Gathering of Strangers in Cyberspace: Public Opinion on the Internet
Alice Chan Plummer
Mass Media Ph.D. Program
Department of Telecommunication
Michigan State University
409 Communication Arts and Sciences Building
East Lansing, MI 48824
Tel: (517) 355-4714
Fax: (517) 355-1292
Please address comments and questions to:
[log in to unmask]
Submitted for peer review to
the Communication Technology and Policy (CT&P) Division of
the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC)
for presentation at the 1997 AEJMC Convention,
Chicago, July 30-August 2, 1997
As a communication technology, bridging interpersonal and mass communication,
the Internet holds considerable potential for the formation and dissemination of
public opinion. Among other implications, the Internet offers a virtual space
for the gathering of strangers to exchange opinion. Based on a review of
existing literature on public opinion, as well as theories and research in
traditional mass media and emerging information technologies, this paper
provides a conceptual analysis of the Internet's public opinion potential.
Gathering of Strangers in Cyberspace: Public Opinion on the Internet
In 1931, Edward Sapir remarked that technical devices facilitating
communication have expanded the realm of communication and reduced the
significance of geographical contiguity. He argued, "The weakening of the
geographical factor in social organization must in the long run profoundly
modify our attitude toward the meaning of personal relations and of social
classes and even nationalities" (pg. 166). Around the same period, Park (1929;
1939) observed that the city gathered people who lived together in physical
contiguity but moral isolation. The American city was nothing more than a
spatial clustering of strangers who, in hindsight, were to remain so to each
other. Apparently, to enhance social integration and cultivate a sense of
community, physical proximity would be neither a necessary condition>according
to Sapir>nor a sufficient condition>according to Park.
These observations made more than half a century ago have held up to the test
of time. Indeed, communication across distances>telecommunication>has expanded;
meanwhile, social isolation among people living close together seems to have
persisted, if not become exacerbated. Perhaps, Sapir's foresight is accurate,
that the search for human relations will transcend distances, and the community
lending socio-psychological identity and support to the individual will not be
confined to, nor contingent upon, physical proximity.
In modern times, the rapid diffusion of the personal computer has brought about
the exponential growth of communication mediated by computers; electronic mail
is a case in point. A particularly notable agent of computer-mediated
communication is the Internet, a boundary-spanning collection of networks, large
and small. Conspicuously materializing Sapir's sixty-year-old apocalypse, the
Internet is promising>or threatening>to reconceptualize the meaning of human
relations and social classes.
On the Internet>in electronic chatrooms and multi-user dungeons (MUDs),
strangers with diverse backgrounds bond by virtue of a common interest, sharing
sentiments and ideas about anything from a hobby to a political agendum. To
critics of the so-called "Information Age" in which we presently exist, the
"virtual" gathering of opinions on the Internet can hardly measure up to
discussions and debates in town hall meetings. Nonetheless, to some groups of
society, especially among the younger generation, cyberspace may be the only
place where they can find the political voice otherwise perceived to have been
denied them (Turkle, 1996).
The formation of "cyber-communities" is a social phenomenon that is undeniably
gathering momentum. It would appear that, with its capabilities for bridging
mass and interpersonal communication, the Internet possesses certain potential
unprecedented in other media forms for fostering the exchange of opinion. What
implications does the Internet hold for the public opinion process? This paper
presents a conceptual analysis of this inquiry.
In the following sections, the paper commences with the introduction of some
connections between the Internet and public opinion, presenting observations of
how human interactions supported by the Internet currently and potentially
affect the processes of opinion formation and dissemination. Then, drawing on
the wealth of existing theoretical and analytical literature, a "loose"
conceptual framework is discussed, highlighting characteristics of the Internet
that can facilitate and present challenges to the public opinion process.
Finally, the paper closes with some concluding observations and directions for
The Internet and Public Opinion
Interplay of Mass and Interpersonal Communication and Influence
At a time when the only mass medium available to the public was print, Bryce
(1916) offered his thoughts on the process of how public opinion is formed and
shaped. A story reported in the newspaper attracts the attention of a reader
and stirs up reactions to the issue. The strength of the reactions depends on
the issue's personal relevance and the reader's knowledge of and established
orientation toward the issue at hand. Through interactions with family members,
friends and colleagues, as well as incorporation of other trusted publications'
take on the matter, the individual's initial opinion gradually becomes
solidified or altered. Consequently, the action of the individual in response
to the issue (e.g., voting) may be based on firmly held convictions or may be
merely the result of being swayed by strong external pressures. At work in this
sketch of opinion formation is an interplay of mass media and interpersonal
communication influence: The print media serve both to build awareness and to
offer thoughts about an issue, and interpersonal interactions help to mold the
initial impressions into the ultimate opinion upon which to act.
