Making Sense of Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC):
Conversations as Genres, CMC Systems as Genre Ecologies
IBM T. J. Watson Research Center
In this paper I examine mixed synchronous and asynchronous text-based
conversations that have been carried on in the context of a computer-mediated
communication (CMC) system called "Babble", which has been in use
by a group of nineteen people for nearly two years. The primary goal is to explore
principled ways of analyzing and characterizing conversational activity in such
systems using genre theory. After discussing genre theory, and some of the issues
that come to the fore when apply genre theory to CMC, the paper analyzes five
conversations. It argues that the conversations constitute separate genres,
and develops the concept of participatory structure to capture some of their
differences. Next, the paper examines the CMC system as a whole: it argues that
the CMC system may be viewed as an ecology of conversational genres, and discusses
three properties - global pull, topical pull, and conversational impetus - which
may be used to characterize the behavior of the ecology.
For over two years the research group I work in has been involved in the design,
implementation and use of a novel computer-mediated communication (CMC) system
called "Babble" . We have used the system as part of our daily
work practice for nearly two years, and, more recently, have deployed the system
to nine other groups which have used it in a variety of ways. In all of these
cases we have collected logs of activity and conversation, observed use of the
deployments, and, in some cases, conducted interviews and surveys of participants
While we have learned a great deal from these studies, we have had considerable
difficulty in trying to characterize the conversational activity in Babble,
both for individual conversations and for the system as a whole. As long time
users we have intuitions about the conversational activity which are difficult
to capture crisply. For instance, some conversations seem, in some sense, to
have a life of their own: they have their own rhythms, a particular core of
participants, and specific types of content; and, as implementers who have a
vested interest in seeing the system continue to be used, we find that we feel
confident that these conversations will continue. Other conversations, however,
seem fragile, or unhealthy, and we worry that they will falter and cease. An
analogous example occurs at the level of the CMC system: some deployments seem
to catch on and develop their own life, momentum, or rhythm; other deployments
seem fragile or unhealthy, never quite catching on, and, in spite of frequent
initial use, gradually lose users and die of attrition.
The goal of this paper is to explore whether such intuitions can be made crisper
though the use of genre theory. I will try to establish two things: First, that
the individual conversations which take place within Babble may be seen as instances
of genres, and, in some cases, genres that differ quite distinctly from one
another. Second, that the use of the system as a whole depends on a complex
interplay of different conversation genres which may, extending the notions
of genre repertoires  and genre systems , be viewed as a genre ecology.
We'll pursue this goal in the following manner: First, we'll lay some theoretical
groundwork, describing the flavor of genre theory that forms the basis for this
work, and discussing some of the new issues which arise as genre theory is applied
to the digital medium in general, and conversation in particular. Because genre
theory involves understanding the relationship between the situation in which
genres are enacted, we'll next describe the technical and social context within
which the conversations are being produced: we'll describe "Babble,"
the CMC system we've designed, and the social and institutional context of the
group that is carrying on the conversations. Having laid out the theoretical,
technical, and social background, we will turn to the conversations themselves
and analyze five examples of conversations in terms of genre theory, the aim
being to show that they differ quite significantly from one another in form,
content and participatory structure. Finally we'll turn to the functioning of
the system as a whole, and, discussing the dynamics of conversations and the
ebb and flow of participation, we'll develop the concept of genre ecologies.
2. Genre Theory
2.1. Situated Genre Theory
Traditionally genres were used as taxonomic categories, with genres being defined
in terms of communicative purpose, and regularities of form and content. In
the last two decades, however, a number of scholars have developed a view of
genre that I will call situated genre theory. Situated genre theory (sometimes
known as North American genre theory) is most often traced to Miller's 1984
paper , and has been elaborated by other scholars including Bazerman ,
Swales , and Berkenkotter and Huckin . Situated genre theory has been
brought to the attention of the technical community primarily through the work
of Yates and Orlikowski (e.g., ).
