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The register of fora

Electronic fora (or forums) date back to USENET and the earliest days of the Internet, but have not been quite as thoroughly examined as other, equally popular CMC registers. Nevertheless, their public, asynchronous nature has led them to be the topic of various linguistic studies.

Like email, fora ‘posts’ or ‘entries’ have a subject line; however, the linguistic rules governing how this line is used differ greatly from email. Grice’s maxim of Quantity is still followed, but instead of necessarily being as accurate and unambiguous as possible, fora subject lines tend to be more “idiosyncratic” and “ludic”, adopting an almost journalistic style to attract readers.* As with non-listserv email, the wide range of fields and tenors that fora can cover make it difficult to make specific lexical or syntactic statements regarding the register of online fora, though small-scale studies are quite often feasible . Still, this does not preclude more generalized studies.

Collot and Belmore’s study on “Electronic Language” conducts a corporal analysis of language used on bulletin boards (or BBSs). Although they come to the conclusion, like most other CMC scholars, that this register falls somewhere ‘in between’ that of speech and writing, the specific analyses that they use to make this conclusion warrant further investigation. The register of BBS has a high level of ‘involved production’ ; this is similar to the ‘language density’ analysis of Yates. The register has a slightly non-narrative bent in its discourse, slightly favoring speech ; an “overt expression of persuasion”, favoring “personal letters and editorials”; and a high level of abstract information, favoring writing.

In length, individual fora posts tend to be even shorter than the average email. A sampling of posts made to the WELL finds the average length to be 3.5 lines per post, and approximately 1.45 paragraphs per post.

The register of synchronous chat

For technological reasons, synchronous chat did not become a particularly popular method of communication until well after email and fora were firmly entrenched. However, the synchronous nature of online chatting, combined with its fairly static field, tenor and mode, have caused it to become one of the richest sources of non-interactional linguistic studies in the entire field of CMC.

One of the seminal linguistic studies on chat registers is Christopher Werry’s “Linguistic and Interactional Features of Internet Relay Chat”, analyzing the free chat program of the same name. Internet Relay Chat (IRC), like most popular chat programs, has fairly severe structural limitations: only one line of text, with a length of no more than a few hundred characters, can be entered at a time. This stricture, combined with the need to keep up with a conversation that can involve over a half-dozen speakers simultaneously, has a direct linguistic impact: Werry himself says it best when he notes that “[i]n general, one can observe a tendency on IRC for words to be stripped down to the fewest possible letters that will enable them to be meaningfully recognized.” Accordingly, synchronous chat typically features a comparatively high rate of acronyms and other abbreviations, along with a considerable amount of emoticons. The average line of text on IRC, incidentally, was found by Werry to be about six words long.

IRC exhibits unusual linguistic properties that are not necessarily bound to space constraints. Messages directed at specific users are constructed in the <USER: MESSAGE>** format; this sort of structure occurs more often in IRC than in other registers, primarily because the lack of orality creates difficulties in ‘backchanneling’. Messages that apply to the sender him/herself are often prefaced with a left-pointing arrow (so that the body of the message is ‘pointing back’ to the username of the sender), and various forms of punctuation, particularly ellipses, are used to indicate conversational techniques like pause and emphasis. Of course, social and interactional studies of chat programs exist as well. One study, conducted within the framework of Milroy and Milroy’s network ties, found a general relationship between the strength of ties and the variance of language on IRC networks .

Instant messaging

One interesting variant of synchronous chat deals with instant messaging (or IM). Instant messaging is somewhat similar to electronic chat (synchronous nature, used largely for socialization, limited body length, etc.), but is almost universally of a dialogic nature, as opposed to the ‘chatrooms’ of dozens of people on IRC. Length and time constraints still have visible effects on the register: instant messaging line lengths are approximately equal to that of regular chats, and self-correction of typographical errors is marginally lower when using IM than when typing ‘normally’ , but the semantic and pragmatic content of the communication is somewhat different. For example, phatic communication plays a larger role in IM than in other forms of chat.

A technical feature present in IM, but not most forms of chat, is the away message. If a user sends an instant message to another user who is away from their keyboard (or screening their messages), the user’s screenname automatically replies with a premade message, usually (but not always) explaining the user’s cause for absence. Away messages vary significantly in linguistic features, but are typically of short length and feature non-standard orthography.

*Since the subject matter of a forum ‘topic’ or ‘thread’ can differ drastically from the content of the first post in the topic (the post which creates the topic’s subject line), attempting to create an accurate and relevant subject title is often an exercise in vain.

**As opposed to, say, <USER, MESSAGE> (i.e. “KilroyWasHere: hello” vs. “KilroyWasHere, hello”).

Campbell, Jeffrey D. “Does Spelling Matter in Instant Messaging? Answers from Measuring Error Correction Frequency.” CHI 2005. Portland, Oregon. April 2-7, 2005.
Crystal, David. Language and the Internet: Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Herring, Susan C., ed. Computer-Mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social and Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1996.
Nastri, J., Pena, J., and Hancock, J. T. “The construction of away messages: A speech act analysis.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11:4, article 7. 2006.
Paolillo, John C. “Language variation on Internet Relay Chat: A social network approach.” Journal of Sociolinguistics 5:2, 2001.

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