Social Interaction on the Net:
Virtual Community as Participatory Genre*
Apple Research Laboratories
(now at) firstname.lastname@example.org
The phrase "virtual community" is often used to describe long term,
computer-mediated conversations amongst large groups. This paper suggests that
such conversations may be better viewed as instances of a participatory genre,
rather than as community. A genre-oriented analysis is useful because it encourages
a focus on the medium within which the discourse is embodied. As an example
we analyze an on-line conversation from the perspective of genre: we identify
its communicative purpose, regularities of form and substance (such as word
play and affirmation), and the situation which gives rise to these regularities.
We then examine ways in which the discourse medium supports these regularities
and enables participants to establish and reinforce the conversation's underlying
conventions. More generally, we believe that genre-oriented analyses such as
this can play an important role in the design of participatory media.
I'm interested in the issue of how to support computer-mediated social interaction
among large groups of people, particularly long term, textually-mediated interaction.
This type of interaction--which I'll refer to simply as on-line discourse--is
often discussed using the conceptual framework of virtual community (e.g., see
Rheingold  for a survey). Indeed, virtual community has been applied to
synchronous chat systems such as IRC , asynchronous conferencing systems
such as the WELL [15, 17] and netnews groups , and systems like MUDs and
MOOs that provide both synchronous and asynchronous communications (e.g., [3,
While virtual community is an engaging and provocative notion, the concept of
community is not always well-suited to describing on-line discourse. In particular,
the frame of community offers little guidance to those of us interested in designing
the infrastructure for supporting on-line discourse.
In this paper, I suggest a complementary framework that provides a useful shift
in emphasis: namely, using the concept of genre to analyze and understand on-line
discourse. Genre shifts the focus from issues such as the nature and degree
of relationship among "community members", to the purpose of the communication,
its regularities of form and substance, and the institutional, social, and technological
forces which underlie those regularities.
At the same time, genre is not a perfect fit: on-line discourse has some differences
from traditional examples of genre. One difference is that on-line discourse
is highly participatory in nature. Whereas most genres have a distinction between
producer and consumer, or author and audience, in on-line discourse the distinction
between the producer and the consumer is blurred. A further distinction is that
the turns in such discourse can succeed one another very rapidly, thus allowing
the conventions that underlie the discourse to be shaped, reinforced, or renegotiated
much more rapidly than in traditional genres. Nevertheless, a genre-oriented
analysis is particularly useful because it encourages a focus on the medium
within which the discourse is embodied (hereafter the discourse medium), and
the way in which that medium allows the participants to understand and shape
the underlying conventions of discourse.
This paper begins by laying out the basic implications of community and genre
as frameworks for analysis, and arguing that there are many interesting examples
of on-line discourse that do not fit well into the community framework. Next,
we look at an example of on-line discourse: a conversation from an interactive
salon called "Cafe Utne." The genre framework is used to analyze the
conversation, and a number of the conversation's characteristics are identified.
Particular attention is paid to the ways in which the discourse medium enables
participants to establish and reinforce these expectations. Finally, we conclude
with some reflections on the design of discourse media, and the utility of genre
analysis as a means to that end.
2. Community and Genre
Let's begin by taking a look at some of the implications of the term "community."
While "community" has a vast number of definitions (for example, see
[9, 5, 16, 17, 8]), it commonly suggests the following:
- Membership: central to the notion of community are issues of membership
and exclusion. Some people are in, others are out. Communities range from
being open to anyone who shares particular ideas or interests to communities
accessible only to those who meet certain criteria of geography, ethnicity,
- Relationships: Community members form personal relationships with one another.
These relationships can run the gamut from casual acquaintance, to friendships,
to deep emotional bonds. Yet, communities as generally conceived are too large
for everyone to know one another well; instead, a community is best viewed
as partially overlapping networks of relationships.
- Commitment and generalized reciprocity: community implies a sense of mutual
commitment to the community: one member may help another simply because they
belong to the same community, not because of a personal relationship.
- Shared values and practices: community members may share a common set of
concerns, values, goals, practices, procedures and symbols. Communities typically
have a shared history, and shared artifacts and places.
