The Deliberative Potential of CMC
The Deliberative Potential of Computer-Mediated Communication:
The Effects of Incoherence, Anonymity, and Time
On the Interpersonal Requirements of Deliberation
Andrew Waits
Advisor: Professor Kirsten Foot
University of Washington
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Introduction
The decline of political participation and engagement in the public sphere in the
past several decades has resulted in significant changes to the role of citizens in the
political process. Overall, social networks and the norms of reciprocity which arise from
these networks are slowly declining (Putnam, 1999). The result is a decrease in “social
capital”, which determines our society’s capacity for collective action (Putnam, 1999).
There are several factors which contribute to this decline. One of which is the evolution
of new technologies which increasingly distances us not only from our political
representatives, but from each other. The affect of this limited exposure has turned most
citizens from actors to spectators in the political process (Edelman, 1988; Peters, 1995).
Furthermore, the nature of political discourse within the public sphere has
changed (Sennett, 1977). Public argument and discussion traditionally took place on a
localized level, encouraging participation from community-based citizens. Today, public
discourse is argued to be a non-interactive, distant, and passive communication event
(Hollihan, Klumpp, & Riley, 1999), in which political elites speak for the general public
as the “voice of reason”. Despite several disadvantages of our evolving mass mediated
environment, new information and communication technologies (ICTs) available to
ordinary citizens, such as the Internet, are reinventing the possibilities for citizens to
engage in public discourse.
The implication of the Internet on public discourse is a topic of interest and debate
among communication and political scholars. Proponents of deliberative democracy
view the Internet as a means of enhancing the public sphere through the notion of
deliberation (Bohman, 1996; Cohen, 2002; Dahl, 1989). Text-based synchronous and
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asynchronous Internet platforms, such as email, listserv, message boards, and chat rooms,
are perceived as possible deliberative environments which could strengthen the
legitimacy and availability of public discussion and debate. The potential of these
mediums providing a venue for deliberation has led several scholars to question the
democratizing effect of the Internet and whether or not it fosters deliberative discussion.
However, there are no simple or general answers to these questions. Benjamin
Barber (1999) claims that the problem with these questions, which drive a majority of
research into the deliberative and democratic potential of the Internet, is that there is no
clear conception of what sort of democracy is intended which is driving the development
of the Internet. “Is it representative democracy, plebiscitary democracy, or deliberative
democracy for which we seek technological implementation?”(Barber, 1999, p. 585) The
Internet can help democracy and public discourse, but only if configured to support
meaningful interaction and only in terms of the paradigms and political theories that
inform the program (Barber, 1999). Unless we are clear about what democracy means to
us, and what kind of democracy we envision, the Internet is as likely to stunt as to
enhance the civic polity.
In the case of deliberative democracy, which is the focus of this paper,
environments must be programmed and designed according to tested theories of
deliberation. While this idea has began to be embraced in offline environments with the
creation of the National Issues Forum, the National Issues Convention, and citizen juries,
online environments have received far less structural attention. Instead, research into the
deliberative potential of the Internet has focused primarily on the limitations imposed by
computer messaging systems. For example, many view the Internet as a medium unfit
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for fostering deliberation due to the relative communicative incoherence, and
homogenizing effect (Herring, 1999; Weger & Aakhus, 2003; Wilhelm, 2000). However,
these are arguments made against an environment built without the intention of
supporting deliberative behavior. Therefore, is it really computer-mediated
communication (henceforth CMC) itself that is ill-suited to conduct political deliberation
or the environment in which CMC takes place? These same arguments of incoherence
and homogenization are made against everyday offline face-to-face communication as
well. Everyday political conversation tends to be between people who share similar
views (Wyatt, Katz, & Kim, 2000), and many times, discussion is anything but coherent
and on topic. Therefore, CMC should not be expected to be deliberative if it is not placed
within an environment that is purposely designed to foster deliberation.
The purpose of this paper is to examine the possible affordances of asynchronous
CMC for conducting political deliberation given that it takes place in a structured
environment informed by deliberation theory. More specifically this paper is concerned
with how, when structured, certain features of CMC may hold the comparative advantage
over face- to-face communication in fulfilling the communicative and participatory
requirements of deliberation. To this end, I will begin by discussing the frequently cited
issue of incoherence in CMC and argue that it is not an innate quality of CMC, but, rather
an effect of an environment uninformed by deliberative theory. I will then discuss two
possible features of computer-mediated environments, anonymity and loose time
constraints, to determine what they may have to offer the communicative and
interpersonal requirements of deliberation, given that they are structured in a specific
way. However, it will first be beneficial to further explain the foundational argument that
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neither face-to-face, nor CMC are inclined to promoting deliberation in an unstructured
environment. Furthermore, since this paper is generally concerned with the
communicative and interpersonal functions of deliberation I will then advance a
definition of deliberation developed by Burkhalter, Gastil, and Kelshaw (2002) which
focuses on these aspects.
The Importance of Structure in Fostering Political Deliberation
The foundational argument driving this paper is that neither face-to-face, nor
CMC, is more inclined to foster deliberative discussion. Rather, when people discuss
politics in an online and offline setting what they are doing is better categorized as
political conversation (Stromer-Galley, 2002). This argument is based upon deliberation
theory and research which illustrate the importance of structure and process to
deliberation. It is currently understood that everyday offline communication is by no
means deliberative (Walzer, 1990; from Conover et al., 2002). With respect to
deliberation, CMC that takes place in chat rooms and on discussion boards is very
similar. Studies measuring the deliberative quality of online political discussion found it
to lack any real deliberative quality (Davis, 1999; Wilhelm, 2000). However, attempting
to measure the deliberative quality of a discussion in an unstructured online or offline
setting assumes that deliberation is something that people would do voluntarily. Rather,
political deliberation is an uncomfortable, often difficult process, in which to engage
(Schudson, 1997). Without an environment specifically designed for deliberation,
citizens will likely choose to engage in what is called political conversation.
Elaborating on the notion of deliberation, and its counterpart conversation, the
former entails a problem-solving (Gutman & Thompson, 1996) and community building
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function (Muhlberger, 2000), while the latter only a sociable function (Schudson, 1977).
Political conversation better describes the organic political discussions that take place
online (Stromer-Galley, 2002). Online settings such as AOL chat and Usenet discussion
groups are loosely structured and lack moderation. They provide a forum for declarative
and argumentative discussion with loosely defined purposes. In contrast to the organic
quality of political conversation taking place online, deliberation requires structure and
guidelines. The structural and participatory requirements of an institution or discussion
group determine the quality of deliberation that occurs (Witschge, 2002). “If we allow
that there is such a thing as communicative rationality (deliberation)…, then the political
challenge becomes one of constructing institutions for its promotion” (Dryzek, 1990,
p.411; as cited by Steenbergen et al., 2001). Institutions must be structured with the
purpose and goal of fostering deliberative discussion. It is, therefore, understandable that
deliberation would not occur in a setting ill-equipped and purposely built to foster
political conversation such as AOL chat or Usenet discussion groups.
