Terrell Neuage ‘Conversational analysis of chatroom talk’ (Introduction)

14,798 Wednesday, 6 August 2003 11:58 AM 

Conversational Analysis of Chat Room Talk PHD thesis by Dr. Terrell Neuage  University of South Australia National Library of Australia.

THESIShome ~ Abstract.html/pdf ~ Glossary.html/pdfIntroduction.html/pdf  ~ methodology.html/pdf  ~ literature review.html/pdfCase Study 1.html/pdf~ 2.html/pdf~ 3.html/pdf~  4.html/pdf~ 5.html/pdf~  6.html/pdf~  7.html/pdf~ discussion.html/pdf  ~ conclusion.html~ postscipt.html/pdf~ O*D*A*M.html/pdf~ Bibliography.html/pdf~  911~ thesis-complete.htm/~ Terrell Neuage Home Appendixes  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.  DATA ~ Case Study   1 ~ 2 ~ 3 ~ 4 ~ 5 ~ 6 ~ 7 ~ These links are from early notes and not the final edits which are in the published version available at the University of South Australia only. Not all links are active due to changing domains. Home page see http://neuage.co


1. Introduction (‘The Nature of Conversation in Text-based Chatrooms’). 1

1.1 Evolution of language from early utterances to chatroom utterances 2

1.2 Internet-based communication systems. 9

1.2.1 E-mail, discussion forums. 13

1.2.2 Electronic chat 16

1.2.3 IRC.. 17

1.2.4 MUDs. 19

1.2.5 MUDs vs. IRC.. 22

1.3 New paradigm shifts. 24

1.3.1 Print to computerization. 24

1.3.2 Notion of "discourse". 29

1.4 Purpose of examining online conversation. 29

1.5 Online usage. 31

1.6 Are Chatrooms Public or Private?. 35

1.7 Is cyberspace real?. 36

1.8 Personal interest in researching online conversation. 38


 1. Introduction (‘The Nature of Conversation in Text-based Chatrooms’)

My purpose is to describe in detail the conversational interaction between participants in various forms of online text-based communication, by isolating and analysing its primary components.

Conversational process, according to analysts in many fields of communications[1] is rich in a variety of small behavioural elements, which are readily recognised and recorded. These elements combine and recombine in certain well-ordered rhythms of action and expression. In person-to-person offline confrontation there results a more or less integrated web of communication which is the foundation of all social relations (Guy & Allen, 1974, p. 48-51). Online chatrooms as an instance of electronic text-based communication also use many of these small behavioural elements at the same time: evolving system-specific techniques such as emoticons, abbreviations and even pre-recorded sounds provided by the chatroom (whistles, horns, sound bites or laughter). The full web of online exchange and exchange relational modulation devices however remains unmapped, and unless every word written online is captured it never will be mapped and analysed fully. In this study of seven case studies I capture and sample a moment in time of these online exchange behaviours, and look at them through the lens of several linguistic discourse theories.

1.1 Evolution of language from early utterances to chatroom utterances [2]

The study of language is one of the oldest branches of systematic inquiry, tracing back to classical India and Greece, with a rich and fruitful history of achievement (Chomsky, 2001).  The basic building blocks of communication have changed little, but the methods through which we are able to use our linguistic abilities to convey ideas have changed drastically.  From the era of pictograph accounts written on clay tablets in Sumeria[3] 5500 years ago, to the first evidence of writing during the Protoliterate period[4] (Sumerian civilization, to about 28 B.C.) it can be seen that forms of communication advanced and changed radically. For example, by 2800 B.C. the use of syllabic writing[5] had reduced the number of signs from nearly two thousand to six hundred[6]. Currently the English language uses 26 letters.  Curiously, in the electronic era, with the use of emoticons in online communication there are once again hundreds of signs with which to communicate.

Sumerian Logographs -- circa 4000 BC

http://www.liveink.com/whatis/history.htm (c) Copyrighted Walker Reading Technologies, Inc. 2001

Early writing from Abydos, 300 miles south of Cairo, has ve been dated to between 3400 and 3200 B.C. was used to label containers.   

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America http://www.archaeology.org/9903/newsbriefs/egypt.html  Günter Dreyer.

We cannot know what the world was like before human language existed.  For tens of thousands of years, language has developed to form modern systems of grammar and syntax, yet language origin theories by necessity remain based largely on speculation. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were several proposals with labels which tended to signal the desperation of their authors:  ‘ding-dong’, ‘bow-wow’ and ‘yo-he-ho’ theories (Barber, 1972), each attempting to explain in general social terms the origin of language. 

While such conjecture must always remain unresolved, the rapid changes in communicative technologies in the late twentieth century, together with their markedly social or participatory bias, allows us to glimpse once again the intriguing degree to which ordinary people are willing to push the limits of communicative systems. With chatrooms, language itself may be going through new and rapid development – or, on the other hand, enthusiasts may be taking advantage of a brief experimental moment, acquiring expertise in communicative techniques which prove to be short-lived.   This period of intense activity is however one among many   steps in the long process of human communication. Certainly, chatroom communication (and its more recent take-up in mobile telephony’s SMSing) very obviously separates from traditional language through regulated processes of word corruption and its compensatory use of abbreviations and emoticons. (I explore emoticons in Case Study Three and abbreviations and other language parts in Case Study Seven). But how did these new forms emerge? What produced them? What does it mean that such innovation can arise in such a short time span? And are these limited, or generalisable, features of modern language use? These questions can only be answered definitively in the future, but they can be discussed and elements of the new practices and behaviours described now, as they are in this thesis.

It is thought that the first humans may have exchanged information through both aural articulation and gesture: crude grunts and hand signals.  Gradually a complex system of spoken words and visual symbols was invented to represent what we would recognise as language. Earliest forms of telecommunication consisted of smoke signals, ringing a bell or physically transporting a memorised or texted message between two places. However, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, communication codes for meaning were exchanged at a greater distance across time and became accessible to more users. A standard postal system allowed people to send messages throughout the world in a matter of days.  The development of the telegraph cable including the development of radio made real-time vocal communication over long distances a reality. The Internet is the most recent such advance in communication.  It allows us, in a split second, to disseminate a seemingly limitless amount of information across the globe.

All communication however – from the earliest conjectured formations to the multi-media flows of NEW SITE = JULY 2014 - http://neuage.us/2014/July/ - Today - involves interaction, and thus forms a basis for social relationships: webs of cooperation and competition, expressiveness and message-conveying, play and work – social functions which treat even the human body as a tool for activity.  Language itself, evolving as a secondary use of physiological apparatus with otherwise directed purposes – the tongue, teeth, lips, breath, nose, larynx – constructs a self willing to sacrifice time, effort and attention to others, by re-forming the self into a communicating being.

All consequent communicative developments have at one level simply elaborated on this drive to “re-tool”, both within and beyond the body, as communities made more and more demands on socially regulated action. “Throughout the history of human communication, advances in technology have powered paradigmatic shifts…” (Frick, 1991). Technology changes how we communicate; big shifts in culture cannot occur until the communicative tools are available.  The printing press is an example of this.  Before its invention, scribal monks, sanctioned by the Church, had overseen the maintenance and hand copying of sacred texts for centuries (See Spender, 1980, 1995).  The press resulted in widespread literacy, with books accessible and more affordable for all.  The spread of literacy in turn changed communication, which changed the educational system and – to some degree at least - the class and authority structure. Literacy became a demand tool: a passport to the regulatory systems of the industrial-bureaucratic state emerging in the modern era.

There are many different ways of analyzing the history of the current dominant communication system.  Whether one studies the historical, scientific, social, political economic or the psychological impact of these changes, depends on the analysis of the system. For example Lisa Jardine in Worldly Goods,  (1996) studied the financial and economic forces of change. Elizabeth Eisenstein (1993) analysed the social and historical scientific approach, and Marshall McLuhan (1962) concentrated on the psychological impact of these changes. Jardine argues that the development from script to print was driven by economic, emerging capitalist markets forces. For example, letter exchanging occurred between merchants who had an increasing need for reliable information and this related to economic exchange. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan focused on the change from manuscript, which he saw as part of an oral society, to print, which transformed it into a visual culture. One of the main issues that arises with the shift from manuscript culture, to print, then to online culture, is accessibility. The more accessible communication is to a society, the more opportunities are present to exchange meaning, or as is often the case in chatrooms, to attempt to exchange meaning.

As new communication technologies advance, the individual using the technology has to face who they are when they are represented electronically instead of in person. Technology, such as the use of computers and mobile phones can mask the identity of the user at the same time it reveals the person. With technological communication the individual’s identity is not clear.  Firstly, there is the opportunity to create an identity that is different from the real life person. Secondly this identity can be tracked. There is a larger footprint[7] to identify an individual than there was with pre-online culture. The online user is no longer an individual but a multifaceted product – with a possibility of a never-ending array of identities. When there was only print the communication process was an individual act. The communicator presented text and it was interpreted by the witness of the text. With online communication the text has no identity of its own but is instead directly associated with a user’s self-created identity, to which it remains linked, much as oral communication in face-to-face interactions is still considered to be “authorised” or validated by the presence of the speaker. The difficulty is however that the communicator is not in fact present, but re-presented. Sociology Professor Sherry Turkle says in Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet that ‘The primary difference between oral communication and electronic communication is how we re-address the Self’ (Turkle, p.56 1995) and this feature of online presence is addressed throughout the case studies in this thesis.

