Computer Networks as Social Netwo...
June 11, 1996 10:32 Annual Reviews Chapter09 AR13-09 Annu. Rev. Sociol. 1996. 22:213���38 Copyright c 1996 by Annual Reviews Inc. All rights reserved COMPUTER NETWORKS AS SOCIAL NETWORKS: Collaborative Work, Telework, and Virtual Community Barry Wellman, Janet Salaff, Dimitrina Dimitrova, Laura Garton, Milena Gulia, Caroline Haythornthwaite Centre for Urban and Community Studies, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada M5S 2G8 KEY WORDS: computer supported cooperative work, virtual community, telework, electronic mail, social networks, internet communication ABSTRACT When computer networks link people as well as machines, they become social networks. Such computer-supported social networks (CSSNs) are becoming im- portant bases of virtual communities, computer-supported cooperative work, and telework. Computer-mediated communication such as electronic mail and com- puterized conferencing is usually text-based and asynchronous. It has limited social presence, and on-line communications are often more uninhibited, cre- ative, and blunt than in-person communication. Nevertheless, CSSNs sustain strong, intermediate, and weak ties that provide information and social support in both specialized and broadly based relationships. CSSNs foster virtual com- munities that are usually partial and narrowly focused, although some do become encompassing and broadly based. CSSNs accomplish a wide variety of cooper- ative work, connecting workers within and between organizations who are often physically dispersed. CSSNs also link teleworkers from their homes or remote work centers to main organizational offices. Although many relationships func- tion off-line as well as on-line, CSSNs have developed their own norms and structures. The nature of the medium both constrains and facilitates social con- trol. CSSNs have strong societal implications, fostering situations that combine global connectivity, the fragmentation of solidarities, the de-emphasis of local or- ganizations (in the neighborhood and workplace), and the increased importance of home bases. 213 0360-0572/96/0815-0213$08.00
June 11, 1996 10:32 Annual Reviews Chapter09 AR13-09 214 WELLMAN ET AL COMPUTER-SUPPORTED SOCIAL NETWORKS When computer networks link people as well as machines, they become social networks, which we call computer-supported social networks (CSSNs). Three forms of CSSNs are rapidly developing, each with its own desires and research agendas. Members of virtual community want to link globally with kindred souls for companionship, information, and social support from their homes and workstations. White-collar workers want computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW), unencumbered by spatial distance, while organizations see ben- efits in coordinating complex work structures and reducing managerial costs and travel time. Some workers want to telework from their homes, combining employment with domestic chores and Arcadian retreats management foresees reduced building and real estate costs, and higher productivity. We examine here the extent to which people work and find community on CSSNs. Is it possible to sustain productive or supportive relationships on-line with network members who may never meet in-person? What will the compo- sition and structure of CSSNs be like, with their weaker constraints of distance and time, their easy connectivity, and limited social presence? What are the im- plications of such changes for the societies within which they are proliferating? These questions have captured the public���s imagination. Pundits argue about whether we will have computer-supported utopias������the most transforming technological event since the capture of fire��� (Barlow 1995:40)���or dystopias��� ���this razzle-dazzle. . . disconnects us from each other��� (Hightower, quoted in Fox 1995:12). The popular media is filled with accounts of life in cyberspace (e.g. Cybergal 1995), much like earlier travellers��� tales of journeys into exotic unexplored lands. Public discourse is (a) Manichean, seeing CSSNs as either thoroughly good or evil, (b) breathlessly present-oriented, writing as if CSSNs had been invented yesterday and not in the 1970s, (c) parochial, assuming that life on-line has no connection to life off-line, and (d) unscholarly, ignoring re- search into CSSNs as well as a century���s research into the nature of community, work, and social organization. The Nets Spread CSSNs began in the 1960s when the US Defense Department���s Advanced Projects Research Agency developed ARPANET to link large university com- puters and some of their users (Cerf 1993). The Electronic Information Ex- change System, modeled after a government emergency communications net- work, started supporting computerized conferences of scientific researchers (including social network analysts) in the mid-1970s (Freeman 1986, Hiltz & Turoff 1993). Other systems were also proposed and partially implemented in this period.
