The purpose of the present essay is to explore the distinctive aspects of interactive communication in business organizations. Certainly even a casual observer of today's organizational life would note how remarkably it has changed in recent decades, due to the introduction of various types of computer-related communication technologies. These new communication technologies are distinctive in their degree of interactivity, allowing participants to exchange information in a manner that is not like either interpersonal or mass communication channels (Reardon & Rogers, 1988). In fact, the newness and distinctiveness of the new technologies leads to difficulties in what best to call this new category of communication. For instance, one widely-used communication textbook refers to the new communication technologies as "machine-assisted interpersonal communication," a rather clumsy term, although an accurate description. Others refer to this new type of communication as "computer-mediated communication." Here we use the term "interactive communication," as we feel the interactivity of these means of communication is their most distinctive quality.
The new communication technologies are networking tools in that their main function is to connect individuals' computers by telephone lines or cables. These interactive technologies can link distant individuals who might otherwise be unable or unlikely to communicate. Interactive communication technologies facilitate both the one-to-one and the one-to-several exchange that is characteristic of interpersonal communication, and the one-to-many flow of information that is characteristic of mass media communication.
Growth of Interactive Communication
The growing importance of the impacts of the new interactive communication technologies has not gone unnoticed in the pages of the Journal of Business Communication (see, for example, Pappa & Pappa, 1992; Rice & Danowski, 1993). Nor have practitioners of business communication failed to notice the "information revolution" that has been occurring in their organizations. New opportunities for consulting, training, and analysis are provided by the problems associated with the introduction and impacts of the new interactive technologies.
One of the most widely-discussed new interactive communication technologies is the Internet, a computer network linking a large number of previously-existing computer networks ("Internet" stands for interlocking networks). The number of Internet users was estimated at somewhere between 4 and 20 million as of January 1994, and is doubling every year. The number of Internet "hosts" (computers that serve as a gateway to one of the sub-networks linked to the Internet) increased from 213 in August, 1981; to 727,000 in January, 1992; to 2,217,000 in February, 1994, with perhaps as many as 20 million users in 146 nations.
It is difficult to estimate the number of users of Internet because it is a highly decentralized network that originally grew out of the U.S. Department of Defense's ARPANET, which was designed in 1969 for military defense purposes. Accordingly, ARPANET does not have a central node that could be destroyed by nuclear attack. Thus Internet routes a user's message from computer to computer via telephone lines through a myriad of possible pathways, linking thousands of local and other sub-networks, to an eventual destination.
In recent years, Internet has become the network of networks, as its number of users reached critical mass: the point at which a certain minimum number of users have adopted so that the rate of adoption of the new communication technology suddenly takes off (Rogers, 1995). Once an interactive communication technology reaches this critical mass, as in the case of a mass of radioactive material that goes critical (the phenomenon in nuclear physics from which critical mass derives it name), each additional user increases the number of potential network connections exponentially (Rice & Danowski, 1993). …