Despite this problem of “absence”, familiar from centuries of texted communicative practices, online communication is simultaneously ‘restoring the mode and even the tempo of the interaction of human minds to those of the oral tradition’ (Harnad, 2001). With the rapidity of computers computer ‘talk’ is most often seen as similar to oral communication, creating an oral-written text.

 “…when reading on screen, the contemporary reader returns somewhat to the posture of the reader of Antiquity. The difference is that he reads a scroll which generally runs vertically and which is endowed with the characteristics inherent to the form of the book since the first centuries of the Christian era: pagination, index, tables, etc. The combination of these two sysems which governed previous writing media (the volumen, then the codex) results in an entirely original relation to texts….” (Harnad, 2001)

A major feature of and influence on modern communications is thus those telecommunications systems that have been critical for the new revolution in communication. In the post-Gutenberg era this can be regarded as the fourth revolution in knowledge production and exchange, the first revolution in the history of human communication being talk, emerging hundreds of thousands of years ago when language first emerged in hominid evolution. Spoken language is considered a physiological and biologically significant form of human communication that began about 100,000 years ago (Noble and Davidson, 1996).

The second cognitive and communicative revolution centred on the advent of writing, tens of thousands of years ago. Spoken language had already allowed the oral codification of thought; written language now made it possible to preserve the codes independent of any speaker/hearer. Reading is an invention that is only 6000 years old. Aristotle observed the fundamental difference and relationship between spoken language and written language, saying that “Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience, and written words are the symbols of spoken words.” (Aristotle, ‘On Interpretation’).

The third revolution took place in our own millennium with the invention of moveable type and the printing press. Habermas considers the press as “the public sphere’s pre-eminent institution” (Habermas, 1992b, p.181). With the printing press the laborious hand copying of texts became obsolete and both the tempo and the scope of the written word increased enormously. Texts could now be distributed so much more quickly and widely that again the style of communication underwent qualitative changes. Harnad, while perhaps dangerously close to a technological determinist mode of analysis, believes that while “the transition from the oral tradition to the written word made communication more reflective and solitary than direct speech, print restored an interactive element, especially among scholars: and if the scholarly ‘periodical’ was not born with the advent of printing, it certainly came into its own. Scholarship could now be the collective, cumulative and interactive enterprise it had always been destined to be. Evolution had given us the cognitive wherewithal and technology had given us the vehicle.” (Harnad, 1991) These three forms of communication had a qualitative effect on how we think.

Our average speaking rate has a biological parameter; it possesses a natural tempo dependant on the individual speaker, but with hand writing the process of communication is slowed down.  In opening itself to communication across space and across time, it also opens the possibility of receptive interpretation: a more than usually active role for the “reader”. Hence, the adaptations which evolve in texted communicative practice become strategic and stylistic rather than neurological. The “performance” of text assesses its end-user: the reader, known to be dispersed in time and place, and so less easily controlled than is the “present” and remediable listener to spoken words. With electronic communication however the pace of oral speech combines with the necessity for strategic control. While “linked” in an electronically-mediated relation of reciprocity (whether synchronous or asynchronous) the online communicator is still in an “absent” relation with co-communicators. While the brain can rapidly scan moving conversation as it scrolls in a chatroom, reading and understanding many conversations in progress at the same time, and the chatroom participant can engage any number of the conversations, no “authorising” presence validates or directs reception. This absence inherent in a texted communicative act invites compensatory strategies

1.2 Internet-based communication systems 

People are likely to do what people always do with new communication technology: use it in ways never intended or foreseen by its inventors, to turn old social codes inside out and make new kinds of communities possible. (Rheingold, 1995).

Together, these accounts of a developing communicative social order show that it is through the interactive forms of the day that society changes.  The more accessible communication becomes to everyone, the quicker ideas can be exchanged and new meaning developed and shared. Through the exchange of ideas and information, we become better-informed and thus able to make decisions, which affect not only ourselves but also the world in which we live. Twentieth century electronic media were a driving force of globalisation, producing an acceleration of contact (See Giddens, 2000). As globalised economic productivity arises to affect every person in the world the rapid flow of information gives the advent to instant communication to make instant decisions for governments and businesses. Personalized consumption of telecommunication products is driving production within the global market, and instant electronic digital computer-mediated communication (CMC – see Case Study Two) is keeping it all moving fast enough to keep “desire” consumption revolving (See Castells, 1996, 1997, 2000). Wireless LAN technology (Local Area Network) is expected to create the next boom for the networking industry, making communication anywhere, anytime, and further driving both production of communications technology goods as well as increasing the accessibility of communicative services for consumers. In 1999 the Internet turned 30 years old. The first e-mail message was sent in 1972. The World Wide Web was started in the early 1990s, and it went through an explosive expansion around 1995, growing at a rapid rate after that. (See A history of the Internet: Hobbes' Internet Timeline http://www.zakon.org/robert/internet/timeline/)

How then have we come to understand this new erruption of communicative activity into the core of our social and personal behaviours? James Carey (1985) has proposed that we have come to an explanation of what communication is, through two forms of theorisation: a transmission view and a ritual view of communication. The central theme of the transmission view shows how information is conveyed or exchanged between communicators, within a simplified and linear model of communication. Carey writes that the transmission view of communication is the commonest in our culture. It is defined by terms such as "imparting," "sending," "transmitting," or "giving information to others." It is formed from a metaphor of geography or transportation. (p. 45) Computer-Mediated communication is seen to serve these functions of transmission at an increasingly rapid rate – frequently its dominant promotional claim.

Because of the paradoxical distantiation of Computer-mediated communication, for all its vaunted ease of access, the individual is left to decipher the information.  Given the rate at which it is transmitted, there is the question of whether information is being communicated - or merely uploaded, and in such large packets that it becomes useless. This “inhuman” pace has often been observed in chatrooms that have many participants.  The text scrolls by at a rate that is almost impossible to decipher in order to respond to a particular utterance. A transmission success may simultaneously be a communication failure – an observation which invites a more complex view of what communication actually is.

Carey’s ritual view of communication focuses instead on the information transmitted. This information is directed toward the maintenance of society in time, and not toward the extension of messages in space. In a communication community the act of imparting information involves a representation of shared beliefs, and a confident expectation that even new experiences and observations can enter a common field of interpretation.  Once again, online communication raises problems, however. Not all chatrooms can guarantee that their “communities” actually do share beliefs, interests or any other commonality. Language alone no longer specifies common interest, as culture fragments into specialist strands of knowledge, belief and practice in a pluralist context. While topic specific chatrooms often form into restricted communities, controlling entry so that only the same participants may re-visit the chatroom, in open, non-topic specific chatrooms visitors are random communicators passing through the particular communicative repertoire, able to participate to greater or lesser degrees, according to what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would call the “pre-dispositions” established across their personal “cultural capital”.  For Carey, that “cultural capital” and the behavioural and attitudinal “pre-dispositions” it engenders are the core of the communication “ritualised” within most modern media texts.

...If one examines a newspaper under a transmission view of communication, one sees the medium as an instrument for disseminating news and knowledge...in larger and larger packages over greater distances. Questions arise as to the effects of this on audiences: news as enlightening or obscuring reality, as changing or hardening attitudes, as breeding credibility or doubt.

A ritual view of communication will focus on a different range of problems in examining a newspaper. It will, for example, view reading a newspaper less as sending or gaining information and more as attending a mass, a situation in which nothing new is learned but in which a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed. News reading, and writing, is a ritual act and moreover a dramatic one. What is arrayed before the reader is not pure information but a portrayal of the contending forces in the world. Moreover, as readers make their way through the paper, they engage in a continual shift of roles or of dramatic focus. (Carey 1985)

Electronic communication has been important to globalisation and the rise of modern society, not simply for its capacity to “transmit” neutral information globally and in real time, but as a stage for the enactment of modernity itself, with all of its contending views and forces. The evolution of the media has had important consequences for the form that modern societies have acquired and it has been interwoven in crucial ways with the major institutional transformations which have shaped modernity. John B. Thompson argues that: 

The development of communication media was interwoven in complex ways with a number of other developmental processes which, taken together, were constitutive of what we have come to call ‘modernity’. Hence, if we wish to understand the nature of modernity - that is, of the institutional characteristics of modern societies and the life conditions created by them - then we must give a central role to the development of communication media and their impact (1995:3). 

In particular, the reinforcement within modern communications media of an individualised transmission and reception – an increasingly personalised rather than a massed or communal pattern of use – has produced the sorts of pluralism, selectivity and inclusivity /exclusivity witnessed in CMC use. It is arguably these same features which have contributed to the rise of “interactivity” as a dominant CMC form – one suited, I will contend, to the “personalised” and “responsibilised” user-consumer central to contemporary economic productivity and social order. It is within an analysis of how ‘chatrooms’, as among the latest forms of communication, ‘works’ or do es not ‘work’ that I explore electronic conversation as a force of social change.

