Conversational analysis of chatroom talk


Terrell Neuage


BA (Journalism), Bachelor of Arts with Honours (Children’s Literature), MA (English Literature)


A thesis submitted in fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of


University of South Australia


Chairperson of Supervisory Committee:

Professor Claire Woods

School of Communication, Information and New Media

Date Saturday, Tuesday, August 03, 2004


Conversational analysis of chatroom talk. i


Glossary. 7

Abstract 10

Declaration. 14

Acknowledgements. 15


1.1 Evolution of language from early utterances to chatroom utterances. 16

1.2 Internet-based communication systems. 23

1.2.1 E-mail, discussion forums. 27

1.2.2 Electronic chat 30 IRC.. 30 MUDs. 33 MUDs vs. IRC.. 36

1.3 New paradigm shifts. 38

1.3.1 Print to computerization. 38

1.3.2 Notion of “discourse”. 43

1.4 Purpose of examining on-line conversation. 43

1.5 On-line usage. 45

1.5.1 Problems of researching on-line. 47

1.6 Are Chatrooms Public or Private?. 49

1.7 Is cyberspace real?. 51

1.8 Personal interest in researching on-line conversation. 53


2.0 Abstract 55

2.1 Introduction. 56

2.2 Technology of conversation. 60

2.2.1 The World Wide Web. 60 On-line communities. 61 Gender issues. 64 Discussion Groups. 65

2.2.2 The literature of CMC.. 67 CMC and on-line talk-texting. 68 Analysing electronic textual data. 71 On-line writings on CMC.. 72 Universal language. 73 E-mail 74 Role playing chat sites. 75

2.3 Analysing on-line conversation. 79

2.3.1 The Reader 79 The Reader as interpreter 80 The assumed or implied reader 81 The background of the reader (“mosaic of multiple texts”) 84 The role of the reader 85

2.3.2 Rules of chat 87

2.3.3 Symbolic activity in chatrooms. 88

2.3.4 The language/action approach. 88

2.3.5 Conversational Analysis. 91

2.4   Conclusion. 96


3.1 Introduction. 97

3.1.1 Qualitative research. 98

3.1.2 Research techniques. 101

3.1.3 Ethnographic approach. 103

3.1.4 Conversation Analysis. 112

3.2. Key Assumptions. 115

3.3 Theoretical Framework. 118

3.3.1 Assumptions. 119

3.4 Protocol of a transcription methodology. 125

3.5 Data collection. 133

3.6 Ethical issues. 139


Case Study One. 143

CS 1.0 Introduction. 143

CS 1.0.1 Reason for choosing this chatroom.. 143

CS 1.0.2 Background to Hurricane Floyd. 145

CS 1.0.3 Research Questions. 146

CS 1.1 Methodology. 148

CS 1.2 Reader-Response theory. 156

CS 1.2.1 Language features. 162

CS Skills of shared language. 162

CS Linguistic skills. 164

CS Knowledge and skills of discourse structure and organization. 168

CS Metalinguistic knowledge and skills. 168

CS Phenomenological approach to reading. 172

CS 1.3 Discussion. 175

CS 1.3.1 Two readings of a chatroom.. 176

CS Chat title. 176

CS Three different Hurricane Floyd discussion strands. 184

CS 1.4 Answers. 187

Case Study Two. 190

CS 2.0 Introduction. 190

CS 2.0.1 Choosing an IM chatroom.. 191

CS 2.0.2 Questions. 192

CS 2.1 Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) 192

CS 2.2 Discussion. 197

CS 2.2.1 Is electronic talk comparable to verbal talk?. 200

CS 2.2.2 Instant Messenger 204

CS 2.3 IM Chat Data. 211

CS 2.4 Findings. 219

Case Study Three. 223

CS 3.1 Introduction. 223

CS 3.1.1 Questions. 224

CS 3.1.2 Britney Spears. 227

CS 3.2 Methodology. 227

CS 3.2.2 Transcription. 229

CS 3.3 Discussion. 232

CS 3.3.1 Semiotics. 235

CS Emoticons. 237

CS 3D virtual chats and ikons. 243

CS 3.3.2 Pragmatics. 246

Case Study Four. 255

CS 4.0 Introduction. 255

CS 4.0.1 Questions. 257

CS 4.0.2 Why I chose this chatroom.. 257

CS 4.1 Methodology. 260

CS 4.1.1 Transcription. 260

CS 4.1.2 Speech Act Theory. 261

CS 4.2 Discussion. 261

CS 4.2.1 Speech situations as speech events. 263

CS Locutionary. 264

CS Illocutionary. 264

CS Perlocutionary. 265

CS Performatives. 266

CS 4.2.2 Searle. 272

CS Commissives. 272

CS Expressives. 273

CS Declarations. 274

CS Directives. 275

CS Representatives. 275

CS 4.2.3 Speech Act Disruptions (SADs) 279

CS 4.3 Conclusion. 280

Case Study Five. 283

CS 5.0 Introduction. 283

CS 5.0.1 Question. 284

CS 5.1 Methods. 284

CS 5.1.1 Transcriptions. 284

CS 5.1.2 Discourse Analysis. 286

CS 5.2 Findings. 291

CS 5.2.1 Discourse and Frames. 291

CS5.2.1.1 scud4>. 294

CS 5.2.2 Language system.. 298

CS Anti-language. 300

CS <B_witched_2002-guest> 0HI 303

CS <jenniferv> ** rofl 305

CS Example 12 see ya. 307

CS 5.3 Conclusion. 308

Case Study Six. 312

CS 6.0 Introduction. 312

CS 6.0.1 Sacks. 313

CS 6.0.2 Case Study chatroom.. 314

CS 6.0.3 Questions. 315

CS 6.1 Methodology. 321

CS 6.2 Discussion. 324

CS 6.2.1 Adjacency Pairs and Turn-taking. 326

CS 6.2.2 Moderated/Unmoderated. 332

CS 6.2.3 Bound by orderliness. 334

CS 6.2.4 Flaming. 334

CS 6.3 Conclusion. 337

Case Study Seven. 341

CS 7.0 Introduction. 341

CS 7.0.1 Why this chatroom?. 343

CS 7.0.2 Questions. 344

CS 7.0.3 Transcriptions. 344

CS 7.1 Theories. 345

CS 7.1.1 Prague School 349

CS 7.1.2 Functional Sentence Perspective. 356

CS Rheme and Theme. 357

CS Meaning-Text Theory (MTT) 358

CS The loss of formal or traditional text Grammar 360

CS Systemic-Functional Linguistics – the functions of on-line chat 362

CS Stratification grammar 363

CS Context 363

CS Field. 363

CS Tenor 364

CS Mode. 366

CS 7.2 Findings. 368

CS 7.2.1 Altered language. 368


5.1 Findings of Case Studies 1 - 7. 372

5.1.1 Case Study 1. 374

5.1.2 Case Study 2. 381

5.1.3 Case Study 3. 392

5.1.4 Case Study 4. 402

5.1.5 Case Study 5. 408

5.1.6 Case Study 6. 410

5.1.7 Case Study 7. 416

5.2 Unique features of chatrooms. 418

5.3 Research Questions and answers. 434

5.4 Assumptions at the beginning. 442

5.5 Summary. 451

5.6 Future Research. 453

Bibliography. 457

Appendices ON CD.. 483


(*TN) following a term is a new glossary word devised by the researcher (Terrell Neuage) for this thesis.

Applet Window A program designed to be executed from within another application in which a small window opens within the larger window.

Casual Chatroom Chat (CCC) (*TN) A conversation in a chatroom which is not serious or intended to discover details on a subject. Most casual chatroom chat, similar to non-formal pub casual chat, consists of conversation typical of, “hi” “hows everyone”.

Chat Events (CE) (*TN) These are all the individual turn-taking texts of a particular participator in a chat room, including entering, leaving and lurking.

Chatroom graffiti (*TN) The messages conveyed through the work of graffiti artists are often highly political and deliberately aggressive. Some people will go from chatroom to chatroom leaving messages but not particpating in actual chatroom conversation: I refer to this as chatroom graffiti.

Chat Utterance Sentence Structures (CUSS) (*TN) These are the sentences of a chat turn-taking. Unlike sentences which use nouns and verbs to establish a complete thought, chat sentences are typically made up of two to five words or emoticons. I have averaged the amount of words in twelve chatrooms, consisting of 1357 lines (turn-takings) and found the average word count, including abbreviations and emoticons to be 3.7.

Chatter's-Event-Response-Gaps (CERG) (*TN) This is the pause between chatters who are “speaking” with one another. There are often other voices which fill these gaps.

Conversational “lag” (*TN) Conversational lag is a pause where the next speaker has been selected but it may be filled with responses from others in the chatroom responding to other turn-takings. The “lag” may be caused by many other factors, as I have alluded to above.

Cut utterances (*TN) Due to hitting the entrance key an utterance is cut between turn-takings in a chatroom. In some cases several turns of other chatters could occupy this space.

Event Pause (EP) (*TN) This refers to the break between utterances of a user in a chatroom. The most usual incidence of this is when the server places an advertisement in the chatroom and it appears between utterances. It also occurs when no one writes for a specific period of time.

Lag is the distance between speech events of a speaker in a chat situation, a pause between utterances.

Metaphysical-chat-linguistics (MCL) (*TN) is anticipating what will be said before the completion of the utterance, either due to the writer-speaker hitting the “enter” key on the keyboard or the chat server not allowing more than a couple of lines at a time to be shown on the screen, thus breaking the conversation before it is completed.

Multilogue are the many conversations happening at one time within a chatroom as well as the overall conversation of all who are present.

Multiple Selves Chat (MSC) (*TN) Is a feature of chatrooms. The author is able to have several different representatives of his or her self in conversation at one time. As only one person can log on a chatroom at a time the person wanting to have multiple representation in a chatroom would need to have several windows open of the one chatroom but be logged on as a different username in each window.

On-line Discourse Analysis Method (ODAM) (*TN) The method I am developing to study the language of on-line communication using abbreviations, misspelled words and emoticons.

On-line native speaker (ONS) (*TN). Speech behaviours are established first off-line, and are then modified for on-line use – most notably by the current technology which at least demands that texted formats intervene in the “chat” processing.

Person2Person-off-line (P2P-off) (*TN)

Person2Person-on-line (P2P-on) (*TN)

Readerly and Writerly Texts These are translated from Barthes' neologisms lisible and scriptable, the terms readerly and writerly text mark the distinction between traditional literary works such as the classical novel, and those twentieth century works, like the new novel, which violate the conventions of realism and thus force the reader to produce a meaning or meanings which are inevitably other than final or “authorized.” (Keep, McLaughlin, Parmar, 2000).

Speech Act Disruptions (SAD) (*TN) Sponsorship ads appearing in chatrooms are a performative speech act disruption.

Speech Act Community On-line (SACO) (*TN) is where people come together to exchange information. What is exchanged is dependent on the chatroom topics. The ability to share meaning and continuous conversations within the SACO is what makes it a community.

Speech situations (chatroom situations) are composed of “speech events” (chatroom events) (Hymes, 1974) and these activities have rules governing the use of speech getting, for example, getting to-know-you conversations (Gudykunst and Kim 1997 p. 328).

Tangent Topic Thread (TTN) (*TN) This occurs when the original chat topic is taken over by others in different strands of unrelated chat.

Text-Based-Chatrooms (TBC). (*TN) Text-Based-Chatrooms are a blip in the history of human writing and only represent a short time period of computer-mediated communication (CMC). As more and more chatrooms add multimedia attributes, writing may become a minor or even a non-existent form of on-line communication. With voice-boards and voice-forums such as available from Wimba ( and chatrooms being 3D with virtual worlds which use voice and keyboard commands to move around the screen and with the growing use of avatars, TBCs may fade into a past genre of electronic writing peculiar to the period from approximately 1993-2003.

Thread is a line of conversation.

Thread-framing   Thread-framing is a phenomenon in chatrooms, where a topic beginning and ending are marked. In a chatroom these framed pieces of conversation are not necessarily sequential. They twist around, stop and start, and several may occur at one time in a seemingly chaotic fashion. Framing gives a starting and finishing point to a thread.

Virtual-Mindfield (*TN) Creations of one’s world-view on-line.


This study of online communication situated in chatrooms has revealed the importance of investigating this medium, at this time. The chatrooms of the late 1990s were at the beginning of a shift in texted electronic communication to a system where meaning exchange is often fused between the text-messages of the sender and the receiver – or, given the text basis of the electronic exchange, the writer and the reader. The resultant complexity of this new electronic means of communication has the potential to change or at the least to interrupt the otherwise casual “flow of conversation” used in Internet chat, to a point that a new language and a new set of behaviours have emerged. In order for there to be a means of interpretation of these parts conversational, part text exchanges between participants, close and detailed observations are required. But in order to extend analysis beyond mere observation, the full repertoire of analytical theories and methodologies for examining “talk”, and text construction and exchange, must be pulled into the ambit of the investigation of online chat. Internet relay Chat in all its variability has one standard feature: it is a hybrid or “fusion” form of communication. It requires hybridity and fusion in its analysis. 

In this study I started in a purely empirical mode, “capturing” seven primary chatroom dialogues. I chose several of these sites randomly, based on the ease of their access. As the study progressed, I chose several other chatrooms because of my slowly focusing interest in the varying “talk relations” I was encountering, and my suspicion that chat users were themselves make chatroom selections by anticipating the online social relations offered in various sites, according to the subject matter of the chatroom as signalled in its name. While this sometimes was or sometimes was not a safe prediction, it extended the range of sites, techniques and behaviours I was able to collect and analyse, and required only occasional supplementation with sampling from sites outside the core selection.  For the most part, this study concentrates on seven case studies, each case study being based on a saved piece of representative dialogue from one very distinctive chatroom. Together, these case studies demonstrate features peculiar to on-line chat which make it very different from the face-to-face chat of everyday conversation – but also from any forms of text-based communication. In the broadest sense chatroom “texted talk” combines face-to-face chat with text-based communication.