- Collective goods: Communities participate in the creation, control, and
distribution of various collective goods.
- Duration: the aforementioned characteristics take on importance only because
the community as a collectivity is expected to have a long existence.
Now, while community does indeed seem to be a suitable frame for some sites
of on-line discourse (e.g., certain MUDs and MOOs), there are many sites of
discourse where issues of membership, shared values, relationships, mutual commitment,
duration, etc., seem to apply weakly, if at all. For example, The Palace(TM)
 is an internet-accessible graphical environment permitting people to connect,
and carry on real-time, textually-mediated multi-way chats while represented
as graphical avatars. The Palace sites I have visited (any registered user of
The Palace may create their own site) seem a cross between a cocktail party
and a cruising zone: the anonymity, the superficial nature of most conversations,
and the ephemeral nature of the interactions seem distant from any notion of
community--yet, nevertheless, still of interest to designers and users. Another
example is Ferndale(TM) , an on-line, interactive soap opera accessible via
the world wide web. Ferndale features a cast of characters, a virtual place,
and an on-going narrative with which visitors can interact by exchanging email
with the characters, or by participating in scheduled, on-line chat sessions.
Ideas suggested (or roles enacted) by visitors may show up in future episodes
of Ferndale. While Ferndale is a fascinating experiment, characterizing it as
virtual community likewise seems problematic. Ferndale's self description as
an interactive soap opera--with the implied separation between the audience
and the cast--seems much more apropos.
More generally, on-line discourse may be useful and engaging to its participants
even if the participants form no lasting relationships, even if they share few
values, and even if they know that in a pinch they can't count
on one another. On-line discourse may be of value even if--to take a hypothetical
case--each person participated once, and only once, and then never returned.
What is important, in many cases, is the communication itself--the shared informational
artifact that is created by the participants--rather than a real or perceived
bond among the participants in the communication. In these cases, I believe
that genre provides a more useful framework for making sense of the sort of
activity that is happening. Genre analysis is also useful because it shifts
the focus from the participants and the putative relationships among them to
shared artifacts (that is, instances of the genre). This stance is particularly
useful to designers of on-line systems because it focuses on the very things
over which designers have some control: the conventions of form and content
that typify a genre.
Let's take a closer look at the concept of genre.
The concept of genre has changed considerably over the last several decades.
Traditionally genre has been defined as a classification of types of spoken
and written discourse in terms of their form and substance. Examples include
elegies, epics, and encyclopedia articles. However, more recently, scholars
from a variety of fields have taken a more situated approach to the definition
of genre (see Bazerman  for some of the converging streams of work). Miller
, in a seminal paper, has argued that genre are typified rhetorical actions
carried out in response to socially defined, recurrent situations. That is,
genres provide ways and means of accomplishing social actions in particular
situations; it is recurrent situations--with their similarities of purpose,
audience, and other constraints--that give rise to regularities of form and
substance in genre as writers or speakers attempt to achieve their communicative
ends. Swales  has built on this conception of genre by developing the notion
of discourse communities. Members of a discourse community are those who participate
in a genre: they have shared goals, they communicate with one another, and they
use various participatory mechanisms to provide information and feedback. So
we have arrived back at the notion of community, albeit one that is weaker than
the traditional conception: discourse communities are more in the background,
as mechanisms for supporting conversation, rather than as an end in themselves.
A variety of analyses have been based on this notion of genre. Most relevant
to this paper's focus is work by Yates and Orlikowski  on the evolution
of business memos. They trace the evolution of the business memo genre as it
emerges from the business letter genre around the turn of the century, in response
to institutional changes (larger companies, new managerial philosophies), technological
changes (the advent of typewriters and vertical filing), and social pressures
(mandates from upper management; the development of customs in the new professional
of typist). Similarly, they examine changes in the memo genre brought about
by the shift from typewritten paper memos to email memos, again calling attention
to a complex interplay of institutional, technological, and social forces. Their
overall claim, that genres evolve over time through reciprocal interaction between
institutionalized practices and individual human actions is of particular interest
here, because on-line interaction has the potential to greatly speed up the
evolution of genres.
