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A Case Study of Electronic Community Building in a Freshman Dorm

© 1997 Richard Holeton, Stanford University




PDF of full study

Portions of this study have been presented at:


The 1999 ResNet Symposium

The 1998 Young Rhetoricians Conference

The 1997 Computers and Writing Conference

The 1997 ResNet Symposium

Formal paper "Constructive 'Noise in the Channel': Effects of Controversial Forwarded E-mail in a College Residential and Virtual Community," ED-MEDIA 99 Conference Proceedings

Article about "Wired Frosh" in Stanford Magazine/Stanford Today Online, March-April 1998:

"Emerging from the Electronic Cave" by Janet Basu

01 Questions, claims and assumptions about CMC, students, and community
02 Survey and responses
03 Perceptions of Usefulness of Media and Actual E-mail Postings by Subject Category
04 Social Purposes of Survey Categories
05a Perceived Usefulness of E-mail List vs. Other Media by Social Purpose (All Respondents)
05b Proportion of Actual Messages by Social Purpose
06 Proportion of Forwarded Messages by Social Purpose
07 Metadiscussion as Primary and Secondary Content of Messages
08 Participation on E-mail List by Gender and Social Purpose
09a Perceived Usefulness of E-mail List vs. Other Media by Social Purpose (By Gender)
09b Actual Use of E-mail List by Women and Men According to Social Purpose
10a Perceived Usefulness of E-mail List vs. Other Media by Social Purpose (By Self-Described F2f/Overall Participation)
10b Actual Use of E-mail List by Self-Described "Most Active" and "Least Active" Community Members
11 "Core Group," "Regular," and "Lurker" Participation by Student Residents on E-mail List
12 "Critical Dialogue Core Group" Participation
13 Core Group Participation by Gender
14 CRITICAL DIALOGUE SAMPLE THREADS: Introduction: Hillary and Ronald
15 CRITICAL DIALOGUE SAMPLE THREADS: Social and Political Issues: Rape and Gender
16 CRITICAL DIALOGUE SAMPLE THREADS: Social and Political Issues: Neo-Nazis and Free Speech
17 CRITICAL DIALOGUE SAMPLE THREADS: Dorm Community Issues: "Screw Your Roommate"
18 CRITICAL DIALOGUE SAMPLE THREADS: Dorm Community Issues: Sexual Harassment
19 CRITICAL DIALOGUE SAMPLE THREADS: Dorm Community Issues: Death and Birth
20 Dedication and Acknowledgments
21 Selected Quotes
22 References


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All contents © Copyright 1997 by Richard Holeton and Stanford University. Permission to disseminate this study for educational and other non-commercial purposes will be granted provided that you write me an e-mail message with your request. Please e-mail or write me with URLs that you link to this study.



While "virtual communities" have been studied as separate entities, only recently have we had the chance to observe the social effects of new technologies in face-to-face (f2f) living groups. With increasing dependence on computer-mediated communication (CMC) in fully-wired college residences, critics fear that students are becoming more isolated. But CMC also has the potential to complement and extend f2f forms of interaction, to become a tool for building, rather than destroying, social relations. In a case study of a Stanford University dorm e-mail list, I will analyze how college students who live together use and perceive electronic discussion in the context of other community-building tools.

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Must students who increasingly depend on electronic technologies such as e-mail become more isolated, as some have claimed and many fear? Or what is the potential for computer-mediated communication (CMC) to complement and extend other forms of interaction and become a tool for building, rather than destroying, social relations? How is CMC used similarly and differently when participants actually live together in a face-to-face (f2f) community, instead of only communicating at a distance? These questions are increasingly relevant beyond academia, as many employees combine electronic and f2f communication in their jobs and many communities based on physical proximity have established electronic networks with extensive online resources and discussion areas. See 01: Questions, claims, and assumptions about CMC, students, and community for my specific research questions.


Rinconada House (Wilbur Hall) at Stanford University is an all-freshman residence of 94 students (89 frosh plus 5 upperclass staff members) where my wife and I served as faculty Resident Fellows (RFs) for seven years, from 1990-91 through 1996-97. Rinconada -- which also claims to have been the first college dorm in the world with a home page on the Web -- has maintained an active e-mail discussion list since 1993-94. Based on a study of that list for the academic year 1995-96, I will analyze how college students who lived together used and perceived this form of electronic discussion; I will emphasize constructive, community-building uses of CMC and higher-level uses of CMC I define as "critical dialogue."

