Habits of Computerized Communication
at Amherst College

An Exercise in Social Research
by Tal Liron

Foreword

The motivation for this project is ideological. It is with great unease that I watch how the Internet is embraced as the cure for economic inequality and a tool for democratization. The Internet will replace many schools (at least for those who can’t afford “real” teachers); it will enable us to meet new people from all over the world (will we have anything to talk about with a starving peasant?) and allow us to explore our many identities through role-playing (“Hi, I’m Damocles, a friendly rapist”). “Globalization” in the Year 2000 looks more like the Empire of the Internet colonizing the world from outer space, offering dubious gifts in exchange for absolute loyalty. It is high time to take a sober look at what the Internet is doing to our social life, and to our imagined human identity. We must carefully consider the agenda of those who would “sell” us the Internet, and even export it to the rest of the world, and more importantly develop our own agenda, and ask how the Internet fits in to it.

Amherst College is an ultra-wired environment where some of these future leaders are being trained. It is also a prime example of a community where computerized communication is meshed at the local level. Here emails are sent not to a mercenary in the Congo who has never been paid a salary, but to your classmate just down the hall, with whom you have more to talk about than just about everyone in the world (at least during the happy college years). It is an exciting site for exploring some of the immediate social transformations of the Internet Age.

Description

Overview

As this project was very limited in time and scope, I concentrated on two of the more intriguing ways in which computers are used to communicate at Amherst College.

VAX Plans

All students and most faculty members have accounts on the local OpenVMS cluster (known as “the VAX”), primarily used for email. It is easily accessible through terminal emulation software over the Internet, but only if you know the password to an account. It is likewise possible to attach a plain text file to your account, which can be read by anyone at any time, normally without your knowing. You are free to update and change this file at any time. This text is called a “plan”, as one of its intended uses is to make it easier for people to track each other.

Two optional elaborations are available: Planwatch is a convenience utility that allows you to read, with a single command, a long list of plans from a personal list that you can change at any time; Snitch , not commonly used, keeps track of people who access your plan, as long as they are running snitch, too.

The Daily Jolt Forum

The Daily Jolt ( http://www.dailyjolt.com ) is a commercial web site running outside the campus network. At the time of this writing, the Daily Jolt has a dedicated area for Amherst College students, as it has for a growing list of other colleges and universities. Each school-area features a forum, where anybody on the Internet can post a message under any name, and under any subject. It is very easy to respond to messages, and fairly easy to access other forums, such as those of other schools. The Daily Jolt also offers two additional forums not dedicated to specific campuses: a relationships forum, and a cross-campus forum . There is also a forum dedicated to the Five-College area. The forums are moderated for excessive profanity and threatening language, but otherwise you are free to post anything you want, at any time you want.

The rate of postings on some forums is high enough that if you do not check the forum daily, you will miss some postings.

Method

I started out very un-systematically, simply reading as many plans as I could stand and checking out the Daily Jolt forums whenever I could find the time. I focused more on some plans, and tuned in to “plan conversations” where two or more plans respond to each other. I even started my own plan, and experimented with different ways of using it. I talked, casually, to friends about their own habits and opinions concerning plans and forums.

Due to the personal nature of much of the material I have read, I have decided not to use any of it in this report. I have likewise not approached people whose plans I have read to talk to them about their plans. It is my understanding that despite plans being open for anyone on the VAX to read, they are not always intended as such. At times I felt very uncomfortable reading about things that I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to know. I even stumbled upon a mention of myself in one plan. While I did not commit any crime by reading open plans, I feel obliged to keep the details secret.

Because I was ethically barred from using the actual plans, I decided to send out an anonymous questionnaire, with the questions obviously based on my interpretations of my previous discrete research. The questionnaire is attached as an appendix, with a percentile breakdown of the responses. I fed the data into MicroCase Corporations statistical analysis software, which I used to look for correlations between the variables. My analysis and conclusions follow.

The Analysis

Who are these people?

The 57 people who responded to the questionnaire are students of all years, more or less equally distributed, with slightly more women than men. Most are upper-middle-class, or at least middle-class. Most do not consider themselves to be athletes, but are also not nerds. Indeed, they tend to be very social. A good many of them taught themselves computer skills during their teens, but many only discovered computers in college. Not surprisingly, the older students picked up their computer skills later than the younger ones. Likewise, upperclassmen report more close friends than the lower classes.

