Kari's Midterm Project

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Posted on 13 Apr 2013 01:55

The Rise of the Internet and its Effect on Discourse Communities

Kari Andresen
April 12, 2013


For the midterm discourse community analysis project, I researched an online community called Python for Beginners, a group from the website Codeacademy.com. I chose an online community because I wanted to see the effects of Internet-use on the activities of discourse communities, and how its definition might have changed because of the development of online communities. The characteristics of the discourse community I chose fit John Swales’ six criteria well, but it does not fit James Paul Gee’s definition. Swales’ six characteristics applied to Python for Beginners:

  1. I found that its purpose was to improve the skills of already literate Python users and provide advice to continue using Python.
  2. The genre used by the members is an online discussion forum.
  3. Members exchange information regarding Python using the forum.
  4. The members communicate by posting titled discussions, responses, and comments that further one another’s understanding of the subject.
  5. Python is its own language, which highly influences the lexis used in the group.
  6. The group leaders have mastered the subject and have enough knowledge to answer the questions asked or provide the help requested by the beginners.

Online discourse communities have changed how exclusive knowledge of certain groups of people are by making information easily obtainable. The Internet also makes the groups themselves more accessible because websites are more welcome to newcomers to increase their popularity and increase sponsors who pay for advertisements.

Report Body:


Discourse communities have been described by many people in different, sometimes contradicting, ways. However, with the outpouring of technological advances, particularly regarding computers, smart phones and other cyber devices, and the growing popularity of the Internet over the last couple decades, a new definition of discourse communities might be necessary to accommodate online communities in which interactions are purely virtual. One of the more widely accepted definitions of a discourse community is written by John Swales in his book Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings in the chapter “The Concept of Discourse Community”. This book was published in 1990, and since then there has been a substantial growth in the use of the Internet. It provides a new way of communication that doesn’t necessarily involve the verbal and auditory engagements of spoken word, the close proximity required for in-person conversation, or the delay of delivery between reading each message through written correspondence. Therefore, as the modes of interaction change with relevant technological developments, so to do the definitions that surround communication, specifically that of the discourse community, in order to adjust to those new modes and the changes in communication associated with them.

In the chapter referenced above, Swales (1990) writes that a discourse community is defined by six characteristics: has a collective goal, has a means of communication between members, information is relayed through those means to and from the members, implements at least one genre that contributes to the goal, employs esoteric terminology, and has enough members who possess sufficient knowledge of the subject at hand. In another interpretation written by James Paul Gee (1989), a discourse community is a group of people with whom a person identifies with, and that person must be fluent in the communicative norms of the group. In order to explore any potential adjustments to the definition of discourse community, I decided to research an online group that I consider a discourse community. My discourse community analysis was performed on a group from the website Codeacademy.com called Python for Beginners. I chose this group because all interactions between members necessary to take part in the group are virtual, even the common activity that the members take part in, Python programming, is virtual.


The approach that I attempted to take to study the Python for Beginners group entailed becoming a member myself and using my own experiences as a case study. I chose to research this particular group because I’ve wanted to learn how to code. However, I found that in the time allotted for this research, I was unable to acquire a fundamental understanding of the Python coding language, which was the minimum knowledge needed to participate in the group discussions. I began my research by reading through the discussions in the forum. There are many posts in which members provide their code and ask for others to comment any improvements. It would have been advantageous to know Python in order to more effectively analyze the discourse within this community by having a better understanding of what the members say. I did many of the exercises provided by Codeacademy so I could learn how to code as well as get familiar with the syntax and vocabulary of the Python coding language. Unfortunately, what I learned so far was not enough for me to be able to complete any of the group’s Problems of the Week.

