining data via computer networks, several local and global surveys were carried out. The preliminary results were published elsewhere (Arestova et al., 1993).

Experimental Results

The results of the global survey conducted in 1993 are given in the following sections. The number of responses to the questionnaires distributed via Relcom network teleconferences was 305.

Geographic Dispersion

The first result to be noted is the wide geographic dispersion of the respondents. Responses were received from all geographical regions in Russia - Central, Northern, and Southern Russia (European part of the state), the Urals, Western and Central Siberia, and the Far East. As well, responses came from almost all the states that formed the former USSR.

As the sample was not formed before the survey, the geographic dispersion of the respondents corresponds in a way to the “density” of Relcom nodes in different regions. To support this conclusion, let us mention that, as expected, over one third of respondents were from greater Moscow, and St Petersburg. These two cities are known to be the most advanced in the fields of informatics and computer networking. Another expected result was that the respondents were from well-known research centers located outside of large cities and towns.

Age of respondents

To characterize the respondents, let us note first they are rather young: more than half are in the age range of 21 to 25 years, and more than three fourths are between 21 and 35. The distribution of respondents according to their age is shown at the Figure 1.

Figure 1.

 Age of respondents.

The results correspond to observations made while interviewing network users and reading the messages exchanged in teleconferences. The users are mostly young, and the topics of their messages rarely include problem areas associated with older people (e.g. pensions, illnesses and the like). Younger people are generally assumed to be the most active; therefore, the answers given by the respondents seem to correspond to attitudes characteristic of the most active sector of post-Soviet citizens.

Experience in Network Usage

The respondents are not only relatively young, they are also new users. About two thirds of respondents had joined the network community a year or less prior to the survey (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

 Time when respondents switched to the network (given in months prior to the survey).

It can be observed that long-term users are not numerous. Only 5% of the respondents joined the network over two years before the survey; 3% said they had been connected to Relcom from the moment the network was initiated. These data are highly characteristic, as networking itself was an extremely new way of communicating in the former Soviet Union. Another result worth mentioning is the approximate acceleration rate of the number of Relcom users. During the six months before the survey was administered, the community of users was increasing rapidly and proportionally - the increase was approximately 20% every three months. During the lag time from 6 to 24 months before the survey, the number of users grew 13-23% every six months. These figures indicate that the network has good prospects for further extension and enlargement.

Competence in Computer Networking

Being mostly new users, the respondents were interested in gaining more competence in computer networking. Of the total number of respondents, 42% noted it would be useful for them to participate in special workshops in order to enhance their knowledge of how network facilities might be used more effectively. Only 14% of respondents deny the usefulness of that kind of workshop. One fourth of respondents considered workshops would be useful for beginners and new users, but not for themselves. No definite opinion was expressed by 17% of respondents on the problem of usefulness of workshops. As expected, the newest users (those connected less than three months before the survey) are the most interested in participating in a workshop. Of the newcomers, 30% expressed their willingness to acquire more competence in computer networking and 31% were subscribed to a special teleconference for new users. In the whole sample of respondents, the proportion who were subscribed to this teleconference was lower (22%).

Motivations for Network Usage

As might be expected, new users were less satisfied with Relcom usage than the more experienced respondents, but the difference in satisfaction (measured on a Likert scale) is not great. There was almost a complete absence (4% only) of extremes - both positive and negative. It could be interpreted, therefore, that the community of Relcom users possesses certain integrity and balance in the evaluation of computer networking services.

A list of possible motivations and purposes for using Relcom, defined in the pilot research, was presented to respondents and users were asked to choose the most relevant ones. The most frequently chosen option was the possibility of subscribing to professional teleconferences and newsgroups (63%) (Table 1).

Table 1.  Motivation for network usage.
Respondents' options%
Subscription to professional teleconferences and newsgroups63
Search for contact persons57
International correspondence53
Commerce and business (business agreements and offers; updated information on demand/supply rates, etc.)50
Establishment of interpersonal contacts48
Remote access to archives and databases44
Fun, recreation, chatting31
Research data exchange26
Preparation of joint publications17
Administrative and managerial work15
Subscription to actual information from news agencies7

There are some slight differences in the comparison of preferred ways in which newcomers and qualified netters use the network. The inexperienced users, for example, favor more highly the opportunity to search for new partners and contact persons, and to maintain electronic correspondence with their partners from abroad. The experienced users chose more often than their inexperienced colleagues the options for chatting and having fun, for managerial and administrative work, and for remote access to databases and archives. The differences in ratings between the experienced and inexperienced netters are very slight - less than 4%. An important feature is the order of the chosen options, which is the same for the each sample.

Network Usage, Occupation, and Orientation

The claimed preferences for Relcom usage do not correspond to the respondents' occupations. Over half of the respondents reported that their main occupation is either professional or amateur computer programming. That is, they claim they are not so-called end users, but consider themselves professionals in computer programming and/or computer applications. The applications spheres mentioned included mathematical modelling and applied software for telecommunications management. Most respondents noted they have several occupations. This is characteristic for present-day Russia. The other occupations reported by respondents include: teaching in colleges or universities; research in science and, to a lesser degree, in the humanities fields; management and administration; books, magazines and newspapers publishing; trading, marketing, commerce and financing; learning in colleges, and consulting.

