Tom Erickson
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Why the Future of the Internet has More to Do with Genre Blending than Gender Bending


'A fellow whose hair was bright orange...'

Thomas Erickson

A workshop position paper, circa 1997 — see the Rhyme and Punishment paper for the full story.


Prelude for non-HCIC Workshop Readers

Since this essay is both about its content and an example of its content, it is particularly important that readers understand the situation for which it was produced.

This paper is for a workshop of about forty people that meets once a year. It is of a type (genre) known as a "boaster" (it is sort of an oral version of a more common genre of presentation called a "poster"). The goal of a boaster is to encourage people to talk with one another outside of workshop sessions. What happens is that at the beginning of the workshop, an MC reads the title of each boaster, and then the author has thirty seconds to describe the paper. After this participants might read the paper (paper copies of the boasters are distributed to participants), and may -- whether or not they've actually read the boaster -- seek out the author for conversation. This explains why this boaster has a provocative title, is informal in tone and open-ended in its arguments.


0. Preface

Since virtually every conversation I have had about a boaster has begun, "I haven't had time to read your boaster..." I've endeavored to keep this short, concrete, and perhaps even enjoyable. The goal is to present a concrete example, and to raise some issues and conjectures. I hope, then, to chat with others, both about my example, and about other similar (or contradictory) cases.

1. Introduction

The issue I am interested in is how to support smooth, focused interactions that occur through asynchronous, network-mediated communication. The intuition is that an important component of such interactions is a shared understanding of 'the rules', both about the content of the interaction, and the conduct of the interaction. What I want to explore is that the concept of genre, drawn from literary theory and rhetoric, is a useful way of coming to grips with these sorts of issues.

2. An Example

The following example is from a "discussion" in a text-based, asynchronous, on-line "conversation salon" called Cafe Utne[2]. Cafe Utne is run by the Utne Reader magazine, and in line with its stated goals, conversation there is generally polite, friendly, and thoughtful. As of fall, 1996, the Cafe's membership was over 8000, with over 124,000 messages posted in 2,000 different conversations. There are about 2000 (distinct) visitors a month who post about 20,000 messages (incidentally about 45% of the visitors are female, and about 35% of the visitors post messages - both apparently very high rates).

Now let's look at the example:

Fun.64.1: BH (bxxx) Tue, 03 Dec 1996 12:03:31 CST (12 lines)

Here's a fun game. We write limericks, each person contributing a line at a
time. You'll recall from this example that limericks rhyme and scan (iambic
pentameter, and all that) a certain way:

There once was an online Cafe
Whose readers delighted in play.
They posted in Fun
These lines one-by-one
Avoiding their work all the day.

Limit your contribution to one line at a time, at whichever point the
limerick is at when you happen by.

(White space added, and individual message headers replaced with writers' 'initials,' for readability.)

BH: I'll start:

An Internet surfer named Joe
WCC: Enjoying the World Wide Web flow,
CUP: Got hooked on a site
EML: stayed there day and night
CCM: 'til his mother said, "Time to go, Joe."

(Over the next 24 hours two more successful limericks are composed by eight people, six new participants joining two who had contributed to the first limerick. Now a newcommer starts the next limerick:)

KMO: A fellow who's hair was bright orange,
WCC: [Spoilsport!]
KMO: Sorry, couldn't resist! :-)
WCC: Okay, Michael, start us again. For real.

KMO: There once was a "spoilsport" poster,
LFB: Who played games with a rogue and a boaster,
EML: he sent him a flame,
LFB: for wrecking the game,
KMO: And then died sticking forks in a toaster!

Although perhaps you do not find the subject matter of this conversation earthshaking, to me it captures much of what is exciting about the internet. Here we have 12 people working together to achieve a coherent end. The interaction goes smoothly, with only the most minimal of setups. Everyone knows what to do, everyone participates appropriately, and the results are as intended: collectively composed limericks. And it even seems like fun.

3. Discussion

3.1 Claim: This isn't as trivial as it may seem

Now, of course some may object that making limericks is trivial (and cynics will sneer that such triviality is, indeed, what the internet is all about). However, I will argue that while the subject of the conversation may lack the weightiness of discussing philosophy, or debating standards, or composing scholarly papers, the process through which the conversation occurs is as rich as any other.

Consider the disruption of the game, and the collective response to it. I refer, of course, to the line "A fellow who's hair was bright orange." (Nota bene: Non-native speakers of English need to know that the word "orange" has no rhyme in English, and that this fact is well known amongst the more expert English speakers who are drawn to such conversation forums.) KMO has, of course, cunningly disrupted the game, without actually breaking the rules, by making it impossible for anyone to compose a valid follow-on line. WCC chastises KMO (using brackets to signal that she has stepped outside the limerick form and gone meta), KMO apologizes, admitting the intentionality of his act, and WCC invites him to "start us again. For real."

Now the game starts up again, but with a difference: it has become self-referential. While previous limericks referred to presumably shared experiences (usually having to do with spending too much time on the web), the new limerick takes as its subject matter the conversational disruption that has just occurred. The participants in the new limerick (and they are all prior participants in this conversation) are drawing on their own experience, repairing the disruption by building a symbolic analog of it in which the spoilsport poster is flamed for wrecking the game and then comes to a bad - if absurd - end (penitently invoked by the miscreant himself).It is interesting to reflect on the effect of the disruption. Not only did it provide content for the limerick, but it provided a sort of moral undertone, a background against which the disruption could be repaired even as the disrupter admitted fault and symbolically atoned! It's also interesting to observe that the disruption seems to have energized the conversation, with the median time between lines dropping to 6 minutes (down from well over half an hour), and, for the first time, with individuals contributing twice to the same limerick. It has something of the feeling of a conversation heating up, with people speaking out of turn in their eagerness to participate.