The fact that political conversation is common leads some scholars to conclude
that it is a very important part of the public sphere (Conover et al., 2002; Wyatt, Katz et
al., 2000). Political conversation serves a social function, allowing individuals to
understand themselves better and their situation in the world (Arendt, 1958). Some
believe that “it fosters the bettering of the individual, which in turn, makes him or her a
better citizen in the society” (Stromer-Galley, 2002, p.12). The general idea of
deliberative democracy, however, is that political conversation does not serve democracy
if it is not deliberative and amongst a heterogeneous group of people (Witschge, 2002).
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Political conversation, therefore, should not be called or considered a substitution for
deliberation (Witschge, 2002).
Online political conversation, furthermore, mirrors what people do offline.
Citizens mostly have conversations that are spontaneous, unstructured and without clear
goals (Walzer, 1990; from Conover et al., 2002). Deliberations should be planned,
conducted according to specific procedures, and meant to produce an outcome such as
consensus (Conover et al., 2002). Furthermore, deliberation is rigorous and requires far
more from its participants than political conversation. Therefore, because political
conversation is something which people do in both online and offline settings, it follows
that neither form of communication, without the proper institutional structure, innately
fosters deliberative discussion.
An Interpersonal Definition of Deliberation
In the past 10 years, deliberation has been the focus of research in many fields,
including communication, public opinion, and political philosophy. Although
deliberative democracy has received ever increasing theoretical and research attention in
recent years, theorists have not agreed on what deliberation is (Muhlberger, 2002). The
consequences of such a loose understanding of deliberation are many. According to
Burkhalter et al. (2002), theoretical ambiguity can lead to incommensurate works on what
theorists presume to be the same subject. Rather than focusing on the deliberation as a
means to an end (political legitimacy), I consider deliberation as a goal in itself. Rather
than determining that a discussion is deliberative by looking at an end result, such as
opinion change, I analyze the communicative and participatory requirements outlined by
deliberation theory which determine what separates deliberation from political
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conversation, debate, or argument. Therefore, for the purpose of this project, which deals
with the interpersonal requirements of deliberation, I will advance a specific definition of
deliberation developed by Burkhalter et al. (2002) which focuses on these aspects.
Despite different emphases on the common theme, many writers explain that
public deliberation is primarily about the careful weighing of the various consequences of
action, as well as the views of others (Burkhalter et al., 2002). Drawing from Gouran and
Hirokawa’s (1996) model of the functional theory of group decision, Burkhalter et al.
(2002) state that a group is more likely to make a logical, reasoned and informed decision
if its members analyze the nature of the problem at hand, identify a range of possible
solutions, and establish evaluative criteria which are then used to judge the merits of each
solution. Further clarification of these interpersonal and communicative elements
represents what is required of group members and the environment to make a discussion
truly deliberative.
Information
According to Gouran & Hirokawa (1996), a discussion is more deliberative if it
incorporates accurate knowledge of relevant information. Given the different ways of
knowing, negotiation of the relevance and authoritative backing of empirical claims must
proceed throughout deliberation. It is impossible to know beforehand what information
will be viewed as relevant to a discussion; therefore, participants must be allowed or
provided access to a wide variety of information and sources (Burkhalter et al., 2002).
“One cannot expect democratic citizens to govern themselves effectively if they cannot
access the diverse data needed to make informed decisions” (Burkhalter et al., 2002).
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Burkhalter is careful to stress the importance of personal experience as a valid
source of information upon which to base deliberative claims. As Herbst (1995) points
out, rationalistic accounts of public voice implicitly privilege impersonal information,
such as survey data, objective measurements, and statistics, because these forms of data
transcend an individual’s personal biases. It is important to point out that they also
represent the commonly accepted notion of “evidence” in much of Western society. The
definition of authoritative public voice is therefore extended to include bearing witness
(Barber, 1984) or offering personal testimony (Mansbridge, 1990; Sanders, 1997). The
communicative importance of information is significant to consider when assessing how
anonymity and loose time constraints may affect the gathering and allowance of certain
forms of information.
Considering a Range of Solutions
In Gouran & Hirokawa’s (1996) functional theory of group decision making, a
discussion is more deliberative if participants consider a range of solutions. Participants
must present their own views and approaches to problems, as well as strive to consider
views across the political spectrum which may not be held directly by any of the group’s
members (Burkhalter et al., 2002). While it is absurd to believe that any one small faceto-face group, no matter how heterogenous, can represent the whole of a population,
members must strive to incorporate the full spectrum of views on the public good
(Fishkin, 1995). Most importantly, participants should transcend and work beyond the
broad range of preexisting views to innovate new solutions that meet the diverse interests
failed to be met by the current alternatives (Burkhalter et al., 2002). Therefore,
discussion should not be constructed in a way that limits the options of the group.
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Participants mustn’t assume that there are two, or three, preexisting solutions to the given
problem upon commencement of discussion.
Evaluative Criteria
The establishment of evaluative criteria upon which the merits of each solution is
judged is vital to the deliberative success of any group discussion (Burkhalter et al.,
2002). Different groups of people hold different criteria upon which they evaluate certain
solutions. In order to take into account and truly understand the goals and values of all
members, prior to discussion participants must talk explicitly of their own evaluative
criteria. If members are unable to agree upon a common set of evaluative criteria, they
will, however, be mindful that such conflicts in interest exist. Discussions that do not
involve discussion of evaluative criteria fail to be truly deliberative. As Burkhalter et al
explain, “Without specific discussion of evaluative criteria, people will assume common
values; this has the effect of silencing potential differences” (Burkhalter el al., 2002).
Many times, especially in moral dispute, it is likely that people do not discuss these
problem either out of discomfort, lack of knowledge, or the assumption that other share
similar values (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997). Deliberation can only occur during conflict if
participants acknowledge the underlying values residing within each participant’s
contribution. How loose time constraints and anonymity influence the discussion of
evaluative criteria is important to consider when designing the ideal deliberative
environments.
Participation Rights and Responsibilities
An interpersonal definition of deliberation must also specify the behavior of
individual participants and the interactions among them (Burkhalter et al, 2002). This
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involves talking more in depth of the rights and responsibilities of participants. It must
be remembered that deliberation is as much a product of participants as it is the
environment. Deliberative discussion requires that certain participatory rights must be
open to every participant. Participants must interact in a very specific ways.
Sufficient Opportunity to Speak/Mutual Respect
The most fundamental attitude that deliberation requires of participants is that of
mutual respect (Benhabib, 1992; Fishkin, 1991; Gutmann & Thompson, 1996). Simply
put, mutual respect entails that participants understand the importance of every member.
But what does this really mean? In an attempt to explain, I will discuss the equal
distribution of voice and the commitment to understanding.
In small face-to-face groups, deliberation requires that each participant have the
equal opportunity to speak (Gastil, 1993). This does not mean that every participant is
required to speak; however, they must understand that they have the opportunity and the
responsibility to do so. Equal floor time for each participant is important when the group
faces time constraints. However, if time allows, it must be understood that some people
may require more time than others to articulate their views (Burkhalter et al., 2002).