There are however a number of central and distinctive features that disrupt what might otherwise traditionally be considered a simple conversational communication model. There is far more in Internet Relay Chat than can be explained in a “sender-message-receiver” relation. Most obviously such features include for instance the use of avatars to replace or to represent the physically absent “speaker”; text-graphic “emoticons” as interfaces to replace words or aural elements representing emotions; the fleeting motion of scrolling text; silence or “lurking” by participants as itself  a form of message: the complex “braiding” and overlap of various conversational “threads” and the need to compensate and interpret discontinuity of posted messages; as well as new forms of word structure, such as standardised abbreviations and idiosyncratic mis-spellings. Each of these – and the many more complexities each of them conceals – signals major shifts in the communicative activities of online “chat” communities.

To test ways in which these new communicative forms might be examined and understood, in this study, I capture and sample a moment in time of on-line exchange behaviours, and look at them through the lens of a wide range of linguistic and discourse theories. Using these theories demonstrates how, despite the differences in “chat” conducted on-line from that carried out face-to-face, on-line chat and “natural conversation” share some features. Analytical theories developed for inquiry into both conventional speech and print-based text reception, can be used for examining on-line chat, and are able to produce findings which help explain these new communicative acts. The seven case studies and the theories and associated methodologies used to assess are as follows:

Disaster Chat (Hurricane Floyd). Beginning with Reading Response Theory as a text-based analytical tool, this Case Study of a natural-disaster-based chat site shows that in on-line chat, both the person writing and the one (or many) reading are co-language-meaning creators.

Instant Messenger. Using the one-on-one talk relation of the Instant Messenger system, this Case Study focuses on the technologisation of online talk, and its foundation in the ideas behind Computer Mediated Communication. I approached this case study with two questions related to Computer-mediated communication: “Do computers change conversation?” and “Are Instant Messenger chatrooms closer to off-line-person-to-person conversation than the multi-dialogue found in a multivoiced chatroom? ”   The findings suggest that computers do indeed change conversation, and that Instant Messenger chat is closest to person-to-person communication – but that even here, the “texted” nature of the talk has produced differences.

Celebrity Chatrooms (Britney Spears). In this Case Study the high levels of text-graphic fusion elements and abbreviations invited a Semiotic analysis; unexamined on-line communication’s potential to evolve cross-communicative formats. This study reveals analysis within the same repertoire of images, words and mixed-mode forms, such as specific “chat community” conventions of abbreviation.

Astrology Chatrooms. Here, Speech Act Theory is used to examine the practical and goal-related uses of online language, and so extends the study into how chat participants on-line direct their communicative activities towards social actions – and whether these vary in the on-line world from those used off-line.

General Chat. To assess how the more open chat communities entering general-topic chatrooms on a less regular basis, make sense of the chat behaviours present, it is important to understand exactly what it is that arriving chat participants “read” from the online texted-talk on screen.  Discourse Analysis examines the message structures organizing an on-line community into consensual, resistant or negotiative communicative moments.  In the case of General Chat it is able to assess how the communicative elements appearing on the screen provide participants with the general or generic “cues” to enter and participate in a conversation.

Computer Chat (on the topic of expert software WEB3D). This case study asks does an expert community chat-site operate in the same conversational environment as general chat participants, or as in sites offering focused talk relations among strangers. Conversational Analysis, used to examine the structuring rules of natural or real-world conversation, has uncovered regulatory behaviours in talk, such as ways to perform sequential organization of talk, allocate turn-taking and negotiate repair to conversational break-down. CA is able to depict interactional competence in conversation. This Case Study examines how useful it might be in reading the rules of chatroom talk.

Baseball Chat. Here an informal “expert” group, with regular and casual users intermixed, is examined, to test whether the specialist forms used to demark a specific chat “community” are annexed in from outside “natural” baseball chat, or evolve new online “baseball chat” forms of their own. This study applies techniques for describing grammatical systems drawn from a number of  Linguistic Schools, to examine how many of the common grammatical conventions – such as word order, sentence structure, question formation, do not hold up in on-line chat. Further: baseball-chatters on-line do not use the same specialist formations as their off-line brethren – raising interesting questions as to the special pressures of online chat, even in very specific talk communities with strong offline conventions in their speech.

Other chat samples saved and referred to in this thesis to enhance and support points include: 911 Chat, Afghanistan Chat, Bondage Chat, CNN News Chat on 911 and Christian Chat.

Electronic communication has opened a new realm for communication – both as necessary information exchange, and as social play and psychological development of self/selves. With continually evolving innovations enabling new communicative activities, we must anticipate new and unpredictable – even as yet indescribable – communicative behaviours and understandings. By applying more detailed forms of textual analysis to the actual examples of computer mediated communication (CMC) my project sets out to detect new modalities as they evolve.

Chat on-line is “global” only to the extent of accessing many varying “local” structuring references. A “global” or universal “chat speak” is not evident in on-line talk selections – for all the emergence of expressive repertoires in netiquette, emoticons or IRC/SMS abbreviation. In this study, I suggest that what is evolving here is not – or not yet – separated from speech in the physical world, to the extent of disconnection from dominant discursive framings: that on-line texted-talk “chunks” its interactions in familiar ways. I am also suggesting however that at the level of “chat” or interpersonal interactivity, new behaviours abound.


I declare that this thesis does not incorporate without acknowledgement any material previously submitted for a degree or diploma in any university; and that to the best of my knowledge it does not contain any materials previously published or written by another person except where due reference is made in the text.

All transcription from the Internet was undertaken by the author/candidate.

All chat logs are on the accompanying CD. They are listed under the name of the case studies they are used in, for example, the log for case study 1 is called 1a on the CD.


Terrell Neuage                                                                               Tuesday, 3 August 2004


My appreciation and thanks for the accomplishment of this study are directed to Dr Jackie Cook for her years of patience and guidance of this thesis. Without her this would not have been possible. I am much in debt to Dr Cook, of the department of Communication, Information and New Media at the University of South Australia, who read many re-written manuscripts with an eagle eye, often at the other end of an Internet connection, answering what seemed to be unanswerable questions and supplying desperately needed assistance and suggestions. 

I also thank Associate professor Maureen Nimon for keeping me on track and giving valuable advice and Professor Claire Woods, School of Communication, Information and New Media for guidance and reading of this work.

And I thank my wife, Narda Biemond, for putting up with my doing this thesis year after year and for her suggestions and support.

I dedicate this thesis to my sons, Sacha and Leigh Neuage, who began the process of online communication with me in the mid-1990s. Sacha’s creative and free spirit has led him to achieve wonderful things in the world of art and music. As a critical thinker, he has challenged me often to dig deeper, and to further explore my own position on many issues.  Leigh was a baseball player for Australia and for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Leigh died on 16th August 2003 at the age of 20, at the same time I was completing this. Many people whose lives he impacted remember Leigh’s generosity and kindness to others in an electronic guest book.  I was a single parent with two boys, aged 14 and 17, when I started this thesis in 1998. We all questioned whether there would ever be a completion date for this and now I have come this far. My two sons, Sacha and Leigh, have been my primary motivation for the past 20 years to succeed.

Thanks guys.




The Nature of Conversation in Text-based Chatrooms.

My purpose is to describe in detail the conversational interaction between participants in various forms of on-line 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 off-line 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). On-line chatrooms as an instance of electronic text-based communication also use many of these small behavioural elements, evolving at the same time 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 on-line exchange and exchange relational modulation devices however remains unmapped, and unless every word written on-line 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 on-line 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)[3].  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[4] 5500 years ago, to the first evidence of writing during the Protoliterate period[5] (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[6] had reduced the number of signs from nearly two thousand to six hundred[7]. Currently the English language uses 26 letters.  Curiously, in the electronic era, with the use of emoticons in on-line communication, there are once again hundreds of signs with which to communicate.

Sumerian Logographs -- circa 4000 BC Copyrighted Walker Reading Technologies, Inc. 2001

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

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America  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 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 that 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 analysing 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 impact, 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 market 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 on-line 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 come to terms with their identity 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[8] to identify an individual than there was with pre-on-line culture. The on-line 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, despite offering contact with a multiple audience, was still considered an individual act. The communicator presented text and it was interpreted by the witness of the text, a form of deferred and displaced conversation. With on-line communication the text has moved further away from the identity of its originator, yet is still directly associated with a user – recognition of the “gap” opened between author and text signalled however by acknowledgement of the author as a self-created identity, to which the text remains linked despite its electronic capacities to wander and to change. The difficulty is that the communicator is now seen as 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 on-line presence is addressed throughout the case studies in this thesis.

Despite this problem of “absence”, familiar from centuries of texted communicative practices, on-line 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 systems 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, 1950)

The third revolution took place in the immediate past 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, who is known to be dispersed in time and place, and so is 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 on-line 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:

How then have we come to understand this new eruption 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, on-line 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” (1977; 1992).  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 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 (Thompson, 1995, p. 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, “work” or do 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[9] and the source of this thesis. This study examines in detail examples of the communicated message within the on-line environment, and seeks in particular to find how meaning is shared within text-based chatrooms. I am interested in the current on-line 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 on-line 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 on-line 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 analysing of the “naturalising” processes which have been establishing text on-line 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 on-line 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 even in casual conversation (see ten Have, 1998, 1999, 2002; Schegloff, 1977, 1991; Eggins and Slade, 1997; Tannen, 1984). Within even “spontaneous” person-to-person talk there are clear conventions and rules, such as Sacks’s 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 on-line 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. 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[10] such as Google groups which have absorbed many older on-line groups are now on-line. Google offers a complete 20-year Usenet Archive with over 700 million messages dating back to 1981.  I will however only refer in passing to these other on-line forms of discourse in this thesis. For instance, in Case Study One I will give examples of message boards in comparison to the chatroom “talk” on the topics covered in those case studies. In that study I compare emergency messages left during a hurricane with the discourse in a chatroom about the same hurricane. 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 on-line 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 communication 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 using it 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).

Percentage 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 on-line 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 (

The China Internet Information Centre ( 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 user 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 Centre.  

“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 on-line to collect information, “find love” in chatrooms and play games.

Statistics from China Internet Network Information Centre 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 on-line games and 54.5 percent use on-line 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[11]).

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). IRC

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is the most used on-line chat software and has many individual server companies. The figure below shows IRC net 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 on-line chatrooms the social and cultural importance of the transferring of meaning via texted chat will increase – and so will the variations to standard communicative techniques.




Galaxy Net


MS Chat



Max. 2000








3rd Q. 1998








IRC-Statistics / Kajetan Hinner ( through the year 2000. (The statistics above are from the individual IRC servers as of November 2002)

Efnet ( is the oldest IRC network. DALnet ( 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 ( is one of the largest real-time chat networks in the world, with approximately 45 servers connecting over 35 countries and serving more than 1,000,000 people weekly and GalaxyNet ( has about 25,000 users. Internet Relay Chat has formed a connectivity base in a single 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, often of mixed social backgrounds, is maintained. Internet Relay Chat gained international fame during the First Gulf War in 1991[12], 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 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[13].

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 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 have in turned introduced 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, p. 15). Fantasy invitation is prominent on IRC where “the other” can be as real as the “self”. (Hamman, 1998; Calvert, 2002; Saarinen, 1995). The fantasy aspects of on-line chatting are discussed throughout this thesis, as the new rituals of on-line communicative exchange are examined.

Generically the channels which facilitate the more conversational forms of on-line 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 and 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[14]. His original goal was to create a communications programme which would allow users of OuluBox[15], a public access bulletin board service (BBS) administered by the department, to have real time discussions on-line. Previously, synchronous on-line 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 Multi-user 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 specific discussions by connecting to the channel where the discussion is taking place, just as a user of a citizen’s band (CB) radio tunes into a specific channel. 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 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 on-line – 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 on-line “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 on-line, 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 (on-line characters) 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” (


“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.”  

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 on-line 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-PhD), 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”. MUDs vs. IRC

MUDs and MOOs as with IRC and World Wide Web chatrooms can be totally text-based. Multimedia (programs introducing graphics, audio and video) are 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 on-line 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 On-line'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 to 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. On-line 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. On-line 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. On-line, 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, etc.

Due to most-often coded or abbreviated usernames (usernames are discussed throughout this study, see for example: Case Study One, Three and Seven) 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 on-line 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, p. 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 into 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 on-line. 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 on-line 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 that 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 on-line, by both tacit and active means, how have such behaviours become established, constructed around which models and criteria, and signalled in which acceptable or unacceptable practices – given the limitation of behaviour to texted language? 

1.4 Purpose of examining on-line 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 On-line Scholarship -  On-line communication has become common practice. On-line statistics change rapidly and there are several companies that track moment-by-moment usage of Internet usage and participants in chatrooms. (See: Cyber Atlas,; Internet Statistics,; Nielsen net ratings,; Internet Society 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[16]. Netiquette has different rules for different on-line formats. The most generally accepted Netiquette behaviours are based on having respect for others in the on-line community. For example, using ALL CAPITAL LETTERS is considered shouting and is hard on the eyes; “Flaming” or attacking others in the on-line 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 on-line 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. (1998, p. 135).

