At GURT 2011, the first plenary was by none other than Susan Herring, who is one of the pioneers of the field of Computer-Mediated Communication. In her talk, she discussed many of the issues facing researchers of language online as we proceed forward. One of the main threads of her talk was the concept of “Web 2.0”, which — as many of you probably know — is either a too-broad classification scheme or a tool of media hype. Dr. Herring (I am unsure of an appropriate address term to use for her, so I will go for the most respectful) used the concept of Web 2.0 to draw a useful distinction — to refer to computer-mediated interaction that goes beyond textual chat, where the main focus is outside of the chat. That is, there is multimodal content (either generated by the users or provided by the platform itself) that functions alongside social interaction, and that interaction is generally centered around the content rather than the talk.
We are all familiar with these types of platforms — YouTube, where users can comment but the interaction is around a shared video; Flickr, similar to YouTube but with photographs; Facebook, with users creating links and sharing videos and photos, or comments centering around a status update or change in relationship. This is a different way of looking at interaction online, and Herring suggested a framework for analyzing these phenomena which she called Convergent Media Computer-Mediated Discourse (CMCMD).
Her framework included a three-part organizational lens, broken down into ways of categorizing the content of focus: familiar, reconfigured, and emergent. She borrowed this idea from previous work by Crowston and Williams (2000), who used the terms “reproduced” and “emergent”. The idea behind this is that there are familiar things that we see in computer-mediated discourse (news sites, for example, that have article formats like those that we see in newspapers), and some things which are even directly reproduced (think of course syllabi that are put into digital format and uploaded onto the web — these are reproductions). From the familiar, things become reconfigured or adapted to the digital environment. Facebook itself is an example of this — it was adapted from the Harvard “face book”, like those yearbooks that we all have, and changed to fit a digital format. Finally, there are phenomena that are emergent, or native to the web itself. Wikis are a good example of this — collaboratively authored vaults of information that are always changing and being updated, interlinked and rich in multimedia.
Herring pointed out that online phenomena such as these tend to go through stages of being familiar, reconfigured, or emergent — news sites started as being familiar reproductions of newspapers that we could get on any newsstand, but then after a generation of users went by, became reconfigured to adapt to the new technologies available. They began to offer polls, videos, interactive content, comment forms, and the like; now, they are integrated with Facebook and Twitter so that you can share news stories between online mediums.
Finally, Dr. Herring reminded us all not to forget the familiar aspects of analyzing online language use because we are caught up in the “newness” of it all. Behind every new phenomenon is something that came before — retweeting is remarkably like quoting, Skype behaves like telephone conversations, status updates on Facebook are like emoting in MUD environments (or, at least they were back in the days when an “is” followed everyone’s name).
My personal big take-away from Dr. Herring’s talk was that we are not dealing with totally novel language forms here. Yes, we may be seeing some new processes as language is adapted to an online environment, but they aren’t being created ex nihilo. I think this is important for us all to keep in mind as we venture to analyze and understand language processes in a digital world — we don’t have to start from scratch.