Medium as Process: The structure, use, and practice of computer conferencing on IBM's IBMPC computer conferencing facility: An Overview

Davis Albert Foulger

IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center
P.O. Box 218
Yorktown Heights, NY 10598


With 1500 active conferences, over 1000 contributions a day from over 10,000 contributors around the world, and perhaps 100,000 readers, IBMPC is the oldest and largest computer conferencing facility in IBM. This study summarizes Foulger (1990), a detailed observation of the development of IBMPC, including its structures, genres of interaction, processes of rules formation, means of rules enforcement, and impact on IBM. It explores two general questions:

  1. What is the structure, use, and practice of computer conferencing on IBM's "IBMPC" computer conferencing facility? The focus of the study is on an in-house facility, in operation for over nine years, in which large numbers of people routinely exchange messages. While these features of IBMPC distinguish it from other computer conferencing facilities, and thus impose limits on the generalizability of the study, the size and long tenure of IBMPC provide a measure of what other facilities could become.
  2. What is the nature of IBMPC as an instance of a communication medium? What does the experience of IBMPC tell us about computer conferencing as a communication medium? These questions are raised in the context of other questions about the relationship between interpersonal communication and mass communication. Foulger (1990) presents a theory of media organized around four interacting primitive concepts -- mediators, characteristics, effects, and practices -- that asserts that media are continuous reinventions of the people that use them. IBM's IBMPC computer conferencing facility can be regarded as an instance of a continuously reinvented medium. Foulger (1990) documents this reinvention, and the structures IBMPC has evolved to manage its own evolution.

Several sources of data, including participant observation, archival data, and surveys of IBMPC participants are used in Foulger (1990). There are several detailed analyses of specific events on the facility, including one of interaction that occurred in the hours following the Challenger space shuttle explosion. Three typologies of media are presented, including a formal typology of 53 media. Other topics explored include "murder by metadiscussion", "meta-forums", the value of information versus discussion, comparative use of media in IBM, typological assessment of a medium's prospects for success, and computer conferencing based distributed communities.

Medium as Process: An Overview

For Hiltz and Turoff (1978), computer conferencing is a revolutionary medium of communication which will radically transform society, making McLuhan's (1964) "global village"(see note 1). an interpersonal reality (p. xxix). Kiesler (1986), echoes this enthusiasm, asserting that computer conferencing "has much in common with past technical innovations, like the telephone and the typewriter, that have had great social impact". For Feenberg (1986), computer conferencing "is the first technology to provide effective electronic mediation of small group activities." For Turoff (1989), it is "a new communications medium that will become as commonly used by the general public as the telephone is today." Foulger (1990) tests this enthusiasm in a seven year observation of a large scale computer conferencing facility.

Existing studies of computer conferencing

The computer conferencing literature can be usefully divided into four general categories (see note 2) of study:

Mediators The constitutive elements of which a medium is formed.
Characteristics The essential qualities of a communication medium.
Effects The actual effects that a medium has on those that use it.
Practices Mutually agreed upon constraints adhered to by those that use a medium.

Effects oriented literature

The bulk of the computer conferencing literature is effects oriented. The larger portion of this effects literature, exemplified (but not typified) by Kerr and Hiltz (1982) is highly projective informed guessing about the future effects of computer conferencing based on limited use of the medium. A smaller literature, exemplified by Hiltz et al (1981), Kiesler, Siegel, and McGuire (1984), Thorn and Connolly (1987), Matheson and Zanna (1988), Hiltz (1983), Johansen and DeGrasse (1979), Palme (1984a), Pullinger (1986), Rice (1982), Rice and Paisley (1982), Rice and Case (1983), Saunders and Heyl (1988), and Smith (1988), observe actual effects of computer conferencing as observed in small scale, limited duration, and/or experimental computer conferences.

Mediator oriented literature

Discussion of the mediators of computer conferencing is generally restricted to the computer conferencing software development community. This literature is generally concerned with the features of computer conferencing system software, the nature of user interfaces, and the manner in which systems have been adapted to computer networks and user requirements. Recent work in this tradition, including Flavin and Williford (1985), Flavin, Williford, and Barzilai (1986), Williford, Santero, and Flavin (1987), Palme (1984b, 1985, 1987, 1988), and Chess and Cowlishaw (1987), are generally oriented to what is possible in the present.

Discussions of the characteristics of computer conferencing

Discussions of computer conferencing characteristics are usually embedded in literature focused on effects or mediators. Mediator oriented literature (Chess and Cowlishaw, 1987) frequently discusses characteristics in the course of discussing the effects of mediators. Effects oriented literature (Turoff and Hiltz, 1987) frequently discuss characteristics in the course of describing the medium. For Chess and Cowlishaw (1987), computer conferencing offers "fast asynchronous retained communication". Turoff and Hiltz (1987) note other salient characteristics, noting that computer conference communication is generally written, asynchronous, synchronized into and stored as a meaningful transcript, structured by software that organizes interaction and creates roles, immediate (conducted at the individual's convenience), and integrated with other communication processes, including data base access and other computer based activities.

Studies of computer conferencing practice

A small but growing literature explores the practices associated with computer conferencing and computer mediated communication. Spitzer (1986) documents the use of punctuation in computer conferencing as an indicator of affect. Levinson (1986) documents a "holographic" computer conferencing writing style that has much in common with McLuhan's writing style. Sherblom (1988) observes generic variations in the use of signatures in electronic mail. Rice and Love (1988) observe a substantial socio-emotional component in a task oriented computer conference. Turoff (1989) observes a series of four stages of learning new users encounter as they learn to use computer conferencing.

Perhaps the best known study involving observation of computer conferencing practice observes high levels of uninhibited behavior in computer conferences, including a high frequency of remarks containing swearing, insults, name calling, and hostile comments. Kiesler, Siegel, and McGuire (1984) call this uninhibited behavior "flaming", and report that it is observed among students, non-students, and working adults. Smith (1988) suggests that the short duration and experimental character of Kiesler et al's observations restrict the generalizability of these results because there may not have been sufficient opportunity for mutually acceptable rules to evolve.

Larger and Longer Computer Conferences need to be studied

This suggestion points up a significant gap in the computer conferencing literature:

The present study

Foulger (1990) attempts to bridge this gap in the literature with a detailed seven year study of a large, ongoing computer conferencing facility. At the time the study started, IBM's IBMPC computer conferencing facility had been operating for nearly three years and was collecting almost 100 contributions a day from a community of several hundred contributors. At the time Foulger (1990) was completed over 10,000 contributors from around the world were submitting over 1000 contributions a day to some 1500 active conferences. The studies observes IBMPC from the perspective of two general questions:

  1. What is the structure, use, and practice of computer conferencing on IBM's "IBMPC" computer conferencing facility?
  2. What does the experience of IBMPC tell us about computer conferencing as a communication medium?

These questions divide Foulger (1990) into two major sections. The first, "A Theory of Medium as Process", is a theoretical view of the evolution and structure of media. This view was developed as a result of the observations detailed in the second section, "The IBMPC computer conferencing facility as a medium in process". This ordering will be reversed in this overview, with observation presented before theory.


The principle method of the study is participant observation. Most participant observers are guests in the frame they observe, entering it for a short period of time and leaving it immediately after, and frequently during, the observation. The same cannot be said here. The author has been an employee of IBM since September, 1983, working in the group that has developed and maintained IBMPC since December, 1981. Status as an IBM employee may have particular value to the observation, as it has forced the observer to understand IBM culture and practice. Proximity to the owners and administrators of IBMPC may also have particular value to the observation, but not without associated costs. It is possible that, by becoming a part of the frame and participating too closely, the author will view as perfectly reasonable aspects of IBM and the IBMPC computer conferencing facility that people outside IBM might view as unreasonable.