In modern times, the versatile Internet serves as a single tool, supporting
both mass and interpersonal communication and influence, facilitating the
interplay between these processes. With the growing ubiquity and popularity of
this network of networks, it is possible to outline a contemporary adaptation of
Bryce's depiction of opinion formation: An individual turns on the computer,
logs onto the Internet and proceeds to read the electronic edition of the Wall
Street Journal. A headline about the death of the Chinese communist leader Mao
Tse-Tung draws this person's attention. After reading the story, this
individual clicks on the hyperlink to join a real-time, on-line discussion with
other subscribers of the electronic paper on the future of the People's Republic
of China without Mao. The different opinions expressed leave this Internet user
insatiable for more thoughtful insights from a known and trusted source,
prompting an email message to be sent to a close friend living out-of-state, who
is of Chinese decent.
This constructed, yet fairly realistic, modern-day scenario brings to bear the
realized and potential role of the Internet as an additional>and, in some cases,
an alternative>locus for awareness building and opinion sharing. After all, by
September 1995, there were some 123 U.S. newspaper services and more than 1,300
magazines with web sites (Morris and Ogan, 1996). Many newspaper and magazine
publishers have been offering electronic editions of their paper-based products,
giving Internet users access to current articles and back issues. Moreover, as
of February 1997, a quick search in Yahoo reveals over 2,400 electronic chats,
inviting the gathering and exchanges of opinion in a wide range of topics, from
general interests (e.g., health and living) to contemporary policy debates and
discussions (e.g., affirmative action and gun control).
The Interplay of Individual Psychological and Societal Factors
From the symbolic interactionist perspective, perceptions, thoughts and actions
serve as the socio-psychological building blocks and manifestations of public
opinion, and are compound products of the individual's psychological make-up and
interactions with society. Hence, the process of developing an opinion towards
an issue or a problem does not occur in isolation from a person's overall psyche
nor can it be divorced from years of socialization and acculturation. Moreover,
rather than appearing as a set of objective conditions, social issues are
legitimated and addressed through repeated discussions in society (Blumer,
1971).1 One mechanism through which the individual interacts with society is
the former's "primary group," which offers its members a shared social unity
from "mutual identifications, sympathies and social ideals" (Glynn, Ostman and
McDonald, 1995, pg. 251). This primary group notion was originally advanced in
1909 by one of the patriarchs of symbolic interactionism, Charles Cooley, who
considered the existence of primary groups and communication to be two crucial
elements of public opinion.
The idea of "groups" through which individuals interact to form and shape their
opinion as members of the public is also embodied in Blumer's (1948) concept of
"functional groups." He argued that it is through interactions among functional
groups, not disparate individuals, that diverse views and perspectives on an
issue are exchanged and, in turn, public opinion formed. In concurrence, Herbst
(1995) argued that public opinion is formed, expressed and monitored by groups
(e.g., political parties in the 19th century), not atomized individuals.
According to Blumer (1948), functional groups are not demographic groups but
are defined by their strategic position and opportunities to act in society. As
such, a functional group can be a special interest group, or any organization of
people with the power and/or prestige in society to influence those who have the
means and capability to translate the opinion of the public into action (e.g.,
legislative bodies and administrative offices). After all, the formation,
expression and discussion of public opinion is part of a political process to
define and deal with issues stirring general unrest, leading up to actions in
form of legislation and ultimate general acquiescence of the law (Park, 1929).
Virtual groups and communities forming rapidly in cyberspace show signs of
resemblance to such primary and functional groups. For instance, frequenters of
MUDs congregate to seek and share mutual sentiments and reinforcement of the
virtual community, the primary-group forces that draw them back for repeated and
further exchanges and interaction. Many youngsters turn to fellow MUD-ders for
support in dealing with real-life insecurities (Turkle, 1996). Furthermore, the
email function of the Internet has become an increasingly popular tool for
soliciting public support for policy-oriented actions, e.g., petitions widely
circulated via email to round up names of those who would like to see continued
congressional support for children's television programming. This example
illustrates one way in which the Internet aids the causes and actions of
Gathering of Strangers in a Public Space
Weaving through decades of public opinion literature is the common theme of
people congregating to form the "public" in public opinion.2 For instance,
Carey (1995) saw the public as a social formation of individuals, such as that
seen in the historic congregation of people>otherwise strangers>during the
eighteenth century to debate and discuss issues reported in the printed news.
Were it not for the open context of gathering in order to share and express
views, these individuals would remain disparate and unknown to each other, i.e.
strangers. Carey (1995) further argued that in order for such open context to
be upheld, and hence the free gathering of strangers to be enabled, the presence
of a public space>or "public sphere" as coined by Habermas (1974)>must be
available. Historically, town halls and public houses served as such necessary
space. Unfortunately, socio-economic trends in the 20th century have revealed
people retrieving increasingly into their private dwellings. With such
development has been the parallel decline in the importance and relevance of the
public space or sphere, the incubator for public opinion formation and
As evident in the rapidly growing popularity of electronic chats and MUDs, many
Internet pundits are hopeful that the Internet can reverse decades of social
atomization (Turkle, 1996). With this hope comes the potential of, perhaps, a
renewed chance for the social formation of the public, an alternative conception
of the public space where strangers gather and share their opinions and ideals.
