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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication


Volume 8 Number 3 & 4 1998

DIVERSITY IN ON-LINE DISCUSSIONS: A STUDY OF CULTURAL AND

DIVERSITY IN ON-LINE DISCUSSIONS:
A Study of Cultural and Gender Differences in Listservs

Concetta M. Stewart, Stella F. Shields and Nandini Sen
Temple University

 

Abstract. Previous research has revealed that, despite some evidence of equalized participation by gender and cultural group in on-line environments, traditionally dominant groups (often males and whites) may replicate normative face-to face discourse rules on-line, thus skewing participation favorably towards these groups. This study, therefore, investigated communication differences between the semester-long interactions of a culturally diverse, mixed-sex class listserv to see if differences between men and women, and whites and other cultural groups existed. Transcripts from 22 graduate and upper-level undergraduate students' interactions were studied for differences in message frequency and length, rates of adoption, and conversational dynamics by gender and cultural identity. Results indicate that men sent longer and more frequent messages than women, and whites sent more messages than other cultural groups; men were more willing to adopt the technology than women, and whites were more willing to adopt that other cultural groups; and men presented more dominating behavior on-line.

Introduction

The emergence of a global information infrastructure (GII) has created more opportunities for multicultural communication in the form of "online communities." By their nature these communities are as diverse as the technologies of the GII. A commonly held belief is that these on-line communities are also naturally democratic and open. As a result, important issues are being raised concerning how these different groups are coping with new technologies and what role factors such as gender and culture p lay in participation in and creation of these new systems.

The Internet draws together people of different cultural groups, both locally and around the world. There is a problem, however, with the predominant models of policy and research which assume that democratic participation in networked systems simply comes from the equal availability of technology and the necessary skills to access these systems. Previous research has shown that this is not the case (Balka, 1993; Ebben and Kramerae, 1993; Herring, 1996a; Herring, 1993; Kramerae and Taylor, 1993). Instead, we have seen that even with the most basic of systems, women and minorities are not participating in anywhere near equal numbers (Nielson Media Research,1996; Spender, 1995; Stewart, et al., 1997). Consequently, a key goal of research in this area must be to inform the creation of policies to improve the equity of access and use of theses new technologies by all groups.

The primary focus of this research, then, is how groups who are typically absent from these online communities, such as women and minorities, can participate more equally. This lack of participation in the GII has implications for the economic and social well-being of those excluded as well as for the larger global community. This work, therefore, also has implications at a global level as we look at the lack of participation of developing nations in the evolution of a global information infrastructure.< /P>

 

Cross-Cultural Comunication

Cross-cultural communication can be defined as consisting of intercultural, multi-domestic, and cross-gender communication or genderlect communication (Tannen, 1990). Key issues in cross-cultural communication research include styles of conflict and negotiation (Ting-Toomey, 1985) and construction of identity and self-disclosure (Ting-Toomey, 1988) in interpersonal and group contexts. In cross-cultural communication, meaning and interpretations are derived both collectively and individually through inter action: collectively, in the sense that meanings are negotiated between communicators and, individually, because the process of interaction is mediated by individual perceptions that are subject to one's identity and expectations which are in turn guided by culture (Gudykunst and Kim, 1996). Thus, it may be argued that the culture in which norms are developed will be reflected in all interactions regardless of the communication medium. It has been widely recognized in cross-cultural research that people der ive different meaning and often key information, however, from the contextual aspects of the interaction (Hall, 1976). Consequently, it is critical to determine how such cultural norms affects communication processes in the context of mediated communication. Unfortunately, though, while there are significant bodies of research on both intercultural and mediated communication, cross-cultural communication via electronic media has largely been overlooked (Ma, 1996).

High- and Low-Context Cultures and Communication

Based on his extensive study of cultures around the world, Hofstede (1983) identified four common dimensions upon which cultures could be compared: (i) power distance or the extent to which less powerful members of society accept that power is distributed unequally; (ii) masculinity or when there are clearly defined sex roles with male values of success, money and possessions as dominant; (iii) uncertainty avoidance or the extent to which people feel threatened by ambiguity; and (iv) individualism which reflects the relational ties between an individual and others. Although this research focused on cultures of different nations, it can be argued that Hofstede's findings can also be applied to a variety of cross-cultural communication situations.