Such risks may be balanced somewhat by the use of additional sources of data in support of the participant observation. These sources include archival data, typological data, and surveys of IBMPC participants. Archival data sources included the existing transcript of IBMPC discussions, which remains almost entirely intact for IBMPC's entire 10 year history as well as logs of conference activity. Transcripts were used as a basis for ethnographic observation and as a cross check on "sudden insights". Log data was used to examine IBMPC's growth. Three surveys were performed as a part of the study. The first of these, an informal survey of the benefits of computer conferencing, was conducted on IBMPC BENEFITS, a conference on IBMPC. Two formal surveys of random samples of IBMPC participants, conducted in 1986 and 1988, asked a variety of questions about participant's use of IBMPC.

The origins of IBMPC

October, 1981 (see note 3) is a doubly significant month for IBM. It is the month the first of IBM's highly successful IBM Personal Computers were delivered to customers (see note 4). It is also the month that IBM's first public (see note 5) computer conferencing facility, IBMPC, was started. IBMPC opened in IBM for the same reason that many IBM PC users groups and several IBM PC oriented magazines successfully started outside IBM at about the same time: as a means for individuals to gain and share information about how to use the IBM Personal Computer. The success of the IBM PC had major implications for IBM's product line, but because the IBM Personal Computer had been developed rapidly by a very small team of developers working outside normal IBM channels, information about the machine was sparse throughout most of IBM. IBMPC helped to fill this information gap by allowing employees from across the company to share their questions and discoveries about the PC. The opening of IBMPC can be regarded, then, as an intersection of a need (for information about the IBM PC) and a newly available technology (the TOOLS computer conferencing software). A number of "mediators" enabled the opening and subsequent rapid growth of IBMPC. These mediators include:

The "VNET" wide area network A computer network that interconnects thousands of computers throughout IBM. The information on the IBMPC computer conferencing facility is received and distributed through VNET.
The "TOOLS" computer conferencing software A software package that maintains shared information for one or more conferencing facilities and enables the distribution of their information across VNET.
"Forums" Files that contains a series of contributions, ordered by when they are contributed, that can be read as a temporal transcript of conversation between participants.
"Appends" Individual contributions to IBMPC. At one time each new append received was "appended" to the end of the forum file (hence the name "append"). Today appends are inserted into the file based on the time and date (adjusted to Greenwich Mean Time), they are sent.
Shadows A copy of the contents of the IBMPC disk stored on another computer and maintained through VNET by the TOOLS software to be exactly the same as the "master" copy of IBMPC. Hundreds of of IBMPC shadows, located throughout IBM, allow individuals to conveniently view the contents of IBMPC.

These mediators were invented and evolved over a period of time as IBMPC participants attempted to make the facility meet their needs.

Growth of IBMPC: The growth of the IBMPC computer conferencing facility, displayed as appends per week (bottom) and maximum number of weekly contributors.

The growth of IBMPC

IBMPC's growth (see the above figure) started slowly (Chapter 11; see note 6). It took over a year for IBMPC to record more than 33 contributors in a week. By the end of 1983, however, use of IBMPC was accelerating fairly rapidly, up a full order of magnitude above the usage levels of early 1982 and tripled from the levels of late 1982. In the week of September 19, 1983 (the first week of the study), 95 different people ("appenders" or "contributors" in the vocabulary of IBMPC) made 150 contributions ("appends") to over 30 different "forums". Use of IBMPC accelerates rapidly between early 1983 and early 1985, starting at 1 or 2 appends per week per week and ultimately reaching an acceleration approaching 15 appends per week per week. The average acceleration in appends over the two year period is 5.3 appends per week per week. The number of contributors (2.7 contributors per week per week) and number of files (2.1 files per week per week) also accelerate through this period.

It appears that IBMPC passes through the lower knuckle of the diffusion of innovation curve in early 1985. Although use of IBMPC continues to accelerate rapidly, the acceleration is a linear 15.5 appends per week per week. The number of files accelerate at 1.2 files per week per week. The number of contributors accelerates at about 5.5 contributors per week per week. These figures are drawn from some simple, but highly successful, time series models of these phases in IBMPC's growth between October, 1981 and September, 1988. The model of append growth (see :tref page=no refid=rappend.) accounts for 92% of the variance in the number of appends (R**2=.9248, F=1450, df=3/354, p<3E-198). The models of contributor growth and the number of files on IBMPC are similarly successful. It can be projected, for instance, using the first of these models, that the append rate on IBMPC would increase to about 6300 to 6500 appends in the first quarter of 1991. In the first three months of 1991, total weekly appends range between between 6114 and 6771 appends a week.

Variable estimated Number of appends per week (unstandardized beta) Standard Error of estimate T-test of estimate Probability of estimate
Intercept (Dec. 1981) -66.597 36.19 -1.840 0.0666
Growth in 1983 & 1984 5.328 0.66 8.075 < 0.0001
Baseline since 1/1985 977.907 62.41 15.669 < 0.0001
Growth since 1/1985 15.541 0.50 30.740 <0.0001
Phases in append growth on IBMPC. Linear Regression of weekly appends to IBMPC against three time measures of growth. Growth in 1983 & 1984 (7) proceeds at an average rate (8) of 5.3 appends per week per week(9). This growth establishes a new baseline(10) for appends beginning in January, 1985. Growth since the beginning of 1985(11). proceeds at a rate of 15.5 appends per week. The mean for residuals (the intercept) does not differ significantly differ from 0(12).

Changes in the use of IBMPC

The continuing rapid growth of IBMPC has been accompanied by, and is in part the result of, a variety of changes in the way IBMPC is operated, maintained, and used. These changes have occurred in several spheres:

A specialized vocabulary

One such change can be observed in the evolution of a distinctive vocabulary An individual conference on IBMPC is a "forum", a contribution to a forum is an "append", and the person who makes an append is an "appender". "APPEND" derives from the TOOLS verb which is used to send a contribution to IBMPC. "Appender" is an obvious extension of the word append to describe the person who makes the append. Early conferences on IBMPC went under names like "IBMPC TRICKS", "GRAPHTRX MEMO", and "8087 QUERY", and the first conference using the word forum, "LINKEDIT FORUM", didn't appear until IBMPC was over 6 months old. It was widely emulated, however, and by late 1983 most discussion oriented conferences on IBMPC had a name of the form PANDA FORUM, and it had become commonplace to refer to all discussions as forums.

Other specialized namings were also adopted. PANDA PROCS, for instance, would be expected, on IBMPC, to contain code that can be used with a program or programming language called PANDA and the word PANDA is understood, in discussions of IBMPC, to mean an example of a file. A variety of other words, including QUERY, IVORY, AVAIL, PACKAGE, CATALOG, RULES, FLSBIN, and BENEFITS, have well understood meanings when used on IBMPC and other conferences in IBM. The main repository to which appends are sent is called a "master". Copies of IBMPC are referred to as "shadows". These shadows are maintained by "shadow owners". Individual conferences on IBMPC are maintained by "conference owners". The people who checks to make sure that the rules of IBMPC are adhered to are known as the "reviewers". The administrators of IBMPC (including the reviewers) are often called "the royal family".

Another specialized vocabulary (chapter 15) represents non-verbal intent. In this vocabulary, emotion and other analogic is depicted in unique combinations of punctuation and characters like ":-)" (Tilt your head 90 degress to the left, and see the smile). Use of :-) indicates that the preceding content was intended to be funny. It is difficult to know exactly where this vocabulary, which is called "emoticons" in the computer conferencing literature, started. It was adopted on IBMPC in 1984 and has been widely adopted inside and outside IBM since. At the time IBMPC participants agreed to use emoticons, several participants reported having seen them elsewhere. Emoticons have, however, roots that predate conferencing. One IBMPC participant reports a similar convention among World War II teletype operators. Another such convention is reported among Ham radio operators.

