Balancing Act: The Struggle Between Orality and Linearity in Computer-Mediated Communication

In Academia, Philosophy, Technology by J Michel MetzLeave a Comment

This is a recovery of a peer-reviewed article published in 1996 in the New Jersey Journal of Communication (now the Atlantic Journal of Communication).

Full Citation:

Metz, J. M. (1996). Balancing act: The struggle between orality and linearity in computer mediated communication. The New Jersey Journal of Communication, 4, 61-70.000


As the growing popularity of online services and the Internet in general begins to consume more ink in the popular press, it is not unexpected to turn scholarly focus towards the implications of computer-mediated communication (CMC). Proponents of new communication media emphasize the potential for a global community, an interactvity which will propel mankind forward into the post-information age: the Communication Age. The concern here is whether individuals will be forced into isolation, away from more meaningful contact. As a culture of cybercommunicators, is the psychological effect we are experiencing one of isolation or unification? This question is examined from the standpoint of medium theory to illustrate how a new approach is required to address it successfully.

Computer-Mediated Communication and Medium Theory

Cathcart and Gumpert (1986) provide a starting point with their discussion of mediated interpersonal communication. They argue that defintions of communication have minimized the role of media and channel in the communication process. The focus has been on the number of participants, source and receiver relationships, and forms and functions of messages. The media of communication have been accepted, more or less, fixed or neutral channels for the transmission of messages among participants. Cathcart and Gumpert (1986) suggest that most mass communication scholars have concentrated upon the role media play in shaping interpersonal behavior, rather than emphasizing the role of the individual in the mass communication process. As a result, subsequent conceptualizations of mass communication fail to consider media’s influential role in interpersonal communication. Cathcart and Gumpert (1986) indicate that the colloquial usage of the term medium was used synonymously with mass communication, and, as a result, did not suffice for appropriate usage, since all media are not mass media but also includes inter- and intrapersonal communication.

In response to this situation, Cathcart and Gumpert (1986) developed the concept of mediated interpersonal communication: “a general category referring to any situation where a technological medium is introduced into face-to-face interaction” (p. 30). A smaller subset of this, interpersonal mediated communication, refers to “any person-to-person interaction where a medium has been interposed to transcend the limitations of time and space” (p. 30). Such elements include communication media ranging from t-shirts to CB radio, from bumper stickers to email. The use of interposed interpsersonal communication such as letter writing and telephoning alters the way people communicate face-to-face to a degree that might even eliminated the actual meeting between two parties. For example, contact with people in the street and marketplace can be avoided altogether, substituting one of the former modes of communication in its place. Electronic mail was identified as one such form of communication, in that it shares certain characteristics of face-to-face communication, while retaining specific differences as well. For example, it shares the characteristics and switch-roles of sender and receiver, immediate (or rapid) feedback, and a use of unrestricted codes, as defined by Schanck (1932). It differs from interpersonal communication in the “lack of privacy and communication control — whatever message is sent is available to all receivers — making the information more public than private” (Cathcart and Gumpert, 1986; p. 31). This tends to turn the communicators into performers, “placing emphasis on messages which entertain or carry general public information” (Cathcart & Gumpert, 1986; p. 31). Cathcart and Gumpert argue for the importance of the role of the individual in the mediated communication process and attempt to reconcile the role of media in human communication through the following generalizations:

1) there are interpersonal situations which require media for the purpose of communication; 2) the media are part of a complex of variables that influence behaviors and attitudes; 3) the content of media is both a reflection and projection of interpersonal behaviors; and 4) an individual’s self image and its development is media dependent (Cathcart & Gumpert, 1986, pp. 27-8).

