A Report for Web Developers: Online Discourse Communities

Blog » A Report for Web Developers: Online Discourse Communities

Posted on 13 Apr 2013 01:17

Jerome Allas


John Swale’s criteria for discourse communities are excellent guidelines for any community in StackExchange, i.e. AskUbuntu — whether Swales had intended these guidelines to be used for internet communities or not. Three documents — which utilize different features of AskUbuntu and emphasize it’s discoursal identity — are used to support the modelling of AskUbuntu as a discourse community. These documents demonstrate how the community fulfills its shared goal — of providing a library of answers to every question about Ubuntu — through the website’s features: a question-and-answer system, reputation point system, a tag system, comments, and meta forum. They also provide different genres that the community uses to reach the shared goal. Not only were Swale’s criteria met by this website, but they were expanded and developed.


Discourse communities — as defined by scholars such as Swales, Gee, Bucholtz, etc. — are special groups which have members who possess unique — but common within the group — qualities. The members of these communities have a set of skills — including language skills — which allow the group to reach a common goal. According to John Swales (1990), other criteria must also be met for a group to be a discourse community:

1. it has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.
2. has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.
3. uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.
4. utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.
5. in addition to owning genres, it has acquired some specific lexis.
6. has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.

Swales created these criteria around the 1990’s — when the Internet wasn’t a prominent force in society. But when we apply these criteria to the internet communities that exist today, we find that it is easier to model these rules and restrictions for future internet communities. Little did Swales know that his criteria would be expanded by these internet communities, and that some of these internet communities would be indirectly based on these criteria.

AskUbuntu is an example of one of these communities; it is part of the collection of online communities called StackExchange. In this collection, the communities are dedicated to creating a library of answers to questions about an arrangement of topics. AskUbuntu strives to collect questions and responses that are specifically about Ubuntu — an operating system for a computer. The structure of the site — which creates a synergy of the features of the site and its members — helps fit the website into Swale’s criteria of a discourse community. A sort of “question-and-answer” mechanism — which also includes a variety of features — was built into the website to achieve the communities’ shared goal. In addition, there are multiple possible genres for responses (which includes lists, tutorials, etc.).The study below frames AskUbuntu’s structure and restrictions into Swales’ criteria of a discourse community.


Three documents from AskUbuntu’s site are analyzed to demonstrate how certain features of the site create a discoursal identity for the community. Lexis, genres, and site-specific features are highlighted to further support the claim that AskUbuntu is, in fact, a discourse community as defined by Swales. Two documents are taken from the regular library, and one document is from the meta library (which handles questions about the layout of the website, etc.)

These documents are chosen by evaluating how the members of AskUbuntu create a discoursal identity and how they use the website’s features. The “tag” system — which is a system which links words with documents related to the word — allows the user to find a document which discusses the topic at hand. The first document was chosen because it had a “tag” which was related to computer terminology (“partitioning”). The second document was chosen because its participants utilize a variety of the website’s features: the reputation point system, best answer, and comments. Finally, the third document is an example of how the meta forum genre is used to develop more of the site’s restrictions than it already has.


In the first document, the responses take the form of the genre of public recommendations about a topic concerning the term “partitioning”. The first answer includes web links to certain programs that would assist the question asker (and everyone who has the same problem). In the second answer, however, a small tutorial is included; it includes a certain amount of steps that are needed for fixing the problem that is addressed in the question. Both of these answers include terminology that a layman wouldn’t understand — including lines of code and computer terminology (gparted, boot, partitioning). These terms are used to help the reader understand the concept that is addressed. In addition, people who have questions about these terms can click on the “tag”. By clicking on the tag, certain questions — related to the word or words in the tag — are listed and sorted. This ease of access to content allows the discourse community to achieve their goals more efficiently.

The second document also involves a large amount of computer terminology, but the utilization of the sites features are more prominent. In this document, one of the answers are labeled as the best answer and it has more votes than the other answers. The best answer feature and the vote feature allows a reader to easily identify which answers are the best and which members are the most reliable. After this answer, there is another response — which didn’t receive as much votes — that includes a much bigger, in-depth tutorial on how to install a certain program. It includes commands, pictures, and much more content than an average tutorial. The last response has negative votes, and includes comments which argue about the negative vote response. The combination of these features allows the website to be more efficient in providing content and feedback.

The last document is located in the meta library. The questions in these library normally refer to problems with other questions in the main library. The sample document in particular talks about a past question which requested a list. These types of questions incur infinite lists; therefore, the question may never be closed (meaning that the question can never be answered, and it is a problem). As the problem is addressed, a new rule is implemented for this purpose. This meta question — and all of the meta questions — help the website to evolve and meet its goals in a facilitated way.


