E 379S Senior Seminar: The No-Spam Zone: Language Use and Linguistic Behavior on the Internet
Dr. Sara Kimball
Office Calhoun 15 (Phone: 471-8363)
Office Hours: M-W 10:30-12:00
Course Web site:
The Internet as we know it today has its roots in the experimental networking of large computers for the Department of Defense in the 1960s. Even early in the Net's history, however, people were using it to communicate in a variety of ways, and since the Net's beginnings, a special vocabulary and set of conventions for language use have grown up in the ever-changing environment of networked communication.
The purpose of this course is for you to study, participate in and write a twenty-page ethnographic description of an online, interactive communications forum, or community. The forum you choose to study may be synchronous, or real-time (e.g., a MUD, MOO, IRC channel, or chat room), or it may be asynchronous (e.g., a bulletin board, discussion list, or Usenet newsgroup). Since we will be investigating online interactions conducted in a medium that incorporates features of spoken and written language, the major requirement for the forum you investigate is that it involve communication among human participants; for example, transactions made through a commercial Web site, or a description of a Web site that provides interactivity solely through forms are out of bounds.
In the first part of this seminar, we will trance the growth of Internet vocabulary and conventions for linguistic behavior. We will look at how particular terms are used in context and how conventions for effective, civil communication (Netiquette) have evolved and been enforced by online communities. We will collect examples of usage of particular terms and learn how dictionary makers (lexicographers) write definitions based on such collections, and we will explore the etymologies of some well known terms--for example, what's the relationship between e- in email and e- in etailing? We will also try to take an online "field trip" to a number of interesting dictionaries on the Web. In addition, we will study conventions for writing ethnographic descriptions of both real-life and virtual communities.
The final paper for the seminar will be an ethnography (or case study) of linguistic behavior in a particular online forum (a MUD, newsgroup, discussion list, or chatroom ... etc.). I will ask you to become involved with the forum as a participant-observer early in the semester. Through a series of short assignments asking you to pay attention to particular aspects of communication in your forum--for example, terms used, negotiation and resolution of disputes in an environment that is purely textual, and use of use of cues for tone and intent such as the smiley ;-) --you will build toward your final study.
Things you will need for this course
- Online access (including Web access)
- The ability to log (save) and review transcripts of interactions.
- Course readings packet (available at Jenn's).
Possible forums and some guidelines for choosing a forum to study
- Your choice of forum is not limited by topic. For example, should you choose to follow a newsgroup, this is your chance to read and participate in discussions about hobbies, intellectual interests, pets, or any of a wide variety of topics.
- You may wish to chose a forum, medium, or topic with which you are familiar or comfortable, or you may wish to explore a new forum, medium, or topic. Whether or not you chose a forum that you are familiar with, it should be well trafficked enough for you to gather data without being overwhelmed. You may find, for example, that a sample of messages from a highly trafficked newsgroup or MUD will be easier to work with than every single post.
- Although there are no general restrictions on content, the content should involve linguistic interactions between human participants, and (ideally) it should involve discussion, debate, expressions of group or factional solidarity, and real content of some sort. I am NOT defining "real content" as academic content; in fact, you may find that a forum devoted to a hobby, activity, or common interest provides more interesting information about group interactions than an academic discussion list does. If you are a new comer to a newsgroup it might be a good idea to review previous posts to the group using, for example Deja.com to get some sense of its volume and the content and interest of posts to the group. You should avoid groups that are relatively empty, that are dominated by "cross-talk" (i.e. a few obsessive posters who are not really communicating with each other), or that show limited interactivity. If you wish to explore a MUD or chat site you may, after some observation, decide to concentrate on a particular area or room. You may, if you wish, choose to explore the culture of a combat-oriented MUD, but you must describe and analyze the MUD's culture instead of just participating in "hack-n-slash" activities.
- If you are unfamiliar with a particular site, list, group, or medium, it is strongly advised that you read information about the forum (a FAQ, charter, or AUP) and lurk for a while (i.e. read without contributing) before participating. Observe and explore your community first before making it the object of your study.
Some ground rules
- You must abide by policies for the use of computing resources established both by the University of Texas and by the administrators of any remote site you choose to study.
- You must follow general rules of netiquette ((Inter)net etiquette) (see, e.g., the PBS Netiquette Page for various guidelines): no trolling, spamming, flaming, off-topic, or inappropriate communications.
- You must meet deadlines for writing assignments and conferences, since these are designed to make the process of writing a twenty-page paper a less formidable activity than it seems at first glance. The assignments can be considered initial drafts of sections of the final paper, and the end-of-semester conferences will provide an opportunity to review the work you have done and figure out strategies for putting your writing together into a coherent whole.
- You must make two copies of all writing assignments, one for me and one for a writing buddy (or buddies), who will be asked to provide comments on your writing. The purpose of this is to provide you with feedback from multiple sources.
- You must be prepared to participate in class discussions and other activities both by doing assigned readings on time and by logging in to your chosen forum, keeping records of interactions, and supplying examples, observations, and analyses in class discussions. These contributions need not be "perfect" nor polished--in fact, you will probably find that you change your initial assumptions while you are engaged in an on-going research project. The point of this requirement, however, is to provide you with a chance for feedback on your project as you are working on it and to exchange ideas, observations, and hypotheses with your classmates.
- Papers supporting your final seminar paper
- Three-to-four (3-4) page topic proposal and initial description of the community you are studying.
- Three-to-four (3-4) page paper defining and analyzing the use of some of the terms used in your community.
- Three-to-four (3-4) page paper describing and analyzing "conversational" practices and presentations of self in your community.
- Three-to-four (3-4) page paper describing and analyzing negotiation of power and politeness strategies in your community.
- Final twenty-page seminar paper with draft.
- Papers supporting your final seminar paper: 15% each (total 60%)
- Final twenty-page seminar paper: 45%
- Participation in class discussions and other class activities: 15%
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Comments to: Sara Kimball
Last updated January, 2001