What distinguishes this flavor of genre theory from previous conceptions is
its emphasis on the ways in which genres arise out of a recurring communicative
situation. That is, the regularities of form and content which characterize
a genre are not viewed as arbitrary conventions, but instead arise out of a
confluence of technical, social and institutional forces which comprise the
communicative situation, and out of the attempts of the genre's 'users'-the
"discourse community"-to achieve their communicative purposes in that
To make this less abstract, let's look at a well known document type-the résumé-through
the lens of genre theory. The communicative purpose of a résumé
is to provide a summary of information relevant to employment in a particular
field. The résumé's communicative purpose is (from the author's
point of view) to enable its author to get a job. Résumés follow
many conventions of form and content: they tend to be short, highly structured,
and they contain job-related and contact information. These conventions are
not arbitrary, but rather are responses to the situation in which it is used:
Its content is shaped by what is seen as appropriate for employment in a particular
field; similarly, assumptions about how the organization will choose communicate
with the author determine the choice of contact methods (e.g., email; phone;
address) to be provided.
Its highly structured form enables it to be quickly scanned by managers reading
stacks of résumés, and to serve as an on-the-fly reference during
Its form is also influenced by technical factors-for example, desktop publishing
has probably increased the use of bold and italic text, and decreased underlining
and uppercase (stylistic tools available on typewriters).
Thus the conventions of the résumé genre are response to a combination
of technical, social, and institutional forces. Finally, the "discourse
community" for the résumé genre consists of those who produce,
circulate, and consume résumés, as well as the business segments
devoted to assisting those seeking jobs or employees.
While there is no universally accepted definition of genre, the following is
a reasonable synthesis: A genre is a patterning of communication created
by a combination of the individual, social and technical forces implicit in
a recurring communicative situation. A genre structures communication by creating
shared expectations about the form and content of the interaction, thus easing
the burden of production and interpretation.
2.2. Digital Genres
Situated genre theory has been developed primarily as a way of analyzing text-based
discourse in institutional or disciplinary contexts. Recently researchers have
applied situated genre theory to forms of CMC such as email [5; 19], discussion
databases [16; 20], virtual communities [9; 10], and publishing on the web [7;
The application of situated genre theory to the digital medium raises new issues
for genre theory. One new issue is that the digital medium is far more malleable
than speech or paper, the two principal media for conventional genres. Consider
some consequences of this fluidity:
A digital document is far more malleable than a paper document: it can be
changed without a trace, and reproduced and distributed for virtually no cost.
Yates and Sumner  argue that this fluidity shifts the 'burden of fixity'
from the technical to the institutional realm.
The malleability of the underlying medium is not just an issue for individual
documents, but for genres as wholes. A number of investigators have raised
the possibility that the fluidity of the digital medium, and the potential
for tighter coupling between a genre and its discourse community will greatly
speed the evolution of genres (e.g., [9; 10; 17]).
2.3. Conversations as Genres
Another issue that comes to the fore in looking at digital genres is the status
of conversation. Can conversations be regarded as being instances of genres?
Is it useful to do so? Many of those employing situated genre theory seem to
prefer reserving the rubric of genre for relatively extensive, well-structured
modes of discourse, particularly those embodied in documents. In this regard,
conversation is perhaps too brief and too protean for comfort (though see Bakhtin
 for a contrasting view). Yet, things have changed: in the digital medium
analogs of what was once ephemeral conversation take on varying degrees of persistence
in applications like chat, MOOs, bulletin board systems and mailing lists. With
this new persistence, conversation takes on many new properties (e.g., ).
Still, various parties have taken different stands with respect to the genericity
of digital conversation. Bergquist and Ljungberg , for example, have argued
that conversations do not have all the characteristics of genre, and that instead
they are a sort of symbolic ether in which true genres are embedded (and discussed
and negotiated). While they make an interesting argument for the case they examine,
I am not convinced that all forms of digital conversation should be excluded
from consideration as genres. In particular, an example of a conversation involving
group limerick-making I previously studied  seems to be a clear counter-example.
The question to be examined here is to what extent more ordinary, work-based
conversations may take on the characteristics of genres.
3. The Communicative Situation
Now we'll turn to the case to be studied: conversations within a chat-like
CMC system called "Babble." Because a key element of situated genre
theory is understanding the situation within which genres are enacted, the next
section lays out the technical and social forces at play. After describing this
context, we move on to the two final sections where we look at individual conversations,
and the functioning of the system as a whole.
3.1. The Technical Context: Babble
Babble is a CMC system that supports multiple text-based, persistent conversations
(i.e., they may be carried out synchronously or asynchronously). Babble differs
most notably from other systems in its use of a minimalist visual representation
of the participants to provide cues about their presence and activities. Here
we will give a very brief description of Babble, focusing primarily on the features
that are of importance to our subsequent analyses; see  for a more complete
Figure 1: The Babble Interface. Call-outs show interface elements that indicate
presence of users or new information.
