Structuring a communication space on the Internet. Newsgroups, web sites and email - article ; n°2 ; vol.7, pg 183-222
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Structuring a communication space on the Internet. Newsgroups, web sites and email - article ; n°2 ; vol.7, pg 183-222

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41 Pages
English

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Réseaux. The French journal of communication - Année 2000 - Volume 7 - Numéro 2 - Pages 183-222
Summary: In Internet communication, electronic writing is the only way to conduct relationships, in contrast to other communication situations such as telephone and face-to-face conversations. This means that participants are obliged to explain and manifest the structural elements of their interactions in writing. Written conversations have to formulate explicit substitutes for communication cues, such as tone of voice, body language and dress, that are implicit in everyday social interaction. From this point of view, the study of such conversations may throw some light on the mechanisms used for structuring social relations in general.
40 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.

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Valérie Baudouin
Julia Velkovska
Pauline Ridel
Structuring a communication space on the Internet.
Newsgroups, web sites and email
In: Réseaux, 2000, volume 7 n°2. pp. 183-222.
Abstract
Summary: In Internet communication, electronic writing is the only way to conduct relationships, in contrast to other
communication situations such as telephone and face-to-face conversations. This means that participants are obliged to explain
and manifest the structural elements of their interactions in writing. Written conversations have to formulate explicit substitutes
for communication cues, such as tone of voice, body language and dress, that are implicit in everyday social interaction. From
this point of view, the study of such conversations may throw some light on the mechanisms used for structuring social relations
in general.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Baudouin Valérie, Velkovska Julia, Ridel Pauline. Structuring a communication space on the Internet. Newsgroups, web sites
and email. In: Réseaux, 2000, volume 7 n°2. pp. 183-222.
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/reso_0969-9864_2000_num_7_2_3354A STRUCTURING
COMMUNICATION SPACE ON
THE INTERNET
Newsgroups, web sites and email
Valérie BEAUDOUIN and Julia VELKOVSKA
Translated by Pauline Ridel
Summary: In Internet communication, electronic writing is the only
way to conduct relationships, in contrast to other communication situa
tions such as telephone and face-to-face conversations. This means that
participants are obliged to explain and manifest the structural elements
of their interactions in writing. Written conversations have to formulate
183 explicit substitutes for communication cues, such as tone of voice, body language
and dress, that are implicit in everyday social interaction. From this point of view,
the study of such conversations may throw some light on the mechanisms used for
structuring social relations in general. STRUCTURING A COMMUNICATION SPACE ON THE INTERNET
tured: written asynchronous exchanges,
3 STRUCTURING mediated by electronic networks, in the
framework of a newsgroup.
A COMMUNIC The successive use, in asynchronous news
group interactions, of other 'spaces' on the
Internet for self-presentation (personal web
ATION SPACE sites) and for exchanges (other newsgroups,
IRC, ICQ and email) seems to us to be one of
the defining characteristics of this communic
ON THE ation context. While we shall concentrate on
how interactions are organised in a news
group, we shall also try to bear in mind that INTERNET
this sub-system forms part of a broader area
of communication that we interpret as a 'par
Newsgroups, email web sites and ticipation framework' in the sense used by
Erving Goffman (1973 et seq.).
We shall therefore take the following ques
tions as our starting point: how do actors
organise their interactions in the newsgroups
and how do they use other network
resources in the process of constructing these
interactions?4
Valérie BEAUDOUIN and Julia The aim of our study is to shed some light on
VELKOVSKA the practical procedures employed by the
participants in a newsgroup to create a
shared space of mutual comprehension. In
other words, the objective is to examine the
construction of an intersubjective space, variety of information, commun
understood as 'the sharing of interpretations, ication and transaction systems
which is negotiated and established locally, are available on the Internet. To
within the exchange itself (Mondada, A gain a greater understanding of
1999:22). The structuring of such a space the mechanics of social exhanges on elec
imposes constraints on two levels on the contronic networks, we have chosen to examine
tributions the participants can make: the the media we consider most suitable for
interpretation of messages and the chaninteraction: personal web sites, as an aid to
nelling of behaviour. projecting a self-description, and the various
communication tools. The latter are either This way of defining the intersubjective
synchronous (real-time — IRC and ICQ2) or space leads us to make a close analysis of
asychronous (time-lagged — newsgroups, how it is structured in terms of 'activity
email and mailing lists). Access is either fully types' (Levinson, 1992). These activity types
open (newsgroups and IRC) semi-private function as schémas of pertinence identify
(mailing lists) or private (email and ICQ). ing what is happening, but they also impose
This article3 offers an analysis of how one contraints on the contributions that can be
particular type of communication is made.