Scholars of cross-cultural communication, most notably Hall (1976) and Ting-Toomey (1988), regard Hofstede's dimension of individualism as a crucial dimension of variability across cultures. It is also a key dimension in understanding interpersonal and group interaction and communication processes. In an individualistic culture, individuals are loosely integrated with others and values their own self interest and that of their immediate family only. In contrast, in collectivistic cultures, individuals re late to larger collectivities and groupings and themselves as integrated with the whole.

Hall (1976) describes cultures as being high- or low-context, with context serving as the information that surrounds and gives meaning to an event. In other words, in high-context cultures, meaning is found in the nature of the situation and relationships, while in low-context cultures meaning is found in the words. Furthermore, key to interpersonal and communication behavior, high-context cultures strive for subtlety, patience and empathy, while low-context cultures value straight talk, assertiveness an d honesty. Hall explains that high-context cultures also value collective needs and goals and create "us-them" categories, while low-context cultures value individual needs and goals and believe that every individual is unique.

Ting-Toomey (1988) has developed Face-Negotiation Theory to explain cultural differences in a key communication context, negotiation and conflict. Her basic assumption is that all people negotiate face, with face serving as a metaphor for public self-image. Face Work involves enactment of face strategies, verbal and non verbal moves, self-presentation acts, and impression management interaction. Our identity can always be called into question and this leads to conflict and vulnerability; however, this va ries from culture to culture, particularly along the dimension of high- and low-context cultures. Ting-Toomey (1988) describes this issue of identity and vulnerability in terms of the "faces of face." For example, in high-context cultures one strives to preserve the other's autonomy through face-saving and to include the other through face-giving, while in low-context cultures, one seeks to preserve one's own autonomy through face-restoration and to include oneself through face-assertion. In conf lict resolution and negotiation, communication styles vary based on concern for self- and other-face. Her research also suggests that there is in fact a strong relationship between culture and face concern in conflict resolution and negotiation, with high-context favoring other-face and avoiding, obliging, compromising, and integrating, and low-context favoring self-face and dominating.

Gender and Communication

Tannen (1990) believes that gender differences can also best be observed from a cross-cultural approach, one that does not assume that differences arise from men's efforts to dominate women. The belief that masculine and feminine styles of discourse are best viewed as two distinct cultural dialects rather than as inferior or superior ways of speaking, typifies this stance and is summed up by the term genderlect. While some scholars do not believe that identifying gendered communication style s is important or even appropriate, Herring (1996b) and Tannen (1990) believe that ignoring those differences creates a greater risk than does the danger of naming them.

A significant body of research on the fundamental issue of gender differences and communication practices exists (Lakoff, 1973; Rakow, 1986; Spender, 1985; Stewart and Ting-Toomey, 1987; Tannen, 1994). However, as Rakow (1986) states, we need to refocus this research away from a conceptualization of gender as an individual attribute to bring more attention to the structures of the relationship between gender and power. The extent of the problem is dramatically illustrated by research which finds that men perceive women as dominating a discussion even when they contribute as little as 30% of the talk (Herring, Johnson and DiBenedetto, 1992; Spender, 1989). Spender (1989) explains this finding by observing that since it is the "natural order of things" for women to contribute significantly less to a group discussion than their male counterparts, women are then thought of as dominating the discussion when they participate at anywhere beyond that minimal level.

A common perception, however, is that women talk more than men. Tannen (1993) states that the context is essential to explaining this misconception. For instance, research has shown that men talk more in formal versus informal tasks and more in public versus private communication. The effect is that while same sex task teams produce consistent amount of output, in mixed sex teams, the men produce more than the women (James and Drakich, 1993; Rakow, 1988). In public spaces, for instance, men speak for a greater length of time and men's speech is more on task while women's is more reinforcing. Men's talk serves to hold floor for extended lengths of time, so that talking exercises dominance and prevents others from speaking. The ultimate effect is a lack of regard for women and their speech. This dominance also implies higher social status and that men are more competent to complete the tasks or to discuss the issues at hand than are women (James and Drakich, 1993). Tannen (1994) explains that women also typically use more supportive language patterns, which thereby diminishes the power of their own contributions. There are obvious implications for women, then, as they are increasingly participating in public arenas such as the workplace and politics where they may not have equal opportunity for participation.