Changes to IBMPC's software and structure

The software and structure that mediate computer conferencing on IBMPC (chapter 11) has also evolved in significant ways. There were, for instance, only two basic methods of using IBMPC when it opened in 1981. Those fortunate enough to have a user ID on the computer systems that IBMPC was running on (The IBM Research division mainframes in Yorktown Heights, NY) were able to read IBMPC's contents directly by "linking" the disk on which IBMPC's contents were stored. Everyone else received contributions to IBMPC via electronic mail using a multi-step process in which the reader first requested a list of the files on IBMPC, then (after receiving the list) requesting specific files of interest, and reading the file after it arrived by electronic mail. This inconvenience associated with this mode of access eventually led to several solutions, including shadows and better conference front ends, but the first of these solutions was a "subscribe" capability which allowed users to receive new additions to forums automatically. By reducing the work required to get updates, the subscribe capabilities of TOOLS made IBMPC available to a much larger distributed audience who could follow IBMPC from their electronic mailbox.

Where a large number of individuals from a particular site subscribe to forums on IBMPC, a better solution is found in making a local copy of IBMPC at that site. This process, "shadowing", maintains a complete copy of IBMPC on remote systems. The cost of a shadow is about 200 Megabytes of mainframe disk space. The advantages in productivity and ease of use can easily offset this cost, however, and the acceleration of IBMPC's growth that begins in early 1983 can almost certainly be directly attributed to the style of interaction shadows enable. Shadowing is is widely regarded as one of the most valuable features of TOOLS.

The ability to edit a rapidly changing forum is not entirely convenient, however. In the early days of IBMPC, a regular participant would typically jump to the end of a forum, page backwards to the beginning of the new content, and then read through to the end. The inconvenience associated with this mode of operation spurred development of a series of competing software front ends that "remembered" what you had already read. The first of these tools simply presented a list of the forums on IBMPC, remembered which forums were read and the last line read in them, and positioned you at that line when you started to read a forum again. Subsequent efforts included a variety of advanced features, including presentation of forum content as individual appends, ability to list forums in the order of their importance, ability to back track to modified and referenced appends, bookmarks, and the optional presentation of a list of appends within a forum. Forum following tools continue to evolve new features that make it easier for IBMPC participants to use the conferencing facility.


IBMPC was the only generally available computer conferencing facility in IBM for more than three years after its opening in October, 1981. In November, 1984, participants principally interested in VM started a new conference facility, IBMVM -- seeding it with a barely modified IBMPC RULES and several VM oriented forums from IBMPC. Its opening set a pattern that has been repeated numerous times. Today there are well over 200 open computer conferencing facilities in IBM. While it would be incorrect to say that all of those facilities are direct descendents of IBMPC, IBMPC continues to take the lead for other facilities by hosting interesting new fora that don't exactly fit its stated limits. These new fora frequently expand into new conferencing facilities.

The most important of these spin-off facilities is probably PCTOOLS, an electronic software distribution facility that has, from its opening, been formally recognized as a sister facility to IBMPC. IBMPC was used to distribute software until 1985, when PCTOOLS opened, seeded with the software on IBMPC. The basic model established at this time, in which software was distributed from PCTOOLS and discussed on IBMPC, has been adopted for many other computer conferencing facilities in IBM. This model is only one of many in which IBMPC and PCTOOLS have taken a lead in defining structures for other IBM computer conferencing facilities.

The structure of appends

The typical append on IBMPC before 1985 was structured in three pieces, including an automatically generated header containing information about who wrote the append and when, the content of the append, and a (usually one line) signature. The typical append on IBMPC today contains at least four, usually five, and sometimes six parts. The header hasn't changed much, but now records the time at which the appender sends the append standardized to Greenwich Mean Time, allowing appends to be sequenced at both the master and shadows in the order they were created. This change solved the once-common problem of appends being out of sequence at shadows because a short answer was transmitted faster than the longer question it answered.

Another change entails the addition of two new append elements, a subject line and a reference line. Subject lines give a short declaration of an append's content and are often generated automatically when an append is created. By providing a general indication of subject, they make it easier to skip over uninteresting discussions. Reference lines provide a pointer to a referenced append. Created automatically by the conferencing software when appends are written, they allow readers to quickly jump to a referenced append. For a time, signatures were increasingly followed by a multi-line "append epilogue" which often included pictographics, words of wisdom, and other random content. Spurred by the involvement of IBM employees in other electronic communities, including USENET, where append epilogues are commonplace, append epilogues became a point of controversy on IBMPC during 1988 and 1989, with opponents arguing that such epilogues should be banned as a waste of time and space and proponents argue that such epilogues allow the appender to express their individuality and present a personality to other participants. Although append epilogues were never formally banned on IBMPC, they have become much less common. This probably is an indication of successfully enforced informal rules against them.

None of these changes are random. They are purposeful changes to the workings of IBMPC whose intent has been that of making the facility more productive for the people who use and maintain it. Shadows, subscriptions, forum following tools, append-modify and prune capabilities, companion software distribution facilities and new conferencing facilities are only some of the more important innovations. Other changes to the IBMPC software have allowed IBMPC participants to conduct informal electronic surveys, substantially reduced the network traffic associated with IBMPC (even as IBMPC volume continued to grow), and allowed the IBMPC administrators to selectively scan appends for problems and selectively preview appends to specific forums or from specific individuals and locations. This process of innovation continues in both formal and informal development efforts scattered throughout IBM.

Changing Patterns of Media Use

The rapid growth of IBMPC has conspired with these innovations to change the way people use IBMPC. The participant who read 15 contributions a week in 1982 could read everything that happened on IBMPC without significantly impacting either their mailbox or their schedule. Today's IBMPC participant reads a selection of forums. The most important may be directed to the participant's mailbox, but most will be selected and followed with a forum following tool that prioritizes the participant's readings. Even with more selective reading, however, IBMPC participants spend increasing amounts of time doing computer conferencing. In survey results concerning media use (chapter 22), there is a significant shift (t=3.38, df=298; p<.0005) in computer conferencing usage between 1986 and 1988. In 1986, 29% of respondents spent less than an hour a week and only 14% spent 6 or more hours a week conferencing. In 1988, this is reversed, with 27% of respondents spending 6 or more hours a week and only 15% spending less than an hour a week on conferencing.

Applications to which IBMPC has been put by its users

These changes reflect the increasing range of applications to which IBMPC has been put by its users. A number of distinctive genres of computer conference interaction can be observed on IBMPC, only two of which can be observed in the facilities early days. Three of these genres, computer mediated query (chapters 12 and 13), the electronic memorial service (chapters 19 and 20), and meta-forums (Chapter 15), are explored in detail. Eight genres, including answers files, polar debate, electronic focus groups, and lighting rods (not described here) are overviewed in chapter 14.

Computer Mediated Query (CMQ)

CMQ is a form of information search behavior. A question posted to a computer conference will often be read by hundreds of individuals, any of whom may already have an answer. The problem solved by CMQ is one of finding information in a timely manner, a problem that has grown considerably worse in the information explosion of the twentieth century. Nobody knows everything or even all the places where everything known is stored. Consider the "Knots" (see note 13) of the information age:

There are too many things to know
for any person to even hope to know
everything about anything
and still manage to accomplish something.

We have to rely on what others know
to supplement the things we don''t know
but we can''t know
who knows
what we need to know

unless they have some way to let us know
that they know
and we have some way to let them know
that we need to know it.

Every knowledgeable person and new area of knowledge makes the situation worse. We cannot rely on the processing capacity of computers to solve the problems of finding information in the "distributed information age." We must instead find new ways to rely on other people. You need to be able to tap into what I know. I need to be able to tap into what you know. Computer conferencing offers, in CMQ, an extremely efficient way to get an answer to a question by capitalizing on the "human database". Indeed, a difficult question explored in the chapter 12 discussion of CMQ receives several high quality answers in a matter of hours. The appender of the question expends almost no effort to obtain these answers and ends up with several immediately usable alternative solutions. This result is fairly typical CMQ, which arguably provides substantial advantages over searches performed using other media.