In other words, rather that being a physical location where people interact
face-to-face, the locus of opinion sharing can take place in cyberspace, a
virtual public sphere residing somewhere in the nexus of computer hosts and
The Internet's Public Opinion Potential: A Conceptual Framework
Long before the Internet was added to the communication technology lexicon,
Ellul (1965) observed that the sharing of public opinion often involves
mediating communication channels. A wealth of literature, especially in the
areas of propaganda, agenda setting and media effects, has dealt with the roles
of "traditional" mass media, such as television, in public opinion formation and
dissemination. Models bridging interpersonal and mass communication that are
highly useful to describing and explaining the public opinion process>such as
Katz and Lazarsfeld's two-step flow model of communication and Westley-MacLean's
conceptual model>have also acquired their prominence in the pre-Internet days.
As a fledgling, but rather conspicuous, computer-mediated communication
technology, the Internet possesses a unique combination of characteristics, many
of which are unprecedented in traditional mass media. The bundle of attributes
hold considerable potential for facilitating the public opinion process. As a
case in point, the Internet fits the description of an emergent communication
technology that enhances "telelogic communication" (Ball-Rokeach & Reardon,
1988).3 As the qualifier "telelogic" implies, this type of communication not
only incurs distances in a typical exchange, but also emphasizes participation
on the part of users, who are no longer simply the audience passively receiving
messages, chosen and framed by others. Ball-Rokeach & Reardon (1988) also
coined the term "debate telelogues" to represent exchanges between persons and
groups who (pg. 155):
"express opinions not only to register their view in the hope that it will
prevail, but also to persuade others...the give-and-take provides more complete
and personalized feedback between people who have developed at least some
relationship...some convergence of meaning..."
As can be readily observed, the functions of telelogic communication and debate
telelogues provided by the Internet to users can facilitate the spread of public
Aside from contributions to the public opinion process, there are also a
multitude of obstacles to be overcome before the full potential of the Internet
can be realized. For instance, participation in the public opinion process
hinges upon the ubiquity of the Internet. In addition, for many reasons dealing
with access to and control of resources, the successful diffusion of the
Internet is hindered. In the remainder of this paper, the hopes and challenges
of the Internet as a facilitating medium of public opinion are discussed to
construct a "loose" conceptual framework with which to evaluate the Internet's
public opinion potential.
In this section, features of communication supported by the Internet that are
seen to be beneficial to the public opinion process are presented. To
facilitate an organized and informed discussion, these characteristics are
categorized into five dimensions, namely: (i) volitional user control; (ii)
interactive communication; (iii) elasticity of synchronicity; (iv) active
participation; and (v) parasocial and virtual interactions. It should be noted
that in many instances, the characteristics described are not discrete nor
mutually exclusive, but are interdependent and often interact to produce
Volitional User Control
Unlike traditional mass media with which people frequently act as a passive
audience, the Internet returns various factors of control on communication back
to the users involved. For instance, mass media consumption has tended to be
constrained by such factors as program scheduling associated with broadcast
media that are beyond the control of the media users (Perse & Rubin, 1989). The
malleable nature of the Internet gives the initiator of an interaction full
control over the timing of exchanges and the choice of the group size they wish
to include. As such, an individual may engage in dyadic "electronic chats,"
send an electronic mail message to a small group or upload information onto a
web page intended for a mass audience.
The most powerful attribute of user control, perhaps, is in reducing the
effects of subjecting the audience to manipulation associated with issue
framing, propaganda and agenda setting by third parties so commonly evident in
other mass media forms (Best, 1989; Carey, 1995; DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach, 1982;
Ellul 1965). Although these types of influences on the public opinion process
are inevitable, the Internet provides a somewhat even playing field in which one
can be as active in making claims on issues and setting the agenda as any other
Furthermore, the fact that volitional communication control is granted to users
also aids participation in the "true" public opinion process, i.e., citizens
advancing their views in their own words and at their own discretion, not
prompted by pollsters. This poses stark contrasts to the prominent practice in
the polling industry of imposing "circumscribed choices" on respondents (Salmon,
1994). Such practice is incapable of distinguishing thoughtful convictions from
forced reactions to superficial probing that may be nothing more than fleeting,
spur-of-the-moment consciousness.4 Interactive Communication Another one of
the most attractive attributes of the Internet as a communication medium is the
ability to support interactive communication. This notion comes out of the last
ten years of research in interactivity, especially by Rafaeli (1988) and Heeter
(1989). A deceptively complex concept, critical analysis of existing literature
suggests that there are two general types of interactivity offered by emerging
communication technologies: human-medium and human-human. Human-medium
interactivity relates to such dimensions as the medium's responsiveness to
user's actions, effort required of users and the monitoring of information
system use (Heeter, 1989). Human-human interactivity deals more with the
ability of the communication medium to support back-and-forth communication
among dyads, small groups and masses. Although features of human-medium
interactivity do have implications on other facilitating characteristics of the
Internet, such as user control, for the purposes of the current inquiry, the
discussion will focus more on the second type of interactivity. After all, the
issue at hand is how the public opinion process can be affected by the use of
the Internet. As such, the chief concern is more related to the technology's
ability to support interpersonal interactions.