This is a very brief sketch of the concept of genre, but it is enough to provide
the background for an analysis of on-line discourse. In summary, looking at
on-line discourse through the frame of genre suggests a focus on:
- the communicative purpose of the discourse
- the nature of the discourse community
- the regularities of form and content of the communication, and the underlying
expectations and conventions
- the properties of the recurrent situations in which the genre is employed,
including the institutional, technological, and social forces that give rise
to the regularities of the discourse
3. An Example: Cafe Utne
In the next two sections of the paper, I describe an example of on-line discourse
and analyze it in terms of genre. Because my ultimate goal is to understand
how to design effective systems for supporting on-line discourse, the principle
focus will be on the way in which the underlying technology embodied in the
discourse medium shapes the characteristics of the discourse.
3.1. About Cafe Utne
Cafe Utne is an on-line conversational salon run by the Utne Reader
magazine. The Cafe is billed as an "informal gathering place for people
who want a fun, relaxing, and harassment-free atmosphere," and who "like
discussing ideas & issues in a thoughtful, respectful manner." 
In actual fact the Cafe lives up to its billing, with conversation there being
generally polite, friendly, and thoughtful.
Begun in October of 1995, Cafe Utne's current membership is over 8000, and it
is said to be one of the busiest "Web conferencing communities" on
the Internet, with over 124,000 messages posted in 2,000 different conversations.
In an electronic newsletter optionally sent to participants, its management
writes: "In August, 1,744 different people (45% female) visited the Cafe,
adding 21,822 posts. Just over 35% of the visitors posted messages." 
Membership in Cafe Utne is free, although people must register to join. One
of the policies of Cafe Utne is to maintain a gender balance of at least 1:2;
this policy is implemented by having a waiting period--which can range from
a few days to about two weeks--for males who wish register. Once they are members,
people can connect to the web site and, by entering a name and password, can
then navigate a set of web pages, each of which contains a conversation (or
meta-information such as a list of conversations about a particular topic).
In general, members can participate in any conversation, and anonymity is not
permitted, although the Cafe has been experimenting with a few private and/or
anonymous conversations. While the primary usage model is a place where people
come, and find conversations in which they're interested in participating, Cafe
Utne also regularly invites special guests to participate in on-line panels
and open discussions.
The Cafe appears to be supported by sponsorships, and has also begun soliciting
people to become voluntary paid members as is done by public access radio and
TV. The Cafe also draws on and refers to content from the Utne Reader
magazine (available by paid subscription), and thus undoubtedly plays a role
in publicizing and stimulating interest in the magazine.
3.2. A Note on Method
This is by no means a comprehensive study of Cafe Utne. While I have participated
in the Cafe from its beginning, my attention has been confined to about half
a dozen conferences, and to one to half a dozen conversations within each conference.
Thus, this paper does not reflect a comprehensive analysis of the content of
conversations within Cafe Utne. Given the size of Cafe Utne this would be a
considerable task. The analysis of content described here draws upon a single
conversation, in a single conference. While this is appropriate for the purposes
of this paper--namely, exploring the utility of genre as an analytic framework--the
reader should be wary of generalizing from the particularities of the analysis
to Cafe Utne as a whole, or on-line discourse in general.
3.3. The Cafe Utne Interface
The interface to Cafe Utne is provided by a software application called Motet
, which generates html that may be viewed through forms-capable web browsers.
The interface is principally textual buttons arrayed on a web page (see figure
1 for an example). The controls of the user's web browser can also be used to
navigate among pages already displayed.
The content of Cafe Utne is structured in terms of a simple hierarchy. There
is a main page, which provides access to the conferences (as well as general
information); each conference has a page (e.g., figure 1) that provides access
to its of topics (i.e. conversations); and each topic has a page which contains
the conversation (e.g., figure 2).
Figure 1. Part of the Cafe Utne interface: a topics page.
3.4. An Example Conversation
Now lets look at a segment of a conversation (see figure 2). This is an from
the "Introduce Yourself" conversation in the "InfoAge" topic.
(Note: names and identifying information has been changed; conversation quoted
with permission of participants.)
In the example below, each turn in the conversation is separated by dashed lines.
