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Copyright

Title: Network & Netplay
Editors: Fay Sudweeks, Margaret McLaughlin, and Sheizaf Rafaeli
Publisher: MIT Press
Copyright: 1998
ISBN: 0-262-69206-6
Pages: 313
Price: $35.00
Rating: 89%
Setting aside questions over copyright and fair use, DejaNews and other archives are a boon for researchers investigating how Usenet and mailing list participants communicate. Network & Netplay chronicles ProjectH, a multinational examination of Net speech using discourse analysis techniques from speech communication and artificial intelligence.

Each of the book's thirteen chapters addresses a different aspect of online behavior, including:

 

  • Flaming.
  • Gender differences, especially in the use of "graphic accents" (i.e., "smileys").
  • Simulation and play.
  • Media use.

Most of the chapters relied on messages from online discussion group archives, with messages coded for content and the presence of one or more features (such as flames or answers to questions). In Smith, McLaughlin, and Osborne's chapter entitled "From Terminal Ineptitude to Virtual Sociopathy", an examination of reproaching messages in five newsgroups, research assistants examined selected messages to determine if a user had reproached another for a perceived infraction, the reproacher's attitude toward the transgressor, and the character of the response. As a balance, many of the messages were coded by more than one assistant and the results averaged. While the researchers' results weren't that surprising in this case (most corrections tend to be sent by a small group of individuals), the authors' approach is rigorous and provides a sound scientific base for further research despite the relatively small sample they analyzed.

Other ProjectH participants used neural networks and traditional statistical techniques to establish links between keywords in discussions, identify gender-based usage patterns, and model cooperative and supporting interactions. There were also two notable experience papers, one on the formation of an online pidgin language and the other regarding an online simulation of smoking marijuana in an online chat room.

I can recommend Network & Netplay for several reasons:

 

  • The nature of the questions asked.
  • The range of techniques used by the chapter authors to test their hypotheses.
  • The blend of analytical and experiential analyses.
  • The incremental yet definite advance the research embodies.

That last point bears repeating. It is tempting to go overboard and throw a number of new analytical techniques at a problem. The ProjectH team resisted that urge and, in so doing, ensured their results would be credible. Perhaps in the future computational linguistics tools will be available to automate some of the tasks performed by hand in this project. The research here should help point the way to developing those tools.

Network & Netplay is an outstanding resource speech communication, discourse analysis, or natural language processing professionals interested in how members of online communities interact.

Curtis D. Frye (cfrye@teleport.com)  is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews.  He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.