Emotional Outbursts Punctuate Conversations by Computer
By Erik Eckholm
The New York Times
October 2, 1984
COMPUTER buffs call it ''flaming.'' Now scientists are documenting and trying to explain the surprising prevalence of rudeness, profanity, exultation and other emotional outbursts by people when they carry on discussions via computer.
The frequent resort to emotional language is just one of several special traits of computer communications discovered by behavioral scientists studying how this new medium affects the message.
Observing both experimental groups and actual working environments, scientists at Carnegie- Mellon University are comparing decision-making through face-to-face discussions with that conducted electronically.
In the experiments, in addition to calling each other more names and generally showing more emotion, people ''talking'' by computer took longer to agree, and their final decisions tended to be more extreme, involving either greater or lesser risk than the more middle-of-the-road decisions reached by groups meeting in person. Curiously, those who made such decisions through electronic give-and- take believed more strongly in the rightness of their choices.
As small computers proliferate in offices and homes, more business discussions that were once pursued face-to-face, by telephone or on paper are now taking place by way of keyboards and video display terminals. With electronic mail, messages are left in a central computer for reading by correspondents on their own computers at their own convenience. Computer conferences can be carried on simultaneously or not.
In some offices, observers say, the traditional typed memorandum is all but extinct, and computer mail is replacing even telephone calls. Employees in one corporation studied received or sent an average of 24 computer messages a day.
The unusual characteristics showing up in computer communications should not be seen as entirely negative, say the researchers. When it is not insulting, language that is uninhibited and informal helps to bridge social barriers and may help to draw out some people's ideas. And more extreme decisions can be innovative and creative instead of foolish.
Moreover, members of groups talking electronically tend to contribute much more equally to the discussion.
''This is unusual group democracy,'' said Dr. Sara Kiesler, a psychologist at Carnegie-Mellon. ''There is less of a tendency for one person to dominate the conversation, or for others to defer to the one with the highest status.''
Looser Standards for Discussions
Studies of electronic mail in several Fortune 500 corporations have confirmed the tendency for people to use more informal and expressive language on the computer than when communicating in person, by telephone or by memo.
''Whatever the company's pre-existing standards for the expression of opinion, electronic mail seems to loosen them,'' Dr. Lee Sproull, a sociologist at Carnegie-Mellon, said in an interview. But in contrast with the experimental findings, in the corporate world positive emotional expressions greatly outnumbered negative ones.
The company studies also indicate that computers are permitting much wider participation in discussions than in the past, with employees far from headquarters now able to follow debates and make their views known.
Unusually expressive language has been one of the most striking characteristics of computer discussions studied in many different contexts. ''It's amazing,'' said Dr. Kiesler. ''We've seen messages sent out by managers - messages that will be seen by thousands of people - that use language normally heard in locker rooms.''
Computer Bulletin Boards
The frequent presence of exuberant and offensive terms has long been noted by observers of computer bulletin boards. In 1982 the Defense Communications Agency, which manages the world's oldest and largest computer network for use by Pentagon employees and contractors, issued the following message to potential bulletin board contributors: ''Due to past problems with messages deemed in bad taste by 'the authorities,' messages sent to this address are manually screened (generally, every couple of days) before being remailed to the Boards.''
Struggling to explain the free- wheeling language that people use on computers, the Carnegie-Mellon scientists note that electronic communications convey none of the nonverbal cues of personal conversation - the eye contact, facial expressions and voice inflections that provide social feedback and may inhibit extreme behavior. Even a memo, with its letterhead and chosen form, carries more nonverbal information than does a message on a screen. Also, no strong rules of etiquette for computer conversation have yet evolved.
Computer writers often become deeply engrossed in their message, the researchers have found, but their focus tends to be on the text itself rather than their audience, perhaps another consequence of the lack of nonverbal feedback.
In a forthcoming paper, Dr. Kiesler and three colleagues posit that ''using computers to communicate draws attention to the technology and to the content of communication and away from people and relationships with people.''
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