Voluntary Newsletters

It is possible to use computer conferencing strictly for the distribution of information. The sharing of information without specific provocation (questions) or expectation of reply is fairly common on IBMPC and can be found on a wide array of forums, including NEWSCLIP FORUM, E3 PROCS, TURBO PROCS and others. These forums are much like newsletters in which "articles", in the form of appends, are broadcast to the IBMPC community.

The most common application of these "voluntary newsletters" on IBMPC is the distribution of program source code, usually in forums with the filetype PROCS (short for PROCedureS). An exception to this usual application is found in one of the fastest growing forums on IBMPC, however. This forum, NEWSCLIP, a repository for abstracts of IBM and Personal Computer related news as reported on other media. Voluntary newsletters are one of the earliest applications of IBMPC. Indeed, almost all of IBMPC's earliest content was volunteered information concerning individual "discoveries" about the IBM Personal Computer.

On-line user groups, ISD's, and electronic seminars

One of the more common uses of IBMPC is the discussion of various computers, computer peripherals, and software packages, most typically by users. There are hundreds of these forums on IBMPC, most of them focused on a single piece of hardware or software. Discussions of computers include EARLYPC FORUM (the original IBM PC), PS2-M70 FORUM (the current IBM PS/2 Model 70), and dozens of others including all IBM models and many others. The same pattern can be found in discussions of specific spreadsheets, graphics software, database packages, word processors, and other software. Content is not always focused on a single product. There are numerous examples of generalized product forums on which any product within a given class can be discussed or compared. WORDPROC FORUM discusses word processors. PRINTER QUERY discusses printers. Other forums discuss other generic classes of product.

These forums can be regarded as on-line user groups in which users of specific equipment and software share information. Indeed, discussion on these forums is similar, in many ways, to discussion in live user group meetings. It includes computer mediated queries, voluntary newsletter contributions, general discussions of product related news, electronic focus group surveys of who's using the product for what purpose, and even occasional polar debates. The content of these forums, which exists as a sort of prototypic superset of all discussion on IBMPC, is perhaps the most varied on the facility.

A more specialized variant of the on-line user group, interactive software development forums (ISDs) discuss software that is being distributed on an IBM Internal Use Only basis, usually via PCTOOLS. The major difference between users groups and ISDs is found in the relatively accessibility of the software developer, an accessibility that changes the structure of interaction in significant ways. The most significant change in structure is found in the nature of bug reporting and the practice of suggesting improvements to the program. Because the author(s) of a program can be directly addressed on-line, contributors to ISD forums come to expect that many of their suggestions will eventually be incorporated into the program and that the bugs they report will be fixed fairly rapidly.

More generalized discussion can be found in "electronic seminars", informal on-line classrooms in which contributors educate each other on topics of mutual interest. These seminars generally convene around a single generalized topic, which may be a problem that requires a solution, a solution that requires a problem, or a general concept. FEAR FORUM, for instance, discusses fear of computers, the reasons for it, and the things that can be done to humanize computers, their uses, and their effects. Another electronic seminar, USRFREND FORUM, discusses techniques for creating user friendly software. There are dozens of such forums on IBMPC, including CREATIVE FORUM (discussions of creativity in the workplace), QUALITY FORUM (discussions of what constitutes quality work and products and how it can be achieved), OOPS FORUM (discussions of object oriented programming techniques), and many others.

Meta-forums and "murder by meta-discussion"

The business of discussing the informal rules of IBMPC is reserved to meta-forums, which provide a home for meta-discussions that would be considered clutter if they occurred on other forums. The need for meta-forums arises from a single persistent characteristic of IBMPC meta-discussions: the difficulty people have in reaching agreement in them. A persistent variant starts with the question "Why is this append (or forum) on IBMPC?" The problem, for debate of such questions, is that winning turns less on being right or wrong than on who gets to define what is business related. It should hardly be surprising, then, that this kind of discussion can rapidly escalate to encompass thousands of lines of text and little agreement. In the worst case a large number of former forum participants stop participating and the forum "dies". Recognition of this syndrome, which might be referred to as "murder by meta-discussion", led IBMPC's administrators to formally ban meta-discussion from IBMPC's technical forums in 1984.

This ban was not entirely functional, however, as some level of meta-communication is a necessary component of interaction. Meta-forums are an attempt to resolve the necessity of meta-discussion with the need to prevent such discussions from disrupting other discussion. There are a fairly large number of meta-forums on IBMPC (at least 15 at last count), including:

Meta-forums represent a highly distinctive genre of computer conferencing which may have been observed first on the IBMPC computer conferencing facility.

The Electronic Memorial Service

The events of January 28, 1986 set the stage for a particularly distinctive variant of computer mediated interaction characterized by intense socio-emotional interaction. The space shuttle Challenger exploded during lift off at 11:39 AM that morning. News of the event was broadcast on IBMPC only minutes later in SHUTTLE FLASH, which was followed, within an hour, by the opening of SHUTTLE FORUM. No clear purpose was ever declared for SHUTTLE FORUM, and the decision to keep it open was based in part on the exceptional nature of the event. SHUTTLE FORUM's content (chapter 19) closely parallels the grief process, evolving from disbelief to certainty to hope to hopelessness to grief, all the while building a new sense of community with people across IBM. The forum, as a result, has much in common with a funeral or memorial service (Chapter 20), and reads, in many places, like a chain eulogy, with many expressions of grief cast in highly personal terms.

SHUTTLE FORUM is regarded as an exceptional event on IBMPC. It is paralleled only in such exceptional events as ESTRIDGE FORUM, in which IBM employees dealt with the sudden death of the executive who made the IBM Personal Computer happen, and QUAKE FORUM, in which IBM sought to understand the effects of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (the one that rocked the 1989 World Series in San Fransisco) on its business, employees, and products. SHUTTLE FORUM demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, that computer conferencing is not, as some speculate, a cold and impersonal medium. It also demonstrates a sense of community among IBMPC participants that provides new insights into the possibilities of computer conferencing to create distributed communities in the global village, a possibility that is supported in survey results that show (chapter 21) and clear sense of community among IBMPC participants.

Information, Discussion, and the purposes of interaction on IBMPC

A factor analysis of 1988 survey questions in which respondents estimated the value of various applications of the IBMPC Computer Conferencing facility yields two factors, information and discussion, which, after oblique rotation (see :tref page=no refid=value88.), account for 31% of the total variance in the analysis. These compact descriptions probably give an accurate view of what appear to be the two major uses of the IBMPC Conferencing facility. Some genres of computer conference, notably answers files, computer mediated query, and voluntary newsletters, can be regarded as primarily oriented to the information function of IBMPC. Others, notably polar debate and lightening rods, are almost entirely oriented to discussion. Other genres mix these and other purposes to different extents. One should not make too much of these broad descriptions of the uses of IBMPC. There are clearly a variety of other functions associated with various genres of computer conference, not the least of which is the expressive/cathartic functions that are primary to the electronic memorial services.