The World Wide Web is one of many Internet-based communication systems[8] and the source of this thesis. This study examines in detail examples of the communicated message within the online environment, and seeks in particular to find how meaning is shared within text-based chatrooms. I am interested in the current online interactive environment, its departure from the culture of a print milieu, and changes affecting both the reader and the writer in that environment.

Of the many online practices that are available, such as e-mail, newsgroups, virtual learning environments and chatrooms, both text-based and multi-media enhanced environments, I have concentrated on text-based chatrooms during the period 1995 to 2001. This is an historical and time bound communicative environment, caught at the moment before solely text-based chatrooms began to change, as they currently are, to include sound and video. As online chatrooms grow in popularity and importance and as the possibilities of these applications increase, so too, will the analysing of these environments, both in depth and range. This study offers preliminary ways of conducting such analysis.

My exploration of the establishment of at least some of the rules operating within a "natural" language for the “unnatural” location of text-based chatrooms will extend to how such communication is constructed, within multi-user chatroom exchanges, in one-on-one Instant Messenger services, and within discussion group environments such as listservs and Bulletin Boards. Eggins and Slade in Analysing Casual Conversation (1997), write that "Interacting is not just a mechanical process of taking turns at producing sounds and words. Interacting is a semantic activity, a process of making meanings" (p.6). It will be in the analyzing of the “naturalising” processes which have been establishing text online as just such a communicative activity that I hope to find and describe new processes of meaning making in participants' conversation.

The main differences I hypothesize at the start of this study include the view that communicative systems among online discussion groups are not as casual as those evident in Instant Messenger (IM) or chatroom conversation. In discussion-groups people observably take more time and care with what they contribute. They may use a spell/grammar check, and think before posting their text. There appears to be a more formally “textual” format with discussion groups. Instant Messenger and chatrooms appear, at least at first sight, to be less disciplined and more varied, with the relative spontaneity of casual interchange unsettling many more formal communicative conventions.

At the same time however, I am aware that Conversational Analysis (CA) has itself already shown that this apparent ”formlessness” is not exactly the case in casual conversation (see ten Have, 1998, 1999; Schegloff, 1991; Eggins and Slade, 1997; Tannen, 1984). Within even “spontaneous” person-to-person talk there are clear conventions and rules, such as Sacks’ influential discovery of the rules for ‘turn–taking’ when one person talks at a time before responding to the speaker, including “Adjacency pairs” (knowing what comes next), when one turn is related in predictable ways to the previous and next turns; and “repair” (when there is a mistake there is a correction). Within each such category of talk many variables are observable: as for instance in repairing a mistake, where the speaker may correct himself or herself, or the hearer may correct the speaker, or the hearer may prompt the speaker by not responding,  or the hearer may prompt  the speaker, by repeating back what he or she just said. There is however clearly observable limitation to such variability – and even predictability in technique selection, expressive, at least in the Sacksian hypothesis, of the social relations between speakers.  My own research suggests that there are similar, contextually based, regulatory forms at work in online chat, and that any differences my analysis can establish will be more a matter of degree than of essence.

1.2.1 E-mail, discussion forums

At the outset it should be established that even this study cannot include all the forms of Internet communication. E-mail will be discussed below and compared to chatrooms throughout this study as well as discussion groups. It would be impossible to cover every Internet communication device. I am exploring primarily synchronous communication which is “talk” in real time and e-mail and discussion groups are asynchronous formats. Chatroom “talk” can be viewed by anyone who has access to the chatsite – whilst e-mail is only possible to read if it has been sent to the viewer one message at a time. Many forms of discussion forums[9] such as Google groups which have absorbed many older online groups are online. Google offers a complete 20-year Usenet Archive with over 700 million messages dating back to 1981.  I will only refer in passing to these other online forms of discourse in this thesis. For instance, in Case Studies 1 and the Post Script 911, I will give examples of message boards in comparison to the chatroom ‘talk’ on the topics covered in those case studies. In the first study I compare emergency messages left during a hurricane with the discourse in a chatroom about the same hurricane. In the Post Script 911 I compare the first lines of chat from a New York City chatroom on the day of the World Trade Centre event with the first messages on a newsgroup that day. In each case, the more formal postings of the newsgroup discussions will be used as exemplars against which to further analyse and isolate the features of IRC styles and practices. In other words, I am hypothesising that there are already established conventions in online communication which distinguish between a more “texted” communicative act, most often asynchronous and designed to endure for at least some degree of extended time, and more direct and “talk” formatted postings, usually synchronous, which obey many of the same regulatory moves as speech, and which are posted within relatively transient and fast-changing electronic frames.

The most common form of Internet communication, E-mail, is replacing much of traditional letter writing, its primary difference being the rapidity of response expected when an e-mail is sent. Unlike letters, which often are not answered for a varying period of time, it is assumed that e-mail will be responded to within a day or two. Therefore, e-mails tend to be answered in haste with at least a short response, maybe even just a "got your e-mail, am too busy to answer now, but will in a few days".  Though e-mail can be a form of turn-taking with people writing back and forth immediately after receiving correspondence, it does not provide the conversational turn-taking choices chatroom does. John D. Ferrier did his PhD thesis at Deakin University on e-mail in education. His findings were that there was a high level of e-mailphobia amongst university staff (at least between 1990 and 1994) and that few wanted to engage with the activity at the time. The results from a survey of 354 staff showed that 94.3% were infrequent e-mail users and 97.6% were not frequent users of electronic bulletin boards. There were no surveys done on chatrooms (Ferrier, 1998). Since 1995 however the use of the World Wide Web has increased vastly as I statistically show below. Wireless e-mail and chat servers have grown in popularity at the beginning of the new millennium with 36% of all firms and an additional 49% of all firms planning to provide it in the future according to ‘Global Wireless IT Benchmark Report ­ 2002’. In the period 1999-2001 the proportion of all practicing physicians using the Internet has grown, in the clinical work area (from 34% to 40%), in their personal offices (from 51% to 56%) and at home (from 83% to 87%). More doctors are communicating by e-mail with both professional colleagues (up from 51% to 55%) and support staff (up from 25% to 34%) (Pastore, 2001). Across the world early resistance to CMC systems has been increasingly overcome. For instance, the number of Koreans using the Internet has increased rapidly: 0.14 million in 1995, 1.6 million in 1997, 10 million in 1999, 19.04 million in 2000, and 22.23 million in September 2001 (Park, 2002).

Figure 2. Percent of Internet Users in South Korea (1995-2001)

While e-mail is most often the first CMC service experienced by new users, it does not always remain a preferred choice. Sending and receiving e-mail was the dominant online activity in 12 countries over the first six months of 2002, according to the Nielsen//NetRatings First Quarter 2002 Global Internet Trends report.  Nielsen//NetRatings, found that at least 75% of households with Internet access participated in e-mail. (http://www.nielsen-netratings.com/).

The China Internet Information Centre (www.china.org.cn) however reports that e-mail usage in China has been decreasing for the past two-years:

China has seen a continuous decrease in the number of e-mails during the past two years, Beijing Youth Daily reported Thursday. The average number of e-mails sent every week by each web users in China dropped from 10 in July 2000 to 8.2 in July 2001 to 5.3 now, according to the latest report by the China Internet Information Center.  

"The decrease is due to a decline of the number of free e-mail boxes available, a more rational use of web resource and an increase of various ways of communication," said Wang Enhai, an official with the Centre. Many websites accelerated their pace to charge e-mail service and web users began to give up superfluous e-mail boxes.  The average number of e-mail boxes owned by every web user dropped from 3.9 two years ago to 2.6 last year, and to 1.6 now.“ (Shanghai Daily August 9, 2002)

At the same time an increasing number of young Chinese people are reported as going online to collect information, ‘find love’ in chatrooms and play games.

“Statistics from China Internet Network Information Center showed that by the end of last year, Internet surfers in China numbered more than 22.5 million compared to a figure of just 15,000 in 1995.

More than 50 percent of teenage cyber-surfers in big cities across China want to surf the Internet more frequently, a survey conducted by the China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) has revealed. More than 62 percent of interviewees said they play online games and 54.5 percent use online chatrooms. The CASS study shows 56 percent of senior middle school students in big cities across China are Net surfers while 36 percent of junior middle school students and 26 percent of primary school pupils are Net surfers.”  China Daily 09/17/2001

Chinese teenagers spend an average of 30 minutes each day browsing the Internet, the survey shows. Outside of China there are (or were at the time of writing!) Internet cafes in Baghdad, North Korea, Libya and all Middle East countries. (Gallagher, 2002) as well as most countries of the world, where users can check e-mail or go to chatrooms in more than 4,500 Internet Cafes in 170 countries (Larsen, 2002[10]).

1.2.2 Electronic chat

Early forms of text based interactive sites began in the mid to late 1980s with Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and MUDS (Multiple User Dimension, Multiple User Dungeon, or Multiple User Dialogue, or Dungeons).