Figure 1 shows a screenshot of the Babble user interface. The elements of the
screen are, clockwise from the upper left:
- 1) a list of all users logged onto Babble;
- 2) a minimalist representation called the social proxy which shows who is
present and active in the current conversation;
- 3) the list of all conversations (also known as "topics"); and
- 4) the conversation window which contains the text of the current conversation
("current" being from the point of view of a particular user).
Participants choose a conversation by clicking on its name in the topic list;
they contribute by typing into an entry window. Each new comment is appended
to the end of the conversation; because comments persist across sessions users
do not need to be co-present to participate.
For our purposes we will focus on two features of the interface: how Babble
indicates the presence and activity of users; and how Babble indicates the presence
of new information. Babble provides cues about users' presence and activity
through the social proxy, which portrays the conversation as a large circle,
and the participants as colored dots (referred to, hereafter, as marbles). Marbles
within the circle are involved in the conversation being viewed; marbles outside
the circle represent those who are logged on but are in other conversations.
The marbles of those who are active in the current conversation, either contributing
(i.e. typing) or 'listening' (i.e., interacting with the conversation window
via mouse clicks and movements) are shown near the circle's center; with inactivity
marbles drift out to the periphery. (In the example shown, seven of eight users
are in the COMMONS AREA conversation; of those, five are relatively active and
two are idle.) When people leave the current conversation their marbles move
outside the circle; when they enter the conversation, their marbles move into
the circle. All marble movements are shown with animation, thus making arrivals,
movements, and departures visually salient. Although simple, the social proxy
gives a sense of the size of the audience, the degree to which the audience
is actively listening or contributing, as well as indicating whether people
are gathering or dispersing, and who it is that is coming and going. Babble
indicates the presence of new information in two ways. When a conversation has
new material added to it (relative to a particular user), its title in the topic
list pane is shown in red (e.g., the second topic in figure 1). And when a user
enters the conversation, the text of the new comments are highlighted. These
two types of cues - for presence and new information - are directed at different
audiences: presence cues are only useful to those who are simultaneously logged
on; new information cues are useful to all users because they provide information
about what has happened in a user's absence. These two types of cues will be
relevant towards the end of the paper, where we discuss how Babble operates
as an ecology of genres.
3.2. The Social Context
The group whose conversation is analyzed in this study has used Babble for
nearly two years. The group is centered around the software development group
(AKA "the lab") that designed and implemented the system, and includes
a mix of computer scientists and social scientists (including the author). Over
the period of time examined in this study, the Babble group ranged in number
from nine to nineteen users. This growth is primarily due to members of the
lab inviting "associates" - colleagues with whom they had strong social
or professional ties to join Babble. At its peak population, eleven of the users
were full time lab members, two were summer interns, and the other six were
the associates just mentioned.
Geographically, the group of Babble users is about half co-located in New York,
and half distributed. Most of the lab members are located in the same building,
although offices tend to be distributed around the building - so actual adjacency
is rare. Two members of the lab are telecommuters, and spend the majority of
their time tens to hundreds of miles away; other members of the lab frequently
work at home. Four of the six associated colleagues (i.e. those not officially
members of the lab, but users of Babble) are remotely located: three in the
Boston area, and one in Austin.
Socially, the lab is a cohesive group, with considerable camaraderie. In addition
to work-based collaboration, the lab members occasionally socialize, although
usually within business hours (e.g., going out to lunch) The associates vary
in the strength and number of their ties to the lab members, some known to almost
all lab members, and others known only to one or two lab members with whom they
have shared interests. Conversation in the Babble system moves fluidly between
work and social talk; it is always civil, frequently informal, and joking, teasing,
and other ludic behavior is not unusual.