Value Variables Factor 1 Factor 2 Means Standard Deviations N
PCTOOLS Software 0.81* 0.00 1.68 (14) 0.96 176
Ask Questions 0.13 0.53* 1.70 (14) 0.92 176
Local Shadows 0.24 0.17 1.80 (15) 0.91 177
Current Information 0.51* 0.32 1.84 (15) 0.80 176
IBM IUO PC Info 0.54* 0.29 1.84 (16) 0.86 177
Search IBMPC 0.39* 0.19 1.86 (16) 0.92 176
IUO Software Support 0.78* -0.11 1.91 (15) 0.99 176
Problem Resolution 0.25 0.58* 1.96 (16) 0.96 175
Technical Discussions -0.09 0.68* 2.13 (17) 0.90 176
Bug Reports 0.27 0.46* 2.16 (17) 1.06 176
New Ideas -0.11 0.63* 2.52 (18) 1.03 176
Product Descriptions 0.52* 0. 8 2.61 (19) 1.04 176
General Discussions -0.04 0.67* 2.75 (20) 1.06 177
Interfactor Correlation
Factor 2 .43
Two Dimensions of Value in the 1988 Survey Results of an obliquely rotated principle factor analysis of the 1988 Survey's Value Data, displayed with, and ordered according to, the means of the analyzed variables. Primary loadings to each factor are designated with a *. Significant groupings of means are explained in footnotes. The interfactor correlation is the result of the oblique rotation and indicates (at r=.43) that about 18% of the variation in each of the two factors is common to both.

Rules and rules enforcement

The final sphere of change has already been a recurring theme in the changes outlined so far: the rules that have evolved to govern interaction on IBMPC and their enforcement. There are several sets of these rules, each with a different level of formality and/or accountability. These include pre-existing company guidelines like the IBM Business Conduct Guidelines. They also include rules that have evolved as a result of the use of computer conferencing within IBM, including IBM's computer conferencing guidelines, the formal rules of IBMPC as stated in IBMPC RULES, specialized forum rules as stated in the headers of specific forums, and the informal rules that IBMPC's participants negotiate and enforce by general consensus. None of these rules sets existed in IBM before IBMPC opened. All reflect, in varying degree, both the requirements of the business and the needs of the individual IBMPC user.

Formal Rules

IBMPC's first formal rules were published in the file IBMPC MEMO less than two months after the facilities opening and just a few days after IBMPC was taken over by IBMPC's owner, Jerry Waldbaum, and IBMPC's first administrator, developer, and reviewer, Dave Chess. The rules were designed, then, to solve at least two problems. First, there was a concern that people would try to submit material that, for one reason or another, didn't belong on IBMPC. The rules addressed this by providing guidelines, based on standard IBM business practices, on what was appropriate for IBMPC. Second, IBM management had, before IBMPC opened, expressed concerns about employees using the IBM network to broadcast inappropriate comments without management pre-approval. The rules address this concern by demonstrating that steps had been taken to ensure that IBMPC would be used only for appropriate business purposes. They represent a starting point in the process of defining IBMPC as a computer conferencing facility. One notes without surprise that only three of the seven original rules survive today in any form.

A major rewrite of the rules, undertaken in 1984, was driven by the opening of IBM's second computer conferencing facility, IBMVM, and the desire to ensure that it and other IBM computer conferencing facilities would be run in a manner that was consistent with IBM business practice. What was needed, in the judgement of IBMPC's owner, was a set of formal corporate computer conferencing guidelines that would govern the conduct of computer conferencing both on IBMPC and on any future computer conferencing facilities. Hence the resulting rules document, IBMPC RULES, was intended to clarify the existing IBMPC rules to give owners a base to work from while providing a platform from which company-wide computer conferencing rules could be drafted.

As written today, the formal rules of IBMPC stipulate that IBMPC's purpose is to facilitate the management-approved exchange of information directly or indirectly related to IBM's various personal computer products. As was the case in the early rules, several rules are concerned with standard IBM business practices. Other rules are, however, rooted directly in the experience of conferencing. Hence IBMPC participants are discouraged from using sarcasm and irony because of the likelihood that such remarks will be misinterpreted, discouraged from engaging in political or religious discussion because of the explosiveness of such discussions, and discouraged from engaging in meta-discussions except on meta-forums.

Measured by their original goals, IBMPC's current formal rules have been highly successful. The rules have been adopted, generally with very few changes, by nearly every computer conferencing facility within IBM. When, moreover, IBM issued formal corporate guidelines for computer conferencing within the company in 1988 (more on this later in the chapter), those guidelines strongly reflected the formal rules of IBMPC. Indeed, the guidelines were based so heavily on existing computer conferencing practice that their release had almost no effect in changing the conduct of computer conferencing within IBM.

Informal rules

There are many aspects of the interaction on IBMPC which are not, and should not be, the subject of IBMPC's formal rules. Indeed, the broad majority of rules that constrain behavior on IBMPC remain informal rules that are enforced by the general consensus of the IBMPC community. These informal rules are not stated all together in one place. They do not, in any case, supersede the formal rules of IBM or IBMPC. They exist, nonetheless, both in the example set by IBMPC participants and in the peer pressure that is brought to bear on offenders when violated. Here is a sampling of some of the informal rules documented in chapter 15:


The existence of rules (formal or informal) in some sense presupposes the ability to enforce them. The IBMPC computer conferencing facility (chapter 16) has two basic mechanisms for the detection of problems: a formal reviewing process and the informal, but effective, vigilance of its participants, especially the forum owner. It has, moreover, four clear mechanisms for dealing with violations, including the power of expression, the reviewer and forum owner's power of erasure, the IBMPC administrator's power of denial, and management action. IBMPC's formal reviewing process is centered on the IBMPC reviewer, whose job is one of finding and resolving problems on IBMPC as they occur, and its forum owners, who are responsible for keeping their forums on track. IBMPC's informal reviewing process, by contrast, is distributed among its many participants, who are instructed (in the IBMPC RULES) to direct their concerns to the appender, the forum owner, and/or the IBMPC reviewer as necessary. The task of formally reviewing IBMPC is complicated by several factors, including:

The reviewing process on IBMPC involves less enforcement than it does communication and meta-communication. The most desirable reviewing action is usually the one that the appender implements based on the persuasion of an IBMPC administrator or other IBMPC participants. Such persuasion requires an understanding of IBMPC's rules, a still better understanding of the boundary conditions of IBMPC's content, and the ability to express those rules and boundaries in a way that contributors will readily understand. This door swings two ways, however. There may not be a problem where the reviewer sees one. Appenders regularly educate the IBMPC reviewer on the business relatedness of appends. It is here where, once again, meta-forums prove valuable. Contributors to meta-forums like REVIEWNG frequently help the reviewers to refine reviewing actions and sometimes even succeed in reversing them.

1988 Impact Related Variables Impact Level by Percentage N Mean St. Dev.
Very Strong Strong Some Little No
Get Software 47.7 33.0 13.6 3.4 2.3 176 1.80 0.96
IBM knowledge 26.6 40.1 27.7 3.4 2.3 177 2.15 0.93
Better Answers 21.0 45.5 28.4 3.4 1.7 176 2.19 0.87
Better Software Support 23.9 44.3 23.3 4.5 4.0 176 2.20 0.99
Job related knowledge 22.6 40.7 28.2 7.3 1.1 177 2.24 0.92
Change way job is done 19.8 34.5 36.7 6.2 2.8 177 2.38 0.96
Increased productivity 16.9 35.0 40.1 5.6 2.3 177 2.41 0.91
Answer Questions 18.6 38.4 28.2 10.2 4.5 177 2.44 1.05
Anticipate Problems 13.0 35.0 36.7 11.9 3.4 177 2.58 0.97
Personal Contribution 14.2 19.9 44.9 16.5 4.5 176 2.77 1.03
Boosted morale 15.8 26.0 34.5 11.9 11.9 177 2.78 1.20
Outside Group Contact 9.7 27.8 40.9 11.4 10.2 176 2.85 1.08
Increased Peer Contact 10.2 26.1 39.8 15.9 8.0 176 2.85 1.06
Product Development 7.9 24.9 36.7 16.4 14.1 177 3.04 1.14
Changed thinking 4.0 19.2 39.5 26.6 10.7 177 3.21 1.00
Customer Support 7.5 14.9 33.9 19.0 24.7 174 3.39 1.22
Communication Skills 4.5 12.4 35.0 32.8 15.3 177 3.42 1.04
Vertical Contact 3.4 11.3 37.3 29.9 18.1 177 3.48 1.02
Isolated from nonusers 0.6 4.0 23.7 32.8 39.0 177 4.06 0.92
Choose hours 1.7 5.1 13.6 29.5 50.0 176 4.21 0.98
Reduced Travel 1.1 1.1 13.6 18.8 65.3 176 4.46 0.85
1988 Impacts of Computer Conferencing Impacts of computer conferencing as measured in the 1988 survey of IBMPC participants. Table is ordered from highest impact to lowest impact, and displays both mean and frequency data.