Since “rules” are already widely established in on-line 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 On-line usage

More and more people are communicating through electronic on-line services.  It is difficult to estimate the number of users on-line at any one moment. A large number of surveys of on-line usage are available. According to Nua Internet[17] an estimated 513.41 million users were on line as of August, 2001. Netsizer ( has a counter in real-time on their site showing both how many hosts and how many users are going on-line 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 on-line 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 on-line group (Nov 01, 2001), according to research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project[18]. Pew Internet also reports that of the 59 million Americans who go on-line 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 10/08/2004 there were more than 115 million registered users of the chat server ICQ around the world, according to Other research results in January 2002 gave these figures: between 6% (Chilton Research) and 35% (American Psychological Convention) of on-line users participate in chats, roughly 4% of all on-line time is spent in chatting (Price Waterhouse) and 88% of teenagers dubbed on-line chat “cool” in a recent survey by the author of “Growing Up Digital”[19]. For a timeline of the Internet see Hobbes's Internet Timeline at 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 on-line texted-talk behaviours be examined, and in detail. Random or minority patterns of on-line 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 on-line 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 on-line 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, on-line research presents its own difficulties: practically, technically, methodologically and ethically[20].


1.5.1 Problems of researching on-line

Research on-line 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 on-line: 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” on-line talk; the capacity for and so invitation to identity concealment, together constitute advantages for the self-protecting on-line 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 on-line communication must be moderated – if not abandoned. While the personalisation and informality of on-line 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 on-line 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 on-line “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 analysing 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 on-line 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 third problematisation of on-line 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 on-line character is only part of one's on-line 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 on-line identity formation, common in first-generation Internet study (eg Turkle, 1995, 1996; Rheingold, 1991; Castells, 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 on-line 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 on-line 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 on-line could be quickly and accurately assessed by the original data providers. But in the event, as I indicate in my fourth aspect of on-line research shortcomings, there is an inability to do follow-up work with participants in chatrooms. Unless a research subject is identified – accurately – on-line, 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 on-line 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 on-line 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 on-line 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 (see articles in the journal of on-line studies, Cybersociology)[21]. 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[22] 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 on-line 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”. On-line, 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 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, on-line 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 on-line chat, in the absence of other cues – and even to “chat” with those AI (artificial intelligence) entities emerging to service our information and entertainment needs (for instance, the on-line news avatar called Ananova at

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 on-line.

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.

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

This thesis sets out only to examine actual communicative practice. It defers considerations of whether on-line chat is “true” communication, seeking rather to merely clarify some of the subtle distinctions between real life and on-line virtual communication, describe how they work, present some new research findings regarding on-line 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 on-line “chat”.  (Hymes, 1974)

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 on-line 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[23]. 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 desire to communicate with ever-broader social groupings 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 (for similar expressions of an intensified expressivity, 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 the sort of social space 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”. 


2.0 Abstract

In examining the literature of conversational analysis and related techniques for describing language in use, it is my intention to discover what these techniques can tell us of how chatroom “talk” works. In what ways is chatroom “talk” similar to or different from natural conversation? Is it, even within its short history, one or many communicative forms? Are there common, “core” elements, present on all web-based chat sites? Are there specialist elements on specialist sites – and if so, is this limited to lexis, or does it extend to other elements of “texted-talk”? Firstly I will explore the research on electronic chatrooms that is available, seeking existing insights into how texted-talk works, and whether these can be extended by a fuller deployment of any of the language-in-use theories I have examined. Secondly I will draw on the current theories of conversational analysis to see whether it is possible, and useful, to establish a theoretical framework and methodological focus for examining how dialogue in electronic talk operates as a system of social meaning making within cyberculture.

I will critique books and articles by researchers in linguistics and social anthropology which pertain to the special features of chatroom discourse, including, in the field of Reading-Response theory: Wolfgang Iser (1974, 1978, 1989, 2000), Stanley Fish (1980, 1990), Umberto Eco (1979, 1986, 1995), Mikhail Bakhtin (1981, 1994) and Julia Kristeva (1980); Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC): Charles Ess (1996, 2000), Mark Poster (1988, 1990, 1995) and Michael Stubbs (1996, 1998): Semiotics: Roland Barthes (1970, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1981), Ferdinand de Saussure (1916), M. A. K. Halliday (1978, 1994), Robert Nofsinger (1991) and Chandler (1998, 1999, 2001); Speech Act Theory: John Austin (1962), John Rogers Searle (1965, 1969) and Deborah Schiffrin (1987); Discourse Analysis: Deborah Tannen (1989, 1998); Norman Fairclough (1982, 1989, 1995) and Conversational Analysis (CA): Paul ten Have (1999), Suzanne Eggins & Diana Slade (1997), Donald Allen and Rebecca Guy (1974), Erving Goffman (1959, 1971, 1974, 1981), George Herbert Mead (1934) and Sacks, Jefferson and Schegloff (1973). Theorists are not strictly always in one “camp”.  For example, I discuss Eco both in Case Study One, where I use Reading-Response theory to analyse the chatroom dialogue, and in Case Study Three, where I use Semiotics to look at my data. Here I aim to construct  a general theory of how the interactivity of chatroom talk-texting relates it to both the “readerly” or the “lisible” elements of dialogism, emergent in mid-twentieth-century reading theory; and an account of how far the socio-linguistic theories of post-Saussurian language studies (including especially “speech act” theory, Halliday’s “Systemic and Functional Linguistics”, and Harvey Sacks’s “Conversation Analysis”) can provide explanations of the communicative strategies observable in a chatroom’s (quasi) synchronous talk-texting.

In the more specific area of direct or primary research into chatroom discourse, I have located and systematised more than three hundred articles on-line on chatroom communication, seventy-one of them discussed in this literature review.  In particular, I wish to re-focus the direction of many of these studies, from the specifics of their research goal – most often to “explain” a particular chatroom “culture” – to the more generalised and methodological goals of this study. For example, though much has been written about forms of person-to-person communication in the areas of cybersex, cyber-communities, and gender on-line, (Cicognani, 1996, 1997, 1998; Rheingold, 1993, 1994, 1999, 2000; Turkle, 1982, 1984, 1995, 1996 and Bays, 2000), very few researchers have applied those conversational analysis theories which are used to examine real-life social interactions to chatroom conversation itself. While chatroom analysis is a rapidly growing area of academic research and more is available on-line daily, most studies are directed away from general studies of this type[24].

2.1 Introduction

This literature review is an overview of the literature both found in print and accessed on-line. The nature of my research and the nature of rapidly changing technology have meant that the majority of sources have been found on-line, and furthermore, that some of these sources are no longer available. I have included copies of all e-journal articles in my appendix for this reason.

To establish means for rigorous analysis, I “export” my investigation of chatroom talk into the established linguistic methodologies of work on off-line analytical linguistics. There is a growing body of print material on hypertext, the Internet and the World-Wide-Web but there has been little work done on analysis of interactive on-line texted-talk, which is as seemingly borderless as other on-line texted realms. My field literature borrows from previous research into MUDs (Multi User Dimensions) and Internet Relay Chat (IRC), which I have discussed in the introduction to this thesis (see MUDs vs. IRC).

Overall, work in this new area of study postulates two major features of the field:

1. That new ways of thinking about conversation will emerge with the growing widespread use of computers as a form of communication. (Ess, 1996; Stubbs, 1996).

2. That chatrooms involve exchange more hastily done than in any other form of electronic talk-texting, and so therefore more likely to respond to and reflect back the particular pressures and influences of on-line communication (Spender, 1995).

But how might such new forms of communication be captured, or new ways of thinking about communication itself be constructed? E-scholarship has provided one possible answer, in what is becoming known as the “re-mediation hypothesis” (Grusin, 2000). Working to find ways to describe the evolution of the graphic design and textual navigation pathways of websites as they resolve into convention, Bolter and Grusin draw on earlier hypotheses concerning the establishment of new literary genres. Watt (1957) famously demonstrated that the novel, a comparatively new form of literary production accompanying the rise of extended literacy and a largely unclassically educated leisure readership in the eighteenth century, was built over a base of related textual forms: the essay, the sermon, the drama, the political pamphlet, the scientific report, the romance.  Bolter (1991) and Grusin (2000) demonstrate how similar forces operate to produce website conventions, from magazine and press layout for the “self-directed” reader, to the “windows” formats of familiar software applications, to the screen conventions of television: “fenestration”, the “talking head”, image fades and dissolves.

If users of the new web-based chatrooms and related “docu-verse” sites are able to establish meaningful communication within these new realms, some degree of “re-mediated” familiarity must operate. Further, we can anticipate that this will arise only in part from the “production” work of technology designers and programmers. As with work from Watt to Bolter and Grusin, users extend and innovate within the frameworks provided, finding new ways to “use” the product in an active reception. Such a view is a truism of electronic textual theory, Landow for instance suggesting an unparalleled compliance between CMC designers and avant-garde literary theorists in the last four decades of the twentieth century.

But this is to suggest that to “license” the on-line chat user’s practices into a full developmental role in producing new communicative forms, we will need to examine the highly regulated field of literary theory. Landow indeed shows clear convergence between on-line practices – at least as directed by technical innovations – and high-cultural literary theories of text production (authorship) and reception (reading). But Landow was, and is, involved in constructing on-line hypertextual aids to the study of conventional high-culture texts. His work focused on intertextual and contextual studies into nineteenth century literature. While it may seem curious to deal first with text, in a study which aims to show the relative fluidity of on-line chat as a form of talk, it does seem necessary to consider the degree to which comparatively recent moves to acknowledge the active role of readers as opposed to writers of literary texts have established legitimacy for views of language itself as made meaningful as much in reception as in production. Given the distantiation of on-line text, as noted in the Introduction above, the “talk” relations of on-line chat rest more securely on text reception than those of their real-life equivalents. Active interpretation in reception is as central to chat practice as Landow has established it is for contemporary literary theorists.

There are many literary theories; so many that theorist Joseph Natoli has labeled the field a “theory carnival”, (Natoli, 1987, p. 5, 8, 13, 22). Literary theories overall have become more scientific and specialist, according to theorist Terry Eagleton, “… as North American society developed over the 1950s, growing more rigidly scientific and managerial in its modes of thought, a more ambitious form of critical technocracy seemed demanded.” (1983, p. 91). By the 1980s what emerged is what were called “the theory wars” – a period of theory debate which raged across all Western academic fields in the humanities and social sciences, but established only a loose consensus on a paradigm shift to poststructuralist or “postmodern” theories, without establishing a common set of epistemologies or investigative methodologies. Indeed, the position taken up within poststructuralist theory is in itself opposed to any possibility of stable or universal epistemology (see Foucault, 1994). Even within specific fields of study, such as linguistics, there is no agreement over study goals or tools.

One aspect of this period of conceptual turmoil centrally relevant to the current study has been the focus on what has been termed “the reader’s liberation movement” (Reid, 1996). Co-terminous with the rise of hypertextual logic and CMC technologies has been a move to replace interpretive focus on “authors” as agents of meaning, with consideration of the “active reader” (see Foucault, 1969 and Landow, 1987, 1992). Arising first through literary theory (Holland, 1975; Iser, 1978; Eco, 1979, 1986, 1995; Kristeva, 1980; Fish, 1990; see Case Study One in this study) and later extending to the concept of the “active audience” in media studies[25] (Ang, 1996; Nightingale, 1996; Tulloch, 2001) this theorises the act of “reception” as richly interpretive, and as firmly central to any communicative act as the “production” of that text in the act of writing or media construction.

This active interpretation has been extended to contemporary understanding of the role of the on-line “reader”.

In a hypertext environment a lack of linearity does not destroy narrative. In fact, since readers always, but particularly in this environment, fabricate their own structures, sequences or meanings, they have surprisingly little trouble reading a story or reading for a story.

As readers we find ourselves forced to fabricate a whole story out of separate parts… It forces us to recognize that the active author-reader fabricates text and meaning from “another's” text in the same way that each speaker constructs individual sentences and entire discourses from “another's” grammar, vocabulary, and syntax (Landow, 1997)[26].

This helps us to position a review of active reception of print based texts alongside subsequent examination of the interactivity of conversation, the two uniting as joint influences on e-texted chat, in unprecedented ways. But before either strand of review can be implemented, it is necessary to examine those studies of web-based communication which have already been undertaken, and to isolate the sorts of theorisation which have dominated web studies to date.

2.2 Technology of conversation

Initially, studies into web communication focused on the innovations introduced by the new technologies themselves (see Blommaert, 1991; Crystal, 2001; Featherstone, 1996). Case Study two introduces technology into consideration of the on-line texted communicative act. However, a survey by WorldLingo[27] in April 2001 showed that as much as “91% of Fortune 500 and Forbes international 800 companies cannot respond correctly to a foreign language e-mail,” showing that Computer-Mediated communication is very much in its infancy, and that even technologies which have been available for some time have not necessarily been assimilated into the everyday repertoire even of professional communications practice. It seems that take-up of CMC technologies has been selective, and that actual practice must be examined to establish the influences of these new technologies on communication. Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) has itself evolved to permit the analysis of any number of aspects of the use of computers in communication fields, such as education or language learning, as well as in its own distinctive interactive communicative acts such as e-mail, bulletin boards and chatrooms. Within CMC studies, methods such as Computational Linguistics[28] and Text and Corpus Analysis make archives of texts and use computer programs to read and analyse large pieces of data. To this extent CMC technologies can be shown to have impacted directly on communications use – and even on communications research. But while many claims have been made for the transformative qualities of CMC, there has been far less certainty, consensus, and even in many cases, methodological rigour in the collection or analysis of research data on CMC uses.