3.3. How Babble is Actually Used
Overall, the Babble system as used by this group can be characterized as a
core of relatively synchronous activity surrounded by a constellation of asynchronous
conversations. At the center of activity is the COMMONS AREA, a place where
collocated and remote members share news, engage in banter, get help, and 'hang
Uses of Babble can be grouped into three general categories: social/ludic;
group awareness; and instrumental. Social/ludic activities are those engaged
in for social and entertainment purposes such as a custom of exchanging morning
greetings, and a topic devoted to jokes. Group awareness activities have to
do with actions on the system that are addressed to the group as a whole, or
to no one in particular, and generally are done without expectation of a reply
or responsive action. These activities include posting announcements and other
news believed to be of general interest, commenting on project activity, and
keeping on-line notebooks or offices. The third type of activity is instrumental,
that is, activities engaged in with a particular end in mind. These include
starting or participating in focused discussions, posting bug reports, holding
on-line meetings, and asking questions. These activities are often, though not
always, addressed to a particular participant or group of participants.
4. The Conversations
In this section we characterize five Babble conversations. We tried to select
conversations that had, based on our knowledge of the environment, a broad range
of communicative purposes and characteristics, such as breadth of participation,
degree of synchrony of interaction, and frequency of utterance. (Recall that
our goal here is not to characterize the activity in the environment as a whole,
but rather to explore the question of whether individual conversations may be
seen as instances of genres.)
4.1. The Analyses
Before looking at the individual conversations, we should first say a few words
about particulars of the analyses we carried out. The Babble system keeps a
persistent log of the conversation (available to all users in the normal course
of usage), and also keeps a log of many user actions. The analyses reported
here draw on the conversation logs only, unless otherwise reported. We combine
quantitative measures of conversational activity with a qualitative assessment
of the nature and type of on-going conversation.
For the purpose of our analyses, we selected conversations which had most of
the following characteristics:
They were relatively long lasting (months to years)
They had lots of content (900 lines of text or more)
They were active at the time of the analyses
In general, we tried to analyze contiguous segments of conversation. The exception
to this rule is the COMMONS AREA conversation, the first case we examine. Because
of the volume of conversation (an order of magnitude greater than that in the
other topics), we analyzed two, month-long segments of it separated by a year.
A few notes about particularities of the analysis:
As Babble is almost never used on weekends, we compute various time-based
averages based on work weeks (typically five days, except for holiday periods)
and work months (number of workdays per month, typically around 20).
In a few cases (less than 2%) it was difficult to determine the speaker
of an utterance. This was primarily due to two factors: the presence of a
publicly accessible client in a shared laboratory that a few participants
sometimes used to make remarks, and the occasional use of nicknames that could
not be easily traced to the speakers. Such anonymous utterances were not included
in the quantitative analyses.
In most cases we have altered the names of participants, except where permission
to do otherwise was received. In the graphs which follow, individuals are
indicated by numbers, and the same numbers do not indicate the same individuals
4.2. The Conversations
Now we will turn to the individual conversations. For each conversation we
will describe its origin and purpose, its regularities of content and form,
and its participatory structure (i.e. how many participate, what roles they
fill, the rhythm of the conversation, and the degree of responsiveness).
4.2.1. The COMMONS AREA
Origin and Purpose. The COMMONS AREA is the center of activity in Babble:
it is the place where most 'inhabitants' of Babble tend to 'hang out' while
they are logged on Babble. The COMMONS was created at the beginning of Babble,
and served as the default place to enter Babble; it is also, by virtue of its
centrality, the place where most people choose to post general questions, comments,
Content and Form. The content of conversational activity in the COMMONS
ranges from purely social talk (such as the custom of saying "good morning"),
to the posing of general questions, to reminding people of an impending meeting
of general interest, to more technical discussions about work projects. (In
theory, more topic oriented discussion is 'supposed' to take place in specific
topics; in practice, work talk often grows out of social discussions, and the
recognition that a substantive conversation that 'belongs somewhere else' is
taking place is often not recognized until after the fact.)
In terms of form, COMMONS AREA comments tend to be short and informal, with
relaxed syntax and punctuation, use of paralinguistic expressions ("ummm"),
onomatopoeia, emoticons, and playful tropes (for example, the 'tossing of cookies'
to 'a dog' who usually 'accompanies' one of the participants [all done via text,
of course]). In addition to the standard forms that the Babble system imposes
on its communication, Babble also treats the COMMONS AREA specially. This special
treatment is motivated by the centrality of the COMMONS, and also reinforces
The system automatically archives the COMMONS AREA conversation every two
weeks to keep it from becoming too lengthy (since conversations are stored
only on a server, long conversations may take several seconds to download
over low bandwidth connections).