How do they use plans?

The people who write plans tend to do so daily. Most seem to treat it like a diary, but do not feel very attached to it, such that they would lament its loss. While some plans serve as emotional outlets, they are usually far less intimate and personal than a private diary would be. Writing tends to be contemplative, serving more as an intellectual outlet. All things considered, it can be seen as a diary with restrictions. People write about their life, but most fall short of revealing themselves; this is unlike writing in a private diary where these inhibitions can safely be put away.

Plans are usually written with a specific audience in mind, and sometimes plans contain responses to other plans. In this way, the system simulates a mailing list, or a conference call, but with a twist: unknown people may be tuning in. Sometimes people avoid this danger by writing their messages in a way that only specific people would understand… hopefully. It is quite easy to randomly read plans and tune in to a conversation. These “plan conversations” are an important motivation for getting into plans in the first place, although boredom, procrastination and tension-relief are the main reasons people spend time on the system.

The people who read plans tend to do it daily, and intensively. They seem to empathize with the plan writers, and sometimes feel uncomfortable when a plan becomes too personal. Occasionally they check out random plans, just for fun, but the main interest is stalking – reading plans without the writers knowing that you do so. Because it’s so easy to logon and read plans, it is not surprising that procrastination and boredom again are the leading motivations. For relieving tension plan writing seems to be more effective, perhaps because your mind must be totally devoted to it, and forced away from stress. Plan reading can be more casual. Remarkably, it feels like a social activity, yet it can be practiced entirely alone. Together with the ease of use and minimal intellectual requirements, it makes for an attractive means of procrastination by oneself.

In general, the people who use plans are fond of them, and value the social aspects of the system. They definitely do not see using it as “abnormal” or unhealthy behavior. Non-users are less enthusiastic, but not especially negative in their opinions.

How do they use the Daily Jolt forums?

They check the forums less frequently than plans, but still, quite often. When they do browse, they are mainly interested in the Amherst forum, and hardly interested in the forums of others campuses, or the generic “relationships” forum. The Five Colleges forum is fairly new, but considering the lack of interest in other forums it is doubtful if Amherst students would be much interested in it.

The people in this survey read only some of the forum posts, and likewise post very little. All in all, they are not very involved in the forum.

Similar to VAX plan behavior, people check the Jolt to procrastinate, because they are bored, or to relieve tension. It’s also used a “barometer” (as one interviewee called it) to see what people on the campus are thinking and talking about, although by the degree of involvement, especially the low posting rate, it cannot be an accurate device. Interestingly, during the year posts on the Jolt caused enough stir on campus to be discussed in the printed student publications.

Opinions about the Jolt are ambivalent. Not one person said that the Jolt forum, even after modifications, is a good thing (question 62). This implies a belief that the medium itself is somehow deeply flawed. Although anonymity is frequently abused, they still believe in maintaining it as a principle, although they are less likely to believe in the principle if they think that anonymity lowers the quality of the forum. It may also be the other way around: because they embrace anonymity, they are less prone to criticize its abuse. The general feeling seems to be that the Jolt is the only place where people can express themselves anonymously “on campus”. It is otherwise not considered a serious forum for debate or discussion.

Surprisingly, the respondents say that the Jolt promotes inter-college communication, but apparently they don’t include Amherst College in this party, as they don’t care to visit the other schools’ forums.

Men and Women

The plan system is overwhelmingly female. The women write more than the men, and put far more energy into it. They make more social use of plans, take part in more plan conversations, and are far more prone to encode private messages. They are likewise way ahead of males in the frequency of reading, and number of plans tracked. Accordingly, they value the plan system a higher than the men.

The Jolt, on the other hand, is more of a “male thing”. Men read more, and are more interested in the Five College forum (for quite obvious reasons). Women are more firm believers in anonymity as a principle – perhaps because they don’t use the Jolt as much. Remarkably, while the men are more positive about the Jolt, they are much less likely than women to see forum relationships as “real”.

This striking difference between men and women can explain why there does not generally seem to be much correlation between opinions about plans and opinions about the Jolt – men and women “cancel out” each other when the data is combined.

