On Rhetorical Tricks and Overloaded Concepts

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Journal Article
Computer Supported Cooperative Work: CSCW: An International Journal, 2016, 25 (4), pp. 313 - 324
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For some time now it has been standard practice, when reflecting on the use of the term awareness in CSCW, to comment on the very many different ways the term has been used and the ambiguity of its meanings. For example, in his 2002 introduction to the JCSCW special issue on Awareness, Schmidt introduced three consecutive paragraphs (p. 287) with the following sentences: In fact, the term ‘awareness’ is being used in increasingly contradictory ways. In short, it is becoming increasingly clear that the term ‘awareness’ does not denote a set of related practices. In fact, it is hardly a concept any longer. The very word ‘awareness’ is one of those highly elastic English words that can be used to mean a host of different things. More recently, over a decade after Schmidt’s introduction, Gross wrote in the introduction to his ‘jubilee’ review of awareness research in CSCW: In CSCW, awareness ranges from general information of who is around . . . and detailed information about each others’ attention . . . to work-oriented information on each others’ activities . . . and changes to shared workspaces and documents (2013 pp. 426–427). Some 40 pages later, after surveying the origins of the term, various “technical solutions for awareness support”, some of the tensions in awareness research and between “awareness as seen from a users’ activity and effort perspective versus awareness as seen from a systems’ support and automation perspective”, he began the last paragraph of his conclusion: “Overall, the concept of awareness remains difficult to grasp . . .” (p. 467). In the 2002 JCSCW special issue on Awareness I wrote: “Awareness must be one of the most extensively qualified concepts in CSCW” (p. 310). I went on to provide a long list of the different ways the term has been used and expressed hope that someone might write a review paper that mapped the awareness literature along the two dimensions of underlying design philosophy and social and/or technical focus. Note that my interest then, as it would be now, was not to define or redefine the term, but to ask instead for a mapping of its use as a way of understanding the work the term was being asked to do within the CSCW literature. I am one of those who accept that the meaning of a word, for good or for ill, is defined by its use. If I want to understand that meaning then I look at its usage—which is an important part of the value of survey papers and special issues etc. If it is obvious that the meaning of a term is contested, confused, slippery, ambiguous or otherwise problematic, as in the case with awareness, then I can try and position my use of the term as clearly as I can. I can also respect this messiness as just part of the deal, even as a generative resource within the literature, particularly when that literature has the design of technologies to support cooperation between people at its core.
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