Discourse Analysis in Chatroom and Discussion Group Environments

 

         Introduction: On-line environments - from print to talk - a hybrid medium

         Current modes of On-line communication:

         Chatrooms

         Discussion groups

         Instant Messenger

         Discourse linguistics

         Project Design

         Methodology

         Current research

         Notes

         Bibliography

 

 

 

Introduction

It is natural to conceive of text first and foremost as conversation: as the spontaneous interchange of meaning in ordinary everyday interaction. It is in such contexts that reality is constructed in the microsemiotic encounters of daily life. (Halliday 1978:40)

 

I am interested in the on-line interactive environment, its departure from the culture of a print milieu and its changes for both the reader and the writer. As on-line chatroom and discussion groups grow in popularity and importance and as these applications increase, so too will the analysing of these environments, in both depth and range.

Internet conversation; whether in chatrooms, America Online's Instant messenger (IM), discussion groups, or even in role playing games such as MUDs and MOOS involve two new paradigm shifts. Electronic interactive conversational analysis is a cross between print and conversation. Firstly, there is the shift from print to computerization. Print relies on hierarchy and linearity. Computer interactivity can have several voices going at once, eg. chatrooms, MUDs and Discussion groups. A prime example is chatrooms where there can be multiple conversations involving multiple subjects happening at the same time. Discussion groups operate around the concept of threads, where a topic takes on a life of its own, and even within the topic chosen there can be offshoots to that. Instant Messenger has two voices at one time, but not necessarily following one another. People still "talk" at the same time. One does not always wait for a response. If two people are typing rapidly back and forth, they can return and respond to something which was said whilst the other was typing. (See examples four and five.) While print media works on a flow of conversation or writing directed to an organised progression, on-line conversations fragment into multi-directionality.

Chatrooms and IM especially are reader/writer driven at the same time. Often there is the feeling that one is writing and reading at the same time. In chatrooms this can become chaotic. What differentiates "speakers" within chatrooms is their logon names. If there are several voices, none following any particular protocol, all "talking" at once, the question becomes, "what is being said?" and at the same time "what is being heard?"

A second paradigm shift is taking place around the notion of "discourse", parallel to the shift from print to the Internet (see Landow 1992, pp. 1-11). Within the Internet interactive environment there are further developments taking place. Recently there has been a shift from e-maiI and discussion groups to chatrooms and "Instant messenger" ("IM"). "IM" is a service, which the service provider America On-line provides for free on the Internet. It is similar to a chatroom in its immediacy, with the difference being that only two people can communicate at a time whereas in a chatroom any number of people can be on-line at the same time. E-mail and discussion groups are more or less a one-way road. For example, one usually waits for a return e-mail, which often is a complete response with several paragraphs: a considered and edited "textual" piece. Conversely. chatrooms and "IM" are composed of one or two lines of text from one person then a response of one or two lines from another person. Chatroom and "IM" are thus spontaneous casual conversation while discussion groups are e-mailed "texted" responses, which are usually thought out and spell and grammar checked before they are sent to the discussion group. Discussion groups I hypothesize are more controlled and planned: more "textual" (see EXAMPLE II). In other words, the Internet has already produced its own set of "text-talk" genres and practices. Its universe of discourse is rapidly diversifying.

Analysing chatroom and discussion group interaction currently involves a continuation of discourse textual analysis (Bakhtin, Kristeva), casual conversation analysis (Eggins & Slade, Sacks), and semiotics and linguistic analysis (Chandler, Barthes, Halliday, Saussure, Eco). Chatrooms in particular are coming close to combining 'spoken' and 'written' language. What is missing at this time (early 1999) are the visual cues, which are provided by the people involved. Computer-mediated-communication is narrow-bandwidth. Much of the information we obtain in face to face interaction is from body language, sound (phonetics and phonology), and other physical codes. In narrow-bandwidth communications, such as on the Internet, this information is not transmitted, causing frequent misinterpretation. When camrecorders are mounted on the top of computers and combined with chatroom 'written' language, and participants can see one another and write at the same time, then we will have another tool to analyse how language between people is exchanged. In the meantime, it is important to assess existing techniques for observation and analysis of the emergent new "talk" of this interactive communicative format.

