Silence. Silence! Silence? Silence...
(An Ethnographic Study of "Silence"
in Computer-Mediated Communication)

Margaret Daisley
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst

In the virtual topography of cyberspace we are still mapping out the terrain, using as our theoretical lens familiar ways for analyzing known territories in order to understand why the discursive spaces of computer-mediated communication (CMC) may be seen, alternately, as friendly and inviting, threatening and oppressive, or simply unfamiliar and puzzling. In short, we analyze it as a rhetorical situation, looking for clues in speech/writing and dialogue/text exchange patterns that signal mood, or "climate." But silence in this medium is still somewhat of an enigma.

The Rhetorical Dimensions of Cyberspace
Margaret's Stuff:
Silence as Non-participation | Silence and Authority
Silence as Marginalization | Natural Silences | Research Situation
Theoretical Framework | Silences Researcher Encountered | Unnatural Silences
Code of Silence | Silences Students Encountered | Communication Anxiety
Evaluation Anxiety | Silences Instructor Encountered
Silence as Tacit Knowledge | Silence as Listening
Works Cited | Conclusions | Epilogue

My interest in the idea of "silence" in CMC originates from my own experiences as a writing instructor in networked computer labs and as a personal user of the Internet. More importantly for the purposes of this paper, my interest in developing a suitable framework for the interpretation of silence derives from a recent experience as a researcher in another instructional situation where e-mail and uses of the Internet were integrated into a required course. While the literature on uses of CMC in instructional situations frequently links "silence" almost synonymously with "non-participation" and the idea of "marginalization," my own experiences and the climate of the research situation seemed to dictate a more adequate framework of analysis. In fact, I had begun the research project with an interest in how the integration of these new technologies for reading and writing effect our definitions of "literacy," especially in instructional situations. The instructor in this project had commented, for instance, on frustrations about trying to use CMC in a course the previous year where students had little working familiarity with e-mail. Such a situation, the instructor said, is like "trying to teach a writing course when people don't know the alphabet," a comment which directly reflects on the "literacies" of the situation. Significantly, this instructor's aims for the course were seen as innovative within the department and school, and within the university itself where only about a quarter of all undergraduates had experience using e-mail. Clearly, this research site represented a transition to uses of CMC in an instructional situation, and my guiding questions at the outset revolved around how definitions of "literacy" are effected in such transitions.

Like many other researchers, I had expected that what I was looking for would be represented primarily by what was said--i.e. participation in CMC discourse, as evidenced in transcripts. I had not expected to have to devise a framework of analysis which would help to explain what was not said--i.e. the silences or instances of "non-participation" in CMC discourse, and so looked to the literature for guidance. In the following, I first outline the broad theoretical paradigms for silence before referring to the research situation in which I have tried to apply them.


By "computer-mediated communication" or "CMC," I am using what seems to be the most generally agreed-upon term to refer to various text-based ways of communicating by way of networked computer technology, regardless of whether they are synchronous or asynchronous genres. RETURN

This is the figure reported in a 1993 survey of computer use released by the Student Affairs Research, Information, and Systems at MU. The figure (25% of undergraduates have experience using Internet e-mail) represents a substantial increase from a previously released study in 1991, in which only about 11% of undergraduates reported that they had used e-mail. Significantly, the 1991 study reported that male students were twice as likely to have had e-mail experience than females. No gender differences were reported in the 1993 study. RETURN

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