The Future of Human Communication and Technology Research

In a month or so, at the National Communication Association meeting, I will be participating on a panel called Conversations with Leading Scholars: The Past, Present and Future Research on Human Communication and Technology. The other “leading scholars” are Susan Barnes, Nosh Contractor, Janet Fulk, Michele Jackson, Malcolm Parks, Scott Poole, Ron Rice, Craig Scott and Joe Walther. Fine company indeed. In preparation, we were asked to prepare short statements on the topic to be included in the Human Communication and Technology Division newsletter. It’s always a treat to get to write a little manifesto, and I think it’s relevant for how you think about communication technology whether you are an academic or not, so I thought I’d post mine here:

The Past, Present and Future of Human Communication and Technology Research

Nancy K Baym
Associate Professor of Communication Studies
University of Kansas

Scholars of human communication and technology have a past far deeper than many of its contemporary practitioners realize. In recent years, the origins of what we in NCA do under this moniker have often been located around the mid-1970s when Short, Williams and Christie proposed Social Presence Theory. Far deeper origins are to be found, however, when one realizes that technology need not mean computing nor be digital. We have other precedents, and other technologies. Human communication and technology begins with the invention of writing, it includes pigeon training, ink, woodblocks, 16th century books, and 17th and 18th century pamphlets. It includes photography, audio recording, radio waves, moving pictures, the telegraph, television, and countless other technologies, more of which have been forgotten than remembered. There are long traditions of scholarship into these other once-new technologies.

These media, and the scholarly traditions surrounding their study, are particularly forgotten in the conduct of Internet Research, a domain too often plagued by the notion that everything is new. Much is indeed new, but our focus on “new media” should not blind us to which things we ascribe to particular technologies are better attributed to novelty and the ways in which cultures project their concerns onto technology (see, for instance, Sturken, Thomas & Ball-Rokeach, 2004). One of our tasks is to distinguish what is new from what is recycled. Most communication technologies throughout history have raised issues about the quality of interaction, the nature of community, the status of relationships, authentic identity, trust safety, and privacy. One research priority for our future is thus to recognize our past. We need to link our theory, framing, research inquiries and findings to the history on which the production, reception, adaption and everyday use of technologies rests.

We must acknowledge the “everyday” nature of much human communication and technology, as has become the (welcome) trend in the last few years (see Wellman and Haythornthwaite, 2002). Within a continued focus on the mundane, we should examine how people simultaneously integrate multiple media into their daily communicative experience. In treating the internet and related technologies as new, we have tended to view them as isolated phenomena. Though the term “cyberspace” seems at last to have fallen from use, some still imagine what happens online as a world apart from everyday life, as though what happens in one online environment stays within its own borders. If today’s new media tell us anything, they tell us that boundaries are made to be transcended.

Online realms are no longer contained within their own boundaries (if they ever were). What appear to be single online groups often turn out to be multimodal. Group members connect with one another in multiple online spots, affording themselves of the use of multiple media – social network sites for making their identity and social connections visible, YouTube for video sharing, Flickr for sharing pictures, blogs for instantaneous updates, web sites for amassing collective intelligence, and so on. Our many studies of single web boards, newsgroups, chat rooms, social network sites and so on have given us a strong understanding of much that happens within these contexts, but we know next to nothing about how individuals and groups link these contexts to one another as they traverse the internet and meet the same individuals across multiple domains.

Most people connected online are also connected offline. Online and offline are not different entities to be contrasted. What happens via new technology is completely interwoven with what happens face-to-face and via other media – the telephone, the television, films, music, radio, print. Even behaviors that only appear online are put there by embodied people acting in geographic locations embedded in face-to-face social relationships and multimedia environments that shape the meaning and consequences of those online practices.

Our interactions with one another are increasingly multimodal. We conduct our relationships face-to-face, over the phone (both landline and mobile), and online through modes as diverse as email, instant messaging, social network friending, personal messages, comments, shared participation in discussion forums and online games, and the sharing of digital photos, music and videos. Research is increasingly demonstrating that the closer the relationship, the more modes people use to communicate with one another. Furthermore, these media are becoming one another, so that people are increasingly accessing the internet via mobile phones and using computers to conduct telephone calls. We cannot bank our research future on the technological forms. Instead we need to interrogate the underlying dynamics through which technology use is patterned across media, relationships, and communicative purposes and with what effects for how we understand and conduct our relations, our communities and ourselves.

Multimodality also cuts across once-familiar boundaries separating mass from interpersonal communication, as well as within mass communication media themselves. I might watch some episodes of a television show on my iPod and others on a television screen with friends or family beside me. I might catch missed episodes on YouTube, perhaps using an iPhone. I might read about it in a magazine, discuss it in an online forum, blog about it and define myself in part by listing it as a favorite on my social network profiles. The show’s producers, writers, actors and their interns may read the online discourse and feed it back into the show itself. They may accept my friend request on MySpace. In no time there’s likely to be a movie, a book, a billboard, a t-shirt, and, of course, plentiful fan-fiction, YouTube mashups and, increasingly, official spin off books and stories.

Finally, we need to think about how to transcend academic boundaries, while recognizing what we have to offer that is distinctive. There is little that we study under “human communication and technology” that is not also being studied by those in Sociology, Women’s Studies, Political Science, English, Law, Business, Psychology, Linguistics and many other fields in this and many other nations. We need to draw on that work. We need to speak to scholars in other traditions. We must avoid insularity.

At the same time, we need a heightened self-awareness about communication, and what it means to study technology from where we stand rather than where others stand. David Nye (e.g. Nye, 1997), an American Studies professor, argued that the narratives 19th Century Americans told about electricity and railroads were a means of constructing what it meant to be American. We should consider how the narratives we tell about technology through our research construct our own identities as communication scholars. Who do we wish to be, and how can we tell stories that help us attain our potential?


Nye, D. (1997). Narratives and Spaces: Technology and the Construction of American Culture. New York: Columbia University.

Short, J., Williams, E. and Christie, B. (1976) The Social Psychology of Telecommunications. Chichester: Wiley.

Sturken, M., Thomas, D. & Ball-Rokeach, S. (Eds.) (2004). Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears that Shape New Technologies. Philadephia: Temple University.

Wellman, B. & Haythornthwaite, C. (Eds.) (2002). The Internet in Everyday Life. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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