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
Have you ever wondered what is being said on the Internet? Have you ever participated in a chat session or marveled about the conversations in a chat room? Is the building of a good, solid relationship really possible through this new medium, the Internet? If you have every asked yourself any these questions, or any question similar, you will want to read Cyberlines: Languages and cultures of the Internet, edited by Donna Gibbs and Kerri-Lee Krause. At the very heart of this book is an exploration of how individuals can come to understand the language used to communicate through the Internet. You, the reader, will discover literacies (theories of reading, understanding, and learning) that the Internet supports and makes possible.
The book is divided into three sections: The Language of Cyberspace; The New Literacies; and Cultures and Communities in Cyberspace. I will direct my critique of this book according to the sections.
Part 1: The Language of Cyberspace
Co-editor Gibbs starts off this section by defining cyberlanguage as "the words, expressions and linguistic phenomena associated with information technology" (11). She goes on to comment that this "language" can be (and is) put under a microscope to study. This is not unusual being that the Internet is still new to so many individuals. Emphasis is given to "cyber" and variations to that prefix (e.g. cybernetics, cyborgs, cyberspace, etc.). This is a useful point in that it reminds us that language comes from what is known and new terms come from the same. This leads to her assumption that America is the major cause of this "language." Gibbs follows this point by noting the "maleness" of cyberlanguage (a point that this reviewer is interested to see how (if at all) this may be altered in the future), yet is quick to add that "it seems that the issue of the 'maleness' of cyberlanguage is more complex than has been recognized to date and that further research in the area is warranted" (20). She then leads to a very important function of language -- meaning -- and briefly discusses definitions of "cyberspace," recognizing that the creation of terminology can come from anyone.
The next chapter in this section, "Metaphor and Meaning: Values in a Virtual World" by co-editors Gibbs and Krause, starts out by discussing the metaphors used in cyberlanguage. I found this chapter particularly interesting in that communicating values in real life is sent mainly with metaphors. Gibbs and Krause talk of a metaphor being dominant for a period of time in order to represent a common meaning and how metaphors help to make something unfamiliar familiar. While I wish they had spent more time discussing how metaphors create a sense of reality, they do emphasize that metaphors bring emotion to an emotionless medium. Metaphors bring power where nonverbal communication is lost. That is something important to remember, since nonverbal communication is used in face-to-face communication for 60% of the meaning (Knapp & Miller, 1994). Gibbs and Krause end the chapter with a discussion of words that could replace the term superhighway; some of their suggestions, which, it should be noted often already apply to concepts in other fields of study, are a "global brain" metaphor and an agricultural metaphor for "electronic reaping and sowing."
The section's final chapter is Scott Fitzgerald's "Re(de)fining Dictionaries: From Paper to Pixel." Here Fitzgerald gives a nice concise history of the book, from impressions on walls to the printing press to the present Internet, showing the growth of information available to the public. A brief history of lexicography is also given (and appreciated). But Fitzgerald brings up some interesting ideas. Yes, dictionaries have gone online. And yes, one can now go to a website and type in a word and find the meaning(s). Yet as Fitzgerald notes, there is so much more that could be done. There could be a link provided to go other websites that are helpful in understanding the meaning of the word. Links to a thesaurus or the history of the word could be given. There are so many possibilities with this medium that could help the reader that naturally could not occur in a book form. Fitzgerald covers this information very well for the reader.
Part 2: The New Literacies
Jennifer Thurstun begins this section by discussing how new technology has radically changed the nature of literacy, and offers an excellent discussion of the differences between electronic and print texts. She also quickly gets to the problem in that the information available in electronic form is now the responsibility of the reader, and notes that users can become overwhelmed by all the available choices. Although this phrase is not use, this is similar to the concept of "information overload," the state of having too much information available and as a result being unable to derive an understanding of it all. According to Thurstun, cognitive abilities are needed for individuals to correctly handle hypertext, yet hypertext also needs to have a constant structure to which users become accustomed. She correctly points out the problems with e-text and ends with some suggestions on how to make the medium easier for the reader. She suggests a change is needed in the formatting (readers don't want to wade through a lot of "words" on the page) but also asks how a change in technology could help, making for example the screen "as good as paper" (73). Scanning is a problem with e-text, but often results in missing information that might be useful. She concludes by stating that the computer is extremely forgiving and patient, permitting experimentation, but human beings are not. According to Thurstun, more thought should be given to the problems of screen reading before this present system is "fossilized" (75).