Building upon Cathcart and Gumpert’s foundation, it is argued that a new typology of communicative forms be developed which includes media technology, and CMC in particular, as an integral component. Because CMC research has delved only slightly into the area of behavioral modification due to computer use, the next logical step is to determine what behaviors might arise, and how those behaviors affect communication both via the computer and interpersonally. At that point it will be possible to treat the concept of CMC in a scholarly manner and give this new area the attention it deserves. Such a treatment is offered here through the ethnographic examination of a community who communicate solely through the computer medium.

Isolation and Unification in CMC

Perhaps the most important element of CMC interactions is the way that participants see themselves. A reflection of who they are or who they could be is no longer limited to their physical appearance or demeanor. Participants can find a new freedom to be whomever they want. While this may lead to acting out some gender-bending fantasies at times, those who participate often find it difficult to place a name to the new form of individual-group association Metz, 1995 #42. Without realizing it, they were attempting to address the same question raised here — is the experience one of isolation or unification?


One of the hypothetical hazards of becoming so engrossed in computer-mediated communication is to reduce face-to-face interaction with others. If the majority of hours in the day are spent over the computer then there are fewer hours for face-to-face interaction. This form of communication attracts people; it also has isolated them by reducing them to interactions with the world — an interpersonal interaction at that — through a computer monitor and keyboard. One could argue that being more comfortable communicating with the hardware is indeed a movement towards isolation.

There is a great deal of time that an individual must spend alone while engaged in the conversations over the computer due to the sheer commitment of energy devoted to the process of communication. The time that it takes to write, send, receive, reply, and receive again one feedback loop of communication varies in time depending on the reliability of the network links as well as the speed of the typist. This is also dependent upon whether or not the recipient of the message: 1) sees the message in the first place, 2) is not engaged in typing out another response to another individual at that time, and 3) has an immediate response available. It is not uncommon, for example, to see individuals who remain logged into the relay system for anywhere between 6 to 12 hours per day, every day.

Gratz and Salem (1984) Gratz, 1984 #46warned that this increased amount of time spent with the computer could lead to retarded development of social relationships and self-concepts. Lenski (1954) argues that “computers cannot fulfill many social functions and could disrupt the social fabric, thereby losing vehicles for defining and constructing self” (p. 98). There are three very tangible examples of this.

First, the growing popularity of consumer online services indicates that the communication element is highly marketable. Most services provide, at the time of this writing, realtime chat lines in their commercials to indicate the connection to distantly located people. The fascination with communicating with faceless others has lead to many popular magazines to devote cover story after cover story to the potential dangers of such a pastime.

Second, there are the very real statistics of students at universities who spend so much time on the computer that they fail to maintain their work in their studies. While the administrations do not list CMC as the reason for academic probation or dismissal, most participants can verify that either they or people that they knew had had academic repercussions of their new hobby (Metz, 1995). There is, in fact, at least one Usenet newsgroup (alt.irc.recovery) devoted entirely to the phenomenon.

Third, there are the reports of people remaining in computer laboratories for hours upon end, communicating entirely through their interface with the screen. Even those people in the same room are relegated to communication through the computer, as the only way to obtain the attention of the individual is to send their message into the queue for observation. It is not uncommon, for example, to find people who have simply logged onto the network and communicate for several minutes (or hours) without realizing that the people with whom they were communicating were actually in the same room. Even so, while the examples above seem to grant an affirmative nod at a trend towards isolation, there tend to be other examples which show otherwise.


Over a period of time, a series of standard norms and behavior occurs in CMC, both implicit and explicit. It is not uncommon, for instance, to observe grief and exhibition of loss when a member of the group has died.

CMC and the Return to Orality

Oral societies are likely to engage in emotional forms of thought processes, basing arguments and lines of thinking upon sensory and empirical experiences. Members of CMC communities exhibit behaviors normally associated with oral cultures. Nowhere is this more evident than two of the main phenomena of CMC which have been highly publicized in the past few years: flaming and cybersex.