Thus the responses to the questionnaire item related to chief occupations are somewhat misleading as the sample seems to be biased towards computer programming and applications specialists. In many cases these data disagree with some other options of the same respondents; for example, teleconferences to which they claim to be subscribed, preferred ways of using the network, and so forth. It might be concluded that the Relcom users who represent biomedical or engineering/construction institutions, editorials or banks, trading companies or industrial manufacturers, prefer, for some reason, to present themselves as regular network users and computer applications professionals. Computer networking certainly is a very important part of the respondents' professional occupation, but the primary occupation is usually close to their formal education.

The general conclusion to be drawn is that the survey medium influences some of the respondents' reactions, and that the responses to the questionnaire item on the chief occupation should not be considered relevant. Much more accurate would be to define orientations, not occupation. The orientations might be derived from several sets of data, i.e. the responses given to several questionnaire items. Applied to the computer networking field, the orientation depends on: (i) subscription to teleconferences and/or newsgroups of a certain content; (ii) claimed preferences for using Relcom; and (iii) expressed interest in databases of a certain content. The reported chief occupation might therefore be considered an auxiliary piece of data. It should be stressed, however, that the orientations are not to be taken as the sole mode of network usage, which is always a mixture.

There are several orientations to be noted, some quite obvious: the computer programming orientation; the commercial/financial orientation, and the research/educational orientation. Clearly, the computer programming orientation means that the respondents: (i) consider themselves computer programmers, (ii) subscribe to teleconferences dealing with software production, and (iii) use more than one operating system. The commercial/financial/trading orientation means that the respondents: (i) give trading and commerce as their chief occupation (often in combination with computer programming, which may mean that the respondents are engaged in commerce in the computer hardware/software/telecommunications field), (ii) subscribe to certain commercial teleconferences, and (iii) report they have found new commercial partners and/or offers via computer networking, and (iv) are interested mostly in commercial databases. The research/educational orientation means that the respondents: (i) report that their occupation is in research/education institutions, (ii) subscribe to Internet sci.newsgroups, (iii) use Relcom primarily for research data exchange with colleagues or for writing/editing joint articles with colleagues, and (iv) are greatly interested in gaining access to certain remote databases (factual, bibliographical, archives of research data processing methods, or needed software).

The communicative orientation was not displayed in the pilot research, so it should be considered as quite a new one. The respondents oriented in this way report that they are: fond of chatting via the network; interested in recreational or hobby databases; subscribe to the mostly “talkative” teleconferences (relcom.penpals or relcom.talk, and the like); finding new communicative partners for personal communication; and satisfied with the way they use Relcom. With all these activities those who are marked as having communicative orientation differ from those whose chief orientation is of different kind. That is, to consider the sample itself, about half of the respondents use Relcom for personal communication; over half of them use it for initiating new personal contacts; about one third of them use the network for recreation; and some of them express interest in any kind of entertainments database. In other words, the activities mentioned are rather popular among the Relcom users.

It is quite possible nevertheless to select a group of those users for whom the communicative orientation is especially characteristic. Communicatively oriented respondents are highly uniform. To present them as a uniform group of respondents we need to choose a special item in the questionnaire and to select those who give definite responses to this item. Then we need to determine the responses of the members of the selected group to other questionnaire items relevant to the communicative orientation. We chose as the selected group, therefore, those respondents who claimed that they use the network primarily for personal communications. Table 2 shows the difference between the members of the group mentioned and the whole sample.

Table 2.  Communicatively oriented respondents vs general sample members.
Positive response on selected questionnaire itemsRespondents who use network for personal communication (%)Respondents of whole sample (%)
Initiate new contacts7057
Recreate and distract4531
Subscribe to humor and hobby teleconferences5141
Found new partners4024
Failed to find new partners1728

From Table 2 it is evident that 70% of those who use the network for personal communication use it as well for initiating new contacts (13% more than in the general sample); 45% use it for both personal communication and recreation (14% more than general sample); 51% subscribe to humour and hobby teleconference (10% more than general sample); 40% claim to acquire new communicative partners via the network (16% more than general sample); 17% failed to get new partners (11% less than general sample). Thus the data presented make it quite evident that the communicative orientation might be characterized as more intensive initiation of new personal contacts and much better results from this kind of initiation compared to the general sample of respondents, and greater interest displayed in humorous and recreational use of the network. It should be noted that in the pilot investigations carried out earlier, the purely communicative orientation was not selected and described. The extraction of the communicative orientation is an awaited result of the current research. One might maintain now that the Relcom network is a purely communicative medium, as it should be.

Conclusions

The research was intended to commence a series of surveys constituting part of a social monitoring service in a computer networking field. Thus one of the research aims was to find out network users' attitudes towards the surveying procedure. It was evident from the data that attitudes were mostly positive. Other aims included refining the research instrument, and achieving new data to characterize the netters, or regular Relcom users. The data gained included age and geographic dispersion of respondents, their experience and competence in computer networking, their professional occupation and orientations in computer telecommunications, and motivations for network usage. It is important to note that an inherent communicative orientation in computer networking was displayed and determined.

The questionnaire that was developed and used in the research proved to be reliable and informative. To conduct further research projects, the research instrument needs to be modified as computer networking, as a specific area of social activity, is very mobile and dynamic, and its development is accelerating. As psychological changes usually follow technological ones, the nearing transition to modern information technologies would necessitate updating previously used questionnaires.

Acknowledgements

The financial support to carry out the research was given by the Russian Institute for Public Networks (RIPN). The RIPN is the institution that carries out the administration of the RELARN Association, which is enlisting state educational and research institutions for computer networking in Russia, and supports investigations in the field.

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