A discussion of Communications Models

Well, I really should be doing something far more productive right now, like Friday’s assignment. But instead I think I’ll stick up the essay on Whirlpool and communications. First, here are the two web pages I’m using.
The discussion thread example. And the Coffee Lounge front page.

The real, live version of this thread can be found buried in the coffee lounge at Whirlpool, here

Now, my piece……
(The formatting isn’t fantastic, but that’s just a translation to here-thing. Am thinking of changing the CSS up to 12pt)

`Discuss the different meanings or definitions of “communication”, making reference to the readings and discussion in Topics 1-3. Illustrate your answer by focussing on a selected “text” such as a conversation you have collected or some other communication “text” and using it as an example, explain what communication means or does according to each of these definitions.
In other words, discuss how your selected example illustrates each of the different definitions or approaches to the study of communication.’

The example I’ve chosen is one that that I find interesting to relate to the various definitions of communication, and of those the main two being the transmission view and the ritual view. Although there seems to be many more ways to look at an example with the transmission view, (through the use of models) that which can be learnt from the ritual view is no less important.

My example is a discussion that took place on an internet bulletin board system. The bulletin board is part of the Whirlpool website. Whirlpool’s main focus is news and discussion on the topic of broadband internet in Australia. However, the particular discussion thread I’m looking at occurred in the `Coffee Lounge’ where non-broadband related topics can be discussed, as is the case with my example thread entitled, `The Soul’.

The technical term for this kind of (written) electronic form of communication is `asynchronous chat’, or `asynchronous discussion’; the individual contributions (or posts) appear in chronological order, but not in `real time’ ie. the discussion took place over the space of just over thirteen hours, which is considerably slower than real time forms of electronic communication such as IRC (Internet Relay Chat) Instant Messaging, SMS etc.

So how does the transmission view of communication apply to this example? The best definition I read was, `Human communication is the process through which individuals – in relationships, groups, organisations, and societies – respond to and create messages to relate to the environment and one another’ (Ruben 1992).

The Aristotelian View of The Speaker (Bob Marley) forms an argument (as he himself writes, the thoughts take the form of words in his head). It then takes the form of speech (or a message via the keyboard) and is then sent, to be viewed by the `Listeners’. Obviously, the Aristotelian view’s too narrow for this example, due to it primarily dealing with spoken communication.

Lasswell adds the vital steps of channel and effect. Effect equates to the questions, `Did Bob accurately convey what he was thinking? Did the audience understand his message?’. But this model leaves no room for an answer. And with this example, what constitutes the channel? Is it: English language, ASCII, (characters permissible on an English-language typewriter/keyboard) the telephone line that sends the message to the Whirlpool server, the website and discussion board, `the internet’, `computers’, or each member of the audience’s computer monitors? I think it’s all of these things, which seems clumsy.

Shannon and Weaver’s model is interesting in that it was originally applied to phone conversation, and most of the internet still uses phone lines (eventhough it’s generally a visual medium).
Their model is still a one-way process, so we can only look at the first contribution to the thread. The Information Source is Bob. The category of Transmitter is new and useful, but it still has to double-up. The Transmitter is Bob’s computer/modem, but also the Whirlpool server (the server is a key component because it’s this that enables many receivers (any computer connected to the internet) to view the message. This can be contrasted to if Bob had sent his message as an email which can only be viewed by a limited number of receivers – those who he chooses to send it to.)

The Channel would refer to, in general, `the internet’ or more accurately http (hyper-text transfer protocol).
The Receiver, as mentioned before, is any computer connected to the internet which can understand http and translate it into ASCII. The destination is the people viewing the discussion board.

Noise can take the more obvious, physical forms of: the modem cutting out, possible distortion on older monitors, the Whirlpool server crashing, or the web page not being coded correctly.

Semantic noise would include illiterate people and non-English reading people viewing the page but not understanding it. Psychological noise would be evident in those people viewing the page who disagree strongly with Bob’s opinion, so may stop reading halfway through, passing the whole lot off as a bunch of hog-wash.

Schramm’s models and ideas go a long way toward more accurately portraying the example in question. Schramm proposed that the receiver (or Destination) could be an individual or many people. In our case it’s many.
Schramm also gave us Fields of Experience and Feedback. Feedback introduces the two-way process of communication and lets us take a look at the replies to Bob’s initial post. Fields of Experience lets us ask the question, `Does anybody actually know what Bob is talking about when he uses the terms, “soul”, and “consciousness”?’.

Katz & Lazarsfeld introduce the Mass Media and Opinion Leaders. It’s possible to view each of the nine participants of the discussion thread as opinion leaders due to the information given on the front page about the thread: that while there were only nine unique contributors to it, it received 150 views. The contributor’s opinions about the subjects at hand had to come from somewhere, most likely from the mass media.