Women also strive less actively for control (Nadler and Nader, 1987), whereas societal expectations are that men will dominate task-oriented discussions. This conversation dominance is evidenced by amount of communication, amount of interruptions with male dominance in speaking time achieved through interruptions (James and Clark, 1993). Lakoff (1995) believes that this control of the discussion is interpretive control and goes beyond the genderlect (i.e., simply a difference in language style based on gender) Tannen describes. According to Lakoff, men are actually assigning valuation to women's speech. She also contends that men will also use silence, since to ignore is also a sign of power; non-response is one of the most effective ways the powerful silence the less powerful. She states that as "annoying and discouraging as interruption is . . . . non-response is by contrast annihilating" (p. 28) because to ignore someone is to deny their existence.

Tannen (1993) states that while scholars recognize intuitively that interruption and topic control in conversation is encouraged by, and encourages, power imbalance, research has shown that women actually interrupt more. She admits that this finding was puzzling until still other research showed that there was, in fact, a difference in the patterns of interruption. For instance, men raise more new topics than women and use interruptions to change subject and take floor, while women use interruptions as c ooperative overlap and to show support for the speaker. Tannen (1993) also identifies another key difference in the communication practices of men and women, i.e., men use a more adversarial style in discussions, while women are likely to ask more questions. Women also use verb qualifiers and have a pattern of politeness behaviors, leading to image of less intelligence. According to Lakoff (1995), women have learned the language of apology, and these linguistic patterns negatively affect credibility and sug gests uncertainty and triviality in the subject matter.

Herring's (1996b) research on Internet listserv discussions supports these differences in communication patterns and has shown that men are more critical, flaming and adversarial. Men also value freedom from censorship along with candor and debate and will violate negative politeness (i.e., imposition) with the longest posts, copying most text and the longest signature files. Women value harmony and will avoid conflict, controlling action to minimize damage, which is a positive politeness pattern.

Typically it is the most dominant and powerful group whose values take on a normative status. Herring (1996a) contends that the issue then is to understand whose values inform the rules of behavior on the Internet. These differences that reproduce patterns of dominance must be known and understood in order that we may address them to achieve a more equitable and hospitable environment in cyberspace.

Research Questions

The focus of this research is related to how differences between the communication styles of the different cultures (high- and low-context, male and female) exhibit themselves in this mediated communication environment. The primary research questions, then, are:

RQ1: Is there a predominant cultural style?

  1. What was the message frequency by individual and by group based on culture? Based on gender?
  2. What was the message length by individual and by group based on culture? Based on gender?
  3. What was the adoption rate by individual and by group based on culture? Based on gender?

RQ2: Are there differences in communication styles of men and women?

  1. Is there evidence of collective versus individual concerns?
  2. Is there evidence of self- versus other-face orientation

RQ3: Are there differences in communication styles of white Americans and the other cultures?

  1. Is there evidence of collective versus individual concerns?
  2. Is there evidence of self- versus other-face orientation?

 

The Study

This research goes beyond the question of availability and technical proficiency to examine cultural and gender differences in communication patterns, and how these differences specifically affect who actually controls and directs these on-line discussions.

Listservs are only one form of on-line communication and are used for maintaining of email-based distribution lists on the Internet. Anyone who can send and receive Internet e-mail can access a listserv depending on its owner's permission. To subscribe to the listserv a potential user needs only to send an e-mail message to the listserv system. The listserv studied here was set up for graduate and undergraduate students enrolled in a global telecommunications course at a major urban university in the Uni ted States. Other purposes of this implementation were also to explore the feasibility of listserv for enhancing the live classroom experience--with the possibility of using this technology as one component of a distance learning environment, as well as to evaluate more closely the characteristics and effectiveness of the group discussion process using this technology.

