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Case study three

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CS 3.1 Introduction

In Case Study One, using analysis drawn from Reader-response theory, I explored the duel role of authorship and readership and argued that the writer needed to be the reader of the text in order to contribute meaningful discourse. The author does not have to read in order to write or ‘speak’ in a chatroom, as he or she could just enter a chatroom and enter text into the chatroom, then leave. However, for shared discourse the writer has to read to produce a “response worthy” response. Chatrooms are, to this extent, dialogic. But that definition alone cannot cover the intricacies of chatroom discourse.

In Case Study Two the technology that makes chatroom discourse possible was introduced. Computer-Mediated communication (CMC) involves the study of the process of using computers to exchange information. However, without significance being applied to the characters on the screen during some process of reception, the “communication” of CMC cannot have a purpose. In this case study I combine awareness of both how information is mediated by CMC, and how users (reader-writers) interpret that information. This chapter will look at how meaning is read from keyboard characters and iconic representatives, and especially in the textual configurations used in chatrooms, which often cannot be read as traditional text. The current CMC keyboard also now enables the user to upload an image which can be used as a representation of him or herself, or as a visual “cue” or “prop”, in the theatrical sense. Analysis of chatroom practice and communicative “production and reception” thus requires a visual as well as verbal-textual analysis.

As I argue throughout my case studies, here the only way to identify communicative intent in the chatroom is through first attempting to identify what the chatter is doing in the room. The only cues that are provided are the utterances and the username. For example a chatter with the username is telling people that he or she has something to do with Morehead, North Carolina. Similarly who was a chatter in the Hurricane Floyd chatroom discussed in Case Study One is saying that he or she identifies with Hurricane Floyd, and
in the baseball chatroom I discuss in Case Study Seven identifies with baseball player Mike Piazza. Since the baseball player is spelt Piazza, the user here appears to be playing with words, expressing a love of pizza as well as for Piazza, who plays for the New York Mets. Such ambiguity is typical of the wordplay and neologistic creativity of Chatroom users, inviting serious analysis of their markedly self-aware language use. Sometimes too the username helps with identifying the intent of the person in the chatroom, in that the conversation of the chatter is often reflective of the username, in a personal or miniaturised version of the “celebrity-identification” used for the entire chatroom for Case Study Three.

Given this tendency towards user-identification with the topics and spaces of chat, what then might we expect from the chat-expressiveness of a group self-selecting into a Britney- focused chatroom? I saved 70 turns from such a chat in March 2000, (appendix a3 At the time I knew little about Britney Spears except that she was another pop idol among children. I chose this particular chatroom at random out of a list of thousands on the popular Talkcity chat server, at a period when it was among the top of search engine Google’s selections for chatroom servers. went out of business in early 2002, making it impossible to replicate this series of chats – however the tendencies displayed on this site at this time and shown in this sample, reappear on other similarly focused spaces.

To capture both the self-aware linguistic expressiveness and the multi-layers of identity affiliation processed in the chat in such rooms, I will use semiotics alongside semantics and pragmatics. In a space centred on the image or style culture of a popular, almost iconic figure – and especially of one so successfully appealing to young audiences deeply immersed in adolescent and pre-adolescent self-formation, my focus will be on the ways users take up and rework cues offered by the celebrity image, the site itself, and the talk texts and image-props of other users. I hope here to introduce a socially embedded reading of chatroom communication, examining not just the textual surfaces, but recognizing, where possible the social origins and outcomes of such otherwise symbolic activity as celebrity-centred chat.

CS 3.1.1 Questions

‘Can a celebrity’s name as title of a chatroom create a difference in dialogue in chatrooms?’

My first question in researching the dialogue in this chatroom cannot be answered by any form of statistical analysis. People pass in and out of chatrooms, and unless there is a popup box with questions to answer – and some constraint on the honesty or accuracy of replies - there is no way to know who the chatters are, or why they are in a particular chatroom. Even with forms put on a site for people to answer there is no way of knowing whether the answers are accurate, as anyone can put in any information they wish at any time – with single or multiple responses (Danet, 1998; Bromberg, 1996; Turkle, 1996). However, because the chatroom in Case Study Three had the name of a celebrity and could be presumed to be limiting the group likely to find the chat topics appealing, the possibility was produced for an open or empirical study of whether such a limited group might display special discursive or chat-behavioural characteristics, exclusive to such a self-selected group; I posed the question, ‘Can a celebrity’s name as title of a chatroom create a difference in dialogue in chatrooms?