Rafaeli (1988) defined interactivity as the "extent that in a given series of
communication exchanges, any third (or later) transmission (or message) is
related to the degree to which previous exchanges referred to even earlier
transmission" (pg. 111). He argued that the notion of interactivity extends
beyond communication with feedback, the latter of which tends to suggest the
relevance of only the immediately preceding message in any given pair of
exchanges. Instead, interactivity entails a considerably richer contextual
incorporation of the communication/interaction history of the parties involved.
In other words, the creation of a repository of exchanges or "memory" of sorts
is facilitated. He also cautioned that, rather than being introduced to
describe the malleability of a communication medium, the notion of interactivity
is intended to capture the nature of human use. In this sense, the connotative
significance of interactivity lies in its social, rather than technical,
Recalling from the review of public opinion presented above, there must be
repeated discussions and exchanges among members of a group. Due to its ability
to support interactive communication for the attainment of social goals and the
possible institution of transactional memory on any given topic, the Internet
holds meaningful promises for the formation and sharing of public opinion.
Another highly relevant implication of interactivity is related to the effect
of "behavioral confirmation," which deals with the reciprocal nature of
influence between two parties of an on-going exchange (Walther, 1996). Party
A's positive (negative) perception of the communication counterpart, B, can be
felt by B, whose behavior would be affected positively (negatively), and, in
turn, further engages (drives away) party A. This social-psychological
mechanism of behavioral confirmation can be critical to the formation and
maintenance of affective bonding in groups, especially primary groups, which
have been argued to be an integral part of the public opinion process.
Elasticity of Synchronicity
In addressing some of the reasons why communication researchers ought to study
the Internet, the notion of "elasticity of synchronicity" is introduced to
capture the varying temporal sensitivity of communication (Newhagen and Rafaeli,
1996). Some communication situations call for real-time discussions, while
others may benefit from exchanges that involve some time lag. There has been no
shortage of research explicating this temporal sensitivity dimension of
communication, commonly discussed in the context of synchronous vs. asynchronous
communication. For instance, Ball-Rokeach & Reardon (1988) termed this notion
the "time boundedness" of communication.
There is general perception that synchronous communication is always more
preferable to asynchronous exchanges. This perception has been challenged by
recent research offering insights on the desirability of asynchronous
communication (for examples, see Walther, 1992; 1996; Walther & Burgoon, 1992).
As a case in point, without the pressures of on-going interactions, which may or
may not be face-to-face, an individual is afforded more time to compose one's
thoughts at one's chosen pace, resulting in better self-presentation (Walther,
1996). Furthermore, in situations of mediated communication where non-verbal
cues are absent, motivated by the greater need to reduce uncertainty,
asynchronous communication can enable an individual to devise bolder
communication strategies than in real-time exchanges (Walther and Burgoon,
Given this background, the Internet as an agent of computer-mediated
communication supports highly "synchronicity-elastic" communication. Expressed
differently, the Internet can be adapted to contexts involving varying demands
on the immediacy of responses. Again, the control over and the choice of
synchronicity is not inherent in the medium itself, but largely resides with the
parties of communication. Obviously, the ability to support highly time-bounded
exchanges can certainly facilitate the real-time expression and sharing of
opinion. It is also conceivable that many social issues are particularly
complex. In such instances, the processes of issue legitimization and
mobilization of action toward resolution may benefit from opportunities for more
thoughtful considerations, which may then necessitate time gaps in the exchange
Active Participation and Contribution
As suggested earlier, an essential requirement for the formation of public
opinion is active participation on the part of individuals as members of groups.
Consequently, in order to facilitate the formation of public opinion, the
Internet must be able to support, if not encourage, active expression and
exchange of views and orientation. Ball-Rokeach & Reardon's (1988) concept of
telelogic communication, which emphasizes active participation on the part of
communicators (introduced earlier), is a case in point. Similarly, Shapiro and
McDonald's (1992) notion of "immersion">the feeling of being part of events, not
just observers>brings to bear the appeal of active, rather than passive, media
use.5 Evolving somewhat correspondingly with the emergence of newer forms of
communication technologies have been theoretical and analytical approaches
aiming at seizing the idea of active participation, rather than passive
reception, on the part of media users. Among them is the uses and
gratifications approach (see for example, Levy & Windahl, 1984; McQuail 1984;
McQuail, 1994), which argues for the presence of active users, goal directed
media use and media selection motivated by the gratifications of needs (Rubin &
McHugh, 1987; Swanson, 1987). Donohew, Palmgreen and Rayburn (1987) provided an
insightful description of the social and psychological origins of media use.
