The title of this post is the title of a book chapter in Décrire la conversation en ligne (Develotte, C., Kern, R. And Lamy, M-N 5eds. 2011). In this chapter, the author, Maraccia, looks at how the spatial context of computer mediated communication impacts on the manner in which the exchanges take place, arguing that the characteristics of the spatial context and the proxemic organisation of the space impact on the interaction. The chapter analyses spatial context using a selection of videos from a corpus of eight synchronous video-conferencing conversations online from the CLAPI corpus. In these videos, participants in the experiment were asked to hold a twenty minute informal conversation about specific topics of general interest orally, using a videoconferencing system which included a web cam and chat interface. Five participants were involved in the study. The participants conversed in French but for one participant this was not his first language.
Maraccia suggests that the spatial context of online exchanges has not received much attention in research focussing on CMC, arguing that, when it is evoked, most often it is to suggest that the spatial context does not exist. He quotes Katriel (1999) who, in reference to mobile telephone communication, talks about the « despatialisation of communication » and Dahlgren (2000) who, in the study of Internet forums, notes the absence of geographical anchors which leads to the suggestion that the Net tends to deterritorialise communication. The chapter was of interest to me for I wonder to what extent synthetic worlds revoke this hypothesis. In general, Maraccia suggests that the majority of research into the spatial context of computer mediated exchanges suggests that there is a loss of contextualisation clues or a weakening of such clues. Maraccia suggests that this may be truer for written computer-mediated communication but may not hold true for video-conferencing conversations online. I question to what extent, an individual’s physical spatial location, is of importance in synthetic worlds, and impacts on the verbal communication, given the extent to which the environment is highly visual and the extent to which individuals in a synthetic world can visually share the environment.
In this chapter, Maraccia, quotes several works, including Jones (2004) which suggest that online exchanges take place in a virtual space which has no link to the physical space in which the participants are situated. However, he goes on to show that these physical spaces impact on the online exchanges. For example, he shows that the visual access to the location in which a conversational partner is situated can convey information about the partner’s location and that this subject may be evoked in the verbal communication, often by individuals asking where their conversation partner is situated. The spatial location becomes an issue in the conversation rather than a background element. Maraccia also shows that the places in which the individuals are located impact on the organisation and the definition of their activity. For example, the presence of other individuals in the room impacts on the nonverbal and verbal communication of the individuals – certain topics are avoided and an individual’s gaze and nonverbal communication may be directed towards another communication partner who is physically present rather than present in the videoconference. The tone of the conversation which takes place also depends on whether the individuals are located in a professional or a personal setting: in Maraccia’s data personal settings leading to more intimate discussions. Thus, the spatial context is an element which helps to build the setting for, and the organisation of, the online discussions.
In my data, I wonder to what extent the physical space of the participants impacted on the verbal communication in-world and whether due to the highly visual nature of synthetic worldsthe high co-presence felt by participants meant that the impact of the spatial context of the physical, first world, was reduced.