To some extent this proved to be a naïve question. Before I entered this chatroom and copied the log for the ten-minute 70 turn discourse, I believed the talk would be solely about the person whose name the chatroom bears: a ‘Britney Spears Chatroom’. An extensive and growing literature of fan culture suggests however that this is rarely if ever the case (Jenkins, 1992; Modleski, 1982; Baym, 1993, 1998). The very role of the celebrity in identity formation (Lewis, 1992; Schickel, 1985; Giles. 2000) suggests that much of the talk in fan discussions will be about life and lifestyle for the devotee. Work on use of soap opera texts for instance by Modleski (1982) and Mary Ellen Brown (1994) shows adult audiences creating continuities between the narratives and characters of the serials, and their own and their friends’ lives or personalities. Buckingham in the UK (David Buckingham 1987, p. 36) and Seiter (1989) in the US show the same practice among child audiences. Chat in a Britney Spears-identified room is thus more likely to be creating a set of subcultural references, working to delimit the potential group not by the desire to discuss the named idol, but to discuss the full range of life experiences and issues relevant to that style-culture-identified social subgroup defined by Britney Spears as a music performer and fashion /lifestyle leader, within a certain age/gender cohort (see Hebdige, 1999; Appadurai, 1996).

Research done on the difference in male (between the ages of 9 and 18) and female behaviour on the Internet found boys were attracted to pictures and games and females to TV, movie, and soap opera sites and chatrooms (see Cobb, 1996). The ‘National School Boards Foundation’ found that girls appeared even more likely than boys to use chatrooms on the Internet: 73 percent of girls and 70 percent of boys use chatrooms at least once a week, according to their parents ( See also WHO: Working to halt online abuse: for statistics of online habits by gender and age, and for statistics of online viewing by gender and age).

From a survey by The National School Boards Foundation (2002)

Survey results suggest that work done in other media reception studies bears out the view that social activities – such as chat – centred on celebrities or popular media texts is directed less at simple celebration of such identities and texts, than at their insertion into the lives and self-formation of participants. In online inquiry, one way to test this hypothesis, is to examine the text-generating habits of chat users for elements of expressive-emotional response: possible markers of a self-aware relation to the meanings being constructed in talk around celebrity figures, and indicative of their meaningfulness in identity construction. How rich is the emotional response to celebrity issues as displayed in the talk around them? How conscious are those talking of their represented orientation to particular issues – and how can this best be read in online chat?

Because of the special repertoire offered to online chatters by the keyboarded symbols called emoticons, the second research question I have posed in relation to ‘Britney chat” asks: ‘are emoticons used more frequently in a youth orientated chatroom than in an ‘adult’ chatroom?’ Emoticons allow users to emotionally “colour” their texted contributions: to attend to the tone of the talk relation they are constructing with others, or to affiliate to or distance themselves from particular issues, ideas, postings. I have compared the use of emoticons and abbreviations in the seven case studies I have discussed as well with postings from several other chatrooms (see ‘comparison tables” to firstly assess how emoticons add to the signification processing of chat postings, and secondly to assess whether Britney chat, as oriented to younger user groups, displays especially rich techniques for identity formation work – and if so, what these techniques might be, and how might they best be captured and theorized.

CS 3.1.2 Britney Spears

From statistics of her album sales and appearances, pre-adolescents make up the bulk of Britney Spear’s fan base1. There are hundreds of fan clubs on the Internet devoted to Spears, many with sexual notions of youth attached.2 I have used this chatroom as an opportunity to observe whether there are differences in ‘talk’ in what I believed to be an adolescent chatroom, from language used in what I would assume to be an adult orientated chatrooms, such as that used in Case Study One, the emergency ‘storm’, or ‘911 chatroom’ (see Postscript911), or a chat on 3D computer modeling discussed in Case Study Six.
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