Flaming is a highly charged, emotional ouburst. Normally it is confined to email conversations (such as those in controversial distribution list or Usenet conversations), but can also exist in realtime conversations such as those sponsored by videotex services (such as America Online, CompuServe, etc.) as well as IRC. Bitnet Relay has a more passive command structure which does not enable one user to remove another from the system; rather it has the capacity to ignore annoying users or simply evade hostile remarks. Cybersex is the explicit description of sexual activity among consenting adults. Sessions of cybersex happen to occur with great frequency among ppol who have very little knowledge about one another.

McLuhan (1964) argues that such a return to oral traditions results in a decline in the linear, hierarchical notions of delegated authority, nationalism, and linear thinking associated with print. Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that Sproull and Kiesler (1986) drew the same conclusions. In what effectively became a landmark study of CMC, they found that decreasing social context cues, such as the lack of nonverbal and facial cues, had significant deregulating effects on communication. People overestimated the value of their own contributions to email communications, while underestimating the value of their own group messages, and people appeared to focus on themselves more than on others in message salutations and closings. Their findings determined not only relatively weak social context cues in CMC, but also that people preferred to use CMC to send messages to superiors rather than to subordinates, and for sending bad news. The reason for this was that CMC was perceived to be an “equalization” agent, removing the restrictions of age, race, creed, or even rank (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986)

Even though Sproull and Kiesler were studying email, synchronous CMC users exhibit similar behavior from the more emotional side of the equation. Authority exists only in the form of Relay Ops (operators, for IRC and Relay) or Wizards (for MUDs), for example, who remain (for the better part) non-confrontational until someone becomes belligerent. Outside of that, however, people largely ignore social status cues such as academic credientials or titles.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects is the amount of control that the user feels he or she has over the communication process. For example, if something is unappealing, those users can either leave the channel of communication, confront the antagonist, complain to the operators, or use the technological means at their disposal to ignore the offending parties. This makes them feel as if they are on equal footing with one another, hence the dissipation of hierarchical barriers to communication.

The other side is the ease of approach to another person. People from other countries are not shy to approach people on Relay, sometimes even to try out their broken English. In one rather humorous episode, a mistyped sentence caused one person from Saudi Arabia to insist emphatically that the author pay him $100 an hour to be taught English. In all, the notion of equality and camaraderie is apparent throughout Relay.

The Balancing Act of Secondary Orality

CMC is a written (or rather, typed) communication medium, but can it be considered literacy? The question is complicated by the sense oforality that pervades these communications. Ong (1982) argues that the interaction of print and electronic media means the end of linearity of thought and traditional literacy. The result is a third environmnet of a secondary orality: a hybrid of oral and print modes of consciousness. Electronic media cultivate new modes of thought that involve some qualities of primary orality and yet are contingent upon literate modes of communication. Highly emotional, very global, CMC transcends the printed form (and linear fashion) of its apparent nature. Real conversations are often out of turn and are interrupted constantly. While a complete thought is distributed at a time, it is easy to see from the discontinuities present that electronic discussions can include their own version of interruptions.

CMC can have a distinctive discursive nature as well. During the course of a conversation, an individual may make a comment statement and, while waiting for a response, think of something else to say and type it in. The original response comes back, to which the participant responds, and soon two parallel conversations (or more) are occurring between the same two people. Particularly adept CMC users are capable of these leapfrog sessions with multiple conversation partners. Such conversational ability is most certainly not linear, but rather moves back towards orality on the linear-orality continuum.

In CMC the teller and the listener are one and the same. CMC enables the communicator to retrieve information according to pre-calculated expectations in order to become immersed in the relationship completely, and yet still retain a detachment from the source. Taking cybersex as an example, it can seem that an individual starts off by remaining detached from the relationship with others who may participate. This ability to participate or lurk at will, and of deliberately seeking this type of content for personal use, identifies at least one characteristic of secondary orality. At the same time, however, the process of cybersex itself is an ever-changing one. The relationship between the teller and the listener constantly defines and redefines itself. Ultimately, both the form and content are maintained through CMC in a manner consistent with Ong’s account of secondary orality.

