«Andrés Gregor Zelman The University of Amsterdam 2002 ii Mediated Communication and the Evolving Science System: Mapping the Network Architecture of ...»
114 Chapter VII: Analysis of Mailing List Environment Introduction1 The chapter addresses the potential of Internet mailing lists to enhance academic research with respect to Gibbons’ (et al., 1994) distinction between Mode I and Mode II knowledge production. The threaded email messages from a selection of SelfOrganization and Science & Technology Studies oriented Internet mailing lists were examined using cybermetric techniques, as described in Chapter III: Materials & Methodologies. The central drive was to illustrate the internal dynamics involved in the electronic production of knowledge from a different angle than the previous analysis of the internal electronic communications of the SOEIS members as described in Chapter V.
Arguably, the introduction of the Internet mailing list has contributed a new dimension to academic research and its communication. The primary aim of this chapter is to outline the dynamics of Internet mailing lists with respect to their potential to enhance networked communication, and by extension, influence the process of knowledge production. It is argued that network relationships fostered by the use of electronic media can be understood, in part, through an examination of threaded email messages. Importantly, email messages do not occur at random but are the product of collective directed action – they are events that occur in succession, often with reference to each other. Email messages in threads are best understood to be like words in sentences – they achieve meaning within context. This analysis is therefore focused upon how threaded email messages, as individual units of communication, can be understood together as concerted collective action.
The secondary aim of this study is to outline the key similarities and differences between the EuroCon-Knowflow mailing list, which houses the electronic communication of the Self-Organization of the European Information Society (SOEIS) research project, and a selection of ten other related mailing lists. The frequency of interaction is compared with the size of the threads to reveal network dynamics particular to the Internet mailing list. Clearly the examination of threaded messages as instances of interaction is what makes this study unique. As with the previous sections, several distinct but overlapping theoretical perspectives are incorporated into the analysis to describe the architectural, network and systemic dimensions of knowledge production enabled by the Internet mailing list.
Additionally, the Self-Organization and Science & Technology Studies mailing lists were selected to reflect the theoretical perspectives employed in the analysis.
1 This research has been partially funded by the European Union under the Targeted Socio-Economic Research (TSER) program (SOE1–Dt97–1060). Sections of this chapter were published in Zelman, A.
& Leydesdorff, L. “Threaded Email Messages in Self-Organization and Science & Technology Studies Oriented Mailing Lists” in Scientometrics 48(3), 361-380. The author would like to thank Moses Boudourides and Loet Leydesdorff for valuable contributions to this research.
The research focuses upon the discussion threads of mailing lists. The use of threaded messages as our hermeneutic units of analysis provides the basis for a reflection upon the theoretical lens described in Chapter II: Theoretical Grounding. In particular, with respect to Self-Organization Theory, we measure for self-organized criticality by comparing the frequency and size of threaded messages. Using this and other methods as operationalized modes of theorizing, the architectural, network and systemic dynamics particular to the Internet mailing list are revealed.
As suggested in the review of the relevant literature in Chapter I, there appears to be a gap in the literature related to how threaded email communications can be understood as a mode of knowledge production particular to the technology of the Internet.
Accordingly, this contribution to the discourse analyzes threaded messages to illustrate the production of knowledge as an ongoing process, and it employs the model of the theoretical triad to position electronic communication via mailing lists as a unique mode of knowledge production.
A thread is a string of messages originating around a single topic of discussion; it is a series of messages in which each message refers to the previous. The focus on threaded messages permits a perspective to aid in understanding how information is exchanged, and how this mode of exchange differs among lists. Arguably, the use of theoretical positions that concern architectural, network and systemic (not individual) behaviour may enhance our understanding of mailing lists as contributing to a unique mode of knowledge production.
In particular, Self-Organization Theory is useful to this project as the phenomenon of threaded messages can be seen as a recursive operation through which knowledge is recursively produced via collective interaction. Like Medium Theory and ANT, SelfOrganization Theory helps frame the thread as the key unit of analysis. Importantly, it theoretically grounds our comparison of the frequency of interactions (how often threads occur) with the size of interactions (the length of the thread) as a test for selforganizational properties in Internet mailing lists.
Each of these theoretical perspectives provides a window upon the network dynamics of mediated communication. Clearly each helps frame the context of the examination through highlighting the networked dimensions of the Internet mailing list, and each lends a perspective that permits a more detailed description of the distinction between Mode I and Mode II knowledge production. Together, these theoretical bodies frame this analysis in the sense that the node through which they intersect is the notion of the thread: the observation of threaded messages achieves a different meaning with each perspective.
In light of Medium Theory, individual email messages can be understood to collectively form an information network along a historical axis; list activity thus becomes the measure of the degree of shared informational world formation. In light of Actor Network Theory, threaded email messages can be understood as an indicator of information network formation created and sustained through individual actions.
This extends the notion of the information network as an architecture since actions are 116 isolated as the means through which the information network is continually reproduced, thereby illustrating its interconnectivity. Finally, with Self-Organization Theory the notion of information network is lifted from local actors and actions to a next-order perspective that treats thread size and frequency as fingerprints of the recursive operation of the social system, above and beyond individual agency. These key theoretical positions align with the three stages of the results described below.