2.2.1 The World Wide Web

My initial search of literature spanned the period between July 1998 and November 2000, though I have added to this search somewhat during the remaining years of writing this thesis. The proportions of articles that I have accessed that are available on on-line interactions are in themselves interesting. Appendix 1 on the accompanying CD shows that fifty-six articles are directly about on-line interaction.

Of these 62 percent are research articles about relationships on-line and related issues. Thirty-one percent are about cyber community and MUDs. Three percent are about the development of the on-line self. Twenty-three percent are about MUDS and only 4 percent are looking at on-line discourse from a linguistic point of view. So by the year 2000 we had a marked lack of studies in this last area, with a heavy emphasis instead on discussion of interactivity and community establishment – for the most part without any methodological techniques for establishing or illustrating either of these qualities or practices, beyond the assertion that they exist. As the Internet has become more widely used, especially at the academic level, the number of available researched articles continues to grow. In the current studies on the World Wide Web, I have found research done on on-line-communities, gender issues, discussion groups and cyber sex. On-line communities

Many academics have explored the on-line communicational milieu, including Anna Cicognani[29], who built her Ph.D. around the design of text-based virtual worlds (1998) and Dr. Sherry Turkle[30] (1995) who looks at computer “talk” from a clinical psychologist's perspective. The field literature is growing, with several people a month e-mailing me to inform me that they are doing post-graduate study into computer-mediated communication. There are several unpublished theses and papers that explore on-line environments such as MUDs and MOOs as well as many discussion groups, but once again these discussion groups look at the topic mainly from a sociological or psychological perspective. Other writers who are working in an academic milieu are Bechar-Israeli (1998), Camballo (1998), Cicognani[31] (1996, 97, 98 - Cicognani develops an analysis of the architecture of MUDs, 1998), Cyberrdewd (1999)[32], Hamman (1996, 98, 99)[33], Turkle (1984, 1995, 1996), ten Have (1998, 1999)[34] and Collins & Murphy (1999)[35]. There is a growing body of on-line journals (e-zines) which contribute to cyberculture and I have reviewed these further down in this literature review (2.2.2).

Howard Rheingold (1985, 1991, 1994), according to his own homepage, is the acknowledged authority on virtual community. In his book, “The Virtual Community”, he tours the “virtual community” of on-line networking and questions whether a distinction between “virtual” communities and “real-life” communities is entirely valid. “The Virtual Community” argues that real relationships happen and real communities develop when people communicate upon virtual common ground. He describes a community that is as real as any physical community. Rheingold gives examples of virtual communities where people talk, argue, seek information, organize politically and fall in love. At the same time he tells moving stories about people who have received on-line emotional support during devastating illnesses, yet acknowledges a darker side to people's behaviour in cyberspace. Rheingold goes as far as to argue that people relate to each other on-line much the same as they do in physical communities. It is this relating to each other that I explore in my case studies as I attempt to determine how meaning is exchanged between chatters.

Anders in his on-line article, “MUDS: Cyberspace Communities” (1999), explores many forms of MUDs, such as “AberMUDs”[36], MOOs (Multi-user Object Oriented), MUSHes (Mult-User Shared Hallucination), MUSEs (Multi-User Shared Environment) and MUCK (Multi-User Collective Kingdom). Like Rheingold, Anders found parallels between real-life and MUDs, and concluded that people behave similarly to how they do off-line. This is in contrast with other writers on the topic of MUDs who say that people behave differently in MUDs from how they would in person-to-person real-life situations (see for instance Turkle, 1996, pp. 50-57).

Those few examples of linguistically-based research into on-line communications report similar “mixes” of real-life and on-line-specific practices. Discourse analyst Paul ten Have for instance finds chatroom titles indicating to users both social contextual information – place, race, culture – and content:

A first look at this collection of room names suggests two broad classes of categorisation: first a local/national/cultural/ethnic class and second one oriented to topics, with a large dose of sexual ones. For the first class, different kinds of indicators are available, such as naming as in Australia_Sydney_Chat_Room, and the use of a local language as in hayatherseyeragmensürüyor, or in combination: german_deutsch_rollenspiele. (Paul ten Have, 2002).

Ten Have’s discussion suggests both a sophistication in selection and “coding” of information on-line, evolving very quickly as part of CMC practice, and a “remediation” process in play, using existing off-line communicative experiences to construct and regulate on-line behaviours. The “virtual” seems in many ways to be interpenetrated by the “real” – so that researchers can expect to find on-line issues and practices familiar in physical social communication. Gender issues 

Identity concealment on-line acts to confuse issues such as gender, age, social background and race (see Turkle, 1995, 1996; Mantovani, 1995, 1996; Spears & Lea, 1990, 1992; Coates, 1998). Gender is not always discernable in person-to-person off-line interactions. On-line, it becomes even less possible to tell whether a person is male or female, even if the person claims to be one or the other. For example, Cherny in Gender Differences in Text-Based Virtual Reality (1994) speculates that “women's use of physically aggressive emotes with male characters is an example of women adapting to the different discourse style in male-dominated groups. Recent work on language as gender performance by Butler (1990) and Coates (1998) reveals that linguistic strategies that are acceptable and prevalent in our culture-society shape how we present (or “perform”) our selves and our gender. On-line identity is especially fluid as users are able to shift who they are. Gender performativity on-line is especially interesting and it may be acting as a space for social experimentation. Therefore chat can be studied as an important space for research into identity work through language, and for a space indicating early signs of social change. Gender is not a primary focus in this study, but since it is so central to social identity; it will recur and be picked up from time to time in my analysis. 

M. C. Morgan’s “A First Look at Conversational Maintenance by Men and Women in Computer Discussions: The Maintenance and the Meaning” is a study carried out in a classroom setting where the gender was known. However, people may behave differently when they know they are being observed. The researcher uses Pamela Fishman’s argument that the “responsibility for maintaining oral conversation between men and women falls disproportionately to the women” (1978, 1980), and supports her findings. But can such gender-identified research apply in chatrooms, where gender may be disguised, or not indicated except in subtleties of on-line behaviour? The question becomes important as researchers report conventions of gender –differentiated behaviours transferring into virtual space. Daphne Desser’s Gender Morphing in Cyberspace (2000) is another well researched paper with a lot of data. Desser concludes that “It is clear to me that the ability to mask one's off-line gendered identity and to “morph” among various gender instructions does not necessarily empower women or create safer spaces for them. Rather, these on-line experiments present a bewildering array of possibilities to learn more about how the power of sexism, racism, and homophobia persist despite even our most conscious attempts to eradicate them.” 

Attempts to evade or re-route gender preconceptions prove difficult, even in virtual environments. Lara Whelan experimented with giving her students gendered names such as Duck, Drake, Hen, Rooster, Doe, Buck to try and discover whether the male or female students chose which animal for their username (see Whelan, 2000). Whelan did not come up with a definitive answer, and found that there was a problem with students firstly not wanting to say which they chose, and secondly with some of the animals not being known by the students as female or male animals: terms such as “drake” and “doe” were too unfamiliar to cyber-savvy youth to drive gender behaviours. Discussion Groups  

Another source of useful information was the on-line discussion groups which can be found in great numbers on the Internet. I have been an active participant in one of these, called “the Languse Internet Discussion List”[37]. This discussion list is described as being:

… dedicated to issues relevant to the study and analysis of discourse, conversation, talk-in-interaction, and social action in general. As of April, 2002, over 1,700 people, worldwide, have subscribed to Languse.

The interactive communicative ethos of CMC technologies has become part of my research in interesting ways. While working on Case Study Six, in which I drew upon the theory of Conversational Analysis, I posed the question to this discussion group, In chatrooms would a person signing in and lurking be considered a TCU? (Turn-Constructional-Unit, the name for the units out of which turns are constructed.) As lurking is an important feature of chatroom “talk”, but there are as yet no complete studies of it as a phenomenon, I have used a selection of responses from Languse participants who are actively doing work in this area of conversational analysis (ten Have[38], Noblia[39], Vallis[40], Bays[41], Rintel[42] and Lerner[43]). I have discussed these responses in Case Study Six where the theory of Conversational Analysis contributes to the development of my ODAMs (On-line Discourse Analytic Methods). In this discussion group, I was involved in an interesting and informative discussion on the question of lurking (see on CD, lurking.htm for the complete transcripts) showing the ways research can proceed in a chatroom process:

…I think the expression “notable absence” fits very well here. That's from the early papers on adjacency pairs, prob. Schegloff & Sacks, 1974, or Schegloff 1968… (ten Have)

when I was doing my thesis on chatrooms I wondered about the same thing and in the end I decided to go with treating “lurking” as members oriented to it. That is, the members in the chatrooms I studied seemed to treat 'lurking' as “presence” rather than a “turn” in conversation (Rhyll Vallis)

a lurker prefers to remain "silent" at least in the public arena, because we don't know really if he or she is pursuing a private conversation on a different level (Hillary Bays)

Whether “turn-taking” “exists” in chatrooms is a difficult question. I agree with Rhyll Vallis's answer (glib generalization: “it depends on how members orient to it”) and Hillary Bay's answer (glib generalization: “the system's technical structure makes turn-taking very different from FTF interaction turn-taking, so it needs to be evaluated on its own merits”), but think that a more interesting question is what work (for academics, for users, for designers) would proving that it “does” or “does not” exist (and  “is” or “is not” similar to FTF turn-taking) do? What do we gain from the  answer (explanatory power, political power, etc) Afterall, almost ALL of the interaction is visual and cannot be spoken, contrary to the definition given by SSJ and by Paul ten Have, more recently, have expressed…” (Sean Rintel)

There was little agreement on whether lurking in a chatroom is a form of “speech”, and Rintel’s response in particular alerts us to the ongoing difficulties of linguistic analysis in chat spaces, where so much of contemporary linguistic analysis encounters just such problematic differences. Any analytical study of on-line communications, such as that proposed here, must return to examine CMC practices with all their specific qualities, before attempting to apply research techniques transferred from the otherwise rich resources of sociolinguistic – or any other – study.  And on-line experience itself, as with the discussion above, remains a useful illustration of this as a research problem.

2.2.2 The literature of CMC

There is an ever growing mass of literature (Rheingold, 1985, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1999, 2000; Stubbs, 1996, 1998; Herring, 1994, 2002; Jones, 1995, 1997; Donath, 1998, 1999; Schiano, 1997) which addresses CMC techniques and compares them to other modes of communication.

The first issue addressed in contemporary CMC studies is the insistence that CMC is not in itself an isolated “driver” of communicative innovation. Most theorists are opposed to technological determinism, and consider rather that CMCs are in themselves driven by precisely the same processes which structure those communicative acts, which they subsequently enable. Charles Ess (1996), in “Philosophical Perspectives on Computer-Mediated Communication” may talk about how “Rhetorical Theories derive their basic orientation from the modes and technologies of communication that prevail in a given society, and new technologies and communication practices propel the evolution of new forms of consciousness and culture” (Ess, p.237), but other theorists (see especially Landow, 1992) see only a simultaneity in the rise of new technologies and new cultural theories, while UK technology historian Brian Winston (1998) reminds us of the length of time new technologies – among which CMC technologies are prime examples – take to achieve cultural centrality. Without some “supervening social necessity” Winston suggests, many technological innovations remain inert. And when a technology achieves the centrality witnessed in recent CMC uptake, it must also demonstrate cultural sympathy to dominant conceptual paradigms – of the type uncovered by Landow. Whilst discussing Nelson, Derrida, Barthes and van Dam, Landow (1992) states:

All four, like many others who write on hypertext and literary theory, argue that we must abandon conceptual systems founded upon ideas of centre, margin, hierarchy, and linearity and replace them by ones of multi linearity, nodes, and networks (1992, p. 63).

When technical writers and cultural or textual theoreticians speak at the same time in the same frame, it is easier than usual, Landow suggests, to detect a dominant cultural paradigm in play. It is possible then to concede that on-line chat, one among many forms enabled by CMC technologies, may reveal equally dominant cultural formations within its otherwise distinctive meaning-making processing. But, as Landow recognises, meaning-making within the interactive paradigm enabled by CMC may permit and even participate in concepts of cultural dominance, but it does so from within a Gramscian view of “hegemonic” or contestational cultural formation. Castells (1997) points out that central to CMCs is a strong shift away from “institutionalising” identity formation which he terms “legitimation”, and even beyond “resistance” identity, towards the “project” self of late consumer-led capitalist production, in which constantly shifting and multiple meaningful identity formations are made and remade daily, within variable and mobile locations. Within this intensified variability, CMCs themselves act as agents of intensification, providing not only so many more cultural “spaces” for meaning-making transactions, but marking those spaces with increased consciousness of the “virtual” or experimental basis of the activity. To this extent CMC technologies can be said to “legitimise” interpretive work: text production and reception – as a newly dominant cultural activity. And if so, then it becomes more urgent to consider the exchange relations in play within that activity: exchanges conducted in virtual space, with diminished social markers available to participants, and a commensurably enhanced focus on language use. CMC and on-line talk-texting

There are several prominent journals on CMC on-line, including the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication[44] from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and from the School of Business Administration at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and The Electronic Journal of Communication based at the University at Albany, New York (Terrell Neuage, on-line editor). The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication however has only one article on text-based chatrooms, focusing mostly on topics not relative to text-based chat, such as Computer-Mediated Markets (5,3), Electronic Commerce and the Web (5,2), Searching for Cyberspace (5,1), Persistent Conversation (4,4), CMC and Higher Education, 2 (4,3), On-line Journalism  (4,1), Virtual Environments, Part 2  (3, 3), Designing Presence in Virtual Environments  (3, 2), Studying the Net  (3, 1), Electronic Commerce  (1, 3), Play and Performance in CMC  (1, 2), and Collaborative Universities  (1, 1). An article by Judith Donath, Karrie Karahalios and Fernanda Viégas at the MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology is of interest to my work in chat. They have constructed a new way to carry on chat on-line by having:

… each person who is connected to the chat's server appear as a circle. When the user posts a message, their circle grows and accommodates the text inside it. Postings are displayed for a few seconds (the exact time varies depending on the length of each posting) after which they gradually fade into the background. This approach mimics real life conversations where at any given time the focus is on the words said by the person who spoke last. Over time, those words dissipate and the conversation evolves. The sequence of growing and shrinking circles creates a pulsating rhythm on the screen that reflects the turn-taking of regular conversations. By building visual interfaces to on-line conversations and their archives, our goal is to increase the ability of this medium - computer-mediated discussion - to carry subtler and more nuanced messages, both by giving people a richer environment in which to interact and by providing them with greater insight into the underlying social patterns of their virtual community.