Stanford was one of the first residential universities in the nation to achieve the "port per pillow" standard for network wiring, meaning that all or nearly all students have an individual ethernet connection in their room in addition to shared, networked dorm computer clusters. The student residences combine a well-developed technological infrastructure and technical support with a very active residential education system. The freshman dorms are composed, demographically, as multicultural microcosms of the entering class, and they generally form cohesive and enthusiastic communities. These communities are by no means conflict-free, however, and during 1995-96 Rinconada residents negotiated a number of challenging social, political, and personal issues, including pornography, free speech, a potential grape boycott on campus, a sexual harassment allegation within the house, and the sudden death of one of their dormmates. These and many other issues found both moving and controversial expression on the dorm e-mail list, along with the more accustomed and pedestrian (at least to e-mail veterans) assortment of announcements, chain letters, forwarded college humor, and occasional "flaming" or swapping of insults.


The study is based on

Once I obtained support for the study from the Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs, Residential Education, and Residential Computing (see 20: Acknowledgments), I followed the Stanford protocol for human-subject research and requested consent from all the participants to use (a) their e-mail postings to the dorm list, and (b) their survey data. I promised to keep their identities private and have used pseudonyms here and in all reporting of the study.

I obtained consent to use e-mail data from 85 of 89 of the (former) freshman residents and all five of the former upperclass student staff members. With the able help of my student assistant Jason Herthel, I organized the e-mail and survey data into a FileMaker Pro database from which we obtained all the measures and averages reported in the study. The staff members' messages to the e-mail list (along with my wife's and mine) were eliminated from most of the statistical measures, insofar as it was part of our job to monitor and actively make announcements and other postings to the e-mail list.

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Despite prominent gender disparities in participation and the heavy proportion of discussion carried on by a small core group of participants -- on the list overall and for critical dialogue especially -- the dorm e-mail list was a very valuable medium for community-building. Residents found the list useful for a wide variety of social purposes, from housekeeping to negotiating group norms, discussing political issues, and grieving for a dead friend. Not just core group members, but lurkers and shy people as well benefitted from a substantial amount and impressive quality of critical dialogue (i.e., discussion of social, political, and dorm community issues). The e-mail list was very valuable for particular individuals who found ways to work out personal tensions, feelings, and growth partly through this medium, in turn becoming part of and benefitting the community as a whole.

Here are more specific conclusions in response to each of my research questions (see 01 Questions, claims and assumptions about CMC, students, and community).

(1) Computer activities and community building are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, computer-mediated communication (CMC) can usefully complement the other, traditional community-building tools in a residential setting, such as small-group interaction, house meetings, telephone calls, and paper fliers. See 02, 03.

(2) The increasing use of computers on college campuses doesn't necessarily tend to isolate students or negatively affect social relations and sense of community. On the contrary, residents of Rinconada used the dorm e-mail list in highly social ways and, moreover, found the list more useful for most social purposes than many traditional, face-to-face media. See 02, 03.

(3) A dorm mailing list can be very useful for the kinds of critical dialogue encouraged in academic culture. Announcements, chain letters, forwarded jokes, etc. need not preclude higher-order uses of CMC. On the contrary, forwarded messages can provoke thoughtful, substantive discussion about social and political issues. See 04, 05, 06

(4) Metadiscussion or "talk about talk" is not necessarily a distracting waste of time and bandwidth that disrupts community building. On the contrary, in a residential setting, metadiscussion can be a valuable exercise in negotiating norms and conventions. See 07.

(5) In the residential setting as in other electronic and f2f conversational spaces, women and men tend to have different perceptions about the usefulness of CMC and these perceptions are reflected in their different uses of the medium. Men tend to dominate the electronic conversation spaces in the dorm setting (as in other settings previously studied), unlike in some classroom uses of CMC where participation may not be voluntary. See 08, 09, 11, 12, 13.

(6) In the residential setting, CMC can encourage participation by those who are more shy in f2f interaction. See 10, 11, 12.

(7) In the residential setting, while a small core group of active participants still may contribute the majority of messages, this core group is not identical with what might be called the f2f core group, i.e. the most active or gregarious members of the f2f community. Hence overall participation in the community can be widened with electronic tools. 11, 12, 13.

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© Copyright 1997 by Richard Holeton and Stanford University