This listserv was intended to create an open dialogue on topics related to the class. Given previous research (Balka, 1993; Herring, 1993), however, showing the tendency of a small group of individuals to dominate listserv discussions, the instructor established "netiquette" or guidelines for communication behavior in the discussion. These guidelines included: no flaming (or personal attacks), no shouting (the use of all capital letters), no personal messages, and no really long messages.

Topics were generally raised by the students and were related to the course material in global telecommunications. In addition, the graduate students were given the additional responsibility of keeping meaningful discussion going on the listserv. The topics addressed the impact of technology around the world from social as well as political and economic perspectives, and issues of cultural diversity and gender featured prominently in many of the discussions.

Twenty-two people, consisting of graduate and upper-division undergraduate students, the course instructor and a guest instructor, participated in the listserv discussion for four months. The participants represented a broad range of ages from 20 to 50, though most were 20 to 30 years of age. The class met in-person once per week and participated in the listserv discussion throughout the week. There were nine males and thirteen females on the listserv, consisting of six African American, six Asians, one Latin American, one African, and eight white Americans. Therefore, given its diversity, this was thought to be an especially appropriate group for such as study as posed here.

Analysis

A complete transcription of the listserv discussions was collected for one semester, or fifteen weeks, and consisted of over 300 [1] messages. Included in these transcripts were: message header information such as sender, date and time, and subject [2] as well as the actual content of the messages. Multiple methods were used in the analysis of these data. Patterns of interaction were studied by examining ratios of message frequency, message length and rates of adoption as well as language used and topics raised. A close reading of the transcripts was conducted based on the notions of individualism-collectivism in cultures (Hofstede, 1983), high- and low-context cultures

(Hall, 1976), "face work" (Ting-Toomey, 1988) and genderlect (Tannen, 1990). These theories informed the analysis of the listserv discussion as well as the examination of other cultural and gender differences in the online communication process. For cultural comparisons, one group consisting of white Americans was categorized as individualistic, while the other group consisting of African American, Latin American, Asian and African individuals was categorized collectivistic. (For more details on this cat egorization scheme, see Hofstede, 1983.)

Results

Below are presented the results of the analyses including: message frequency, message length, adoption rates and conversational analysis.

Message Frequency. The analysis shown in Table 1 supports finding of previous studies, i.e., men sent more than twice as many messages in total as women, with the men sending 204 messages as compared to the women who sent 100 messages. The difference in volume here is more striking when one considers that there were eleven women in the group and 9 men. The average number of messages per person by gender perhaps makes this point more clearly, revealing 22.7 messages per male and 9.0 per female. In addition, as also shown in Table 1, white Americans including both men and women sent more messages than men and women of other cultural groups combines, with white Americans sending 159 messages versus 145 messages sent by the others, and despite the fact that there were only six white Americans out of the total group of 20. The cultural groups represented in this other category includes 6 African Americans, 1 Latin American, 6 Asians [3], and 1 African. When the average number of messages is calculat ed by cultural grouping, a similar pattern emerges. White Americans sent more than twice as many messages, 26.5 messages on average, while the others sent 10.3 messages per person.

Table 1. Number of messages by sender by gender and by culture



Sender

Number of messages


Male


Female

White
American


Other

M1

80

 

80

 

F1

 

30

30

 

M2

24

   

24

M3

24

   

24

M4

23

 

23

 

M5

19

   

19

F2

 

19

 

19

M6

13

   

13

F3

 

13

 

12

M7

13

 

13

 

F4

 

13

 

13

F5

 

12

12

 

M8

7

   

7

F6

 

6

 

6

F7

 

5

 

5

F8

 

1

 

1

F9

 

1

 

1

M9

1

 

1

 

F10

 

0

 

0

F11

 

0

 

0

Subtotals

204

100

159

145

Total

304

304

Message Length. When examined by the length of message [4] some interesting dynamics are observed as well. While there were equal numbers of men and women sending long messages, the men sent more long messages in total than did the women (51 messages versus 34 messages), or an average of 7.3 messages for males versus 4.9 for females. When looking at this behavior according to culture, the averages were similar with white Americans sending 7.4 long messages on average and the others sending an a verages of 5.3 long messages. It is worth noting here, that it was an Asian woman who sent the longest original messages consisting of both complex and thought provoking discussion; while it was an Asian male who sent the most long messages that consisted of replies of a few sentences with the entire original message copied in most every instance.