The COMMONS is automatically named ("-Commons Area-), the leading hyphen
allowing it to appear first in the alphabetically-ordered list of topics,
thus being most visible. (Although users could create topics with names
that show up before "-Commons Area-" in the Topics list, they don't.)
The system automatically inserts day and week dividers to facilitate parsing
and navigating the conversation; such dividers are superfluous in other topics
where the conversation is much more asynchronous.
Participatory Structure. The COMMONS is an order of magnitude more active
than other Babble topics in both number of individual utterances and in amount
(total number of lines) of talk. Utterances tend to be short (an average of
four lines) and ten to thirty times more frequent than the next most active
topic. The COMMONS also has the widest range of participation, and the talk
there is very responsive (i.e., utterances often respond or refer to previous
utterances); it has many episodes of synchronous or near synchronous conversation
(a rare event in other topics). While conversation in the COMMONS was initially
dominated by the creator of Babble ('domination' is arbitrarily defined as a
user who posts 50% more than the next most frequent poster), by the time a year
had elapsed the distribution of participation was broader and less dominated
by an individual than any other topic.
4.2.2. BABBLE PROBLEMS
Origin and Purpose. BABBLE PROBLEMs was one of the first topics created
in Babble, and, as its name suggests, is a place to report problems with the
Content and Form. The conversation consists of problems reported by
users, with the two principal programmers responding to most problem reports
- either acknowledging the problem, asking for more detail so it can be identified,
or asking how the problem should be addressed. Posts in BABBLE PROBLEMS are
relatively short, with a mean length of 5 lines; discussion is mostly focused
on 'work', though not without its share of joking.
Participatory Structure. BABBLE PROBLEMS has about 20 postings per month;
it is characterized by flurries of activity (often triggered by releases of
new versions of Babble) with long periods of silence in between. Participation
here was primarily confined to lab members: nine of the ten people who participated
in it were lab members, with only one of the associates making two comments.
As one might expect, participation is dominated by the two programmers, who
respond to problem reports.
4.2.3. BAD JOKES
Origin and Purpose. The BAD JOKES topic is a place for posting jokes.
Content and Form. There were about eight posts per month, relatively
evenly distributed, and the posts tended to be long (an average of 26 lines).
The posts are mostly jokes (78), with a few responses or comments thrown in
(10). The writing was mostly literary in style, with formatting, punctuation,
and relatively few oral characteristics. This length and formality of the content
is probably a reflection of the fact that the jokes were copied from other sources
(principally, "the internet"); only five of the 78 jokes appeared
to personal inventions.
Participatory Structure. For the year examined, it had 11 participants,
one of them being the dominant poster, with fifty percent more postings than
the next most frequent poster. Unlike any of the other conversations examined,
this topic had a low degree of responsiveness: of the 88 postings over the year,
78 were jokes (usually unrelated to one another); there were only 10 postings
which applauded, commented on, or otherwise responded to a previous joke. This
low responsiveness may have been partly due to the fact that many of the jokes
were copied from other media such as email (often retaining the angle-bracket
quoting that signifies this origin), attributed to other people (email signatures
were often retained), or attributed to other places (e.g. "a bumper sticker").
4.2.4. TOM'S OFFICE
Origin and Purpose. TOM'S OFFICE was started as a combination of an
on-line office and personal notebook. It opened with the following note:
"Welcome! I intend this to be a combination of an
on-line office and notebook. You're welcome to leave me message [sic], or
to comment on things I put here."
It was followed by a relatively long essay (20 lines). This was the first topic
of its type, and it attracted attention, receiving 7 visitors in its first couple
of days. Over the next couple of months, five other 'offices' or 'notebooks'
Content and Form. The content of the topic consisted of fairly long
postings by Tom, observations and remarks typically in the form of short essays,
interspersed with responses and dialog between Tom and other participants. In
terms of form the essays were quite literary, with formal punctuation, syntax,
titles, and layout; the comments tended to be more 'oral' in nature, (i.e. brief
and informal). Most of the activity was work oriented, though there were occasional
episodes of social or ludic behavior.
Participatory Structure. Over time, the topic developed an interaction
pattern in which Tom would post a longish essay or note, and others would make
generally brief comments to which Tom would reply. In the distribution of interaction
over time and participants, this topic resembled BABBLE PROBLEMS (as well as
the next and last topic to be discussed: ABUSING WENDY), with a few frequent
participants, and a very 'bursty' rhythm.
