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Cyberpl@y: Communicating Online

Author: Brenda Danet
Publisher: Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2001
Review Published: March 2002

 REVIEW 1: Julie Mactaggart
 REVIEW 2: Beth Jeffery
 REVIEW 3: Karla Saari Kitalong

Delighted LOL (laugh out loud)! In Brenda Danet, at long last we have a researcher who critiques Internet communications not for the way they perpetuate the potential for deceit, and not for the way they shallowly interpret, perform, or project "real life," but for the ways revealed performances expand our understanding of the changing cultural, social, and linguistic facets of communication. In short, a researcher that has avoided the temptation to pigeonhole Internet communications into one disciplinary area or another and, by so doing, gifts her audience with a rich and variegated study, an excellent reflection of the multi-disciplinary processes magnified and explored within.

Danet, Professor Emerita of Sociology & Communication at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Visiting Fellow in Sociology at Yale University, brings nine years of observation and research into play within Cyberpl@y, and it shows. This interrogation of Internet communications provides documentation and analysis of idiosyncratic literary and/or textual style, which Danet identifies as play with form, in email, chat, and on the World Wide Web. The primary complementary task accomplished by the research involves a comprehensive analysis of the "transition from text-only to multimedia communication" (36), along with a discussion of some of the implications of such a transition.

Integral to the conceptual framework, and therefore to a fuller understanding of the research findings, is a synthesis of the varied ethnographies of speaking and of writing. Although text-based, online communication is very much like oral communication, especially in the synchronous, interactive modes such as MUDs, IRC, and ICQ, which are fluid, dynamic, and frequently used for all manners of interpretive play. Danet suggests that digital communications are paradoxically doubly attenuated, in the sense that we lose both the text as an object and any nonverbal clues that might help us to interpret the text, and doubly enhanced, e.g. we are given the tools to reexamine utterances, and the presence of the interlocutor is restored (12). Digital communications, resting somewhere on the trajectory between the written and the spoken, represent something new.

Despite having been bound into covers and served up in the traditional chronologically numbered form, there are any number of ways that this research can be consumed. The first is, obviously, chronologically -- but Danet gives us a choice. The text is built around five case studies: two text-based studies and three multi-media studies. Alternately, we can pursue the wild "Easter egg" (see pp. 27-28 if you don't know what this is) and chase any of the six themes that crosscut the study. The first of these, text-based digital communication, is summarized in Chapters 2 and 3. Chapters 2-4 cover experimentation with digital communication forums such as email, virtual theater, and digital greetings. If your interest runs more toward virtual theater and the playful potential of writing as performance, you want Chapter 3. We've probably all sent digital greetings before. Ever wondered about the dearth of condolence cards online? Check out Chapters 4-6 and find out what's going on. ASCII art and the transition(s) to IRC art are treated in Chapters 5 and 6, respectively, and basic "aestheticization of the visual aspects of writing" (42) can be found most obviously in Chapter 7, although you will also find the topic in Chapters 5 and 6.

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Danet's treatment of text-based digital communication moves from the largely historical to the interpretive. Danet centers her analysis of several sets of communications around the guidelines laid forth in five "netiquette" texts published in the mid '90s: Donald Rose's 1994 Minding Your Cyber-manners on the Internet, Virginia Shea's 1994 NETiquette, David Angell and Brent Heslop's 1994 The Elements of E-mail Style, Thomas Mandel and Gerard Van der Leun's 1996 Rules of the Net: Online Operating Instructions for Human Beings, and Wired magazine's 1996 Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age, edited by Constance Hale. The analyses, which include an engaging treatment of the writings of Helen Hanff, illustrate the trend toward the informal in all manner of correspondence, but most particularly business and other professional. Such observations lead to the only predictions Danet offers: first, that speech-like informality will be increasingly common both in public and interpersonal email communications, including official correspondence. Style manuals will, over time, change to reflect increased legitimacy for these less formal communications. Certain "paper letter-writing" conventions will prove more durable, such as those governing first contacts and/or letters to persons of higher status than the author. Text-types will come to reflect degrees of formality in digital communication. Younger people, many of whom have not internalized the more formal strictures of professional communications, will be more comfortable introducing playful material, such as whimsical signature blocks, into more serious correspondence (93-94).

