Types of Computer Mediated Communications

    Important Items in an Online Environment

    The Benefits of Computer Conferencing

    Managing Computer Conferencing

    Online Conference Moderation



Information sharing and computer networking can be accomplished using a variety of means:

1. Databases

2. Electronic mail

3. Electronic bulletin boards

4. Computer conferencing systems

Databases are passive storage containers of electronic data. They are accumulations of knowledge on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from stock market quotes, to news articles, to library holdings, to information on development projects in the Third World. Databases are becoming increasingly accessible to anyone with a computer and a modem (a device for connecting a computer up to the telephone line). Queries that used to take days or weeks to answer using the books in a library can now often be answered in a matter of minutes.

Electronic mail (often called e-mail) is a generally a point-to-point communication. Aside from much faster delivery and the fact that it uses telecommunications lines, it is very much like the regular postal service. Most people use e-mail in the old-fashioned way - to send private messages to one person. Some large networks, such as BITNET, however, use e-mail as a means of computer conferencing. This takes advantage of the fact that it is extremely easy to make a large number of "carbon copies" of a message (it is only a pattern of electrons, after all) and send them out to any number of names on a mailing list. This ensures that everyone can keep abreast of, and contribute to, a discussion on a particular topic.

Electronic bulletin boards are similar to databases insofar as much of the information posted to them is non-interactive. Lists of items for sale, baseball scores, and jokes are some examples of such 'bulletins'. Unlike databases, though, they are generally a 'grass-roots' phenomenon, being very easy and inexpensive to run on a personal computer. They are also interactive in a limited way, in that they allow messages to be posted that people can respond to. Users usually "call in" to a bulletin board via telephone lines. There are now tens of thousands of such boards in North America alone, many being used solely for sharing information on a particular topic or by a single interest group.

Computer conferencing is a more structured way to communicate "on-line", i.e., by computer. It is topic-oriented, with people being able to 'converse' under many subject headings. The software puts the various postings in their proper area, so the user can more easily follow the conversation. It is an excellent way to coordinate the activities of many people living far apart, as well as for making group plans and policy. This is because, unlike telephone conversations, such conferencing can take place asynchronously, without the necessity of participants having to conduct their communication at the same time. They are able to take time to study an idea or proposal and respond to it at their leisure. An easily accessible record of the transactions is another bonus.

Most users of this kind of communication are large organizations and other cooperative interest groups. The conferencing systems may be described by size of computer used and by degree of distribution. Some are contained within the four walls of a company office (a local area network) and use either a mainframe computer or a micro-computer. Others are much more distributed, with users conferencing on a network with thousands of sites dispersed throughout the world. Such networks link up mainframes (BITNET, for example) but distributed networks for personal computers are just now being implemented (York University's Native Network).




    - automatic notification of new mail on login

    - easy to use online editor

    - saving messages in different 'folders'

    - forwarding mail messages to another user, or to a conference

    - connectivity to other systems, commercial and non-commercial

    - capability to see if recipient has read your message yet

    - capability to send binary files (programs, datasets, word- processed documents) as mail messages


    - at least three 'tiers' in structure

        1. conference

        2. topics within conference

        3. grouped responses following each topic

    - clear instructions for creating conferences, and adding topics and responses

    - facilitation available

    - ability to edit and delete own messages (or others, if facilitator)

    - 'practice' conference available

    - administration 'news' conference to keep users informed about system developments, policy changes, etc.

    - various types of conferences

        - public / private (variety of user permissions)

        - moderated (items 'filtered' through a moderator)

        - facilitated (one user has responsibility for conference)

    - user can create a 'personal' conference listing and have the system automatically visit these conferences

    - system automatically keeps track of items user has read

    - capability to 'import' and 'export' conferences from and to other networks


    - of users - modifiable by users themselves

    - of conferences

    - 'boolean' logic search capability

User assistance

- online tutorial

- online help function at any prompt

- hardcopy manual and command summary reference sheet

- easy to use interface - menus - commands and information areas - beginners and advanced options

- capability for user to give feedback to, or request information from, the system administration

- trial or guest accounts on system

- 24 hour 'help hotline' phone support (preferably an '800' number)

- clear, easy to find, information about the system

        - policies

        - 'netiquette'