1.2.3 IRC

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is the most used online chat software and has many individual server companies. Below shows IRCnet in comparison with several other IRC servers. The table below helps show the popularity of different chat clients. What is central to this thesis is that as more people begin to connect to online chatrooms the importance of the transferring of meaning will increase.




Galaxy Net


MS Chat



Max. 2000








3rd Q. 1998









IRC-Statistics / Kajetan Hinner ( http://www.hinner.com/) through the year 2000.

(The statistics above are from the individual IRC servers as of November 2002)

Efnet (http://www.efnet.net/) is the oldest IRC network. DALnet (http://www.dal.net/index.php3) claims to be currently the largest Internet Relay Chat (IRC) network, with over 140,000 concurrent users and 600,000 registered users, from all over the world. The Undernet (http://www.undernet.org/) is one of the largest realtime chat networks in the world, with approximately 45 servers connecting over 35 countries and serving more than 1,000,000 people weekly and GalaxyNet (http://www.galaxynet.org/) has about 25,000 users. Internet Relay Chat has formed a connectivity in a decade that took the telephone more than one hundred years to make. People are using the Internet to expand their social world. As well as uniting cultures and nations when one has access to an Internet, communication can take place at any time. This thesis seeks to discover how this communication amongst so many people and often of mixed social backgrounds is maintained – using chatrooms as a source of message creation and message meaning.

Internet Relay Chat gained international fame during the First Gulf War in 1991[11], where IRC users could gather on a single channel to hear updates from around the world as soon as they were released. IRC had similar uses during the Russian coup against Gorbachev in August 19, 1991, where IRC users from Moscow were giving live reports about the unstable situation. The tendency for radical or alternative political information flows to operate through such non-institutional systems as e-mail and IRC has continued into the current US-Islamic conflicts of NEW SITE = JULY 2014 - http://neuage.us/2014/July/ - Today. Since the start of ArabChat in 1999 it has become one of the most famous IRC Networks World Wide, with more than 40,000 users and rising, and is now one of the biggest IRC Networks in the World[12].

IRC (Internet Relay Chat) consists of various separate networks (or "nets") of IRC servers, machines that allow users to connect to IRC. 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 at the same time).  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. To analyse conversation between two or more "speakers" I need to ‘cut and paste’ 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. (See“multilogues”, Eggins and Slade 1997).

Public IRC is a text-based, international, message-handling program that is on many Internet servers. Multiple communication channels (similar to radio channels) can be created. Between them, these created channels and their range of topic-specific channels, their text-mediated messaging and their capacity to conceal as well as to express identity have introduced “communicative rituals” which introduce the meta-message: "Let's make-believe and suspend disbelief" (Ruedenberg, Danet, & Rosenbaum-Tamari, 1995). Allucquere Stone, professor in film and media at University of Texas, claims that most computer users think of their computers not just as tools but as "arenas for social experience." (Stone, 1995, 15) Fantasy invitation is prominent on IRC where “the other” can be as real as the “self”. (Hamman, 1998; Calvert, 2002; Saarinen, 1994). The fantasy aspects of online chatting are discussed throughout this thesis, as the new rituals of online communicative exchange are examined.

Generically the channels which facilitate the more conversational forms of online communication are variously designated ‘chatlines’ or ‘chatrooms’ and provide for discussion on every conceivable topic. Access via a client program allows users to join and listen in on (read) conversations on multiple channels on multiple servers. With experience, four or five different channels can be attended to at one time. Once the user logs in and writes, one line at a time, the “talk” is distributed, via the servers, to everyone logged on reading that particular channel.

Jarkko Oikarinen in the Department of Information Processing Science at the University of Oulu, Finland developed Internet Relay Chat (IRC) in late August, 1988.[13] His original goal was to create a communications programme which would allow users of OuluBox[14], a public access bulletin board service (BBS) administrated by the department, to have real time discussions online. Previously, synchronous online communication had been limited to two participants – a process which is now popular with Instant Messenger services (see Case Study Two). When Oikarinen began his work, OuluBox already had a programme called MultiUser Talk (MUT), developed by Jukka Pihl. MUT allowed users to chat in real time, but lacked the channel concept central to IRC. The existence of channels on IRC allows users to join in to specific discussions by connecting to the channel where the discussion is taking place, just as like a user of a citizen’s band (CB) radio tunes into a specific channel.

1.2.4 MUDs

MUDs as well as other constructs on the Internet, such as MOOs (MUD-Object-Oriented), MUSE (Multiple-User Dimension), MUCK (Multi-User Collective Kingdom) and MUSH - the "H" stands for Hallucination (Harry Potter: Alere Flammas is a MUSH based on the Harry Potter universe at http://digital-web.net/~hpotter/) are computer programs, which allow users to log in and explore text and sometimes graphics based virtual environments. Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs present a world through text descriptions; players move around by typing sentences. In MUDs, a user can simulate or “text” such physically impossible activities as communicating  telepathically, shape-shifting, teleporting, creating  little machine selves, and conjuring  birds and pleasure domes out of thin air. Curiously, despite the magical aura of self-determining expressivity this suggests, second person narrative is the viewpoint of choice for text MUDs, the user able to type in a direct command to a  character. It is the reciprocity of this unusual modality – the capacity to respond to and outwit the “actions” and orders of others online – which builds intensity and attraction into a communicative relation which is otherwise mostly reserved for unequal power relations in “live” or embodied conversational exchange. First person narratives, more conventionally the stuff of expressive creativity, alienate the MUD user, since within this particular texted universe a character focusing all actions on “I” will  be perceived not so much as  enhanced in autonomy, but as disconnected from the creative dialogue of action development. The first-person text becomes similar to a diary or journal, the other users  placed in the role of passive readers instead of  active (co)directors. Within such text-relations we can clearly see the degree to which and the speed with which online “chat” participants have evolved new, surprising, yet powerful “ritualisations” of communicative activity. While information is clearly being transmitted in such MUDs, it is not flowing in anticipated or neutral ways – nor in ways dictated solely by the technology. Complex social communicative patterns are in evolution here.

From these MUDs have in turn evolved MOOs, which allow the players to manipulate the (virtual) world of the game, creating texted or graphic objects and new computer programs that run within the MOO. Users “read” these text-constituted virtual realms rather than only view them graphically – much as one might read the extended scenario texts at the beginning of a Star Wars film. .”Action” is performed via keyboard, either as texted instruction/description, or as key-command implementation of graphic repertoires or special effects involving programming solutions.   At core both the MUD and the MOO are imaginative constructs: the players must render all scenes and actions mentally, from text typed in during the course of play. Text is however an efficient medium online, as with experience a few words can evoke a rich response in the mind of the user.  Text MUDs rely more on cognition than on sensory perception. Spaces and avatars are not – or rarely - viewed on the screen, but in the player's mind. Text MUDs are abstract and cognitive since the characters and scenes are conveyed symbolically rather than sensorially. (Lisette, 1995; Turkle, 1995, 1996; Utz, 2000; Bromberg, 1996; Cicognani, 1996, 1997, 1998). For example, Milton's Paradise Lost ("Welcome to Hell! We hope you like it here!") is now a MUD. A popular and very creative MUD is “Aetolia” (http://www.aetolia.com):


“Come to an intricate world where shadowy influences battle for power in the realm of mortals. Join one of the many classes, and perhaps practice the combat arts alongside your brother monks, wield the power of the elements as a mage, or succumb to the dark delights of the vampire. Dedicate yourself to the Divine Order of one of the ever-present Deities, or rise to the highest stations of leadership.

Will you manipulate and scheme your way to power and influence? Will you work to build a vast personal fortune? Will you make your stand in the light for Truth and Renewal? Or will you strive for that to which few mortals may aspire, to join the very ranks of the Divine?

Join us now in the Midnight Age, and step into a realm of intrigue that will test your resolve, where you have the power to tip the balance in the struggle between light and darkness.

Here, the fate you make is the only fate you deserve. “http://www.aetolia.com  

Each user takes control of a computerized persona, avatar, character or object. Once each has created a “self” they can walk around, chat with other characters, explore dangerous monster-infested areas, solve puzzles, and create rooms or worlds and the action within them. When you join a MUD, you create a character or several characters. You specify each one's gender and other physical and psychological attributes. Other players in the MUD can see this character’s description. It becomes your character's self-presentation, or “avatar” – the online persona who carries out actions for you. The created characters need not be human and there may be more than two genders. Players create characters that have casual and romantic sex, hold jobs, attend rituals and celebrations, fall in love, and get married.  In many MUDs, players help build the virtual world itself. Using a relatively simple programming language, they can make "rooms" in the MUD, where they can set the stage and define the rules. (Turkle, 1996, p. 54).

MUDs and MOOs are used in education as well as in social skill development.  AussieMOO (Theme:AussieMOO) is an open-styled, experimental and research based MOO for social interaction. There are MUDs for conferencing, computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW), lifelong education (beyond just K-Ph.D), experimental psychology and philosophy.  BioMOO is a virtual meeting place for biology professionals; Cheshire Moon (Theme: CheshireMOOn) represents the beginning of an important transition from the traditional classroom lesson to computer-assisted learning, and CollegeTown (Theme: "COLLEGETOWN) is a text based virtual Academic Community. Its purpose is to serve as a platform for the scholarly pursuits of students and faculty from around the world. COLLEGETOWN is a place for folks to meet, hold classes and seminars, do research, carry out class projects, and exchange ideas. “Folks who share our academic vision are most welcome to apply for membership in our community! The COLLEGETOWN server is located on the campus of Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa."