4.2.5. ABUSING WENDY
Origin and Purpose. The ABUSING WENDY topic has an unusual history.
It was originally created to 'encourage' (via peer pressure) a popular user
of that name to return to Babble after she had stopped using it for several
weeks. The joking claim was that this would lure her back on Babble to defend
herself, and, when she did return and respond to the teasing, it took on a life
of its own.
Content and Form. The content consisted principally of remarks directed
to Wendy - either a tease or simply an ingenuous remark like 'this topic has
been awfully quite lately!' - followed by retaliatory replies from Wendy, usually
ripostes, mock threats, or injunctions to go away, all delivered in ALL CAPS,
thus signifying shouting. There were no instances of work related activity taking
place here. Besides the uppercase commentary by Wendy, most posts were very
short and informal in style (with frequent departures from formal punctuation
and capitalization). Unlike any other topic examined, 7 of the comments were
uttered (pseudo) anonymously, using nicknames departing from the convention
of including the person's actual name (e.g. "scared" and "anon")
- in fact, because of the social proxy and the ability to determine the real
identity of anyone synchronously present - the use of such nicknames was more
in the nature of feigning anonymity than achieving it.
Participatory Structure. Over the course of about two weeks, the following
pattern developed. After a period of inactivity someone would make an entry
in the topic, a few other comments might follow, but very quickly Wendy would
arrive and 'shout' (in uppercase) at everyone and tell them to go elsewhere.
Interaction would cease, until the next provocation. This conversation very
quickly took on the character of a game with three principal players: Wendy,
who dominated the topic, contributing 40% of the comments, and two other users
contributing 26% and 16% of the comments; the other six players each contributed
less than four percent of the content.
4.3. Comparing the Conversations
||Commons Sept. 98
Table 1. Comparing the conversations.
Table 1 and figure 2 compare some of the characteristics of the five conversations.
Table 1 summarizes the overall characteristics of each conversation, and figure
2 shows graphs of the frequency of participation (in percent) for the possible
participants in each conversation. Figure 2 is particularly interesting, in
that it shows the difference in the distribution of participation across conversations.
At one end of the extreme is the COMMONS AREA, with a very broad, relatively
egalitarian distribution of participants; at the other extreme are TOM'S OFFICE
and ABUSING WENDY, topics dominated by one or a few individuals, with a distinct
second tier of participants.
What is most striking in looking over the various conversations is the sheer
amount of variation between them. Since the conversations were selected to represent
a wide range of types this is not entirely surprising, but on the other hand,
it does support the claim that individual conversations - even though carried
out by the same group of people, in the same organizational context, in the
same system - can have very different structure and dynamics, and thus be aptly
characterized in terms of genre.
In this regard, the notion of conversational genres as consisting, in part,
of a participatory structure seems of particular importance with regard to trying
to understand on-line systems of this sort. For example, conversations that
are highly dominated by an individual are likely to be quite fragile: that is,
if Tom or Wendy were to leave the Babble system, it seems likely that the TOM'S
OFFICE and ABUSING WENDY conversations would come to an end, whereas the others
would be likely to continue on.
Figure 2. Differences in proportional distribution of participation across
conversations. (Note: order of participants along the x-axis is not constant
from one conversation to the next.)
As noted elsewhere (), this puts a rather different spin on the notion of
critical mass, which is usually invoked in discussing the success or failure
of CMC systems: here, the amount of mass which is critical seems to vary from
conversation to conversation. To the extent that TOM'S OFFICE serves as a personal
notebook, it requires only Tom's input. ABUSING WENDY requires Wendy's input,
but also at least one other to serve the provocation function that the game
requires. Similarly, BABBLE PROBLEMS requires at least one person to have and
report problems, and another to respond and fix them, and an imperfect system
to produce the problems. The COMMONS AREA, in contrast, would seem to have a
higher requirement for a critical mass for participation because its activity
arises solely from interaction among people, no particular person serving as
the motivating force.
This last point - the role of system bugs in driving the conversation - is
quite interesting: unlike the other conversations examined, BABBLE PROBLEMS
is partly driven by external forces, rather than solely by the activity of participants.
Elsewhere in Babble we have observed that some features of the system can actually
stimulate conversation, and often contribute to the liveliness of the activity.