        - system overview

        - information about administration

- system-wide bulletin messages received at login


- equipment must be reliable, with minimal downtime

- users must be able to have access whenever they want

- security of data

        - regular daily backups

        - secure premises

        - good power supply or UPS

        - encryption

- ways to deal with information overload

        - 'kill' files

        - browsing techniques

        - character string searches in topic list and text bodies

        - moderation of conference

        - mark all items as read or unread

- 'chat' capability (real-time interaction)

        - needs capability to find out who is currently logged in

- system must be able to handle all terminal types

- user should be able to change setup

        - terminal type

        - password

        - delete key


[Taken from an article by Sylvia Engdahl, 1985]

1. Each individual can communicate with more people via CC than

in any other way. This is true not only of those whose

face-to-face contacts are limited, but of everyone. No matter

how many people you know, you can talk to a lot of additional

ones electronically.

2. CC enlarges the circle of an individual's acquaintances not

only in terms of numbers, but in terms of variety. In CC,

people of all ages and backgrounds meet on equal footing, which

is not generally the case in face-to-face contact. In fact, the

factors that artificially divide people, including such

handicaps as physical disability or unattractiveness, become

irrelevant and in some cases even invisible.

3. With CC, geography is no longer relevant to communication

(except insofar as phone costs differ). In principle--and in

practice for a fortunate few--people in different parts of the

world can converse easily as those living in the same city.

4. CC frees communication from the constraints of time. Most

people are too busy to meet all the people they'd like to talk

to, and in fact the more people they know, the more significant

time becomes. With CC, they can communicate at their own

convenience (maybe even in the middle of the night) while others

do so at theirs.

5. CC brings people with common interests together; those who

haven't met anyone nearby who shares their interests can contact

others in the same position. This is particularly significant

to people who enjoy serious discussions but are limited to a

circle of acquaintances among whom only "small talk" is

acceptable, and who therefore feel intellectually isolated.

6. Discussions can be better organized, and therefore more

focused, in CC than in any but the most formal face-to-face


7. CC allows individuals who have a visual rather than aural

orientation toward language, and who therefore communicate

better through the written word than through speech, to express

themselves more fully than any other interactive process. Though

these individuals often have opportunity to express ideas as

writers, writing via other media is not interactive; even a

letter produces no response for a week or more, and with

published writing it's a matter of months before any feedback

can be obtained. CC, by eliminating this delay and by allowing

many people to take part in a single written discussion, opens

the door to a level of written communication that has never

before been possible.

8. Ideas can be expressed more fully in CC even by those who

don't have a strong personal preference for writing, simply

because everyone has a far larger vocabulary in writing than in

speaking, and because it is socially acceptable to use a richer

vocabulary and sentence structure in written communications than

in spoken ones.

9. Many people feel less inhibited when communicating through CC

than when speaking. Even to those for whom this is not true,

there is less inhibition in teleconferencing than in most face-

to-face conversations simply because its social conventions

permit people who are not intimately acquainted to discuss their

inner feelings in a way not customary at social gatherings.

Perhaps for this reason, online friendships are often perceived

as being closer than face-to-face ones.

10. CC leads to wider participation by all members of a group

than occurs in face-to-face meetings not only because the medium

itself is disinhibiting, but because a specific effort is

generally made by the discussion leader to be supportive of all

contributors. Everyone's comments have equal exposure, and they

can be made at any time, without waiting for the more active

participants to "be quiet and let someone else speak."

Furthermore, since it's known that readers can skip comments

that don't interest them, there's no worry about boring others;

the audience, if not receptive, will at least be "listening" by

choice. (By the same token, a person who does dominate the

conversation in a way that bores other participants can be

easily tuned out.)

11. The environment in which a person communicates via CC is

normally quiet and free of sensory distractions, which leads to

greater concentration on the ideas being discussed, and possibly

to a mode of thought unlike that in which other forms of

communication usually take place.

12. In CC, responses to comments are not as immediate as they

are in speech, and can therefore be thought through before they

are made. This gives participants a chance to clarify their

thoughts before expressing them, which on the whole raises the

level of the discussion. Any comments made in haste can be

modified or deleted, not only from the record but often before

they are seen by the group.

