Telecommunications and social interaction
- Social constructions in virtual space

By Ola Ødegård


This article focuses on aspects of social interaction in three categories of networked applications: computer mediated communication, networked multimedia applications and distributed virtual reality (VR) systems. Special interest will be paid to illustrate how the three different media offer various conditions for social interaction in education and work.

Communication technology and social settings
Reflection: the users in the medium
Metaphors: the social aspects are crucial in the diffusion process
CMC: Computer networks and social networks
Applications for distance eduction
KIDLINK: Creating the global village
The Planet project
Teleproff, a workstation for distance education
Broadband multimedia: Supernett
Electronic white board
Networked virtual reality: virtual reality in distance education
Televirtuality: a space for personal expression
Three networked media


Starting with the introduction of the telegraph some 150 years ago and the telephone some decades later, there has been a continuous development in two-way communication technologies. For a long time the telephone was reserved for businesses and a few households, but today 97% of Norwegian households are connected to the public telephone network. During the last decade there has been an enormous increase in the use of communication technology, especially in telephony, but also in data communication - this includes fax and the use of modems. There has been a relative volume increase in the use of telephone network communication in Norway of about 10% per year. This may be described as a quiet revolution.

At the same time there has been a vast spread of digital computer networks - local area networks (LAN) in organisations and wide area networks (WAN) nationally and internationally. One of the largest international computer networks is the Internet. By August 1993 more than 1.7 million computers (hosts) in more than 50 countries were connected, and it is estimated that 30 million people have access to Internet world-wide (qualified guessing by Internet Society, August 1993). Internet electronic mail connectivity stretches to 127 countries around the world, and Internet is now being made available to commercial organisations as well. It has also become more common to use the telephone network to access computer networks. The different networks offer a variety of services, from fax and electronic mail to broadband video conferencing. There is a tendency towards greater integration between the telephone network and the computer networks.

Communication technology and social settings

Today, people spend more time using communication technology than they did twenty years ago. One hypothesis is that people spend more time on their own with their terminals, and less time in face-to-face interaction with other people. This is what happened when television was introduced. The study of the social aspects of technology has often regarded technology as instrumental. This means the use of technology is directed to the achievement of specific results. That is why interaction between users through computers or the telecom network may be described as an instrumental mode of communication (Rasmussen, 1990). It has also been an assumption that interaction with less face-to-face contact between transmitter and receiver renders less social information. The research in the use of telecommunication services has shown that this is not the case. On the contrary, it seems that new communication technologies and services can be regarded as expressive media and be a substitute for and an extension to human-to-human communication in an expressive mode. Access to networks and the use of communication technology is getting increasingly important for people in their personal development as social beings, in attaining their education, and doing their work (Ødegård, 1992).

This paper will first elaborate on how social interaction is established and maintained in different networked applications. Secondly, it will look into how networked applications reflect and support social interaction. This will be exemplified through three types of applications for networked education: computer mediated communication, multimedia applications, and virtual reality. These offer different conditions for social interaction.

Reflection: the users in the medium

In all social interaction it is necessary to find out 'who are we talking with', and how to relate in a particular social setting. To a certain extent people have learned to relate to other people and social systems through electronic two-way media. Using distributed communication technology, people can interact without being in the same place or in the same time. As people start to use different media they must develop conventions, etiquette and norms for behaviour or apply a priori social knowledge on how to interact with each other. We apply sets of roles and social conventions that are common knowledge to the other participants within the social interaction process. The common knowledge refers to culture in its broad sense.

Communication technology as a social medium has to support social roles for the users, and it must be easy and intuitive to establish these roles. To make this process easier, the social settings must be reflected in the application of the communication service. A newly published survey concluded that the computer as such was neutral with regard to gender - it is no more masculine than feminine. But networked applications in dedicated areas should not be neutral with regard to role definitions (who is the teacher and who is the student?). In social interaction between people who are present in the same room, the participants get the role information from the setting. If we enter a classroom as students, we know how to behave from the physical/social setting. Any deviant behaviour will most likely be met with social sanctions (Reid, 1991). Advanced and complex networked applications will improve if the medium provides users with various kinds of feedback on social behaviour.

Metaphors: the social aspects are crucial in the diffusion process

It is interesting to see how users adapt to the possibilities and limitations of new applications - especially when they cannot apply a priori common knowledge. In my opinion this is a crucial aspect of the diffusion of new applications and services. Or, in other words, how much concern does the network or service supplier have for the social aspects of his service. Our work has shown that in distance education, using picture communication, the teacher will experience new pedagogical possibilities through the media - possibilities he does not have in a traditional classroom (Kristiansen, 1993).

