USING TECHNOLOGY TO COMMUNICATE
IN NEW WAYS
The Internet is like a giant jellyfish. You can't step on it. You can't go around it. You've got to get through it.
At the heart of this book rests a basic assumption: Communicating in computermediated contexts is somehow different than any other form of communication. Software engineer Ellen UUman (1996) describes encounters in which these differences have been made apparent to her. She regularly communicates with her fellow computer programmers and her supervisors through her computer. Over the years, she has reportedly acclimated to the shortness and arrogance that many of her colleagues seem to convey in their correspondence. Such behavior is, of course, not restricted to online interaction. However, what has struck Ullman more are the contrasts she has noted between mediated and face-to-face interactions with her coworkers. Two examples illustrate Ullman's keen perceptions.
On one occasion, Ullman (1996) found herself up one night and decided to send a message to a colleague. He happened to be awake as well and, after reading her message, wrote back to inquire why she was up so late. The two exchanged cordial messages that night, yet the next day when they attended a corporate meeting together, Ullman was unsure about how to approach him. They had, after all, been friendly with one another just hours before, yet in the office setting, she questioned, “In what way am I permitted to know him? And which set of us is the more real: the sleepless ones online, or these bodies in the daylight?” (p. 6).
On another occasion, Ullman (1996) had struck up a romantic relationship with a fellow programmer. For quite a while, the two communicated exclusively through exchanges of electronic mail (e-mail). He would send her a message, she would reply, and so forth. This continued with increasing frequency, until they were writing to one another almost every waking hour. Eventually, the couple decided to meet for dinner, and when they did, Ullman noticed something unusual about their conversation. “One talks, stops; then the other replies, stops. An hour later, we are still in this rhythm. With a shock, I realize that we have finally gone out to dinner only to exchange e-mail” (p. 17).
The questions and patterns that Ullman developed as a practitioner of computermediated communication (CMC) did not fully emerge until she saw the assumptions of one form of interaction contrasted with another. What she had learned to accept as norms in the world of computer mediation seemed odd and uncomfortable to her in