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Cyberlines: Languages and Cultures of the Internet

Editor: Donna Gibbs, Kerri-Lee Krause
Publisher: Albert Park, Australia: James Nicholas Publishers, 2001
Review Published: October 2002

 REVIEW 1: Patrick Martin
 REVIEW 2: Rodney K. Marshall

Cyberlines is the product of the editors' involvement in Cyberproject, an online research initiative based in Macquarie University, New South Wales, the aim of which was to informally investigate the features of, and changes in, language used to describe the Internet and related technologies. Additionally, attention was paid to the characteristics of communication styles which have become popular on the network. Donna Gibbs is a Senior Lecturer in Postgraduate Studies at the School of Education, MacQuarie University, with a specialisation in Renaissance Studies, Language and Literature and the Impact of Technology upon Curriculum Development. Her colleague, Dr. Kerri-Lee Krause, lectures in Educational Psychology and Language Development at the same institution.

The eleven chapters are the work of ten authors (including the two editors) and reflect an eclectic range of interests. A question which is implicitly addressed in many of the pieces is: how the twin poles of social control and cultural resistance, which define the prevalent social attitudes to the political implication of the Internet, can also to be examined through analysis of the relationship between language and technology. Specific attention is given to how different symbol systems (linguistic, iconic, and semiotic) operate in representing the Internet and how certain ubiquitous metaphors used to describe the technology (superhighway, network) embody certain exclusionary values and lead to exclusionary practices. The need for new forms of Internet literacy and critical reading strategies for multimedia artefacts are also prominent concerns.

Published in 2000, the book is slightly weakened by factors outside of the control of the contributors: work which is based on an analysis of new communication technology can come to appear outmoded quickly. However, the book is profitably read as a collection of useful ideas on the subject: one which provides a foundation for further research into linguistic and socio-linguistic aspects of new communication technology use.

Cyberlanguage
    Cyberlanguage is a new language, with its own quirky logic, which evolves with an unprecedented speed and variety and is heavily dependent on ingenuity and humour. The pace at which change occurs is indicative of a society on the move, with little time for reflection. (25)

Donna Gibb's chapter on Cyberlanguage foreshadows many of the issues dealt with by the subsequent contributions: the advent of new norms for text-only communication (emoticons and abbreviations; the emphasis on the phatic function of language), the conceptualisation of the Internet (as an imaginative space, an infinite library, a truly democratic public forum) by drawing analogies from extant domains (physical space, older technologies, political and philosophical concepts) and the features of creativity and playfulness evident in the creation, circulation and obsolescence of new language forms (digerati, blogs, cyberanything).

Language, in its creation and embodiment of societal and group norms and values, is both a social cement and an exclusionary system. A shared symbolic system is necessary for the establishment of community but this can only be achieved through the creation of boundaries which define the community through the simultaneous rejection of those who do not belong. Gibbs reflects on how the language register associated with technology has, and will, impact upon the inclusion of those communities historically disenfranchised (those who do not belong to the category of affluent, educated, white western men) in emergent online society/ies. There is a fear that cyberlanguage is masculinist, aggressive, and threatening, being suffused with associations with science, war and penetration (technical terminology, page hits, program executions, etc.). Gibbs cites Cole's (1994) commentary on some of these fears: "The language of computing provides an imagery of sex and violence which is contrary to girl's conditioning, abort, chaining, thrashing, execute, kill."

Many of these concerns are linguistically naive and overstated, being supported only by an over-attentiveness to infrequently used, esoteric terms which do not prohibit or encourage Internet participation. Such arguments are also based on assumptions about static gender identities, particularly female identity. Gibbs points this out, and alludes to the contrary evidence, offered by Nicholson (1996) for instance, that women's understanding and adaptation to communication technology surpasses that of men in some contexts.