Equal speaking opportunities are important, however, it is more important that a diversity
of views be heard. While the environment may place constraints on participants’
opportunities to speak, ultimately, it is the responsibility of the participants themselves to
make sure that everyone has a sufficient opportunity to talk. Furthermore, an equal
opportunity to speak does not mean that each participant have the same amount of time to
speak, but, rather that the necessary amount of time is allotted based on the need of the
group. In other words, the structure of the discussion may require that everyone has
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twenty minutes to speak; however, it is the responsibility of participants to constrain
individuals as little as possible it the expression of their views for the sake of the
deliberative quality of the discussion. This commitment to the distribution of voice
within a discussion stems from the mutual respect of participants.
Mutual respect also entails that participants are committed to understanding and
taking into consideration the views of others (Fishkin, 1991). Egocentric behavior can
create the false appearance of deliberation (Hewes, 1996). People can carry on a
conversation that seems to involve a sincere exchange of ideas; when in fact the ideas
being exchanged are exclusive from one another. Mutual respect embodies the idea of a
sufficient opportunity to speak, as well as the equal opportunity to be heard (Fishkin,
1991). If participants share a mutual respect, each recognizes the right and importance of
all other participants to be part of the conversation, regardless of their characteristics.
Furthermore, each participant recognizes that all other participants have equal,
symmetrical rights to shape the discussion and determine the outcome (Benhabib, 1992).
A lack of mutual respect among group members works to silence members that hold
dissenting views (Fishkin, 1991; Gastil, 1993). It is as much the responsibility of an
individual to voice their dissenting view, as it is other participants’ responsibility to
create a social context in which they can. Without mutual respect, deliberation will cease
to exist. Because of the significance of mutual respect, the ways in which it may be
affected by loose time constraints and anonymity is very important to consider.
Language, Reasoning, and Dialog
Another objective of Burkhalter et al.’s (2002) interpersonal definition of
deliberation is that is acknowledges, respects, and embraces differences among
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participants rather than privileges the prevailing mode of speaking and knowing.
Significant differences in speaking and reasoning traditions are found in people with
different cultural backgrounds (Philipsen, 1992; Warnick & Manusov, 1999; Whorf,
1956). Deliberators must not assume that the linear logic of Western society is the only
reasoning form accepted within the venue (Burkhalter et al, 2002). To remedy this,
deliberative groups must include some measure of dialogue (Burkhalter et al, 2002).
Participants that possess a dialogic approach to conflict are open to changing their ways
of speaking and thinking about an issue (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997). Within conflict, this
entails the suspension, although not total abandonment, of competing worldviews in the
attempt to forge a shared way of speaking and reflecting upon an issue. Participants must
engage in dialogue to understand other members who with they simply disagree or cannot
understand. Dialogue, therefore, promotes fairness and inclusion by opening up
conversation about alternative ways of speaking and knowing (Burkhalter et al., 2002).
The way which loose time constraints and anonymity may affects dialogue must also be
thoroughly considered.
Considering Incoherence
Incoherence is defined as both “a lack of cohesion, clarity or organization”, as
well as “nonsense that is simply unintelligible”.1 However, how does one decide if
something is nonsense, lacks clarity, or is unintelligible? These things are based largely
upon perception. While research may conclude that CMC is unintelligible, or lacks
clarity based upon a model that measures organization, cohesion or engagement, it is
ultimately up to the participants to determine whether CMC is coherent. It is important to
consider this because the consequences of incoherence are far different depending upon
1
http://www.allwords.com/word-incoherent.html
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who the communication is incoherent to, and what the goal of communication is.
Furthermore, different styles of communication require different levels of coherence. For
example, messaging systems designed for chat may require a low level of interactional
coherence in comparison to messaging systems designed for structured processes, such as
deliberation. Therefore, when considering coherence it is important to take into
consideration the possibility that coherence may be as much a product of user desires as it
is the properties of the medium.
The primary point that I wish to make in this section is that text-based CMC is not
inherently incoherent. Rather, there are factors which contribute to the overall coherence
of CMC, such as the topic (Stromer-Galley, 2004), and user adaptations (Herring, 1999).
However, since this paper is primarily concerned with a highly structured process, the
most importance will be placed upon the role of messaging systems as the most
significant factor which contributes to the coherence of CMC. Deeming CMC as
incoherent carries significant consequences for both participants and practitioners of
deliberation. Participants may be discouraged from entering discussions if they feel there
is the strong potential that their contributions will be ignored or misunderstood and
practitioners may stay away from a medium if it is perceived to be incoherent. Therefore,
in hopes of dispelling any preconceived notions, I contend that incoherence is a product
of messaging systems that lack structure and design rather than an inherent characteristic
of CMC.
Message Design
When discussing the coherence of CMC, the fact that computer networks were
originally intended for data transmission, not as a means for social interaction is cited
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often (Herring, 1999). It is understandable, many conclude, that computer messaging
systems would turn out to be problematic as conversational environments. However, to
assume that interactional incoherence is the inevitable result of CMC would be, as
Herring (1999) notes, to commit “the worst abuses of technological determinism”.
Researchers in computer-supported cooperative work have identified various limitations
imposed on group interaction by the properties of the medium, ranging from high
production, reception, and speaker change costs (Clark & Brennan, 1991), to “chaos”
resulting from the greater openness of computer-mediated systems (McGrath, 1990).
However, it is very important to distinguish what is meant by “medium” and “computermediated systems” because they are often referred to as synonymous. The former seems
to refer to the medium of CMC itself, which is the computer or network, while the latter
appears to more specifically refer to the programs through which communication is
structured. Therefore, to claim that the limitations are a product of the properties of the
medium, as opposed to the properties of the messaging systems is very different. To
refer to the properties of the medium would mean that those properties are universal for
all CMC and, thus, all CMC is thwarted by the same limitations. However, this is not the
case. Due to the malleability of computer-mediated environments these limitations are
not universal and, thus, do not necessitate incoherence.
Computer-mediated communication is somewhat of a loaded term. It implies one
singular form of communication, when in fact it embodies a variety of communicative
activities. The one universal property of CMC, as in any form of text based
communication, is a lack of the audio-visual cues which are present in face-to-face
communication. However, the difference between text-based CMC, and say letter
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writing, is that similar to face-to-face communication, CMC can be structured in several
different ways. For example, when you have a conversation through the mail there is no
opportunity to change the way the interaction occurs. There is no environment in which
the interaction takes place other than on the paper and through the words. In contrast, a
computer-mediated interaction takes place in a malleable environment. This environment
works as a channel providing users with different structures and tools to mediate
interactions. Therefore, it is this mediation which is important to the coherence of CMC.
Similar to the importance of audio-visual cues in mediating offline communication, the
way in which the computer messaging systems mediate communication online is equally
important. In the case of CMC, it is the Internet though which communication is taking
place. However, forms of messaging systems on the Internet are quite different. If the
computer messaging system does nothing to actually mediate communication, then it has
no structure, and understandably would result in incoherence. On the other hand, if the
computer messaging system is “rich” in tools of mediation (or structure), than the
communication will be far more coherent.
