Chapter 8: Mediated Communication and Interpersonal Relationships

8.1 Technology and Communication

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain the history of computer-mediated communication.
  2. Recognize some of the important figures in the creation of the Internet, the World Wide Web, and computer-mediated communication.

Since the Internet’s creation in 1969, public access to the Internet and the creation of the World Wide Web (www) in 1991, and the proliferation of internet service providers through the late 1990s, the technology that shapes your life today and tomorrow is still relatively new. Here are some relatively recent landmarks in social media sites, technology, and apps: LinkedIn (2003), iTunes (2003), Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005), Twitter (2006), iPhone (2007), Drop Box (2008), Google Docs (2009), Kickstarter (2010), Google+ (2011), Google Glass (2012), Oculus Rift (2013), iWatch (2014). As you can imagine, just limiting this list is hard. Some of these products you’re probably very familiar with while others may be new to you altogether.

From Math to Punch Cards

Before we get started, it’s essential to understand the evolution of what we call computer-mediated communication or CMC. Now some scholars have adopted the broader term “communication and technology” in recent years. Still, we don’t think this is necessary because a computer of some kind is always at the center of these communicative interactions.

So, our first question should be, what is a computer. In its earliest use, “computers” were people who performed massive amounts of calculations by hand or using a tool like an abacus or slide rule (Figure 12.1). As you can imagine, this process wasn’t exactly efficient and took a lot of human resources. The 2016 movie Hidden Figures shows the true story of a group of African American computers who created the calculations to land the first Astronaut on the Moon

Figure 12.1 Abacus and Slide Rule

The first mechanical ancestor of the computer we have today was created in 1801 by a Frenchman named Joseph Marie Jacquard, who created a loom that used punched wooden cards to weave fabric (Figure 12.2). The idea of “punch cards” would be the basis of many generations of computers until the 1960s. Of course, the punch cards went from being wood cards to cardboard or cardstock throughout its history. Some of the earliest statistical research in the field of communication was conducted using punchcards. As you can imagine, a lot of very important people worked from the early 1800s to the 1960s to advance the modern computer. Many wonderful books can introduce you to the full history of how we came to the modern personal computer.1

Jacquard Loom
Figure 12.2 Jacquard Loom. “NMS Jacquard loom 2.JPG.” by Ad Meskens. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. 

The 1970s saw the start of the explosion of the personal computer. In 1981, IBM released the Acorn, which runs on Microsoft DOS, which is followed up by Apple’s Lisa in 1983, which had a graphic user interface. From that point until now, Microsoft and Apple (Macintosh) have cornered the market on personal computers.

Getting Computers to Interact

One thing that we have seen is that with each new computer development, we’ve seen new technologies emerge that have helped us communicate and interact. One significant development in 1969 changed the direction of humanity forever. Starting in 1965, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were able to get two computers to “talk” to each other. Of course, it’s one thing to get two computers side-by-side to talk to each other, but could they get computers at a distance to talk to each other (in a manner similar to how people use telephones to communicate at a distance)?

Researchers at both the UCLA and Stanford, with grant funding from the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), set out to get computers at a distance to talk to each other. In 1969, UCLA student Charley Kline attempted the first computer-to-computer communication over a distance from his terminal in Los Angeles to a terminal at Stanford. The first message to be sent was to be a simple one, “login.” The letter “l” was sent, then the letter “o,” and then the system crashed. So, the first message ever sent over what would become the Internet was “lo.” An hour later, Kline got the system up and running again, and the full word “login” was sent.

In the earliest years of the Internet, most people didn’t know it existed. The Internet was primarily a tool for the Department of Defense to allow researchers at multiple sites across the country to work on defense projects. It was called the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). In 1973, the University College of London (England) and the Royal Radar Establishment (Norway) connected to ARPANET, and the term “Internet” was born. A year later, in 1974, a commercialized version of ARPANET called Telenet became the first internet service provider (ISP).

Allowing People to Communicate

The early Internet was not exactly designed for your regular user, so it took quite a bit of skill and “know how” to use it and find things. Of course, while the Internet was developing, so was its capability for allowing people to communicate and interact with one another. In 1971, Ray Tomlinson was working on two programs that could be used over ARPANET: SNDMSG and READMAIL. From his lab at MIT, Tomlison sent a message from one computer to another computer sitting right next to it, but he sent the message through ARPANET, creating the first electronic email. Tomlison also forever changed our lives by introducing the “@” symbol as the tool the Internet uses when handling sending and receiving of messages.

In addition to email, another breakthrough in computer-mediated communication was the development of Internet forums or message/bulletin boards, which were online discussion sites where people can hold conversations in the form of posted messages. Steve Walker created an early message system for ARPANET. The primary message list for professionals was MsgGroup. The number one unofficial message list was SF-Lovers, a science fiction list. As you can see, from the earliest days of the Internet, people were using the Internet as a tool to communicate and interact with people who had similar interests.

One early realization about email and message boards is that people relied solely on text to interpret a message with no form of nonverbal communication attached. On September 19, 1982, Scott Fahlman, a research professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon, came up with an idea. You see, at Carnegie Mellon in the early 1980s (like most research universities at the time), they had their own Bulletin Board System, which discussed everything from campus politics to science fiction. As Fahlman noted, “Given the nature of the community, a good many of the posts were humorous, or at least attempted humor,” explained Fahlman. “The problem was that if someone made a sarcastic remark, a few readers would fail to get the joke and each of them would post a lengthy diatribe in response.”2 After giving some thought to the problem, he posted the following message seen in Figure 12.3.

