Microscopic view on digital interaction

Date of news: 15 June 2021

Blogs, comments under news items, YouTube comments, video calls, social media: the possibilities for digital interactions are endless. The new book Analysing Digital Interaction shows how digital interaction can be scrutinised and how that communication is rich, challenging and social, just like face-to-face communication.

The very first message was sent from one computer to another in the 1960s. Seventy years later, the number of digital communication platforms and social media platforms has exploded. How do individuals interact with each other on these digital platforms and how does the technology itself influence the social and digital interaction between the users?

In the book Analysing Digital Interaction, the authors of the various chapterscover Analysing digital interaction focus on exploring specific aspects of digital interaction: all communication that takes place within a digital environment designed to facilitate interaction. This could be in the form of blogs, comments under news stories, YouTube comments, video-mediated interaction, and other social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. One of the editors of the book is Wyke Stommel, associate professor of Language and Communication at Radboud University. ‘Until recently, we called it online interaction. But there have also been platforms, such as Facebook chat and WhatsApp, which cannot be defined as online or public. But the communication does take place through mobile devices. That is why we now prefer to use the more encompassing term digital interaction.’

Under the microscope

The authors all take a ‘microanalytical’ approach when examining a specific type of digital communication. Stommel: ‘Instead of draining Twitter to be able to draw conclusions from large amounts of data, we are really putting digital interaction under the microscope.’ By looking at interaction at such a micro level, it is possible to pinpoint which details are important for interaction. What kind of messages are posted, what standards do participants use, what is achieved?

Stommel also wrote a chapter about the participation of relatives of patients in oncological video consultations. Stommel: 'A video consultation like this is very different from a conversation in the doctor's office. Who counts as a participant in the interaction? Visibility appears to be crucial for this. Family members sitting on the chair next to a patient in the consultation room can be looked in the eye and addressed. During a video consultation, these relatives are often just out of the picture and are therefore just bystanders. But that person can whisper something to the patient, address the doctor directly, or the patient might involve them in the conversation. What should the doctor do with that? I wrote this chapter together with my brother, who is a doctor himself and who took part in this study. It was a real eye-opener for him. By analysing his video consultations very precisely, I saw things that he never thought about. That awareness alone is already a gain.'

Digital vs Oral

Analysing Digitial Interaction provides an overview of the state of play for researchers of digital interaction and highlights the potential of the microanalytical approach to understand contemporary digital social life. Stommel: ‘Digital communication is really not going away. But compared to oral communication, the subtleties and ambiguities that people use in digital communication are often misunderstood. While, for example, silences in WhatsApp communication can play a crucial role and the listening ear of online forums is unprecedented. I think much more of this kind of research should be done.’


Wyke Stommel is Associate Professor of Dutch Language and Communication at Radboud University. Her research focuses on (mediated) interaction in institutional settings using conversational analysis, including chat counselling and video consultations.

Joanne Meredith is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Wolverhampton, UK. She has a particular interest in the development of conversation analysis and discursive psychology as methods for analysing online interaction.

David Giles is a psychology professor at the University of Winchester, UK. dr. Giles has been writing about media and human behaviour for over two decades, specialising in the relationship between audiences and media figures, especially celebrities.