Clarifying misconceptions: In defense of online communities

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Posted on 12 Apr 2013 17:55

Clarifying misconceptions: In defense of online communities
James Kasakyan
April 12, 2013

Abstract

Sociologists during the late twentieth and early twenty-first century have written at length about discourse communities—groups of individuals who share a common goal and discourse. Many of these sociolinguists, such as John Swales and Tony Mirabelli, have through research and analysis provided examples of discourse communities at work in the world (Swales examined the Hong Kong Study Circle, a discourse community of stamp collectors, while Mirabelli examined the discourse community of waiters in the United States). However, sociolinguists have refrained for the most part from examining online communities in this context. In this study I examine the online community of RealGM.com, a forum for basketball talk, and test it as a discourse community using Swales six characteristics of a discourse community as well as ponder some questions proposed by Ann Johns in her paper on discourse communities. In proving RealGM to be a discourse community I hope to prove online communities in general can be considered discourse communities. Through examination of primary documents and excerpts from the community, RealGM unquestionably withstands the tests of Swales and Johns, and can be classified accurately as a discourse community. This result opens the door for other online communities to be classified as discourse communities, dispelling the notion that solely "real world" communities can hold this distinction.

Introduction

The concept of a discourse community is one widely discussed among sociolinguists like John Swales, James Gee, and Ann Johns.  Like many things in the sociolinguistic field, the exact meaning of the term discourse community is up for debate.  Gee defines a discourse as “a sort of ‘identity kit’ which comes complete with the appropriate costume and instructions on how to act, talk, and often write, so as to take on a particular role that others will recognize.” (Gee, 2), while Ann Johns avoids a formal definition and instead focuses on various characteristics of discourse communities: “In the term discourse communities, the focus is on texts and language, the genres and lexis that enable members throughout the world to maintain their goals, regulate their membership, and communicate efficiently with one another” (Johns, 51-2).  Swales, on the other hand, acknowledges the confusion surrounding the term, quoting Bruce Herzberg: “The idea of ‘discourse community’ is not well defined as yet, but like many imperfectly defined terms, it is suggestive, the center of a set of ideas rather than the sign of a settled notion.” (Swales, 469)  

To clarify further, Swales lists six characteristics of discourse communities (Swales, 471-73):

  1. A discourse community has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.
  2. Discourse communities have mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.
  3. Discourse communities utilize and possess one or more genres in order to communicate their aims.
  4. Discourse communities use their participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.
  5. Discourse communities acquire and utilize a specific lexis.
  6. Discourse communities have a reasonable ratio between novices and experts.

While many scholars such as John Swales , Mary Bucholtz and Tony Mirabelli have conducted research on different types of discourse communities, few have examined the abundance of online communities that have sprung up since the inception of the Internet.  Thousands of communities whose members’ interests range from medieval poetry to online video games are in existence, and hundreds of new ones are started every day.  Unfortunately, these communities are often overlooked as discourse communities because of their association with the Internet.  Many people are under the impression that the anonymity of the Internet and the lack of restrictions it imposes cause it to be a cancerous environment for the enlightened discussions and information exchange required for a discourse community.  However, this is simply not the case.  In fact, one need only to examine these online communities to realize that they are not only suitable to be called discourse communities, but are also teeming hotbeds of discussion and information exchange.

Methodology

For my case study I have examined the online community at RealGM.com. RealGM represents an extremely popular type of online community: the sports discussion community. Created in 2000, it originated as a basketball discussion website but has since expanded to include baseball, football, soccer, and hockey. It is still very active with over twenty million total posts and around ten-thousand unique posts per day. However to narrow the scope of the study I have chosen to focus solely on the original and most popular section: basketball. By using John Swales six characteristics of a discourse community I hope to prove that RealGM, and in turn online communities like it, are deserving of being labeled discourse communities.

To carry out my research I took advantage of my membership in the community and observed various sub-sections of the basketball forum. Being a member of the discourse community, it was easy for me to navigate around the website and pinpoint information I deemed important. For example, I did not need to observe RealGM for an extended period of time to search for the genres or lexis used by the community; I was unknowingly examining the community since the day I joined two years ago. In this way my research methods were similar to those of John Swales during his analysis of the Hong Kong Study Circle. Like Swales, I used my personal experience and insider knowledge to reveal information an outsider would likely miss.

To illustrate RealGM as a discourse community according to Swales criteria, I needed a way to show the characteristics were present. Like Swales and the Hong Kong Study Circle, I knew perfectly well that RealGM constituted a discourse community since I was a member of it, but I needed to prove this to others; so I turned again to Swales analysis for guidance. Following in his footsteps, I gathered excerpts and documents from the community that outsiders wouldn’t have access to. The data that follows is taken directly from the RealGM community and is not altered in any way.

Additionally, I sought to interview other members of the community for their input. I ideally wanted to speak with a moderator or administrator, since they could reveal information I as a regular member would not be privy to. Unfortunately I received only two responses: one from a member and one from a moderator. In the end no interview could be arranged.