185 BEAUDOUIN and Julia VELKOVSKA Valérie
Analysis of network interactions in terms of formatting of relationships between partici
activity types focuses on the practical proce pants.
dures used by actors to make their actions
intelligible. Thus the intersubjective space is The multiform communication
configured in the course of the interaction, space as an asynchronous
and at the same time this configuration pre-
participation framework formats the rest of the activity. Wilson has
this to say on the subject: 'The need for The multiform communication
sequential demonstration of understanding
space leads us to presuppose a continuity of pert
Our point of entry into this subject was an inences from the outset: the pertinent inter
NNTP format self-help newsgroup for subpretive schema does not need to be
scribers to Cyberia, an Internet service renegotiated each time; once it is established,
provider (ISP). The group is a public space for and so long as it has not been modified, it is
written discussion, which has a memory, as used as a resource; at the same time, it is
previous messages (posts) can be read by all reconfirmed at every stage, (Wilson, 1991: 25-
comers for at least a month. All visitors can 26).
read the posts organised in discussion
So we are led to consider the dual nature of threads, make a response in an existing
mediated social relations: they are on the one thread, and create a new thread by asking a
hand conditioned by a pre-existing state pro question or by making a contribution. Just as
duced by the previous exchanges of the in a public round table, or an eighteenth-cen
actors on the various platforms in the inter tury intellectual salon, there are different
active space (newsgroups, personal web types of participants: active contributors
sites, ICQ, IRC and email) and on the other who reply to questions and lead the discus
they are constantly reworked and reconfig sions; people who ask questions; and specta
ured during ongoing interactions within the tors who read the posts without responding.
group. We shall look at the linkage between Everyone can take on one role or another
these two facets of communication in one depending on the context. As there is an
particular context, an Internet newsgroup extremely large number of newsgroups, each
and its associated platforms, but the question devoted to a specific subject, there are broad
embraces the broader issue of all social rela areas of thematic overlap between the
tions: 'How to account for the fact that a groups. The same message or discussion
social relationship is both a pre-existing state thread may be posted in several groups deal
before interactions occur, which "formats" ing with subjects that are perceived as simil
them and is therefore a resource, and is also ar. This practice is called crossposting.
the result of interactive configuration by an
Most of those taking part in a newsgroup association, and thus an accomplishment?'
have created a personal web site, which usu
(Quéré, 1987: 254) ally comprises a home page with links to var
ious subject pages. The web site may cover We shall start by describing the multiform
communication space as an asynchronous one or more subjects (main interest, hobby,
participation framework, and the types of region or town) and only rarely includes a
activity carried on in the group. We shall very personal self-description, at least in this
ISP newsgroup. Each one offers a list of links then analyse the procedures used to con
struct identities within this framework (per to other sites, gives access to the author's
sonal web sites and newsgroups) and the mailbox, and has a hit (visit) logger. The per-
186 STRUCTURING A COMMUNICATION SPACE ON THE INTERNET
sonal web site is a public space, open to all self: "He's a nice guy:" I'd like to get to
comers, a priori. know him", but just using the news
group is not enough. With email, the disAs well as these two public means of com
cussions are more personal; it's like munication, there are a number of private
when you meet a friend, you talk about communication tools. When we made our
any and everything. You manage to observations,5 the most frequently used tools
piece together a picture [of the other perwere email (asynchronous written messages)
son] but through email messages; I don't and written conversation tools (real-time
think you can do it through the newsgwritten messages) such as IRC and above all
roups.' (H, aged 59, retired) ICQ.
