Users’ comparisons between computer-mediated communication (CMC) and other forms of communication are of theoretical interest and have important implications for system design and implementation.
This paper outlines the prevalent systems rationalist perspective on CMC, which sees the medium primarily as an efficient channel for information transfer in specific organizational tasks, and critically reviews the evidence which studies of users’ perceptions and media preferences offer for this generalized view.
In advocating a widening of our perspective on CMC, a field study is described in which electronic mail users within a large commercial telecommunications company were invited to compare eight different communication activities, using repertory grid technique.
From a total of 91 user-generated constructs, five principal dimensions were identified which accounted for users’ discriminations among the different activities. Electronic mailing was construed as being similar to written activities (such as note-writing) on some dimensions (e.g., ‘asynchrony’, ’emotional quality’) but similar to spoken, face-to-face communication on other dimensions such as ‘spontaneity’.
The results suggest that the group of users construed CMC mainly in terms of its attributes as a medium for conversation and social interaction. There was no evidence of spontaneous task-related media comparisons. These results together with findings from other studies are discussed in terms of rationalist and symbolic interationist perspectives on CMC. Implications for system design are also considered.