This can be seen in much of the research concerning the coherence of CMC:
messaging systems matter. They are what structure the communication and, therefore,
are responsible for structuring it in a way that is coherent. Herring’s (1999) study
evaluating the coherence of computer-mediated interaction found that the limitations of
the messaging systems result in a high degree of disrupted turn adjacency, overlapping
exchanges, and topic decay. These results paint a picture of CMC as a highly incoherent
form of communication. However, Herring (1999) goes on to suggest that messaging
systems can be altered in such a way which increases coherence. Herring (1999)
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identifies three general desiderata for system design, many of which are now reality for
some online messaging systems: logging/archiving capabilities, two way simultaneous
feedback during message production, and tracking and linking of logically connected
turns. My intention is not to discuss whether or not these implementations would be
beneficial for deliberation in particular, but, rather to illustrate that coherence is not an
innate quality of CMC. In other words, these are structural recommendations specifically
aimed at improving conversational coherence and not deliberative coherence. While
there may be overlap in the structural characteristics beneficial to both conversation and
deliberation, the purpose of both is different and, therefore, the structural design is likely
to reflect that.
While some literature suggests that either asynchronous or synchronous CMC is
more coherent (Stromer-Galley & Martinson, 2004), I would rather suggest that it is the
way which communication is structured which contributes to whether it is coherent or
not. In this sense, both synchronous and asynchronous CMC have the potential to be
coherent forms of communication. I make this point because it is possible that for certain
steps of deliberation, synchronous or asynchronous CMC may be more favorable.
However, for the purpose of this paper, which is evaluating primarily asynchronous
features of CMC, I will suggest that asynchronous communication has more to offer the
actual step in the deliberative process in which participants are working toward a
decision.
Considering Anonymity
One key feature of CMC which is not available to face-to-face (FTF)
communication is the possibility of anonymity among participants. The word
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“anonymity” is derived from the Greek an numos, which means “without a name,” and
has been defined as “nonidentifiability” (Rotenberg, 1993; Wallace, 1999, p. 23; as cited
by Klein, Clark, & Herskovitz, 2003). One has anonymity, or is anonymous when others
are unable to relate a given feature of the person to other characteristics (Wallace, 1999).
For example, a participant in CMC would be anonymous if his/her comment or
contribution to an online forum could not be associated with other traits such as name,
address, race, gender, such that the person could be identified (Wallace, 1999).
When considering the best environment for conducting deliberation, it is
important to consider whether the identity of the participants should be disclosed or
whether they should remain anonymous. In this section I examine the socialpsychological results of anonymity, and discuss what affects they might have on the
interpersonal functions of deliberation. I will focus on two social-psychological
consequences of anonymity, the absence of social status cues (such as gender, race,
appearance, and age), and deindividuation to determine their affect on the concept of
mutual respect, the equal consideration of a range of solution, evaluative criteria, and
equal participation.
Absence of Gender and Status Cues
One important consequence of anonymity is the masking of social status cues
such as gender, race, appearance and age. Unlike FTF communication where these cues
unavoidably influence the group dynamic, in CMC it is possible to remove these factors
and, thus, change the dynamic of communication and discussion. It is first important to
understand the impact of personal characteristics, such as gender and status, on FTF
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communication and the affects they have on mutual respect, the consideration of a range
of solutions, equal participation, information gathering, and evaluative criteria.
Influence and the equal consideration of a range of ideas
In FTF communication, perceived gender roles and social status play an important
role in the ability of each participant to exert equal influence on the discussion.
Expectation states theory (Berger, Fisek, Norman, & Zelditch, 1977) suggests that group
members tend to evaluate other group members based on stereotypical performance
expectations, which are influenced by external status characteristics (Klein et al., 2003).
Deliberation requires that a wide range of solutions and suggestions are taken into
account and evaluated equally (Burkhalter et al., 2002). Perceived expectations of social
and gender roles undermine this requirement by creating a situation where some
participants’ suggestions are favored over others.
In the case of gender, people typically perceive men to have higher levels of
competence than women, unless there is very clear evidence of female superiority (Carli,
2001). As a result, gender differences in social influence occur even when there are no
objective differences in the behaviors or performance of male and female influence
agents (Carli, 2001). Therefore, women typically have an extra burden of establishing
their competence, whereas male competence is taken for granted. Although there is
evidence of a general bias against female leaders by both men and women, this bias is
particularly pronounced in men (Eagly, Makhajani & Klonsky, 1992; Forsyth, Heiney, &
Wright, 1997). Because society regards men as having a higher status than women, the
task contributions of men will be perceived as being worthier and more influential than
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the contributions of women, even when the male group members are, in fact, poorer
performers (Klein et al., 2003).
Men are often influential even when they do not adhere to traditional gender role
norms (Carli & Eagly, 1999). This may be because being influential is, in itself, more
congruent with the traditional male gender role than with the female gender role (Carli,
2001). These same prescriptive roles, which affect the influential impact of participants
due to their gender, can also be expected to apply to other social status cues such as race,
age, and appearance. Stereotypical expectations concerning the cognitive abilities of
different race and age groups would likely hamper the ability of participants to evaluate
all member contributions equally.
The presence of gender and social cues may further the problem suggested by
expectation states theory on an individual’s perception of their own role in the group. In
discussion groups which focus on a topic that is specifically relevant to a certain race,
gender, or age, group member’s opinion and position may alter based on the perception
that a certain position is expected from them. This is especially likely in groups that
consists of one male, one female, or one member of a certain race or age group. For
example, if the topic of a discussion relates to race relations, minority members of the
group may feel they must embody a certain position based on the feeling that they must
represent the entire race, or the perception that others expect them to take this role. This
adoption of a leadership position can be seen in contexts which favor female expertise or
is in a traditional female domain. Women and girls exert greater influence in these
contexts than when the context is gender neutral or masculine, because female expertise
and authority is viewed as entirely legitimate in feminine domains (Carli, 2001).
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The removal of these status indicators through anonymous interaction may be
beneficial to deliberation because it would level the amount of influence exerted by
participants; influence which is based on prescriptive gender, race, and age roles. This
would possibly make the equal consideration of a range of ideas more likely than in a
FTF setting.
Equal Participation
The ability of groups to consider a wide range of possibilities also relies on the
equal participation of all participants. “Equal participation has the potential to improve
the quality of interaction and perhaps provide the opportunity for more critical discussion
of decision alternatives” (Adkins, Shearer, Nunamaker, Romero, & Simcox, 1998, p. 518;
as cited by Klein et al., 2003). Social status and gender cues affect the equality of
participation among group members. Deliberation requires that each participant have the
equal opportunity to speak (Gastil, 1993). While this does not mean that every
participant is required to speak, they must understand that they have the opportunity and
the responsibility to do so. The presence of mutual respect among participants helps to
create a social context in which all participants feel comfortable expressing their views
and participating. However, while mutual respect may exist among the group, it is, in a
way, undermined by the presence of social status cues which place expectations on
individuals to fulfill certain roles, thus either increasing or decreasing their influence and
participation.
