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Social Media Research

Communication technology and theory: Research into the interpersonal and social interface

Summary: The symbolic interactionism of Erving Goffman provided a powerful and illuminating encyclopedia of what "happens" during face to face social encounters. He was particularly insightful in his analysis of the handling requirements of social occasions, most of which he described as various forms of talk. What then does online talk look like? How does it refer to face to face talk? How does it reshape it? What is left outside the frame of talk, and how well does talk function when embodied interaction is impossible?

Communication is iteration. Say again?

Communication is iterative by definition. Each utterance belongs to a string of utterances, structured loosely or not as a series of statements and responses. Technologies not only complicate this chaining of utterances, they may have a more profound impact on the iterability of communication itself. If our interactions are characterized by a tendency to answer a statement with a response, and this is conditioned by our physical presence to one another, what happens when the cost of suddenly disappearing (from a chat, IM, message board, etc.) drops to nothing? Why continue conversation when there's no cost to simply leaving the room? You can imagine what this could do to everyone involved...

  • What kind of call does a technology make on its users? Do media differ in the degree of urgency they impose on us?
  • To what extent do our options for answering a call, or responding to a message, inform our decision to engage at any particular moment?
  • What are the social codes that govern whether it is acceptable or not to ignore a call?
  • What are the social codes that govern how quickly and how we should respond to an incoming call or message?
  • How specific are these codes to contexts of use (practices) or to the individual habits?
  • In what kinds of circumstances might we experience difficulty handling a call or message with the appropriate amount of grace and civility?
  • How does the fact that many of these circumstances are private, not public, inform our habits?
  • What impact does the fact that we can't show our availability for interaction to others in mediated situations have on our experiences with those applications?
  • What technical affordances does a technology permit for not taking a call?
  • Does it have a means by which to identify the caller and return it later?
  • Does it have a means by which the caller can leave a message?
  • How far will we go to be polite towards the authors of certain calls or messages?
  • What social grace would be lost if or when we automate our responses to some incoming calls?
  • Does an incoming call or message produce information about itself? Its sender? Addressee? Content? Intention? Urgency? Which of these features might we expect to see adopted by media that don't currently offer them, and with what consequences?
  • How would phone usage change, for example, if incoming calls had subject lines?

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