What does it mean to dwell in Cyberspace and why do we go there?
A look at theories and definitions
Part 7


A Project Presented to Dr. O Dr. O. Amienyi, Professor of Radio/TV, and the ASU College of Communications in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements of Theory of Mass Communications, November 2000

And the people are empowered…

"The Internet is an information age tool that empowers individuals and reduces the need for a large, authoritarian government. It empowers the poor with an unregulated world of entrepreneurial opportunity... Information and the new frontier could create a more fair, peaceful society."

-Wayne Laugesen, 1995

Relational communication theory (RC) examines the dynamics within human to human communications (Ebesu & Burgoon, 1991), particularly how it is influenced by a participant’s perspective. Perspectives are primarily developed from an individual’s method of evaluation and their image of self, which means that they are "tied to reactions and influenced by feedback from particular others." Relational communications also considers the target, which is a specific individual, rather then a generalized audience. In analyzing these elements, the theory’s main attempt is to evaluate the meaning of behaviors and non-verbal interactions rather than the actions themselves.

Although relational communications approaches are intended to examine human-to-human interactions, there are components of this approach that are well suited to explain some computer-mediated communications (CMC) that may or may not require two human participants. Bavelas (1990) writes that "not all nonverbal communication is relational, nor is all relational communication nonverbal." Many of the relational communication sub-themes are assumed to be, and defined as, physical behaviors. These sub-themes include touching, posture, tone, and expression. The general themes identified provide for a more liberal motif. Dominance, composure, orientation, trust, intimacy, and satisfaction are all considered as elements of relational communications. Because these elements are present in CMC, relational communication theory would be an appropriate approach for examining Internet perspectives and their influences.

For the purpose of this study, the element of dominance present in relational communications will be the focus. Ball-Rokeack (1998) notes that power is acquired to the extent that "one party…seeks access to the other’s resources." She adds that the "resource-rich" party may become "invested in resources controlled by the other" in order to continue the relationship. Relational communication defines some of the determinants of dominance as possession or appointment of space; access to others’ belongings, time and territories; communication initiation; conversation distance; and control of silence (Ebesu & Burgoon, 1991). All of these elements are present as users interact through a computer. Users access belongings, time and space online, and they control the method, length and tone of communication. We log on and off at will. We alone decide the "how and where" of interaction. This applies whether the user is surfing, gaming or researching, engaged in chat, or using email and messaging boards. Because these are conscious activities, it is reasonable to assume users engaged in online activities use and experience perceptions similar to those used and experienced in human-to-human communications. If this is true, then users should experience a sense of dominance and control when engaged in CMC.

The Internet allows users the unique ability to produce, project, receive, consume and master. Simply having the ability to perform all of these activities is certainly a step toward empowerment. Jonathan Lillie (1997) cites eight components of empowerment identified by Schwerin: self-esteem, self-efficacy, knowledge and skills, political awareness, social participation, political participation, political rights and responsibilities, and resources. Not all of these components must be present for empowerment to develop, but the more of them that are present, the more an individual feels empowered.

Returning to observations made by Suler (1999a), achievement and mastery are innate parts of human need and development. The Internet facilitates and encourages the control needed to master and achieve "success" online. Individuals experience empowerment as they succeed in their goals. Affection, inclusion and control, previously identified as basic human motives, can easily be satisfied on the Internet once a user discovers his/her way around. The virtual experience itself invites discovery. We discover things that could never be done before. We can express ideas that we couldn’t express before (Pimentel & Teixeira, 1993). We accelerate through time as we skip through hypertext (Heim, 1993). And when we are experiencing the visual treats and hypertext found in Cyberspace, we feel ourselves moving through the disappearing interface, through a world with its own dimensions and rules (Heim). Wallace (1999) suggests that we are "enamored" by the Internet because of the control it seems to give us and "its style of empowerment"

In The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, Heim (1993) writes that the hypertext of the Internet "emulates a divine access to all things and knowledge… that users, empowered by hypertext, feel as if they are reveling in intuitive, associational thinking". In referring to work by Kimberly Young, Wallace concludes the Internet does, indeed, consist of "strong, compelling psychological spaces" (Wallace, 1999). As we traverse these places, we "peer through an electronic framework where our symbols -- words, data, simulations -- come under our precise control, things appear with startling clarity…. [We] travel endlessly, without limits (Heim).

Wallace (1999) also suggests that individuals who have a strong internal locus of control may be especially susceptible to the allure of the Internet. The control seems to be the most appealing psychological aspect of the Internet. Why else would we spend so much time logging onto a network, looking up an Internet address, fighting server interruptions, and watching slow downloads just to put in a request to our broker, when all along we had a telephone and the broker’s direct phone number on our desk?

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Feel free to cite material in this study, but please provide this reference:
     Angleman, S. (December, 2000). What Does it Mean to Dwell in Cyberspace and Why do We Go There? A Look at Theories and Definitions. Unpublished manuscript, Arkansas State University, Jonesboro. <http://www.jrily.com/LiteraryIllusions/TheoryResearchPaperIndex.html> (date of access).

For information or comments concerning this study, please contact, Sharon Angleman at sharon@jrily.com Visit my home site at http://www.jrily.com/LiteraryIllusions/ for other journalistic materials.