The point of view is that of the red circle (shown saying “Hello I'm Kate”). As she moves from one location to another, different conversations are brought into focus. (viewed on-line 05 July, 2000).

I have not however found any chat site with this model of presentation, and the two models which are thriving in Internet communities, text-based chat and 3-D chat sites, continue with the limitations on “subtler and more nuanced messages” – suggesting, as I consider throughout this study, that there are in fact expressive and interpretive systems in play which can be picked up with careful analysis, and shown to satisfy existing users.

One of the world's first peer reviewed electronic journals, The Electronic Journal of Communication[45] is a part of the large on-line site, “Communication Institute of On-line Scholarship” with articles and links to many studies being carried on in the area of electronic communication. Several of the journals that have been useful in this thesis include: “Computer-mediated communication”, Volume 3 (2) April 1993 (edited by Tom Benson); “Computer-mediated Discourse Analysis”, Volume 6 (3) 1996 (edited by Susan Herring); “The Future of the Internet”, Volume 8 (2) 1998 (edited by Peter White); “Community Networking: Mapping the Electronic Commons”, Volume 11 (2) 2001 (edited by Joseph Schmitz); and two issues of The Electronic Journal of Communication with the article, “A Digital Divide? Facts and Explanations” to be on-line early 2003: (edited by Jan van Dijk) and “Liberation in cyberspace…or computer-mediated colonization?” (Ess and Sudweeks). Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine[46] ran issues from May 1994 to January 1999, reporting about people, events, technology, public policy, culture, practices, study, and applications related to human communication and interaction in on-line environments. The only issue that is particularly useful for this study is Organizer Participation in an Computer Mediated Conference Volume 5, Number 6 / June 1, 1998, in which the author hypothesizes that there is a relationship between the number of messages posted to an on-line conference by the organizers of such a conference and the number of posts made by the participants. Organizers must continue to actively participate in their conference in order to insure that participants will also actively participate. I have found this to be true in moderated chatrooms (see Case Study Six) where the moderator, like the organizer in an on-line conference, needs to keep the “talk” going by contributing, and answering each turn taking. The insight confirms the interactivity central to CMC and especially to chat, returning the active user to the core of the equation. The “computing” part of the CMC formula is useful for the analysis of CMC usage as the researcher is active during the collection phase of data by being in the research. Computing can be used to assist in the minute and detailed examination of the reams of chat exchanges produced daily on an ever-expanding list of sites by collecting and sorting the data instantly. Analysing electronic textual data

Computational linguistics involves the use of computing and its powerful capacity for measurement and detection of recurrent patterns, in the analysis of complex networks of language construction. In Foundations of Statistical Natural Language Processing, Manning and Schütze (1999) give an overview of one form of computer analysis of language: natural language processing (NLP). Their work presents all the theory and algorithms needed for building NLP tools. While such models may seem ideal for handling the vast numbers of talk-transactions within daily chat use, research into text-based conversational analysis is not yet encompassed in NLP. At one level, I share Manning and Schutze’s concern with analysis of real language, focusing on language in (on-line) use.

Analysing patterns of words and grammar in chatrooms, Instant Messenger, and within discussion group environments, will present challenges not faced in other forms of textual analysis. Linguistic researcher Michael Stubbs begins his book, “Text and Corpus Analysis” (1996), with the question: “How can an analysis of the patterns of words and grammar in a text contribute to an understanding of the meaning of the text?” (p.3). Stubbs continues with an explanation of text, which will be the working definition of text I will use in my own research:

By text, I mean an instance of language in use, either spoken or written: a piece of language behaviour which has occurred naturally, without the intervention of the linguist. This excludes examples of language which have been invented by a linguist merely to illustrate a point in a linguistic theory. Examples of real instances of language in use might include: a conversation, a lecture, a sermon, an advert, a recipe... (Stubbs, p.4).

Chatroom talk, despite its apparent artificiality in that it is constructed through CMC and represented in script, is such a form of “natural” language in use. And, since it is already transported by the complex algorithms of CMC, why not re-apply them to help explain its techniques? The problem with NLP is in its focus on “processing”, or the reconstruction of individual pathways of meaning-making. Without tracking individuals it is impossible to know how an individual is dealing with language – and chatrooms move too fast and are too enmeshed in cultures of anonymity and even active identity concealment and experimentation, to conduct ethnographic follow-up on meaning processing.  Such work is useful for people doing research into text-based chatrooms in areas such as education, where students can be accessed in person to find out how they process what is on the screen. But for on-line chat analysis, at least at this period of its history, study cannot depart from what is available on the screen. Further, with chat-texting (and its mobile telephony variant SMS texting) having so rapidly and so recently developed an entirely new repertoire of linguistic abbreviations and codes, on-line chat must be described and codified, before it could be accessible to NLF structuring codes of analysis. In its current developmental phase, such work seems especially problematic – yet another illustration of the degree to which on-line chat seems to be producing qualities which defy easy application of existing communication theories or means of analysis. Are we then able to conceive of the current CMC literature as beginning the groundwork for establishing the specifics of CMC practice, and use at least the dominant threads of CMC scholarship to date, to focus the central dilemmas for analysis of on-line chat? On-line writings on CMC

There are already many articles on CMC and in recent years the literature on-line has been rapidly growing[47]. Search engines on the Internet result in the discovery of any number of articles one wants to review, many of them grounded in actual practice, and keen to extrapolate to overviews of how on-line communication “is”.  

That said, it is also important to realize that not every form of on-line talk provides equal access to productive techniques of analysis. For instance, Edward A. Mabry in “Framing Flames: The structure of argumentative messages on the net” (2000) hypothesizes that “framing strategies are related to the emotional tenor of a disputant's message, and that a speaker's emotional involvement with an issue should be curvilinearly related to the appropriation of framing as an argumentative discourse strategy.”  Mabry carried out an analysis of 3000 messages, obtained from a diverse sampling of computer-mediated discussion groups and forums.  He wanted to find a correlation between on-line argument and off-line person-to-person argument. The obvious conclusion was that without physical cues arguments on-line cannot be fully determined as effective. This work may seem immediately relevant to tracking meaning-making in chatroom talk – yet Mabry’s work was on on-line discussion groups, where long postings are common, and where topics are very clearly focused.  I found I could not translate his findings into a text-based chatroom as the feature of fleeting-text (see Case Study Five) and the constantly appearing and disappearing authorships (chatters coming and going and lurking – see Case Study Six) make it impossible to track arguments. While argument clearly exists in on-line chat, the format restricts its full development.

In text-based chatrooms not only are the two categories of initiating messages and continuing messages present at all time but because of the nature of threads (see Case Study Four) the multilogue of chatters and the presence of lurkers (see Case Study Six) and the never ending chat (chatrooms can be going for years with no stoppage) it is difficult to determine the path of messages, especially whether they have “dead ends”. Mabry’s arguments do not hold up when one considers that the Internet never sleeps and neither do mailing lists; making it difficult to say that there is a beginning or an end to any on-line communication. Simple conceptual structures will not transfer from CMC application to application, and are eroded by the very conditions of CMC technologies themselves: their boundarilessness and incessant interactivity. Universal language

In the Volume 12 Number 2, 2002, issue of “The Electronic Journal of Communication” several papers were published from those presented at the second biennial conference on Cultural Attitudes towards Technology and Communication co-chaired by Fay Sudweeks and Charles Ess, and held in Perth, Australia, 13-16 July 2000.  The journal issue entitled “Liberation in Cyberspace … or Computer-mediated Colonization?” raises the question of whether CMC can be effective on a world-scale, as there are severe cultural differences that make communication via computers on the Internet and the Web difficult to maintain and understand[48]. Though there is much written on CMC the effect between cultures has had little attention paid to it. I address how different languages are to be auto-translated so as to be readable in any language in the discussion of this study (see 5.3, “Will chatrooms as part of an on-line discourse become a universally understood language?”). But problems remain in relation to cultural contextualisation of communication systems and exchanges – a further indication of how far simple or reductive commentary on Net communication in its early phases, may prove inadequate as increasing numbers and increasingly diverse communicative “communities” come on-line. Analytical work of the detailed kind urged in my own study: linguistically rigorous, yet attentive to social and cultural contexts, must attend to inter-cultural and cross – cultural communications, rather than postulate “universalist” explanations of on-line practices. E-mail

Next to e-mail communication[49], chatrooms are of primary CMC importance, in terms of both use rates and the complexities of communicative exchange – and yet even e-mail services are only in their infancy, in terms of our understandings of what is actually achieved in this form of on-line communication. Kirk McElhearn’s Writing Conversation: An Analysis of Speech Events in E-mail Mailing Lists (2000)[50] expands on Gruber’s (1996) four possible types of message posted to a mailing list. Gruber outlined strategies such as: initiating messages which successfully stimulate a new discussion; initiating messages which fail to stimulate further discussion; continuing messages which cause further discussion, and continuing messages which are “dead ends”. This set of categories can be used to define chat-types as well (see 5.2 Features of chatrooms) – but even in the early phases of chat, is it a sufficient analytical categorization? As chat matures, and especially as different social and cultural groups – real life or on-line developed – begin to assert identity, will these categories continue to be meaningful, or to convey all we need to understand of how chat works?

According to “Consumer Technographics Brief On-line”, chat has three times the users it had in 1999[51]. With the use of the Internet, distance and time differences seem to play a more important role within chat practices – features unimportant for asynchronous e-mail. An e-mail message can be read at a later time, however, for chatrooms people need to be physically present, although usually at different locations – and the complex interaction of these complex modes of “absent presence” is still not clearly described or analysed in communications terms.  My research shows that in CMC literature the least discussed is the “real-time” communication and this study undertakes to bring this form of CMC to the forefront.

Trevor Barr breaks down the different kinds of interaction on the Internet into six categories:

·        one-to-one asynchronous remote messaging (such as e-mail);

·        one-to-many asynchronous remote messaging (such as “listservs”);

·        distributed asynchronous remote message databases (such as USENET news groups);

·        real-time synchronous remote communication (such as “Internet Relay Chat”);

·        real-time synchronous remote computer utilisation (such as “telnet”); and

·        remote information retrieval (such as “ftp”, “gopher” and the “World Wide Web”) (Barr, 2000)

As more services evolve within each category, the need for descriptive and analytical techniques to capture and understand differences both between categories, and within categories as used by different populations, increases in urgency. Role playing chat sites

“Your words are your deeds; your words are your body.” (Turkle, 1995)

“Multiple-User Dimensions”, also known as ”Multi-user Dungeons” (MUDs) are role-playing chatsites which have played a large part in the development of what has become the popular current text based chatrooms. There has also been more research on this area than any other area of the Internet, beginning a wave of research and discussion on Internet interaction at the end of the 1990s. MUDs are more behaviourally oriented than most chatrooms, and so have been studied extensively by sociological and psychological researchers, because they have more to do with gender, sex and role-playing than simple text-based chatrooms.  Chatroom users may not even respond to someone else or indeed be involved in any discussion (see Case Study Six on lurking), however MUDers tend to display high levels of commitment and focus on their site activities. Most MUDs are text based, i.e. all activities on-line in this environment are based on keyboard commands. As technology advances more MUDs as well as chatrooms will have a more multimedia presence; people will add sound, graphics and animation to their interactions, but in the meantime such sites have much to offer researchers seeking to understand the innovations and practices arising within texted interactive communication.

On-line there are several academics and researchers who have written on MUDS[52]. Frank Schaap’s thesis for the Master of Arts Social Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, March 2000, titled, “The Words That Took Us There: Not An Ethnography” is actually an ethnography, based on research in MUDs.  Schaap examines MUDs and  gender roles, whether  real or imagined by  the players, and like many other researchers, e.g. Turkle, discusses the effects of words on identity creation, even  though there is no way to know who the “speakers” are:

In chatrooms conversations are informal and often experimental with participants experimenting with various personae as virtual conversations can have little to no real life significance… (Turkle, 1995). 