Aside from approaches attempting to explain the socio-psychological aspects of
active participation, there are theories grounded in other social science
perspectives that lend usefulness in connecting Internet use with the
enhancement of the public opinion process. Examples are the theories of
critical mass (Markus, 1990; Oliver, Marwell & Texeira, 1985) and discretionary
databases (Connolly & Thorn, 1990), conceptualized to explain and predict usage
behavior associated with interactive, collaborative media, such as the Internet.
Despite carrying different assumptions, these two theories posit that the
benefits derived from using an interactive medium stem from collaborative
contributions from the participants. While the problem of free-riding is
inevitable, the scenario of everybody seeking to consume passively ideas without
actively participating and contributing is unsustainable. This position is
embodied in two concepts shared by the two theories: public good (an economic
concept)>a good to be enjoyed by all and one person's consumption does not
diminish its availability to others; and collective action (a sociological
concept)>action aimed at the achievement of a group objective rather than
individual, selfish gain.
Fulk, Flanagin, Kalman, Monge and Ryan (1996) engaged in a detailed examination
of these two notions, concluding that interactive communication systems are not
like other physical public goods. These researchers argued that the "connective
good" dimension of having members of the public linked point-to-point depends on
social connectivity, i.e., on-going contributions from the community without
free-riding. In addition, there have been empirical accounts of behavior
associated with the use of collaborative media suggestive of the notions of
public good and collective action at work. For example, recent research shows
that many people answer to other's email messages seeking help or information,
often without knowing the other party or having any direct, personal benefit
from the sharing the information (Barnes & Greller, 1994; Sproull & Kiesler,
These approaches provide useful thoughts on the conceptual connection between
the Internet as a communication technology and the formation and spread of
public opinion. After all, by facilitating active participation and
contribution on the part of users, the visions of public opinion sharing revered
by decades of scholars>including but not limited to Park, Blumer and others>have
a chance of being materialized.
Parasocial and Virtual Interactions
The beginning of this paper alluded to the notion of the Internet serving as an
incubator for the formation of virtual communities and groups. This idea is to
capture the decreasing significance of physical proximity in human relations and
communication, which, in turn, leads to the increasing attractiveness of
computer-mediated communication, such as that offered by the Internet. To the
extent that this emergent option of interpersonal interactions is embraced by
selected individuals and groups of society, who may not otherwise gather
together to share viewpoints and ideas, the Internet holds considerable promise
for serving the public opinion process. At the minimum, strangers are once
again provided a public space to discuss social issues and seek primary-group
In support of this seemingly overarching argument is the notion of parasocial
interaction. Originally introduced by Horton and Wohl (1956), parasocial
interaction "is a type of intimate, friend-like relationship that occurs between
a mediated persona and a viewer" (Rubin & McHugh, 1987, pg. 280).6 Although the
preponderance of research on parasocial interactions has dealt mainly with TV
personae (e.g., Hoffner, 1996), the notion of virtual relations has gradually
been studied in computer-mediated communication contexts (for example, Parks &
Floyd, 1996; Turkle 1993; 1995; 1996). Unlike "traditional" parasocial
interactions in which a viewer lives vicariously through the experiences of a TV
persona, a notable characteristic of computer-mediated virtual encounters
involve actual>not vicarious>interactions with other computer users.
Since the inception of the phenomenon, researchers have argued that parasocial
relationships may increasingly serve as a functional alternative to real-life
interpersonal relationships for some people (Rubin & McHugh, 1987; Turkle,
1996). This trend stems from a host of reasons, including self-esteem>the lack
thereof in real life and the resulting gain through virtual interactions
(Donohew et. al., 1987; Turkle, 1996; Turner, 1993). Various kinds of media
technology have been found also to be used to compensate for the lack of certain
social opportunities, capacities, and isolation (Donohew et. al., 1987). As for
positive effects, some socio-psychological of parasocial interactions include
opportunities for self-actualization and extension of the mind (Turkle, 1993).
There are other features of the Internet that are relevant to the public
opinion process, particularly because of the implications these attributes hold
for virtual interactions. An example is that of "telepresence," a term coined
by Steuer (1992), to describe the experiences with virtual simulations of
physical reality. Telepresence is a function of the vividness and
interactiveness of a mediated exchange, which, in turn, affect the "realness" of
the experiences of the parties involved. Moreover, adopting a social
information processing approach, Walther (1992) contended that there are
situations of "hyperpersonal communication" in which computer-mediated
communication can be more socially desirable than face-to-face interactions. A
potential implication of this notion for public opinion is the low risk of
speaking out on the Internet, relative to face-to-face meetings in physical
As is the case with all other communication technologies, realization of the
Internet's potential benefits are often contingent upon a number of conditions,
and constrained by the way the technology is applied. In this section, an
overview of three major challenges faced by the Internet vis-`-vis the public
opinion process is presented. These challenges relate to the issues of: (i)
social presence and context cues; (ii) access; and (iii) the boundary between
virtual and physical reality.