While email is used for one-to-one relationWe were able to access the home pages and
ships, as it enables correspondents to discuss newsgroup exchanges as observers, but not
more personal subjects, it is not considered to the private communications. We did howe
be as intimate as conversing through ICQ, ver obtain an insight into them through
which allows a degree of freedom and inforinterviews and an online survey.
mality that give it greater resemblance to The Internet thus offers a large number of
face-to-face conversation. communication services, which are
The fact is that if people don't have employed according to the relational objec
ICQ, that is a factor that means you can tives of users. Specific significations are asso
ciated with each component of the still have relationships, but it puts a
communication space. brake on them. All my friends have ICQ,
because ICQ lets you talk in real time. I The home page is perceived as a space for
think it's also a factor for making self-presentation, rather than an interactive
friends, because you can discuss things. area, even though the presentation is or
Because it's true that it's not very easy iented towards establishing relationships.
by email or in newsgroups all the same.'
The newsgroup is the group's living area, the (H, aged 16, lycée student)
way in which special relationships between
There are signs that the functions of the difsome of its members are visualised. This is
ferent spaces are specialised. The actors where the social structure is adjusted and
have associated specific significations with roles and status are attributed to
the various services on offer. The newsmembers. The newsgroup is also where
group is not used for private conversations; shared knowledge and a collective memory
you do not see discussion threads involving are created. It is a public space where relation
only two people, for example. The group ships are both constructed and are exposed
does not use email or home pages for to observation by all.
exchanges concerning the life of the group Email and written conversation tools (ICQ, as a whole.
IRC) are reserved for one-to-one relation
This specialization of communication spaces ships, which are perceived as more intimate:
becomes 'visible' when the rules are broken.
'The newsgroup will be a starting point,
For example, someone who posted a mesof course, usually for getting informat
sage in a newsgroup in response to emails ion and things like that, and gradually a
received in his private mailbox justified his personal relationship is built up. But not
conduct, which he knows is irregular: through the newsgroup itself. In my
Subject: password case, it's by email. You may say to
187 Valérie BEAUDOUIN and Julia VELKOVSKA
(DA: Goffman (1973a: 236) sees these excuses and
justifications in the same light as prayers — I would like to thank all those who
all three are forms of 'ritual atonement activihelped with my password problem. I
ty'. In this perspective, acts of atonement could not reply to them all individually
occur when the social rules of the context because I had another glitch with send
have been broken, or in a crisis situation, and ing mail! and I got in such a muddle that
they are intended to re-establish order and I lost their return addresses. But at last
'normality'. We can therefore interpret the all my troubles are over!!
practice of making excuses and offering justi
Thanks again fications in certain cases of combined use of
different communication platforms as revealSimilarly someone who has crossposted a
ing the existence of an underlying system of message justifies his action by saying that he
usage rules which assigns specific functions did not know which newsgroup his intended
correspondent was in. to each of them.
These sample explanations show that techni Each communication platform corresponds
cal communication spaces are subject to to a specific type of focalization. The news
social constructs which turn them into per group is for diffuse (non-focalised) interac
sonally experienced spaces. In point of fact, tions, while email and ICQ are for focalised
there is no technical constraint which would interactions. When an interaction is
require such specialization of platforms. — moving from a group relationship to a
Figure 1 The Communication Space
Caption: PP = Personal Web site; Liste de diffusion = Mailing List; Le forum = the Newsgroup;
the figures at bottom, left, are non-participating newsgroup readers.
