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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

In her book Cyberpl@y, Brenda Danet says: "I hope this book conveys some of my own surprise and amazement at many of the phenomena it documents" (43). It does; this wonderful book provides enough surprises to amuse, and amaze. Cyberpl@y explores the new and exciting multidisciplinary field of online communication in all its manifestations. Its approach is inclusive and non-judgmental, something rare in communication studies, where arguments about standards and culture and hegemonics often cloud the ability to look at and enjoy what human beings really do when they communicate, as opposed to what someone thinks they should do.

Danet reads online communication in terms of 'play' and 'performance.' Play encompasses everything from having fun with fonts ("There's more to life than Times New Roman") -- and she informs fontaholics where to indulge their weaknesses -- to making ASCII masterworks, and #mirc folk art. Performance sets play in the context of, for example, IRC (Internet Relay Chat), where real time creative exchanges can evolve to produce the logistical brilliance of the production of 'PCBeth' (an online parody of 'Macbeth' with global participants). Danet shows how play (she doesn't use the word 'jouissance' but it's appropriate for those interested in semiotics) and performance in a new medium create new contexts for communication, which in turn create new genres and new significations. It's symptomatic of her open and academic -- and womanly -- mind that she can explore the folk art designs of patchwork quilts and the improvisations of jazz musicians to explain online creativity, to the enhancement of each.

Semiotics has never looked so exciting. For the linguistic or literary theorist, signification itself takes on a new meaning online, while the Bakhtinian multivocal text (144) is also of necessity re-defined; the ethnography of online writing broaches new theoretical boundaries. Danet points out that in the space between medieval times and the postmodern, writing has been an invisible medium, an interspace between 'real' situations and their meanings through the contexts and genres which are their textual analogues. Text is still, for many academic readers and literary theorists, a transparent window through which meaning is perceived, a window which is consciously designed not to intrude. Interface culture (with a nod towards Johnson's 1997 similarly-titled book), however, participates in a new medium which has to be consciously made (= designed and created on a second level) to impart meaning in new and interactive ways, whether in real time or asynchronously. As in the Middle Ages, and in the calligraphic art of the East, text on the Internet is treated as graphic, and the consequent design and semiotic power given to writers and readers changes the way we write and read.

The web structure of Internet design should (but doesn't yet) supercede the linear mode of the book with its concomitant perception that knowledge is goal-oriented and that the end of the book is the sum of knowledge built up by the list of parts. The world of McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage is gradually manifest in Internet design. (Correcting 'massage' to 'message' may be a litmus test of some kind, but don't ask me to say what it isolates.)

Danet's book is both a resource and a coffee-table book -- full of fun and interest, while providing information about every aspect of the online interface of text-as-graphics. Her approach is multi-disciplinary. The ethnography of online communication explores the intersections of cultural studies, social science, linguistics and sociolinguistics, art and design, computer science, Internet design, and the economics of commodification.

The book is however, perhaps more a heterogeneous list of the multifarious features of Internet graphic play than a theoretical analysis of the codes of online writing: more play than metaplay. In itself this is not a fault; Danet has created the space now for a more rigorous approach. She is hampered by the absence of a linguistics capable of integration with her pragmatic and descriptive methodology. Her problem is perhaps the consequence of the power of formalist linguistics over the minds of American academics. Formalist linguistics posits an abstract and ideal Language system, to which all human language systems aspire to better or lesser levels of competence.

Danet, as a sociologist, describes Internet communication, and email in particular, as inhabiting "an anomalous region somewhere between speaking and writing" (11), and she searches for a new terminology; she invents the 'bi-stable text' to describe what she sees as the double function of online text, 'doubly attenuated' and 'doubly enhanced.' Functional linguistics, I would suggest, has the pragmatic and descriptive power to provide answers to her problems, its focus being performance rather than something unmeasurable called 'competence.' Danet is instinctively a functional or descriptive linguist without knowing it. For example, she acknowledges that interrupted images in cyberchat are themselves interesting, rather than 'spoiled' (268). Systemic functional linguistics (see the works of M.A.K. Halliday, passim) describes human communication in the contexts and situations in which it is used. It sees content and form as a 'gestalt' -- as two aspects of one thing, not as something standing for something else. Its gradations of levels of formality, and systems which inter-relate with systems in infinitely extendable weblike relationships, are both analogical representations of, and part of, the real world(s) of human experience in all its variety, which includes the virtual online world(s) described by William Mitchell in his 1995 book, City of Bits. They are not representations of some ideal perfect system. The new medium encodes new messages. It helps to have appropriate tools to decode them, and functional linguistics is one of those indispensable tools.

Brenda Danet succeeds in communicating the 'jouissance' of human-computer 'cyberpl@y,' the very bearable 'lightness of being' which is the online world's contribution to textuality. Her world is one in which there isn't time to keep all the references, and no desire to fudge it either (see footnote 71 to Chapter 1, page 48), but one in which at the same time Chapter 1 can have more than 71 learned footnotes!

There are infelicities. For example, I didn't like the syntax of "in a book as interdisciplinary as this one" (xvi) or the paternalism of "Stuart Harris and his companion Gayle Kidder." The complexity of the medium (this detailed and academic book) conflicts with the massage (fun, newness, liberation). Description replaces analysis: in the chapter on greetings cards (164), an analysis of the signification of quotation marks round "scraps" and "lace" (= virtual) would have been more interesting than the history of valentine cards. Lack of historical knowledge shows in little things like "a Mrs Beeton" (166) as though Mrs Beeton was unknown, and in her placing of Inchcolm in England instead of Scotland (155, n.40). The carnivalesque and the ludic are, in literary terms, simplistically read. But those are minor details in a book which breaks new ground, amuses and informs. A major requirement for the future is that sociology and linguistics hear each other.

This satisfying book puts communication into a new and happier context. May it signal the demise of teaching about topic sentences.

Beth Jeffery:
Beth Jeffery teaches English at Vista University Port Elizabeth, South Africa. She has a PhD in linguistics from the University of Cape Town, and is the co-producer of English for Everyone (demo Web site). Other interests include Joseph Conrad, the postmodern novel, systemic functional linguistics, and graphics.  <jeffery@eastcape.net>

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