When someone says, “I'm going online, ” where are they going? Early in the 21st century, when so much of the globe is mapped and so much geography charted, is there really a new place to be visited on the World Wide Web? We think so. Considering online communication as a metaphorical journey involves adopting many of the same words and images that we use in other excursions. We borrow ideas from our physical interactions to make sense of communication through computer networks. Using the Internet, we send mail, we visit libraries, we even surf. Yet these words alone limit our understanding of online communication, so we must employ new ones. Uploading, downloading, pinging, networking—these relatively new words hint at a new world of human interaction that emerged with the popularization of the Internet. As you can guess, hundreds of books promise to make sense of this new world. The problem is that most of these books try to explore online communication as merely a site of new technologies. Few attempt the synthesis of technology, identity, and culture that we feel can place the Internet in human perspective. This book is our attempt to fill that void.
Online Communication aims to help you conceptualize the human uses of the Internet by examining the emerging theories that offer explanations for what people are doing with this technology, socially and communicatively. Now, for some people, theory is a dirty word. It suggests lofty and vague treatises, far beyond the grasp of the average person. Theory, however, has gotten a bad rap. When explained with accessible language and concrete examples, as we have tried to do here, theory helps us to see how processes tend to function in a variety of occurrences rather than in just one case. The value to using theory when approaching the Internet is this: Understanding how communication processes function in general will allow you to apply them to recognizing specific instances of these occurrences in your own life.
Over the last several years, a great deal has been written about the effects of computers on human communication. Journalists have made it the focus of their human interest stories, critics have cited it as the root cause of declines in society, and scholars have examined its effects on everything from the way we think to the way we relate to others. In order to establish some sense of coherence in addressing this body of information, we have organized this book into three general sections with 10 specifically themed chapters. What follows, then, is a brief overview of those sections and chapters and other key features you will encounter in reading Online Communication.
Part I of this book includes two chapters that serve as introductions to both the technologies of the Internet Age and their social implications. Beginning with chapter 1, we introduce computer-mediated communication (CMC) as a subject of academic research and a fascinating site where we may examine contemporary trends in society.