Berlo stressed that `meanings are in people, not in words’. Bob writes of the the soul and consciousness as metaphysical concepts, yet other contributors write about the bottom of shoes, people being arseholes, and drunkenness as the opposite of consciousness. We could assume that this was done to be humorous; an artistic kind of entropy which is more concerned with the form of the message than the message being informative. But we can’t say for sure.

Models are necessary for us to begin to analyse communication but as Ruben points out, `Any model highlights certain aspects of communication and obscures other’. It’s that obscuring that I find unwholistic and a bit disconcerting. It reminds me of the story of the Zen master who asked his pupil to draw a perfect circle. After several failed attempts the pupil hit upon the answer and presented the master a blank piece of paper, saying it was a circle without a circumference. The master applauded this.

Perhaps my model capable of demonstrating the all the intricacies of the workings of every communication situation would be a blank piece of paper.

Ruben claims that during the 1980s and 1990s information has become a commodity and that `the most important new technology during this age has been the computer’. This is hard to argue against. The computer today is what the printing press was to the early part of industrial revolution. A personal computer is its owner’s printing press, post office, editor, photo album, art gallery and art studio. Computers are useful for little else apart from communications. Even the earliest computers and obscure engineering computing tasks like calculating pi to the millionth decimal place and searching the depths of space for signs of life are forms of communications.

The computer’s usefulness was amplified with the introduction of the internet to the masses. `The Web is a mass medium with one-to-many potential while, at the same time, enabling many-to-many and one-to-one interpersonal modes of communication’ (Ebersole, 1995).

As yet, commodification hasn’t reached the example discussion board or the Whirlpool website; it has no advertising. But it does have industry recognition, when Telstra employees have need a place to `leak’ something they feel that needs to be known, they go to Whirlpool. Similarly, when people are having trouble with their broadband connection, they check the website’s front page rather than going to the Telstra page.
Then why would the website bother with a resource-depleting forum called the `Coffee Lounge’ where people discuss things as non-broadband related as `the soul’?

Because phatic communication is a necessary part of social interaction, and it keeps people at the site and keeps them coming back. They are able to find out broadband news, but also indulge in ritual communication. It makes business sense too; if the website owner was to introduce advertising, they could ask a fair amount from the advertiser straight away, because of the high traffic the site gets.

There’s ritual even in the news section. Telstra is often portrayed as the `baddie who is always making blunders’, and Optus as the `goodie’ (because they offer better rates).

As the participants become familiar with each other, and each other’s attitudes, the `commun(e)’ in communication shows through.

`The Soul’ discussion thread has an interesting mix of entropy and redundancy. Each contribution would be considered entropic compared to a letter or email because they don’t start with pleasantries like, `Dear Fellow Members …’, however there is a custom of quoting sections of previous posts when the intention is to respond to the point, it’s even set in another colour to make it more apparent that it’s a re-quote; both of these characteristics are redundant communication.

Another interesting example of phatic communication, or the limitations and `coldness’ of ASCII is the prevelency, not only on message boards but in email etc., is the use of `smilies’, or `emoticons’ e.g. :-). In the example, these are used to help “keep things friendly”. They can also be used to denote sarcasm (e.g. `Yes, of course I will! 😉 ‘ ) or sadness. It could be a sort of entropic communication – it’s much quicker to type 🙁 than, `I am feeling sad about this’, except that basic facial expressions are understood worldwide. Whether or not everyone recognises these combinations of punctuation as faces is another question.

During this essay it’s become apparent that elements of the ritual view of communication are evident in all forms of human communication. While none of the established models of the transmission view are 100% applicable to the internet discussion board, they’re very helpful in in breaking it down into components that are more easily understood. From there, it becomes possible to formulate a model variation that suits the example.


Allen, R. C. 1992, Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism, 2nd ed. Routledge, London, chap. 1

Carey, J. 1989, Communications as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, Unwin Hyman, Boston, pp. 13-23

Ebersole, Samuel. 1995, `Media Determinism In Cyberspace’ http://www.regent.edu/acad/schcom/rojc/mdic/md.html

Fiske, J. 1990, Introduction to Communication Studies, Routledge, London, p. 1-4, 6-17

O’Sullivan, T., Hartley, J., et. al. 1994, Key Concepts in Communication and Cultural Studies, Routledge, London

Ruben, B. D. 1992, Communications and Human Behaviour, 3rd ed. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, pp. 10-52

Thompson, J. 1990, Ideology and Modern Culture: Critical Social Theory in the Era of Mass Communications, Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif., p.-1

`Whirlpool: Broadband Internet News’, http://www.whirlpool.net.au

Williams, R. 1976, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Fontana, London, pp. 62-63

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