1.2.5 MUDs vs. IRC

MUDs and MOOs as with IRC and World Wide Web chatrooms can be totally text-based. Multimedia is becoming available in all these programs but text is still the primary means of navigation and communication. What makes MUDs and MOOs different from IRC is that in addition to being able to talk with other people, the user is able to move around in an environment that he or she helps to create. With IRC, someone opens a channel, others connect to the channel to chat, everyone enters lines of text in order to communicate, and the channel is closed when the last person leaves. With MOOs, the user connects via telnet to a program that is running on one computer, enters lines of text to communicate, and disconnects when done. Chatrooms do not have virtual structures to move around in and unless the user leaves the room and goes to another room there are no locational moves within an individual space. With IRC there is little more than scrolling ‘speech’. With MUDs the user must also know commands in order to communicate. In both applications users can chat in real time, talk to many people at once or send private messages, and show actions and emotions. Chatrooms however are much simpler spaces in which to communicate, resting on foundations of everyday conversational practice, as this thesis will demonstrate – albeit with additional layers of communicative practice already beginning to emerge. Despite many fascinating features of MUD and MOO communicative practice, this thesis is centred on the performance of users in text-based chatrooms and not MUDs or other role-playing or virtual environments where participants act out character roles in imaginary worlds, all described in text. Like IRC, MUDs provide real-time chat, usually accessed by telnetting into a remote Internet-connected server, whereas IRC can be accessed via the World Wide Web. The technical difference between the two is essentially that a MUD or MOO can be programmed, compiled, and saved while it is still running. This means that the MOO does not have to be shut down for work to be done on it. In order to program in IRC, however, it must be shut down, hacked, recompiled, and started up again. And when an IRC channel is closed everything shuts down and all communications contributed are lost. However when a MOO is closed any visitor can re-open it and have an environment still in place, with all the objects left by others. At this point the technology itself influences the durability of the creation – and so of the autonomy of the users, and arguably at least, of their focus into and commitment to the site. It is perhaps in real world terms, the difference between casual visits to an established social setting, such as a bar or café, which may or may not become a preferred regular meeting place, and joining a special-interest club, set up for and controlled by members. As French theorist Henri Lefebvre (1995) has pointed out, it is the social geography of locations which facilitates the various forms of social engagement experienced in everyday life, and the insight appears no less true of the virtual “spaces” and “sites” of online communication. But how have we come – and come so quickly – to regard these “texted” or mediated, symbolic worlds as able to constrain and shape communicative relations? And how might we be able to employ analytical techniques evolved to uncover the regulatory systems behind communicative practices in the physical world – talk relations between co-present speakers – to scripted or programmed “talk texts” exchanged between non-present participants in a CMC space?

1.3 New paradigm shifts

1.3.1 Print to computerization

Evolving techniques to analyse the specifics of Internet conversation, whether in chatrooms, America Online's Instant Messenger (IM), discussion groups, or in role playing games such as MUDs and MOOS, involves consideration of two new paradigm shifts: the extension of print or text based communications into the far more direct and interactive modes of CMC media, and the changes within the already complex field of linguistics-based human communications research, where descriptive systems-based work within pure linguistics has moved on, to accommodate the social, cultural and political considerations which have produced the contemporary focus on discourse analysis. Consequently, bringing into being an "electronic interactive conversational analysis" requires a cross over between print and conversation-based analyses and theorizations, and a move into the broader socio-cultural emphases of discourse.

Firstly, there is the shift from print to computerization. Print relies on hierarchy and linearity, technologising itself into organizational categories which privilege the producer or author over the receiver or reader. With their focus on durability through both time and space, print texts must carefully direct the use-patterns of their “remote” user, to ensure that their messages remain intact. While CMC technologies have moved to create a direct and seemingly intimate contact for users, they do so through a communicative form soundly grounded in techniques of distantiation – a move which can at times appear curiously regressive; for instance in the return of screened text messages on mobile phones, a medium with more than a century long tradition of direct oral contact. Those new forms of texting which are emerging within CMC media thus seem to call for consideration of both print and oral communicative practices – as well as of marked changes in the ways we have traditionally conceived of text-based communication as separated into the acts of production and reception.

CMC texts mix print and conversational modes, in both production and reception. Online texts can be hypertextual as well as or hierarchical  and linear. Webpages for example are hypertextual, with the viewer becoming the author of how the content will follow, so that the medium promotes an especially active “reception” of text messages, which many are arguing amounts to a form of co-production (see Landow, 1992; Poster, 1995, 2001; Bolter, 1991). Yet in a chatroom milieu, a communicative site often considered the least formal or regulated in terms of genre control, there is only the simplest of sequential patternings to structure the text exchanges. Chatrooms differ from other forms of the World Wide Web in that only one line of text or one graphic can be observed at a time, with  the next following rapidly in sequence and acting to de-focus what precedes it. Print media have by definition allowed reading ahead - skipping the present and reading to the end, or reviewing sections to check meaning - whereas in chatrooms the near-real-time onward flow of communication limits acts of review or preview.  Textual chatrooms are not clickable hypertextually, except for entries to other rooms or to leave the Internet all together. Chat-text is not static like print text, but flows across a relatively small screen space, and disappears above or below the scroll capacity at near uncontrollable speeds. In this sense then, while chatrooms at first sight appear much like any print form where one lines follows another, the key difference comes from the control the user has of the medium. When the chatroom texts scroll by there is nothing the viewer can do to prevent the next line from appearing - unless he or she leaves the chatroom. Print media works on a flow of conversation or writing directed to an organised progression, and a stable retention of accessible text permitting revisiting through time. Online chat-texts retain as their organizing principle only the sequencing learned from conversation, and even with many participants co-existing on one screen space, provide no further “technologised” means for controlling or categorizing the “braided” texts which result. Unless users select a preferred line of talk from the screen, and negotiate to shift their talk-partner into an alternative software service – such as one-on-one chat via Instant Messenger – chat-texts fragment into the sorts of multi-directionality which most speakers have trouble with even in oral conversation, with its repertoire of compensatory “focus” cues. Online, as text scrolls by at near conversational speeds, are we already developing similar strategies? If so, are these talk-based, or text based? And how can we extend current techniques of both print critique and conversation analysis to witness, capture and understand such devices as they arise?

Within the very broad field of literary text analysis   there has been a continuum of ideas that have progressively led towards a major debate over how  to define the roles of author and reader (see the Case Studies in this thesis for further explanation, especially Case Study One, which uses Reader-response theory to describe the communicative process). In Communication Studies terms more generally, this dual focus on “production” and “reception” of messages – terms which admit oral, text, graphic, audio and screen imaged communications into consideration – has followed the same developmental paradigm, moving throughout the twentieth century towards admission of an increasingly active “audience/user” of  mediated messages, and an increasingly problematised concept of “authorship” or “production”.

Chatroom texts in many ways represent a peak enactment of the dilemmas of this new paradigm of the “active user/absent producer”.  Chat-texts at the level of individual “postings” are near anonymous. Just as some texts don't require, or create, an "author” – texts such as legends, myths, folk stories, fairy tales and jokes – “users” or participants in chatrooms have become accustomed to operating without the sorts of social and contextual information provided for live conversation by the “author-ising” presence of the speaker, and in the conventions of print texts, by the complex apparatus of author name, publisher reputation, critical review, indices, contents listings, glossaries, and arrangements into such structural codings as narrative sequencing, chapters, headings, paragraphs, quote marks, footnotes, titles and etc.

Due to usernames (usernames are discussed throughout this study, see for example: Case Study 1, 3 and 7) the author of a chat posting is not known, except through what she or he reveals subsequently about her or him self - and notoriously, this is not necessarily who the author is, but a created identity. The chatroom situation is a paradigmatic case of “the death of the author” as proclaimed by poststructuralists such as Foucault (1969) and Barthes (1972).  For Foucault, the author is decentred within a text: no longer its originary source and guarantee of its meaning, but only a part of its structure. So too in chat postings, where what Foucault describes as “the author function” remains in the tag to each posted line, which attributes each texted utterance to a particular participant. It is the degree to which chat users still consider this a guarantee of self-expressive authenticity or sincerity which creates the chatroom dilemma – and much of its reputation for moral danger and duplicity: issues taken up elsewhere in this study. If (or perhaps when) chat-texts become viewed as on a par with movie representations or fictional print texts – products removed from their originating “authors” by the apparatuses of production and distantiation – this particular “author function” will change.

