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Review of  Evolving Genres in Web-mediated Communication


Reviewer: Andrea E Lypka
Book Title: Evolving Genres in Web-mediated Communication
Book Author: Sandra Campagna Giuliana Garzone Cornelia Ilie Elizabeth Rowley-Jolivet
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Sociolinguistics
Book Announcement: 24.2739

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SUMMARY

‘Evolving Genres in Web-mediated Communication,’ edited by Sandra Campagna, Giuliana Garzone, Cornelia Ilie, and Elizabeth Rowley-Jolivet, explores the dynamic nature of web-mediated communication (WMC) that catalyzes electronic discursive practices of various discourse communities. In the introduction, the editors challenge traditional genre theory and argue that the hypertextual and multimodal features of the web call for the re-examination of WMC through alternative genre theories and analytical tools. As a result, this collection becomes important because it examines web genres through the lens of multimodality (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2006), critical discourse analysis, and participatory agenda.

In this edited collection of papers, the authors examine the connection between traditional print genres and emerging online genres in multiple communities from an interdisciplinary international research perspective. This volume of 13 case studies explores the migration from print to web of various genres and the emergence of alternative web genres that mirrors evolving digital technological affordances in various discourse communities, including corporations, health care, academia, media, government, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For researchers interested in the latest trends in genre evolution and technological advances, linguists looking for new types of online language, educators and students concerned with pedagogical values, and corporations interested in the commercial implications of virtual worlds, these studies provide theoretical frameworks and practical insights to integrate WMC in communication. Furthermore, these studies attempt to offer theoretical and practical insights on WMC as a dynamic and strategic resource for self-promotion, research, and pedagogy.

The collection is organized according to the chronological progression of the web, starting with traditional, static websites, and moving to newer, more participatory venues such as newsgroups, blogs, wikis, and microblogs. The book is divided into three sections; the four chapters in the first section address WMC from the perspectives of more traditional genres, including websites, e-brochures, and argumentative web campaigns. The four chapters in the second section explore the development of participatory genres, including online laboratory protocols, wikis, memes, and newsgroups. The final five chapters, in section three, focus on readers’ comments, academic weblogs, and corporate twittering as specific genres that alter possibilities for advertisers and other interested users.

The first section opens with Paola Catenaccio’s theoretical and empirical analysis of selected structural aspects and the dynamic interconnection of web genres of traditional corporate websites through the lens of system science. In contrast to the classic definition of the website as a medium, Catenaccio defines it as a “rhetorical interface” (p. 40), where textual and visual information might not be hierarchically organized, but where different genres are interconnected. The author describes this rhetorical interface through the analysis of the Siemens corporate website, where traditional and web genres mesh, and users can become content creators. On the Siemens website, new genres and traditional genres are interconnected because they tackle the same topic and share the same hyperlinks, but remain controlled by the corporation. For example, a cultural event, sponsored by the company featured on the homepage, contains a web-streaming option of the event as well as links to pdf documents for festival supporters, the company’s involvement in the festival, and the official festival’s site. However, this form of social communication and creation of content on the Siemens website is connected to institutional interests, having a primarily self-promotional purpose.

Furthermore, from the genre analysis and critical discourse analysis perspectives, Alessandra Vicentini investigates particular genre features in Italian institutional healthcare pdf e-brochures for immigrants. Results of the study reveal a shift to one single multilingual educational/informative e-brochure characterized by oversimplified language and content compared to paper-based healthcare brochures for immigrants. Despite the lack of hypertextual elements in the multilingual pdf e-brochures, the informative and educational values for the target audience (i.e. immigrants) become central because visuals, such as graphics, images, pictures, and diagrams are interchangeable with textual messages. Visual messages become “the main semiotic code through which the message is conveyed” (p. 66), while textual messages become shorter and simpler through the use of slogans, such as “we are with you” (p. 70), contraction, and enumeration.

The case study of the Chinese government’s website by Bettina Mottura surveys how governmental organizations exploit WMC to convey messages and collect information from the public. The analysis of three online interviews with the Prime Minister reveals that even when the genre shift is more pronounced online, characteristics of traditional genres seem to coexist with emerging genres. The author concludes that the symbiosis between bureaucratic and journalistic genres, such as online interviews, aligns with top-down communication flow and reinforces the legitimacy of the government because these interviews are orchestrated by government officials and the journalists and public are not interactive participants in these interviews. For example, email addresses posted on the government website are not always hotlinked to an actual email address, and the journalists who conduct the online interviews with the Prime Minister only introduce the questions or topics. The public has little to no license for interactive feedback during the online interviews; therefore, views that might run contrary to the government’s agenda remain underexposed. Mottura’s study highlights that WMC is a powerful tool to promote political agenda and control information flow.

Using Swales’ three-level model of genre (1990) and the reading and navigating modes (Askehave & Ellerup Nielsen, 2005), Chiara Degano’s case study analyzes the effectiveness of online argumentative discourses of two NGO campaigns, the ‘Baby Milk Action,’ campaign geared against the marketing of infant formula, and Greenpeace’s campaign against genetically modified food. The author concludes that the lack of adequate textual scaffolding in the ‘Baby Milk Action’ campaign hinders the effectiveness of these argumentative genres for the audience because of the excess of information, and a shift from argumentative to subjective narration style. On the other hand, Greenpeace’s campaign exemplifies a more coherent argumentative discourse. Hierarchical organization patterns included a general statement on the homepage, while more specific explanations were provided through links.

