Politeness and status in short digital communications: my BSc dissertation

While looking through an old hard drive, I found something pretty cool: my BSc dissertation. It was on something which was relevant to my interests way back in 2007, and continues to be very relevant to my interests today: communication through the internet.

My main research question was are people being as polite as they think they are? What I found was interesting and kind of complicated: outside observers found it difficult to tell whether a message was intended for a recipient who was higher-status or on the same level of social power. In other words, the internet is a sort of social leveller. Or at least it is in terms of people sending messages, who don’t even think that they’re using the same mode of communication they would for a friend when addressing someone with more power.

Regular readers will know I’ve had a bit of a bee in my bonnet about the liberatory potential of digital communications for quite some time, and that I rather like that we can communicate with everyone on a level. I suppose this is why I want to share this project with you, to show I’ve been thinking about power and communication since before I’d even heard of Twitter.

You can read the whole thing here [pdf].

I will say, it’s very of its time. This was written in a time before social networking went mainstream, in a time when people still sent faxes to each other. It was written in a time when the word “flaming” was used–a word I desperately want to bring back as it is qualitatively different from “trolling” and it really pisses me off that the media cannot grasp the distinction. And one more caveat–I was very different at the time it was written: I was one of those people who believed science held all the answers, that science was right and objective, and as such there’s a few pretty cringey bits in my writing style. I was reasonably good at science: I got a first in that degree.

Nonetheless, I thought I’d share it, as I feel like some of you might find it quite interesting. The world has changed since I wrote that dissertation and I’d love to know how much of it still applies in a world where we can now talk to anybody.


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