Benefits of computer conferencing

The rapid growth, specialized vocabulary, range of genres, and dynamically evolving rules, software, and structure associated with IBMPC are an indirect indication of the value the medium has for those that use it. More direct indications of this value are explored in chapter 18 based on the transcript of IBMPC BENEFITS and the results of two formal surveys of IBMPC participants. The surveys quantify these benefits, allowing comparison of the various impacts and observe changes between the two surveys. IBMPC BENEFITS puts these benefits in human terms, giving a view of why they are important. Twenty-one prospective benefits of conferencing, themselves drawn from IBMPC BENEFITS and the computer conferencing literature (notably Kerr and Hiltz, 1982) are surveyed. The 1988 results are shown here in :tref page=no refid=impact8. They are briefly described here within seven broad groupings, including:

Software and Support The biggest benefit of conferencing in the 1988 survey, seen in the 1988 survey as being significantly more important than any other. Thousands of programs, many of them capable of "saving the day" in one way or another, are distributed on IBM's PCTOOLS, OS2TOOLS, and other software distribution disks. A related benefit (ranked fourth overall) is support of that software via Interactive Software Development forums (discussed above) that facilitate interaction between the developer(s) of software and the people who use it.
IBM and Job Related Knowledge The second and fifth ranked benefits in 1988 ("IBM knowledge" and "job related knowledge", respectively) describe the impact using IBMPC has on respondents' knowledge of IBM and the knowledge they need to do their jobs. Several appends to IBMPC BENEFITS applaud the effect of IBMPC in bringing IBM's non-U.S. employees into the mainstream of IBM thinking by giving them better and more timely information about IBM products. These kind of improvement in job skills and knowledge of the company is hardly restricted to international employees. This benefit also extends to handicapped employees, developers who get a direct view of the needs of marketing and marketers who get a view of the problems associated with development. Indeed, one append to IBMPC BENEFITS records an IBM executives opinion that IBM's best performing employees all belonged to "a club": "the IBM conferencing community."
Obtaining Information The third ("better answers"), eighth ("answer questions"), and ninth ("anticipate problems") ranked means for impacts in 1988 all relate to the ability to find information on IBMPC, in which an interesting interaction between the timeliness and quality of answers is observed. Despite the speed advantages of CMQ, it is the quality of the answers that most impresses survey respondents.
Job Impacts While many of the benefits documented on IBMPC BENEFITS and queried in the surveys related to the way people do their jobs, four questions directly address issue of how IBMPC has impacted the way participants work. Two, "productivity" and the "way one does ones job" are fairly general. Both record substantial impacts. Another two, "changed working hours" and "decreased travel", are very specific. Neither turns out to be a substantial impact.
Making Contacts Another set of questions explored the effect of IBMPC in enhancing participants contacts across the company, including contacts outside your immediate group, with peers, and up and down the company hierarchy. A fourth question asked if use of IBMPC isolated participants from people who do not use IBMPC. Three of these turn out to be fairly important. For the fourth, it does not appear that participation on IBMPC, as was hypothesized by Kerr and Hiltz (1982, p.104), creates an addiction which isolates participants from non-participants.
Impact on IBM Products and Customer Support Not surprisingly, given these other impacts, use of IBMPC has apparently improved the final product of IBM, IBM's products and the support it offers its customers. IBMPC's participants indicate that IBMPC has had at least a moderate impact in each area. IBMPC BENEFITS documents a number of specific instances of rather impressive conferencing related product improvements and customer support.
Personal Impacts -- Morale: Making a difference Four questions in the surveys assessed the impact of conferencing on the individual. One, based on the Kerr and Hiltz (1982, p. 94) hypothesis that "literacy and information processing abilities improve" does not prove important despite IBMPC's large international audience. Other impacts, including changes in the way the respondent thinks and making a personal contribution to the company, proved to be stronger effects. The most important of these effects, however, is on the morale of IBMPC participants, with a large percentage of respondents indicating that IBMPC has had at least a strong impact in improving their morale, and most respondents reporting at least some such effect.

The variety of these benefits can be misleading. Foulger (1990) reports separate factor analyses of the 1986 and 1988 results which indicates that all of the more significant impacts overviewed here appear to be affected by a singular feeling about the impact IBMPC has had on them (see :tref page=no refid=impactf.). In both years a single factor is identified which accounts for 39% of the combined variance in the variables. Almost all of the impact variables load to this single factor. Those that do not are, without exception, among the least important impacts of IBMPC.

One gets the feeling, in reading through the benefits of conferencing that are recorded in IBMPC BENEFITS, the real effect of computer conferencing has been to effectively shrink one of the world's largest corporations "to a size", in the words of a Thornwood, NY contributor in append 62, "that is very comfortable to live with."

Impact Variable 1986 1988
Answer Questions .78 *
Better Answers .77 *
Change way job is done .82 * .76 *
job knowledge .75 * .73 *
Increased Peer Contact .73 * .72 *
boosted morale .65 * .71 *
Outside Group Contact .67 * .71 *
increased productivity .75 * .68 *
Personal Contribution .66 *
IBM knowledge .56 * .66 *
Changed thinking .68 * .66 *
Anticipate Problems .65 *
Vertical Contact .62 * .65 *
Better Software Support .63 *
Communication Skills .64 * .57 *
Customer Support .49
Reduced Travel .23 .47
choose hours .40 .45
Get Software .43
Product Development .39
Isolated from nonusers .30 .28
Single factor extracted for 1986 and 1988 Impacts of IBMPC Unrotated results of separate principle factor analyses of the 1986 and 1988 Survey's Impact Data

Problems of computer conferencing

These benefits are not achieved without cost. Foulger (1990) reports a range of problems that have been encountered by IBMPC participants in chapter 17. The problems associated with conferencing appear, however, to be rather more dynamic than the benefits. Indeed, the most important problem associated with using IBMPC in the 1986 survey of IBMPC users is not a problem in 1988. Another six of the remaining fourteen 1986 problems are apparently less of a problem in 1988, and the nature of several of those problems has changed in the interim. Of the remaining seven 1986 problems, only four grow worse in 1988. It may be, moreover, that in the case of at least two (unrestrained discussion and tight reviewing) problems, one can only be reduced by making the other worse.

The fluidity of the problems IBMPC participants report is, perhaps, brought into perspective by the dynamic changes in IBMPC's tools, structures, genres, and rules that have already been reported. Benefits achieved today will probably be benefits tomorrow, but problems observed today may well result in solutions that make the problem go away. A problem is identified. Where solutions can be identified they are explored. Eventually, one or more solutions are generally accepted and the problem is regarded as solved (is forgotten about). It would appear that it may be in the nature of problems to be moving targets, with problems on IBMPC are frequently stated in terms of desired solutions.

This pattern is clear in the surveys, where the problem of "finding things" was frequently expressed as "no keyword search" and other "need this solution" statements of problems include "no shadows" (I need a shadow here), "no forum summaries" (IBMPC should have a summary of forum contents), and "user interface" (IBMPC needs a better user interface). The same pattern is frequently observed in IBMPC's "meta-fora", where bids for rules on IBMPC are rarely stated as problems. When an appender to SENSITIV FORUM bid to ban multiline append epilogues the discussion didn't start with a complaint about trivial content on IBMPC and requests for ways to reduce it. It started with an attack on append epilogues and a proposal to ban them as a waste of valuable disk space.

