Computer conferencing is broadly defined by Hiltz and Turoff in The Network Nation as “any system that uses the computer to mediate communication among human begings.” While their attempt to name this processes is admirable, like any catchall phrase, e.g. “the military mind,” “computer conferencing,” by lumping together many different forms of communication, obscures the differences among these forms of communication and thus inhibits analysis of a specific application. Although Hiltz and Turoff probe many aspects of computer conferencing, they are concerned mainly with private and controlled computer conferencing among scholars. They rarely consider the functions of the more limited application of electronic mail, and almost never address the issues of computer conferencing among many people. Moreover, they seem not to consider computer conferencing as an auxiliary or elective function, but rather as the users’ main purpose.
The computer is a communications device par excellence. Unlike other media, such as the telephone, print, and the mail (postal service), the computer stores unlimited amounts of information, and can conceivably distribute it among millions of people. Computer conferencing removes time and distance barriers, permits group sizes to grow dynamically, and allows a user to participate at a time and date of his/her own choosing. Computer conferencing is less intimate than oral communication, since only written words are transmitted. Facial expressions, eye contact and visual information such as height, weight, and clothing are not factors in computer conferencing, as they are in face-to-face meetings. Yet, because users cannot physically see one another they feel less threatened, and thus computer conferencing often promotes the exchange of the most intimate details.
The components of computer conferencing include private conferencing facilities, electronic mail, and electronic bulletin boards. Electronic bulletin boards allow users to post and read messages on the computer as a group, thus they act as media for the exchange of information among large groups of people. Electronic bulletin boards are a hybrid; they combine features of electronic mail with private computer conferencing. The concept of an electronic bulletin board began c. 1976 through ARPANET at schools such as the University of California at Berkeley, Carnegie-Mellon, and Stanford University. Probably used first in the same manner as physical bulletin boards, i.e., help wanted, items for sale, public announcements, and more specifically information about computers, electronic bulletin boards soon became, because of the ability of the computer to store and disseminate information to many people in text form, a forum for user debates on many subjects. Herein lies the significant difference between physical bulletin boards and electronic bulletin boards; the computer’s ability to store and disseminate information and thus act as a communications device promotes a wide range of communication among users separated by time and distance, and different in both age and background as well as field of expertise. However, not only information, but opinion is exchanged.
BBoard usage increases considerably with the addition of more ID’s to the system. Yet, both groups indicate that only a very small minority–between 2-5% of the total number of users, ever post messages on the BBoard. The significant difference between these two groups is the higher number of messages posted by only a few users. The 3 highest users in the latter period, when considered with 2 others who posted 14 messages each, posted 145 messages out of total of approximately 490. When these statistics are subtracted from the total, the picture is somewhat different. If the total number of users is 125 (the 5 highest users subtracted), and the total number of messages is 345 (145 messages subtracted), the average posting per user is 2.
Turoff observed that “computer conferencing helps those who communicate better in writing than they do orally.” While this statement is correct, we do not know to what degree poor writers are discouraged from using this facility–if indeed they perceive themselves to be poor writers. It is probably true that low BBoard participation is in part directly attributable to those users who believe they do not write well, or fear public criticism of their writing, although several interviews would have to be conducted to support this conclusion.
Theoretical Issues: It is clear from the statistics that only 2-5% of all users ever post messages on the BBoard, and that most post more than one message. User complaints however have centered upon the domination of the BBoard by only a few users posting long messages, and by the posting of messages by those who have stolen passwords of other ID’s. It must be understood however that Columbia University is not alone in the area of computer abuse. Many universities, such as Harvard, Yale, and the University of Michigan have problems more serious than those at Columbia. Periodically there are BBoard debates about the use of the BBoard. This evidences a particularly thoughtful and healthy attitude by users towards the use of the resource. Special BBoards for debates have been suggested, but others have complained that this defeats the purpose of the BBoard.
Computer conferencing puts a unique psychological pressure on a person whose messages tend to be verbose, irrelevant, or filled with bureaucratic jargon. He will soon notice that no one is paying attention to his messages. In a face-to-face conference, people have to give an appearance of listening to the speaker, but there is no way you can force a guy to read your messages on his computer terminal.
For those whose main purpose is not to use the computer as a communications device, but rather for programming, statistical analysis, or text processing, computer conferencing, in this case the BBoard, is largely unimportant. Electronic mail is probably more important to these users. Many users only want to complete their work, or simply have nothing to say to others. Limits on connect time precludes many from leisurely perusing the BBoard. However it is clear that many users who would like to use the BBoard do not have the technical competence to do so, either because they are not instructed in its use or are afraid to learn how to use it by themselves. Low BBoard participation is also attributable to the fact that people would rather speak than write, and thus because of poor writing skills shy away from the BBoard. All of these variables, lack of interest, technical competence and attitudes toward writing should be isolated and examined.
Those who post messages on the BBoard have expressed the thought that it is certainly a facility which allows one to “know what is going on” on the system, as well as in the community, and have further stated that it is a form of relaxation, somewhat akin to settling down with a newspaper or magazine. How many people read the BBoard? Extrapolating from the 2-5% figure for those who post messages, this writer offers 10-20% of the total user population as regular BBoard readers. The wide range of interest expressed through the BBoard is encouraging, although it is unfortunate that many do not to participate actively by posting messages, which could possibly raise the level of discussion.
The number of users who continually post long messages fortunately is small– only 3-5–but it is large enough to discourage many other users and in part subvert the purpose of the BBoard–that is, the exchange of information among large groups of people. Other abuses of the BBoard indicate that formal policies are necessary–if for no other reason than to forcefully discourage users from abusing the resource. With the growth of the user community, abuses not only will continue, but become more serious. A formal policy regarding length of messages, frequency of postings, and use of language may to some extent abridge free speech, but it is the inevitable result of the use of a system by large numbers of people. Free speech is, after all, a personal judgment; but it is legislated by law, and thus becomes in a very real and fundamental sense an abstraction: it does not exist. These policies may inhibit communication and discourage use of the resource, but hopefully they will not prove any worse than the current abuse.
Despite these and other problems, CUCCA’s liberal attitude allows the BBoard to function very successfully as a means for exchanging information and opinion on an abundance of subjects. The BBoard binds together those members of the community who participate either through posting messages or by reading them. We are still finding our way in what only can be described as the infancy of computer conferencing, and the BBoard at Columbia University should continue to be watched closely as an indicator of the course of personal communication through the computer.