Table 2. Number of long messages by sender



Sender

Number of long messages


Male


Female

White
American


Other

M3

14

   

14

M1

12

 

12

 

F2

 

9

 

9

M4

8

 

8

 

F5

 

7

7

 

M5

6

   

6

F3

 

5

 

5

M2

5

   

5

F1

 

5

5

 

M7

5

 

5

 

F6

 

4

 

4

F4

 

2

 

2

F7

 

2

 

2

M6

1

   

1

Subtotals

51

34

37

48

Totals

85

85

 

Rates of Adoption [5]. In Figure 1, we see that males adopted the technology first, most of them doing so in the first two weeks, while more than half of the females adopted in Week 6 or later. It is also worth noting that the only two non-adopters (shown as Week 11) were women. When viewed by culture, in Figure 2, we see that all but one white American adopted in the first two weeks, while a majority of the members of the other groups adopted after Week 3. Again, it is worth noting tha t the only two non-adopters (shown as Week 11) were in this category as well.

Figure 1. Adoption by week by gender

Conversational Dynamics. There were some notable differences in communication styles with respect to cultural and gender differences, which were revealed in the analyses of the transcripts. One key area of difference seems to center on how differences of opinion are handled and whether or not there is a perception of "winning" or "losing" in the process. Drawing from Lakoff (1975, 1979, 1990), Tannen (1990) explains that systematic differences in conversational style can le ad to misunderstandings in both cross-cultural and cross-gender communication. Citing Gumperz (1982), Tannen (1990) also describes the best method to discover what is going on is to look for key episodes where communication has broken down. This process involves "identifying segments in which trouble is evident" and "looking for culturally patterned differences in signaling meaning that could account for trouble" (p. 6).

Some of these key segments will be presented below.

Figure 2. Adoption by week by culture

Segment 1.

This is an example of one of the more heated exchanges.

F2, an Asian female observes:

What is considered censorship in one country is thought of as protection in another.

M1, a white American male responds:

Are other cultures so far gone that people have mindsets that they have no control over? I am a person first, a U.S. citizen second. Responsibility is not a cultural issue. The application of responsibility is manifest in individuals based on learned cultural impressions. The Internet offers new thinking, new mindsets. Perhaps (in the future) the Internet will cause the downfall of current geo-political authority (I hope). Culture makes me sick and for an entire people to be d og-leashed by tradition and parental/government/religious control is equally sickening. The Internet is mental anarchy. No authority has the right to impose on my thinking--nor anyone elses.

What I'm trying to say is you as an individual should have the right, no matter where your heritage or national boundries lie, to choose your own heaven or hell.

F2 which replies:

M1, first of all, stay off the emotions and stick to a decent, polite academic discussion…This is not a conflict that needs to be resolved. So I'll end the discussion here.

M1 responds:

F2, My opinions are quite polite, extreme, I admit but tactfully conveyed.:

M5, a Latin American male, comments:

Hey guys, . . . Culture is an extremely complex issue. . .different opinions will always reign . . .

M1 closes the discussion with:

M5. . .I ask that the class agree that there is good and bad in all cultures.

In this exchange, M1 places a strong emphasis on individualism and self-determination, while the others are comfortable with that cultures will differ in this respect. M1 also seems to welcome conflict and needs a final, clear-cut resolution, with everyone in agreement. He uses a dominating style as described by Ting-Toomey, et al. (1991), while M5 is seeking compromise, and F2 is avoiding conflict which is also consistent with Ting-Toomey's theoretical framework.

Segment 2.

In this conversation, the instructor posts a message from NEW THINKING, a free weekly email "contributing to a philosophy for The Digital Age," by Gerry McGovern, in which McGovern states that: "Freedom, privacy and censorship are linked. To give a certain level of freedom and privacy to one person, one must inevitably censor/regulate the privacy to and freedom to of another."