Just as Barthes and Foucault deny the traditional view of the author as the only authority for interpretation and the origin of the text and its meaning, my own study suggests that chat users are already moving to both produce, and in turn demand from others, augmented interpretive repertoires of an especially active “reading” of online texts (see Case Study One which uses Reading-response theory to analyse the chatroom). Barthes in particular puts into question a way of reading related to the author as an authority. In 1968 Barthes announced 'the death of the author' and 'the birth of the reader', declaring that 'a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination' (Barthes 1977, p.148). For Barthes as for Foucault, the roles of reader and writer are historically contingent, and open to change. According to Barthes, "the author is a modern figure, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation" (1977). Roland Barthes refers to the writer of a text as the orchestrator of what is 'already-written' rather than as its originator (Barthes, 1974, 21). With this  “death” of the author”, a text is not a line of words releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the 'message' of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text then is a collaboration of lines or a “conversation” between this and prior texts – a point at which the second element put in question within chat-texts presents itself: its problematic abandonment of the sorts of structuring conventions used in other “print-based” communicative forms.  

For Barthes and Foucault texts are framed by other texts in many ways. Intertextuality is a concept used to assert the idea that each text exists in relation to other texts (See, Kristeva, 1980; Chandler, 2001). Landow in his early work on CMC texts (1992) finds authors and their stories to be at a point of crisis:

This technology -- that of the printed book and its close relations, which include the typed or printed page -- engenders certain notions of authorial property, authorial uniqueness, and a physically isolated text that hypertext makes untenable. The evidence of hypertext, in other words, historicizes many of our current assumptions, thereby forcing them to descend from the ethereality of abstraction and appear as corollaries to a particular technology rooted in specific times and places. (Landow, 1992, p. 33).

Not everyone thinks that this change from print to electronic publishing is progress. Many critics, such as Sven Birkerts (1995), view this change as a potential disaster for literary culture and society in general, suggesting that more is lost than a printer's bill when books move online. In Writing Space (1991), J. David Bolter has declared the electronic word as "The fourth great technique of writing that will take its place beside the ancient papyrus roll, the medieval codex, and the printed book". Similarly, Paul Delaney in The Digital Word (1993) has proclaimed that “the most fundamental change in textual culture since Gutenberg is now under way".

Florian Brody in “The Gutenberg Elegies” (1999) argues that people are moving away from books for enlightenment and turning to the Internet or the electronic text.

"The printed word is part of a vestigial order that we are moving away from - by choice or by societal compulsion… [We are moving away from]"the patterns and habits of the printed page and toward a new world distinguished by its reliance on electronic communication". (p.118)

If we are moving from "the culture of the book to the culture of electronic communication", Brody sees this as being a loss instead of a gain, largely a result of the lack of distantiating detachment allowing reflection and critical reading when e-texts move remorselessly forward, as do chat-texts. The degree to which the electronic accessibility of text however also permits a broadened “authorising” of viewpoints: cuts across the categorising and regulatory control of text messages, both as author-status and structural predictability, further enhances what could be called “the reader function” – an opening of text to far broader ranges of interpretations. In other words, while Brody and Birkerts, from well within the high-culture conventions of complex literary structures and high-status authorship roles, see the open and active audience/user/reader figures of electronic texts as a cultural lapse, others – especially those within a Communication Studies and Cultural Studies tradition focused on popular media and on a commitment to broadening cultural interpretations (“reading against the grain”) – have urged an equal if different degree of cultural power in the relatively unstructured and anonymous or collective texts of the new media.

To follow this debate beyond the confines of established literary textual study – dominated as it was by high-culture genres – both moves focus back from print-based to the more fluid, conversational formats of electronic text, and admits into the subsequent analysis of chat-texts those considerations of social and cultural influence which Barthes and Foucault, among others, have shown as creating both the structuring principles and the “authorship” status of the print tradition. In both cases this moves us to review those theories which critique the workings of language in both print and conversational modes: the still quite loose and various conceptualisations of language in use as “discourses” (Van Dijk, 1986).

1.3.2 Notion of "discourse"

The second paradigm shift crucial for this study is taking place around the notion of "discourse", parallel to the shift from print to active electronic texting on the Internet (see Landow 1992, pp. 1-11). While studies of “language” have consistently taken us from actual communicative acts – speech or text – in the direction of those structuring principles which regulate and enable such communication (Pennycuick, 1988) more recent focus on discourse has moved to show how socially and culturally regulated language selectively endorses or pre-disposes social groups and individuals towards preferred activities, behaviours and attitudes. Discourse is thus important in this study of online communication. Not only did the Internet arrive with just such sets of predisposed discursive framings around its re-technologisation of communications (Castells, 2000), but within each of the variant communicative activities it enabled (e-mail, IRC, MUDs, listervs, BBSs), “virtual communities” of users rapidly established innovative discursive cultures of their own. In this study I focus on chatrooms -  rapidly forming and disbanding communities – which of necessity, in discourse terms, must be annexing – and perhaps to some extent establishing – strong discursive frameworks in order to function as communicative sites. Often participants have never met and will never communicate with others except in these instant, momentary communities.  How then do chat communicants establish the principles on which their messages will be exchanged? Since participants and analysts both report insistent “policing” of certain selective and preferred chat behaviours online, by both tacit and active means, how have such behaviours become established, constructed around which models and criteria, and signaled in which acceptable or unacceptable practices – given the limitation of behaviour to texted language? 

1.4 Purpose of examining online conversation

This research on electronic communication is being undertaken at the same time as chatrooms are being used more (Mogge, 1999; Langston, 1996; Harrison, and Stephen, 1995; Communication Institute for Online Scholarship - http://www.cios.org).  Online communication has become common practice. Online statistics change rapidly and there are several companies that track moment by moment usage of Internet usage and participants in chatrooms. (See: Cyber Atlas, http://cyberatlas.internet.com; Internet Statistics, http://www.internetstats.com; Nielsen net ratings, http://www.nielsen-netratings.com/; Internet Society http://www.isoc.org/internet/history/). What is really happening in this new form, and why is it spreading from specialist to broad social categories of users? Are all chat users experiencing and producing the same discursive forms in their chat use? Are there universals or sub-cultural differences – and how far can discourse analysis help us to see how, and why, these might be emerging?

Like other areas of the Internet, chatrooms rapidly established regulatory sets of etiquette, and rules of cybersense are continuously evolving. Netiquette customs and practices began in the late 1980s with the widening use of e-mail and have been adopted in order to promote effective electronic communication (See http://www3.usal.es/~nonverbal/researchers.htm which lists 135 current researchers doing academic work on online communication.).  Netiquette has different rules for different online formats. The most generally accepted Netiquette behaviours are based on having respect for others in the online community. For example, using ALL CAPITAL LETTERS is considered shouting and is hard on the eyes; "Flaming" or attacking others in the online community or inciting or provoking an argument are considered unacceptable to other users and often evoke banishment from sites by site supervisors, and "Spamming" - posting something in many places at the same time – is both actively discouraged and open to technical blocking via protective software.

Beyond these relatively extreme sorts of unacceptable communicative behaviour however lie many more subtle instances of misapplied online communication. Jill and Wayne Freeze point out in their book “Introducing WebTV”,

..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).

Since "rules" are already widely established in online communication - for instance, the convention that capitals imply shouting has extended from e-mail to  text-based chatrooms – it is worth examining whether other regulatory impulses are becoming equally consensual and universal in e-communication practice.  Other, more subtle conventions may be developing, as well as widespread conventions for the abbreviated "talk" of CMC sites. This thesis will propose that such regulatory behaviours are arising not at random, but in ways which reflect the discursive framings of contemporary social and cultural realities – which include for the first time significant formational influence from the ‘virtual” realm of mediated CMC activities. What may have seemed small and insignificant conventions, established who knows when or why, operating on the specially reserved space of the Internet screen, have spread rapidly, extended immense regulatory power, endured, jumped communication channels (eg from IRC to SMS on mobile phones) and thus declared themselves meaningful or discursively active – for discourse, by definition, constrains both concepts and actions. If we find ourselves accessing punctuation keys to add a small smiling face to an e-mail, or moving into numeral keys to produce phonetic abbreviations, we are forcing both our text-composing minds and our keyboarding/screenscanning bodies into a discourse – and anticipating that our correspondents will too. How universal may these new behaviours become – and will they attain the power to move beyond CMC usage and impact upon older communications genres and formats – as contemporary press reports suggest?