Each message (also known as a posting) begins with a header that specifies the
conference name; topic and comment numbers; the user's "handle" (usually
the user's name--though it can be changed when the user enters the conference)
and ID; the date and time of the comment; and the length of the comment. The
header is followed by the body of the message which is relatively unstructured.
We'll consider features of its form and substance in the next section.
Figure 2. Excerpt from Cafe Utne conversation
InfoAge.2.59: Kitty Feldman (kf ) Mon, 27 Nov 95 18:20:39 CST
- Hello all. I've just found the web and cyberspace in general after
13 years of computing in the mainframe environment (I feel like I've come
out of a cave!) I work at a medium-sized midwestern university providing support
for administrative clients using student-based information.
- I'm very interested in the political aspect of the virtual community
thread that's been started here and look forward to jumping into that discussion.
- To all the welcomers: thanks for the encouragement!
- My web page:http://www.*.edu/*/*/*/kf.html
- InfoAge.2.60: Harold Stevens (hs ) Mon, 27 Nov 95 22:50:50
CST (7 lines)
- Welcome aboard, Kitty!
- Programming mainframes. That sounds serious . . . like housetraining
- I like cats too. But feel right at home and jump to any topic you like.
It's a pretty friendly environment.
- InfoAge.2.61: George Smith (gs ) Wed, 29 Nov 95 14:30:41 CST
- Greetings, y'all. I haven't been down in the WELL. I haven't swimmed
the River. I'm a new Cafe lurker wondering "where's the context for virtual
community?" IRL, I'm a dad of a 2-
- year-old son; 32-year-old communications designer for a music store
in Orlando; musician; writer; artist; activist. Virtual Community is an interesting
concept, but does it further isolate us from physical real life? I'll check
out these links and hope for insight. Thanx to all for intelligent postings!
- InfoAge.2.62: RD Hoffman (rdh ) Wed, 29 Nov 95 18:14:56 CST
- Hi everyone. I'm also floating in here from the Well. I'm a reporter
based down in LA and am enjoying an incredibly sunny November. I tend to be
a bit quiet, so I'll probably only pop into the discussion every once in a
while. This cafe definitely looks promising so far.
- InfoAge.2.63: Lori Jones (lj ) Wed, 29 Nov 95 22:30:24 CST
A reporter in LA, eh? Do you know woodrow?
- InfoAge.2.64: RD Hoffman (rdh ) Thu, 30 Nov 95 19:07:57 CST
- Lori: Wilson? He's not up for commenting on much these days.
Figure 2. Excerpt from Cafe Utne conversation
3.5. Cafe Utne as a Genre
Is Cafe Utne a virtual community? While the term "community" is used
in describing the cafe, it is easy to raise questions about its applicability.
The Cafe's size, at 8000 members, is awfully large for a community: while it
might very well be a convivial assemblage of strangers, it seems likely that
hallmarks of community like overlapping networks of relationships, generalized
reciprocity among members, and the absence of a shared history and symbols,
are absent or at least weak. However, the point of this paper is that the question
of community is irrelevant for our purposes. Clearly, judging by its activity
and continued popularity over the first year of its existence, the Cafe does
provide value to its membership, and seems a site of activity worthy of investigation.
Let's look at the Cafe Utne conversation as an instance of a genre. For the
purposes of our analysis, I'll focus on four aspects of genre: the situation
to which the genre is a response; the genre's communicative purpose; and its
regularities of form and substance.
3.5.1. The Situation
The participant in the conversation (I use participant to refer to
either reader or contributor) is located in front of a computer, reading a screen
of text. The size of the audience is unknown to the participant, although we
may assume it to be large and composed primarily of strangers. Other participants
are not present: this is true in the obvious sense that they are not physically
co-located, and also true in the computer-mediated sense, in that participants
(even if on-line at the same time) have no representations within the Cafe.
The only signs of participants are the messages they may type (this may be contrasted
with a MUD, where there is a textual representation of a participant that is
"visible" to anyone else in the same area). The consequence of this
is that the participant is therefore free of many of the social pressures to
participate that are present in a face to face conversation.