 To facilitate observation and analysis of the different Internet "talk" modes, I propose to set up an on-line journal. Chatrooms and discussion groups will exist within the journal, linked to textual pieces submitted by participants. The on-line journal will operate as a medium across which on-line "talk" - both considered, highly "textualized" talk, which we have traditionally called "writing", and the new rapid-exchange "chat" - is constructed and exchanged. My own work, beyond setting up and monitoring the on-line journal, will be to record and analyse each sort of text environment; its similarities and differences in relation to conventional texts, and its developing uses - particularly in a tertiary education environment.

CURRENT MODES OF ON-LINE COMMUNICATION: Chatrooms, Discussion groups, Instant Messenger

CHATROOMS

The primary data corpus for my research will come from chatrooms and discussion groups in the on-line journal southernexpressway. Chatrooms exist for almost any subject imaginable. According to Eastgate Hypertextual author Stuart Moulthrop (1997), Internet Relay Chat ("IRC") is a computerised version of citizen's band radio. It is also similar to talk back radio, community forums and is similar to every form of meeting since recorded history. The only difference is that the physical cues available in sight of the "speaker" are missing.

How IRC is "organised as "talk-text": "MULTILOGUE"

Chatrooms with many interactants are multilogue (see Eggins and Slade, p. 24) environments. Separating these voices as conversation will be a focus of this study (and something of a methodological challenge, involving the creation of new transcription protocols - see below.) IRC (Internet Relay Chat) provides a way of communicating in real time with people from all over the world. It consists of various separate networks (or "nets") of IRC servers, machines that allow users to connect to IRC. The largest nets are EFnet (the original IRC net, often having more than 32,000 people at once). Once connected to an IRC server on an IRC network, one is able to join one or more "channels" and converse with others there. On EFnet, there are more than 12,000 channels, each devoted to a different topic. Conversations may be public (where everyone in a channel can see what you type) or private (messages between only two people, who may or may not be on the same channel). Conversations rarely follow a sequential pattern - "speakers" following one after the other. There are often jumps to an earlier speaker, or someone beginning their own thread. This is the first departure point from 'casual conversation'. When there are many "voices" at once, conversation becomes chaotic. The only way to follow who is "talking" is through the log-on names, such as in Example I: Janis, dammit, steven, 1love. To analyse conversation between two "speakers" I need to cut and past the "speakers" I wish to analyse. Even then it is not always clear who is speaking to whom unless the "speaker" names the addressee in their message. The speech is then, seemingly inevitably, a "multilogue" or multi-directional system, rather than the more conversationally organised "dialogue" we find in print text.

In developing a transcription system to accommodate and "capture" IRC multilogue, I will use symbols to indicate: interaction between participants, change of topic, and introduction. Interaction between participants will indicate retrograde speech referencing, as "speakers" can only refer to what has already been said. For example, in the multilogue below, the text in 1 is not answered until 4. Indicating this interaction will be coded 4 1. For a new topic/thread the # symbol will indicate the change. For example 'speaker' in text 5 jumps into an already existing conversation and may be changing the topic - it will depend on what follows whether '1love's' change will begin a new thread or will be ignored. To indicate this change it will be coded #5. This will be demonstrated more in example III and IV. To indicate a speaker not speaking to a known participant, such as 5 'speaking' to 'curtis' who is not in the immediate conversation, I will write 5-?. Greetings to a new participant will be represented by *. The codes will be in brackets following the text. [ #]. Note that the numbers represent the line of text, not the speaker.

EXAMPLE I.

1. Janis> Through now I know we are part of the universal plan to exist on the third dimension, but why was there such a plan for us to exist in the first place. [#]

2. dammit>(Singapore) hi janis [*]

3. steven> hi janis, dammit! [*] Just wanted to dropped in home-- after splatter painting my consciousness throughout the multi-verse for eons, it is nice to be here! [ 3 1]

4. steven> Janis, I see this no thing, some thing is like a pendulum/fulcrum swing. Tell me more about lexigrams--sounds fascinating! [4 1]

5. 1love> curtis, thanks for your photo, [*] this mustard seed looks all golden to me! My photo is on its way, just got the pics back today. [#]

The above would be coded thus: #1, 3 1, 4 1, #5.

