Why the Future of the Internet has More to Do with Genre Blending
than Gender Bending
'A fellow whose hair was bright orange...'
- 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
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.
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.
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. 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
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,'
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,
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.
3.1 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
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 . And more recently, there have been discussions
of collaborative genres , and participatory genres , 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?
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,
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.
 Bazerman, C. Genre and Social Science: Renewing Hopes of Wingspread. Paper
presented at the Rhetoric Society meeting.
 Cafe Utne. http://www.utne.com. (Site for the Cafe Entrance and The Utne
Lens on-line publication.)
 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 http://www.research.apple.com/personal/Tom_Erickson/VC_as_Genre.html.
 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.
 Swales, J. Genre Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
 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.
 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.