F3, an African American female:

In regards to McGovern's essay, I don't think it's new thinking, I think it's old thinking. All societies have regulations, and histories of it ,therefore I find the author's argument for a regulated cyber-society in contrast to the theory that the online world is where many people might seek refuge in a constrictive environment. Those who can, are getting an understanding of the limits and boundaries of a interactive world, today, but in the future I feel that each nation sho uld define their involvement in a global infrastructure according to their cultural value of space. By setting their global clocks by space, it will allow each nation identity to develop a threshold for which it sets the parameters. While it is the responsibility of the information rich to set guidelines for the inclusion of the information poor, it is also the manifestation of spatial identity on the part of the underdeveloped and underrepresented. It is the test of the leaders of the developing nations as to how well they conserve the interest of their countries. It's time to play the economic hand we've all been dealt. The highest ideal we should be striving for is a sense of unison, not a lineal set of regulations.

M1, a white American male, responds:

F3, You sound embittered… You have some really good points and a good feel for 'Blarney' detection.

F3 responds:

Uh M1, would you mind e-mailing me personally and telling me where I sounded 'embittered?' From what I interpreted from your analysis, you made the same points I did. And, who is 'Blarney' to you? Let's stick with passing judgements on global telecommunications, not on each other. I am not impressed or amused by your psychoanalytic interpretations.

M1 was perhaps applying "male bonding" rules and trying to kid around, while F3 saw the comment as highly personal and insulting. M1's choice of words would also suggest a lack of concern for other-face.

Segment 3.

In another episode, an Asian male (M2) offers some advice and information to the class.

M2's message:

Subject: Helpful hints for this week's work

Hi everyone.

Here are the list of journals that you will find at <our university's> library and at <another university's library>. I strongly urge everyone in the class to use <the other university's library> instead of <our> library. (It is a fact that <our libary> does not have many resources . . .)

Replies follow from several different individuals.

M1, a white American male:

For me, it's downright impractical.

M7, a white American male:

Due to my busy schedule, <our library> will be my only resource . . .

F1, white American female:

I agree that <the other library> is an option.

M4, white American male:

Little things like getting mugged, robbed, shot, stabbed, etc. prevent me from being as resourceful as others.

None of the respondents ever directed their complaints and criticisms at M2, and instead address their rebuttals to "others" or "some people." These comments also suggest an orientation toward the self rather than the group. The one exception was F1, a white American female, whose remark was in agreement with M2's original suggestion. In addition, while the men's comments might appear as openness and self-disclosure, which Ting-Toomey (1985) characterizes as leading to vulnerability, a closer reading reveals that these messages are not intimate and that the senders may actually be outlining their boundaries to the rest of the group. Another interpretation may also be that these individuals are self-confident enough to reveal this information about themselves and don't feel vulnerable at all.

Segment 4.

Another interesting exchange involved M7's (a white American male) banner.

M7:

************************In the military, you can be a REAL man!****

M1, a white American male:

What's this with the military quote? I spent four years as a U.S. army paratrooper.

M4, a white American male:

... since I'm a psuedo-man (I'm not in the army so I can't be real) ...

The replies were both directly and indirectly critical of M7's banner, and not the actual topic of the message. These statements could also be illustrative of a lack of concern for other's (M7's) face. They seem more concerned with self-face as their statements were about who they were, rather than who M7 was or what he might have actually meant by his banner. Since this conversation occurred very early in the listserv, it serves as a good example of problems that can arise from a lack of context. In oth er words, these other students did not know M7 yet, and as a result were immediately threatened or even offended by his banner without any of the context that would typically arise in face-to-face interactions. That discussion did not continue, though, as M7 immediately withdrew his banner.

Collective versus Individualistic Interaction

Some of the dialogue also provides opportunities to examine collective versus individualistic perspectives on the class activities and issues.

Example 1.

Early in the list there was a discussion about the amount of work required by the course, particularly the responsibility to participate in the listserv regularly. This had not been expected of the students in other courses they had taken at the institution, so it was interpreted by some as extra work being required of them.

M1, white American male:

I work full time and a lot of the evening courses go a little easier on students because the profs themselves are full time workers at other jobs and know the stress of family, job, school.

This class is obviously different and a bit more inconveinent. I do the best I can and try to help out whoever I can.