For example, in the early days of Babble, there was no interface mechanism for
determining the color of a participant's marble; instead, the color of a marble
was computed by doing a hash on the user's nickname. As a consequence, the following
interaction sequence often occurred: a new user would ask how to change the
color of their marble; one or more experienced users would explain that it was
generated from the nickname, and describe how to change that; a flurry of nickname
(and color) changing would then occur, with jokes and other commentary by on-lookers.
After a mechanism for picking marble color was introduced, most of this behavior
vanished. It seems ironic that improving the system's usability might actually
have a negative impact on the system's use.
5. The Babble System as a Whole
As mentioned in the introduction, one of the motivations for this work was
to try to characterize the behavior of Babble as a whole. In our experience
of reflecting on our own use of the system, as well as deploying it to a number
of other groups, we observed that some deployments of Babble seemed alive and
healthy, whereas others seemed weak or fragile. In this section we develop the
notion of genre ecologies, the idea that a CMC system like Babble can be viewed
as an ecology of conversational genres, in which the various conversational
genres are interdependent and act - in a variety of ways - to support the functioning
of the system as a whole.
5.1. "Babble" as a Genre Ecology
This type of analysis has some similarities to work previously done in situated
genre theory. Bazerman  has described the concept of genre systems in his
work on the document-driven discourse in the patent application and adjudication
process. He notes that the process is driven by a variety of document genres,
and that a particular response to one genre (e.g., the rejection of an application)
will lead to the production of a particular genre of document in response. The
dependencies captured in this notion are similar to those we observe in Babble,
however the genre systems proposed by Bazerman are deterministic (a particular
response to a particular genre leads to the generation of another specific genre),
whereas what we observe is much 'softer.'
Similarly, Orlikowski, et al  have discussed the notion of genre repertoires
in organizations, noting that organizations have a particular set of genres
on which they can draw to engage in collective action. This concept seems useful,
since one thing that we've observed in the course of the adoption (or not) of
Babble, is that participants only gradually build up a set of ways in which
they turn Babble to their personal and collective ends.
It seems useful to combine these two notions. Beginning with the idea of genre
repertoires, that a community or organization can possess (and expand) a set
of genres for engaging in collective activity, we add in (a softer) notion of
the interdependence and triggering expressed in the concept of genre systems,
which we express in terms of properties of conversational genres. This gives
us what seems to be a useful conceptual framework for talking about CMC systems:
Figure 3. The forces at play in the Babble genre ecology: global pull (bringing
participants into the system), topical moving (moving them around the conversation
space), and conversational impetus (the degree of 'energy' a conversation has
- i.e. the amount of effort required to participate in it).
The notion is that conversation genres have a number of properties which work
together to drive the activity in Babble as a whole. We can look at each conversational
genres in terms of three ecological properties: global pull which brings
people onto the system; topical pull, which causes people to move into
particular conversations; and conversational impetus, which has to do
with how much energy a participant needs to invest to participate in a conversation,
that is, to contribute to that genre. Figure 3 shows a schematic of these forces
as they apply to the Babble conversations examined. Note that these are relational
properties, their strengths varying depending on the relationship between a
particular genre and a particular participant.
Let's look at each of these three properties in turn. Global pull is
what induces a potential user to start up and log on to Babble, with no cues
from the system (since it isn't running). Global pull is often initially
a purely social force. For example, in the Babble deployment studied here, members
of a subgroup of the lab often used the COMMONS AREA to make announcements about
impromptu meetings, talks, and events. When a new member joined that subgroup,
he found that, to avoid missing events, he had to regularly log on to Babble
to monitor the COMMONS AREA. While conversational genres that directly support
work practices can obviously create a great deal of global pull, it is
also the case that as members become accustomed to Babble, the global pull
may increase for less instrumental reasons such as the desire to socialize with
colleagues, or read the latest jokes. In any event, the importance of global
pull is that once users are on Babble, they are more available for participation
in other conversational genres on Babble.
