The digital divide: conveying subtlety in online communication
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In this study, we tested the idea that people born after online technology became a part of daily life (“digital natives”) interpret online communication differently when compared with those born before the Internet age (“digital immigrants”). Specifically, across two experiments, 213 participants recruited from a crowdsourcing site were presented with 16 text messages that either included or did not include a line break or a period, in a fully crossed 2 × 2 design. Both immigrants and natives rated the messages on an affect scale and indicated their confidence in their rating. In a third experiment, 72 participants produced responses to 16 text message prompts each, and these responses were coded for line breaks and periods to test whether production of these cues varies between natives and immigrants. The results suggest that immigrants and natives are alike in how they interpret messages, but that natives are more sensitive to minor linguistic cues, especially the use or nonuse of a period in a text message, considering this cue to carry more negative affect than immigrants do. This suggests that, even in cases in which immigrants make use of the same communication technology to the same extent as natives, they still have a digital “accent,” and fail to make subtle distinctions that are meaningful to natives. We further discuss how such subtle differences could impact online classroom communication, particularly between students of different generations and between the students and the teacher. As texting becomes increasingly used as a classroom management or communication tool, older students and faculty must be sensitive to the fact that younger students may consider the use of periods to signal negative affect and may respond differently to such messages than intended by the writer. We issue a call for more research exploring how the use of technology, and even subtle cues, may impact classroom dynamics, particularly in classrooms made up of mixed age groups.
KeywordsDigital divide Texting Computer-mediated communication
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