M4, a white American Male:

I know that every one has probably been thinking,"Why I haven't heard anything from that strikingly hansome, long-haired, sideburned, mustached, hillarious guy, with great fashion sence, on the listserv?" Well there is a good reason for that....

The Top 5 reasons why M4 can't Participate:

1)Reports from other classes

2)Work

3)I can never get to a computer, <the satellite campus> is always full or down, and at Main, they now issue pagers, so they can page you when a computer is ready (gotta love technology!)

4) Can't access E-mail from home.

5)My unicorn had to be rushed to the vet, I was making crop circles with some friends from another solar system, I am personally arranging Elvis' comeback tour, Jimmy Hoffa, The original Paul Mc Artney and Bruce Lee invited me to their island paradise for the weekend, and I have been taking care of abandoned Bigfoot young.

I have a lot of comments about the listserv disscussion, I hope to log on again before class, I have a graduation appointment now.

M5, a Latin American male:

I want to apologize for not being part of the discussion this week due to an outrageous schedule . . . . next week you all can count on me for extra discussion and involvement.

We are together in this one, and we will make it.

It was the males who offered explanations of their participation (or lack thereof), but there was a difference in the perspectives of the white Americans males versus the Latin American. M5 indicates a sense of responsibility to the collective to participate and provide support. M1's and M4's comments reflect a self-oriented perspective on the class and its requirements.

Example 2.

Later in the list, the class makes observations about the group's participation in the listserv along with other group activities.

F2, an Asian female:

It's good to hear from so many different voices this week on the listserv.

F1, great job of answering the first question.

M4, a white American male:

I have decided to let everyone know my thoughts on the class and report. You can reply, but this marks my last entry to the listserv . . . .

F1, white American female:

Perhaps we should send <the guest lecturer> an e-mail on behalf of the class, thanking him.

M2, an Asian male:

Hi, everyone.

I mentioned to <the professor> that during the holiday, we won't be able to send any messeages since the <university's> computers are going to be upgraded. Thus, she granted us to hand in the report until next Tuesday.

So plan your schedule accordingly.

Have a great Thanksgiving everyone!

Here the Asians and female students are offering information and help to the rest of the class, and present a collective perspective on the group's activities.

Example 3.

F4, an Asian female, shares a news item:

I notice that the list has been awfully quiet. Today I came across a news item on an online version of an Indian business daily, which reported that since the government had lowered import duties on foreign made information technology products, including finished goods, the Indian hardware manufacturers are likely to turn into mere vendors of products made by the multinationals. Before the government lowered the tariffs, the difference in price between an IBM PC, for instance, and its Indian counterpart, was 25%. Now, it is only 7%. The small price difference, manufacturers feel, will not be a disincentive against buying foreign brands.

Would anybody like to comment on the implications, or report relevant news items from other parts of the world?

M5, an Asian male, replies:

As I have seen and witnessed the trade in India. The idea here is that it is imminent that the economy will become that of a global engine. It, in many respects already is. Multi-national corporations are utilizing offshore facilities to create a Virtual Financial Sovereignty; this directly affecting governmental and social concerns. The world, if it is to fulfill the cycles of progression must succumb to the economy - as a global animal. To do business in the world today mean s dealing with the monster Capitalism. Indian Products are not the superior and, definitely not the less expensive. Import Tariffs exceed 300%. That means that if you buy a television here for 300.00 (U.S.$), it would cost you 900.00 (U.S.) to take it into India. This is done to encourage the purchase of domestic products. BAH HUMBUG.

I'll buy the better of the two products. Thank you.

There are no replies to M5's message nor are there further comments onF4's original message. In addition, F4's participation drops sharply for the remainder of the listserv discussion.

