According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2012), computer-mediated is an adjective that describes a process or action as instrumental to an end or goal. With regard to communication, computer-mediated refers to the instrumentality of the computer (Herring, 1996) – or technology in general – in the communication between two or more individuals. The computer or technology enables the communication between individuals (High & Solomon, 2011) that need not be “physically co-present” (Baym, 2010, p. 2).

Lange (2008) notes that terms such as “computer,” “Internet,” and “anonymity” must not be taken for granted (p. 437-444). To assume that CMC only relates to one kind of computer, one kind of Internet experience, and one kind of anonymity would oversimplify CMC’s social and cultural consequences (p. 437).

Related Terms: Digital communication, digital media, information and computer technology (ICT), Internet, new media, new communication technologies, Web 2.0

Key Elements in CMC

Baym (2010) highlights several key elements that apply to the broad range of studies found in CMC literature. Each element shapes CMC as a researchable and practical concept.

In its core, CMC requires interaction and reciprocity between individuals through the use of computers.

Temporal Structure
CMC's chronemic properties vary and can be either synchronous (e.g., instant messaging, video conferencing) and occur in real time or asynchronous (e.g., e-mail, text messaging) and can include a time lapse between the exchange of messages between parties.

Social Cues
CMC facilitates a diverse, yet reduced set of social cues when communicating through a computer-mediated environment. It is considered a “diminished form of face to face conversation” (Baym, 2010, p. 51). This leaves fewer clues about the meaning of messages and may allow for individuals to exercise partial or total anonymity, a key theme in early CMC research (Herring, 1996).

Storage & Replicability
Asynchronous CMC such as email allows individuals to carefully craft messages, edit, and refer back to messages and conversations in ways that face-to-face (FtF) communication does not (Walther, 1996). Synchronous forms of CMC, such as instant messaging services, afford users the ability to save messages and entire conversations for future reference. Taken together, CMC provides individuals the ability to recall entire conversations with little to no effort (Baym, 2010).

The number of individuals in one’s social network may vary from many to few, creating what O’Sullivan (1999) calls a blur between mass and interpersonal communication. Dissimilar to face-to-face communication and traditional communication channels (e.g., telephone, postal mail), CMC enables individuals to reach large audiences.

Mobile CMC devices afford users the ability to establish and maintain contact with one’s social network at all times (Licoppe & Heurtin, 2002) and easily coordinate mundane events (Ling, 2004). CMC’s mobile properties, however, may also negatively impact interpersonal relationships (Turkle, 2011).

History of CMC

The initial purpose of computer networks, first designed in the 1960s, was to facilitate the transfer of information protocols (Rheingold, 1993b; Licklider, Taylor, & Herbert, 1968). CMC was traditionally used as the means for individuals to collaborate with others by sharing, editing, and storing a written document (Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire, 1984). In addition, John Carey (1980) noted that humans incorporate paralinguistic elements into the messages they share via CMC, prompting the investigation of human communication that occurs within CMC. Steinfeld (1986) found that CMC research was largely found in conference papers and non-peer-reviewed work, but argued the importance of academic recognition of CMC and its relevance in the study of human emotion (p. 176) and inter-organizational systems (p. 189-190).

Communication scholars were one of the first groups to take serious the study of CMC (Cathcart & Gumpert, 1983). In the mid/late 1980’s, the study of CMC flourished in organizational and business settings (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986; Zuboff, 1988). In the 1990s, CMC received greater academic attention (Sigrid & St. Amant, p. xxxv) as it became clear that the concepts of community and communication were researchable in non-physical spaces (p. xxxvii). Scholars also turned their attention to deceptive behaviors and identity management and manipulation. (Lea & Spears, 1995). Recently, CMC researchers have generally focused on social networking sites (PEW, 2010).

CMC in Communication Studies

Research in communication studies and CMC is far reaching, including education (Bailey & Cotlar, 1994), organizational communication (Barnes & Greller, 1994), social support (Walther & Boyd, 2002), group communication (Walther, 1997), relational communication (Walther & Burgoon, 1992), globalization (Anissa, 2011), CMC in developing countries (Tiene, 2004). CMC is not limited to the social sciences as it is also researched by cultural and critical scholars whom investigate intercultural interactions (Panina & Kroumova, 2015) and hegemonic structures (Fainholc, 2015).

CMC and Interpersonal Communication

According to the International Communication Association (ICA, 2008), approximately 38% of manuscripts submitted to the ICA’s Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication between the years 2006 and 2008 emphasized interpersonal communication. CMC is frequently consulted in this subfield to investigate topics such as privacy through the lens of communication privacy management theory (CPM; Petronio, 2002), online self-disclosure on social networking sites (e.g. Allen, Coopman, Hart, & Walker, 2007; Child, Pearson, & Petronio, 2009), relational maintenance (Tong & Walther, 2011), social surveillance via social networking sites (Philips & Spitzberg, 2010), jealousy (Utz & Beukeboom, 2011; Muise, Christofides, & Desmarais, 2006), cyber stalking (Chik, 2008), online dating (Tong & Walther, 2011), social support (e.g., Colvin, Chenoweth, Bold, & Harding, 2004; Braithwaite, Waldron, & Finn, 1999), and uncertainty (Ramirez, Walther, Burgoon, & Sunnafrank, 2002).

Related Theory

Several theories exist in CMC literature to help scholars better understand and explain computer-mediated interactions including social presence theory (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976), electronic propinquity theory (Korzenny, 1978), social identification/deindividution theory (SIDE; Lea & Spears, 1991), social information processing theory (Walther, 1992) the hyperpersonal model (Walther, 1996), media richness theory (Daft & Lengel, 1984), the warranting construct (Walther & Parks, 2002), and media multiplexity theory (Haythornthwaite, 2005). Other interpersonal theories that have been applied to CMC include uncertainty reduction theory (URT; Berger & Calabrese, 1975) and uncertainty management theory (UMT; Brashers, 2001).

David J. Roaché (August 2012)
Edited with minor revisions by Kristopher Weeks (August 2015)

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