By involving myself in member practices, I hoped to become an “insider” of the group and eventually contribute my own ideas to the forum or ask for assistance, but this involvement was thwarted by my lack of basic understanding. In my case study, I wanted to be able to assess the success of the group in how well it accomplishes its goal to make members competent Python programmers. I planned to interview at least one of the members of the group, possibly one who was still learning how to code and one who had mastered the basics of Python. However, most people do not share their contact information on their Codeacademy profiles, especially the beginners. I was able to email one Python beginner through his Linked-In page obtained from his Codeacademy profile, but I have not received any reply. Had I been able to interview him, I would have asked what kind of exercises or method of learning helped him the most in learning how to code, the role the group played in furthering his knowledge of Python, and the quality of the feedback he received when he asked a question in the group discussions. I also emailed the leader of the group, but have yet to receive a reply from him too. In the event that he consented to an interview, I would have asked how he learned Python, his experience using Python, how he monitors the Python for Beginners group (what posts he has deleted and why, which members he has removed from the group and why), how he approaches the questions asked in the group’s discussion page, if there have been any questions asked that he has not been able to answer, and his opinion of the members’ responses to the Problems of the Week. Using their interviews, I would have been able to compare the experience of the giver of information with the experience of the receiver of information. I would also obtain tips on how to improve my own experience in learning to code using their own experiences and what worked for them.

My intended research methods resemble that of Sean Branick’s in his paper, “Coaches Can Read Too: An Ethnographic Study of a Football Coaching Discourse Community.” Branick (2011) analyzed the football coaching discourse community by conducting interviews with football coaches and examining the genres in this discourse community such as pregame speeches, playbooks, scouting reports, and play-calling sheets. Branick then used that data to compare it to Swales’ definition of a discourse community. In my research I scrutinized the discussion forum, the only genre of Python for Beginners discourse community and tried to conduct interviews with members of the group, then used my findings to see how well it fits as a Swales’ version of a discourse community.


I began my research by matching Swales’ criteria of a discourse community to the characteristics of Python for Beginners. A general goal of the group was plainly outlined in one of the discussion posts by the group leader: “the point of this group is to create concise and helpful conversation about specific Python related issues” (Goodman, 2012). However, in my research, particularly in my case study, I found that a more comprehensive understanding of Python was required to become an insider of the group. I discovered that I was too inexperienced in coding to take part in the Problems of the Week. The purpose of the group is not to teach Python to novices but to assist at least somewhat experienced Python users with problems and hone their programming skills.

The means of communication used by the group is a forum, referred to as a “Discussions” page, in which members can post questions, exercises or information and receive feedback. The hierarchy of communication starts with the initial discussion post with a title; for each post, members may submit a response; and for each response, members can make comments. The posts are visible to everyone who is a member in the group, and anyone in Codeacademy can join the group. Because this is an online discourse community in which there are many strangers, members often only communicate through this means and are reluctant to disclose any private information. There is no other genre that is used between the members to communicate as a group and there are no organized physical interactions between the members as a group. The group uses the forum genre to encourage discussion between the members so that anyone can receive and provide help in learning how to use Python virtually. The forum also helps in that past discussions may be retrieved, so that once a topic is covered, it doesn’t have to be covered again.

The lexis used by the members is complex in that Python is its own language, so the many references made to pieces of code are often terms that only Python programmers will understand. The Python language is a second literacy that is used by the members of the group. Using Gee’s definition of acquisition and learning, this group serves to present the members with a means to “acquire” this literacy by presenting as natural a setting as possible (completing programming tasks) for beginning Python coders, whereas the Codeacademy courses themselves are a means to “learn” this literacy by consciously gaining knowledge through analysis and explanation of concepts (Gee, 1989, p. 19). However, not all Python programmers are part of this group, so there are outsiders of the group who can understand the terminology used in the discussions without ever having to need experience in the group. The group was created by expert programmers (group leaders) looking to foster the knowledge of others in coding with Python. For any question that is asked by less experienced members, there is at least one response from a group leader with a helpful answer. All of Swales’ six criteria seem to fit well despite the disparity of technological circumstances between the publishing of the criteria and the time at which this group was analyzed.