I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers: :-) Read it sideways. Actually is is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given the current trends. For this use :-(
Figure 12.3 Emoticon Email

Thus, the emoticon (emotion icon) was born. An emoticon was a series of characters and/or letters designed to help readers interpret a writer’s intended feelings and/or tone. Over the years, many different emoticons were created some useful like the smiley and sad faces, lol (laughing out loud), ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing), :-O (surprise), :-* (kiss), 😛 (sticking your tongue out), :-/ (quizzical), :-X (sealed lips), 0:-) (angel), *\0/* (cheerleader), and so many others. As we’ve discussed previously in this text, so much of how we understand each other is based on our nonverbal behaviors, so these emoticons were an attempt to bring a lost part of the human communicative experience to a text-based communicative experience.

Asynchronous Communication

For our part, these technologies are what we call asynchronous, or a mediated form of communication in which the sender and receiver are not concurrently engaged in communication. When Person A sends a message, Person B did not need to be on the computer at the same time to receive the message. There could be a delay of hours or even days before that message received and Person B responded. In this case, asynchronous messages were akin to letter writing. As the Internet grew and speed and infrastructure became more established, the development of synchronous CMC does develop, or a mediated form of communication in which the sender and receiver are concurrently engaged in communication. When Person A sends a message, Person B is receiving that message in real-time like they would in a face-to-face (FtF) interaction. In this case, synchronous messages are akin to talking to someone on the telephone.

Synchronous Communication

Let’s switch gears for a bit and talk about the history of synchronous communication on the Internet. The first synchronous mode of communication was the chatroom. In 1988, Jarkko “WiZ” Oikarinen wrote the first Internet Relay Chat (IRC) client and server at the University of Oulu, Finland. IRC was initially started as a program to replace an existing BBS, but WiZ realized that he had something completely different. With IRC, individuals from around the world could login using an IRC Chat Client (software on their computer), which would allow them to access a server elsewhere in the world to interact with people in real-time. The invention of IRC led to the proliferation of chatrooms throughout the 1980s and 90s.

Four IRC Chat clients around a server with double sided arrows connecting them each to the server.
Figure 12.4 Internet Relay Chat

In addition to IRC, another technology developed through Germany and France cooperation on Groupe Speciale Mobile (GSM) came out in February 1985 in Oslo, Norway. The goal of the GSM was to create protocols for second-generation global cellphone networks. One of the technologies that was created was called the short messaging service (SMS). The concept was developed in 1985 by Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert. SMS originated from radio telegraphy in radio memo pagers using standardized phone protocols and later defined as part of the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) series of standards in 1985. The “short” part of SMS refers to the maximum size of the messages that could be sent at the time: 160 characters (letters, numbers, or symbols in the Latin alphabet). If you haven’t figured it out yet, the system created by Hillebrand and Ghillebaert is the system most of you use every day to send text messages. Now, texting can be either asynchronous or synchronous, but we decided to talk about it here because it’s within the timeline we’re developing, and it is often used in a manner for people to communicate with one another in real-time.

The World Wide Web

Our last major invention that indeed was groundbreaking came about in 1990. Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist working for Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN), had an idea to help capture information from the people who worked at CERN. At CERN, the typical length of someone conducting research there was only two years, so that meant a lot of new people coming and going without a way to capture what was being done. As Lee noted, “The actual observed working structure of the organisation is a multiply connected ‘Web’ whose interconnections evolve with time.”3 Unfortunately, people come and go, and those interconnections often get lost. Furthermore, “The technical details of past projects are sometimes lost forever, or only recovered after a detective investigation in an emergency. Often, the information has been recorded, it just cannot be found.”4 You see, Berners-Lee realized that so much information is learned on the job and then leaves with the people as they leave the job. Berners-Lee proposed a new system for keeping electronic information based on hypertext. After getting some initial positive feedback, Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau wrote a management report explaining hypertext, “HyperText is a way to link and access information of various kinds as a Web of nodes in which the user can browse at will. It provides a single user interface to large classes of information (reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on line help). We propose a simple scheme incorporating servers already available at CERN… A program which provides access to the hypertext world we call a browser…”5 The title of this report was “WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a HyperText Project.”

CERN was not really concerned with the Internet as its primary scope and emphasis, so they agreed to release the source code for World Wide Web (WWW) to the world in April 1993. By 1994, Berners-Lee left CERN and took a job at MIT where he created the International World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to develop common standards for communication on the WWW. W3C still exists today, and the WWW celebrated its 30th birthday on March 10, 2019. The 5th variation of the hypertext markup language (HTML) created by the W3C is currently in circulation. You’re probably using HTML5 daily and don’t even realize it. As the W3C note, “HTML5 contains powerful capabilities for Web-based applications with more powerful interaction, video support, graphics, more styling effects, and a full set of APIs. HTML5 adapts to any device, whether desktop, mobile, tablet, or television.”6

Key Takeaways

  • Starting with the invention of the Internet in 1969, computer-mediated communication has changed over the years as technology has advanced.
  • Many important figures have helped create computer-mediated communication as we know it today. Some of the key players include Ray Tomlinson (inventor of email), Scott Fahlman (creator of emoticons/emojis), Jarkko “WiZ” Oikarinen (inventor of IRC), Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert (creators of text messaging), and Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web). These are just a handful of the many women and men who had a part in the development of computer-mediated communication.


  • When you look back at your own life, which computer-mediated technologies do you remember interacting with? Go back as far as you can and think about your first experiences through what you use today.
  • Check out the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) website ( and see what projects they’re working on today. Why is the W3C still relevant today?


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Interpersonal Communication (Dutton) by [author removed at request of original publisher] is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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