March 5, 2007

Lit. Review: Participatory Genre, by Thomas Erickson

• Problematizes the notion of “virtual communities,” defending instead the position that digital communication is a participatory genre.
• Genre: purpose of the communication, regularities of form and substance, and the institutional, social, and technological forces which underlie those regularities.
• What is unique to online communication is its highly participative and rapidly evolving nature.
• Community:
o Membership: Can be open or closed, links people together based on commonalities.
o Relationships: A community is partially overlapping networks of relationships- some strong, some weak, some
o Commitment and reciprocity.
o Shared values and practices.
o Collective goods.
o Duration: Expected to have a long existence.
• What does seem of importance is the creation of a shared informational artifact that is brought about through virtual discourse- whether or not personal relationships are formed.
• Genres evolve over time through reciprocal interaction between institutionalized practices and individual human action- the Internet works to speed up this evolutionary process.
• Method: Restricted attention to about 6 conferences within the online community Café Utne.
• A linguistic analysis of the Cafe's conversations, in message board format, and the ways in which participants engage with one another, considering the dearth of social pressure to respond. This dearth is also compensated for through extensive jokes and wordplay.
• Properties of the discourse medium: sequentiality is preserved, all participants see the same thing, newcomers can read the whole conversation before they participate.

With the advent of this age of "egocasting", virtual discourse is increasingly tied to the personal profiles of participants, thus decreasing the need for introductory posts. What struck me as a particularly interesting point in this article was the discussion of how the discourse medium shapes participation. A quick glance at a message board thread will supply the user with an arsenal of information needed to assess the conversational rhythm, the audience, the content and the length of the average response. There is a considerable lack of social pressure to engage in the discourse itself- a marked difference from face-to-face interactions. "Lurking", in 'net geek terminology, is the common practice of following virtual conversations without actually participating. Lurking is acceptable in the virtual realm because it goes entirely undetected- however, in the physical realm such a practice would be labeled as spying or eavesdropping.

This article is quite dated (1997), and centered on old-school message board communities. Where and how does group discourse occur in the communities I am exploring?

1. Myspace: 22 general forums. Each poster's profile icon appears next to their username, age, location and gender. Respondants can quote a previous post, or simply reply to it. If message boards are too lifeless, a user also has the option of visiting chat rooms designated for each forum.

2. Facebook: Users can post publicly visible messages for groups they are members of, events they are interested in, posted photos and shared items, as well as "notes" (Facebook blogs) and individual profiles. However, they are not traditional message boards, but rather time-stamped, individual comments that are centered more on the group/event/photo/item/person in question, rather than a coherent "conversation".

3. Tribe: Each Tribe has as its focal point a traditional message board, but membership is necessary in order to post. Many Tribes have open membership, while some tribes require permission from the tribe administrator in order to join.

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