The above dialogue was take off of the 'Time Traveller' web page: http://time-travelers.org/chatt.htm

Here the "out of step" narrative of the multilogue is clear. An attempt for instance to schematise the interconnections of the 4 speakers would include retrograde as well as forward directions - and include some references not in the current "dialogue box" (or "multilogue" box). To show how contributors and readers manoeuvre within such a system of exchanges I will need to develop a protocol model similar to CA to diagnose speech and to find how readers and writers understand, interact and continue. There are several models to build upon but I will use the pluri-semantic model of Kress and van Leeuwen and O'Toole (cf. Kress and van Leeuwen 1990, 1996, O'Toole 1994) in Eggins and Slade's work (1997, p.49). The pluri-semantic model is outlined below, giving three main approaches to analysing casual conversation: ideational, interpersonal, textual.

Types of meaning

Gloss/definition

Examples: above Ex. I

Ideational

Meanings about the world, representation of reality (eg. topics, subject matter)

Conversation, expressions; the universal plan - #1

Interpersonal

Meanings about roles and relationships (eg. status, intimacy, contact, sharedness between interactants)

4 1 share meanings

5-? Relationships undefined

2 1 greetings/contact

3 1,2 contact/greetings

3 1 shared meanings through metaphysical 'talk'

 

Textual

Meanings about the message (eg. foregrounding/salience; types of cohesion)

1 positioning the conversation ideologically

3 continues metaphysical meaning of 1

5 breaks own conversation into two (re. Photos) by inserting text about mustard seed.

(Schema modified from Eggins and Slade 1997, p.49)

One of the areas I am interested in researching is how, within chatrooms the original discourse changes. I aim to isolate and analyse the 'departure points' from original topics. Does the person come into the chatroom with an alternative motive? Is the topic becoming boring and in need of shift? And who are the people who are speaking? Some people have a link to their 'homepage' which may contain more information about the person, but as Daniel Chandler says in his "Personal Home Pages and the Construction of Identities on the Web" (http://www.aber.ac.uk/~dgc/webident.html) .

..the created 'textual self' is how the author wishes others to see them. "The medium of web pages offers possibilities both for the 'presentation' and shaping of self which are shared either by text on paper or face-to-face interaction.

This suggests that the 'textual self' can present itself as a less constructed "reality" in the constructed exchange of On-line presentation. But whether 'textual selves' operate the same in chatrooms and IM as they do in one's homepage needs to be researched before a conclusion can be known. I hypothesize that people create a different 'textual self' for each environment they are in, and that we should not continue to regard all electronic textual practices as equal.

Like other areas of the Internet, chatrooms too have etiquette, and rules of cybersense are continuously evolving. Jill and Wayne Freeze point out in their book Introducing WebTV,

..that what is written is not always what is meant. A fair amount of meaning relies on inflection and body language. It is best to clarify a person's intentions before jumping to conclusions or getting defensive. (p. 135).

"Rules" are however already established in IRC - for instance, the convention that capitals imply shouting. Other, more subtle conventions also are developing, as well as abbreviated "talk" (see notes on 'abbreviations in chatrooms' 10).

 

MUDs

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is an out growth of MUDs ("Multiple-User Dimension" or "multi-user dungeons") and many other constructs on the Internet, such as MOOs (MUD-Object-Oriented), MUSE (Multiple-User Dimension), and MUSH (the "H" stands for Hallucination). These programs matured in the early 1990s as role playing games. MUDers were mostly middle-class college students who used MUDs as places to play and escape; though some used MUDs to address personal difficulties. (Turkle, 1996, p. 54). They are currently used extensively in education. I will not directly research MUDs, except to note the intensity of their early "interactivity" sites, which may still have something to say of IRC relations. (A Research-Oriented Links of MUD Resource Collection is at:

http://www.godlike.com/muds/mres/research.html) (see notes: 9).

The origins of IRC in fantasy play, both in identity projection, competition and sub-cultural cohesiveness, may have consequences for the discourses of IRC culture.

Before the 1990s popularity of MUDs there was an earlier MUD format called Habitat which was initially built to run on the cheaper and popular Commodore 64 personal computers in the early 1980s. It was a game playing virtual town where owners were allowed to have weapons to 'delete' others. Because of the violent nature of the game an intense debate about electronic civil order ensued. One player, a Greek Orthodox priest in real life (RL) founded the first Habitat church, the "Order of the Holy Walnut," whose members pledged not to carry guns, steal, or engage in virtual violence of any kind. In the end, the game's designers divided the world into two parts. In town, violence was prohibited, in the wilds outside of town, it was allowed. Out of this there developed Habitat laws and government. This was the first creation of utopian communities in cyberspace. (Turkle, 1996, p. 55). Again, the experience says much of the pressures over behavioural regulation on the net, but also of the qualities in early on-line interactive communities, which may still be evident in more contemporary discourse relations on IRC.