Social Class

The upper-class men and women seem to be living up to their snobbish stereotype. They participate less in plan system, and are more critical of it and the people who use it. The Jolt seems more to their liking, and they considerably more likely to treat it a “barometer” for Amherst College opinion. This can be read as being more “male” oriented than lower-class men and women, as the categories share similar patterns. In this survey the categories do not overlap, as men and women are more or less equivalently distributed between the social classes.

Athletes and Nerds

People identifying as nerds do not seem different from the non-nerds, perhaps because the classification itself is meaningless. Athletes, however, stand out: they participate significantly less than non-athletes in plans and the Daily Jolt. Obviously, the reason is that they don’t spend as much time near a computer as the non-athletes. Otherwise, their opinions do not seem any different than non-athletes who don’t participate much in the systems.

Conclusion

While the aggregate results could be anticipated, I found the gender (and social-class) divide to be rather surprising. It can be said that because the plan system is more relationship-oriented, it appeals more to women than to men, but this is understating its versatility. Indeed, while I aimed my survey at the more common diary-like plans, there are students who are far more creative in its use. It is as much an outlet for artistic creativity as it is for emotions and intellect. Some write poems and short stories, some draw pictures with letters, punctuation marks and spaces, and there are unique uses that defy simple description. Perhaps more accurately, women use plans more than men because they use its relationship-oriented capabilities in addition to the other uses. Plan conversations simply require daily attention if they are to progress cohesively.

Why men make more use of the Daily Jolt is more enigmatic. We could say that women are less attracted to it because it is less relationship-oriented, but then, why are they more likely than men to see Jolt relationships as ‘real’?

The most significant difference between plans and Jolt forums is anonymity. The Jolt is overwhelmingly anonymous, while anonymity is technically impossible in the plan system. Though in both cases people can relate to each other, the relationships formed are very different. The plan system allows stalking, and fantasizing about a “real” relationship. The Amherst College campus is small enough for stalking to be very effective, and thus very exciting. As shown in the analysis, stalking is in important motivation for reading plans. An anonymous system like the Jolt allows only digital stalking, which is by far less exciting than stalking a person you see almost every day.

Anonymity, however, enables another kind of behavior: bullying. It is possible to be as vile and obnoxious as you want to be, without suffering the consequences. One might guess that men are more attracted to this usage of the Jolt than women are, and to the subsequent “flame wars” that result, but such an explanation isn’t very convincing. After all, when you are anonymous you do not have to live up to any cultural imperatives. Women may very well be more belligerent online than men are. More research is needed to provide a more satisfactory explanation for this pattern.

Secrecy is the major theme of plan use at Amherst College. It’s the excitement of stalking, and the constant uncertainty about being stalked. It is thus similar to gossiping, although it can be practiced alone. Otherwise, it does not seem to transform personal communication on the campus in any significant way. It does give tough competition for the more familiar Internet forum. The clunky and antiquated VAX plans are more popular, more creatively used, and more appreciated than the flashy and easy-to-use Daily Jolt forum. It is precisely because people have a community at Amherst that they do not really need an anonymous substitute.

Appendix: Questionnaire

Plan writing habits:

>

1

How often do you update your plan?

24.6%

Hardly ever

7%

Few/month

14%

Once a week

54.4%

Almost daily

2

How often do you write about stuff that happens to you or to others?

17.5%

Never

15.8%

Rarely

66.7%

Often

3

Do you feel bad about old plans being deleted?

57.9%

No

31.9%

Somewhat

10.5%

Yes

4

How often do you write about your emotional state?

26.3%

Never

17.5%

Rarely

56.1%

Often

5

Do you usually add text to your plan, or rewrite it?

40.4%

Usually add

45.6%

Usually rewrite

14%

Neither

6

How often do you write contemplations, random musings, or ‘quotes of the day’?

21.1%

Never

12.3%

Rarely

66.7%

Often

7

How often do you reveal intimate details?

40.4%

Never

40.4%

Rarely

19.3%

Often

8

How often do you write informative announcements, such as where you will be over the weekend?

28.1%

Never

38.6%

Rarely

33.3%

Often

Plan reading habits:

9

How regularly do you read plans?

