New Revised Midterm Piece

Introduction

When studying writing, one of the most important aspects to understand is genre. Genres are categories of literature that share similar compositional and stylistic criteria. The best way to understand genre is to consider groups of people who systematically use standard genres as modes of communication and identification: communities. More specifically, one should consider discourse communities, which, according to linguists James Paul Gee and John Swales, are communities of people who have similar values, goals, and ways of communicating about those values and goals.

Discourse Communities

John Swales helped develop the term “discourse community” by defining six qualities that he claims are both necessary and sufficient for characterizing it. He contends that all discourse communities have an agreed upon set of common goals, have mechanisms of intercommunication between members, uses its mechanisms of communication to make statements and to give feedback, makes use of certain particular genres consistently, have a unique, common lexis, and have a threshold of members and a way to rank them. I choose to use these proposed six characteristics as a model for studying a discourse community because my own observations of a discourse community and my peers’ observations of various discourse communities have benefitted from this model in that it has adequately described the different aspects of interaction between members.
James Paul Gee made separate observations; these were regarding how one enters a discourse community and adopts the “Discourses” of that community. Gee defines discourses as ways of being in the world, as an “identity key” which dictates what we might say and how we might say it depending upon the social situation that we are in at a given moment. Gee contends that different social situations have an impact on this “identity key”, an impact that changes the way we speak, the words we use, and the roles we play, and, in the case of a writing community, the genres we use. Furthermore, he describes that we have different Discourses beginning from our most primitive interaction with our family following our birth and transforming into whatever the necessary and proper “Discourses” are per social situation. His overarching point is that people usually have to learn, or adjust to, transferring what they intend to say and do from their primary discourse into a secondary one, each time they enter a new social situation.
To guide this discussion of discourse communities, I have chosen one as a case study. My community of choice for this discussion is not very conventional, and will need evidence to support that it is, indeed, a discourse community. My community of choice is a sub-group of a popular online forum called Reddit. Reddit as a whole is a large community that serves to allow its members to exchange opinions and conversation about various topics regarding experiences of the world around us. Members communicate over the Internet and can be located anywhere in the world. Internet forums are very useful in that they allow this international exchange of knowledge and human experience in a mostly unrestrictive way. However, the whole of Reddit is much too complicated to describe for the purposes of this essay, so I have chosen a sub-group, rather a sub-Reddit, to which I shall apply Swales’ six characteristics in order to show that it is truly a discourse community and analyze the interaction of its members Gee’s claims in order to understand how people using Discourses to communicate in specified social situations. Finally, I will discuss the important, cohesive role that genre plays in this community. The sub-Reddit that will be discussed hereafter is called r/atheism.
R/atheism is an Internet forum sub-group that discusses the experiences and beliefs of people who have chosen to abstain from belief in a higher or divine power. This definition is simple and dry, mainly because being an atheist does not bind one to anything other than not believing in a higher power. While many atheists do share in beliefs about the validity of evolution, science in general, the lack of existence of an afterlife, aliens, etc., none of these is bound to the definition of “atheist”. That makes for a very large group of people. R/atheism claims to be the World Wide Web’s largest atheist forum, boasting over 1.8 million subscribers. Discussions vary from advice on coming out as atheist to religious friends and family, quotations that reflect a lack of belief in deities from highly respected individuals, funny and sarcastic pictures related to religion and its “backwardness” and, often, screenshots of arguments with religious people who appear to lack common sense or morality due to their religious beliefs. Fellow Redditors can comment on all posts and there are moderators who organize the posts into different categories based on their usefulness to the sub-Reddit and/or their genre type, which includes moving all of the spammers and disrespectful posts to a separate page, which is titled “Trolls”. One does not need to be a member of the sub-Reddit to view it, but one does need to be a member in order to post or comment on anything on the sub-Reddit, as is true for all of Reddit.

R/atheism as a Discourse Community

Analysis of r/atheism As A Discourse Community Using John Swales’ Proposed Characteristics:

1. A discourse community has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.

R/atheism is a community that seeks to make the consideration that there is no God or afterlife a very widespread idea for our generation. This community hopes to reach out to as many people as it can so as to create what this community considers to be a more advanced and more “aware” society that will reject fundamentalist, religious views that impede the beliefs and practices of others, and/or the advancement of science. Strictly speaking, the basic aim of this community is to discuss atheism, in all its forms, in the hopes that people reading the contents of these discussions will see the logic and reason behind these beliefs and decide to join, or at least be more open-minded.

2. A discourse community has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.

The mechanisms of intercommunication on r/atheism are also true for all of Reddit. They are quite simple: members create original posts using accepted genres, which will be described in the appropriate section, and other members “upvote”, “downvote”, or comment on those posts.

3. A discourse community uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.

Upvoting ad downvoting is a way to express the like or the dislike of an original post. The impact of upvoting and downvoting is that highly upvoted posts are more likely to show up on the first page of the forum, and are more likely to be read, and commented on. Furthermore, each time a member likes a post, the original poster receives a “karma” point, which accumulate for the original poster on their personal page. There is also an option to private message another member in order to discuss something that the two members don’t want other members to see.