Studies have reported that in FTF mixed-gender groups the rate of participation
for women is lower than that of men, with women having a tendency toward stifling their
ideas (Craig & Sherit, 1986) due, among other things, to evaluation apprehension
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
22
(Meeker & Weitzel-O’Neill, 1977) and prescribed gender roles. Evaluative apprehension
refers to the anxiety created by an individual’s concern about being judged or evaluated
by others (Meeker & Weitzel-O’Neill, 1977). These concerns about what other people
think can produce either facilitation or inhibition. If a participant perceives that their
contributions will be devalued due to their social status they will likely be reluctant to
express their ideas. Through the presence of social status cues, the likelihood of
evaluation apprehension is far greater than in environments where participants are
anonymous. While feelings of evaluative apprehension could persist in anonymous
environments, they will more likely be due to the self-doubt or low self-esteem of the
individual, rather than informed by social status cues.
The generation of a range of ideas:
The consideration of a wide range of ideas and solutions depends on both the
equality of participation and the perception that all contributions are equally influential.
While participants may feel respect for one another in FTF environments, they are unable
to escape the stereotypical expectations associated with social status cues and gender.
Therefore, it is possible that the simple presence of mutual respect is not enough to
ensure equal participation and influence. This is where the possibility of anonymity may
be quite beneficial in fulfilling these specific requirements of deliberation. Anonymous
interaction via computer-mediated technologies provides an environment free of gender
and social status cues, thereby ensuring that the contributions of each group member are
evaluated only on merit and not on the contributor’s external characteristics (Herschel,
1994; Klein, 2000; Klein & Dologite, 2000).
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
23
Anonymous CMC can help to eliminate the evaluative apprehension associated
with social status and gender cues, thus, increasing the quantity and range of ideas
presented in a discussion. Research has indicated that anonymous computer-mediated
groups produce a greater number of ideas and higher quality of ideas than traditional FTF
groups (Barki & Pinsonneault, 2001; Gallupe, Cooper, Grise, & Bastianutti, 1994;
Gallupe, DeSanctis, & Dickson, 1988). Furthermore, in a study comparing anonymous
CMC with non-anonymous CMC Jessup and Tansik (1991) found that “group members
working anonymously are more likely to embellish ideas and question solutions, and will
generate slightly more comments than those working under conditions of identifiability”.
While anonymity has shown to produce more comments in CM groups, conclusions
cannot be drawn about the creativity of these ideas (Klein, et al., 2003). However, if one
accepts Osborn’s (1957) premise of “quantity breeds quality” in FTF groups, it may be
suggested that a CM group which generates more ideas increases the likelihood of more
creative ideas among them. Because deliberation requires that participants suggest a
wide range of possible solutions, environments should be designed in ways which
increases the generation of ideas.
Information gathering and evaluative criteria
The role of anonymity in the ability of participants to fulfill the interpersonal
communicative requirements of deliberation may have a downside as well. While
anonymity may prove beneficial, due to its elimination of social status and gender cues,
thus, increasing participation, idea generation, and equaling the influence of participants;
it may be detrimental to the deliberative requirements of information gathering and
evaluative criteria. For a discussion to be deliberative, participants must provide all
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
24
relevant information available upon which to base their deliberative claims. This
includes, according to Burkhalter et al. (2002), personal experience and testimony. If the
topic of discussion is the welfare system in the United States, and say a member of the
group is a welfare beneficiary, his or her experience is a relevant form of information that
is important to the information base of the group. The race or the gender of the
participant then may become substantive information to understanding the perspective
which the person holds. The allowance of bearing witness and personal testimony as a
legitimate form of “evidence” is a crucial requirement of deliberation (Burkhalter et al.,
2002).
The importance of gender and other social status cues may again be significant
when discussing evaluative criteria. Participants’ arguments sometimes directly appeal to
the common good, but at times can appeal to a conception of the good that is shared by
members of a subpublic (Benhabib, 1992). Deliberative groups must explicitly discuss
and develop criteria upon which all possible solutions will be evaluated. Without
discussion, people will assume common values, which has the effect of silencing
potential differences (Burkhalter et al., 2002). Values are often linked directly to social
status, gender, or age. Therefore, when explaining these values in a deliberative
discussion, it may be necessary for participants to disclose such personal characteristics.
This would, therefore, remove the anonymity of participants making them identifiable
and open to the setbacks of FTF communication.
The question now becomes, can participants retain the advantages of anonymity
(lack of social status and gender cues) while at the same time engage in discussion about
values and personal experience. Is there a way in which participants can share this
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
25
information without having it linked to the possible message itself? The answer may lie
in the innovation and creativity employed by computer messaging systems. One
possibility is the absence of any user name or pseudonym for participants. If messages
are unidentifiable, participant would, therefore, have no knowledge whatsoever of whom
in the group is posting a comment. However, the repercussion of this total anonymity
may result in the deindividuation of participants.
Deindividuation
A potential drawback of anonymity is the possible disappearance of social norms
which manage normal FTF communication. In this section I will consider the
consequences of deindividuation on social interaction, identity, and inhibition. If
deindividuation is a result of anonymity, we must consider the significance of this and
what affect it will have on deliberation. Reicher, Levin, and Gordijn (1998) trace the
origins of deindividuation to the studies by LeBon (1895) on the effect of an individual
submergence into crowd. LeBon (1895) believed that when submerged in a crowd, the
collective mind takes possession of the individual. In effect, the individual loses selfcontrol and becomes a puppet, susceptible to control by the crowd’s leader, and capable
of performing any act, however atrocious or heroic (LeBon, 1895). The more modern
conception of deindividuation has expanded to include settings other than the crowd.
Festinger, Pepitone, & Newcomb (1952) argued that deindividuation occurs in any
situation when individuals in a group are not paid attention to as individuals. Being
unaccountable in a crowd or group has the psychological consequence of reducing inner
restraints, and increasing behavior that is usually inhibited (Festinger et al. 1952). In this
state of diminished self-awareness, individuals act as if they were submerged or
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
26
psychologically absorbed in a group, leading to a weakening of social norms,
abandonment of inner restraints, and loss of evaluative apprehension (Diener, 1980;
Festinger et al. 1952). The logic behind this is that when participants are no longer held
accountable for their actions or comments, they will revert to an unrestrained
psychological state.
Jessup, Connolly, and Tansik (1990) proposed the theory of anonymous
interaction that advanced the notion that anonymity in CMC undermines external social
controls due to deindividuated behavior caused by a system which buffers group
members from each other and detaches individuals from their contributions. A result of
this dehumanization and loss of inhibition may result in the phenomenon of “flaming”.
Although researchers have provided several explanations as to what constitutes a flame in
online communication, the term generally requires hostile intentions characterized by
words of profanity, obscenity, and insults that inflict harm to a person or an organization
resulting from uninhibited behavior (Kiesler & Sproull, 1992; Reinig, Briggs &
Nunamaker, 1998). However, studies specific to CMC have not always produced
consistent results as to whether all anonymous interaction leads to deindividuation and
flaming (Rowland, 2000). But even studies which have produced apparently conflicting
results suggest that the effects of anonymity and anonymous communication depend on
the particular tasks undertaken or other specific circumstances at the time (Rowland,
2000).
