What Will We Study When the Internet Disappears?
Version of Record online: 16 JUL 2009
© 2009 International Communication Association
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication
Volume 14, Issue 3, pages 724–729, April 2009
How to Cite
Parks, M. (2009), What Will We Study When the Internet Disappears?. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 14: 724–729. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2009.01462.x
- Issue online: 16 JUL 2009
- Version of Record online: 16 JUL 2009
The Internet is not really disappearing in any literal sense, of course. But it is becoming less visible as the result of widespread use and incorporation into everyday activity. Internet use has become a regular activity for 60–70% of the population in North America, Europe, and several Asian countries, and for over 20% of the population worldwide (World Internet Usage Statistics News and World Population Statistics, 2008). Many Internet-based applications are so commonplace and so integrated into our daily activities that they are easily taken for granted. In recognition of how ordinary Internet use has become, we should probably stop capitalizing the word “Internet,” as others have suggested (Turow & Kavanaugh, 2003). More important, we should recognize that while the growth of the Internet has attracted large numbers of people to CMC research, the field has suffered from some of the same hyperbole and chaos that has characterized the growth of the Internet itself. As we pause to refocus our priorities, I believe we might benefit from appreciating the value of better descriptive research, the need to organize research efforts around underlying communicative processes rather than surface technologies, and the benefits of tracking changes in CMC and its contexts over time.
Far too much of what we think we know about Internet use comes from uncertain combinations of commercially motivated marketing research, global surveys (e.g., PEW Internet studies), proclamations of self-appointed Internet experts, breathless first-person accounts, and low grade ethnographies. Lacking is high-quality descriptive research that identifies the prevalence of and variance in theoretically relevant variables in generalizable samples. Although it may not have the caché of theoretic work, high-quality descriptive plays several essential functions in theory development. First, it helps counterbalance the understandable tendency to overemphasize the newest, most fashionable applications. Second, descriptive work with large representative samples promotes critical evaluation of prevailing stereotypes and assumptions regarding Internet use. For example, social network sites, as well as several other social venues on the Internet, are often viewed through the lens of a community metaphor, but we actually do not know whether they generally display the level of engagement or connectivity characteristic of communities. Third, descriptive research assists in identifying the triggering or boundary conditions of theory (see Walther, in press, for a discussion of this often overlooked theoretic requirement). Liu and his colleagues, for example, have conceptualized applications such as MySpace as arenas for elaborate “taste performances” involving expressions of personal preferences and group affiliations (Liu, 2007; Liu, Maes, & Davenport, 2006). This theoretic perspective is, however, constrained by an unstated triggering condition—namely that most users display their preferences and affiliations in sufficient number and detail to constitute a performance. Yet recent descriptive research suggests that only a small proportion of MySpace users display preferences and affiliations on their profiles (Parks, 2008; Thelwall, 2008). This in turn limits the generalizability and application of the theory. Finally, descriptive research calls attention to overlooked phenomena that merit explanation. For example, although broadband access has reached a clear majority of Americans, descriptive work has revealed that a substantial portion of people either make light use of it or are holdouts (Horrigan, 2007). Hargittai (2007) noted that variations in the use of social networking applications are not adequately accounted for in the existing literature. The same observation can be made about variations in the used of nearly every CMC form.
Advances in our understanding of computer-mediated communication will, I believe, come more rapidly if we place the fundamental communicative processes involved in the foreground. This may require shifts in our ways of organizing professionally. The long term intellectual value of grouping ourselves into professional associations and divisions for Internet research is open to question. At a minimum, progress requires shifting our attention away from the surface features of technologies to the underlying communicative processes they serve. This will assist CMC researchers in recognizing common cause with researchers working on broader domains and theories of communication. It will also encourage a greater level of rigor and theoretic care. As Walther (in press) recently observed, CMC research has not yet adequately addressed underlying assumptions, has failed to develop typologies that would allow meaningful comparison of technologies, failed to articulate boundary conditions for theoretic perspectives, and, in too many cases, has devoted inadequate attention to underlying explanatory mechanisms. These are the issues will sustain CMC research in the long term.
Moving beyond a “technocentric” focus will also make it easier to examine the broader context in which CMC now occurs. I note two examples. Increasing numbers of people appear to text message, check their social network application, surf the net, watch television, and listen to their iPods all at more or less the same time. We know something about distraction effects, but we know very little about the effects, if any, of regular, simultaneous multimedia use on attention, problem-solving, and face-to-face interaction. We know very little about the motivations for simultaneous media use and very little about the strategies people use to manage the challenges of simultaneous media use.