In Danet's work on digital theatre, we begin to hear the clarion call of the virtuoso. Using components both from jazz and satire, Danet explores first a group virtually engaging in smoking marijuana, then the antics of an online theatre troupe. Danet's explorations provide responses to four of Richard Schechner's 1995 reasons for the praise of live performance, which are used in a structural way throughout this segment: (1) there must be a certain degree of accident, contingency, or the unexpected; (2) known individuals must engage in direct competition; (3) audience participation and interaction is of importance; and (4) players must experience a sense of control over their performance.

"Scripts" for Hamnet productions of Hamlet and Macbeth are used to good end to show how performers in a virtual production playfully perform text. The actual plays were dramatically reduced; actors' lines, lampooning both the play being offered and the medium on which it was being offered (in this case IRC), were "pun"fully presented; improvisations, by individuals and groups, were the rule rather than the exception. Although there wasn't a visible bodily presence to be found, all of the earmarks of Bakhtinian carnival were much in evidence.

Playfulness and stylization have been common in many oral genres. Records of many of these exist in the literature on folklore and the ethnography of communication. What Danet has done with her chapter on virtual theatre is to illuminate a new phenomenon, e.g., the emergence of playful use of language and topography in interactive writing. What this encourages us to do is to take notice not only of the message itself, but also of the form in which the message is presented. Each offers layers of meaning. Riff. Trill. Cantata. Communication.

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Danet's chapter on digital greetings paves the way for a detailed study of ASCII art. An initial survey of Web greeting sites shows the marked absence of cards for such events as the death of a friend or loved one. Perhaps the Web's playful environment is perceived as an inappropriate platform from which to send something as solemn as a bereavement card. In order to determine this, we need to understand something about the communicative function of postcards and greeting cards, a background provided within Danet's carefully articulated encapsulation of their respective histories.

Interactivity is not a new idea in greeting cards. Even early paper greetings "invited" recipients to interact with them through the use of such devices as wheels that rotated to provide different images or messages, "puzzles" that the recipient had to figure out, or decorative (and tactilely pleasing) attachments such as fringes and tassels. "Singing telegrams" are an example of early attempts to combine a greeting with music.

When we turn to the issue of the communicative function of postcards, a significant point arises from the histories of the various genres. Postcards were and are usually not linked to occasions -- they are most frequently about the life of the sender and, more specifically, about something out of the ordinary that is happening to the sender. We've probably all received a postcard showing some gorgeous creature flattened on a white sand beach, gentle whitecaps rolling in toward a pristine shore, and perhaps a palm tree on the margin. The caption reads "Life is rough. Wish you were here." Greeting cards, on the other hand, are described lyrically by Danet as "the material manifestation of private performative acts, such as thanking, congratulating . . . expressing condolence, apologizing, and inviting to a formal event" (168). In his 1967 Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior, Goffman suggested that it is important that we see ourselves as ceremonial things, as sacred objects that must be treated with proper ritual care (91). Sending a card, as a material recognition of an important event, is a ceremonial act requisite to the maintenance of our social selves. Doing so is a "ticket" both to our sense of self and to our sense of belongingness within our community.

Greeting cards are big business, and the proliferation of Web sites offering greeting cards and/or postcards indicates that this continues to be true. When Danet initially did the bulk of the research for Chapter Four, in September 1997, her main source of information had indexed 650 sites, up from less than 30 when the index was initiated in March of 1996. By August 1999, the number of listings had almost doubled. Despite this proliferation of offerings, however, several categories, including "get well" cards, sympathy and apology cards, and "thank you" cards, remain rare. By October 2000, only 33 of the indexed sites offered condolence messages, skewed in favor of the commercial sites. Danet theorizes that perhaps the dearth of sites offering the "trouble" greetings are a recognition by purveyors of digital greetings that the medium itself is not conducive to such greetings, that in some cases, most notably that of death and condolence, a greeting with physicality is necessary in order for the appropriate ritual to be transacted in a socially acceptable manner. Another possibility is that the population creating and applying the technologies involved in the e-card trade are too young to have had much experience with death. In any event, the audience of the cards, the actual users, appear to fall somewhere in the 25 to 50 range, and Danet predicts that changing attitudes toward text, graphics and multimedia will eventually alter the thresholds of acceptability on even the "trouble" categories of e-greetings.