Research Questions & Expectations
Email messages are the key unit of analysis because they serve as a focal point for questions concerning both individual and collective behaviour. Through analyzing threaded email messages as events, using the theoretical perspectives outlined in Chapter II: Theoretical Grounding, a new perspective is gained, thereby lending a unique understanding of the networked dynamics of the Internet mailing list. Three research questions have been isolated, each with reference to a particular theoretical body.
The first research question concerns the architectural dimensions of mailing list communication. Does the Internet mailing list operate as an information network, and can qualities common to all lists be identified, or do different lists perform specific functional roles in academic communication? This question is informed by the Medium Theory notion of the information network, and aims to characterize each list architecturally with respect to its perceived function in the academic network. With respect to this research question, the primary expectations concerned the variation among the lists with respect to their descriptive statistics; it was expected that the lists under examination would vary according the status of each. The EuroCon Knowflow mailing list, for example, functions in the context of the SOEIS research project and in this sense was expected to differ in relation to lists at the field level. Three levels have been identified: project, intermediary, and field. This is of concern to the analysis because printed communication fostered a distinction between formal and informal communications, and it can be expected that this distinction may blur with electronic media use. A related research question is relevant here: what does this blurring mean for formal communication at the field level and for informal communication at the level of research practice? Accordingly, this analysis should prove insightful for mailing list participants involved with project, intermediate and field level lists.
Second, Are there notable differences between Internet mailing lists with respect to their networked communication statistics, and if so, what can we determine about each list given the threaded-ness of it’s communication? The question is informed by Actor Network Theory and aims to outline the network qualities of the Internet mailing list as a product of collective actions. The key focus here is how individual messages compile to form information networks. The primary expectations of research question two concerned how the EuroCon-Knowflow list compares to the sample set. The comparison relates to the communicative statistics – the threadedness of each list. Unlike the aforementioned expectation of a blurring between formal and informal knowledge production at the project, intermediary and field levels, it was expected here that these differences could be located through an examination of 117 threaded messaging behaviour. Given the intentional positioning of email-listings at the project, intermediary or field levels, it was therefore expected that these differences would be reinforced despite the blurring capacity of electronic media.
Electronic communication would therefore appear to supplement rather than supplant traditional print media. The analysis was aimed to discern whether individual emails (actions) reinforce the distinction between formal and informal communications or whether the dynamics of the net erased the original differences.
Finally, research question three concerns the systemic dimension of the mailing list:
Can discernable self-organizational network properties of the Internet mailing list be identified, and if so, which lists appear to be self-organizational, which do not, and why? Self-Organization Theory informs this research question; by comparing the size and frequency of threads irrespective of their individual contributors, the recursive aspects of the information system are outlined. With respect to research question three, the expectations concerned net dynamics in a collectively produced sense.
When observed from a macro perspective it was expected that some mailing lists would exhibit self-organizational properties while some would not. The key issue here was how the system dynamics could be compared as to make this distinction.
Accordingly, by comparing thread size and frequency using Bak & Chen’s (1991) measure of self-organized criticality, the expectation was that an analysis of Internet mailing lists as information networks that are collectively created and maintained (regardless of individual action) could be discerned.
Each additional theoretical perspective enables a new type of question to be posed and a new frame of analysis to be employed. In the following section the results of the analyses performed on the data collected from these eleven lists are described. Briefly stated, the data are analysed for their architectural, network, and systemic dimensions to illustrate the degree of ‘information network’ formation, its interconnectivity, and possible systemic aspects of the communication to determine which lists operate selforganizationally and which operate hierarchically.
Architecture Once the materials were gathered the critical information for each list was outlined.
This information included the member list, email address list, messages per member, and the total number of messages. Table 7.1: List Information (up to and including 6/11/98)2 provides an overview of the relevant critical features of each mailing list, including date of list inception, duration in days, number of subscribers, and total number of mails.
2 The analysis of this SOIES Communicative domain commenced on November 6, 1998; this was the cut-off date for all mailing lists under analysis.
Once the preliminary data for each list was collected we were able to gain an initial sense of the role that each list played in the academic environment. Three distinct levels of analysis were performed in this study. Respectively, the three steps entailed the analysis of descriptive (architectural), communicational (networked), and selforganizational (systemic) statistics. Again, these steps align with the three key theoretical positions employed in this analysis: Medium Theory, Actor Network Theory, and Self-Organization Theory. For the calculation of descriptive statistics, the member lists, email address lists, messages per member, and the total number of messages were compiled for each of the eleven mailing lists. List activity was then
calculated by dividing the total number of mails by list duration (in days). Figure 7.1:
List Activity: Mails / Day, shows the results.
From the information presented here it is learned that over half of the mailing lists under observation have a list activity of at least one email per day; the mean is just over 1, and has a standard deviation of.27. Here list activity is best understood as an indicator of architecture formation – in the sense of the Medium Theory ‘information network’. Interestingly, there are three groups of lists visible here. The first are the cognitively driven lists with field-type characteristics (Luhmann, Principia Cybernetica, and Sci-Tech-Studies); these exhibit particularly high traffic density.
The second group of lists are project related (EuroCon-Knowflow, SOIS, SIMSOC, 3 The number of subscribers in each list is cumulative.