12.3%

Hardly ever

7%
Few/month

10.5%

Once a week

70.2%

Almost daily

10

How many plans do you regularly keep track of?

10.5%

None

15.8%

1-4

73.7%

5+

11

How often do you check out random plans?

14%

Never

61.4%

Rarely

24.6%

Often

12

Do you use plan-watch?

33.3%

No

66.7%

Yes

13

Do you feel uncomfortable reading very personal plans?

56.1%

No

28.1%

Sometimes

15.8%

Yes

14

How often do you read plans without their writers’ knowing that you do?

10.5%

Never

33.3%

Rarely

56.1%

Often

Motivation for writing plans:

15

How often do you update your plan to kill time?

24.6%

Never

19.3%

Rarely

56.1%

Often

16

How often do you update your plan to let everybody know about something exciting?

24.6%

Never

21.1%

Rarely

54.4%

Often

17

How often do you update your plan to feel some sort of connection to people?

31.6%

Never

26.3%

Rarely

42.1%

Often

18

How often do you update your plan because you are participating in a ‘plan conversation’?

35.1%

Never

29.8%

Rarely

35.1%

Often

19

How often do you update your plan because you don’t want to do work?

22.8%

Never

17.5%

Rarely

59.6%

Often

20

How often do you update your plan because you need to let people know how to reach you?

33.3%

Never

52.6%

Rarely

14%

Often

21

How often do you update your plan to relieve tension?

31.6%

Never

28.1%

Rarely

40.4%

Often

Intended audience:

22

To your knowledge, how many people regularly read your plan?

22.8%

None

15.8%

1-4

61.4%

5+

23

How often do you reveal intimate details about someone, knowing that he or she does not read your plan?

68.4%

Never

24.6%

Rarely

7%

Often

24

How often do you participate in ‘plan conversations’, where you directly respond to postings in other people’s plans?

36.8%

Never

26.3%

Rarely

36.8%

Often

25

How often do you write private messages that only specific people will understand?

29.8%

Never

36.8%

Rarely

33.3%

Often

26

Do you mind unknown people reading your plan?

66.7%

Not at all

26.3%

Not especially

7%

Sometimes, yes

Motivation for reading plans:

27

How often do you read plans because you don’t want to do work?

14%

Never

12.3%

Rarely

73.7%

Often

28

How often do you read plans to feel some sort of connection to people?

24.6%

Never

26.3%

Rarely

49.1%

Often

29

How often do you read plans to relieve tension?

42.1%

Never

26.3%

Rarely

31.6%

Often

30

How often do you read plans to kill time?

17.5%

Never

14%

Rarely

68.4%

Often

31

Do you enjoy reading very personal plans?

22.8%

No

52.6%

Sometimes

24.6%

Yes

32

How often do you read plans of people who you would like to know better, and can’t/won’t otherwise approach?

21.1%

Never

43.9%

Rarely

35.1%

Often

Opinions about plans:

33

Do you think many people who read plans are ‘peeping toms’?

78.9%

Not especially

21.1%

Somewhat

0%

Yes

35

Do you think many people who write plans are insecure?

63.2%

Not especially

26.3%

Somewhat

10.5%

Yes

36

Do you think plans are replacing some face-to-face conversations?

52.6%

No

36.8%

Somewhat

10.5%

Yes

37

Do you think plans are a good way to bypass the psychological barriers of communication some people may have?

21.1%

No

49.1%

Somewhat

29.8%

Yes

38

Do you think that the plan system, perhaps with some modifications, is a good thing?

3.5%

No

19.3%

Not sure

77.2%

Yes

38

Do you think plans are a good way to bypass the barriers of communication our society maintains?

42.1%

No

33.3%

Somewhat

24.6%

Yes

39

Do you think many people who read/write plans are bored?

26.3%

Not especially

33.3%

Somewhat

40.4%

Yes

40

Do you think many people who read/write plans are lonely?

42.1%

Not especially

42.1%

Somewhat

15.8%

Yes

Daily Jolt forum habits:

41

How often do you check out the Daily Jolt forums?

15.8%

Hardly ever

14%

Few/month

29.8%

Once a week

40.4%

Almost daily

42

How often do you check out forums for other campuses?