New networked applications tend to have a complex structure and difficult user interface. What the application does for the users is sometimes not intuitively understandable. Therefore, it becomes even more important for the application provider to introduce to the application a metaphor that users can relate to. The metaphor must aim directly at the right users or market segment, and must be an indicator for the appropriate social settings.

It is crucial that information about social settings is mediated between users in the networked applications. Also, it is important that this information is integrated into the structure of the application and reflected at the users. This development process between technology and users may be described as a 'seamless web' (Hughes, 1983), where it is no longer possible to claim technological determinism or use causal rationalism to explain the development.

The application has to support social roles of the users; to a certain extent these roles must be implemented in software and hardware. The use of an application will also depend on an adequate metaphor of the social setting. These factors have proved to be crucial in the diffusion process of the specific communication technology.

In new networked applications a 'user space' is created in which the users are offered certain degrees of freedom that can and should be exploited. This space may be called a 'virtual space' which can be both individual and shared (see figure 1).

On the following pages three different types of applications for communication will be introduced to exemplify how this virtual space may contain various social settings for users. The applications are: Computer mediated communication (CMC) with strict restrictions on interaction; multimedia applications using picture, sound, and text for communication; and distributed virtual reality (VR), which puts the users into an immersive computer-generated environment.

CMC: Computer networks and social networks

In computer mediated communication (CMC), written text is mediating messages and codes. CMC can be described by two interesting characteristics (Kiesler, 1984):

There are obvious limitations in CMC compared to face-to-face communication. In face-to-face communication, indicators like body language, dialect and clothing inform us of what social setting we are encountering. It has to be noted that the two above mentioned characteristics were formulated in 1984, and that is a long time ago in the history of electronic communication. Today, manuals and user guides for applications on the Internet contain guides on etiquette. There are examples of etiquette for users in News at Internet (Ness, 1992):

To break the accepted norms for behaviour causes anger, and system managers can expel the author from the system. Flaming (using abusive language) and pretending to be of the opposite gender are examples of unacceptable behaviour in some social electronic cultures. Building friendships through electronic media involves trust and confidence, and committing forgery is met with sanctions.

Several research projects (Reid, 1991) have shown that users of electronic Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), computer conferences and different news groups on Internet tend to build social networks. People with special interests get acquainted and develop friendships, and romances also appear. People have married after becoming acquainted through the network. There is also a very important democratic element in the use of electronic media. In theory, anybody can address anybody regardless of age, sex, race, nationality and social status.

Pre-existing social networks are no prerequisite for the establishment of electronically based social networks. In fact, it may be an advantage for the development of an electronically based social system that the participants have never met. Then they will have the best conditions for developing their own 'culture', which consists of a set of norms and values that are internalised in a group of people that use this set of norms to solve problems. This is done through development of a set of symbols and a literate form of expression that exceeds the limitations of the medium. One example of this is the emoicons. They were first introduced by Scott Fahlman in 1980 on a BBS (Reid, 1991). A few of them are quite common in electronic mail, BBS and CMC today, but in some electronic 'societies' over one hundred have been discovered. Here are some examples and their meaning (Godin, 1993):

:-) A basic smile

:) A midget smile

;-) A smiling face winking an eye

:-X A big wet kiss

:-) Smile wearing a turban

:-( A sour face

:-(*) Feeling sick

:-P Pointing the tongue

:-& Can keep a secret

:-O A scream

=8-( Horrified face with wide open eyes

:-/ Making faces

}--\------,--- A rose, token of love

i> Irony

Successful and meaningful electronic interaction is often reliant on the use of such symbols in order to verbalise actions and emotions. It is important for participants to master this kind of symbolic language.

Applications for distance eduction

In distance education, computer mediated communication (CMC) has been in use for a decade. During the last years there has been an increase in the demand for flexible learning, life long learning, on the job training and retraining of the unemployed. Distance education using CMC has in many cases proved to be efficient.

The notion of a virtual classroom has been widely spread as a metaphor of a real school with all the familiar facilities (see figure 2). The virtual classroom functions as an interactive learning space with many promising dimensions. One aspect is how CMC can support group work (Kaye, 1992). Group work involves reflection, decision-making, and problem-solving and has its own laws of energy: it consistently yields results of a higher calibre than those attained by the average group member (Hiltz, 1982). Not only can group work improve, but also the individuals learn more than those of comparable skills working alone. The combination of social osmosis, the circulation of ideas, and the links established among the participants all contribute to increase the efficiency of CMC group exchanges (Henri, 1992).

CMC based courses for students at university level have been offered for many years. The potential in CMC has also been discovered by teachers and pupils in elementary schools.