Although Swales would probably agree that Python for Beginners is indeed a discourse community, Gee would most likely come to a different conclusion. He believes that incorporation into a discourse community is absolute—one is either a full-fledged member or one is an outsider. However, in this discourse community, as with most other online discourse communities, anyone can join in the group and potentially contribute to the discussion. There’s no minimum participation required by members to stay in the group. Many online communities are similar in allowing many people to sign up and create an account without making participation mandatory. This may be caused by websites’ need for popularity because they are often funded by advertisers who look for high view rates, so websites appeal to internet users not by using force but by making people want to use the website.

The Internet has changed what kind of people engage in certain discourse communities by making information available to anyone who wants to learn. The members of Python for Beginners don’t necessarily have to be computer science students or professional programmers, and not only those people are fluent in the Python language. Therefore, there are hardly any exclusive fields of knowledge in which it is impossible for outsiders to learn about in depth even without knowing about the discourse community. Things that seem esoteric to a group, such as its acquired lexis can be looked up on search engines; such an instance is exemplified in this discourse community by the Python Standard Library. Gee’s interpretation of a discourse community as part of one’s identity would include all Python-literate programmers as a discourse community, not just the group itself.

An interesting finding on Python for Beginners is that I misjudged the purpose of the group. Through my research and efforts to integrate myself in to the community, I learned that “Beginners” doesn’t mean novices but people who are familiar with the language and its function and want to be proficient and take advantage of its potential uses. The stage of learning in which it is best to utilize this group is when you have just finished the Codeacademy Python courses and challenges. When I first chose to research this discourse community, I had the impression that someone with no previous experience in Python could become an active member by asking questions. This was not the case in Python for Beginners, where questions were asked regarding concepts that required a certain level of knowledge of the language. This notion is also reinforced by the fact that there are weekly reviews, which imply that these concepts have already been learned. This does not mean that the group is exclusive to only a select group of people that doesn’t include me, as I still intend to further my knowledge of the material and then achieve assimilation into the group. This only means that there is a range of fluency that a member must be in to get the most use out of the group.


In this study, it was discovered that online discourse communities are not exclusive to a static group of people. They are constantly gaining more members as people decide to take up new activities or follow their curiosity. In this age of technology, the accessibility of knowledge has increased the convenience and efficiency of self-instruction in fields of interest regardless of their profession or upbringing. Codeacademy was created to assist this process of autodidacticism in which people only need a computer to teach themselves how to code. However, interaction with more experienced programmers instead of a general curriculum was sought for more refined answers, which was what Python for Beginners was made for.

Learning about discourse communities provides us with information on how they operate. This knowledge can be applied to our own experiences within a discourse community by facilitating our own upward social mobility and strengthening our confidence in how we participate. Involvement in discourse communities is necessary for people to network with others who hold a high position in society or learn from those who are more experienced in the field we pursue. Knowing how a discourse community works can put the researcher at an advantage within the group because she is more familiar with how information can be obtained or given and who is best to ask for that information. However, as the number of online discourse communities grows, interaction becomes less personal and more virtual. It is still unclear if the Internet facilitates networking with pundits because although online communication makes them more accessible, this also makes it more likely for other people to try to contact them. If there are a lot of people for them to respond to, the experts are more likely to ignore the messages. This is where further study may be conducted on how the Internet affects discourse communities and networking within them.


Branick, S. (2011). Coaches can read too: An ethnographic study of a football coaching discourse community. In E. Wardle & D. Downs (Ed.), Writing about writing: A college reader (pp. 557-573). New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martin.

Gee, J. P. (1989). Literacy, discourse, and linguistics: Introduction and what is literacy?. Journal of Education, 171(1), 5-25.

Goodman, D. (2012 December). Welcome to python!. Message posted to http://www.codecademy.com/groups/python-fro-beginners

Swales, J. (1990). The concept of discourse community. Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings (21-32). Boston: Cambridge UP.

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