Social Presence and Context Cues
One of the on-going debates concerning communication mediated by computers has
to do with whether the parties involved in an exchange can establish an
appropriate social presence, if they have been denied the social context cues
necessary for human interactions, and whether the computer medium is
sufficiently information-rich. Social context cues provide much non-verbal
information about the parties involved in an exchange, such as a person's
approximate age, social class and position (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). Because
of the general importance of these cues, face-to-face interactions rank highest,
by far, in social presence and media richness, and is the standard against which
mediated communication is compared (Fulk, Schmitz & Steinfield, 1990; Trevino,
Daft & Lengel, 1990).
The gist of the debate has one side rendering the use of an information-lean
medium providing low social presence to communicate task-oriented information as
appropriate. An example is using email via the text-only portion of the
Internet for reporting progress in a project. However, the same medium is not
suitable for maintaining human relations which are far too delicate and
intricate. In other words, there is still the widely held perception that
cyber-interactions cannot measure up to face-to-face interactions.
Counter-arguments have been offered, contending that the nature of a
communication medium alone does not determine social presence and richness
(Walther, 1992; 1996; Walther & Burgoon, 1992). Furthermore, given the
appropriate passage of time for two parties to build up a pattern of exchanges,
computer media, such as the Internet, can be as effective in relationship
development as face-to-face interactions.
In the context of the public opinion process, to the extent that the Internet
is perceived as an inappropriate medium for interpersonal relationship
development, the formation and maintenance of groups is hindered. The medium
may still provide an open forum for strangers to gather and share views.
However, if groups cannot be formed to legitimize issues and mobilize actions,
the exchange of opinion will be an action ending in itself.
Regardless of the approach from which signs of technological promises are
presented, no one has been able to disregard the contingency of access. The
challenge of access presents itself in many dimensions. For example, even the
discussion associated with the perspective of selfless contribution as embedded
in the public good notion acknowledges the problem of the systematic exclusion
of potential participants who have no access to the collaborative technology
(Fulk et. al., 1996).
In addition to dealing with such technological issues as the availability of
hardware and software, the challenge of access also relates to operating
knowledge (Ball-Rokeach & Reardon, 1988). As has been concluded through years
of research on the knowledge gap hypothesis, communication facilitates knowledge
dissemination, which translates into social power (Olien, Donahue & Tichenor,
1982). Unfortunately, due to the absence of access opportunities, some societal
groups are denied the chance to improve their socio-economic positioning; in
turn, the existing socio-economic gap is further widened. Both anecdotal and
systematic evidence has shown that, indeed, owners of the personal computer are
more affluent and educated (see, for example, Schweitzer, 1991).
Despite its increasing ubiquity, access to the Internet is not a privilege
bestowed upon all citizens alike. Even if the Internet offers the kinds of
promises presented earlier, e.g., returning volitional control to users and
giving under-represented groups a voice in debates, the systematic exclusion of
other groups due to socio-economic differences renders the public "incomplete."
The Internet's public opinion potential is, in effect, limited.
Boundary between Virtual and Physical Reality
No matter how well virtual reality functions as an alternative
socio-psychological outlet for seeking refuge, people still exist in the
physical world and must encounter real interactions. As observed in recent
research, there is growing concern that virtual experiences may gradually impair
an individual's perceptive ability to judge what belongs to the physical world
versus merely mediated virtual encounters (Shapiro & McDonald, 1992).
Turkle (1995; 1996) identified problems associated with "virtual roles" assumed
by individuals in cyberspace, such as a user assuming a different name and
identity to interact and establish relationships with other MUD-ders. At what
point does the "real" person cease to exist and the "virtual" person take over
in these interactions? Furthermore, if everybody participates in cyberspace
with constructed identities, there can be no accountability for actions.
Besides, without ground rules regulating relational development in cyberspace,
interpersonal trust cannot be fostered, and deception cannot be detected and
To the extent that the Internet merely offers an escape from reality, a place
for people to develop false identities and evade responsibilities for their
actions, the technology is not fulfilling the promise of bringing disparate
individuals together as a community. In this sense, not only is the public
opinion process not served, this almost represents an insult to the integrity of
the process: the idea of genuine people, otherwise strangers, gathering together
to discuss and solve social issues.
In an update of a study conducted ten years ago, Robinson & Levy (1996)
lamented that the American public is becoming less informed. Their conclusion
is based on the fact that newspapers still represent the leading source of
public information and that readership has continued to decline. However, this
updated study did not include the Internet. As discussed earlier, the print
media have begun venturing into cyberspace, effectively transferring some of
their informative and persuasive functions to the computer screen via the
Internet. If traditional media use has not led to a better informed public,
perhaps the role of the Internet need to be explored.
