The “Difference Question” : Online v. face-to-face communication

Across all areas of research in communication technology, one of the most pervasive questions is “how does technology-mediated communication differ from non-technology mediated communication?”  This is what I call the “difference question.”  This question tends to dominate the earlier research on a particular technology, and then taper off. One reason it tapers off is because the technology simply becomes more familiar to us and its use less remarkable. I argue that the more important reason it tapers off is because the question is valid for only a very short time. The separation of “online” and “offline” communication is artificial, a conceptual convenience that looks meaningful on the surface but that reduces communication to channel effects. This is a move resisted in many other areas of communication research, yet one that persists in technology research.  Why? One reason could be that such studies are not so much about communication — they are really about trying to make sense of technology.

The latest Journal of Computer Mediated Communication offers two studies that ask the difference question – Vincent Cho and Humphry Hung (Bowling Green State University) ask why people would say something on SMS that they wouldn’t say in person. And Melissa Taylor and colleagues at Bloomsburg University attempt to understand the conditions under which students prefer face-to-face v. email-based communication.

Cho, V., & Hung, H. (2011). The Effectiveness of Short Message Service for Communication With Concerns of Privacy Protection and Conflict Avoidance. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 16(2), 250-270. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2011.01538.x.

Taylor, M., Jowi, D., Schreier, H., & Bertelsen, D. (2011). Studentsʼ Perceptions of E-Mail Interaction During Student-Professor Advising Sessions: The Pursuit of Interpersonal Goals. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 16(2), 307-330. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2011.01541.x.