This pattern lead to a potentially useful insight: :hp1.Problems are most frequently recognized in an awareness of their solutions.:ehp1. If correct, this insight suggests that problems are highly paradigm dependent. Individuals who, for whatever reasons, don't use computer conferencing may see problems in it that participants don't see. The characteristics of some future medium may, moreover, reveal inadequacies of computer conferencing that cannot be obvious without the perception of other possibilities. This kind of innovation based paradigm shift certainly appears to have occurred on IBMPC. It required the possibility of shadows for the lack of a shadow to become a common lament. It required the possibility of automatic keyword search for keyword search to become a commonly requested feature. It required an awareness of user interfaces for IBMPC's user interface to become a commonly perceived problem. Interestingly, all of these are increasingly regarded as solved problems.

A Theory of Medium as Process

Indeed, it can be argued, based on Foulger's (1990) observation of IBM's IBMPC computer conferencing facility, that :hp1.the process of a medium is solving problems.:ehp1. It is this insight, combined with the grammar of media, that forms the essential basis of Foulger's (1990) theory of medium as process. The following attempts, at some risk of making things sound more linear than is intended, to summarize some of the key elements of this theoretical perspective:

All of these assertions are strongly supported in the observations of computer conferencing (chapters 11 through 22) in Foulger (1990). A strong case can also be made (Chapters 5 through 10) that they operate in many other media as well.

A model of the elements of media

The key dynamic of this theoretical perspective is its circularity through practices (see the above figure). Media are not, in this perspective, the static mediator defined media of McLuhan (1964). They are, instead, continuously reinvented means of interaction that are selected because they satisfy needs and optimized to maximize benefits and minimize costs. Hence when we assert that :hp1.the process of a medium is solving problems.:ehp1., there is a clear double meaning. Media are selected to solve human problems. Media are optimized to minimize human communication problems. The success of a medium is contingent on its ability to solve both sets of problems, and the diligence of a new medium's users in creating practices that solve its problems becomes another measure of that medium's prospects for success.

A Theory for Interpersonal Mass Media

One value this shift to defining media based on practice is the resulting paradigms ability to integrate theory in the fields of interpersonal and mass communication. The historical distinction between these subfields, however fundamental it may be to the field of communication, is, according to Reardon and Rogers (1988), a reified accident of history and politics. Proposing that the distinction "has had detrimental effects on communication theory and research" (p.285), they assert that it is time "to question the viability and utility of the categories that divide us" (p. 300). Writing in the same issue of Human Communication Research, Berger and Chaffee (1988) join Reardon and Rogers' call. Equating the division to that of "two sovereign nations," they note that "the two sub-fields have different purposes, different boundaries," different methods, "and somewhat different theoretical orientations." This last difference is most problematic, as theory is the only "path toward integration of communication study" (p. 312).

It may be that the "Theory of Medium as Process", as proposed in Foulger (1990), provides just such a path. The need for such a path is underscored in the study's own observations, where considerable evidence is developed supporting the view that computer conferencing combines elements of interpersonal and mass media in a way that requires it to be viewed from both perspectives. This evidence includes the information (primarily mass) and discussion (primarily interpersonal) factors discussed above, meta-forums, which turn interpersonal meta-discussion into the equivalent of a mass media sidebar, the mix of mass and interpersonal elements in various computer conferencing genres, the means by which IBMPC's rules are enforced (persuasion preferred), and IBMPC's mix of formal (editorial guidelines) and informal (interpersonally negotiated) rules.

An informal typology of media: A contrast of potential recipients versus potential for feedback. Mass Media (in the upper left corner) tend to entail both high numbers potential recipients but a low potential for feedback. Interpersonal media (in the lower right corner) tend to entail both high levels of feedback, but among relative small groups of individuals. A continuum from mass to interpersonal is depicted in the diagonal line running from the upper left to lower right. Computer conferencing, in contrast to these media entails both large numbers of participants and high levels of feedback. It appears, in this informal typology, to be operating independently from, or orthagonal to, the continuum from mass media to interpersonal media.

Typological evidence

Additional evidence is found in typologies of media that are developed in chapters 6, 7, and 8. The first of these (Chapter 6) informally contrasts potential recipients of a message with the mediums potential for feedback (see note 22), suggesting that computer conferencing is neither an interpersonal nor mass medium. Interpersonal and mass media are the ends of a continuum (see :figref page=no refid=recfeed.) that extends from the upper left hand corner (high potential recipients and low potential feedback, a pure mass media) to the lower right hand corner (high potential feedback and low potential recipients, a pure interpersonal media), of this typology. Computer conferencing, with its high potential recipients and high potential for feedback, is orthogonal to this dimension, suggesting that it has characteristics of both but is different than either.

Three dimensional view of Formal Typology of Media: Rendering of three dimensions of media as identified in the formal typology of media. The vertical dimension corresponds with the interactiveness (Interpersonal versus mass media) dimension of the typology. Mass media cluster in three groups near the top of the rendering. Interpersonal media cluster in three groups near the bottom. The dimension extending to the right from the center axis corresponds to bandwidth. Higher bandwidth media are found near the left wall. Lower bandwidth media are found in the right foreground. The dimension extending to the left from the center axis corresponds to dynamism. More dynamic media are found near the right wall. Less dynamic media are found in the left foreground. Computer media are found almost entirely in foreground (low bandwidth) and span the gap between four groups of media, extending from correspondence media in the lower left foreground and extending in a diagonal between publishing media and interactive telephone media up towards broadcast media in the upper right corner.

A second formal typology of media (Chapter 8) refines this view when by presenting a "seventh cluster" occupying the middle ground between traditional and technological media. This cluster, encompassing all computer media, is visible in graphs of the rotated factor structure in the middle ground between interpersonal and mass media (see :figref page=no refid=intdyn.). This typology places computer conferencing nearer to publication media, particularly newsletters, than to interpersonal media, but the medium is clearly in the middle ground, once again a mass interpersonal medium. A subsequent test of this typology (Chapter 9) against the perceptions of computer conference users strengthens this notion of a cluster of computer media that mediate the gulf between interpersonal and mass media. Indeed, in this analysis computer conferencing is positioned, relative to the other media evaluated, almost exactly in the center of each of the analyses's three dimensions (see :figref page=no refid=media3d.).

A 3D view of User Descriptions of Media

Observing the process of the medium on IBMPC

The mixture of interpersonal and mass media elements in computer conferencing is pervasive and unavoidable, suggesting the necessity of communication theory that integrates mass and interpersonal media in a single construct. The theory of medium as process, as presented, has certainly proved useful here, where the four key words of its grammar -- mediators, characteristics, effects, and practices -- provided, after the fact, an organizing construct for a wide ranging set of observations:

Mediators In chapter 11's description of the mediators of computer conferencing, the big lesson of this chapter is that these mediators, which include mainframe computers, the VNET computer network, the TOOLS computer conferencing software, and a variety of software front ends to the facility, are not fixed entities. They are dynamically changing and often interchangeable. This is true of its network, back end software, and front end software, all of which continue to evolve.
Characteristics The characteristics of computer conferencing, as reported in chapter 13, are, by contrast, much more stable. IBMPC may be easier to read and append today than it was in 1981, but the basic characteristics of interaction are pretty much the same. When we define computer conferencing as a medium which "allows large numbers of geographically distributed individuals to converse in an asynchronous manner," we are describing the medium in terms of its characteristics. These characteristics do not entirely describe a medium, and they can change somewhat, but they are the essential core of what a medium is to the people that use it.
Effects The effects of computer conferencing in the case of the IBMPC computer conferencing facility are directly addressed in chapters 17 and 18. There was a time when these chapters seemed critical to this dissertation. In the end, they seem dry; mere listings of interesting effects detached from the contexts in which they matter.
Practices The more interesting descriptions of application and outcome effects of the medium are found in the chapters that describe the rules and genres of IBMPC. These chapters describe computer conferencing as a process of discovery and adaptation, and deserve additional consideration.

