In an attempt to make my procrastination productive this week, I began downloading journal articles from various university course reading lists. Although I have a relatively small framework from which to analyze this research, since I’ve been privy to few academic commentaries about the Internet (though the OII podcasts are helping to provide this background), I still feel that having a look at the relevant material helps to raise some questions, which I’m about to unleash in 3…2…1…
The article “Slouching toward the ordinary: Current trends in computer-mediated communication” by Susan C. Herring left me wondering: HOW DO WE PRODUCE ICT* RESEARCH THAT REMAINS RELEVANT INTO THE FUTURE?
Sorry for shouting, but this worries me quite a bit. The article was written in 2004 and provides a pretty decent description of the Internet landscape as it emerged from the late 90s with crazy, cutting-edge developments like ICQ, MMORPGS, and SMS. If none of those abbreviations mean anything to you (you’re probably 23 or younger), it’s alright because they’ve pretty much fallen out of use, even if the technology has endured. And that’s the thing, it’s unusual to come across video games that aren’t in some way ‘massively multi-player’ these days, what with the ‘achievement’ system on XBOX, etc. Interactive chatting, gaming and messaging has all become commonplace with the integration and even necessitation of these things in our everyday lives, which is exactly what the author predicted in 2004 – hence the catchy title. However, I’m at odds with the author in my opinion that just because something becomes commonplace, it doesn’t mean that its effect is simply ordinary, unimpressive and pretty much the same as everything that has come before.
This is where relevancy into the future features: I’m willing to cut the author some slack because in 2004 it would have been pretty difficult to properly conjecture the future of these ICTs. For example, it would have been nearly impossible to predict the social ramifications of SMS before widespread adoption of the practice in North America and well before the birth of the iPhone in 2007 as well as the increasing popularity of other smartphones with QWERTY keypads. However, in light of the uncertainty surrounding the future effects of technology, a key to retaining relevancy may be to avoid blanket statements such as “SMS is essentially e-mail sent over mobile phones” (p. 31). Such dangerous, evidence-lacking declarations could in the future turn out to be just plain wrong. Research is emerging to demonstrate that text messaging is used for different social relationships and different purposes than e-mail (I believe this is touched on in Wellman & Rainie’s forthcoming book and a direct citation would include accounts from young adults collected in Rhonda McEwan’s PhD dissertation).
In essence, it seems that the study of an ever-developing field poses the challenge of producing research that definitively uncovers the impact of these things on our lives right now while pointing us in the right direction for studying them into the future without drawing unjustified or unknowable conclusions. If we dismiss a means of communication as commonplace and boring right now, we risk missing something phenomenal about it in the future since we simply won’t be looking anymore.
*ICT = information and communications technologies
PS. I spent the morning discovering Maru.
(Image source here)