4. A discourse community utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.

R/atheism utilizes the following genres: pictures, videos, comment threads, screenshots of conversation from other social media websites, quotations by respectable individuals, pictures with quotations, text posts, and memes. While most of these are self-explanatory, some of these genres deserve an explanation. Members of r/atheism like to cite famous, highly respected individuals who have received recognition for their successes in science, philosophy, or pretty much anything, in order to both idolize the person, or to give their own beliefs more value by using this person as an authority on the matter. Comment threads are the result of comments and subsequent replies that turn into long conversations stemming from one topic of discussion. Memes are like Internet fads in that they are concepts, presented in a recognizable form, which spread form person to person via the World Wide Web. Screenshots of conversations are an especially important genre on r/atheism because it is a way for Redditors to showcase the discussions that they have with other people about religion on other social networking websites. Often times these screenshots show arguments or are meant to showcase the ridiculousness of the things that some religious fundamentalists say. There is a rule of thumb that all names and photographs must be blanked out to protect the identity of the people in the screenshots.

5. In addition to owning genres, a discourse community has acquired some specific lexis.

Reddit-speak is really just a compilation of Internet language used on a multitude of forums. However, its constant use has really made it a signature Reddit thing. In addition to common abbreviations that are used all over the Internet such as LOL, for laugh out loud, Reddit has abbreviations that are used to say something faster such as “TL; DR” for “too long; didn’t read”, which is a section at the end of a long text post that is meant to summarize what was said for those who are simply skimming the conversation. There is also “OP” for “original poster” and “OC” for original content, among various other abbreviations. R/atheism has its own section for frequently asked questions that defines words like “atheism”, “agnosticism” and many other words that come up in conversation, so as to set a standard for their meanings as used in the entire sub-Reddit, and all subscribers are highly urged to read this section in order to properly use all terms.

6. A discourse community has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.

The ranking and moderating system of Reddit is very subtle and, at first glance, difficult to identify. I say this because unlike most other communities, there is no restriction for entry into the community. In fact, because it is an open Internet forum, anybody can join from anywhere in the word simply by making an alias and a password. And even more interesting, is that members don’t actually have to participate in any way. There is a term for such members who choose only to observe, and that term is “lurker”. How then does r/atheism fit with this characteristic? The answer to this is the impact of the earned “karma” points. Members with a high amount of karma points, or who have made posts that have earned many upvotes are considered to have more “expertise” and to participate in a way that is most beneficial to the goals of the community.

Furthermore, there is a class of Redditors on this sub-Reddit, which has the ultimate control over which posts can be viewed and which cannot be viewed. These are the “moderators” or “mods” for short. Typically, becoming a mod is simple on most sub-Reddits; there must simply be an opening on the sub-Reddit. However, on a sub-Reddit as highly populated as r/atheism, there is almost never an opening and in order to become one, you must appeal to one of the current mods via private message. I have, myself, tried to do this and have not yet received a reply, which likely means that there is either no opening or that I am under qualified for the position.

Genre

The concept of genre is unexpectedly difficult to explain in a succinct manner but here I will attempt that. Genre can roughly be described as a form, or style in which something is presented. Genres of writing include but are not limited to poetry, essays, novels, notices, letters, etc. It is quite clear that one chooses to use the genre that most adequately formats what one intends to say so as to make it easy to understand by those who are intended to read it. As mentioned above, discourse communities often adopt specific genres for the same purpose of relaying information through a fitting format. Genres in discourse have a lot more to do than just how something is structured. Genres in discourse also have bearing on how texts are interpreted, used and exploited in specific institutional or more narrowly professional contexts to achieve specific disciplinary roles. (Bhatia, 2004, p. 20) Genres also aren’t good for being seen as single and separable communicative tools, because during discourse, multiple genres are used and messages are converted from one genre to another. (Swales, 2004, p. 2)
We are beginning to see that genre is not a simple choice of format for a message, but rather that it is a choice that has a lot of bearing on how the message behind it will be interpreted, which is the most important part of trying to communicate within a discourse community. As we will see soon, choosing genres on Reddit is actually a part of the conversation, and often creates a bond that can only be understood by those who have viewed the same message in various genres.

Genres of Reddit (r/atheism specific)

Reddit employs many genres, all of which are eventually understood by all of its constituents. Some genres, such as the thread (pictured below) are actually methods of communication. The comment thread is an Internet forum feature in which aids the user by visually grouping messages in a hierarchy by topic, with any replies to a message arranged visually near to the original message. As can be observed in the clip from a thread about Carl Sagan from r/atheism, Redditors are able to comment on all original posts which have been made, and other Redditors can comment on the comments, and others can comment on comments on comments. What this creates, in effect, is a virtually endless tree of comments pertaining to come particular topic wherein a group of Redditors has a conversation that is relevant to the original topic. There is a great advantage to this method of communicating. Redditors who comment on other comments, are actually replying to those first comments, thereby starting a conversation, which can sometimes lead to a new topic that can either be some inside joke, some new source, some more information, etc. This continued conversation does not notify the original poster of the new comment that has been made, and so, does not overwhelm people who are not taking part in the conversation.