45.6%

Never

43.9%

Rarely

10.5%

Often

43

When posting anonymously, how often do you use the same name?

57.9%

Never

19.3%

Rarely

22.8%

Often

44

How often do you check out the cross-campus forum?

31.6%

Never

50.9%

Rarely

17.5%

Often

45

How much of the content do you read?

17.5$

None

68.4%

Only of interest

7%

I try

7%

Much of it

46

How often do you check out the relationships forum?

45.6%

Never

42.1%

Rarely

12.3%

Often

47

How often do you post?

38.6%

Never

54.4%

Rarely

7%

Often

48

How often do you start new topics?

66.7%

Never

29.8%

Rarely

3.5%

Often

49

Is your ‘forum-persona’ well known?

87.7%

Don’t have one

12.3%

Somewhat

0%

Fairly

50

How often do you post anonymously?

43.9%

Never

38.6%

Rarely

17.5%

Often

51

How often do you check out the five-colleges forum?

56.1%

Never

33.3%

Rarely

10.5%

Often

Daily Jolt forum motivation:

52

How often do you post on the Daily Jolt forums because you need advice, or an answer to a question?

63.2%

Never

31.6%

Rarely

5.3%

Often

53

How often do you check the Daily Jolt forums to feel some sort of connection to people?

75.4%

Never

14%

Rarely

10.5%

Often

54

How often do you check the Daily Jolt forums because you want to know what people are thinking?

26.3%

Never

36.8%

Rarely

36.8%

Often

55

How often do you check the Daily Jolt forums to kill time?

14%

Never

33.3%

Rarely

52.6%

Often

56

How often do you check the Daily Jolt forums because you are taking part in a discussion?

36.8%

Never

50.9%

Rarely

12.3%

Often

57

How often do you check the Daily Jolt forums because you don’t want to do work?

15.8%

Never

21.1%

Rarely

63.2%

Often

58

How often do you check the Daily Jolt forums to relieve tension?

61.4%

Never

17.5%

Rarely

21.1%

Often

Opinions about the Daily Jolt forum:

59

Do you think many people who post anonymously are cowards?

26.3%

Most aren’t

66.7%

Some are

7%

Yes

60

Do you think anonymity on the Daily Jolt should be maintained on principle?

24.6%

No

75.4%

Yes

61

How often do you think anonymity on the forums is abused?

1.8%

Never

29.8%

Rarely

68.4%

Often

62

Do you think that the Daily Jolt, perhaps with some modifications, is a good thing?

20%

No

80%

Not sure

0%

Yes

63

Do you think that the Daily Jolt is replacing some face-to-face discussions?

68.4%

No

31.6%

Yes

64

Do you think that anonymity lowers the quality of the Daily Jolt?

52.6%

No

47.4%

Yes

65

Do you think that the Daily Jolt promotes communication among students in Amherst College?

3.5%

No

71.9%

In some ways

24.6%

Yes

66

Do you think relationships formed on the Daily Jolt are ‘real’?

49.1%

No

40.4%

Somewhat

10.5%

Yes

67

Do you think that the Daily Jolt promotes communication between students of different institutions?

17.5%

No

56.1%

In some ways

26.3%

Yes

General:

68

Gender?

35.1%

Male

64.9%

Female

69

What year are you?

24.6%

1

35.1%

2

21.1%

3

19.3%

4

70

What social class would you put yourself in?

5.3%

Undefined

14%

Working class

29.8%

Middle-class

43.9%

Upper-middle

7%

Upper-class

71

Would you call yourself an athlete?

70.2%

No

29.8%

Yes

72

Would you call yourself a nerd?

59.6%

No

40.4%

Yes

73

Would you call yourself a social person?

17.2%

No

82.8%

Yes

74

How many close friends do you have on campus?

1.8%

None

17.5%

1-2

80.7%

3+

75

Where did you pick up computer network skills, such as email and chatting?

17.5%

High-school

1.8%

Elementary

24.6%

College

3.5%

Parents

10.5%

Friends

42.1%

Self

76

How old were you when you first picked up computer network skills, such as email and chatting?

3.5%

<10

42.1%

10-15

50.9%

16-18

3.5%

>18