The multiple roles of metaphor in relation to the Internet are treated in Gibbs & Krause chapter, "Metaphor and Meaning in a Virtual World." The view of metaphor taken by the authors is a traditional Aristotlean, non-cognitivist one wherein metaphor is viewed as a creative function which serves to familiarise us with new entities through implicit comparison with existing concepts and, in so doing, makes an evaluative judgment about the essential nature of this new concept. The most prevalent trope used in connection with the Internet is physicalisation. The virtual and bodiless are made real, fleshy and comprehensible through the language which is used to describe them. The authors state that: "Popular sources for metaphoric ideas include the urban landscape: (superhighway, traffic) networks and convergence (web, net, networks...) office, the home, animals, machinery, sexuality and violence (abort, hotwired, lurking)" (32).

Metaphorical associations evolve and persist because of their saliency to the linguistic culture which uses them and because, according to the Lakoffian stance, analogical reasoning is the main human information processing tool -- avoidance of comparison between the known and the unknown is impossible and always proceeds along a trajectory of substantiation [1]. Metaphors also shape or reflect attitudes to these concepts (in the realm of language, the Internet is more a concept than a physical network) which they represent. The source from which metaphors are drawn are indicative of something, but not necessarily of specific cultural values, or at least not in such a straightforward manner as authors affirm. For example, categorising abortion and lurking simply as "violent concepts" is a limited reading of the mental mapping operation for the actions to which these words refer. It does, however, illustrate that increasingly a word's etymology is no indication of the contexts in which it may be used or the meaning it may assume through conjunction with another word or through a metaphorical transposition. The spread of text-based, many-to-many communication technologies only serves to accelerate the process of creating neologisms and incorporating familiar words into unfamiliar situations.

The authors argue that the primary metaphorical associations with the Internet reflected in language use are contradictory and dialectical: those of safety and linkage (connected, web, network, community) compete with those of threat and restriction (the polysemous nature of "net" is indicative of this). In effect, this single word reflects many of the fears and hopes which we have for the nascent technology.

The evaluative function of language and particularly metaphor, and its exclusionary aspects, are well treated by the authors. However, at times, a tacit view of language as a system in thrall to social will emerges which slightly weakens the analysis. Language change does not occur through force of will but through a complex social process in which the different communication functions of language, different cultural registers, and the features of the media through which the language is conveyed each have an influence.

Cyberliteracy

The development of new styles of expression, interactive and information design, and the combination on the Internet of media elements which have traditionally remained separated can be regarded as an opportunity for challenging dominant and ideologically entrenched ways of seeing and reading.

It can also be seen as a form of denial-of-service on the part of language: if the information is not designed in the way which is expected and accessible to the majority of those who have access to it, then this entropy will preclude the social participation and empowerment of those who might most benefit by it.

Jennifer Thurston and Ross Todd discuss these issues in their separate chapters on the challenge of inculcating critical literacy skills for new media. Both chapters comment well on how literacy skills are bound up inextricably with power and how the guaranteed access to information, which is a feature of progressive democracy, becomes meaningless when that information is not intelligible to those whose interests are supposedly served by its availability. If it can't be accessed, read or understood then it might as well not exist. In a similar vein, the emergence of education as the problem for which the Internet is the solution requires deep thinking about the efficacy of providing curricular content without the accompaniment of education in ways of critically interpreting mixed symbol systems. As a media element competing side-by-side with others, hypertext, Thurstun argues, has become weakened as an educational and instructional device. The skills for dealing with hypertext require a reconfiguration of the reader's expectations. She quotes Tuman (1992): "In a world defined by a single literature rather than a multitude of texts, reading becomes essentially a means of finding one's way -- one moves, not ever deeper into a single text in quest of some world-altering hermeneutic understanding, but playfully between texts, from side to side as it were" (62).

In the absence of obvious standards for appraising which schema -- which writing styles, which registers, which approaches to layout -- to adopt so as to ensure ease of user apprehension and retention, Jacob Nielsen's usability standards for Web design have become popularised. These rely upon Web conventions which are arbitrary, unproven for efficiency in information engineering terms, but which have nonetheless become embedded -- accepted as norms which users do not wish to see changed.