188 STRUCTURING A COMMUNICATION SPACE ON THE INTERNET
one-to-one relationship — a different pla example, two people who got to know each
tform is used, or several at the same time. other through a newsgroup pursued their
This works in a very different way to the relationship by email and ICQ, which
Minitel [French videotext system] studied by enabled them to set up what are termed a
de Fornel (1989). His work showed that webring (of interconnected sites) and a mail
Minitel messaging was a web of focalised ing list:
interactions; each participant managed sev '...I started to visit newsgroups, where I
eral one-to-one relationships at the same found people who were expressing opinions
time. In newsgroups, on the other hand, and who always signed with the URL
there is a web of diffuse interactions, as sev [address] of their home pages... well, in the
eral discussion threads can be under way at end, sometimes, it made me want to go and
the same time. have a look. And I met several friends like
that... I met a friend who contributed to Different communication platforms are used
newsgroups, and once he wrote just to successively or in parallel by participants,
advertise that he had a web site. I went to see which implies that it must be possible to
his site and he asked for opinions, and I told move between the platforms. There is in fact
him what I thought. And then we became close linkage between the various services
friends, and we even started a site together. used, with the newsgroup playing a central
We set up a ring.' (H, aged 16, lycée student) role. Each post includes a signature which
gives the author's home page, email address, However, it is clear that 'intimate' relation
ICQ number and other contact details. Each ships on the network have quite a short life-
message posted in a newsgroup thus opens span. Exchanges become increasingly
up a very broad range of possibilities: it may sporadic and in the end nothing is left of the
elicit a response in the newsgroup, a visit to relationship but the reciprocal home-page
the home page or an email. In the same way, links.
a web site includes elements to stimulate
This fragmentation of the self between differinteraction, such as a mailbox or visitors'
ent platforms, the time lag between book. This flexibility in the use of the various
exchanges and the absence of the body as the communication tools leads us to postulate
uniting locus of the person, have their own that the different platforms, connected by the special effects on interactions. In a face-to-
practices of the actors, constitute one multi
face relationship, the message is transmitted form communication space. The diagram
at the same time as all the information pro(Fig. 1) aims to demonstrate the complexity
vided by body language, which enables the of the various components of this communic
interlocutors to situate each other, but in an ation space and how they are linked.
electronic relationship the message is sepa
The use of these different platforms goes rated from the body, and compensatory
hand in hand with relational life on the net modes of signalling the absent corporeal
work. Through these links, we have presence have to be found. The impossibility
observed that some relationships that grew of constructing a co-presence relationship
out of the newsgroup were continued in the and the time lag between exchanges means
private spaces of email or ICQ. A post in a that saving one's face, and that of others,
newsgroup can elicit a visit to a home page, becomes a less burdensome constraint upon
where the visitor may leave a message, the interaction. An electronic exchange
which in turn provokes a response, and so requires less commitment from the partici
on: this is how a relationship can start. For pants, which could explain why electronic
189 Valérie BEAUDOUIN and Julia VELKOVSKA
relationships are perceived by those who platforms. So their asynchronous and medi
ated nature do not permit the constitution of a enter into them as more impersonal and
physical or even a situational co-presence (de anonymous than face-to-face relationships.
Fornel, 1989: 37). Our argument, however, is They elicit less commitment, are less con
that each interaction formats its own framestraining, and thus offer more freedom. But
because they are too far removed from the work. From this standpoint, one of the specific
body, they also lose some of their value. On features of Internet relationships is that they
this point we agree with the observations take place in a fluid space in which the differ
made by Jouet (1989: 65) about the Axiens, a ent isolated platforms within the area of the
Minitel community: 'There is an equivalence network can be interconnected by the paths
between the immateriality of their exchanges chosen by the actors and the dynamic of their
and the superficiality of their social relation relations. Thus, in building relationships and
identities in a newsgroup, the participants' ships'.
home pages and/or their email/ICQ corr
The multiform space as espondence can be used as resources in the con
participation framework struction of interactions. The notion of
'participation framework' therefore seems to The various components of the communicat
us to offer an interesting standpoint from ion space described above can be inter
which to analyse interactions on electronic netpreted as forming a participation framework
works; that of 'all the activity in the situation' in the sense used by Goffman (1981), that is
(Goffman, 1981). Considered in this light, the to say, as circumscribing the access of partici
study is no longer fragmented in terms of the pants to a common area and to the events
platforms or services used, nor reduced to the that occur within it.
sole standpoint of active contributors.
