A comparison of autonomous and collaborative models in computer-mediated communication




Phillips, Bruce

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Traditional models of conversation treat the participants as autonomous; ideally, speakers convey information to listeners in alternating turns. In contrast, the more recent collaborative model emphasizes moment-by-moment collaboration between participants in dialogue (Clark, 1996). Two computer-mediated communication (CMC) experiments tested these models by questioning the utility of strict turn exchanges (a central feature of autonomous models) versus more flexible moment-by-moment collaboration (a central feature of Clark’s model). A novel feature of these experiments was the development of three new process measures that are relevant to the autonomous versus collaborative comparison. Conversational coherence was a quantitative measure of the adjacency of all semantically related utterances, that is, how well the conversation maintained an orderly sequence of topics. Collaborative topic development was a quantitative measure of how much participants built on one another’s ideas (versus contributing independently on separate topics). That is, to what degree did the conversations take the form of loosely related alternating monologues versus an integrated dialogue? The third measure assessed the contributions of listeners. Each process measure required detailed analysis of all messages in each conversation. Experiment 1 compared three CMC formats, ranging from highly autonomous to highly collaborative: IRC (Internet Relay Chat), in which participants compose and send messages independently; ICQ (I-Seek-You) with an imposed turn marker; and ICQ-free with no turn rules. Sixty University of Victoria students in 30 unacquainted dyads completed a brainstorming and a joint recall task in one randomly assigned condition. As predicted by the collaborative model, all dependent measures confirmed that the ICQ-free format was significantly superior to the IRC and ICQ-turn maker conditions. That is, the format without an imposed turn structure produced more coherent, more collaborative conversations, with higher performance scores and better task efficiency. Qualitative analysis revealed that, in the absence of familiar turn cues, the ICQ-free dyads used timing and text space to manage their interaction, which often did not involve strict turn taking. Experiment 2 was a replication and extension with two new communication conditions, a new measure of listener responses, and the use of three-person groups. In a within-subjects design, participants completed two tasks in a face-to-face (FTF) condition, the previous IRC condition, and an electronic bulletin board (BB) condition, which also imposed turn taking. These three conditions varied in the degree of reciprocity possible, with FTF permitting the maximum and fastest reciprocal interaction and BB the least and slowest. Twenty-seven University of Victoria students formed nine randomly assigned, unacquainted triads. Together, each triad completed a brainstorming task and a debating task with different topics in each condition. The results again showed that flexible moment-by-moment interaction was superior to the two formats that enforced turn taking. The FTF conversations were more coherent, with more collaborative topic development. Also, the rate of listener responses was significantly higher, indicating a higher rate of feedback to speakers, and the number of words used per turn was lower, suggesting more rapid turn-around (i.e., finer granularity). In sum, the FTF participants tightly intertwined their contributions to ensure understanding, maintain coherence, and develop their joint topics. Taken together, the results clearly support a collaborative model of conversation and raise new questions about the functional utility of strict turn taking. In both process and performance measures, the conditions that maximized collaboration were superior to those that favoured autonomous individual action. At the practical level, these results should inform the design of mediated communication systems by identifying the affordances that may help or hinder online interaction.



Collaborative model of communication, Computer-Mediated Communication