If the task of a CM groups is deliberation, it is likely that participants would not
be inclined to engage in flaming behavior being that it would undermine the purpose of
the group. It is questionable as to whether deindividuation actually leads to disturbing
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
27
behavior. Hiltz, Turoff, and Johnson (1989) interpret the effects of deindividuation in a
different way. For them, deindividuated behavior leads individuals to conform to
whatever the group’s norms, values, or opinions are (Hiltz et al. 1989). While there may
be a loss of personal identity when an individual is submerged in a group setting, social
identity may be accentuated (Lea and Spear, 1991; Spears, Oliver & Maes, 1990). Lea
and Spears (1991) and Spears et al. (1990) distinguish the context in which activities take
place and suggest that studies which cite flaming as a phenomenon of CMC
underestimate the role of social contextual factors. For example, social settings such as
chat rooms may accentuate the loss of social and personal identity resulting in flaming,
while anonymous deliberative oriented groups with fixed membership may increase the
loss of personal identity, while accentuating the feeling of social identity. If
deindividuation encourages the feeling of group identity while de-emphasizing personal
identity, participants may be more inclined to engage in communicative action
(Habermas, 1984) rather than strategic or self-interested communication.
The question is now, how can participants be held accountable for misconduct,
and flaming practices if messages lack recongnisability, identifiability, and traceability?
As with the question of incoherence, the design and configuration of online messaging
systems can be fundamental for managing the effects of anonymity. The use of an online
moderator is a common feature in most offline deliberative experiments. Moderators can
serve the purposes of keeping discussion on track, verifying the accuracy of information,
and more relevantly, observing the behavior of participants. Therefore, if messages are
traceable only to the moderator and not the participants, the discussion can thus benefit
from the advantages of the absence of gender and social status cues, while making sure
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
28
that the deindividuation of participants does not lead to anti-social behavior, or irrelevant,
hostile, obscene comments. The design in CM environments is important in retaining the
benefits of anonymity while decreasing the likelihood of negative deindividuated
behavior such as flaming.
Considering Time
As noted by Burkhalter et al. (2002), despite different orientations and emphases,
many writers have identified the careful weighing of both the consequences of various
options for action and the views of others as being at the core of deliberation (Barber,
1984; Fishkin, 1991; Gastil, 1993; Page, 1996; Mathews, 1994). While the desire to
weigh carefully ultimately depends on the decision of the participants themselves, it is the
responsibility of the practitioners to create an environment which promotes this core
requirement of deliberation. When designing an environments to support online
deliberation several decisions must be made, many of which revolve around time.
There is insufficient empirical data to draw any conclusions concerning the affect
of time on group discussion. As noted by Benbunan-Fitch, Hitlz, and Turoff (2002), the
use of asynchronous technologies to support teamwork has not been studied to the extent
of synchronous systems (Fjermestad & Hiltz, 1999). Asynchronous CMC represents a
“unique mode of communication” (Benbunan-Fich et al., 2002), different not only from
FTF communication, but even from synchronous CMC (Rice, 1987). Much of the work
concerning online group interaction focuses on the use of group support systems (GSS).
Group support systems, also known as groupware (Johansen, 1988), are interactive
computer-based information systems that supports and structure group interaction to
focus and enhance the communication, deliberations, and decision making of groups
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
29
(Klein, 2000; Zigurs & Buckland, 1998). Group members are located at computer
workstations which are connected to a common network. Geographical location and
synchronicity is malleable resulting in four temporal/spatial combinations: sametime/same-place, same-time/different-place, different-time/same-place, and differenttime/different-place (Nunamaker, 1997). For example, participants can be in the same or
different geographical location at individual computer workstations posting comments
either synchronously or asynchronously. Furthermore, participants can either be
anonymous or identifiable, and discussions can be focused around completing a task,
making a decision, or simply brainstorming.
Given this complexity of different combinations in these systems it is difficult to
draw conclusive results from this body of work concerning the effects of time on the
interpersonal requirements of deliberation. There are no studies to my knowledge which
controls for the effects of time on decision making. To do this would be to determine that
idea generation, or participation, are directly influenced by loose time constraints and not
the result of anonymity (which has been found to increase the breadth of discussion and
user participation), the presence of moderators, the complexity of the task, or simply the
cognitive capabilities of the participants. Furthermore, if participants are anonymous,
how anonymous are they? Do they have ambiguous user profiles, are their comments
connected to these profiles, or do they lack profiles all together? As noted by BenbunanFitch et al. (2002), while previous studies have documented superior performance and
perception outcomes (Benbunan-Fich & Hiltz, 1999; Ocker, Hiltz, Turoff, & Fjermestad,
1995) for asynchronous supported teams when compared to face-to-face groups, it is
unclear why asynchronous groups produced better output. Given the lack of empirical
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
30
evidence, I will instead discuss the possible outcomes of asynchronous CMC on the
interpersonal communicative requirements of deliberation. Where possible I will present
evidence which may suggest the effects of asynchronous communication on the
interpersonal requirements of deliberation. I will begin by considering the possible
effects of loose time constraints on information gathering, participation, the equal
consideration of a wide range of solutions, and dialogic differences. I will then consider
the effect of asynchroncity on group coordination and messaging systems. I will
conclude by considering possible design implementations which may increase process
gains and reduce process losses.
Information Gathering
Deliberation requires that participants have access to all relevant information
needed to discuss a topic (Burkhalter et al., 2002). This is important for both the
accuracy of comments as well as the breadth of discussion. According to Gastil (1993),
participants have a moral right to receive necessary and available information, and those
who have access to such information have a responsibility to provide it. The Internet is
one such resource which can provide participants access to an unlimited quantity of
information. However, even if deliberation is occurring in an online setting and
participants have access to online resources, time constraints hinder their ability to
effectively gather information. In offline deliberative projects such as the National Issues
Forum, group organizers, or moderators provide participants with materials that pertain to
the chosen issue of discussion. These materials consist of issue booklets produced by a
joint venture between Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation. The issue books are
generally divided into five or six sections. The introduction provides an overview of the
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
31
issue. Then, three or four sections illustrate the basic policy options, choices, or points of
view that might be adopted in making decisions. Finally, a conclusion summarizes the
choices arrayed in the previous sections, suggesting the various trade-offs associated with
each. These packets are to be read by participants prior to discussion.
While it is important for organizers to gather and provide participants with
information about an issue, it is impossible to know before hand all information that will
be deemed relevant or necessary to a discussion (Burkhalter et al., 2002). Therefore, to
the extent that participants identify information as being necessary, they should have
access to it. The ability of participants to do this requires that they have sufficient time to
do so. Even if participants have unlimited access to information, it takes time to gather
and make sense of. In asynchronous CMC, participants are not restrained by time and
thus are able to access all information that they deem necessary to the discussion.
Not only would loose time constraints allow groups to strengthen their
information base, it would also make easier the verification of claims improving the
overall validity of the discussion. Deliberation not only requires all relevant information
it also require accurate information (Burkhalter et al., 2002; Gouran & Hirokawa, 1996).
It is possible that loose time constraints would reduce the number of inaccurate claims
due to the ability of participants to meticulously cite sources, as well as verify the validity
of other participant’s claims. While asynchronous CMC may not make groups engage in
this practice of fact-checking, it does make it a possibility. Because accurate information
gathering and access to all relevant information is required of deliberative discussion, an
environment that makes this possible is necessary.