1.5 Online usage

More and more people are communicating through electronic online services.  It is difficult to estimate the number of users online at any one moment. A large number of surveys of online usage are available. According to Nua Internet[15] an estimated 513.41 million users were on line as of August, 2001. Netsizer (http://www.netsizer.com/) has a counter in real-time on their site showing both how many hosts and how many users are going online every second. During the re-write of this thesis as of Thursday, June 13, 2002 there were 832,774,438 users and 203,592,240 hosts online and a few minutes later the number had increased by 500 more. Their real-time chart showed that as of June 13th, 2002 the ten fastest Internet growing countries were: Ukraine, India, Indonesia, Chile, Spain, Romania, Thailand, Brazil, Portugal and Mexico. Another survey showed that eighty-four percent of US Internet users have contacted an online group (Nov 01 2001), according to research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project[16]. Pew Internet also reports that of the 59 million Americans who go online daily, 49% send e-mail, 10% send instant messages and 4% use a chatroom daily. More than 2.4 million Americans or about five million world-wide are in a chatroom communicating daily. As of 6/08/2003 there were more than 115 million registered users of the chat server ICQ, around the world according to ICQ.com. Other research results in January 2002 gave these figures: between 6% (Chilton Research) and 35% (American Psychological Convention) of online users participate in chats, roughly 4% of all online time is spent in chatting (Price Waterhouse) and 88% of teenagers dubbed online chat "cool" in a recent survey by the author of “Growing Up Digital”[17]. For a timeline of the Internet see Hobbes's Internet Timeline at http://www.zakon.org/robert/internet/timeline/. The sheer mass of participation, and especially those use figures which demonstrate the keen interest from younger users, suggest that what evolves within CMC communicative exchanges has at least the potential to exert broader influence on social interactivity and communication techniques. But before such claims can be made, it is essential that a broad sweep of online texted-talk behaviours be examined, and in detail. Random or minority patterns of online communication practice need to be distinguished from techniques in widespread consensual use – those which can be said to be arising as dominant practices; seen to be being patrolled and regulated across the various communities  of online users, and can be shown to have features which act to the advantage of CMC technologies. In other words, such communicative behaviours should be demonstrable as discursively “powerful”, in Fairclough’s terms (1989; 1992): arising within and in turn reinforcing the communicative values, strategies and interests of their locations. But how might such behaviours be isolated and quantified – and what new problems arise alongside these new research opportunities? While research into online community behaviours might seem more than usually accessible: BBSs and IRC sites for instance freely illustrating “natural” communication settings on a 24 hour and multi-ethnic basis, online research presents its own difficulties: practically, technically, methodologically and ethically. (See: “Sociological Research Online” http://www.socresonline.org.uk; “Online Research's Time Has Come” http://www.bitpipe.com/; “Curtin University of Technology Internet Studies” http://smi.curtin.edu.au/NetStudies/projects.html).

Problems of researching online

Research online is different from face-to-face research. In investigating Internet based communication one comes across a different set of problems -  such as the researchers not being able to verify who the writer of the text is, thereby determining whether the writing has any validity to it, and not knowing if what is read is a cut-and-paste of several other writing sources. Chatrooms offer even more complications to research.

Firstly, I have identified during this study four key problems of researching online: identifying the “speaker’s” intent in joining the chatroom; selecting from the enormous range of chatroom material for analysis; identifying those people in cyberspace using multiple names, and a consequent inability to do follow up work with participants. The distantiation of the “texted” online talk; the capacity for and so invitation to identity concealment, together constitute advantages for the self-protecting online communicator – but problems for the conventional social-science researcher. Those assumptions arising from “author function”, as outlined above, mean that expectations of sincerity or authenticity in online communication must be moderated – if not abandoned. While the personalisation and informality of online texts invites disclosure and spontaneity, these are no guarantee of authenticity – and, as this study, alongside many others, will confirm, there is a great deal of counter-evidence for online communication as a performative and calculated activity.

Add in the problems of intertextuality and the technical ease of cut-and-paste message composition, and expectations of authorial intent and expressiveness become very problematic. The dilemma is compounded in IRC by the”multilogue” nature of the discussions. With multiple online “authors”, each with decontextualised origins, who may or may not be reproducing others’ texts, how are the discursive framings established?

Secondly, there is the sheer enormity of the task in analyzing chatroom ‘talk’ as if it were one, stable entity. With millions of chatrooms there is a wealth of material. Any “sampling” must acknowledge its specificities, and the impossibility of establishing “universal” rules for all (chat) spaces or eras.  I have narrowed this topic to a very few chatrooms, concentrating on seven chatrooms in seven case studies - although I have used several other chatrooms to show a characteristic that may not have been obvious in one of the chatrooms I “captured”. But this is a minute sample of what is available. The study therefore is designed not to outline for all time what online chat “is” or how it is “produced” – since the conditions I uncover may already be past. For instance, one  problem with a study of anything involving a consumer  technology is the inbuilt obsolescence and  the subsequent brevity of its relevance.  In this thesis I argue that text-based chatrooms are already being augmented by other CMC technologies, to the point that currently chatrooms have many features in common with telephone and Internet conferencing communicative devices. But at a moment when both of these are moving to video services, much of what I establish here as “communicative enhancements” to supplement a visually-deprived communication, may also change. Instead, what I hope to achieve with this study is to persuade communications scholars and Internet users generally that what may seem transient, trivial or temporary, was in itself richly meaningful, and that even the most fleeting of communicative regulatory systems in one of the most seemingly reduced or fragmentary forms – which I propose Internet Chat to represent – is still formed within predominant discursive systems, and able to carry complex communicative intent.

How then can “communicative intent” be considered, when, as I admit in my thirdly problematisation of online research, people in cyberspace often change their name for use in other chatrooms, and sometimes even within a single chatroom? For example, in an academic chatroom where there is scholarly discussion about an issue a person may log in as 'laProf'. In a sex-chatroom, the same person may be 'lovelylegs'. In a political chatroom the person may choose to be 'senator'. One's online character is only part of one's online repertoire. A person can be a feather, fire hydrant, cloud or a riverbank. How the person's 'speaking' persona changes in different chatrooms is an area I explore throughout this study, not to pursue the theme of online identity formation, common in first-generation Internet study (eg Turkle, 1995, 1996; Rheingold, 1991; Castel, 2000) but to examine how far language itself shifts with persona change. My first assumption (see Methodology, 3.2. Key Assumptions) that people change their text-self in different chatrooms will bring to the fore some of the ways in which such changes might be described and identified. And it is in doing so: in shifting critical attention away from the problem of online identity as always at least potentially performative rather than fixed and essential, and instead focusing on how such performances are enacted, that this study re-routes around the dilemma of intent. My focus is on what occurs, rather than on what might be intended - and on how regularly recurring patterns of “occurrence” may be able to reveal consensually established communicative “rules”.

One methodological constraint which online research at first sight appears to have the potential to overcome is the capacity to “return” research findings for verification by research subjects. Given the speed and ease of file exchange, it might be anticipated that research results online could be quickly and accurately assessed by the original data providers. But in the event, as I indicate in my fourth aspect of online research shortcomings, there is an inability to do follow-up work with participants in chatrooms. Unless a research subject is identified – accurately – online, and their e-mail address is noted so that they can be tracked within chatrooms, they become lost to the researcher.  Rarely are the same people in the same chatroom at the same time, so that online chat studies cannot be replicated. And while in early pilot studies I intervened in chat sessions to outline my project and seek cooperation – a technique which research ethics required throughout this study – it rapidly became evident that for many if not most online communicators this acted as an intrusion into the flow of communication: one which they did not necessarily reject, but which altered, at least for a time, the communicative dynamic. Their response raises a further contradiction in online communication: its curious and perhaps unprecedented status, somewhere between the personal and the public.

1.6 Are Chatrooms Public or Private?                                                                                 

One of the first issues that must be addressed by the researcher who examines chatrooms is whether chatrooms are public or private spaces (Cybersociology)[18]. All exchanges within chatrooms, accessible to the public, are legally public, unless there is a notice saying all the dialogue is copyrighted. A chatroom where the participant has to log on as part of an organisation such as a university, company or government web site, can be regarded as private and confidential – at least to that specific community of users. The behaviour of the participants on such sites may  be different from a chatroom that is open to the public without any registration details, e.g. e-mail address, and where participants make up usernames which do not reflect or identify them – although there is increasing evidence from this and other studies that a strongly-emergent “chatroom style” often overcomes site-specific communicative regulation .

This issue of public access versus privacy is one I had to consider in regard to ensuring that methods I chose for my study complied with the principles of ethical research. Mark Poster (1995, p.67) argues that “The problem we face is that of defining the term ’public’” and he posits that “The age of the public sphere as face-to-face talk is clearly over”. However, chatrooms can be private also if two people agree to talk in a room and not allow anyone else in. I thus define the term “public” in relation to my work as referring to what is available to be seen on the computer screen by anyone with an Internet connection, leaving the implications arising from such matters as “disclosure-talk” or use of limiting “private” codes – common among “regular” chatters on a specific site  - for analysis as the study progresses.

There are two primary categories of text-based chatroom communication. Public channels or chatrooms on the Internet that allow anyone to enter without registration are an open conversational arena and what is said is clearly public. But it is also possible to set up a chatroom which is by invitation only, such as those people set up on their computer[19] for IM or ICQ interaction, and these chatrooms are not displayed on the Internet unless the owner of the chatroom chooses to do so. This allows a number of participants to get together for a conference without anyone else knowing. Some chatrooms similarly allow chatters to use a "whisper" or private message mode, preventing unwanted chat inhibitors from witnessing the communicative act. Such activities clearly signal a belief in and desire for “private” chat, and might be expected to reveal different chat behaviours in their usage. Since it is – perhaps perversely – easier to negotiate permission to study the texted chats in such spaces (presumably because the relation of “trust” which occasions the shift into private mode also facilitates the granting of research access) this study will be able to undertake such comparative analysis.