Next, Juliet McLean contributes her chapter, "Cyberseeking: Language and the Quest for Information." She begins by comparing the seeking of books and information in libraries to the individual seeking information on the Internet. Discussed first are the "rules" one has in a library -- for example, having certain rights of access and responsibilities and how if misused those rights can be taken away. In other words, it is always possible that select individuals may not be allowed to use a particular library. Yet this does not happen online. The search for information has transferred from the library to the home and office. Here the individual has few constraints. Although there are legal restrictions concerning copyright and defamation laws, the individual is "uniquely free of accountability" (81). She then turns to the concern of how learners are brought into and introduced to this electronic information. I agree with McLean when she notes that more needs to be accomplished in teaching children to search for information. These skills could start out small and progress as age and intelligence grows for seeking more definitive information. Yes, searchers need to know that there is more than keyword searches and not every search engine will support a Boolean search. Towards this need, McLean gives a table of search engines to support Boolean search and that do not as of June 1998 (91). Yet with respect to searching what it often comes down to is knowing how to ask a question. McLean spends a good deal of quality time in discussing this important area. She rightly points out that this is a skill that needs to be taught. Computer-assisted searching is very helpful, but something that needs significantly more attention in the area of instruction.
The next chapter is Ross Todd's "Negotiating the Web: Language, Critical Literacies and Learning." Todd begins by explaining the field of Information Science, its approach to the study of information, and how it is presented and used by this new technology. Information Science focuses on how users understand, search, and use this vast amount of information available through the Internet. Todd emphasizes that the Web represents a dramatic change in the nature of our information environment with computer technology in that it enables the traditional linear flow of information to be replaced by a hyperlinked structure that in turn generates multiple pathways of informational navigation. He then explains information literacy and how it is importance in this information explosion. To address this challenge, Todd notes, we need to develop learner's information and critical literacies. These skills are vital for learners to make decisions about "what information to believe, what to doubt, what to pay attention to, what to be concerned with, and what to reject" (107). Once an individual acquires these skills, then the informationally literate individual is now ready for life-long learning as an information citizen (Hawes, 1997), knowing better how to search, find, and understand information. This can only help the user feel more confident in dealing with the vast amount of information available.
Anne Cranny-Francis concludes the section with "Connexions." She discusses some of the literacy demands placed on us as writers and readers by dividing the chapter into two scenarios: one of reading a website and another as readers and/as rhizomes (a metaphoric image for the Internet and its sites). The first starts with an anecdotal story about a company's website being evaluated by a media consultant, a computer specialist, and a cultural theorist who specialized in critical reading. The theorist explores the meaning of the site using principles from literacy practices (originally used to read texts), which are the basis of the 'new' information technology literacy. Next, the critical reader explores the homepage (icons, graphics and verbal text) along with the links represented. Finally, it is concluded that the analysis of a website requires a range of literacies, most of which are based on contemporary literacy practices.
The second section explores the rhetoric about the Internet and its everyday reality. The first section describes the word "rhizome" as "an image of the textual freedom predicted for the Internet and its texts, including hypertext" (140). Cranny-Francis admits that rhizome "is less useful as a metaphor for the website, which is heavily rule-governed and intertextually and socioculturally specific, than for the reading practices by which user/readers access these sites" (145). She concludes by stating that this is a literacy that works through a recognition of difference rather than of sameness. It does not submit to authority (textual, cultural, social, economic, or political) but actively interrogates it.