June 11, 1996 10:32 Annual Reviews Chapter09 AR13-09 COMPUTER NETWORKS AS SOCIAL NETWORKS 215 Since the mid-1980s personal computers have become increasingly con- nected (through modems, local networks, etc) to central communication hosts. These hosts have become linked with each other through the worldwide ���In- ternet��� and the ���World Wide Web��� (encompassing information access as well as communications). Together with other interconnecting computer networks, the overall network has become known simply as ���The Net,��� a ���network of networks��� (Craven & Wellman 1973) that weaves host computers (using high- capacity communication lines), each of which is at the center of its own local network. While the Net originally only encompassed nonprofit (principally university) computers, commercial users were allowed on in the early 1990s. Between October 1994 and January 1995, the number of Internet hosts grew by 26% (Treese 1995). Other computer networks have grown concomitantly, while the cost of access has decreased. Those principally for leisure use range from community bulletin board systems (Marx & Virnoche 1995) to global, for-profit networks such as America OnLine that have developed commercial activity and the structured provision of information (e.g. airline guides, movie reviews). In late 1995, America OnLine had an estimated 4.5 million subscribers worldwide, Com- puServe had 4 million, while Prodigy had 1.5 million (Lewis 1996). The devel- opment of World Wide Web services may displace such commercial systems. Local low-cost Internet service providers are proliferating, and Windows95 comes ready to connect to the Internet. Competitive pressures have led these commercial systems to link with the Internet, making the Net even more widely interconnected. The Net has been growing, perhaps doubling its users annually. Its rapid growth and structure as a network of networks makes it difficult to count the number of users, for one must count both the computer systems directly connected to the Net and the users on each system. For example, estimates of recent Internet use in mid-1995 ranged between 27 million and 10 million adults (Insight New Me- dia 1995, Lewis 1995). Besides exchanging private e-mail messages, internet members participated (as of January 27, 1996) in 24,237 collective discussion groups (Southwick 1996). There is much scope for growth: In 1994 only 17% of the 2.2 million Canadian computer users logged onto the Net (Frank 1995). Moreover, users vary between those who rarely log on to those who are con- tinuously connected. Given such uncertainties and the tendency of enthusiasts and marketers to forecast high levels of network membership, many estimates of the number of users are unreliable. There is little published information about the demographic composition of Net users, although this should change as it develops as a commercial marketing milieu. There is general agreement that users are largely politically conservative
June 11, 1996 10:32 Annual Reviews Chapter09 AR13-09 216 WELLMAN ET AL white men, often single, English-speaking, residing in North America, and professionals, managers, or students (Newsweek 1995 Treese 1995). One survey of Web users in Spring 1995 found that women comprised less than one fifth of their sample, although the proportion of women users had doubled in the past six months (Pitkow & Kehoe 1995). Two thirds of this sample had at least a university education, an ���average��� household income of US $59,600, and three quarters lived in North America. By contrast, Algeria had 16 registered internet users in July 1995 and Bulgaria had 639 (Danowitz et al 1995). Trends suggest an increasing participation of women, non-English speakers, and people of lower socioeconomic status (Gupta et al 1995, Kraut et al 1995, On-line Research Group 1995). Nevertheless, French President Jacques Chirac (1995) has warned that if English continues to dominate the information highway, ���our future generations will be economically and culturally marginalized. . .. To defend the influence of the French language is to defend the right to think, to communicate, to feel emotions and to pray in a different way.��� Possibly more people participate in private organizational networks than on the Net, either using CSCW from offices or teleworking from homes. They use proprietary systems such as Lotus Notes or Internet tools adapted for use on private ���intranets.��� In 1991 there were 8.9 million participants in Fortune 2000 companies (Electronic Mail Association 1992). In late 1995, there probably were still more users of private networks than of the Net, but there were no available estimates. There is also no published demographic information about private network participants, but presumably they are even more homogeneous than those on the Net. To protect organizational security, private networks often are not connected to the Net. However, pressure from professional em- ployees to have access to colleagues and information elsewhere is leading many organizations to connect to the Net (Pickering & King 1995). Types of Systems Almost all CSSNs support a variety of text-based interactions with messages entered on keyboards and transmitted in lowest-common denominator ASCII code. Basic electronic mail (e-mail) is asynchronous communication from one person to another or from one person to a distribution list. When e-mail mes- sages are forwarded, they concatenate into loosely bounded intergroup networks through which information diffuses rapidly. E-mail is bidirectional, so that recipients of messages can reply with equal ease. By contrast to these single- sender arrangements, ���groupware��� (Johnson-Lenz & Johnson-Lenz 1978) sup- ports computerized conferencing that enables all members of a bounded social network to read all messages. Many private networks support computerized conferencing as does the Net through ���list servers��� (such as the Progressive Sociology Network) and leisure-time ���Usenet newsgroups.���
June 11, 1996 10:32 Annual Reviews Chapter09 AR13-09 COMPUTER NETWORKS AS SOCIAL NETWORKS 217 The on-line storage of most messages allows computer-mediated communi- cation (CMC) to be asynchronous so that participants can be in different places and on different schedules. This gives people potentially more control over when they read and respond to messages. Moreover, the rapid transmission of large files between individuals and among groups increases the velocity of communication, supports collaborative work, and sustains strong and weak ties (Feldman 1987, Finholt & Sproull 1990, Eveland & Bikson 1988, Sproull & Kiesler 1991). On-line storage and digital transmission also help intruders to read files and messages, although computerization does provide cryptographic means of protecting privacy (Weisband & Reinig 1995). Far fewer people participate in synchronous ���real-time��� CSSNs, although im- proved technology should lead to their growth. The ���chat lines��� of commercial services and the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) system operate in real time, providing multithreaded conversations like cocktail parties (Bechar-Israeli 1995, Danet et al 1996). As widespread Internet access and microcomputer multitasking develop, it is likely that many currently asynchronous users will see messages when they arrive, creating the potential for more widespread synchronic social exchanges. Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) and kindred systems are a special play form of real-time computerized conferencing. Those who enter MUDs don pseudonymous personas and role play in quests, masquerades, and other forms of intense on-line communal interaction (Danet et al 1995, 1996, Reid 1996, Smith 1996). Current trends supplement text with graphics, animation, video, and sound, increasing social presence. However, this increases cost and requires good hardware and communication lines. Desktop and group videoconferencing is currently limited to research groups and large-screen corporate meeting rooms (Ishii 1992, Mantei et al 1991, Buxton 1992, Moore 1997). Other experi- mental systems include video walls (in which large-screen videos link widely separated lounges to promote informal coffee-machine conversation), video hallways (Fish et al 1993, Dourish & Bly 1992) that allow participants to check the availability of others at a glance, and agents or avatars that move, speak and search on-line (Maes 1995, Riecken 1994, Stephenson 1992). Hence we focus in this chapter on the most widely used, text-based, forms of CSSNs such as e-mail and computerized conferences. We look only at interpersonal com- munication. We do not cover impersonal broadcast e-mail (such as electronic newsletters), distance education, passively accessible sites (such as file transfer [FTP] and Web sites), and the exchange of data on-line (as in manufacturing processes or airline reservation systems). Research into CSSNs has involved several disciplines���principally computer science, communication science, business administration, and psychology.