KIDLINK: Creating the global village

As the interdependence of all the people of the world increases with regard to both culture and infrastructure, the KIDLINK project is trying to create a global village by linking the youth of the world in an electronic dialogue. In 1993, 10,000 children from fifty countries joined KIDLINK (Stef‡nsd—ttir, 1993). KIDLINK is based on list servers and electronic mail. In its simplest form, the dialogue is an exchange of personal presentations and views on the desired future of this world. KIDLINK uses a school building with many rooms as metaphor. Each mailing list is similar to a room with a special activity; some are for students and some for teachers. Every room has a moderator, responsible for the ongoing activities.

One room is just for announcements. It gives newsletters and media reports. In another room users can (and must) introduce themselves, and they can search for friends in KIDCAFE. One of the purposes of KIDLINK is to cultivate a better understanding between students from different countries and cultures. KIDLINK gives them the feeling that they all participate in the same 'global classroom'. The fact that they have to make presentations and form their own identity in the system also gives them social training. On one occasion participants in KIDLINK had a computer based chat with a polar expedition team walking across the Antarctic. Another project involved the vast economic deficit of the United States. The action caught the eye of president Clinton, who sent them a message back through a KIDLINK list. Each year in May, at the conclusion of the projects, all students are invited to a 'chat' (asynchronous dialogue), with each other in a global dialogue.

The Planet project

The Planet project is another example of how students can make use of CMC in education. It involves children between the age of 9 and 18 from schools in eight European countries. The Planet project is based on electronic mail centred around an imaginary planet X. The project allows children to become space voyagers who travel to and settle on Planet X. The project is classroom based where the whole class participates. Each student must be given a new name, age and position in the spacecraft. The project emphasises the group work of the children. They have to decide on what mission they have at Planet X, what their spacecraft consists of, language and culture. They invent what they find: topography and mythology. Once they have landed, the children share experiences, problems and decisions which will affect the whole planet with voyagers from other schools via electronic mail. The planet has a history: students may receive direct messages from other explorers who have already visisted their sector at Planet X. The project appeals very much to the students' imagination and spontaneity (Clifford, 1993). They are confronted with the choices they have made earlier, e.g. on the goal of their mission and the use of weapons. The participants take part in the creation of a planetary society where imaginary role-play is important.

Both the KIDLINK and the Planet project are examples of how applications using computer mediated communication can support educational purposes. By giving the participants (users) access to an electronic virtual world, they can take part in social interaction and develop as social beings.

KIDLINK and the Planet project are good examples of how networked applications for education can support collaborative learning, group work, and personal development, creativity, responsibility, etc. The virtual classroom metaphor is given content by the users. Both applications are reliant on organisational support from teachers and moderators. CMC is limited in being text based, but proves to be sufficient in many social settings. Ten years of experience with CMC have shown that 'just' text based communication can support great virtual worlds and complex social settings.


Teleproff, a workstation for distance education

A workstation for distance education, developed by Norwegian Telecom Research and their industry partner NovaKom, is an example of how one can utilise multimedia technology which integrates computer based communication with video and audio communication (figure 4). The Teleproff workstation is based on the video codec from Tandberg Telecom for ISDN. One workstation is placed at each end, and when the ISDN connection has been established, the system must be told which station is to be the techer's and which is to be in the classroom. The teacher can then control all external and internal media sources in an MS-Windows based environment. The workstation consists of a PC, a camera pointed at the teacher, a document camera for slides, overheads or objects. It is integrated with the use of ready made image files, so that the teacher can produce course material in advance and open it as files. The participants in the remote classroom are represented as icons and video images in the workstation of the teacher. The students have controlled access to the computer. Anybody with access to ISDN is a potential user of such a virtual classroom. The Teleproff workstation is under evaluation in three locations. Experiences so far seem promising with regard to the pedagogical possibilities.

Broadband multimedia: Supernett

Norwegian Telecom and Uninett (the Norwegian part of Internet) have established a trial 34Mbit/s switched network interconnecting the four universities in Norway. The goal of the establishment of Supernett was to strengthen Norwegian Telecom's future public infrastructure to handle bandwidth-consuming applications, the academic research and education in information technology, industrial competitiveness and internationalisation. The main use of the network will be distributed multimedia applications, based on a collaborative multimedia desktop environment that supports real-time audio, video, document conferencing and distributed multi-user shared workspace (Kure, 1993).