It may at first sight seem difficult to apply this Approaching the subject through participation
notion of Goffman' s to analysis of the system framework analysis allows consideration of
formed by Internet newsgroups and their the specific features that computer-mediated
associated personal web sites, mainly because communication (CMC) presents compared to
the context studied here differs in its space- face-to-face conversation, and to reflect on the
time dimensions from the situation of physical constitution of a type of 'mediated co-pres
co-presence to which Goffman' s participation ence' that is asynchronous and partial, based
framework refers. His notion relates to partic on the posts and web sites produced by those
ular situations spatially limited to physical co- interacting on the Internet. It also enables us to
presence, which constitutes as it were an area take into account the various types of partici
shared by the participants: 'Every time a word pant according to their 'participatory status',
is spoken, all those within range of the event (Goffman, 1981)6 including 'invisible audi
have the status of participant in it, to some ences' (readers in a newsgroup and home page
degree. The codification of these different posi visitors who do not leave any comments).
tions and the normative specialization of what
is acceptable conduct in each situation consti We shall therefore refer to a participation
tute a backdrop which is essential for framework that is asynchronous and medi
analysing the interaction...' (Goffman, 1981: 9) ated by an electronic platform. The different
But in the case examined here, the interactions elements in such a complex communication
are asynchronous (in newsgroups and on web space form a participation framework
because they can be used in the construction sites) and mediated by electronic writing. Fur
of a single interaction. thermore, they are scattered over different
190 STRUCTURING A COMMUNICATION SPACE ON THE INTERNET
posts, these exchanges constitute a particuTypes of activity in the
larly useful area for building and reaffirming
newsgroup identities and relationships within the group.
In practice, how is an interaction constructed One format involves interactions concerning
within this general participation framework restating the rules in a general way (dealing
defined by the paths chosen by, and the with 'netiquette',9 spelling, and ways of
encounters between, the actors in the various introducing oneself or advertising one's web
'spaces' of the network? site) and the other comprises discussions in
the form of jokes, puns and oratorical joustTo answer this question, we shall employ
type' con ing. These two formats, 'critical' and 'jocuLevinson's dual-function 'activity
lar', are reserved for seasoned members and cept (Levinson, 1992). This concept first
require greater communication skills and imposes a type of constraint on the partici
more detailed knowledge of the framework pants and provides a context: it therefore
than the first type of activity. They tend to defines what shall be a valid contribution to
surface when members switch the focus of the current activity. It also functions as an
the exchange, often bouncing off a technical interpretation blueprint: it helps to deter
question, which in this case acts as a thematic mine how a post should be interpreted and
resource and gives the 'old hands' a chance what inferences to draw in the framework of
to cross swords. the current activity. The activity type thus
sets out the rules of the game, and knowl We shall look in more detail at three activity
edge of these rules forms part of the commun types which seem to us to structure the expe
ication skills needed to participate correctly rience of mediated communication in this
in the current interaction. One line of inquiry newsgroup: the exchange of technical advice,
for understanding an activity type is to find reminders of the rules, and humorous joust
out what function the interaction has from ing. In examining each of them, we shall
the participants' point of view. identify the conversation structure (the
mechanisms for allotting turns to speak) and We shall seek to identify the principal types
the activity type (which determines the rules of activity in newsgroups (Bensaude, 1998:
of procedure and interpretive templates). 95)7 by examining how the participation
framework (or format) is established and
Exchange of information on regulated for each of them. We shall therefore
be concentrating on the structure of the activ- technical subjects
ity.
The conversation structure of the 'exchange
Several activity types can be found in this of technical information' activity type usu
newsgroup. The type 'exchange of informat ally follows the pattern of adjacent pairs — a
ion on technical subjects' predominates, question elicits a response, as in the follow
with the largest number of posts, and corr ing example:
esponds to the stated purpose of the group: (DA:
technical self-help. An analysis of the posts
(2) Subject: Creating my second using textual statistical tools8 enabled us to
mailbox establish that this type of interaction
accounted for more than three quarters of I would like to create a second mailbox
posts. but I can't manage it. Some help would
be very useful. Thanks. Other activity formats emerged during the
interactions. Even though there were fewer Séverine.
191