13. CC creates a permanent record of every discussion, which is

of great value in going back to review what was said. Ideas

don't get lost or forgotten when they are part of such a record.

Moreover, newcomers to the discussion don't miss what was said

before they arrived, and in fact, the entire exchange of ideas

can be of great benefit to readers who encounter it long after

its conclusion.

14. CC enhances communication between people who also meet face-

to-face. If they have met online before such meetings, they

start off at a higher level of involvement than they would if

they were strangers, and the productivity of the meeting is

therefore increased. On the other hand, face-to-face

acquaintances who are separated by distance can stay in touch

much more conveniently than by mail or phone.

ENA NETWEAVER Volume 2, Number 1, Article 4 (January 1, 1985)


A Report from the ENA Fall Conference

by Roger Bunting

The focus of the Managing CC session was understanding the issues of design, structure, and behaviours which can contribute to success of computer conferences (CC). We also looked at the problems to be solved and the dilemmas usually confronted in the management and conduct of CC.

The session design was based on the experiential learning model. The attendees were first asked to work in small groups on one of six different scenarios dealing with the establishment of different applications for CC. In each case, the questions addressed by the groups were:

1. What do you see as the "social glue" that will hold this conference together?

2. What are the desirable characteristics of a CC system that will help this particular CC accomplish its purpose?

3. What are the interpersonal and group dynamics that are most likely to impact the success of this CC?

4. What norms need to be established in order to make this conference work well?

5. If you agreed to be the "leader" of this CC, what else would you need to know before accepting the responsibility?

Following the small group work, each group presented the results of its deliberations, essentially in the form of its answers to the preceding questions. Those results and the ensuing discussions constitute a rich description of the factors and considerations which can contribute to the success of CC. They are synthesized here in the hope that they can assist CC designers and organizers in enhancing the quality and productivity of their CC.



Regarding the "social glue" which can hold conferences together, it appears the following factors can be significant:

Excitement; a willingness to share; a need to complete the project; shared professional or otherwise common interests, purposes, or goals; a need to keep in touch with what's going on; to speed up the learning process; a "draw" to get started, like an initial question that appeals to all; a crisis situation; periodic face-to-face meetings; a desire to demonstrate the gains of CC at both the individual and group levels; a shared commitment to participate; a "walk-around manager" who performs the role of matchmaker, facilitator, and leader.

Especially for global or intercultural CC: exposure to alternate cultures; participation in economic development efforts, and in the creation of a multinational corps.



The following "desirable characteristics" of CC were highlighted for their potential contribution to the success of CC:

Ease of access and use; "idiot-proof" logon; a communications protocol that is competent at introducing the CC system to the users *and* users to users, and which provides near-instant feedback; at least some users that are already using and familiar with the system; an outreach system for nurturing new users; low cost for communications linkages and connect charges; flexibility; a balance of concentration and dispersion (in the structure of the CC program); sub-conferences available; the presence of a real-time chronicler or digester to provide periodic progress summaries; convenient and fast, especially for getting answers and results; a simple search and retrieval system; voting capabilities; individual messaging; integrated with existing technology.

Especially for global or intercultural CC: multilingual

translation services; politically acceptable systems.



The following interpersonal and group dynamics were considered to be most likely to impact the success of a CC:

Existing relationships (horizontal, vertical, and cross- functional); use of other modes of communications, e.g., telephone and face-to-face; the need to see progress and the desire for quick results or action; elitism; classism; distrust; verbal, active people vs. shy users; people who are used to working face-to-face, real-time, and with paper; turf issues; one agency or element trying to lead the show; cooperation; handling of feelings, especially anger; the actions of the moderators; transactional velocity; group norms for the free flow of information; relevance to the network; norms for conflict resolution, both rules and processes; complimentary channels with other mediums and processes, like face-to-face, workshops, and face-to-face combined with online activities. Especially for global or intercultural CC: the need for a facilitator skilled in cross-cultural communications.