Well, all this is, perhaps, quite a weighty interpretation to place on a single Limerick. The only point I really want to make is that this conversation shows the same richness, self-referentiality, and multiplicity of levels that can be found in ordinary, face-to-face conversation - it is not some sort of stripped down, impoverished interaction.

3.2 Why did this work?

If you grant me this, I want to turn to the question of why it worked. For we can examine many on-line conversations on the internet - whether on mailing lists, bulletin boards, or in fabled virtual communities - but we will find relatively few cases in which groups of strangers can work together in a creative, enjoyable fashion to produce a coherent result.

The obvious response is, 'oh, come on, they're just making limericks,' which is why I did try to show that more is happening than 'just' making limericks. Nevertheless, they are making limericks, and that is an important reason for the success of this interaction. Limericks are a genre. As a consequence, they have a regular form with well understood patterns of rhymes and meter; their content is less well-defined, although they are often about people and they are often funny, or at least absurd; and while perhaps classified as poetry or verse, their purpose is primarily entertainment, as opposed to the weightier goals of sonnets, odes, or elegies. Because limericks are a genre, most people understand these things. All that they really need, in addition, is to understand the turn-taking protocol, and once that is grasped, everyone knows what can be done. At almost any point in the conversation, it is possible to say where the conversation is with respect to its goal, and to understand what must be done next to move it in that direction (or to disrupt it!).

3.3 Genre as a conceptual framework

Over the last year I've been trying to come to grips with the phenomenon of "virtual communities" on the internet. And - at least as far as trying to understand how to design infrastructure to support virtual communities, or whatever term you wish to apply to sites the support social interaction amongst large groups of people - I haven't found "community" particularly useful as a conceptual framework. It's a great way of engaging people, but it's value-laden, polysemous, and ambiguous. Instead, I've found genre to be a more useful concept in understanding network-mediated social interaction.

Genre is useful because it shifts the focus from issues such as the nature and degree of relationship among "community members", to the purpose of the communication and its regularities of form and substance. To the extent that people understand a genre - what it's for, how it can be used to accomplish particular actions, and what allowable moves are - they are able to participate in coordinated, coherent interaction within it.

I should note that the concept of genre here is a bit beyond that developed in classical rhetoric. There are two principle differences:

  • First, over the last decade or so, genre theory has become much more situated. Rhetoricians suggest that what is important in understanding a genre is identifying the underlying institutional, social, and technological forces which produce the regularities which characterize genre. See, for example [4, 1, 5].
  • Second, typical examples of genre (e.g., novels, newspapers, journal papers) have a sharp distinction between producer and consumer. More recent work has focused on genre where this distinction has been blurred. In particular, Yates and Orlikowski brought the concept of genre into the HCI realm with their paper on communicative genres [6]. And more recently, there have been discussions of collaborative genres [7], and participatory genres [3], the latter being my analysis of Cafe Utne conversations as a genre.

4. Closing Remarks (really, of course, opening remarks)

Well, that should be enough to get us started. I'd like to hear from other folks who have been exploring interaction on the internet. What are other examples of smooth, focused, network-mediated interactions? What are the (surprising) failures? What sorts of genre do you see on the internet, and how do they succeed or fail? What characteristics do participatory genre need to have, if they are to support participation, rather than just the traditional author-audience relationship? &c.

It will not have escaped the reflective reader that boasters themselves are a type of genre, and that the form and substance of this paper (in its brevity, informality, and openness) has edged away from the "CHI paper genre" in an effort to accommodate the social and institutional realities that pervade this workshop. So, I'm really just trying to set up a more sophisticated, if less focused, version of the Limerick game. You're invited to play, but please, no oranges.


5. Acknowledgements

Thanks to Leha Blaney (LFB), Bryan Higgins(BH), Clydie Morgan(CCM), and two other Cafe Utne participants who prefer to remain anonymous, for permission to use their words.


6. References

[1] Bazerman, C. Genre and Social Science: Renewing Hopes of Wingspread. Paper presented at the Rhetoric Society meeting.

[2] Cafe Utne. (Site for the Cafe Entrance and The Utne Lens on-line publication.)

[3] Erickson, T. "Social Interaction on the Net: Virtual Community as Participatory Genre." In Proceedings of the Hawaii International Conference on Systems Science, January 1997, Vol VI, pp. 13-21, 1997. Also see

[4] Miller, C. "Genre as Social Action." Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 70, pp. 151-67. 1984. (Reprinted in Genre and the New Rhetoric (eds. A. Freedman & P Medway) London: Taylor and Francis, 1994.

[5] Swales, J. Genre Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[6] Yates, J. and Orlikowski, W. J. "Genres of Organizational Communication: A Structurational Approach to Studying Communication and Media." Academy of Management Science Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, 299-326. 1992.

[7] Yates, J., Orlikowski, W.J., and Rennecker, J. "Collaborative Genres for Collaboration: Genre Systems in Digital Media" In Proceedings of the Hawaii International Conference on Systems Science, January 1997, Vol VI, pp. 50-59, 1997


Tom Erickson

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