Part 3 - Cultures and Communities in Cyberspace
In "Online on Time: The Language of Internet Relay Chat," Juliet Mar discusses the contextual features that impact the discourse that occurs in it. Mar first describes and defines Internet Relay Chat (IRC), noting the importance of chat's synchronous nature. She then takes us on a tour of IRC language by looking at three elements of context: Field, Tenor, and Mode. Field refers to the context of the conversation: the activity, topic, and language choice. Tenor is concerned with the social relationships among the participants. Power (or status), contact, and affective involvement are three important dimensions of Tenor. Power is the operator (an individual that monitors, guides, and polices the room), an individual that seems to be an "expert" on the topic at the time, or one that has a more aggressive style in the conversation. Contact comes in various forms, both intimate and frequent. This contact can lead to affective involvement. Since contact is usually not outside the chat environment, affective involvement is usually low. Finally, mode deals with the language used by the participants. While IRC provides an interesting way of interacting with others, other chat rooms, including those available through AOL and other Internet agencies, would seem to produce the same effects. This reviewer especially appreciated the transcript provided at the end of the chapter.
In "Cyberself: Identity, Language and Stylization on the Internet, Annette Wong states that to some people the Internet is simply an "abstract place of communication" (178). She notes that it is necessary to understand that the Internet is mainly text-based communication, a marker for identity. She then discusses two important concepts that probably most have asked or dealt with sometime in their lives: "cyberspace is over-rated" and "what is the Internet anyway?" Wong then discusses "style and utility" noting that if we subscribe to the concept of a utility, we become machine-like and dehumanized. This does not seem to be what is happening. Individuals that use the Internet are using some sort of style to identify or place themselves. Continuing with that line of thought, Wong discusses the child-like qualities of users (cartoon culture), chat and game rooms, problems with flaming, and the common disclaimer "it's only a game." She then raises an interesting problem: If the World Wide Web is really worldwide, then why doesn't it support all the different languages of the world? She discusses the technical problems and then shows how Japanese culture is coping (I especially appreciated the table of Japanese emoticons and associated meaning) (195). When talking of the future, I like her analogy of our virtual world being a "scaffolding, a sketch or the aspiration for the new expanding boundaries of the Real world" (202). Wong ends by correctly stating that if our real world doesn't expand, then our virtual world is a delusion, a dangerous delusion because it distracts us from the real world.
Ray Archee's "Critiquing Internet 2000: Knowledge, Language and Freedom takes a critical look at some of the concepts the earlier chapters addressed. I understand the importance of the article in referring to "the" Internet, and agree with Archee that those who have little to no understanding or use for the medium use this phrase, without the article, in ignorance. Archee has a problem with some areas of the Internet, including Web pages, calling themselves "communities," and questions whether the Internet's presumed ability to enable the creation of new (virtual) communities demises the old (real) communities. He provides a provocative argument by noting how the freeway has harmed real communities, and asks if the "Information Superhighway" is harming our real communities. He also warns of taking the information found on this medium too seriously. Again, going back to McLean (chap. 5), we need to be critical observers of the information found on the Internet. I agree with his ending paragraph (and found the very ending to my liking) that "as educators and scholars we need to be aware of the problems inherent in the latest technology" (221). Archee's questions -- Why are we using the Net? What benefits does it offer? What is it costing us? -- are important and need to be seriously considered as we further study this medium.
The final chapter, Kerri-Lee Krause's "Cyberlines," provides an excellent summary of the entire book. Here Krause compares the Songlines of the Australian Aboriginal people with the connections of individuals on the Internet. As Krause notes, the language is the connection. As the words and music connected the Aboriginal people, cyberlanguage connects and creates communities and subcultures in a variety of ways. She then discusses two communities that have not previously been talked about: cyberpunk and the hacker community. Again, language unites individuals in cyberspace as it does in real life. Krause brings up an important concept in that just as language unites and ties, it also divides and sets apart. The issue of the power of language cannot be denied. Krause does a very nice job in wrapping up the series of articles and tying together the themes of the book.
I really appreciated the essays in this book. Each chapter was well written and challenging. I would recommend this book to anyone that is interested in language and the Internet. In closing, I would like to share the final paragraph as a challenge to others interested in this area. Enjoy!
Hawes, D. K. (1997). The Role of Marketing in Facilitating the Diffusion of Microcomputers and 'The Information society.' Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 15(2), 83-90.
Knapp, M. L., & Miller, G. R. (1994). Handbook of Interpersonal Communication. 2nd Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Rodney K. Marshall:
Rodney K. Marshall is an assistant professor in the Department of Speech Communication at Eastern Illinois University. His research interests include educational technology use, interpersonal communication (both FTF & the Internet), and information competency.
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