Range of solutions
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
32
I previously discussed how anonymity may increase the range of solutions
primarily by reducing evaluative apprehension and equalizing participation. However,
how is the range of solutions in a discussion group affected by loose time constraints?
Cognitively, we can assume that participants would be able to consider a larger range of
solutions in a period of a week rather than 2 hours. An asynchronous environment allows
participants to reflect more about their own contributions and to have broader discussions
than groups working in an FTF or synchronous computer-mediated environments (Hiltz,
1994). Because deliberation requires that participants must strive to consider views
across the political spectrum, especially those not held by its own membership
(Burkhalter et al., 2002), it is important that the structure of the discussion allows
participants to do so.
The value of increased time for reflection may also be beneficial to the quality of
comments given by participants. During interpersonal interaction it is without a doubt
that our emotions play a role in how we behave and react toward other people. Social
contagion theory (Levy & Nail, 1993) demonstrates people’s tendency to unintentionally
and automatically “catch” other people’s emotions through their facial expressions,
vocalizations, postures, or movements (Friedman & Riggio, 1981; Hess & Blairy, 2001).
Interestingly, research also suggests that individuals engaged in synchronous CMC
unconsciously imitate not only the linguistic structure of each others messages, but also
the social emotional connotations of the messages (Thompson & Nadler, 2002). The
conveyance of emotion allows participants to exert force and influence over a discussion
as well as gain empathy and understanding from participants. It is unclear whether the
presence of emotion in a deliberative group has a positive or negative affect on the
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
33
discussion as a whole. It has been argued that emotions have a number of important
social functions and consequences (Frijda & Mesquita, 1994; Keltner & Haidt, 1999;
Oatley & Jenkins, 1992). Emotions have the ability to convey valuable information
concerning the salience of an issue. Emotions signal what value one attaches to a
different issue and provide critical feedback about one’s mood and willingness to agree.
However, one of the reasons emotional expressiveness is often deemed informative is
that people typically assume that emotions are spontaneous and tell the real story
(Planalp, 1999). However, because people have the ability to prevent emotional
reactions, manage expression, and strategically adapt emotional messages (Planalp, 1999)
the value of emotions and their sincerity could be called into question.
Undeniably, emotions are likely to be a component of any discussion and, thus, a
deliberative environment must be structured in a way that attempts to maximize the
benefits of emotional conveyance while at the same time minimize the drawbacks. The
strategic use of emotions to coerce, or mislead fellow participants is ultimately
determined by the ethical convictions of the participants themselves. Genuine emotion,
however, is less of a choice made by participants, and often times more of a reaction.
While these emotions are important to the information base of a group, when they begin
to dominate the discussion it becomes problematic. While emotions should not be absent
from deliberation, participants must strive to engage in a rational, reason-based
interaction. Asynchronous discussions with loose time constraints may have a “cooling”
effect on emotionally-driven responses. Unlike moods, emotions are of relatively high
intensity and short duration (Barry, 1999; Forgas, 1992; Oatley & Jenkins, 1996). It is
likely that participants who are given more time to reflect will be less likely to respond in
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
34
a way which is driven solely by emotion. For example, if a participant posts a comment
that is somewhat offensive but provides reason for their claim, another participant in a
synchronous or FTF environment may be inclined to focus more on the offensive part of
the comment rather than the logic, or explanation behind it. This “off-the-cuff” response
may result in a comment that is driven by emotion rather than logic or understanding.
Loose time constraints may provide a protection against this brand of response, resulting
in more thoughtful, reason-based discussions. While it is not certain that participants will
choose to act in a more thoughtful, reflective fashion, deliberation requires an
environment that allows them to do so.
Equality of Participation and Dialogic Differences
Each participant in a deliberative group should have adequate opportunities to
speak (Gastil, 1993). While it is not required that every participant speak, is it essential
that they have the opportunity to do so. This means that those who require more time to
speak should be granted it, insofar as it does not intrude on another’s right to speak. If
time is a factor, such as in a FTF or synchronous computer-mediated groups, it is the
responsibility of the participants to create an environment in which each participant has
an equal opportunity to speak (Burkhalter et al., 2002). This often results in a principle
of equal speaking time to determine the length of each speaker’s turn (Burkhalter et al.,
2002). However, some individuals think differently, or possess more “relevant”
information and, thus, require more time than other participants. Therefore, in FTF and
synchronous environments, time is a constraining factor that does not align with the
requirements of deliberative discussion.
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
35
Asynchronous CMC with loose time constraints might pose two possible benefits
for group participation. First, it may decrease the likelihood of participants being
dissatisfied with a discussion due to insufficient opportunities to participate. It is difficult
for a participant to argue that they did not have the opportunity to participate if a
discussion takes place over several weeks. Second, loose time constraints may better
accommodate those with different ways of speaking and reasoning. Deliberative
discussions need to accommodate significant differences in speaking and reasoning
traditions because they often include people with diverse cultural backgrounds (Philipsen,
1992; Warnick & Manusov, 1999; Whorf, 1956). It is important to recognize that there
are as many different forms of “reason” as there are cultural perspectives and ways of
speaking (Burkhalter et al., 2002). Furthermore, some people are simply better at
thinking on their feet, while others require more time before they feel prepared to
contribute to a discussion. An ideal deliberative environment must acknowledge and
respect these differences, rather than privilege the prevailing, rationalistic mode of
speaking and knowing (Burkhalter et al. 2002). An environment with loose time
constraints might begin to help accommodate these differences in speaking, and
rationalizing by allowing all participants the time they need to sort out their differences
and gather their thoughts.
In a comparison of asynchronous computer-mediated groups with FTF groups,
Benbunan-Fich et al. (2002) found that asynchronous groups working under loose time
constraints focused far more on discrepancy reduction (the solution of their
disagreements). While groups may continue to disagree on the validity of certain forms
of reasoning, it is important that all reasoning styles are understood and considered; only
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
36
then is it valid for the group to pass judgment on the validity of the claim. In
synchronous environments the explanation and consideration of differences is less likely
to take place due to time constraints. Rather than privileging the most seasoned speaker,
quickest typist, or dominant form of logic, asynchronous environments might work to
provide an environment where a diversity of views are heard, and where differences can
be discussed.
Coordination and Coherence
Despite several possible advantages of conducting deliberation in an
asynchronous environment, possible problems with coordination and coherence may
arise. Benbunan-Fich et al. (2002) found that despite asynchronous groups mentioning
more issues and having broader discussions than their FTF counterparts, FTF groups
reported significantly better perceptions of discussion quality than asynchronous groups
(Benbunan-Fich et al., 2002). They attributed this discrepancy to greater coordination
challenges facing groups working in asynchronous environments than for groups working
through a synchronous decision support system or FTF without computer support
(Benbunan-Fich et al., 2002). However, it must be noted that the perception that
asynchronous discussions were of less quality than FTF discussions may also be
attributed to a natural bias people have in favor of FTF meetings (Benbunan-Fich et al.,
2002). Nevertheless, as a result of coordination challenges, asynchronous groups were
far more actively involved in the coordination of the discussion and adopted loosely
coupled coordination approaches, while FTF groups adopted tightly coupled approaches
(Benbunan-Fich et al., 2002). The approach of asynchronous groups led to problems
with missing members that did not participate or meet coordination deadlines. While this
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
37
evidence may not apply to groups where deliberation is the central purpose, given that the
groups in the study were task oriented and structured differently, they do pose potential
problems which must be addressed when designing the structure of online asynchronous
forums for deliberation.
