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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

"Making Up the Rules as We Go Along: The Playing Fields of The Emergent Internet"

When a medium develops as rapidly as the Internet has in the last decade or so, we are indebted to the researchers who take on the challenge of capturing and chronicling the changes they observe. That is what Brenda Danet, Professor Emerita at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has done in this series of studies of playfulness in Internet communication and culture.

The studies in this book were conducted over a period of nine years. Changes in email style, tone, and register; online performance; artistic expression in Internet Relay Chat; ASCII art in evolving online environments; digital greeting cards; and new applications for typography, are studied systematically, using a combination of close textual readings, intensive participant observation, and interviews, all framed by careful research that places the phenomenon into a historical and contemporary context.

Arguably, anyone who studies a new medium as it is emerging is obliged to employ multiple complementary methodologies in order to foster a well-rounded understanding. Certainly, Danet has done so. Each analytical chapter begins with a careful description of the observed phenomenon, written in such a way that the full flavor of the interaction is captured for the benefit of readers who have not yet experienced it themselves. Next, in each chapter, Danet analyzes a corpus of examples, carefully selected in order to identify patterns, anomalies, and trends. In the process of describing and selecting examples, Danet contextualizes the phenomenon under study, both by exploring its historical antecedents and by explaining how it relates to or has been adapted for contemporary practice. Finally, in each chapter, Danet suggests implications of the interactive environment for Internet culture as well as for contemporary society at large.

A chapter-by-chapter account of Danet's methods and findings is not appropriate here; each reader should make his or her own sense of Danet's meticulous and engaging work. I will, however, give a more detailed overview of one of Danet's chapters, to illustrate some connections that the reading revealed for me. Because I teach in a technical communication program, I was particularly interested in her chapter on electronic correspondence. To give readers a feel for what to expect in the rest of the book, I'll briefly review how her methods play out in this one chapter.

In "'Feeling Spiffy': the Changing Language of Public Email," Danet outlines a changing correspondence environment exemplified by a collection of email messages that she herself received in the mid-1990s. Once Danet had noticed that complete strangers were writing to her in unprecedented communicative registers, she began to pay closer attention to her email. For this study, she analyzed two collections of "official or public letters between strangers" (51), both of which involved her as one of the correspondents. In the process of conducting this research, she also accounted for the historical and contemporary contexts into which email is inserted; that is, she studied style guides for traditional printed business communication, as well as the emergent "netiquette" guides that offered guidelines for email communication. Obviously, the Internet has a role to play in this contextual analysis, and Danet gives an overview of the technological developments that made email communication possible. But for Danet, the technology is backdrop to the human interaction it facilitates. With a series of questions (53), Danet calls our attention to email's similarities and differences with respect to other forms of business communication. Moreover, she provides examples of connections between email and such forms as online chat, suggesting that even as email grows out of forms of communication grounded in formal business environments, it is simultaneously influenced by newer methods.

Although most technical communication classes include plenty of correspondence practice, the prevalent mishmash of communicative styles is reflected in the following hypothetical messages, variations of each of which I've received over the past 6 months.

    Yo! Dr. K! I forgot to ask you about this in class . . . Would it be OK if I . . . (Email from first-year composition student)

    Hello, Dr. Kitalong, This is Michelle DiMarco from your 1 p.m. honors composition class. I'm calling to let you know that I won't be in class this afternoon. I have [long list of symptoms] and will be going to the doctor . . . (Voice mail from first-year composition student)

    Dr. Kitalong,
    I hope you had a good weekend. I just have a question about the assignment for tonight. For the description, I wrote, "[Description.]" Is this OK, or do I need more detail? (Email from senior technical communication major)

    Dr. K. You look lovely today, as usual . . . (Unsigned scrawl on office door note board)

Thus, Danet's suggestion that the informal language of email sloshes over into other forms of communication, and vice versa, resonates for me. Another indication of such a casual interactive style that Danet does not mention is the prevalence of playful email handles like "surfergrrl," "hotkitty," and "agoodknightkiss" (my university's sports teams are known as the Knights). On occasion, I have gone so far as to ask students to consider the impression being conveyed by a risque nom de plume, and whereas Danet questions the need to "sign" email messages because all pertinent information is contained in the header, I often remind students that cute and playful email handles may not adequately identify them to their correspondents.

The email chapter hit home for me, both because I teach email as a form of communication in professional contexts and because I send and receive a great many emails in a given day. But beyond this chapter, the book as a whole strikes me as an important contribution to the field of cyberculture studies for a number of reasons.

First, of course, she reinforces the importance of chronicling what people do on line by means of her meticulous studies of a variety of playful online activities. Some of these activities are no longer practiced -- at least not with their early level of enthusiasm -- so, just as an anthropologist who chronicles a remote culture affords us a fuller picture of the range of human behavior, so Danet's studies help create a more complete picture of practices that exist and have existed in cyberspace. While we have a lot of information about some kinds of practices -- email, for example, has been studied exhaustively from a number of different perspectives -- Danet is alone in her emphasis on how email playfulness crosses various boundaries.

Danet makes a unique contribution, also, by selecting sites of interaction frequented by people who do not fit the traditional Internet-user profile. For example, she studied sites that artistic individuals of both genders found relevant, and likened the practices found at these sites to quilting, folk art, and performance. In addition, she noted that because women typically take on relationship-fostering roles, many women first came on line to send and receive greeting cards. Similarly, some previously non-technical people developed their Web design and computer security acumen when it became important to create permanent "community centers" for use by online groups. Thus, Danet's work touches on online behaviors of previously overlooked participants, thereby fleshing out the numbers and statistics available to us from other sources.

In addition, she attempts to get at the motivations of these participants. Why do people create their own fonts and offer them for sale on the Internet? Why do people spend hours creating works of art, only to display (or "play") them in an instant on an IRC channel? What are the attributes of a "gift economy" that are relevant in these Internet relationships? How do participants in these endeavors understand creative stimulus and intellectual property? Without directly saying so, Danet's case studies illustrate why traditional notions like copyright are difficult to enforce on the Internet: The difficulty stems, in part, from the fact that the people most directly involved with the production of art and culture in this environment are operating from new standards of ownership that grow not out of Western intellectual property regulations but out of folk art traditions.

Finally, in what is perhaps the most important contribution for me, Danet shows us how to study emerging cyberspatial phenomena. In presenting her engaging case studies, she employs an integrated suite of methodologies -- observations, interviews, close readings, and historical-cultural contextualization. In so doing, she models appropriate processes and considerations that will be emulated by other online social interaction researchers. By helping us understand online communities, she shows us, as well, how to develop and sustain them.

A tireless researcher, Danet is now in her fourth decade of scholarly publication on communication and culture. Her Internet-related publications date back to 1994, when the Internet first began to emerge as a mainstream communication environment. Her experience and research prowess, combined with her accessible writing style, make Cyberpl@y an engaging and readable book that -- on this I agree with a reviewer's comment on the book's back cover -- appeals to both communication scholars and the general public. Those who would like a more in-depth look can visit the book's Web site.

Karla Saari Kitalong:
Karla Saari Kitalong is Assistant Professor of Technical Communication at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. She has been working and playing online since 1988, and wishes she had kept better notes. 

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