The major advance is the internet, and after 20 years (has it really been that long?) we are seeing parts of our society crumble around us as the new processes — effortless information sharing, hierarchy-destroying collaboration, online community-building and citizen journalism — begin to take hold. Ron Shewchuk
This quote from Ron’s timely and insightful comments to my post on Atlas Shrugged got me thinking. I am reading about conversation analysis (CA) in my Advanced Qualitative Research Methods doctoral class. CA is a qualitative approach that has become highly relevant for examining educational phenomena related to discourse supported by many tools and resources for computer-mediated communication.
Joan M. Mazur, writing in the Handbook of Research on Educational Communication & Technology, 2nd Ed (2004), reminds us of the easily observable aspects of discourse, such as words, gestures, sounds, and body language. Each is key to understanding the structure of the discourse.
But obviously, written discourse is different. Written discourse, Mazur says, is multimodal, and an analysis of written text gives us opportunities to study a range of communications and representations within one text, called the semiotic landscape.
For college instructors like me, there is plenty motivation to understand written discourse. I am a Baby Boomer teaching mostly Millennials. Whereas the youthful motto of my generation was “never trust anyone over 30”, Washington Post Book Critic Ron Charles says, for the Twitter generation, the new slogan seems to be “don’t trust anyone over 140 characters.”
Think of the language used in computer-mediated contexts like email, Twitter, text messaging, digital videoconferencing, chat rooms, threaded discussions, and instant messaging. Communicating on the Internet contains a new hybrid language of “written speech” with its own evolving semiotics, such as emoticons, and its own verbal structure, Mazur says.
Problem is that communication technologies affect the quality and conduct of conversation. Emoticons, Mazur says, those iconic representations of emotions that are peppered into text-talk to indicate a range of affective responses, have become so routine that many word processors (and WordPress) default to an automatic insertion of the graphic yellow smiley face when one types a colon followed by a closed parenthesis.
That’s where CA comes in. In a broad sense, CA means any study of people talking together in oral communication or language use, including computer-mediated communication technologies. The central purpose of CA, Mazur says, is to investigate the norms and conventions that speakers use in interaction to establish communicative understandings.
Mazur says researchers have isolated three basic facts about conversation: 1. turn-taking occurs; 2. one speaker tends to speak at a time; and 3. turns are taken with as little overlap between them as possible. It is important to understand the concepts of computer-mediated communication since so much of our discourse occurs online now.
Torill Elvira Mortensen, writing in the Handbook of Research on New Literacies (2008), says the human being is an animal that desires meaning, much of which comes from communication. Like Ron says above, computer-mediated information flowing through the Internet is an opportunity for individuals to find, share, and contribute information. Weblogs, or blogs, are especially effective at allowing the individual to express him or herself.
In fact, blogs change the concept of the sender-message-receiver model conceived in 1949 and still used today. Mortensen says a new image of the user emerges from the personal publishing power that the Internet gives the individual, and it needs a new theory to explain it.
Online communication is conducted in text and mediated through a channel that is separate from the human body. The communication world off line offers real substance, but the online world offers nothing but symbols structured in some kind of text. Therefore, Mortensen says, the study of human behavior online is a study of the human exchange of symbols online.
Interpreting texts, or hermeneutics, seeks to help us find the meaning in texts. But how language is used now and will be used in the future of computer-mediated communication is wide open. Doubtless, there is much work for researchers in discourse analysis.
Yes, I know. If I was really hip, I’d have said this in 140 characters or less.