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Chapters Five and Six treat text-based art -- Chapter Five from the vantage point of 35 years of ASCII art. ASCII art is like a tapestry, woven line by line from the upper left-hand corner of a sometimes incredibly intricate image. It is a contemporary manifestation of some much older art forms such as mosaics, Ancient and Medieval techniques for the creation of images from letters and typography, typewriter art, and, most recently, teletype art. In these forms, we can identify the forerunners of ASCII art, which is itself based on a set of 128 characters, 95 of which are printable and can be used to "draw" images.

ASCII art first surfaced around 1960, but it was in the '80s and early '90s that it really gained popularity, proliferating on BBSs, and electronic bulletin boards across the Web. A concise history of the art form is probably not possible to obtain, and it is difficult to distinguish between pre- and post-Web ASCII because both can now be viewed there, and few artists dated their work. The one clear clue that a piece of ASCII is more recent is the use of color, for which HTML is required.

The study of ASCII segues into Chapter Six, with Danet's ethnographic study of two IRC channels where the participants communicate in real time through ASCII-like text-based visual images. While ASCII art tended to be created by one individual, then displayed for others, Danet correlates the kind of art found on the subject IRC channels with quilting, because it is a social communicative act. In these chat communities, participants interact with one another through the simultaneous exchange of images. The new IRC art is characterized by extensive use of vivid colors, typographic play through an extended ASCII character set, and an increasing complexity of design previously not possible.

Danet's thesis for the end of the study hinges on Gestalt psychology and the notion of closure. She suggests that "creating, playing and viewing images online [are] all means to strive for, and play with a sense of closure, completion and perfection" (257). The creation and/or sharing of images provides aesthetic pleasure for the participants; closure, a desired end, can be achieved by creating and performing files, by participating and/or viewing the art of other community members, and by developing and cultivating one's own collection of images. Also, participation in a welcoming community satisfies psychosocial needs that may not be satisfied in "r/l" (real life).

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Danet's final case study involves digital typefaces or fonts, and the people who love them. Interest in fonts has grown exponentially since the late 1990s. With the transition from traditional methods of crafting and using fonts to digitization, the computer screen rather than the press has become the typography professional's canvas, and a high degree of playfulness has emerged in the postmodern period. Also, digitization has opened the field of typography to anybody with an interest to create art from text. Fonts -- important tools in our communicative repertoire -- can now be designed, displayed and collected by anybody with the desire and the storage space. Norms, perceptions, and behavior regarding typography have been radically destabilized by digitization, computers and the Internet (331).

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Throughout Cyberpl@y, Danet illustrates the many ways that digital communication can be classified as both folk art and craft. She identifies the anomalies posited by traditional definitions of folk art, but neatly quashes most of these through the considerable weight of the evidence she provides. She recognizes that in the end, it will be up to the interrogator to decide the issue, but the argument being made is a compelling one.

Danet's book is a serious undertaking, and it is impossible to do it justice in the space a review will allow. It is, above all, a history of art, style, and form, and their use in communication and communicative play, but within its pages you will also find a snapshot of the constantly evolving demographics of Web usage. In the introduction, Danet notes that communicative devices change rapidly, that by the time her study is widely available many of the sites she studied may have changed, many of the genres she has illuminated may have evolved. This is entirely fitting, given the subject. When we talk about "communication," we recognize that meaning is fluid, the product of tacit negotiation between agent and audience. That the Web and our activities thereon should reflect this truism is just as it should be.

Julie Mactaggart:
Julie Mactaggart is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Speech Communication at the University of Minnesota. She currently teaches both at the University of Minnesota, in the Department of Scientific and Technical Rhetoric, and at the University of St. Thomas.  <jmactaggart@earthlink.net>

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