Much earlier, as far back as the early 1970's, programmer Mike Van Essen wrote a communication program for the CYBER mainframes. This program, called $TALK, was a multi-port "intercom" program. Talk on this system was largely between programmers: an expert and closed sub-culture of professional exchange The technologies to use "talk" electronically already have a twenty-year history. But it is with chatroom and IM that it has become a common forum to dialogue within, and therefore a rich field for analysis. (6)

In some ways the related "cultures" of IRCs and America On-line's Instant Messenger ("IM") communities are not as developed as they were in the Habitat and other MUDs of the earlier period. The cultures have broadened and diversified. But one thing that there is in common between these Internet programs which I will follow as the basis of my research, is the intrusiveness and changeability of the dialogue within these on-line environments. There was much written about intrusiveness in earlier MUDs. There was even virtual rape, violence, theft and murder in these settings. A few lines of code written by an intruder could destroy months of a character's development, or cause the destruction of a whole environment. In chatrooms there is not the intense construction of characters or environments but a seemingly neutral virtual "room" in which people 'chat'. However, there is still the element of intrusiveness and resultant changing of the subject matter, and chatrooms themselves can change from their intended purposes, as people can enter and interrupt at any time. This inherent quality of interruptability is a key factor of this particular IRC format.

DISCUSSION GROUPS (2)

The second area of data collection will be through discussion groups. I have monitored three discussion groups over the past two years: a psychological astrology group, based in England, an America philosophical group, Neo-Tech (based loosely on the writings of Ayn Rand and the Objectivists), and a Bohm Dialogue Discussion group based in Germany - but written in English. These three discussion groups provide a wide diversification in interest, contents and "talk", giving an opportunity to contrast how different discussion groups 'behave'. The psychological astrology group has almost nothing to do with psychological astrology, but illustrates very effectively how seemingly "focused" interest groups can actually operate as social "chat" communities. The next longest is the philosophical group called 'neo-tech', which is based in the United States of America. I have found this particular discussion group interesting in that it rarely focuses on subjects or topics, but attracts a lot of angry people more interested in telling each other what is wrong with their thinking than in discussing the philosophy of Neo-Tech. The content of the discussion is irrelevant to any analysis, which focuses on the interactivity. The third group is the closest to my research and is a Bohm Dialogue Discussion group.

BOHM DISCUSSION GROUP

David Bohm was a physicist who did a major study on dialogue within groups. Bohm wrote originally about face-to-face dialogue but in the discussion groups and chatroom there is exploration of the possibility of carrying on dialogue through the Internet. There is no moderator or entertainer to the Bohm list. People are expected to just 'drop in' and speak. Topics are however diagnostic and reflexive. A current discussion subject in the Bohm Dialogue forum (January 1999) is, for instance, "Can you really do dialogue via e-mail?" At the end of the Bohm Dialogue e-mails there is the note, "To See Who is Chatting about This Topic:

http://www.talkcity.com/chat.cgi?room=MindRec".

This group is both focused and disciplined, a useful contrast to the others. A recent "conversation" between two participants on the Bohm Discussion list highlights the difficulty of dialogue in an interactive electronic environment.

EXAMPLE II

Reply To: bohm_dialogue@cis.plym.ac.uk

Sent: Wednesday, February 3, 1999 10:47 PM

To: bohm_dialogue@rome.cis.plym.ac.uk

Subject: Re: inconsistency

C---

PS Gawd I hate email sometimes. I find it so imprecise. I look at these messages and think, cant I say it better than that? I'd be here all night. Oh well.

Pat ---

Or perhaps for days, weeks. The difference between reading the "hardcopies' in my memory of a certain class of my e-mails to the list, and 'reading something that has gone through many drafts to a point of satisfaction, is like the difference between walking through a 'minefield' of reflexes, and walking through a meadow of wild flowers. Much 'suspension' has occurred in the drafting process...  

CONTINUE

Ph.D research | Try This | About Me | picture poems   | University Of SA e-zine | baseball | romantic | Favourite lines

Site Map    What's New    Search

   The Internet's best searcher                 powered by http://www.freefind.com/
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click Here!