Another set of research priorities are suggested by the fact that many of our relationships have become “mixed-mode” (Walther & Parks, 2002). That is, relationships have become multimedia affairs in which people draw on different interactive media at different points for different tasks. Understanding how people make these choices will inform theory and may have practical implications for media designers who often appear to operate as if every social process is an equally good candidate for a web-based application. We also need to understand more about “mode-switching” in everyday interaction. An excellent foundation is provided by the research on how people manage long-distance relationships and the research on how people who have met online transition to face-to-face interaction (e.g., Dainton & Aylor, 2002; Ramirez & Zhang, 2007). We should build on that foundation by, first, moving beyond dramatic changes in mode (e.g., going from being exclusively on line to meeting F2F) to examine how people in established relationships make, interpret, and manage each other's media choices on a daily basis.
Finally, our understanding will benefit from greater attention to the way in which CMC technologies and their uses change over time. At the outset we should not assume that the newest applications are necessarily the most important or that the use and impact of applications does not change over time. Media researchers are often early adopters and are easily drawn to studying the “next big thing.” But early effects may be quite different than later effects. The reversal of fortune suffered by advocates of the “Internet paradox” is a powerful reminder that user behavior may change greatly with experience (Kraut et al., 2002). Results that are here today can easily be gone tomorrow. Moreover, given that the Internet is characterized by small populations of rapidly evolving technologies, most of which fail, focusing on the newest applications can easily lead us to invest time and energy in applications with very limited prospects. I sometimes wonder, for instance, if some aspects of my own early work on MOOs might not simply be obsolete (Parks & Roberts, 1998).
Tracking social technologies over time will not only inform CMC research, but also opens windows to a new understanding of the way in which innovation and diffusion occurs more generally. Research on the diffusion of innovations has traditionally focused on relatively “finished” products or services that do not change much during the diffusion process. But this approach is questionable with regard to the Internet, which is, after all, not a discrete technology but rather a sort of “metatechnology” that hosts populations of related and rapidly evolving applications. The design of many of these applications is fluid, responding not only to adoption decisions, but also to direct modification by users (Neff & Stark, 2003). Innovation in many technologies has become a much more user-centered, user-driven process (von Hippel, 2005). One of our research priorities should therefore be to examine the mutual influence processes linking innovators and users.
As communication scholars our interests extend beyond social technologies to the discourse regarding those technologies. I also advocate much more systematic attention to the arc of public discourse surrounding new communicative technologies. Many have noted the tensions between utopian and dystopian narratives regarding the Internet. Others have explored historical narratives on social technologies (e.g., Marvin, 1987). A few have examined the way technologies such as the personal computer are covered in the press (Cogan, 2005). I know of no attempts, however, to track the public discourse surrounding a given Internet application over time. Have public narratives about social networking sites, for example, changed over the past 3–4 years in predictable ways? Do we talk about instant messaging or online dating sites the same way now as we did in the past? Do public narratives on diverse social technologies follow similar trajectories over time? Research on questions such as these could inform both theory and public understanding.
The enormous growth of Internet-related applications and computer-based games over the past 15 years generated global interest and attracted a new generation of researchers to CMC research. But these technologies are rapidly becoming a normal part of everyday life. Put simply, the new media are no longer so new. Sustaining and growing CMC research will require that we move beyond current fashions and become much more serious about describing our phenomena of interest, situating those phenomena within the broader context of communication theory, and tracking CMC-related phenomena over time. These are the tasks that will energize us long after the Internet “disappears” from the spotlights of popular and academic fashion.
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About the Author
Malcolm Parks, Associate Professor, conducts research on interpersonal relationships, persuasion, organizational change, and social networks. Current projects include studies of how social network factors might account for differences in the strength of attitudes on controversial issues, ways organizations can influence the health of their employees and clients, and the nature of interaction on social network sites like MySpace. His work examines interaction in both face-to-face and online settings. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in interpersonal communication, social scientific methods, computer-mediated communication, communication networks, and community. He is also affiliated with the Health Marketing and Communication Research Center.
Parks was the recipient of the 1996 Woolbert Award for disciplinary impact from the National Communication Association and the Hammer Award from the Office of the Vice President of the United States for his applied work in organizational innovation. His research has been supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Army Research Organization, and the U.S. Air Force Office of Prevention and Health Services Assessment.