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Hypermedia Online Publishing: the Transformation of the Scholarly Journal

4.5.6 Computer-mediated communication

Computer-Mediated Communication has a primary focus on communication between human beings, albeit supported by computer-computer communication along the way. It is likely that for most users, the CMC aspect of the Internet is their primary use, measured in terms of the number of hours they allocate to it. One of the reasons that CMC tools on the Internet are so popular is that people love to communicate. In the scholarly community, the range of Internet tools makes it possible to make links with people one would never have met normally, and may never meet. In particular, it makes it possible to form invisible colleges of colleagues around the world. Such networks may be formal or informal and may use a range of techniques: private email lists, Listservers, newsgroups, MUDs/MOOs and more. However, Lewenstein, in examining the use of bulletin boards during the cold-fusion controversy, argues that "CMC will not replace traditional face-to-face interaction" [Lewenstein, 1995, p. 144].

Electronic mail

Email is probably the most used network application, and for many users is their primary application for the Internet. Email is, of course, not restricted to the Internet. Many organisations run their own in-house email systems, or use one of a range of private email providers. In-house email systems include products like Microsoft Mail, CE's QuickMail and Lotus' cc:mail. Private email providers include MCImail, AT&T Mail and Compuserve. An increasing number of organisations are providing gateways from their in-house systems to the Internet, and most of the private providers provide such gateways. These gateways enable users of in-house proprietary email systems to send and receive Internet email. Email originally provided transmission of text messages only. The development of the Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) standard has enabled a range of other media types (graphics image, digitised movie, program file, etc.) to be attached to a normal email message. A number of gateways provide mail translation across the boundaries between the Internet and internal email systems.

Many mail clients allow the user to attach a file - as opposed to including it. The development of the Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) standard has enabled a range of other media types such as graphics images, digitised movies, documents and program files to be attached to a normal email message. If the email client at the other end knows how to display the attachment, the user will be able to view it onscreen. Alternatively the attachment can be saved to disk for further processing by another program. In this way more complex documents can be transmitted via email. A typical use of this is to attach a formatted word processing file to an email message. The receiver will then be able to open the attachment with their own word processor (assuming the sender and the receiver have used compatible word processing programs).

A typical use of email is for a researcher to maintain an informal list of colleagues around the world who assist with their preparation of articles and conference papers. Early drafts can be circulated for comment, and preprints/reprints sent out once accepted. Of course, scholars have been doing this sort of thing for centuries with print-based information. The difference here is the ease and speed with which it can occur. In fast-moving fields of research, waiting months or years for a paper to appear in a journal may involve an unacceptable delay. The ability to read and cite others work before it has been officially published or presented can be very valuable.

Mailing lists

Listservers provide for automated mailing lists. Typically users need to subscribe to a list via email before they can use it. From then on, any email message they send to the list is automatically copied to everyone else on the list. Such lists can be moderated (someone takes responsibility for vetting contributions and perhaps editing them) or unmoderated (no controls other than peer pressure apply). In excess of 5,000 specialised lists exist to facilitate communication on a bewildering array of topics. Some listserver software allows for automatic retrieval of information via email. The user sends a message requesting a certain file and it is returned by email.

In a more formal way a listserver might be established to enable those interested in a particular topic to correspond. Such listservs either can serve as enablers of existing communities or may act as catalysts to create a new form of 'virtual invisible college'[Treloar, 1994]. As an example of such an initiative, the National Scholarly Communications Forum was established in late 1993 to bring together parties interested in the effects of the networking revolution on Australian global communication and information access. Its founding members were the Australian Academies (Science, Humanities, Technological Sciences and Social Sciences), Australian Society of Authors, Australian Library and Information Association, Australian Council of Libraries and Information Services, Australian Book Publishers' Association, Council of Australian University Librarians, Committee of Australian University Directors of Information Technology, Copyright Agency Ltd., National Library of Australia, and Council of Australian State Libraries.

Network news

Network newsgroups (also called UseNet News) are another way to enable shared discussions on specific topics. The main differences between news and listservers are that newsgroup traffic is automatically copied to sites that provide news access whether anyone is reading it or not, news disappears as it becomes stale, and that message traffic within newsgroups tends to be grouped into threads (or particular sub-topics of discussion). Newsgroups come into being, evolve and fade away on a time scale of years. Threads arise and disappear on a scale of days or weeks. Special newsreading programs are required to access news. There are upwards of 14,000 globally propagated newsgroups and many more that are specific to particular organisations. Newsgroups can also be used by scholars to correspond with communities of shared interests, although the discussion is not always so focused as with email lists.

Multi-user Dimensions

Multi-User Dimensions (MUDs - originally standing for Multi-User Dungeons) initially evolved for the playing of fantasy-role games set in mythical/fantasy surroundings. They can best be described as text-based virtual reality environments. Users see a textual description of their location and interact with their environment and other users by typing commands. In a MUD, multiple users can simultaneously communicate, interact, and even create new parts of the shared reality. In many ways, a well-populated MUD can be viewed as a virtual community. A good example of such a community is LambdaMOO (MOO stands for MUD - Object Oriented). The Uniform Resource Locator (URL) for this MOO is: <telnet://> .

The facilities provided by MUDs are also starting to be used for serious scholarly discourse, enabling researchers to interact in a natural setting, and work cooperatively to solve problems or produce items of mutual interest. The ability to leave information in a virtual room for others to read when they visit is particularly helpful when cooperating across timezones. A number of examples can be mentioned. Researchers into Post Modern Culture can use the PMCMOO at <telnet://> , and a MOO for the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities is available at <telnet://> . Biologists are able to hold meetings, discuss research, and critique papers in the BIOMOO. This has a WWW homepage at <> . Those without WWW capabilities can use <telnet://> . Researchers into Media and related areas can register for admission to the MediaMOO at <telnet://> . This MOO provides a richly textured information space, drawing on the creative talents of a number of the MIT community. Members are encouraged to design their own virtual offices and link them into the shared space.

Last modified: Monday, 18-Sep-2017 03:28:30 AEST

© Andrew Treloar, 2001. * *