It is doubtful that the creation and enforcement of "pseudo-communities" was
what Sapir (1931) envisioned when he predicted that technology would redefine
the meaning of social relations. The Internet possesses substantial potential
for bridging interpersonal and mass communication, and can be a highly useful
tool for facilitating the public opinion process. As has been widely contended
by scholars, the role played by technology is in the offering of conditions for
enhancing communication. Ultimately, it is up to human effort to make sure
communication media, the Internet included, are used appropriately and
Implications for Future Research
This paper serves as the conceptual foundation for investigating the
implications of a pervasive technology the Internet for public opinion. Future
research efforts should be devoted to testing empirically the various factors
discussed in the conceptual framework.7 In addition, it would be an interesting
study to explore whether the Internet indeed reconceptualizes the notion of a
public sphere in the context of encouraging the gathering of strangers. Last,
but not least, the potential of the Internet in gathering opinion can have
significant utility in the public service and policy domain. Therefore, better
understanding of how the Internet facilitates issue awareness building can aid
future efforts related to such areas as AIDS education among youth and health
Ball-Rokeach, S. J. & Reardon, K. (1988). Monologue, dialogue and telelogue:
Comparing an emergent form of communication with traditional forms. In Hawkins,
R. P., Wiemann, J. M. & Pingree, S. (Eds.), Advancing communication science:
Merging mass and interpersonal processes. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Barnes, S. and Greller, L. (1994). Computer-mediated communication in
organization. Communication Education, April, pg. 129-142.
Best, J. (1989). Images of Issues: Typifying Contemporary Social Problems. New
York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Blumer, H. (1971). Social problems as collective behavior. Social Problems,
Blumer, H. (1948). Public opinion and public opinion polling. American
Sociological Review, 13, 542-554.
Bryce, J. (1916). American Commonwealth. New York: Macmillan Co.
Carey, J. (1995). The press, public opinion, and public discourse. In Glasser,
T. L. and Salmon, C. T. (Eds.), Public Opinion and the Communication of Consent.
New York: Guilford Press.
Connolly, T. & Thorn, B. K. (1990). Discretionary databases: Theory, data and
implications. In Fulk, J. & Steinfield, C. (Eds.), Organizations and
Communication Technology. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
DeFleur, M., & Ball-Rokeach, S., (1982). Theories of Mass Communication. New
York: Longman & Associates.
Donohew, Palmgreen & Rayburn II. (1987). Social and psychological origins of
media use: A lifestyle analysis. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media,
Ellul, J. (1965). Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes. New York:
Fulk, J., Flanagin, A. J., Kalman, M. E., Monge, P. R. & Ryan, T. (1996).
Connective and communal public goods in interactive communication systems.
Communication Theory, 6(1), 60-87.
Fulk, J., Schmitz, J. & Steinfield, C. W. (1990). A social influence model of
technology use. In Fulk, J. & Steinfield, C. (Eds.), Organizations and
Communication Technology. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Glynn, C. J., Ostman R. E. and McDonald, D. G. (1995). Opinions, perception and
social reality. In Glasser, T. L. and Salmon, C. T. (Eds.), Public Opinion and
the Communication of Consent. New York: Guilford Press.
Habermas, J. (1974). The public sphere: An encyclopedia article. New German
Critique, 1, 49-55.
Heeter, C. (1989). Implications of new interactive technologies for
conceptualizing communication. In Salvaggio, J. L. & Bryant, J. (Eds.), Media
Use in the Information Age: Emerging Patterns of Adoption and Consumer Use.
Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Herbst, S. (1995). On the disappearance of groups: 19th- and early 20th-century
conceptions of public opinion. In Glasser, T. L. and Salmon, C. T. (Eds.),
Public Opinion and the Communication of Consent. New York: Guilford Press.
Hoffner, C. (1996). Children's wishful identification and parasocial
interaction with favorite television characters. Journal of Broadcasting and
Electronic Media, 40(3), 389-402.
Levy, Mark and Sven Windahl (1984). Audience Activity and Gratifications: A
Conceptual Clarification and Exploration. Communication Research, January, pg.
Markus, M. L. (1990). Toward a "critical mass" theory of interactive media. In
Fulk, J. & Steinfield, C. (Eds.), Organizations and Communication Technology.
Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
McQuail, D. (1994). Mass Communication Theory: An Introduction. Thousand
Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc.
McQuail, D. (1984). With the Benefit of Hindsight: Reflections on Uses and
Gratifications Research. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, June, pg.
Morris, M. & Ogan, C. (1996). The Internet as mass medium. Journal of
Communication, 46(1), 39-50.
Newhagen J. & Rafaeli, S. (1996). Why communication researchers should study
the Internet: A dialogue. Journal of Communication, 46(1), 4-13.
Olien, C. N., Donohue, G. A. & Tichenor, P. J. (1982). Structure, communication
and social power: Evolution of the knowledge gap hypothesis. Massacommunicatie,
Oliver, P. E., Marwell, G. & Texeira, R. (1985). A theory of the critical mass.
I. Interdependence, group heterogeneity and the production of collective
action. America Journal of Sociology, 91, 522-556.
Palmgreen, P. & Rayburn II, J. D. (1982). Gratifications Sought and Media
Exposure: An Expectancy Value Model, Communication Research, October, pg.
