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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?

Framing interactions, or "where are you?"

Interactionists use the term "framing" to describe the contextual boundaries of a social encounter. The frame forms a beginning and ending to the interaction, in between which we can scale our intensity, speed, interest level, and so on as long as we still know what is "going on." That's the key phrase: what's going on. Without having to define it, we have to be able to recognize it. The framework must provide recognizable context. And that's one of the reason that framing is as mushy a concept and principle as it sounds. You may not be able to characterize the framework that makes a casino what it is (the money, the buffets, the desert, the lights, the day, the night, the girls?), but you know it when you're in it. Just as you know when you're in trouble, and you know when you're in for a promotion.

The idea of a frame is critical to the idea of interaction as performance, because for us to participate in a social encounter we have to know what is going on. And when we interact, we interact not only with one another, but with the social framework itself. Context informs our action, behavior, and understanding. How a technology interfaces with, renders, distorts, or conceals this social framework is important not only to how well we can proceed with communication, but also to what extent our participation reproduces the social framework. If communication technologies strip desks out of the classroom, and democratize learning, do they also undermine the relationship between education and social conditioning? If chatrooms are free of moderators, let alone disciplinarians, what context is there to keep people's language in check? The issue with framing, then, is how do virtual communication technologies and experiences serve to reproduce the normative and social basis of society, if that basis hangs on the richness of communication. And how does the lack of context (framing) impact our ability to successfully interact through communication technologies?

  • Context-specific conventions govern the moves used to open an encounter, conduct it, and then bring it to closure.
  • How do we initiate an encounter through a particular medium or application?
  • How does we close it?
  • What latitude for social framing moves does the technology permit?
  • Can we use familiar framing practices when using a technology or application, or are we forced to adopt new media-specific ones?
  • In what ways do our options for framing an encounter shape our decision to use a particular technology or application? And how do they inform our ways of using it?
  • Some of our applications of mediated interaction have very little correspondence with the framing techniques and practices that help us to negotiate daily routines and encounters. How does this impact our communication in these situations?
  • In what kinds of online interaction environments would real or imagined framing conventions be of help?
  • Do framing conventions used in scheduled online chats and online conference calls, for example, provide structure useful to the interaction?
  • Though many examples of mediated communication lack a relationship with time, routine or otherwise, some have a strong correspondence with temporal frameworks. Daytime and night-time, work hours and evening hours, morning and lunchtime, trading hours and after market close-these and other everyday temporal frameworks do inform many kinds of online communication, for example. How do the ever-present states of online applications change or influence our relationship with temporal routines?

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