Bonnie Nardi: Beyond Bandwidth: Dimensions of Connection in Interpersonal Communication

[Readings] (09.23.08, 10:49 am)

This paper is on computer mediated communication. The abstract presents the paper as a critique of some standard approaches, which emphasize the role of bandwidth as a means for understanding different different means of mediated communication. Instead, the subject should be the relationship between the communicators, and the focus on how the mediated communication affects that relationship. Nardi proposes a model that uses three fields of connection: affinity, commitment, and attention. These fields form the dimensions of a communication space, wherein the values of each change and evolve over the course of communication.

Nardi reviews some existing theory on computer mediated communication. These are nuanced, but all fall under the category of exploring bandwidth: Media richness theory (Daft and Lengel 1984), Social presence theory (Short et al. 1976), and others. All these are about understanding communication in context of more objective information about the communicators.

Nardi’s analysis instead looks at an ethnography of instant messaging in the workplace. She finds that what is important is not the bandwidth and or richness of information, but rather communication is about the feelings of connection and the sense of openness in interaction. These feelings were established by bodily interactions and “informal discourse of low information content.”

In a study of instant messaging, Nardi finds that well regarded executives perform quick and informal “purposeless” communication with colleagues through IM. Nonetheless, this informal communication does serve a function of staying connected. Activities of connection occur through computer mediated communication, but simply through different channels than in regular conversation (which has a lot of embodied and visual signals). This idea is interesting because it puts a mediated spin on the sociology of interaction.

In reviewing social presence theory, Nardi introduces a number of concepts from sociology. Particularly relevant to mediated communication is the idea of symbolic interaction, which lends the insight that different media may be chosen to communicate different things based on the social role of the medium. Interaction relies on cueing, and different media have varying affordances for cues.

Nardi’s analysis of communication is broken down into three dimensions: Affinity, commitment, and attention.

Affinity is a feeling of connection, and the degree of openness in interacting with another. Affinity may be derived from social bonding activities. The examples of social al bonding that Nardi provides are: Touch, eating and drinking, sharing experience in a common space, informal conversation. Bonding is heavily embodied. These experiences are also tightly connected to not only sociological traditions, but also anthropological ones.

As an aside, the idea of bonding might be an interesting thing to use to develop emotional significance with artificial agents. A bit of work has been done looking into the emotional appeal of games and game characters (which is especially significant in the cases where tragedy strikes), and this might be useful in other cases. It may also be a good frame to analyze the Sims.

The expression of commitment is important. Nardi explores some interviews and finds that commitment is very much about establishing a bodily presence. What is important is making some sort of visible expression to indicate just how committed the actor is. Commitment is about performance and ritual. In some cases, it is related to expenditure, but bodily presence is especially valuable. For example, flying out a long distance to meet clients for a day. Commitment can probably be compared to issues of investment and personal sacrifice. Again, this is a common practice that has deep roots in anthropology.

Procuring attention is about capturing the focus of a subject. In personal interaction, attention has a lot to do with eye contact. The gaze is another heavily embodied element of communication, and cannot adapt well to the bandwith model of communication. Attention is also about conveying availability for interaction.

One curious thing about Nardi’s analysis is that her experimental subjects are all modern professionals, but each of the elements of study are overwhelmingly anchored in anthropology. The effects of the examples of highly paid business executives seem right at home next to the effects of tribal rituals.

Using these three elements as essential parts of communication, Nardi explains that some of these elements can be carried over into mediated communication, but their operation is different. Mediated communication enables the elements of contact, but in a subtle and definitively weaker manner than in full face-to-face communication. Nardi’s point can be seen that improved bandwidth can not improve communication. Rather, communication might be improved by focus on the elements of connection and relationships.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorNardi, Bonnie
TitleBeyond Bandwidth: Dimensions of Connection in Interpersonal Communication
JournalComputer Supported Cooperative Work
Tagshci, anthropology, sociology, digital media, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar

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