Yet, for the conversation to be a success, the participant must move from the
role of reader to that of contributor. There are a number of barriers that must
be overcome: the participant must have a desire to communicate; the participant
must have an opening for his or her contribution; and the participant must actually
be able (in the sense of being able to use the software) to contribute. As we
shall see, much effort--on the part of conversational participants, as well
as on the part of the system administrators and designers--is devoted to overcoming
3.5.2. Communicative Purpose
In general, the communicative purpose of Cafe Utne is simply to have
polite, friendly, and thoughtful, topic-oriented conversations.
In the conversation excerpted in the previous section, the purpose of the conversation
is for people interested in the "Info Age" conference (a set of conversations
on digital culture and virtual community) to introduce themselves. It's purpose
is explicitly stated as "Say a little bit about yourself and your interests
in this area. Extend a welcome to other newcomers. Include a link to your homepage,
if you have one...." (By convention, the first item in each conversation
describes its purpose; similarly, "introduce yourself" conversations
like this are a feature of each conference in Cafe Utne.)
3.5.3 Regularities of Form
Now let's look at some of the regularities of form found in Cafe Utne
conversations. Most, though not all, of these regularities are reinforced by
the software, and so are found throughout conversations in the Cafe.
- Text-Based. One property of Cafe Utne conversations is that they are textual
in general, and presented as world wide web documents in particular. Thus,
participants can enter typed text, and also create or follow links to other
web documents either inside or outside the Cafe. Although in principle users
could link pictures and other non-textual media of relevance to their Cafe
conversation, in practice I haven't seen this happen except in links to outside
home pages, where the pictures, sounds, etc. are related to the home page,
rather than the particular conversation. In general, the use of links seems
- The Message Body. Messages posted in the cafe tend to be relatively short:
a couple dozen to a couple hundred words. A facility enabling the conversant
to "hide" a long posting by making it a separate document accessed
by a link is rarely used, though sometimes needed. The body of the message
has little structure: while the conversational contributions shown frequently
begin with greetings, this is particular to the "introduce yourself"
conversation, and is much less frequent in other Cafe Utne conversations.
- The Message Header. As in the example, each conversational contribution
is begun with a header that includes name, user ID, time stamp, and length
of comment. The contents of the header is under the control of the software,
although the user may change their name when entering the general conference,
in my experience this has been infrequent.
- The Sequential, Linear Structure of the Conversation. The messages posted
to a conversation are presented as a single sequence of contributions, all
within the same window. Messages frequently refer and respond to the previous
message; reference is usually an integral part of the message content, as
opposed to explicitly quoting parts of a previous message as is done in email.
3.5.4. Regularities of Substance
Aside from the fact that Cafe Utne conversations generally adhere to
the topic of conversation (though there may be considerable topic drift over
time), I've observed a number of regularities in the substance of the Info Age
"Introduce Yourself" conversation.
New participants often make moves to control expectations of their performance.
One type of move is the declaration of inexperience. Newcomers, to the conversation,
the Cafe, or to on-line discourse in general, often begin by stating their inexperience
("I'm a new Cafe lurker..." comment 61). Another move is the participation
hedge, in which participants a try to downplay expectations about the degree
to which they'll participate: "I tend to be a bit quiet, so I'll probably
only pop into the discussion every once in a while."
These moves are met by regular participants, who respond with their own moves
of welcoming and encouragement. Thus, in comment 60, we have "Welcome aboard,
Kitty!", expressed by a regular participant, later followed by "But
feel right at home and jump to any topic you like. It's a pretty friendly environment."
It is also common for participants to respond positively to posts that are particularly
thoughtful or self-revealing with affirmations or thanks. These posts usually
directly follow the target message.
Finally, jokes and word play are not uncommon, and make the conversation more
pleasant and engaging, as well as decreasing its formality. These are typically
very short comments that play on immediately preceding comments. Thus comment
2.60 ("Programming mainframes. That sounds serious... like housetraining
dinosaurs.") plays off 2.59, as does 2.64 on 2.63.
While none of these conversational moves--except for welcoming--are directly
connected to the conversation's topic, they are important for encouraging participation,
and in compensating for the lack of direct social pressure implicit in face
to face conversational situations.