The process of practice

Consider, for instance, computer mediated query, which doubtless started with the posting of a question to IBMPC that was answered with unexpected rapidity. The person who asked this first question probably needed some information. The people who answered were probably glad to be able to share a bit of hard won knowledge. Others who observed the interaction learned something unexpected, and everyone who participated in the interaction saw that the question worked. The steps between that first successful CMQ event and the routine computer mediated query events of ISTHERE FORUM describe a process of genre formation. More questions were asked. Styles of asking questions started to emerge. Thank you appends were supplanted by "Thanks in advance" messages in the initial append. A convention using the filetype "QUERY" evolved. Answers started to use reference lines and both question and answer started sharing common subject lines. Ultimately, CMQ forums like ISTHERE FORUM emerged, eventually killing off the QUERY filetype. Each of these steps and many others help to define CMQ as a genre optimized to satisfy the need for quick information.

Similar solutions and optimizations are observed in other genres on IBMPC. These evolutions are the product of the kind of ongoing problem solving that is process of a medium. An understanding of the nature of computer conferencing, as exemplified by IBMPC is found in the intersection of such problem solving with the mediators, characteristics, effects, and practices that are computer conferencing. The rules and characteristic processes of IBMPC are a product of its effects. The effects of IBMPC are a product of its characteristics and practices. The characteristics of IBMPC are a product its mediators and practices. The mediators of IBMPC can change as a function of practice. The relationships between these elements are iterative, complex, and evolving. A problem leads to a rule may result in other problems. Those problems, when resolved with a new characteristic genre, may entail both opportunities and new problems. The opportunities may result in refinement of the genre. The problems may result in refinements to the rules. Any of these refinements may spill over into a new or modified mediator.

The computer conferencing magic that makes so much of this visible is the relative ease with which these processes can be observed. The mediators of computer conferencing are fairly easy to identify. All are human inventions, and most are readily changeable software mediators. The characteristics are well defined and surprisingly stable, even in the face of substantial changes to the mediators. Meta-communication in computer conferencing often must be overt, making it easy to observe bidding, negotiation, and overt reviewing actions. Enforcement can be more difficult, especially when it is informal, and emulation can be observed only in the repeated use of a strategy. Hence while it is sometimes possible to identify exactly when a rule starts, locating the beginning of a genre is more difficult. The effects of computer conferencing can be observed indirectly in the rules and characteristic processes they engender. They can also be observed directly through the simple expedient of asking people what they are. One suspects that this relative ease of observation will continue, for computer conferencing, for as long as it remains possible to maintain a reasonable transcript of interaction.


The literature review at the beginning of this paper documents several deficiencies in the prior computer conferencing literature. Foulger (1990) attempts to remedy these deficiencies by observing a large and rapidly growing computer conferencing facility for over seven years, focusing on observation under the general supposition that the existing base of observation was too thin to allow theoretical assumptions to be made about computer conferencing, and diverging from that path only at the end, when the observations suggested a theory of media evolution that integrates interpersonal and mass media in a single theoretical framework.

This does not argue that the study is without limitations. It is confined to an in-house computer conferencing facility in which the only direct costs to the users are measured in the time spent reading and contributing to the facility. It is confined, moreover, to a single company, IBM, which assumes standards of behavior which are not necessarily assumed in society in general. Participants in the facility work for a company that sells computers and tend to be both well educated and computer literate. These factors certainly restrict the applicability of these results outside IBM, and suggests that similar studies need to be conducted on public computer conferencing facilities where norms, cost structures, and assumptions of literacy differ from IBM's. Still, the study appears to add considerably to our knowledge of computer conferencing and, perhaps, the processes by which media evolve in general.

What, then, is the structure, use, and practice of computer conferencing on IBM's "IBMPC" computer conferencing facility? Its structure is not unlike a complex social system, complete with a common vocabulary, formal and informal rules, and a tradition of working together to solve common problems and evolve a better system. The uses of IBMPC, when expressed as benefits, are powerful and richly varied. The relatively large number of strong benefits and the range of experiences within each, makes the rapid and continuing growth of IBMPC easy to understand. The practice of computer conferencing on IBMPC, as expressed in its genres, is both complex and varied. Computer conferencing is used in a variety of ways on IBMPC, and those applications are accompanied by generic patterns of interaction that optimize communication to given tasks in highly specific ways. As expressed in its rules, this practice is equally rich and varied, with a range of formal and informal rules, most of them developed by participants in the medium to solve the problems of the medium. The richness of the processes by which IBMPC's participants have evolved its structure, uses, and practices by its participants argue strongly for the results will generalize to other large and long running computer conference facilities. Hence IBMPC may well provide a measure of what other facilities will become.

What, moreover, does the experience of IBMPC tell us about computer conferencing as a communication medium? The characteristics of IBMPC argue that computer conferencing does indeed allow "large numbers of geographically distributed individuals to converse in an asynchronous manner," but that's only the beginning. The experience of IBMPC argues strongly that computer conferencing is a mixture of the characteristics of both mass and interpersonal communication media. One cannot just study computer conferencing as a means of interpersonal communication or mass communication. It is both and neither, requiring theory that integrates both in a new way. The experience of IBMPC argues equally strongly that computer conferencing is a highly distinctive medium of communication that has distinctive and valuable applications. If typological distinctiveness is an indicator of success for a medium, IBMPC argues that computer conferencing may be a very successful medium. If, as has been asserted, the mechanism by which typological distinctiveness grants success is in distinctive applications of the medium, the range of genres that have been observed on IBMPC both supports the assertion and argues for the success of computer conferencing as a medium.

Indeed, the experience of IBMPC us may tell us a great deal about communication media in general, arguing that media are dynamically negotiated and continuously reinvented social constructs that are defined less by their mediators then they are by their practices. This insight can and should be explored relative to other media, including both mass media and, however odd the juxtaposition may sound to interpersonal communication scholars, interpersonal media. A medium is not a channel. It is a set of practices, and that is as true for face to face communication as it is for a newspaper.

Computer conferencing is an artificial and highly malleable medium that can be readily adapted to many purposes. Its future evolution is hardly more than a blank slate on which a first generation of structures, effects, and practices have barely been written. There will be new mediators, including improved user interfaces, voice to text translation, multimedia and hypermedia, that it has yet to encompass. There will be new applications, as yet unexplored, for it to be applied to. There are already difficult to resolve problems that need to be solved and there will be more.

The experience of IBMPC argues that computer conferencing is, as Hiltz and Turoff suggested in 1978, a revolutionary medium that will radically transform society. Use of computer conferencing has already radically transformed the 300,000 member society called IBM, and little has happened in this transformation that cannot occur in other social systems, whether or not they are large corporations with in-house facilities. Indeed, chapter 22 results indicate that, at least for IBMPC participants, use of computer conferencing already significantly exceeds use of the telephone. With the use of computer conferencing already growing rapidly on the publicly accessible computer conferences of PRODIGY, CompuServe, Usenet, Internet, and many others, and increasing evidence that the experiences of IBMPC are repeating themselves on these facilities, it may be that the revolution is already underway.


The author would like to thank a number of individuals for providing help and support as this study was written. Particular thanks are extended to Dave Chess, who, in addition to administering the IBMPC computer conferencing facility through most of its early history, collaborated in constructing and administering two surveys of the IBMPC computer conferencing facilities participants and acted as an expert editor, proofreader, and student of computer conferencing through several drafts of this project. Special thanks are also extended to Dr. Gerald Waldbaum, who has guided, nurtured, and protected IBMPC throughout its history in his role of management owner of the facility. He has supported and encouraged this and other studies of IBMPC, and provided special insights into the corporate risks associated with a computer conference like IBMPC and the role of management in making it work.


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