The following norms need to be established for a CC to work well:

Everybody has something important to contribute; we all have something to learn; we must pay attention to sharing; mutual respect; rules should be established by the group; it's OK to have diversity... we don't have to agree; acknowledge that the net may "fail"; constructively divert, rather than suppress, dysfunctional discussion; use etiquette when expressing anger via the language; the value of dealing with issues eclipses turf wars temporarily; normally should use public rather than private messages; message lengths should be kept short; discussion content should remain appropriate to the purpose of the conference; norms for participation need to be explicit and achieve balance; input should be required regularly; there should reentry strategies for the infrequent user; leadership should be shared or rotated; provisions should be made for closure.



Before accepting responsibility for leadership of a net, one should want to know:

Clear goals and what reaching them would look like; legal obligations; time commitments; who the lead or sponsoring agency is; senior management support; knowledge of the decision makers and the accepted decision-making processes; relationships; personalities involved; how to recognize danger signs and to sustain interest; hardware and funds availability; a thorough understanding of the issues and the environment; availability of the right people for the net; the commitment of others to facilitate and to agree to ground rules; the structure for leadership transition; own commitments and constraints; ways to publicize the successes that occur.

Especially in global or intercultural CC: cross-cultural experience; languages; availability of support team and home base.


Author's Note: Roger Bunting co-facilitated the "Managing Computer Conferences" session with Joseph Potts at ENA's conference in D.C. in November. Roger and Joe are both leaders in the field of group facilitation who are now applying their knowledge to facilitating interaction online.


[Excerpted from "Effective Moderation of Computer Conferences" by Madge Brochet, 1985]

Conference moderation is a means of structuring online communication to make it a little more useful to accomplish concrete objectives, rather than just for sharing news or posting general inquiries. Think of it like a meeting conducted by a chairperson, except that instead of statements directed at the 'chair', articles are sent by e-mail to a moderator who reviews it for suitability before posting it to the moderated newsgroup. Like a chairperson, the moderator also keeps to an agenda, makes sure everyone has their say, and maintains order and decorum.


- moderator provides clear statement of conferences's purpose in first message - also agenda and topic(s) to be discussed (may be helpful to design with a few other participants prior to beginning)

- common interests, especially common need to determine participants

- moderator should mail personal "invitation" to participants

- would it be better to arrange a face-to-face meeting first?

- set a duration for the conference

- user's ability to use system should be assessed and training provided

    - access to equipment should be ensured

- 'critical mass' needed (more than 15 people)

- moderator to determine what criteria for success are

Steering Discussion

- ensure all participants actively participating

- outline group expectations clearly

- identify new topics as they arise and put on agenda (careful not to subdivide conference too much)

- make sure no late starts

- lay out procedures for group decision-making (consensus, vote, etc.)

- lay out rules for censorship and copyright beforehand

Maintaining Conferences

Moderator Roles

    - Organizer

    - Goal-setter

    - Discriminator - make complex matters simple

                - useful vs useless ideas/discussion

    - Host - create feeling of trust

    - Pace-setter - promote cooperation

             - be aware of dynamics

    - Explainer - raise unanswered questions

     - revive overlooked messages

    - Entertainer - relax participants

Keeping On Target

    - redirect conference when it goes off-topic

    - handle over-bearing participants


    - dealing with personality clashes (maintain humour and patience)

    - technical problems

Comfort Levels

    - check on quiet participants

        - lost interest?

        - technical problems?

Managing Censorship

    - in beginning, good to discuss and create rules and limits     

        - to keep participants in legal bounds

    - copyright infringements

    - libel, etc.

    - to determine what is appropriate

    - to determine when to return article for re-editing

Wrapping Up Conferences

- know when to quit

- moderator to compose wrap-up statement/summary

- remind participants of coming end

    - 2 stages

         1. after announcing close, conference becomes 'read only' to allow participants to extract remaining material

         2. purge conference after a reasonable time


- good to have brief intro period to allow users to practice using the system (relaxes them)

- ensure easy and convenient access to machines (and privacy)

- role of moderator and role of participants should be discussed beforehand (preferably at a face-to-face meeting)

- keep statistics on participation

        - number of postings per person

        - length of articles

        - branching of topics

- keep notes on content of discussions

- keep notes on process of interaction


[The material and quotes are from the document "Toward an Ethics

and Etiquette for Electronic Mail" by Norman Shapiro and Robert

Anderson of the Rand Corporation, 1985]

Communicating via online electronic messages opens up a whole new

way of interacting. It is important to note that this medium demands

a different sort of interaction etiquette. The following are some

suggestions as to how you might make the online environment a pleasant,

harmonious place to share thoughts, opinions, ideas, and information.