4. Designing Participatory Genre
In this section I discuss ways in which the regularities of form and substance
of the Cafe Utne conversations arise out of, or are facilitated by, the nature
of the discourse medium. By discourse medium, I mean to focus on the constraints
and affordances of the technology which supports the conversation (I prefer
this term to"user interface" because interface is often understood
as referring to icons and menus, and because it does not include the content).
I am not so much concerned with the physical level aspects of the technology--although
the requirement to access and use keyboards, computers, displays, phone lines,
and modems imposes a variety of physical, social, and financial constraints--as
with the functional nature of the conversational system. The goal is to gain
insight on how to design discourse media to support on-line discourse.
4.1. Properties of the Discourse Medium
Let's begin by looking at the properties of the discourse medium used by Cafe
Utne. As evident in the discussion of regularities of form, the Cafe Utne discourse
medium primarily supports text: only text may be entered, though since URLs
may be entered, links can be created to other media types. The discourse medium
also provides structured textual headers for each message.
Another property of the discourse medium is that it is persistent. Unlike synchronous
chat systems, where a conversational contribution is seen only participants
who are on-line at the moment it made, contributions are preserved (in an easily
accessibly form) indefinitely, and so conversations can (and normally do) occur
among people who are not connected at the same time.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the discourse medium is that it uses a
conversation-as-document model. That is, in contrast to mailing lists and certain
bulletin board systems, in which each contribution to a conversation is a separate
document that can (and must) be opened and closed independently, the Cafe Utne
conversational system treats each conversation as a single entity which is opened
or closed as a whole. There are three important properties of the discourse
medium spring from this:
- all participants see the same thing
- newcomers to a conversation see the entire conversation before reaching
a point where they can contribute
- sequentiality is preserved (that is, if I add a comment, it will appear
following the last comment I see on the page)
(To be strictly accurate, none of these last three properties is actually guaranteed
. Due to the mechanics of web-page updating, sequentiality will occasionally
not be preserved, and all participants may not see the same thing, at least
simultaneously. However, this happens only in the case when the on-going conversational
turns are close together in real time; so far, most conversations appear to
have stayed asynchronous. More arguable is the claim that newcomers to a conversation
see the whole thing. While this is possible, and while it's the easiest thing
to do, it is possible to request that the system only display comments that
were entered since a particular date. Nevertheless, I shall assume for the purposes
of this paper that newcomers generally read at least a portion of the preceding
conversation. My only evidence for this, besides frequent references to preceding
messages, are occasional apologies from new participants about not having read
the entire conversation.)
4.2. How the Discourse Medium Supports Participation
4.2.1. Providing an Overview
Because a conversation is represented as a single, persistent document
with the oldest items first, newcomers can quickly get an overview of norms
that govern the conversation by skimming through it. Similarly, infrequent participants
can refresh their memories about what has transpired. Consider what can be gleaned
from skimming through the conversation "document":
- Length. A newcomer to the conversation can very quickly see--by scanning
down the conversation page--various structural aspects conversation: most
obviously, it is evident how long conversational contributions are.
- Conversational Rhythm. Participants in the conversation can get a feel for
the tempo of the conversation by inspecting the time stamps. If they post
a question, they can form an estimate of how quickly they're likely to see
- Content. As the reader skims down the conversation, a quick idea of the
content can be gathered as well. Comments of special interest are often identifiable
because they may be followed by several, brief, laudatory comments.
- Participants. Inspecting the names and user IDs in the headers reveals who
the regular participants are, and how often they participate. It gives a quick
idea of how large the conversation is, and whether there are steady participants
or a series of transient contributors.
4.2.2. Supporting Form
Note that the ability of the conversational document to serve as an
overview is supported by the discourse mediums provisions of automatic headers
with a regular structure and format. This regularity is what makes it easy to
skim: the reader can choose which parts of the header to focus on, because of
their spatial regularity, and the conversational turns are clearly separated
from one another.
4.2.3 Facilitating Substance
It's interesting to note that the discourse medium can also support
the content of the conversation. Not that it directly shapes the content, but
rather in that it makes certain types of conversational moves easy or difficult.