1.7 Is cyberspace real?

There remains the ongoing question within Internet studies as to whether cyberspace is "real" and therefore worthy of study.  Judged from the energy and fervour with which they participate, to most participants, chatrooms are “real” created space.  People are able to express ideas, ask questions, and even to make arrangements to meet physically.  Many of the same experiences can be gained within the chatroom environment as among people at a meeting, party or at any social gathering; “chatrooms are suitable places for developing the self socially, mentally and culturally, as well as shaping the character traits of the self.” (Yee, 2000)  Virtual communities can be as important to those who visit the same chatroom as any community in RL (Real Life) would be (See Rheingold, 1994, 1999; Turkle, 1995, 1996; Poster, 1999, 2001; Vallis, 1999 and 2001).

Real social interchange in person-to-person or real-life situations with “real” communication does however change abruptly once in an online chat environment where the “other” is not known. The purpose of most communication is not the exchange of factual information, but the establishment and maintenance of social ties and structures: Carey’s “ritual communication” prioritized over “transmission”. Online, when we cannot identify the “other.” we do not know whether there is credibility in what the “other” has to say, and they have the same problem with what we would say. The traditional philosophic approach holds that sincerity and competence are the underpinnings of credibility (Audi, 1998), and while the distantiations of mediated and especially CMC communication have eroded both confidence in and expectations of the former in favour of the latter, online chat, like other communicative modes, proceeds as though such guarantees were still in place.  We still need to know something about a person's social identity in order to know how to act toward them. Even if, as Bourdieu suggests, it is the “cultural capital” displayed in talk itself as much as anything else which controls our communicative relation, we interpret this as in itself part of “character” or “personality.” It is this consensus over social interaction conducted within language which enables us to operate within online chat, in the absence of other cues – and even to “chat” with those AI entities emerging to service our information and entertainment needs.

With animated images (a machine attempting to pass as human) now “communicating” in chatrooms as well as in commercials and even television talk shows, we can no longer know with certainty whether we are speaking with  another human or a computer program.

Virtual stars translate internationally. They don't age or throw tantrums; they can master any language or skill, and can appear in more than one place at the same time. "Real people have limits, "(Lewis, 1992), but Horipro has created the world’s first virtual teen idol, Kyoko Date. Kyoko Date is an interesting subject. It/she stands on the edge between technology and society, and yet is capable of carrying on conversations online.

KYOKO DATE: The world's first virtual idol is eternally 17. She's the daughter of a Tokyo couple who run a sushi restaurant, where she helps out, and has a younger sister. She was born near the US Army's Yokota Military Base not far from Tokyo. She spends most of her day taking dancing and singing lessons and has always been athletic. She was a soccer player in high school and liked to play three-on-three basketball games, too. She's a big Mariah Carey fan and has a crush on Christian Slater. (HORIPRO, INC. http://www.wdirewolff.com/jkyoko.htm)

Kyoko’s capacity for convincing chat is the ultimate illustration of my contention that not communicative intent – since it/she can have none – but competence is the dominant marker controlling our online communicative practice.

This thesis sets out only to examine actual communicative practice. It defers considerations of whether online chat is ‘true” communication, seeking rather to merely clarify some of the subtle distinctions between real life and online virtual communication, describe how they work, present some  new research findings regarding online conversations that take place within our current forms of electronic communication, and outline how some of the analytical techniques evolved for codifying and understanding both “natural” conversation in real life contexts, and texted communicative genres presented for “reading”, may be extended to consideration of online “chat”. 

It explores seven text-based chatrooms during the period of April 1998 and October 2001, using theories evolved in analysis of conventional face-to-face conversation to develop methods of analysis of text-based chatrooms.

1.8 Personal interest in researching online conversation

This thesis is the third phase of my academic research into new discourse genres. The first was my BA Honours Degree (Deakin University, 1995) with the thesis entitled, “Graffiti as Text: How youth communicate with one another through street art”  and the second phase, moving into new electronic communicative genres was my Masters thesis (Deakin, 1997), entitled, ”How the Internet changes literature”. Since 1965 I have been exploring genres of writing as an artist, combining writing and art forms as an expression of poetic communication.

My interest in electronic communication is first and foremost an interest in communication. How do people exchange, relate and create meaning?  Having done the 1960s in the United States of America I came in contact with others who were interested in a global mindset.  I lived in Greenwich Village in New York City in the mid-1960s.  Listening to Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Joan Biaz, Alan Ginsberg (I read my own poetry with Ginsberg at St. Marks Place Church on East 9th Street) I became part of the wave of protesters at the end of the 1960s[20]. Being young and idealistic I followed the trek of those who were seeking change to San Francisco in 1967 to engage in the summer of love and to seek ways of communicating with people from other cultures and backgrounds. In 1969 I found myself in Hawaii and before long had joined a new age cult, the Holy Order of Mans.  This Order was an extension of my beliefs and searching for a better way to communicate as an integration of a world mind (an ‘Over-Soul’) which connected the parts to make a whole.

It is my belief that out of this mixture of 1960s idealism, 1970s new-age spiritual explorations, 1980s multinational marketing and globalization and the growth of the Internet of the 1990s, a need to communicate with every one has emerged.  The paradigm has become ‘we are the world’.  With the growth of the personal computer, the Internet and then chatrooms, my once idealistic pursuit of communication with different mindsets and various cultures became a reality. (See Giddens, 1991; Turkle, 1995). After a study of 35-years of astrology, metaphysics, literature, art and philosophy I felt as if I had found what I had always been looking for; a way of turn taking in conversation where there was not an immediate dominance of culture, gender, philosophy, nationality or age.  This thesis examines whether or not such a possibility has indeed arrived, delivered by what we so frequently dismiss as “Internet chat”. 



[1] (See for instance studies in online behaviours: Turkle, Rheingold, Reid, Poster and Landow and in discourse practices see Kristeva and in the field of socio-linguistic, Halliday)

[2] There are many texts on how language evolved.  (See ‘The rise and fall of languages’, by Dixon, 1977).  He traces the theoretical issues of languages from a comparative and historical linguistics view.  For example, Dixon traces language prototypes over the 100,000 years humans are believed to have used language to communicate. What is interesting from the perspective of this study is how languages currently spoken and understood are changing with the globalisation of communication. The more people ‘chat’ on the Internet from different cultures, the more homogenised language may become.  I will look at this issue in several case studies where I will compare chatrooms from different languages to discover whether the same abbreviations and emoticons are used or whether different languages use their own abbreviations (See CS5.2.3).  For example, I will investigate whether abbreviations such as, BW, ‘by-the-way’ which is one of the more commonly used abbreviations in Internet chat, as well as in SMS messages on mobile and palm-computers, is the same in other languages. 

[5] See  http://www.halfmoon.org/writing.html  viewed 21/11/2001

[6] ‘Rise Of The Human Race, The Civilizations Of The Ancient Near East’

http://www.emayzine.com/lectures/sumeria.htm viewed 21/11/2001

[7] Everything that we do as a consumer leaves an electronic footprint whether it is shopping or using electronic equipment. Whatever we do on a computer (and/or network, internet, e-mail, instant messages) leaves an electronic footprint.

[8] For a history of The Internet from its source see


[9] Newsgroups and list serves enable a group of network users interested in a common topic to exchange message. Central server handles the forwarding of mail to all subscribers to the list or conference. Participants need to know only mailing list address, not the addresses of all participants. This model has been extended to create electronic journals.

[12] ArabChat can be accessed at http://chat.arabchat.org/english/ as of 9-2001.

[13] Original IRC history memo is at http://www.mirc.co.uk/help/jarkko.txt Viewed August 10, 2000.

[14] For a history line of IRC see http://www.efnet.net/?page=history  viewed September 23, 2000.

[17] See http://www.growingupdigital.com/ See also Internet Demographics and eCommerce Statistics http://www.commerce.net/research/stats/stats.html for Internet traffic usage statistics.

[18] Research Methodology Online, Issue six: has valuable information on doing online research http://www.cybersociology.com/

[19] The free webpage provider, Geocities, provides individual chatrooms for its members to put on their homepage

[20] We marched on Washington DC to stop the Viet Nam War, to stop segregation, to give women more rights. I marched for so many things I forgot what we were marching for at times.

contact Myanmar 2014

NEW SITE = JULY 2014 - http://neuage.us/2014/July/ - Today working on picture poem links starting around "better" (17 September 2014). Picture poems are the digital format of work I did as a street artist in New Orleans in the 1970s, as well as New York City, Honolulu, San Francisco and Adelaide South Australia. .

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contact Myanmar 2014

NEW SITE = JULY 2014 - http://neuage.us/2014/July/ - Today working on picture poem links starting around "better" (17 September 2014). Picture poems are the digital format of work I did as a street artist in New Orleans in the 1970s, as well as New York City, Honolulu, San Francisco and Adelaide South Australia. .

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NEW SITE = JULY 2014 - http://neuage.us/2014/July/ - Today working on picture poem links starting around "better" (August 28, 2014). Picture poems are the digital format of work I did as a street artist in New Orleans in the 1970s, as well as New York City, Honolulu, San Francisco and Adelaide South Australia.

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