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Computer-mediated communication: a double-edged sword

HU CHUNYANG | 2018-11-15 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Huawei Technologies showcases its 5G tech solutions at PT Expo China in Beijing in September, 2018. Photo: CHINA DAILY


Today’s communication has changed fundamentally from a long history of face-to-face communication. Rapid and developed traffic and communication systems enable people to gather and disperse in a planned and impromptu manner. In between, as long as one is willing, eternal contact becomes possible, since one has the flexibility to choose face-to-face or virtual interactions.


‘Tyranny of proximity’
In nature, human beings yearn for connections with one another, so reaching out to others is somewhat involuntary. To realize these connections, one must move, in a variety of senses. In order to obtain living resources such as necessities, shelter and food as well as social support networks that provide intimacy, people move vertically or horizontally in physical space and continuously in social space, including climbing up social ladders or breaking down career barriers.

However, one’s mobility should be self-determined via a series of voluntary choices. Otherwise, it constitutes what American real estate studies professor Gilles Duranton called the “tyranny of proximity,” meaning that personal mobility is determined by outside forces, a violation of human rights.

As one example of the tyranny, an individual may want to gain access to certain resources, places and people but may be involuntarily confined by traffic, communication, human and societal factors. Conversely, an individual may not want interactions but cannot prevent others or society from invading his or her personal time and space.

While the collapse of tyranny from others and from social structures is often associated with large societal changes, such a collapse is now being attained through technology.
Historically, human mobility has gone through three phases. In the first stage, the speed of information was equal to that of physical traffic. The communication concept embodied humanity’s oldest dream—the hope to increase the speed and efficiency of information traveling through space.

In the second stage, thanks to the telegraph, messengers did not have to physically move the message to reach the recipient. The drawback was that senders and receivers needed a device and a fixed location.

The third stage is the era of mobile communication that we are experiencing. Mobile communication technology removes the restrictions of fixed time, place, people and scene. The basic rights of human mobility seem to be best guaranteed and most effectively realized.
In a social sense, growing accessibility makes permanent connections possible. The downside is this: not owning the device means another form of rights deprivation. Or, because of the wide availability of devices, one could be forced into undesired interactions, submitting to the tyranny of proximity.


Computer-mediated communication
Computer-mediated communication (CMC) seems to have completely altered the landscape of the traditional community and the face-to-face social interaction. However, from the perspective of human emotion and psychological needs, CMC can be seen as a replacement for traditional communities, because it intricately fulfills people’s most primitive needs for small talk.

The oldest and most natural communication among human beings takes place in small, stable communities with frequent small exchanges. The purpose of these conversations is nothing more than to generate pleasure or relieve stress. Small talk is also a bonding ritual and a way to fill interpersonal distance, which helps people build relationships within day-to-day triviality.
However, the quality and quantity of small talk in modern society has been downgraded, which could be called another instance of the tyranny of proximity. Stress has become harder to relieve and social support is waning or lacking.

As a result, people seek out new avenues for casual communication and maintaining relationships. Mobile communication, which allows for small talk anytime, anywhere, via text and voice, offers modern life an effective new antidote to stress and alienation. Therefore, mobile communication is a portable social support system.

In the meantime, CMC has opened new ways for people to form relationships through the popularity of chatrooms, dating sites and “shake” functions that seek out nearby users. In the CMC era, the role of emotion is strikingly similar to that in the era of face-to-face communication. People use mobile technology to exchange information, argue, reach consensus, express sympathy and support, plan, brainstorm, gossip, fall in love, find or lose friends, and play games. If we have to say there are differences from traditional communication, emotional communication in CMC is by all means more straightforward and frequent.

In theory, people can interact with anyone around the world and meet those who share common interests with them. Though CMC takes longer to achieve the same impression or intimate relationship as face-to-face communication does, it is only a matter of time and effort, rather than possibility.

CMC not only opens wider channels for people to establish and maintain interpersonal relationships in the traditional sense but also encourages more interactions, sometimes being even more prosocial than face-to-face communication. Only CMC technologies can offer us the possibility of choosing flexibly between on-site and off-site communication.

In CMC, when there is a lack of contextual clues, the recipient can fill in the missing information from surfing social networking sites, helping the recipient reduce unfamiliarity with others.
From the perspective of the sender of a message, text-based CMC is helpful for selective self-presentation, which may help avoid what could have been a bad impression in a face-to-face communication, thereby reducing communication anxiety and forming a more positive base for the relationship. Taking advantage of the unique features of media software, CMC users can write consensual messages and minimize the fear, guilt, anger, self-consciousness and friction of a face-to-face interaction, so that they can express their genuine thoughts and feelings and, more importantly, generate a sense of affinity.

Modern life makes it more and more likely for people to leave their hometown and go to new places to find a living. Increased commute time and work pressure also make it difficult for people to maintain regular face-to-face interactions. In this light, people can use communication technology to stay in touch with the outside world.

As an individual’s social support system, interpersonal relationships enable both parties to get encouragement, approval and love when in a crisis, dilemma or other situation including pain, frustration or pressure. Traditional social support systems may not allow quick enough response times, unlike support via CMC.


Negative impact
However, though CMC can help remove the tyranny of proximity, it also leaves room for the dark side of human behaviors, such as electronic encirclement, bullying, lying and selective isolation.

Electronic encirclement is a desperate effort to impose a coercive relationship on others, regardless of whether the relationship is desirable for others or not. Unwanted contact in the CMC context is easier, more sustained, and more difficult to obstruct, and it can be overwhelming.

For example, people may receive a variety of voice and text messages from their former partners via various electronic accounts after a breakup, either demanding reconciliation or committing relationship violence through threats or defamation.

Also, for a variety of purposes, people can spread intimate, private or false information about others via CMC, which is electronic defamation and bullying. It is very difficult to for a person to tell the truth when feeling threatened or insulted by the information frenzy. In face-to-face interactions, people use a lot of nonverbal messages to identify deception, while CMC relies only on our input, and the written content is easily faked.

Finally, there is the risk of weaving an electronic cocoon around oneself through social networking. Excessive social networking users have fewer face-to-face interactions with friends and family and may become self-centered, difficult to persuade, and belligerent, which is detrimental to the development of interpersonal relationships.

Along the way, close relationships formed via mobile communication are likely to be strengthened through frequent electronic communication, leading to the weakening of other ties, forming an electronic cocoon from which a person can engage only in safe, comfortable and lazy interactions.

Therefore, some scholars believe that CMC is not a good choice for interpersonal communication and that it may be more suitable for task-oriented actions. They say CMC is superficial, even hostile, and it is more prone to misinterpretation and confusion than face-to-face communication. It also reinforces social isolation and atomization and reduces human contact.


Hu Chunyang is a professor from the School of Journalism at Fudan University.

(edited by MA YUHONG)