Another potential drawback of asynchronous CMC, which is connected to
coordination challenges, is a possible increase in discussion incoherence. In
asynchronous CMC there is often considerable time lag between when a message is sent
and when it is responded to. This leads to message overlap, sequential incoherence, and
messages which contain multiple “moves” (Herring, 1999). While this message “lag”
takes place in synchronous CMC as well, it is more pronounced in asynchronous settings
due to looser time constraints.
Controlling Coordination and Coherence
To a greater degree than FTF interaction or synchronous CMC, asynchronous
deliberation demands structure for successful collaboration (Macoubrie, 2003). The
coordination of participants in an asynchronous deliberative environment requires a wellthought-out group process design. Groups, once in trouble, have a difficult time
recovering (Friedman, 1989). Structured processes designed prior to discussion help to
anticipate problems and forestall trouble (Macoubrie, 2003). Structuring group processes
effectively involves the identification of key process variables, specifically the hoped-for
aspects of discussion (vibrant participation and idea generation, etc), and building those
functional tasks into the group process design (Macoubrie, 2003). Users are more likely
to participate in systems that facilitate rather than hinder interaction management
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
38
(Herring, 1999). Therefore, the satisfaction of participants and the overall success of
coordinating deliberation online are dependent on the structure of the group process.
As discussed in a previous section, problems of coherence are due to a lack of
audio visual cues and are likely to be corrected by messaging systems that are rich in
tools of mediation. However, user adaptations to the medium also significantly decrease
the problems of incoherence which result from asynchronous CMC (Herring, 1999).
Users innovate alternative methods of signaling listenership and negotiating turn
alteration in an attempt to offset tracking and coordination problems caused by loose time
constraints (Herring, 1999). For example, it is widely considered a breach of ‘netiquette’
to send messages that contain no significant original content (Herring, 1994;
McLaughlin, Osborne & Smith, 1995). Users use copy-and-paste methods to insert
responses to various parts of a previous message. This is especially useful in
asynchronous groups where comments tend to contain two or more moves (Baym, 1996;
Black, Levin, Mehan & Quinn, 1983; Condon & Cech, Forthcoming). This innovation
signals both listenership as well as cross-turn reference (Herring, 1999).
This ability to quote and respond to all parts of a previous comment not only
increases coherence but could also prove a significant tool in improving the deliberative
quality of a discussion. During deliberation participants must be committed to
understanding and taking into consideration the views of others. This user adaptation
may prevent egocentric behavior where participants seem to be engaged in a sincere
exchange of ideas; when in fact the ideas being exchanged are exclusive from one
another. If one reads a comment and responds with one’s own opinion, with no reference
to previous comments, little consideration has taken place. In asynchronous CMC
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
39
participants could be expected to respond to all parts of a previous comment signaling
full consideration of all parts of a message. Therefore, problems which may arise from
asynchronous deliberation with loose time constraints may possibly be controlled by
innovation on the part of practitioners as well as participants.
Conclusion
The main assumption driving this paper is that deliberation is a structured process
with very specific communicative and interpersonal requirements. Previous studies
reduce deliberation to a variable that is assumed to be present during any public
discussion, issue forum, or town meeting that has a format permitting structural
interaction among participants (Denver, Hands, & Jones, 1995; Fishkin & Luskin, 1999;
Gastil & Dillard, 1999b; McLeod et al., 1999). When deliberation is reduced to a
variable less attention is paid to the conceptual precision and theoretical grounding of
deliberation. This theoretical ambiguity can lead to incommensurate works on what
theorists presume to be the same subject (Burkhalter et al., 2002). Furthermore, the lack
of an explicit and detailed definition of what deliberation is, or what makes a discussion
deliberative, leads to the construction of online (and offline) environments which may not
actually be conducive to conducting deliberation. This paper employs a definition of
deliberation as a form of communication which requires very specific interpersonal and
communicative elements. Working from this perspective of deliberation, environments
can then be structured in a way to promote these interpersonal and communicative
elements. Furthermore, forms of communication, such as face-to-face, entail their own
norms of interaction and structure which may not coincide with the interpersonal and
communicative requirements of deliberation. New information technologies, such as
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
40
computer-mediated communication provide a possible alternative form of communication
in which interaction can be structured in a variety of ways. In light of this alternative, the
question which must be asked is to whether face-to-face communication is actually ideal
for the promotion of these deliberative elements.
In this I have analyzed whether basic features of face-to-face communication such
as identifiability and synchronicity are theoretically conducive to promoting the
interpersonal and communicative elements which make a discussion deliberative. I have
argued that incoherence is likely the result of messaging systems which lack the tools of
mediation needed to structure coherent communicative interaction. Computer-mediated
communication is not, therefore, inherently incoherent; rather messaging systems can be
designed in a way which promotes coherent conversation. Having considered the
possible effects of anonymity and loose time constraints on the interpersonal and
communicative requirements of deliberation, I argue that online environments which lack
social status cues and time constraints may actually help to promote the interpersonal and
communicative elements which make a discussion deliberative. More specifically, these
features may help to promote the equal influence of participants, the consideration of a
wide range of ideas, idea generation, equality of participation, the discussion of
evaluative criteria, information gathering, and mutual respect. Furthermore, possible
setbacks of both anonymity and loose time constraints may relate primarily to
information gathering and deindividuation, as well as coordination and coherence.
However, the design and configuration of online messaging systems as well as the
presence of moderators, and a stringent process design may be fundamental for managing
these possible difficulties.
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
41
Limitations and possible future research
There are several possible limitations to this paper. The first is the omission of
heterogeneity as a requirement of deliberative discussion. Theoretically, for a discussion
to be deliberative it must also be among a heterogeneous sample of the population
(Witschge, 2002). The main reason why I have not addressed this feature of deliberation
is because I believe that the environment in which deliberation takes place may
undermine the true value of heterogeneity, which is to increase the information base of
the group through a diversity of views. As suggested in this paper, an environment which
contains gender and social status cues, as well as time constraints may actually work to
silence certain individuals, therefore, limiting the diversity of views despite
heterogeneity. However, additional research into the ideal environment for conducting
deliberation must contain further consideration of heterogeneity.
The second limitation to this paper concerns the lack of empirical evidence
concerning the effects of time and anonymity in deliberative groups. There are no extant
studies to my knowledge which control for the effects of time or anonymity in a group
with the purpose of deliberative discussion. Doing so would help determine whether the
fulfillment of a specific deliberative requirement is the result of either anonymity, loose
time constraints, or other exogenous factors. Furthermore, if participants are anonymous,
how anonymous are they? Do they have ambiguous user profiles, are their comments
connected to these profiles, or do they lack profiles all together? While this paper is
purposely theoretical, future research must address these questions if they wish to derive
empirical evidence concerning the effects which environmental and structural factors
have on deliberative discussion.
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
42
The Deliberative Potential of CMC
43
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