Results/Discussion

RealGM: A common goal

Unlike many organizations and communities, RealGM does not have an explicit mission statement. However after spending less than a minute on the website, the goal becomes obvious: To discuss all things related to basketball.

RealGMGenres.png

//http://forums.realgm.com/boards/viewforum.php?f=243&sid=d71fb862eae94e6f453f28adef932e4d//

From general discussion to statistical analysis to high-school basketball, RealGM covers nearly any topic a basketball enthusiast could dream of. Obviously, simply having the means for fruitful discussion is not necessarily indicative of a common public goal. As with all online communities, anyone can join, which makes it extremely difficult to ensure that every member is working toward a common goal. While other discourse communities attempt to hurdle this roadblock with membership dues or mandatory meetings, RealGM accomplishes this through its General NBA Forum Policy, which serves as a sort of contract.

Generalpolicy.png
Generalpolicy2.png

//http://forums.realgm.com/boards/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=1201430//

By enforcing this policy, moderators and administrators can establish the goal of the community through disqualification, and rid the community of those who perform actions detrimental to the community goal. Actions like preventing new members from posting for their first 100 days or establishing a violation/warning system serve as deterrents for spammers or advertisers. In any discourse community, conduct detrimental to the community goal is unacceptable; RealGM is no different.

RealGM: Methods of intercommunication

According to Swales, discourse communities should have methods of intercommunication among their members; after all, very little can be achieved without a means of communication. This is one area where Internet communities like RealGM blow all other communities away. The Internet is based on the idea of communication, and RealGM exemplifies this to perfection. Since it is technically a forum/message board, communication is embedded in its infrastructure. Users need only to click “Create a new thread” or “Reply” to communicate with other members. In fact, it is extremely difficult to be a part of the RealGM community and not communicate with other members. The topics discussed are often very opinionated and create heated discussions that are hard to stay out of.

RealGM: Genres

Swales also points out that discourse communities possess and use different genres in order to further their common goal. In some cases, where classic or traditional genres simply don’t get the job done, the community can create its own specialized genres. This is the case for most internet communities, and RealGM is no exception. The genres on RealGM come in the form of sub-sections, threads, stickies, and posts. Each of these genres accomplishes a specific goal in addition to contributing to the common goal of discussing basketball.

Sub-sections are the largest genre and are used mainly to organize information. Since the community has such a broad goal (to discuss basketball), it is vital that the community be organized. For example, if someone wanted to talk about college basketball with other college basketball fans, it would make sense for there to be a separate section for college basketball discussion; otherwise members would be overwhelmed with thousands of posts that may or may not be relevant to them. RealGM understands this, and uses sub-sections to solve this problem.

RealGMGenres.png

//http://forums.realgm.com/boards/viewforum.php?f=243&sid=d71fb862eae94e6f453f28adef932e4d//

Each section is clearly labeled and monitored by a specific set of moderators and admins to keep the general policy in effect. It is in this way that sub-sections also contribute to the common goal of discussing basketball.

Another genre utilized by the RealGM community is the thread. A thread is very much like the subject line of an email; its purpose is to inform users what is going to be discussed in the body of the message. Like emails, users can scan subject lines of threads and decide which ones they want to read, and which to skip over.

RealGMGeneralBoard.png

//http://forums.realgm.com/boards/viewforum.php?f=6//

Stickies are another genre used by the RealGM community. On the surface, stickies seem very similar to threads; for example in the above picture “Race to the MVP IV”, “The OFFICIAL Rookie Impressions Thread Part IV”, “Official NBA pic/gif thread part V”, and “New General NBA Forum Policy Questions Thread” are all classified as stickies. Essentially, stickies (or stickied threads) are threads that contain important information or extremely popular discussions. Since threads are loaded on the page according to latest post time, it is easy for a thread to get “lost” or bumped off the front page. However if they contain pertinent information, such as information regarding the general policy of the website, this is unacceptable. If a thread is stickied by a moderator or administrator, it stays permanently on the top of the front page of the sub-section until it is unstickied. In the example above, in addition to the general policy being stickied, a thread discussing rookies in the NBA is also stickied. This is a hot topic that lasts the entire 82-game season, and thus it is stickied; otherwise users might lose track of it and make a new thread for every new thought they have on a rookie player.

The post is the most used genre in the RealGM community; it is like the body of an email or essay. The post is where the heart of the information and discussion is. Posts are made in threads, and in this way genres are at work inside other genres. The first post in a thread is called the original post, and usually presents information or data the user wishes to discuss. It also often contains a question that prompts other users for their input, or by the nature of the message itself provokes responses without positing any direct question. In other cases, a post may contain a poll that users can vote in and view results of.