Park, R. (1939). Reflections on communication and culture. American Journal of
Sociology, 45, 669-686.
Park, R. (1929). The city as a social laboratory. In Smith T. and White L.
(Eds.), Chicago: An Experiment in Social Research. Chicago: University of
Parks, M. R. & Floyd, K. (1996). Making friends in cyberspace. Journal of
Communication, 46(1), 80-97.
Perse, E. M. & Rubin, R. B. (1989). Attibution in social and parasocial
relationships. Communication Research, 16(1), 59-77
Rafaeli, S. (1988). Interactivity: From new media to communication. In R.
Hawkins et. al. (Eds.), Advancing communication science: Merging mas and
interpersonal processes (pg. 110-134). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Robinson, J. P. & Levy, M. R. (1996). News media use and the informed public: A
1990s update. Journal of Communication, 46(2), 129-135.
Rubin, R. B. & McHugh, M. P. (1987). Development of parasocial interaction
relationships. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 31(3), 279-292.
Salmon, C. T. and Glasser, T. L. (1995). The politics of polling and the limits
of consent. In Glasser, T. L. and Salmon, C. T. (Eds.), Public Opinion and the
Communication of Consent. New York: Guilford Press.
Sapir, E. (1931). Communication. In Seligman, E. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the
Social Sciences, 4, 78-80.
Schweitzer, J. C. (1991). Personal computers and media use. Journalism
Quarterly, 68(4), 689-697.
Shapiro, M. A. & McDonald, D. G. (1992). I'm not a real doctor, but I play one
in virtual reality: Implications of virtual reality for judgements about
reality. Journal of Communication, 42(4), 94-114.
Sproull, L. and Kiesler, S. (1995). Computers, networks and work. Scientific
American, Special Issue, 128-139.
Sproull, L. and Kiesler, S. (1986). Reducing social context cues: Electronic
mail in organizational communication. Management Science, November, 1492-1512.
Steuer, J. (1992). Defining virtual reality: Dimensions determining
telepresence. Journal of Communication, 42(4), 73-93.
Swanson, D. (1987). "Gratification Seeking, Media Exposure, and Audience
Interpretations: Some Directions for Research," Journal of Broadcasting and
Electronic Media, Summer, pg. 237-254.
Trevino, L. K., Daft, R. L. & Lengel, R. H. (1990). Understanding managers'
media choices: A symbolic interactionist perspective. In Fulk, J. & Steinfield,
C. (Eds.), Organizations and Communication Technology. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Turkle, S. (1996). Virtuality and its discontents: Searching for community in
cyberspace. The American Prospect, winter(24), 50-57.
Turkle, S. (1995). Ghosts in the machine. The Sciences, November-December,
Turkle, S. (1993). Computational seductions: The roots of computer holding
power. In Pavlik, J. V. & Dennis, E. (Eds.), Demystifying Media Technology.
Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.
Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal,
interpersonal and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23(1),
Walther, J. B. (1992). Interpersonal effects in computer-mediated interaction:
A relational perspective. Communication Research, 19(1), 52-90.
Walther, J. B. & Burgoon, J. K. (1992). Relational communication in
computer-mediated interaction. Human Communication Research, 19(1), 50-88.
1 In the article, Blumer described social "problems," not "issues." This
researcher took the liberty of using the label "issues" that connotes a broader
set of social input, which subsumes social problems. There is no intention to
suggest an alternative interpretation of how social problems are shaped and
solved, as described by Blumer.
2 In addition to being used to connote the notion of congregation of people, the
qualifier "public" has also been used as the antonym to "private," referring to
overt expression. 3 Although the article was written prior to the
commercialization of the Internet and its availability to the general public
beginning 1994, the description of emerging communication technologies fits the
Internet well. Also, the conceptualization of the "debate telelogues" was
based, in part, on observations of videotex technology, which shares many
similar characteristics with the Internet.
4 Salmon C. T. (1994). The circumscribed choice: Editor's introduction.
Argumentation, 8, pg. 325-326 (cited in Salmon & Glasser, 1995, pg. 453). 5 The
concept of "immersion" was discussed in the context of virtual reality, the high
end of which incorporates highly sophisticated, reality-mimicking stimuli,
currently not available on the Internet. Nonetheless, the utility of the
concept applies to the current inquiry because of the discussion of one's need
to feel involved in a situation rather than observing from the outside.
6 Horton, D. & Wohl, R. R. (1956). Mass communication and para-social
interaction: Observations on intimacy at a distance. Psychiatry, 19, 215-229.
(Cited in Rubin & McHugh, 1987). 7 As a case in point, this researcher in
currently working on developing a model, which incorporates the characteristics
described in this paper, to study the role of the Internet in building issue
?? (..continued) Gathering of Strangers in Cyberspace: Public Opinion
on the Internet Gathering of Strangers in Cyberspace: Public Opinion on the
Internet Gathering of Strangers in Cyberspace: Public Opinion on the
Internet Gathering of Strangers in Cyberspace: Public Opinion on the