Continuing the series of reviews about JCMC articles, let’s look at something so far uncovered here: how various social markers – cues – influence online, computer-mediated communication (CMC).
The article in question has been written by Tan, Swee, Lim, Detenber and Alsagoff, under the title “The Impact of Language Variety and Expertise on Perceptions of Online Political Discussions.” It’s available here.
The idea was to measure in a carefully controlled survey how various status markers – explicit or implicit – influence perceptions of a discussant’s informativeness, persuasiveness, appeal for participation and credibility. To cut a long story short: THEY DON’T. Or not really, anyway.
The results of this study suggest that language and expertise cues in a CMC context do not have quite the impact that was anticipated. In fact, the effects were very limited. Specifically, the status markers of language and expertise did not influence perceptions of a discussant’s informativeness or persuasiveness. […] It appears that how one “speaks” or writes is more influential than the degree of competence ascribed to individuals by various structural features of the website.
What I call “explicit” cues are, for example: the rank and rating of a user on a discussion forum (“novice” with 1 star, etc.), the indicated time when the user joined the forum, and the number of posts the user contributed. The main implicit cue in this study was the use of language (i.e. what kind of language variety the user chose to write an entry on the forum).
Participants of the survey were asked to read carefully designed forum posts, and to rate how they perceived their informativenss, persuasiveness, appeal for participation and credibility; and rate they did, refuting the starting hypotheses that had predicted a detectable influence from various social cues on the perception of the posts.
The authors note that there is still a lot to be explored on the field of social cues and CMC; what seems to be sure is that the mental processing of cues in CMC is different from that in face-to-face contexts. It might be that in CMC, a sequential processing of heuristic cues applies: some cues are more visible than others, and thus the effects of these cues might override the effects of less visible cues. For example, explicit markers of experience and expertise (rank, number of posts etc.) are processed first, and the more implicit language cues are interpreted in the light of these former. Expertise is linked to experience: thus, if you have a high rank, and a large number of posts on a message board, you might more easily be perceived as an expert, which is likely to override the implicit cues in the language you actually use in a post…
…BUT, then, the main point of the study is that AFTER ALL it’s no the cues that matter, but the content of utterances.
Which is, from the point of view of deliberative democracy, quite encouraging. However, as the authors themselves point out, more research is needed to confirm this claim, especially when it comes to different contexts, topics – and discussions forums.