The Return to McLuhan

Will CMC lead into unification with global village brethren, or will it result in isolation from others? The answer may lie within McLuhan’s philosophy. McLuhan (1964) divided history into three periods: oral, writing/printing, and the electronic period. Each of these periods is characterized by their own forms of thinking and communicating and the way they interact with the senses. Oral cultures and socieites, which live in an aural culture of simultaneity and circularity (Meyrowitz, 1985), exist as closed entities of high interdependence and low, almost nonexistent, individuality. In this sense, the societal members live in a mythic world where they have a balance of the senses, each in equal harmony (Meyrowitz, 1985). Oral socieities, therefore, are likely to engage in emotional forms of thought processes, basing arguments and lines of thinking upon sensory and empirical experiences, rather than what might be considered well thought out, logical reasoning, which would be a result of linear cultures.

With the introduction of writing and print materials, the visual sense is given dominant importance while distancing the other sensory experiences from direct response (McLuhan, 1964). Such a break from the oral tradition allows for more independence, introspection, and abstract thought to develop. As a result, “people move from the circular world of sound with its round huts and round villages… toward linear, cause-and-effect thinking, grid-like cities, and a one-thing-at-a-time and one-thing-after-another world that mimics the linear lines of writing and type” (Meyrowitz, 1985; p. 17). One effect of such a move is the shift of allegiances from those with whom one lives, touches, and sees on a regular basis to more general, global notions of brotherhood, nations, or creeds of certain religions (McLuhan, 1964).

With the arrival of electronic media, there is a return to the oral traditions, yet on a global scale. As a result, electronic media introduce everyone into a global village, and there is a decline in the linear, hierarchical notions (such as delegated authority, nationalism, and linear thinking) associated with print (McLuhan, 1964). In essence, the world is brought directly into the home, with the help of a person’s electronic senses. Emotions are directly tied into what are seen or heard as a result of the electronic media.

Such is the case with CMC. It is the combined attributes of a literally global communication system brought directly into the private realm of people’s homes with the personal, private aspects of individual feelings and emotions (as well as conversations) propagated by electronic mail. Indeed, several users indicate that even when they are sending messages to an entire electronic forum, they still feel as if they are in their living room, talking to friends. In essence, McLuhan and other medium theorists advocate the idea that the form in which communication takes place (e.g., the technology) has an impact above and beyond the choice of messages (content); in other words, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. This is not to downplay or deny the significant between the messages themselves within a specific context, but rather to indicate interest in a higher level approach to examining the electronic media (McLuhan, 1964; Meyrowitz, 1985).

CMC research falters primarily when examined as a tool, rather than as a context in itself. When CMC is considered as a neutral conduit for the transmission of messages and information, significant differences can be identified, not only among synchronous and asynchronous forms, but also differences between the various forms of synchronous forms of CMC. But if CMC is considered as a process, the medium itself provides insight regardless of the specific functions of one form over another. CMC is a medium which brings back village-like encounters and the oral traditions associated with such communicative forms. From this holistic viewpoint, CMC represents the unity of the two extremes of orality and literacy.

This redirects the focus to the original question of alienation once again: Is isolation the end result? The answer is clearly not from within a global framework. From within the finite set of available time, the role of the individual can only become isolated as it approaches total unification with its cyberspace community counterpart. That is to say, isolation can only result if unification results. This paradox illustrates the limitations of current linear concepts of CMC, indicating that as a context CMC falls outside the scope of traditional linear models. By describing the logical (and, consequently, illogical) extensions of linear modeling applied to a nonlinear process, it can be seen that the traditional approach is a misguided one. By sticking to the continuum models of communication processes, CMC shows how these continua (using their own conceptual definitions) have the potential to implode.


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This article has been cited in a number of subsequent academic books and articles.

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