AskUbuntu: Jerome's Proposal

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Posted on 22 Mar 2013 00:24

Jerome Allas


The definition of a discoursal community is ever dynamic. Generally, groups that are closed to other "laymen" are known as discourse communities. These communities mostly consist of people that have a shared goal and a set of skills — which include language skills — not available to everyone. However, the boundaries which define a discourse community — set by researchers through their own studies — vary; social conditions, cultural age, medium of communication, and etc. affect the methods in which groups create their own discoursal identity.

AskUbuntu is a community whose goal is to create a library of questions and answers about the Ubuntu computer system that users could utilize for reference. I will expand the identity of a discourse community — using AskUbuntu — by executing a series of research methods: studying a few questions in its library, interviewing its moderator, and analyzing its chat log.

Description of the current situation

The study of discourse communities is a practice that is done to prove the "uniqueness" of groups; they have certain qualities that separate them from speech communities: shared goals, lexis, etc.. Since the actual definition of discourse communities is ambiguous, researchers — through their findings on a specific group — are always editing the boundaries of the definition of a discourse community.

John Swales, for instance, lays out six criteria for 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.

Researchers, such as Tony Mirabelli, attempt to use their own examples as discourse communities to expand Swales’ definition. For example, Mirabelli studies the discoursal literacy of waiters; as a group of practice, it contributes to the ever-growing representation of discourse communities. Through my studies of AskUbuntu, I will contribute as well.

Description of the project plan

As mentioned above, I will first analyze some questions on AskUbuntu. I will look through the questions and first identify the “apprentices” — as defined by Swales — and the experts of the community. I will then take apart the responses and analyze how the terminology and the computer lexis contribute to the discoursal identity of AskUbuntu.

A moderator of AskUbuntu would have an exceptional amount of experience with this online community; interviewing him/her about the history of the website — such as past conflicts, how the website developed over time, what were the goals of creating the website, etc. — would be very beneficial for my research. There is a “reputation” system in place; members are labeled with trust by the number of reputation points that they acquire by responding to questions accurately. This system would lead me to a high-ranking, well-trusted member of the community — whom I could ask about the phase of “apprenticeship” (how they began to learn the phrases, concepts, and lexis, etc..)

The chat room is another genre in this community. A certain etiquette exists in the chat room; this can probably explained by the requirements — 20 reputation points are required to enter the chat. Despite the reputation points, many people keep the conversation revolved about the website’s content.

Review of qualifications

I have experience in navigating websites that are similar in format — sites like “Reddit”, etc.. Navigating the chat bar and searching the questions will not be a difficulty. I will sign up for the site and become a member — I have questions about Ubuntu myself. I also have worked with computers and the Ubuntu system long enough to understand most computer terminology. Lastly, I have moderators’ email — and a few other possible interview subject contact info.

Discussion of costs/challenges

One of the major challenges of my research approach is to find content with a satisfactory level of quality for analysis; many of the responses involve just a code or a command. An optimal response for this type of research would delve into the concepts of the computer — as well as utilize a fair amount of computer lexi. The quality of the chat room — including the actual focus of the chat — may also be questionable, but the logs extend far enough into the past for sufficient data.

Benefits and conclusion

I believe that my research will adjust the definition of a discourse community to match that of the new medium of communication that we have today: the internet. Although some may question the validity of AskUbuntu as a discourse community, my research will clarify — and even defend — the notion that libraries like AskUbuntu contain a group of members that specialize in its content.

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