Sending Messages

1. Create single-subject messages whenever possible.

Separate messages can be filed, retrieved, and

forwarded separately, subject lines can be

descriptive, replies can be tailored to specific


2. Assume that any message you send is permanent.

Messages can become part of someone's private files,

be ported to networks, and printed out at any time.

3. Have in mind a model of your intended audience.

"Have you used more computer jargon in your message

(lulled into techno-talk by using an electronic

medium) than is appropriate to your audience?"

4. Keep the list of recipients to a minimum.

The ease of sending electronic mail can create mailbox

overflow of peripheral material that has to be scanned

and culled.

5. Separate opinion from non-opinion, and clearly label each.

Your message may end up in the hands of someone who

doesn't know you well enough to distinguish fact from


6. If you must express an emotion in a message, clearly label


Sarcasm, irony, and humour often don't work in E-mail

because it may not come across as intended. Symbols

such as :-) and :-( viewed sideways are now universally

used to show smiles and frowns and, when added to the

end of a sentence, indicate you aren't being too serious.

7. Think about the formality you put in a message.

In the office, we can tell the difference between a

formal memo and a note dashed off on a scrap of paper.

Be sure your electronic messages convey which should

be taken seriously and which are hasty comments.

8. Identify yourself and affiliations clearly.

When sending a message to a public system, help

readers put your ideas in context.

9. Be selective in broadcasts for information.

Use the power of networking--but use it with

discretion. Take time to scan material on special

interest group conferences and make sure your

inquiry is appropriate there.

10. Do not insult or criticize third parties without giving them

a chance to respond.

"We've seen a lot of critiques and criticism on the

nets, much of it deserved. But it's also much easier

to be a critic than a builder. The labours of dozens of

people trying to build a company or product out of

only ideas and hard work can be destroyed by casual

critiques written in a moment of anger when the

criticism might have been inappropriate or answered


Receiving and Responding to Messages

1. If you receive a message intended for another person, don't

just ignore it.

Forward the message if you know for whom it was

intended. Otherwise, notify the sender that it was


2. Avoid responding while emotional.

3. If a message generates emotions, look again.

Misinterpretations are *very* common in electronic

mail. Missing body language and voice tone can cause

what was meant as casual or humorous to be taken

seriously. Pause and re-read the message, consider the

source, and check your understanding with the author.

4. Assume honesty and competence of the sender.

Give the benefit of the doubt. Check the context.

Check for possible misunderstanding.

5. Try to separate opinion from non-opinion while reading a

message, so you can respond appropriately.

Try to unravel opinion from fact and make the

distinction in your reply.

6. Consider to whom you should respond.

If the message was sent to a distribution list,

consider whether the response needs to go to that same

list or just to the originator.

7. Consider alternative media.

If you can walk down the hall or pick up the phone--

that might be the best way to respond. This is

especially useful if there is potential for


8. Avoid irrelevancies.

The medium can have a chatty quality. "The message

that makes its point and fits on one screen does its

job best, and you will be well regarded."

Acting as Facilitator of a Conference

1. Perform relevant groupings.

Group messages on a common topic together to help

readers detect common threads or issues.

2. Use uniform packaging.

Use message headers and other means of assisting

readers to scan material to find specific topics of


3. Exercise reasonable editorship.

"Messages that are not relevant should be excluded, as

should ones that are sufficiently tasteless to be

offensive. But it is important that opinions

(preferably labelled as such) be given a hearing." The

facilitator can also eliminate redundancy and use

periodic broadcast messages to summarize.

4. Timeliness is important.

Facilitators should not "sit on" messages to send as a

group since the value of the medium is rapid communication.

     Summary of Things to Remember

Never forget that the person on the other side is human

Be brief

Your postings reflect upon you; be proud of them

Use descriptive titles

Think about your audience

Be careful with humour and sarcasm

Only post a message once

Summarize what you are following up

Read all follow-ups and don't repeat what has already been said

Be careful about copyrights and licenses

Cite appropriate references

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