 The popularity of MUDs and other role playing areas can be seen by going to some of the larger sites which list many MUDs available on the Internet, such as,, which provides a frequently updated list of text-based MUDs. On this site over 1400 MUDs were described and listed (as of 16 February 2001). On 3000+ MUDs are described and listed (16 February 2001). One of the many sites on offer is Achaea[53], which has many towns and cities through which people move using text. One of the early writers on MUDs is Sociology professor Sherry Turkle who studied the way people interact in MUDs. There is a growing list of academics who have published books[54] which refer to MUDs to date with Sherry Turkle being the most often cited academic on MUDs. Sherry Turkle’s book, “The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit Life on the Screen” is not about computers, but about people and how computers are causing us to re-evaluate our identities in the age of the Internet. Therefore, though it is a useful book to examine the sociological aspects of on-line communication, the chatroom “talk” in which this identity work is conducted is not in itself a prime focus for study.  Turkle says of MUDs:

We are using life on the screen to engage in new ways of thinking about evolution, relationships, politics, sex, and the self. When I began exploring the world of MUDs in 1992, the Internet was open to a limited group, chiefly academics and researchers in affiliated commercial enterprises. The MUDers were mostly middle-class college students. They chiefly spoke of using MUDs as places to play and escape, though some used MUDs to address personal difficulties. By late 1993, network access could easily be purchased commercially, and the number and diversity of people on the Internet had expanded dramatically. Conversations with MUDers began to touch on new themes. To some young people, “RL” (real life) was a place of economic insecurity where they had trouble finding meaningful work and holding on to middle-class status. Socially speaking, there was nowhere to go but down in RL, whereas MUDs offered a kind of virtual social mobility. [55] 

Her interpretations are psychological as well as sociological. Sherry Turkle’s 1995 book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, postulates that “the personal computer is an “object-to-think-with” for understanding the changes computers are inducing in our minds”. And in Seeing Through Computers, Education in a Culture of Simulation, Turkle writes:

RL is just one more window, and it's usually not my best one.” These are the words of a college student who considers the worlds he inhabits through his computer as real as RL--real life. He's talking about the time he spends “being” four different characters in three different MUDs--multi-user domains--as well as the time he spends doing his homework on the computer. As he sees it, he splits his mind and “turns on one part” and then another as he cycles from window to window on his screen. The computer and the Internet allow him to explore different aspects of himself. As another user puts it, “You are who you pretend to be.”

Such commentary, even when ethnographic, takes user understandings and comments on their on-line activities at face value. If a user suggests that “You are who you pretend to be”, then it is so. But research at this level risks a form of universalisation or essentialising, which runs counter to the very diversities and self-directedness which CMC enables. If, as Turkle and her research subjects assert, CMC has opened a new realm for social play and psychological development of self/selves, then the innovations produced will in and of themselves be introducing new and unpredictable – even indescribable – behaviours and understandings. It is these which my own project sets out to detect, by applying more detailed forms of textual analysis to the actual CMC modalities as they evolve.

2.3 Analysing on-line conversation

I next look at the literature of those varying methods used to capture and analyse language in use, with a special emphasis on conversational analysis, firstly in the narrowest sense of classic Sacksian CA, and then broadening it progressively, to include other text and socially based accounts of how CMC might be operating. By examining chatroom communication and adding the theories below in parentheses to a chat-analysis lexicology, I will establish further dimensions for electronic dialogue.

·        The reader (reader-response theory)

·        Computers’ role in communication (computer-mediated Communication, CMC)

·        Introduction of socially embedded elements (pragmatics)

·        What is the language “doing” (speech act theory)

·        The reasons people enter chatrooms (discourse analysis)

·        Details of communicative exchanges (conversational analysis)

2.3.1 The Reader

The most fundamental difference between face-to-face communication and chatroom communication is that is that in the latter, a reading of text is essential. I have therefore chosen to begin my Case Studies (see Case Study One) and the continuation of my search of the literature with contributions addressing reading. The Reader as interpreter

What does the literature say about the role of the reader of a text and can this be applied to the reader in the chatroom milieu?  There are many researchers, writers and schools that concentrate on reader-response theory. One such researcher is Norman Holland[56] who is a scholar in English at the University of Florida, where he teaches and writes about psychoanalytic psychology, and cognitive science. He uses Freudian psychoanalysis as the basis for his theories on reading, which he formulated in the 1970s. He asserts that the reading process is a transaction between the text and the reader. He believes that we develop an identity theme based on what we received from our mother at birth and through our life experiences we personalize this identity. We use this identity to view the world, including the mediated world, and textual interpretation becomes a matter of working our fears, desires, and needs to help maintain our psychological health (Holland, 1968). But the reader transforms the text into a private world where he/she works out his or her fantasies.

In Poems in Persons, An Introduction to the Psychoanalysis of Literature, (1973) Holland gauges student responses to poems by H.D., Swift, Keats, and Frank O'Hara. He reveals that each reader recreates the poems in accordance with his or her own central myth. In the analysis section of Case Study One I will discuss how this could be seen to work within the chatroom milieu, where the reader is similarly left alone to interpret what is written on the computer screen. 

Holland himself is still writing as a Freudian and today views the Internet as phallic[57].  In his on-line article The Internet Regression, (2000) Holland says, “Talking on the Internet, people regress. It's that simple. It can be one-to-one talk on e-mail, or many-to-many talk on one of the LISTs or newsgroups. People regress, expressing sex and aggression as they never would face to face[58].”  Holland talks about “flaming”, sexual harassment, yet also describes an openness and generosity, which seem to occur when people are on-line. Without wishing to take up his psychoanalytic concerns, the present study will – along with almost all other studies of on-line practice (see for instance Turkle, 1996) – comment upon the very strong degrees of identity play evident in on-line talk texts. At minimum, Holland’s work shows us the ways in which text reception is as active a process of meaning-making as text production – and in the instant reciprocity enabled by CMC, that is a key insight. The assumed or implied reader

What Holland’s work does reveal is that when a person enters a chatroom, he or she brings his or her own experiences to the interaction. To move beyond Holland’s Freudian “fantasy enactment” view of text interpretation however, it is useful to examine the reception theory of Wolfgang Iser. Born in 1926, Iser is a German theorist and literary critic who later taught at the University of California at Irvine. Iser takes a phenomenological approach to reading. Iser argues that the text in part controls the reader's responses, but contains “gaps” that the reader creatively fills. There is a tension between the actual reader and “the implied reader,” who is established by the “response-inviting structures” of the text. This type of reader is assumed and created by the work itself.  In other words, rather than seeking the entire act of interpretive reception in the psyche of the individualized reader, Iser allows us to detect strategies inside the text itself which pre-dispose not only certain readINGS, but certain “preferred” readERS.

Iser reveals some of what we are looking for when we speak of “The Reader”. He begins by noting two broad categories of readers: real readers and hypothetical readers. Iser refers to real readers as those who have been documented; their responses recorded in some way, while hypothetical readers are those “ideal” readers predicted within the text.  Interestingly for the present study, this is very much the case in chatrooms, where there is  “documentation” of the “real” reader’s response by noting their response-utterance, as well as textual recording of the “hypothetical” reader, presented in the initial text evoking response (and requiring it in “preferred” ways). Iser however further subdivides the reader, saying that hypothetical readers can be broken down into two groups: the ideal reader and the contemporary reader.

There is no escaping this process, for the text cannot at any moment be grasped as a whole. But what may at first sight have seemed like a disadvantage, in comparison with our normal modes of perception, may now seem to offer distinct advantages, in so far as it permits a process through which the aesthetic object is constantly being structured and restructured (Iser, 1978, p. 112).  

By reading we uncover the unformulated part of the text, and this very indeterminacy is the force that drives us to work out a configurative meaning while at the same time giving us the necessary degree of freedom to do so (Iser, 1974, p. 287).

...The significance of the work.…does not lie in the meaning sealed within the text, but in the fact that the meaning brings out what had been previously sealed within us. Through gestalt-forming, we actually participate in the text, and this means that we are caught up in the very thing we are producing. This is why we often have the impression, as we read, that we are living another life (Iser, The Act of Reading, p. 157).

Not only then does Iser give text reception an active role within reading, but he sees that there are certain types of text strategy which optimize the chances of this “indeterminacy”, and so invite interpretation at a level of self-consciousness which reaches out to identity-formation:

The ability to perceive oneself during the process of participation is an essential quality of aesthetic experience; the observer finds himself in a strange, halfway position: he is involved, and he watches himself being involved. However, this position is not entirely nonprogrammatic, for it can only come about when existing codes are transcended or invalidated (Iser, The Act of Reading, p. 134).

Iser does not analyse actual readings of texts, but proceeds from an ideal “implied reader” to valorize readings both with and against the predispositions of the text. For Iser, the reader does not mine out an objective meaning hidden within the text. Rather, literature generates effects of meaning for an actual reader, in a shared virtual space created between reader and text. Although reader and text assume similar conventions from reality, texts leave great portions of that “reality” unexplained to the reader, whether as gaps in the narrative or as structural limits of the text’s representation of the world. This basic indeterminacy itself “implies” the reader and begs her participation in synthesizing, and indeed living, events of meaning throughout the process of reading.

Iser writes of the interaction between a published text and its reader. If then we take this phenomenological approach to the reading process in a chatroom, we see how an interaction between the text and the reader can occur, and how it focuses attention onto the text. For meaning to occur [in a Chatroom] according to Iser, the underlying theory of a piece of work first consists of its author and an “aesthetic” (reader) situated at equal poles, in equal measure, with meaning production situated somewhere in between, as a result of that interaction. The main motivation for the interaction between text and reader is for the “space”- the “fundamental asymmetry” that exists between them, to be filled. All texts (and this is very evident in a chatroom) are thus made up of numerous spaces (“gaps”) in the dialogue, which I refer to as “the chunk and chat segments”, and these spaces denote that a piece of information has been omitted or only made implicit. This has the resultant effect of making the reader (the witness of the chat event) find connections and implications in what has been written, and thus become in turn “the writer”.  It is this combination of what has been written and what has been left out, that permits the completion of the whole picture, enabling the production of meaning. Moreover, this process is also dependant on certain terms set by the chatroom protocols i.e. there is some structuring of the blanks and spaces, which the reader-witness-writer-witness has to follow. In other words, chatroom “texting”, by both “author” and “reader-as-author”, is as complex and as reciprocal as Iser suggests of the reading act – and as close to identity formation. Yet at the same time it is distinctively different, arising as it does within a CMC space, and influenced by the technological dictates of that space.    

Iser has further explored how literature functions in the human experience, saying that:

… if the reader is to identify with a text, then he or she must combine the artistic, which is the author’s creation of the text, and the aesthetic, which is the realization that the reader brings to the text. Once the artistic and the aesthetic[59] are united then the reader will enhance the text, by allowing his or her intimate experiences to flow through the text. As the reader becomes more involved with the text, then meaning, which comes of experience, can be used to interpret the text (Iser, 1974, p.45).

Reading is thus an active and creative process (Iser, 1974; Holland, 1992; Kristeva, 1989) with the imagination always the final interpreter.  Even with no knowledge of who the person is who is playing, in both the reader or the writer’s role, one can find whether other writers and readers in a chatroom share views by following responses to what is being written. A person will be enticed to enter or continue the dialogue in a chatroom based on how this person reads the text, bringing his or her own experiences to the reading. “The reading process is an interaction between the text and the reader's imagination”. (Iser, 1972, p. 34). The background of the reader (“mosaic of multiple texts”) 

Kristeva in Desire and Language; a Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art (1980), and The Kristeva Reader (1986) builds on the works of Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Mikhail Bakhtin to examine the speaking subject and the signifying structures of social practice. It is Kristeva's work on intertextuality, which is useful in this study of Internet “conversations”.

The concept of “intertextuality” was first developed by Julia Kristeva, in connection with the numerous implicit references in each text to other texts. No text is written in complete isolation from other texts nor can it stand entirely by itself. Hypermedia technology can express such intertextuality by linking selected parts of a text, image, sound or other multimedia format with other texts, image, sound or other multimedia format (Bolter, 1991; Landow and Delany, 1993; Landow, 1992; Nelson, 1965, 1993).

Kristeva, like Holland (Holland being a Freudian and Kristeva, at least initially, a Freudian Feminist theorist) speaks of the child who must learn to differentiate self from other if it is to become an individual.  I discuss Kristeva in more detail in Case Study Four, when I use a semiotic approach to reading the text in a chatroom and examine her idea of Intertextuality, developed in part from Bakhtin’s writings.  In her writings, Kristeva (1986) charts a three-dimensional textual space whose three “coordinates of dialogue” are the writing subject, the addressee (or ideal reader), and exterior texts. Kristeva describes this textual space in a Saussurian paradigmatic/syntagmatic way familiar in semiotics, as intersecting planes that have horizontal and vertical axes.

The word's status is thus defined horizontally (the word in the text belongs to both writing subject and addressee) as well as vertically (the word in the text is orientated towards an anterior or synchronic literary corpus) ... each word (text) is an intersection of words (texts) where at least one other word (text) can be read ... any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another (p. 37).

Essentially, every text is informed by other texts which the reader has read, and the reader's own cultural context. The simplest articulation of intertextuality can be seen in the footnotes that indicate source materials to which a given text is alluding, or which are known to have influenced the author. A constructive hypertext can make this notion of intertextuality an externally accessible “mosaic” of multiple texts, placing the internal connections about which Kristeva theorizes into a visible forum, which can be expanded by each subsequent reader.

My own work seeks to extend Kristeva's modelling of the layering of text, into the ever more complex and shifting systems of talk-texts. By combining her highly theorised models with the analysis of conversation and discourse linguistics, I establish both a theory-rich, and methodologically complex, means of analysing contemporary electronic talk-culture. And in particular, I demonstrate that the “syntagms” or text-to-text comment-response patterns which in Chat are fragmented across multiple postings, are similarly paradigmatically fractured – not always relating to shared cultural contexts, even if “coded” within the para-linguistic on-line markers of consensus, such as syntactic abbreviations and emoticon graphics.