Discussion and Implications

Some striking differences in communication patterns were observed on this listserv — by gender and by culture and perhaps there was also an interaction between culture and gender. The magnitude of these differences is particularly noteworthy, since they occurred despite the instructor's efforts to create an open, free-flowing communication environment. As outlined previously in this paper, these differences in communication patterns can be interpreted based on the systematic linguistic differences attri butable to gender and culture. In other words, these patterns of communication on the listserv could be said to simply be replicating patterns of interaction that are seen in traditional face-to-face situations. These patterns don't simply mirror traditional communication environments, where males dominate females and white American culture dominates others. There are protections afforded in those traditional face-to-face channels of communication. In fact, some Net-watchers have observed that stripped of the social courtesies and contextual factors of traditional communication channels, this emerging communication environment is likely to be a less hospitable one than face-to-face (Adams, 1996). Consequently, more than replicating traditional imbalances in communication practice, this new environment also may not comfortable for non-white, non-Americans, or females owing to its lack of contextual factors. In other words, the Internet may by nature be most conducive to the low-context culture of Western mal e society.

To this point, it is worth noticing that the African American women participated more in class than online. In fact, one of the African American women never joined the list (though it was required) and two only sent one message each. However, those women regularly come to class and two of them participated actively in class discussion. One of the observers remarked that it was if they felt "protected" in the classroom situation. This disparity in mediated communication environments has clear im plications, then, as an increasing amount of business, educational and even personal communication is mediated.

While the lack of non-verbal cues is worthy of further examination, an even larger question emerges: Is this technology actually fashioned after the values and perspectives of those who have created it (Rakow, 1988; Spender, 1995). In the case of networked communication systems, the technology appears to be based on the dominant masculine value systems of Western society. In addition, there is different access to the creation of the technology as well; and the result has been the creation of a place were social practices extend the asymmetrical construction of power (Rakow, 1988). Rakow states that key task, then, is to gain an understanding of how power is exercised through the technology.

With the growing use of computers, video games, and the Net, we may have a generation of children emerging within where everyone is equally comfortable in that environment. Also, the technology is changing rapidly, with dramatic increases in channel capacity, allowing for more and different cues to be included in the communication process. However, as the Net becomes "tiered", only some individuals will have access to this greater speed and broadband capacity, and the implications for those already under represented in those networked environments are enormous. Will they have the "left-over" old Net, or will they have the Super New Net that will allow them to have instant images, sound … maybe even touch and smell?

Perhaps the greatest implication is that in the near future, it is that the Net is still dominated in both academe and the business world by the discourse patterns of the dominant white male society, so that those women and men who want to participate equally, in the fullest sense (be heard, responded to, and part of the decision-making process of any negotiation taking place) will have to use the dominant patterns in order to "market" themselves. There are implications for policy from the most basic lev els involving civility in the classrooms to the development and deployment of the GII (global information infrastructure).

While there is widespread recognition of the impact of new information technologies on individuals, institutions and society, there is little consensus on what that impact is and how and whether there should be remediation. However, that there is an information or technology gap is indisputable--and these obstacles to equity in information technology exist, most specifically for women, minorities and the poor.

Informed policy making has a role to play in addressing these inequities. Bowie (1990) states that it is the role of the government to protect the rights and interests of its citizens, especially the disadvantaged:

What a government does for the human beings at the bottom of its social order--its poor, its minorities, its children, its women, its elderly, those who are underrepresented or unrepresented, as well as people who are handicapped, those who are undereducated, and those who are generally in need but cannot help themselves--defines the degree and quality of justice that can be expected in practice.

It appears, however, that the longer we wait to address this growing gap, the more likely we are to see these so-called "democratic" technologies contribute to an increase in inequity in participation worldwide, rather than to the emergence of an inclusive global information economy.

 

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Endnotes

  1. There were actually over 350 messages in total. However, the messages from the two instructors were eliminated from these analyses, since they primarily used the system for "broadcasting" (i.e., one-way transmission) of information relating to the in-class discussions.
  2. The Subject: information in email messages ends up not being very useful. It is often not indicative of a message content, especially when people simply use the reply function to send messages without revising the Subject: line.
  3. For some of the Asians, there was a problem in using the English language.
  4. Visual inspection of the messages revealed that most of the messages sent were only a few lines long and that there were far fewer longer messages. Given the paucity of data in this latter category, a simple classification scheme was most appropriate. Since messages less than *-page consisted of little more than the header and a few sentences, messages were classified as long if they were more than *-page in length.
  5. For both figures, the amount shown in Week 11 represents the number of individuals who never adopted the listserv.