Postandresponse.png

//http://forums.realgm.com/boards/viewtopic.php?f=344&t=1241444&p=35243762//

RealGM: Lexis

In addition to possessing methods of communication and using genres, discourse communities utilize a specialized lexis, or language. Among online communities this can become quite muddy, since the Internet in general has its own lexis and unique uses of language. As more and more online communities spread membership overlaps, and terms carry over from one community to another. For example terms like btw (by the way), lol (laugh out loud), wth (what the hell), and smh (shaking my head) are all part of the lexis of the Internet, but do not belong specifically to any one community. In addition to using this pre-existing lexis, the RealGM community also has its own special lexis outsiders may not recognize.

As is the case with any discourse community, the lexis is created and shaped by the needs of the community. In the case of RealGM, this means the lexis is designed to make the discussion of basketball more efficient. Like many sports fans, members of the RealGM community are extremely interested in numbers and statistics. However, there are hundreds of different statistics that are tracked with new ones springing up at an amazing rate due to the prevalence of technology in modern basketball. Many, like Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus (RAPM)—a stat designed to show an individual players overall effect on the team when he is playing—are wordy and not conducive to memorization. Thus they are shortened to make discussions more efficient. ORTG (offensive rating), DRTG (defensive rating), TS% (true shooting percentage), and FG% (field goal percentage) are just a few examples of terms that are in the lexis of RealGM members.

Other terms have more rudimentary purposes, like OP (original post/poster), OT (off-topic), GT (game thread), PG (post-game thread). These terms serve no other purpose than abridging commonly used terms to save space and time. They may seem trivial, but in a setting where literally everything must be written in words, every character counts. There are so many terms like these that it would be impossible to enumerate them here, and they are part of the reason why an outsider might feel overwhelmed or lost upon joining the community.

Knicksboardtopics.png

//http://forums.realgm.com/boards/viewforum.php?f=24&start=25//

RealGM: Insiders vs. Outsiders

The final criteria for discourse communities that Swales describes is that there must be a reasonable ratio between experts and novices in the community, and this criteria is one of the main reasons online communities like RealGM are dismissed from the discussion. As is the case with almost any online community, anyone can join and participate. Unlike a medical society or engineering organization, a degree or expertise on the subject is not necessary to obtain membership. It is not unnatural to ask how an online community could possibly satisfy this last criterion if an internet connection is the sole requirement to join. However I would argue—and I believe Swales would agree—that receiving a degree or passing a test is not indicative of expertise when it comes to discourse communities. The key here is to make the distinction between discourse communities and other areas where the term “expert” or “expertise” is used, like in careers or fields of study. If one is to become a doctor, one must be an expert or achieve expertise in medicine. If one wants to become a writer, one must be an expert in manipulating language.

However, discourse communities are not nearly as high stakes. Oftentimes members and leaders of the community receive no financial benefit from participating, but rather do so with their free time or because of a common interest. This is the case in online communities including RealGM. While members may not be experts in the sense that they coached or played basketball at a competitive level, they most definitely have an interest in basketball and thus have experience or knowledge to bring to the table. If they had no interest in basketball, they would definitely not be interested in spending their free time discussing it with others.

Additionally, expertise in discourse communities is not exclusive to being an expert on the subject being discussed; it also entails being an expert of the discourse community and its genres and lexis. For example, a person who spent years coaching basketball or playing basketball at the high-school, college, or professional level might not be an expert in the RealGM discourse community. In fact, if this person were unfamiliar with the community goal, methods of communication, genres, and lexis, the person would actually be considered an outsider or novice. This is where the General Policy of RealGM again comes in to play. By establishing a provision which prevents new users from posting until 100 days after they join, RealGM effectively regulates the expert to novice ratio. By the time this 100 day period is over, the member is already halfway to being an expert in the community from having observed other expert members in action.

When you look more carefully at the definition of expertise pertaining to discourse communities, it becomes obvious RealGM and online communities like it are more than qualified. While members may lack knowledge that others consider a requirement for expertise in a field, they make up for it by being experts of the discourses used by the community.

Conclusion

Upon the testing of the RealGM community against Swales criteria for discourse communities, it is clear that RealGM can be accurately described as a discourse community. Despite being an online community, its members work toward a common goal, communicate information to each other via the forum, utilize unique genres and lexis, and possess a generally high level of expertise. There is no indication from my research that the fact that RealGM is an online community hinders its ability to perform the activities of classic discourse communities such as those described by Swales and Mirabelli. Aside from actual social contact, very little separates online communities from real-world discourse communities.

Although I have only shown one specific online community to possess the characteristics of a discourse community, I hope to open the door for other online communities to be recognized as discourse communities. My main hope was to dispel the notion that online communities cannot be considered discourse communities, and in providing a counter-example I have done so. However, I challenge any remaining skeptics to examine any active online community and perform similar tests. I guarantee that it will possess all the characteristics required of a discourse community.

Work Cited

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

Gee, James. "Literacy, discourse, and linguistics: Introduction and what is literacy?." Journal of Education, 1989. 5-25. Print.

Johns, Ann. "Discourse communities and communities of practice." Cambridge University Press. 51-70. Print.

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