Mikhail Bakhtin (1981) uses the term heteroglossia (Emerson, 1981) to describe the inscription of multiple voices engaging in dialogue within the text. Paul Taylor (1992) points out that “heteroglossia focuses on the production of meaning through dialogue except that heteroglossia avoids the emphasis on (narrowly defined) consensus and explicitly celebrates diversity” (p. 138). Baktin is useful in this study to show how many varying meaning-makings intersect with the rapidly moving voices and constantly changing threads of the chatroom conversation. The role of the reader

From Kristeva’s idea of a text as a “visible forum” occupied by cross-referencing textual elements pre-disposing the act of reception, we move to the work of Stanley Fish[60], who suggests that if texts are crossed by multiple interpretive potential, so are “readerships” as “interpretive communities”.  Stanley Fish in Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric in the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (1990) extends Vandergrift’s belief that “interpretative communities are meanings internally experienced in the consciousness of the reader and not necessarily shared” (1987), seeing it as mirroring what Fish himself says, “…interpretative communities are no more stable than texts, because interpretative strategies are not natural or universal, but learned” (Fish, 1990, p. 172). Immediately we become able to see that in chatrooms, unless prearranged meetings are agreed to, “communities” are actually instant gatherings of strangers, and only if the flow of turn-takings has a shared meaning, i.e. others in the chatroom know what is being said, can there be shared dialogue which will continue as conversation. Fish reminds us that for all the talk of “liberation”, play or individualizing interpretive reception, “reading” – on which chat depends – is a learned, acculturated behaviour. Not only can we expect to see such regulatory behaviours in action in on-line chat; without them no communication would occur. How then are those behaviours taught and learned? Which techniques and activities monitor them, control them, reproduce them? And since on-line chat is, potentially at least, non-proximous and even global, how overt must the regulation of its interpretive communities become?

Italian semiotician and cultural analyst Umberto Eco moves further, developing a somewhat complex formula to show how the reader engages in constructing meaning when reading a text. In The Role of the Reader (1995), Eco states that natural language (or any other semiotic system) is articulated at two levels: the expression-plane and the content-plane. On the expression-plane, “natural languages consist of a lexicon, phonology and syntax”. These are the regulatory foundations from which we draw in any expressive act.  The concepts which we can express however are on a distinctive content-plane (Eco, 1995 pp 20-24). To explain the difference, Eco further subdivides these two planes into “Form, Substance and Continuum”. How we think and express ourselves, according to Eco, is dependent on our “content-form” – the distinctive ways we twine content into the expressive repertoires available in our language community. 

In chatrooms where the content and depth of content are both fragmentary and extremely reduced, Content-form is more than usually reliant on the “expressive plane” established by an “interpretive community”. In Case Study One, I examine the role of the reader in a particular sample of chat discourse to discover how users must read a previous text in order to be able to express meaning.  Before meaning can be expressed; in Eco’s terms, before a Content-form can be established, an earlier turn in the chatroom must be interpreted.  Chat is establishing an “expressive plane” of possible talk-text strategies – or in Fish’s sense, delimiting its particular “interpretive community” of actively-receiving “readers”. How far might such a specialised “interpretive community” be established through the sedimentation of daily acts of talk-texting; how far by technical limitations set up within the design of the “applications” software which enables internet chat to occur?

2.3.2 Rules of chat

In theory, we can say anything we wish, however, in practice, we follow a large number of social rules (many of them unconscious) that constrain the way we speak (Crystal, 2001, p. 120-122). Pragmatics is the study of linguistic communication, and so of actual language use in specific situations, and as such can assist in my research.  It studies the factors that govern our choice of language in social interaction and the effects of our choice on others (Levinson, 1983, 1996; Nofsinger, 1991). It offers the possibility of extension of its regulatory features into the new interactive or interpersonal speech formations of chatrooms – and the chance of discovering whether what occurs there constitutes new regulatory features.

Amongst the many areas of linguistic enquiry however, several main areas overlap. Pragmatics and semantics both take into account such notions as the intentions of a speaker, the effects of an utterance on listeners, the implications that follow from expressing something in a certain way, and the knowledge, beliefs, and presuppositions about the world upon which speakers and listeners rely when they interact. Pragmatics also overlaps with stylistics and sociolinguistics, and psycholinguistics, as well as with discourse analysis. In attempting analysis of an extended field of language use, is one school of inquiry adequate – or does each have something to offer? To the degree at least that these are considered complementary rather than competing theories of language in use, this study will take the position offered in van Dijk’s monumental five-volume study (1986)[61] of the foundations of the linguistic methods constituting discourse analysis: that each technique borrows from the others; that some, like discourse analysis itself, borrow from all in an otherwise-directed methodology (in the case of CDA, an ideological commitment to social reform) and that it is often in the areas of overlap that the most fruitful discoveries and insights occur. 

2.3.3 Symbolic activity in chatrooms

It is just such moments of overlap or cross-disciplinary study which are most fruitful for CMC and especially chat study. Patrizia Violi in Electronic dialogue between orality and literacy. A semiotic approach (2000) comes the closest to my research. Her research is on e-mail as a specific genre and she looks at it as a “rebirth” of letter writing, but with some very different features. She talks about writing itself as a technology, as well as computers as a technology. This makes e-mail a “double technology”, which reveals practices drawn from both: a fusion form, altering many of the accepted modes in other more conventional communicative practices. For instance, Violi discusses what she calls the “sloppiness” of spelling in this genre, and the high tolerance for poor spelling. This is an issue which I explore further in Case Study Seven, suggesting that what at first appears a speed-impelled lapse in regulatory communicative behaviours is already evolving into something quite new. She touches on the issue of emoticons, which I explore in Case Study Three, with mention of  “smilies”, a conventional form of communication, codified for the electronic medium, and displaying similar forms of innovation and creative renewal.

2.3.4 The language/action approach 

A return from texted to spoken communication reminds us that language is a dual form: expressive as well as representational. Speech is not just representing information or ideas. Speech is action. When we make an utterance we are performing an action. In chatrooms the chatter is trying to achieve goals, e.g., making a request, giving an instruction, asking a question. Even stating the obvious has a function. (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969). Speech Act Theory is based on Austin's (1962) work, How to do things with words. Austin showed that we use language to accomplish actions, and not just to make true or false statements. Austin attempted to prove the validity of statements by describing the characteristics of performative sentences, or utterances designed to carry out acts. Some of the distinctive ways that words and symbols are used in chatrooms are discussed in Case Study Four.

In MUD conversations there have evolved several conventions for expressing feelings, gestures and facial expressions verbally through writing. Language alone is used to create situational, real time events – actions and responses enacted only through the talk-texts generated by players.  But such interactive constructs also make the transference of a speaker's authority possible, dependent, of course, on the situation and relation between the interlocutors. Speech acts created in MUDS as current technology stands will never be physically rendered, as in the real world. But by adding non-verbal signs like face-expression and feelings through emoticon commands chatters come close to signaling intent.  “Written discourse cannot be rescued by all the processes by which spoken discourse supports itself in order to be understood - intonation, delivery, mimicry, gestures” (Ricoeur, 1981). But in MUDs players have learned not only to adapt new modalities of command, but to enact and acknowledge relations of power, respect for skills or status, and ways to represent levels of passion or intent which help assess other players’ moves and strategies. Deceit, duplicity, conspiracy, disguise have all become possible in this texted world, as players become more and more skilled in representing and interpreting “characterized” or properly motivated action.

Anna Cicognani’s PhD, A Linguistic Characterisation of Design in Text-Based Virtual Worlds (1998) constructs the architecture structure for a MUD system. Her thesis considers the “organisation of the virtual environment, virtual space architecture, which defines the relationships between entities. The virtual environment organisation is approached with the view that language is the matter for its construction.” As her primary work is on the technology of a MUD room I have not used her work in this thesis, other than to understand MUD constructs, and the ways in which they draw on texted language interaction.

Anna Cicognani’s Design Speech Acts: How to do things with words in virtual communities applies the theory of speech acts to text-based virtual communities, such as MOOs (MUDs Object Oriented). Cicognani (1996, 1997, 1998) notes several performative verb forms used in a virtual communities, stating, “In a VC, I may be able to open the door simply by typing the command ‘Open door’”. What subsequently “happens” is that co-players accept the instruction as having enacted the command; they apply to a world which “exists” in language only, the same performative relations as those experienced in the physical world, where real doors can be opened by really present persons. In a situation reminiscent of the professional actions represented in television dramas, where actors both carry out the physical processes of a medical emergency routine or move their spaceship to warp-drive, and “speak forth” these activities so that viewers can understand the procedures, MUDders and on-line chatters learn to “enact” through language.

In a virtual community verbs that are not considered to be performative verbs in face-to-face talk can act as performative verbs. For example in a text based chatroom verbs such as move, close, open, enter or leave all work to perform those actions that they represent. To “enter” another room means a chatter is accessing and activating software to represent themselves electronically as “present” in a new electronic screen-space, and to potentially at least participate in the activities and conversations of that space. While the illusory term “enter” may originally have drawn its performative power from use of the “enter” key often used to activate a software command sequence, it has conventionalized as a new on-line performative verb, with the power to command response and adaptation from others “present”. Greetings sequences from existing MUDders or chatters have already evolved and are used to acknowledge newcomers. But the performative repertoire already extends well beyond this. Anna Cicognani and Mary Lou Maher use the following performative verbs in an experimental MOO (StudioMOO) that they are using as support for research activities and education, which derives from the LambdaCore:

·         communication (say, whisper, emote, page, think, etc.)

·         navigation (go, teleport, move, etc.)

·         manipulation (open, close, move, give, take, drop, lock, etc.)

·         design (create, dig, recycle)

These categories identify four different types of actions in a VC. The communication acts are developed to provide flexibility and expressiveness in text-based communication that mimics the gestures and body language that are used in speech-based communication. The navigation acts provide alternative ways and modes of moving around the VC environment. The manipulation acts allow the user to do things with (and on) the objects in the VC. The design acts are less developed than the other three categories, since so far the emphasis has been on effective interaction with other objects/people in the VC rather than in the design of the VC.

Already Cicognani and Maher have found categories of performativity which extend this speech act mode – and as the informational environments and the interactions around them evolve further, regardless of the technologies or formats used, usages will change too. What is emerging already though is an understanding that virtual communication as a field is directing our linguistic creativity into new areas which are extending our traditional categorisations of language use. For analysts of on-line communication, which existing theorisations and descriptive systems for language use offer the best means of capturing, describing and analysing these new ways of communicating.

Sociologist G. H Mead (1934) in Mind, Self and Society together with philosophers John Austin (1962, 1975) and J. R. Searle (1969) carried out studies into verbal communication. Whilst Mead looked at conversation from a sociological perspective, developing symbolic interaction theory as a means of examining how social roles are enacted and represented through social relational work, Austin and Searle, focusing on the performative or pragmatic and illocutionary element in meaning, drew attention to the many functions performed by utterances as part of interpersonal communication. From this base of work arose the detailed capacity to examine interactivity in language, most influentially developed in the work of Harvey Sacks and his followers.

2.3.5 Conversational Analysis

Current Conversational Analysis (CA) builds on the earlier works of the American sociological movement of the 1970s, most notably that derived from the works of Harvey Sacks in collaborations with Emmanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson (1974) in their work within ethnomethodology (1974, 1977, 1979). Sacks's major studies into CA were in the early 1970s whilst teaching at the Linguistic Institute, University of Michigan. His lectures (1974) are still used today as his followers elaborate ever more complex analyses and applied studies of various conversational uses and contexts.

CA advocates Eggins’ and Slade’s work on how conversation consists of “chat” and “chunks” is particularly useful when talking about turn-taking in a chatroom setting. Their isolation of “chat” segments focuses on those where structure is managed “locally”, that is, turn by turn, which is essentially how text-based chatrooms during the period I examined them function. The “chunks” are those aspects of conversation which have a global, or macro-structure, where the structure beyond the exchange is more predictable. “Chat” equals move-by-move unfolding of talk. “Chunk” segments need an analysis which can capture the predictable macro or global structure (Eggins and Slade, 1997. p.230). The distinction allows for both turn-by-turn examination of individual postings, and acknowledgement that there is already in existence a generic or consensual set of models by which such postings are constructed, received and interactively managed by chatters.

Eggins and Slade, working on “natural” or informal language use, provide a useful set of clues to the notoriously “unstructured” features of on-line chat. While such analysis continues the work of the Conversational Analysis (CA) theorist Howard Sacks, it is more focused to revelation of the evolving and changing regulatory systems of specific speaking groups, and less to the establishment of CA as a theorized systematics for language analysis. Like my own study, CA for Eggins and Slade is a tool for discovery of how a given group communicates, and not – or at least not primarily – to promote a perfected and universalist means for language analysis.  I explore how Sacks’s CA can detect change in the rules of engagement in chatrooms, where conversation is moved from an oral environment of physical presence to an on-line texted environment of virtuality. At the same time, Eggins’ and Slade’s work on “chunks” takes us closer to DA or Discourse Analysis: a means of analysing language as it relates to cultural paradigms and as it deploys certain favoured frames of explanation. DA’s driving focus is on establishing ideological positions for its (talk) texts. My study locates “chunking” impulses within some – though by no means all – chatroom speech – but when it does, finds high variability in the directedness or selection of “global” or “macro” structuring repertoires. In other words, chat on-line is “global” only to the extent of accessing many varying “local” structuring references. A “global” or universal “chat speak” is not evident in on-line talk selections – for all the emergence of expressive repertoires in netiquette, emoticons or IRC/SMS abbreviation. I intend to suggest that what is evolving here is not – or not yet – separated from speech in the physical world, to the extent of disconnection from dominant discursive framings: that on-line texted-talk “chunks” in familiar ways. But I am also suggesting that at the level of “chat” or interpersonal interactivity, new behaviours abound. CA, with its fine-focus analysis on relational talk, is an ideal tool for such inquiry into isolating new texted-talk gambits and techniques in use.