Another problem which arises in the area of literacy is that of search query generation, for which no obvious corollary exists outside of the Web. User expectations of what information will be returned from search queries, and general ignorance and naivety about how this information is parsed, indexed, and retrieved by commercial search engines, has far-reaching consequences. Humans have evolved and employ heuristics for discerning which of all of the available information is most salient and trustworthy. We have not yet developed analagous heuristics for discriminating between types of information discovered on the Internet. As Thurstun points out: "Readers are not good at assessing the adequacy of information which they find or whether information remains that they have not yet found" (64).

Cyberidentity

Juliet Mar and Annette Wong's respective chapters share a common interest in the means by which identities are continuously projected, recreated, and dissembled in online settings. The work of Sarah Kiesler on the effects of CMC on communication habits within pre-established groups is an important touchstone in this area [2]. The text-only environment of IRC (Internet Relay Chat) deprives users of most of the important social cues which they ordinarily use to establish an imagined and working identity for those with whom they are communicating. Age, gender, ethnicity, and class are characteristics that reveal themselves in the 'realworld' through a battery of proxemic, kinesic, paralinguistic, and visual cues. These are the staples of identification of others, which, in Goffmann's (1959) terms, provide a frame and a set of cultural norms for the type and manner of communication which should follow. In their absence a form of identity confusion obtains. This has had two main effects on user behaviour in the virtual environment. First, a greater propensity to be self-assertive and self-expressive by applying written expression to the task of projecting the self's identity. The sense of anonymity also dislocates the user's self-identity and they are more likely to act in (hostile) ways which are dissonant with their established self-identity.

Secondly, there is the frame-breaking playfulness which is the focus of Sherry Turkle's (1995) work: the shifts in identity projection which results in online gender switching, affective stylisation of expression to claim membership of another social grouping. Much has been made of the creative uses which people make of the anonymity and apparent normlessness of virtual life. Creating and maintaining identities which problematise traditional dichotomies such as man/woman and mind/machine are interesting cybercultural phenomena and reflect broader cultural transformations.

However, the authors do well to point out that many of these behaviours labelled creative are simply instances of old values finding their means of expression in a new forum: assuming a male identity in IRC is a way for a woman to avoid harassment. The reciprocal switch for men can be motivated by opportunism, curiousity, and prurience. 'Playful' identity changing which is peremptorily aversive is not the same as that which is self-willed.

Reading Cyberlines is rewarding, chiefly due to the contributions of Mar, Wong, and Thurstun. The editors' own interests in emergent concerns about the social consequences of cyber-illiteracy are also well-presented, justifying the book's increasing inclusion on many reading lists for courses in cybercultural studies.

1. See Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M., Metaphors We Live By (Chicago University Press, 1983) for an extended treatment of the embodied view of metaphor.

2. See for example Kiesler S., Siegel J., & McGuire, T.W., "Social Psychological Aspects of Computer-mediated Communication," American Psychologist 39: 10 (1984): pp. 123-134.

Cole, A., Conlon, T., Jackson, S., & Welch, D., "Information Technology and Gender: Problems and Proposals," Gender and Education, 6:1 (1994): pp 77-85.

Goffmann, E., The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1959.

Nicholson, P., "From Web Master to Cybervirgin: Explorations of the Net", in L. Laskey and C. Beavis (Ed.), Schooling and Sexualities: Teaching for a Positive Sexuality. Geelong: Deakin Centre for Education and Change, 1996.

Tuman, M., Word Perfect: Literacy in the Computer Age. London: Falmer Press, 1992.

Turkle, S., Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Patrick Martin:
Patrick Martin is a Ph.D. researcher in the School of Communications and a Research Associate in the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies, Dublin City University, Ireland. His research has focused on political extremism on the Internet and the socio-emotional uses of interactive communication technology. His doctoral research examines online principles of social compliance and innovation.  <patrick.martin@dcu.ie>

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