Related to the notion of global pull, is topical pull. That is,
once on Babble, what might cause a participant to move to a different conversational
genre? Babble tries to enhance topical pull via a number of mechanisms
aimed at making activity visible. The most obvious of these is the social proxy,
which makes synchronous group activity in a conversation evident by displaying
a tight cluster of dots (as shown in figure 1); this visibility can alert people
who are logged on to Babble, but engaged in non-Babble activity, that something
is happening, and can thus draw them into the conversation. For topics where
synchronous activity is rare, mechanisms to make activity visible are available
but not as prominent: when new material is posted in a conversation, its title
(in the topic list in the upper right corner of figure 1) turns red. As noted
earlier, the use of a hyphen to begin the name of the COMMONS AREA (i.e. "-
Commons Area -") enhances its visibility by ensuring its presence at or
near the top of the list of topics; the topics list also shows miniature versions
of the social proxy to the right of each topic, to help users judge when their
are people in topics (this works most effectively for topics near the top of
the topic list (i.e. near the COMMONS AREA). All of these mechanisms simply
show either that new material has been added to a topic, or that people are
present in a topic; it says nothing about what has happened. If the conversational
genre has a sufficiently narrow range of content (e.g., BABBLE PROBLEMS or ABUSING
WENDY ), the simple presence of people or activity may provide a strong indication
of what is happening; in less tightly defined genre, it may mean little or nothing.
The final property is conversational impetus. That is, once started,
some conversational genres are relatively easy to keep going. For example, BABBLE
PROBLEMS is driven by bugs in the system itself, and as long as the system keeps
changing, it simply requires a disgruntled user or two and someone who might
respond to their complaints. Similarly, provided that a participant knows Wendy
well enough to participate in teasing, ABUSING WENDY requires little work (except
from Wendy) to keep the game going: often all that is required is presence in
the topic. The COMMONS AREA, in contrast, appears to require a larger and more
diverse critical mass, and moreover- to the extent it is socially driven (rather
than driven by shared work) - requires that the participants have social ties
that are strong enough to fuel the interaction. Still, over time, customs develop
- saying "good morning" and "playing with Archie" - that
enable the conversation to move forward. TOM'S OFFICE requires still more effort
to drive: in the pattern established, Tom has to write substantive pieces to
which others respond.
6. Concluding Remarks
The principal goal of the paper has been to explore ways of characterizing
activity that occurs in computer mediated communication systems. We used situated
genre theory to examine a set of long-running conversations that occurred among
members of an extended group of users of a novel CMC environment. We have two
types of results. First, we found it quite straightforward to treat CMC-based
conversations as instances of genre, and were surprised at diversity of (in
particular) the participatory structures of different conversations occurring
among the same set of users of the same system embedded in the same work and
institutional context. To us, this lends considerable support to the notion
that conversations - at least the sort of long-running, persistent conversations
that take place in the digital medium - may be fruitfully viewed as instances
of genre, a position that is not commonly accepted among situated genre theorists.
Second, we found that genre theory was helpful in thinking about the nature
of activity in the system as a whole. Building on the work of others who have
thought about how sets of genres (systems and repertoires) work together, we
have advanced the notion of a genre ecology, a more relaxed version of a genre
system which pays particular attention to how participants are recruited into
different genres. In particular, we suggest that, for the purposes of discussing
how genres function as part of a genre ecology, that three forces are of particular
import: global pull, topical pull, and conversational impetus.
Much remains to be done. In terms of this analysis, we see two obvious next
steps. First, we clearly need to come up with ways of measuring or estimating
the ecological properties of conversation genres. Second, we would like to continue
characterization of conversations by identifying conversational practices or
tropes that occur as elements of some of the on-going conversations, such as
the practice of saying 'good morning' or the tope of 'playing with Archie.'
These are examples of what Bakhtin  would call speech genre, and understanding
to what degree they are present in, and how they are distributed among, conversational
genres, might aid in further characterizing the different conversational genres.
The work described herein is highly collaborative, and we acknowledge the substantive
contributions of our colleagues at IBM. Thanks to David N. Smith for creating
the Babble prototype, Mark Laff, and Amy Katriel for implementations of the
social proxy and Java versions of Babble, Cal Swart for critical assistance
in the deployment of Babble, and Rachel Bellamy, Jonathan Brezin, Brent Hailpern,
Charlie Hill, Amy Katriel, Wendy Kellogg, Mark Laff, Petar Makara, Peter Malkin,
John Richards, David N. Smith, Cal Swart, John Thomas, and our summer interns
Erin Bradner and Jason Ellis for productive, long-running conversations. Thanks
to Ian Simmonds and anonymous reviewers for comments on a draft of this paper.
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