Allen and Guy (1974), writing on conversational analysis before it became a widely-used technique, in “Conversation Analysis: The Sociology of Talk” define the verbal act "as a word or group of words which functions as a separate element in the verbal stream" (Allen & Guy, p. 162). What might such a separable “element” involve? In particular, are there identifiably new structurings and usages for words or groups of words in on-line chat? CA has for instance observed that within “real life” speech, support for a statement, as agreement or disagreement, can vary in length from one to dozens of words. Within chatroom conversation fragmented conversation is the norm. Rarely are full sentences made – however “conversation”, argument, discussion, debate, all continue within an intensely abbreviated communicative interaction. My analysis aims at revealing the often complex issues dealt with through these elliptical talk-strategies, and hopefully to tease out how some of them are constructed. In contrast to the behaviourists’ view that language and thoughts are identical, my examination of IRC’s condensed interactive speech formulae will suggest that “screened” communicative elements: visual codes added to text and working semiotically, as well as adapted linguistic modes operating at the “chat” level, are conveying thought and patterning social interaction, even (and perhaps especially) in the most reduced forms. To behaviourists, there is no “non-verbal thought”; all thought is seen as determined only by the language used (see for instance Watson, 1930; Sapir 1929; Whorf, 1940, 1956). The problem of describing how verbalisation conveys thought rests in the complexities of measuring the techniques used. Thought anchored in a complex phenomenon such as language can contain thousands of discreet elements within a short time span. Allen and Guy for instance have identified some twenty types of basic elements in the action matrix of relatively simple two-person conversation. 

Yet many of these elements are not available to current chatroom speech, as they rely on the physical cues of co-presence for interpretation. As a result, those linguistic markers for social relations which ethnomethodologists and CA analysts have demonstrated as imposing limits on conversation are not useful in chatroom analysis. In face-to-face conversation participants must be concerned with the impressions which they make on the others (Goffman, 1959, p. 33). The absence of such regulatory features in electronic talk is said by many to be marked by the emergence of the practice of “flaming”, or intense escalations of abusive exchange (Turkle, 1996). Yet on-line chat can and does also produce daily and extended sequences of consensual discussion, with finely-tuned practices of inclusivity and mutual support – much of it increasing in complexity as a chatroom “community” establishes itself and asserts identity through patrolling the boundaries of “acceptable” linguistic relations – all carried in the abbreviated on-line codes. If it is the fragmentation of chat that marks it out from “real life” conversation, then this must clearly not be conceived as regressive, primitive or unsophisticated.

In interactive Internet “speaking”, especially through chatrooms and Instant Messenger, Bakhtin's concept of the utterance builds upon the work already done in Conversational Analysis. Bakhtin identifies “utterance” as the primary building block of dialogue; utterance is to dialogue what lexia is to hypertext. Without more than one utterance there can be no dialogue for, as Michael Holquist (1990) argues, every “utterance is always an answer to another utterance that precedes it, and is therefore always conditioned by, and in turn qualifies, the prior utterance to a greater or lesser degree” (1986, p. 60)[62]. It is this sense of multi-connectedness my work seeks in IRC/IM talk, where the “flattened” screening of postings renders the selection of response patterns difficult, and so directs chat towards the multi-threading structure of hypertext. How then does social relationality – that “politic of power” discovered within such CA categories as turn-taking – work in on-line chat? How is language oriented towards both self-assertion within a group, and the different behaviours and speech selections which act to structure speech relations?

Astri Wold in “De-coding oral language” (1978) emphasizes the importance of whom we are speaking with. In direct oral communication we have the cues of the other person, either from sight or from hearing their intonations, tonal variations, vocality and so on. We then choose our words in a way which we perceive will suit (or occasionally not suit) the other person. For example, if we know our listener is from a higher or a lower social background than us and we want to appear as of the same social grouping we will take on the air of their social background. This could include such utterance selections as slang, accent (accent referring only to distinctive pronunciation, for example, sounding as if from East London, Brooklyn, or Queensland) or speaking a particular dialect (dialect referring to grammar and vocabulary as well; for example saying “He done it” or saying “He did it”).

Wold (1978) adopts an explicit social-psychological approach to language, similar to that of Ragnar Rommetveit (1972, 1974). This communicative perspective implies that as communicators we have to consider definite constraints on language selection, both with respect to the ways in which an individual expresses him/herself and to the information then interpreted. A chatroom social-psychological approach to language differs though in several ways from Wold's view, since the cues of the other person are not so readily available, and as participants we have to work in other ways to know “who” we are speaking with. The ways we choose to understand human behaviour have become inextricably linked to the ways in which our understandings are linguistically represented (Garfinkel, 1972) and in a text-based chatroom this can only be done through the interpretation of what appears on the computer screen.

Taking an existing methodology into a new area such as on-line chat creates an initial problem of project definition and data corpus management, in that since no other analyst has tackled the field, there is no established approach to follow. This is not however a problem without precedent. For instance, in the field of Conversation Analysis itself there is a similar dilemma, and a productive methodological solution. Ten Have (1999) suggests that with CA, what counts is the project’s selection from within the CA methodological repertoire – a selection which is entirely at the discretion of the analyst, and in the final accounting, a mark of their expertise in applying the most suitable elements of the method. There is no distinctive protocol to be applied; no guide to the extensiveness of the data to be sampled; no set rules about the order of procedure, or the ways to display findings.

My research design builds on this advice from ten Have, using his ideas about “good CA”; and not following prescriptive protocol, but rather devising my own methodological practice from elements most useful to my forms of data and means of data collection.

In extending an existing method into a new field of text, CA thus offers a way of viewing on-line conversation. Conversational turn-taking is, for example, according to conversation analysis, integral to the formation of any interpersonal exchange (Boden, 1994, p. 66).  Boden compiles a succinct list of the “essential features of turn-taking” which also applies to chatroom talk: 

·         One speaker speaks at a time

·         Number and order of speakers vary freely

·         Turn size varies

·         Turns are not allocated in advance but also vary

·         Turn transition is frequent and quick

·         There are few gaps and few overlaps in turn transition.

When Richard Parrish in “Conversation Analysis of Internet Chatrooms” (2000) talks about chatrooms as having a role in the way people discuss politics, he is able to show turn-taking in IRC as influencing patterns of debate. IRC gives people the opportunity, he says, to discuss issues without the usual constraints of power relations exerted between authority and audience. He talks about the egalitarianism of chatrooms and how people are able to construct their own personal and group perceptions of a situation. He writes a few paragraphs on conversational analysis, and lists some essential features of turn taking, analysing a 15-minute segment of chatroom talk. He makes the observation in his discussion (amongst other things) that chatroom conversation, unlike group conversation off-line, is not dyadic; that is, the speaking does not tend to break down into two party talk.  Parrish concludes that this more open and hyper-linking system suits a consensual and cooperative model of political discussion – a proposition that my own research into more varied IRC settings and their equally variable language uses will test. His work however asserts one instance of an extrapolation from “chat” to “chunk” – from specific instances of talk relations, to their linking into broader forms and formats constituting recurrent chat behaviours – and it is at this point that IRC analysis moves from the micro-analysis of such techniques as CA, to the paradigmatic work undertaken in Discourse Analysis.

2.4   Conclusion

As can be seen by my discussion of the literature, though there has been significant research done on aspects of chatroom and other forms of on-line discourse, I have not been able to find research using conversational analysis as a lens to examine the broad diversity of chatroom talk, nor the finer complexities of its structures and patterns of use. I use the next chapter to describe established linguistic methodologies on off-line analytical linguistics and outline how I propose to apply them to an on-line analytical linguistic study of the chatroom milieu.


3.1 Introduction

From a conventional perspective, referring to the data samples in this study in terms of “conversation” is a misnomer, as what is currently considered conversation has a history as an interchange through speech: an act requiring physical proximity to permit audibility – and an act therefore precluding written text. In this section I will describe the theories that I will use to establish an interpretation of conversation for use in this study of on-line, texted-talk. Chatroom “talk” in this study is analysed in accordance with the general requirements of conversation analysis, i.e. turn-taking, sequential organisation, repair organisation and turn construction design. Other researchers have found conversation analysis to be a good tool for studying CMC (see for instance Dingley, 2000; Titscher, Meyer, Wodak, and Vetter, 2000; Garcia and Jacobs, 1999).

From the outset it is clear in all CMC studies that methodology in cyberspace is different from that used in studies conducted in any other environment. Sherry Turkle writes for instance in relation to her own ethnographic work into on-line communication:

Virtual reality poses a new methodological challenge for the researcher (Turkle, 1995, p.34, quoted by Hamman, 1996).

The communicative relation on-line – including that for researchers – changes in both predictable and unpredictable ways. Some of these we may still be unable to determine, leaving much uncaptured for analysis by current techniques. On-line “conversation” falls partially inside, and partially outside, the specialized repertoires of conventional linguistic and social research. Not only then does any attempt to examine its already observably rich repertoires of communicative practice demand a hybridized and appropriative methodological practice, but even then it seems likely that many aspects will remain obscured. What is evident though is that whatever strategies are adopted (or adapted), these must optimise a critical and reflexive practice: one which can critique the potential of whichever techniques are utilized, within the inquiry act itself. The dilemma thus appears to demand a qualitative or even post-qualitative-experimental approach.



3.1.1 Qualitative research

Not only does the researcher-research subject relation change on-line, but problems of validity and verification of results occur, since it is impossible to guarantee either participant identity or ongoing site-access for replication. Criteria developed by Guba and Lincoln (1989, 1994) focus on truth, value-credibility, auditability, fittingness and neutrality-conformability within qualitative research. Over the past two decades qualitative social inquiry has developed both approaches and instruments for assessing the validity of its techniques. Methodological rigor in on-line qualitative research is however difficult to carry on, not least due to its recency. Given the diversity of the on-line activities under question; the widespread debate over and suspicion of the authenticity behind on-line communicative acts, and the lack of consensus about rules to which on-line behaviours should conform, the research object itself appears notably unstable. Meanwhile, the fast feedback loops of CMC informational flows mean that quantitative research is an inherent dimension of on-line usage – so that the territory is enmeshed within methodological practices contested within qualitative work. Why then attempt to conduct such research, given such a seemingly intractable research object?

To some extent the broad field of qualitative research methodology has of itself resolved these issues. The view that there is in fact nothing special about qualitative research, and that it should be evaluated by the same criteria as quantitative studies, with mechanisms for validity, reliability and generalisability (Jasper, 1994; Cavanagh, 1997; Appleton, 1995[63]) has become commonplace. Yet this newly developed confidence changes with cyber-ethnology, due to the constancy of advances in CMC technology.  While it is perfectly possible to propose application of a research design arising in now quite conventional models of qualitative social inquiry, drawing for instance on established methods used in socio-linguistic or communications research, on-line communications presents unprecedented instabilities and insecurities, even at the most basic levels of observation or data collection.  For example for this study I have ‘captured’ conversation from chatrooms by cutting and pasting the chat turn-takings, to archive a secure and revisitable data corpus of chat.  But in the java script chatrooms rapidly coming to dominate the mode, the only way to save the chat texts is either by writing down the chat – which is difficult if the chat is scrolling by at a rapid rate – or by taking a screen-shot of the chatroom, which would show only a few lines of chat captured at a particular time.

While it is possible to design and provide text-saving chat services, technical designers presumably do not consider the act of research collection a sufficiently dominant demand to provide such a function. Instead, chat, like its off-line social equivalent, is treated as an ephemeral and perhaps trivial activity, not worth preserving. The rapid scrolling of speed-entered postings; the de-structured sentences and incomplete spelling; the crunching into abbreviations and semi-graphic compounds, and the mixing of unrelated “threads”, all signal a scrambled and ill-valued communicative form, operating at a basic and seemingly underdeveloped level. And yet the demand for space in these new facilities simultaneously signals them as of significance for increasing numbers of on-line participants. And while quantitative research can, and does, provide statistical evidence in support of this observation, it cannot inquire into why chat has evolved so rapidly, and is in such demand. Nor can it observe or categorise the on-line behaviours developing inside the new communications space. Qualitative research, with its observational-descriptive foundation and its subsequent analysis calling on increasingly rich repertoires of socio-cultural explanation, offers a much greater chance of both recording and explaining what is going on in on-line chat, and why.

Qualitative research, using multiple methodologies, is at core about the behaviours of people studied in their own social settings and understood in terms of the meanings those people themselves bring to their situation (Lincoln and Denzin 1994, p. 2). Chatrooms are “momentary” social settings created not to last further than the immediate “talk”. Pursuit of these on-line participants beyond these fleeting moments of their talk is difficult. Qualitative research however, arising primarily within the broad field of social sciences, has more recently allied itself to the critical textual techniques of inquiry typical of the new humanities. Turner (1994, pp. 205-219) outlines the development of this dual focus within varying traditions of the study of communications media.

In the US for many years, the study of the mass media occurred in the behavioural sciences, while in Europe it was the domain of the humanities, particularly English, and of certain approaches to sociology. Further exacerbating the debate between the paradigms, though, was an essentially political dispute between the liberal-democratic US tradition and the Marxist European tradition (Turner, p. 208).

While acknowledging the ongoing usefulness of the semi-quantitative empirical methodologies on which US media study was based (in particular, the power of Content Analysis to locate powerfully repeating narrative structures and selective representations), Turner sees the textual turn as supplying some key deficiencies in the ongoing analysis of communications media.

The idea of the text, then, corrects precisely the flaw in empirical or social sciences-based communication theory and its dealing with “