Electronic white board

The University of Oslo (USIT/UiO), the University Centre of Technology at Kjeller (UNIK) and Norwegian Telecom Research have developed and prototyped the concept of an electronic classroom in Supernett (figure 5). In education the chalk and blackboard have for centuries been indispensable for the teacher, a function not easily emulated in electronic distance education. Many teachers feel more comfortable walking in front of the blackboard instead of using a keyboard and mouse. In this application it is important to capture and transfer both the blackboard information, and the image of the teacher. The teacher should be able to write and erase. With the use of an electronic pen and an interactive 'white board' (2 by 3 metres) controlled by a computer this has been made possible. In addition to writing information on the board and erasing from it, it is possible to present electronic documents, still pictures, high resolution graphics and video. It is possible for the teacher to edit, underline, etc. in all images and text shown on the board.

The idea is that the teacher can teach a group of local students and distant students at the same time. All universities connected to Supernett can participate in the same electronic classroom. The students at the receiving location have the same type of electronic white board and a separate monitor showing the video image of the teacher. The network connection is open all the time, and this makes it possible for students to ask questions during the sessions. Today, the teacher can prepare all material and make it available through the medium. In the future, material can have hyper-structures to networked databases and conferences if the students want to explore beyond the limits of the curriculum. It will integrate electronic textbooks and encyclopeadia with links to external databases.

The prototype of the electronic white board is now being used on a trial basis in a university course. The project is evaluated by Norwegian Telecom Research. Our experience shows that this technology can provide the teacher with the necessary tools for teaching and students can participate in classes otherwise not accessible. However, the technology does not sufficiently support interaction between teachers and learners or interaction between the two groups of students. The students in the remote studio classroom experienced a distance through the media. The audio connection is crucial, time delay and distortion are obstacles. In addition, the students are not used to be 'on the air', and this makes them reserved. One consequence of this is polarisation - the quiet and modest students get even more quiet and modest through distance education technology (Kristiansen, 1993). On the other hand, the loud and dominant students get more dominant. It must, however, be noted that the students are still inexperienced and have not had the time to develop etiquette for behaviour using this media, e.g. on how to get the required attention to interrupt a session.

There has been a tendency to use the interactive white board only as a presentation tool, and not as a communication tool. It may be confusing for the students to relate to white board information in one place, and the video image of the teacher on a monitor in another place. As in other picture based distance education, it is our experience that the sound in this application is the most important source of information.

The critical point here is whether the students at the universities will 'understand' and accept the limitations and possibilities in the whole concept of electronic classroom as such. The students have so far had a positive attitude towards this kind of education. They get a broader variety of courses to choose from and save travelling time.

The Teleproff Workstation for Distance Education and the Electronic White Board are examples of networked multimedia applications. The technology (hardware) is much more present and the social role setting is implemented in the equipment itself. They are based on advanced technology and are complex with regard to user interface. The role setting is intuitive, but the human-to-human communication is complicated and hard to co-ordinate for the teacher. There is a need for a new kind of teacher that must be able to be a producer, i.e. to use the different windows, pictures and information sources efficiently. At the same time the students should get into a new role. From being passive listeners, they have the possibility of using the two-way communication tool to access the source of competence and information. The critical part is on one side to make good pedagogical applications to support the teachers. On the other side, it must appeal to the students by stimulating them to exploit the media.

In multimedia installations the social roles and settings are implemented in both software and hardware. Multimedia applications are technologically more advanced than CMC. The multimedia applications described are dedicated to a specific application area. This can at the same time make them more restricted and rigid for the users to define the best way to use the application. To make good networked multimedia applications requires thorough knowledge of the social sphere which is to be covered, and this has to be the overall principle in the development process.

Networked virtual reality: virtual reality in distance education

In the last couple of years, Virtual Reality (VR) has been a buzzword in the computer industry. It has been associated with devices like head mounted displays (HMD) and data gloves which put the user into an immersive synthetic environment (figure 6). Today, we will find most of these installations in entertainment centres and video game arcades, but we are starting to see educational applications for networked immersive environments. So far, VR has been associated with purely computer generated images, but we can already see hybrid VR solutions using the immersive graphic user interface in combination with live video - e.g. in deep sea operations or in education (Øderud, 1991). VR has a definite potential outside entertainment.