According to Swales, a discourse community must have “a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.” All of the members participating in the document — even those who are commenting on other people’s responses — have a certain degree of knowledge regarding Ubuntu lexis and computer terminology. The subject of the site allows people to become masters of the subject; it also allows them to be masters of the site. This type of leadership helps the website facilitate the feedback that the website needs to reach its goal.

The features of the site allows users to efficiently provide and respond to feedback. The question-and-answer system allows people to provide content, the tag system makes it easy for users to find this content, and the point system helps users with the trust of this content. Responses and comments are their own genres of feedback, and they can adjust to the needs of the members. The inclusion of a meta section also provides another genre for people to communicate and actively discuss the website. As it addresses the questions in the main library, it provides a means for the main library to improve its efficiency in building up the library and to better achieve the community’s main goal.


AskUbuntu’s discoursal identity is established by the features of the site and how the members use them. Compared to the old methods of communication in the 1990’s, the internet’s instantaneous feedback mechanisms are more efficient in providing content for the members of the society. Swale’s criteria are essentially both fulfilled and expanded:

1. The common goal is to create a library of answers for questions about Ubuntu, and have the use of this library as efficient as possible.
2. The “question-and-answer” mechanism allows users to provide content.
3. The comment system allows users to give feedback on the content.
4. There are different genre’s of responses, questions, and comments.
5. Computer lexis and forum lexis are prominent.
6. People must have a degree of relevant content to be able to contribute to the community under the constraints that are provided.

Website developers who wish to develop their own sites for an original discourse community should consider including features that improve the efficiency of achieving their shared goal. This may constitute the development of features such as tag systems, point systems, and meta forums. These developers should create restrictions and rules on the site — those which promote Swale’s criteria — that would facilitate achieving this goal.

Back Matter:

Works Cited:

installation - how to download ubuntu over an unreliable connection - ask ubuntu. (2013, March 28). Retrieved from http://askubuntu.com/questions/274628/how-to-download-ubuntu-over-an-unreliable-connection

On-topic? what games can be played by two people on the same computer. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://meta.askubuntu.com/questions/6184/on-topic-what-games-can-be-played-by-two-people-on-the-same-computer

partitioning - how do i create a swap partition for hibernation? - ask ubuntu. (2011, December 01). Retrieved from http://askubuntu.com/questions/84318/how-do-i-create-a-swap-partition-for-hibernation

Swales, John. (1990) The Concept of Discourse Community. In Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Boston: Cambridge UP, 1990. 21-32.

Example Questions:

First Question:

How do I create a swap partition for hibernation?
While installing Ubuntu 11.10 a months ago I had not allotted any swap space, I now came to know that there would be no Hibernate option without Swap space.
Is it possible to do it Now?, What if the drives mess up? I have 4 gigabytes of ram, a 500 GB disk and I'm dual-booting with Windows 7.
(The tags for this post are partitioning, hibernate, and swap; anyone who wants to know more about these keywords can get more information by clicking on the tags and looking at the questions that are listed.)

You can use gparted (includes the link to the website) to resize your partitions and make some space to a new swap partition. Although this works pretty good according to my own experience, before doing it, you should make a backup of all your files just in case.

Another Answer:
(This answer is more of a short tutorial, almost in step form)
Make a backup of all your important data before attempting this.
You need to boot from your installation media and use the Gparted application to shrink the filesystem, it is generally recommended to have a swap partition double the size of your RAM. Once you have shrunk the filesystem you should right-click on the now "unallocated space" and format it as swap. Once done, hit the "Apply all operations" button and reboot.
Now you should be back in your main Ubuntu system.
You need to run the gksudo gedit /etc/fstab command and add a line like this:
/dev/sdXY swap swap defaults 0 0
Of course, change the XY to the correct settings for the system.
Finally, reboot or run sudo swapon /dev/sdXY to use the swap without rebooting.
(Some lexis include lines of code, and their concepts are open to discussion.)

Second question:

How to download Ubuntu over an unreliable connection
I am trying to download the 64-bit Ubuntu 12.10 ISO over an extremely unreliable connection. By unreliable, I mean that every time I finish downloading the ISO and compare the MD5 hashes, I end up with an error about a mismatch.
I am using Ubuntu 12.04 to perform the download. Is there a tool that can somehow work around a very unreliable connection?

(The member who posted this question chose the best answer below, and the answer below was answered by a member who has 32.7k rep points. The answer below earned him 29 rep points.)

The top answer:

In my case my connection drops a lot and if trying to download the ISO directly I also end with a MD5 problem. What I recommend is downloading the ISO image through a torrent client.
That way, even while downloading, the torrent client checks to make sure it is OK. There is a good list of torrents to use but if you are in Windows or Mac, I suggest UTorrent. If you are doing this from an Ubuntu installed computer, Ubuntu comes with a default torrent client called Transmission . You can find the torrent download file in the ubuntu site just look for the file with the .torrent file extension.

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