Many everyday activities are conducted in small groups like families, circles of friends, and other small numbers of people who have a reason to do something together. The study of group communication focuses on the specific dynamics of the interactions among the people in a group. Digital technologies have altered the nature of these interactions by providing new tools for the exchange of messages among the members of a group.
Specific characteristics of group dynamics when communicating change with the involvement of digital technology, as methods of group interaction become increasingly reliant on tools like electronic bulletin boards, chat rooms, digital conferencing, and small private
Groups are made up of a small number of people, typically composed of seven to nine individuals. There are many different kinds of groups, ranging from family to professional, but most groups share a common goal, and members are expected to work toward the fulfillment of that group goal. For example, a group of students might come together to work on a science project, which would be the common goal for the formation of the group.
Some group goals could be short-term endeavors, with the group disbanding once they are finished (as in the case of a science fair project), whereas other groups could exist for long periods of time, as members take on the meeting of different goals over an extended time period. Independent of the reason a group is formed, that group also must share the common element of communication.
This is pointed out in the work of researchers like Dr. Randy Y. Hirokawa of the University of Hawaii and Dennis Gouran of Pennsylvania State University, who have shown that group members have to communicate with one another to achieve effective group decision making. In most cases, these studies have looked at groups that meet face-to-face and in the same place.
They also look at groups where the interactions among the group members are expected to happen in real life when the members are physically together. But there are many conditions where the members of the group cannot be close to one another, and they still have to perform a set of tasks to meet the group goals. Alternative means of communication need to be considered when group members are distant from one another.
There are many instances where a group is formed around specific interests, yet the members of the group are scattered in different places. For example, scientists in a specific field can be located throughout the country, but they still form and organize a professional network to share information and to socialize. Digital tools allow members to overcome great distances in order to create groups with a common goal. In such cases, groups could be formed in the digital world.
The possibility of creating groups made of people who are physically distant from one another became available when efficient ways of sending messages from one person to another were developed. This Group Communication process became especially easy with the emergence of the Internet, which allowed people to connect their computers to a larger network and to exchange information through fi les.
GROUPS IN THE DIGITAL WORLD
The Internet, with its infinite possibilities, also has become the tool to connect the computers of people who have a common interest or goal. Groups can freely form in the digital space as soon as reliable connections are made between the computers of people with common goals. After the Internet establishes communication and access, the glue that holds the group together is the common interest of the members. The issue of location becomes a secondary factor, as the Internet functions merely as a tool to allow these people to share information.
The disappearance of physical space by means of digital technology allows new kinds of groups to emerge, because people who might never have met one another can form groups by communicating over the Internet. Medical research centers, for example, can form work relationships because far-flung participants can quickly communicate with one another. The advantage offered by the digital tools in connecting people together was quickly recognized, and different tools were developed to facilitate this form of communication.
When the Internet first started to become popular in the mid-1980s, a significant portion of the material exchanged was made up of text messages that would be typed up on a personal computer and then e-mailed to someones personal e-mail address. The bulletin board system, also commonly known as Internet forums, used this technology but replaced a personal e-mail address with a central shared e-mail address. All the messages would reach the same location, and people could access the shared e-mail account to read all the different messages that had been created by other members.
The first working bulletin board was developed in 1978 when the American scientists Ward Christensen and Randy Suess built the basics of the system and reported their invention in Byte magazine. They borrowed the name of their invention from the traditional notice board where people would post notices and bulletins for others to see. The same concept was used to create the computer accounts that listed different messages from the users. This system also has been called by other names, such as listserv and Usenet, but all the terms refer to the same concept of placing a message at a shared location.
The key to the bulletin board system was the creation of specific boards that catered to special interests. For example, a person interested in knitting could create an account to post a message about knitting. Others interested in knitting could find the account and post their own messages about knitting, and before long, there would be several messages from different users. These messages, along with their authors, would become part of a virtual group that shares the same bulletin board.
The members of these groups were not expected to be geographically near one another, since the messages could be sent from any computer connected to the Internet. At the same time, the people who read the messages would know nothing about the person creating the messages, only select details provided by the user.
The bulletin boards participants also are not required to be at the computer at the same time as other members; group membership was built around a members ability to choose which messages from the group they wanted to read and respond to at their own convenience.
Despite never meeting in person, groups formed through bulletin boards have flourished as if they were real local groups. As of 2007, there are hundreds of thousands of Usenet groups that can be accessed on the Internet. Most of these are built around themes, and the group members create a Usenet account based on these shared ideas or interests and then begin posting. For example, there is a Usenet group for every country in the world, and many countries have Usenet groups that represent specific regions.
A key drawback of this system is the lack of interaction in real time, because the group members have a hard time coming together to communicate with one another simultaneously. This issue has been addressed with the creation of chat rooms, where users can exchange messages in real time.
The technology of the chat room extended the bulletin board concept to allow users to send messages to one another in real time. A user only needed to install a small program onto their personal computer that could enable him or her to connect to a centralized computer where all the other members were connected as well. This centralized computer is programmed to send digital information back to all the other user computers, showing who else is connected to the common computer.
Chat room users then are able to see the names of the other users; as any user types something on their computer, it shows up on the computers of all the other users, producing a real-time connection among the users. Through this system, a user can ask a question and receive an answer from all the other users connected to the system. This alters the dynamics of the virtual group, because people have to respond to others instantlyas would be the case in real-life group communication, but without the little details of face-to-face communication, such as body language, tone, and volume.
One way of compensating for the nonverbal element is to use a variety of punctuation symbols and letters that can be combined to look like facial expressions. The Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov once said in an interview, I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smilesome sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket . . .
Although he did not live to see it, Nabokovs initial idea is used widely on the Internet. It is unclear when these started to become popular, but by the early 1990s these symbols had become widespread in digital communications. These symbols are called emoticons, or smileys, and can be made up of the parenthesis sign, the colon, the semicolon, or other symbol keys on the computer keyboard.
A large range of emoticons was created by computer users, allowing for the expression of many different emotions, as shown in the Web site NetLingo.com, which shows nearly 200 emoticons with their corresponding meaning. For example, the Web site says that the symbol :-! would indicate that a person has said somethin