One hybrid VR application for education is the Virtual Cities (Stanfel, 1993) project by the National Film Board of Canada in co-operation with the Toronto-based Vivid Group and Telsat Canada (figure 7). More than ten international satellite and telecommunications organisations joined forces to carry out a virtual reality satellite teleconference live to audiences on five continents. The children (aged 12 to 17) participating in the Virtual Cities demonstration were located in electronic classrooms in Ottawa (Canada), Florida (USA), and Lecce (Italy). A visual database, composed of images recorded by students and enhanced with film footage was overlaid with instructional gaming strategies, to provide the students with opportunities to explore and simlate the evolutionary development of urban space. Layering video footage, interactive computer graphics and digitised images of the children themselves, Virtual Cities creates a dynamic media environment within which the real environment can be studied and understood from a new perspective. The application does not require head mounted display or a data glove, just an inquiring mind and the desire to explore new worlds. The Mandala System from the Vivid Group is based on Myron Krueger's CRITTER concept, which allows the user to interact with virtual objects or virtual persons, like playing music within the virtual world simply by touching objects displayed on the video monitor. It is all done by physical motion, without any input device other than video camera.

The Virtual Cities project is dependent on active participants in all locations. The students use many aspects of themselves. The illusion of their bodies is put in an immersive environment and they are interacting through speech and vision and body language. Simultaneously, the participants can 'go' through the same experiences and in the same place. This gives them a unique possibility to create a common understanding and insight into each others' lives and cultures. The children in the Virtual Cities project had the illusion of being in the same space, in total interaction even with body language. Their global interacting was a great experience for them.

The objective of the project from a pedagogical point of view is to increase emphasis on environmental issues and the management of the world resources. The students will come to understand the global picture of human interdependence on natural ecosystems, and the impact on those systems in the context of their own backyard. By making presentations of their own region in a VR environment, the other students can comment and manipulate the shared image.

There have also been trials connecting VR applications through the ordinary telephone network. In 1992, Carl Loeffler conducted a technical demonstration between Carnegie Mellon University and the EXPEDITION 92 conference in Munich, Germany. Users at the participating sites had independent viewpoints and the ability to move objects within a shared immersive environment; a Networked Art Museum (Loeffler, 1992) (see figure 8).

Being networked makes it possible for participants in different locations to 'enter' the same virtual space and interact socially with each other. Virtual reality may change the way we communicate and the way we learn (Søby, 1993).


Televirtuality: a space for personal expression

In the first part of this article the importance of factors like metaphors in the diffusion of networked applications was pointed out. The recognition of how users apply social information and sets of roles in their interaction through different media has in many cases been neglected by the application providers. To support social interaction like education through electronic media, it is crucial that the social information, the roles, and the pedagogics are reflected in the application and the technology. This is a long development process in which both technologists and social scientists have to take part. In distance education it is the learning process through media that is interesting, and not technology itself. To apply insight into the social processes has to be a fundamental part of designing functioning networked applications.

Three networked media

One tentative ambition of this article has been to show how three different media - computer mediated communication, networked multimedia installations, and networked virtual reality - have similarities and differences with regard to social interaction and how this is supported in the technology. CMC applications have been in use for more than ten years. The users' ability to express themselves and communicate through a medium primarily based on text has proved to be vivid and well suited for the purpose. As shown in this article, the social interaction between users in CMC applications are regulated through etiquette and shared information for behaviour. At the same time the technological possibilities for the mediation of social control and social information are restricted.

Multimedia has other requirements with regard to equipment as well as other requirements and possibilities for the users. Social control through picture communication may be present. Social interaction can take place at a higher level than CMC. For some users this will be a limiting factor for personal expression. It is therefore reason to believe that multimedia applications will more easily adopt norms for behaviour, or interaction that are similar to face-to-face interaction.

Currently, we are only seeing the beginning of networked virtual reality systems. We do not have much experience and field research with VR. Virtual Reality teleconferences used for education and work are expected. So far, the systems have been too expensive and the computer generated environments have been of too poor quality (Lie, 1992). The experiences indicate that VR will become a powerful medium for pedagogical and teleconference applications. The medium offers possibilities for visualising objects and characters in three dimensions and at the same time lets the users interact inside the application. This makes it easier for users to comprehend complex structures. In addition, it is possible for the users to develop the application or objects in the application while they are in it. In networked VR applications, the users will experience a stronger degree of personal expression than in the other media. The social information mediated through the application will most likely be rich, but as a result of the possibilities of personal expression, social control may be limited (see diagram in in figure 9).

The challenge for designers of networked applications is to make use of the experience gained from ten years of research on social aspects of networked applications. This research has amplified the social constructions created in networked virtual space. In VR applications, life-like elements like gravity have to be reinvented. The next challenge is to recreate symbols of culture, and norm and etiquette for social interaction. It is easy to see that the contribution from CAD programmers and graphics designers is not sufficient in the development process of socially stimulating virtual worlds.

All interactive media will have an effect on the users' perceptions of selves. But it is expected that distributed virtual reality systems will do this to a further extent through increased flexibility in mediated human-to-human communication compared with other media.


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