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Another influential genre on Reddit is the meme. The meme is a genre that is quite familiar to majority of the Internet and it has become such an important part of mainstream culture that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary has officially defined it as "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture." While it is very vague, the definition explains that a meme is something that uses familiar ideas and spreads them from person to person. Sounds very much like genre. I liken memes to the description “Internet fad.” The two examples below represent the subset of memes called “Advice Animals,” which are characters who either have distinct personalities or who have been assigned some by “the Internet.” The first is the “Sheltering Suburban Mom” meme, which uses the picture of a woman (it must be this same picture each time as the community which uses it, namely Reddit, is used to this same image) to represent a suburban mother who imposes conservative ideals upon her children.

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Aside from the specificity of the image, there is also a very particular way in which the caption is to be written. Typically there is a line describing a situation at the top, and a hard-hitting punch line at the bottom.

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The captions must also be written in the particular Arial font such that the outline of the text is black and the letters themselves are white. This is actually an implementation of the graphic design idea text written in such a way will be easy to read on any background. The second image is called “Philosoraptor” which is represented by an image of a Velociraptor, a type of dinosaur, which appears to be in a position that we interpret look as though it is thinking. The Philosoraptor is a character that is deeply immersed in metaphysical inquiries or unraveling quirky paradoxes and r/atheism typically uses it to point out discrepancies within religion or the actions done by religious people. The caption rules remain the same. Memes are used on almost every Internet forum nowadays, and Redditors are particularly specific on the proper use of them, and Reddit is often the birthplace of new memes.

As mentioned in the section discussing the six characteristics of discourse communities in the context of Reddit, r/atheism often makes use of screenshots of conversation to further discuss how irrational religious fundamentalists can be, which in turn furthers the idea that religion is inadvisable. Below is an example of such a conversation. 0yk2RS5.jpg

There are many more types of genres on Reddit; many of them can be described as occluded genres. An occluded genre is, a genre that is "out of sight" to "outsiders and apprentices"; occluded genres perform "essential waystage roles in the administrative and evaluative functioning of the research worlds" (Swales, 2004, p. 18) Posts that can be described as such a plain text posts, images with quotes of famous scientists and admirable persons, etc.

Genres as Adhesives

The use of genres on Reddit is a paramount method of communication. If one really considers it, Reddit is actually entirely made up of different genres, all a clickable link away from the front page. Because the members of this community can only communicate in the cyber world but are actually from all over the world, the genres used must be recognizable universally and easy enough to be understood by everyone. This is the reason why memes are considered to be such potent formats of coding messages. Memes act both as inside jokes and as means of telling other Redditors something about a situation which, by introduction of the meme, makes it automatically relatable to other members. This is the way in which genres on Reddit create a bonds between members; these bonds exist because the patrons of r/atheism mutually understand the subtle implications of a meme that was used, or of the irony behind something somebody religious said on Facebook and the consistent use of the same joke becomes a characteristic of the community.

Memes also have a very authoritative purpose in that they set strict guidelines on the way that certain figures must viewed or how certain objects or characters must be interpreted. Memes create a common sense of humor among Redditors and for this reason, memes often become highly specific. Many a time, memes will be "downvoted into oblivion" because they do not use the proper font, the proper image, the proper punch line structure or the proper joke.

Other genres on Reddit, such as the comment thread are actually completely necessary for the entire existence of Reddit. One of the biggest reasons why Reddit thrives so much is that it is really easy for members to communicate with each other for fleeting moments on something relevant, or even irrelevant, without having to make any friendship or commitment. The comment thread allows people from different parts of the world to have a short conversation which in turn, continues to promote the goal of the community. The comment thread is actually where all conversation happens on Reddit and so Redditors depend on it to be useful and informative. Often times, somebody might post a link with some important information pertaining to r/atheism but the link might lead to something that is very wrong and possibly poorly cited. Comments on the thread might provide people with alternative links or information that corrects a misinterpretation or perhaps some insight. The comment thread allows people to have their ideals challenged and it is often a source of heated debate, another very useful tool in promoting the common beliefs on r/atheism.

Works Cited

Bhatia, V. (2004). Worlds of written discourse: A genre-based view. London: Continuum
Swales, J. M. (2004). Research genres: Explorations and applications. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Swales, J. (2009). World of genre—metaphors of genre. In C. Bazerman, A. Bonini, and D. Figueiredo (Eds.), Genre in a Changing World (pp. 1 -16).Retrieved from wac.colostate.edu/books/genre/chapter1.pdf

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