For example, the type of word play observed in Cafe Utne conversations is rare
in the medium of mailing lists. In a mailing list, to play off a preceding remark,
requires quoting it and playing off the quote, a more cumbersome move. Similarly,
for the reader of a mailing list, having to open a separate message is a bit
more effort, and the one-liner which could have been easily skimmed or skipped
in the context of a conversation document is more likely to be annoying than
amusing. Similar arguments hold for other sorts of short responses such as affirmations
It is important to recognize that no discourse medium is entirely supportive
of participation. Rather, any medium facilitates certain conversational moves
and inhibits others. For example, because this discourse medium supports a sequential,
linear conversation, it is likely to inhibit responses to posts that are further
back in the conversational sequence. In contrast, a mailing list, for example,
makes it easy to respond to any contribution to a conversation. Thus, as in
any other area of design, discourse media embody tradeoffs between alternatives.
4.3. Extending Participatory Discourse Media
Having carried our analysis this far, it is tempting to speculate on ways in
which the discourse medium might better support on-line discourse.
One approach is to look at the regularities of form and substance that facilitate
participation, and design the discourse medium so as to support them more effectively.
Thus, a designer intent on improving Cafe Utne, might examine ways of providing
better conversational overviews. Another avenue would be to explore ways of
opening up the conversation, so that new contributions were not primarily responses
to only the few most recent responses. While a general solution to this issue
is undoubtedly complex, simply providing a way for conversants to attach one-line
affirmations or thanks to any contribution, might markedly change the feeling
of the conversation, as well as giving inexperienced participants a very easy
and low profile way to participate.
A complementary approach is to look at the communicative pressures inherent
in the genre, and look for other ways to respond to them. For example, early
in our analysis of Cafe Utne, we noted the absence of social pressures for participation
that are found in face to face participation. It would be interesting to explore
ways to bring these social pressures back into play. One way would be to represent
the presence of both readers and contributors in the discourse medium, so that
participants who were on-line at the same time would have some indication of
the others presence, as is currently done in other discourse media like MUDS.
Another approach would be to investigate ways of portraying the audience, those
who are reading the conversations without contributing. Knowing that a contribution
would be read by very many, or only a few, would doubtless affect potential
contributors in complex and varied ways. Along with such a tack, it might be
advisable to create limited audience conversations, for those desiring to talk
with only a small number of people.
Clearly, genre analysis doesn't provide easy answers here. There is considerable
work for the designer. However, by highlighting the communicative purposes of
the genre, and the way in which the discourse medium facilitates or inhibits
the achievement of those purposes, genre analysis does offer an approach that
can be applied to a wide variety of systems that support on-line discourse.
As a designer, my ultimate goal is to design more effective on-line systems.
Genre appears to be a useful frame for analyzing and designing on-line conversational
systems because it allows the foregrounding of the discourse medium, and encourages
the examination of ways in which characteristics of the medium shape the practices
which are conducted within it.
In this paper I've looked at one example of how properties of a discourse medium
are used to shape conversational interactions. In this particular case, it's
interesting to note the importance of the discourse medium's sequentiality.
Obviously, designers would do well to examine other discourse media, and arrive
at a better understanding of how these media can best support the establishment,
maintenance, and negotiation of the basic expectations underlying conversations.
While this paper has focused on the properties of the discourse medium for shaping
participatory genre, it is important not to neglect other forces which shape
participatory genre. The very features of the discourse medium that support
word play and joking, could also effectively support sarcasm, parody, and other
negative forms of response. Without a doubt, social factors--such as the nature
of the discourse community--and institutional factors--such as the policies
carried out by the Cafe's management--are critical in the creation of a participatory,
convivial site for on-line discourse.
Thanks to Laura Gurak, Carolyn Miller, and Chuck Bazerman for pointers into
the literature on genre theory. Thanks to Griff Wigley of The Utne Reader for
discussions of Cafe Utne and its administration. And thanks to the (disguised)
participants in the example conversation for permission to use their words.
"The Palace" is a trademark of Time-Warner Communications. "Ferndale"
is a trademark of Songline Studios, Inc.
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* Copyright 1997 IEEE. Appeared in the Proceedings
of the Thirtieth Hawaii International
Conference on System Sciences, January 6-10, 1997, Maui, Hawaii.