Studies included in the second section frame digital communication as distinct from face-to-face communication because Web 2.0 is an environment for community building and cooperative information dissemination. These discourse communities, including scientific communities, Wikipedia, social networking sites, and newsgroups, are sometimes established ad-hoc, and in time, members develop practices and language to engage and legitimize members in that particular community (Kramsch, 2010). Since these web genres continue to evolve, it remains to be seen what characteristics of traditional genre will be incorporated in the web genre.

For instance, Elizabeth Rowley-Jolivet analyzes the repurposing of conventional scientific genres of laboratory protocols to the web, positing that the affordances of the online medium that include options for public raw data sharing and information dissemination, mutability, and multimodality, create a unique informal environment for learning and collaboration. The content analysis of the ‘Open WetWare’ website reveals that, in contrast to print research protocols characterized by conventional, impersonal language, web-mediated experimental procedures are characterized by informal, personal language style (e.g. the use of the personal pronouns “I, me, my” and “we,” spoken discourse markers “actually, now, well, so,” and capitalization to indicate stress, such as in “HORRIBLE optics” (p. 146)). The informal learning environment and the collective decisions to edit, remove or not remove a protocol from the website create a sense of community and collaboration among researchers and the public. Furthermore, through “legitimate peripheral participation” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 29), this environment engages apprentices, such as fledgling researchers, to participate in knowledge co-construction and acquire research skills to become practitioners and legitimized participants in that community.

Though these virtual spaces are personal and dynamic, they do not remain completely egalitarian. Specifically, within Bakhtin’s (1981) notions of the tensions between the centrifugal and centripetal forces of discourses, Maristella Gatto investigates the reader-author-editor relationship, collaborative writing practices, as well as patterns of interaction and meaning-making in entries, by contrasting earlier and later stages of entries posted on the cooperative online encyclopedia, ‘Wikipedia.’ One example of the centrifugal force is the textual manipulation of the entry for “Montezuma,” where one user commented that “the article is written like a travel guide,” a different genre from the encyclopedia entry, while official editorial revisions would be an example of centripetal forces. The analysis of a sample of ‘Wikipedia’ entries reveals that on the ‘Wikipedia’ page, reader, author, and editor coexist; however, such online collaborative practices are legitimized by peer and editorial review and a style manual regarding their adherence to generic expectations.

In addition to collaborative spaces, a community may be developed through fluid user-generated online verbal and nonverbal symbolic forms, like Internet memes, which can be a hyperlink, an unusual picture, or an intentional misspelling of a phrase or word that might mean an ironic message. Enrico Grazzi focuses on the pedagogical implications of using social networking, such as blogs, message boards, discussion groups, and memes in English language teaching and learning in an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) setting. Using Wenger’s community of practice framework (1998), which considers the social aspects of learning integrated in the concepts of participation, practice, and identity in a professional community, the author suggests that English teachers should integrate memes in their foreign language curriculum to expose non-native speaker learners to alternative forms of learning and the authentic use of EFL and to empower learners to actively participate in a wider online community.

Elisa Corino and Cristina Onesti focus on agreement and disagreement strategies and discourse development in a newsgroup. In this online environment, users express their opinion and back up their arguments; their interactions are subjected to Netiquette and informal rules of the discourse community. Specifically, based on a sample taken from a subset of the NUNC (NewsgroupUseNet Corpora) suite of multilingual corpora, the authors analyze pragmatic and textual characteristics of interactions, levels of agreement and disagreement (including partial and total agreement and total disagreement), and quoting mechanisms for textual coherence in online discourses. Their study finds that users adopted different agreement and disagreement strategies while interacting online, and that quoting became pivotal not just for textual coherence, but also as a strategy for users to avoid face threatening interactions. Specifically, in disagreement and agreement discourses, newsgroup users preferred to adopt less face threatening language by using ‘would’ and other conditional forms, as well as connectives, such as ‘but’ and ‘however,’ emoticons and ‘if’ clauses as delay devices, and quoting.

Studies included in the third section build on the social nature of Web 2.0., conceptualizing readers’ online comments on news, academic weblogs, corporate blogs, and microblogs as popular participatory social media genres. These online interactions are characterized by hybridized informal genres and the creation of a new language in different modalities, with the goal being to create, manipulate, document, and synthesize information, as well as to learn and reflect.

Within the wider phenomenon of genre migration, Giuliana Garzone defines weblogs as being native to the web, along with emails, websites, Facebook, and having the following characteristics: entries organized in chronological order, frequent updates, and links to other websites. Through the case studies of the news blog ‘The Huffington Post’ and the corporate blog of Kodak’s, the author defines blog as a macrogenre that hybridizes informal diary and formal journalistic genres into emergent context- and purpose-dependent communicative formats, featuring short posts and Internet initialisms, including laugh out loud (LOL), that align with the institutions’ agendas. Specifically, the analysis of editorials in ‘The Huffington Post,’ an online news outlet, reveals that online stories align with the inverted pyramid style reporting in print news. Furthermore, perhaps because these stories are published on a more interactive and dynamic platform, and include visuals and hyperlinks, these online stories attract more viewers and comments compared to news reports in newspapers. Similarly, the blogs managed by the company Kodak also take advantage of the interactive, individualistic properties of blogging for advertising and marketing purposes.

However, these seemingly free-form practices, including participatory journalism, are governed by external factors like style guides and editorial boards. Specifically, Sandra Campagna’s analysis of linguistic and stylistic features of readers’ online comments on ‘The Economist’ article on ‘Banning the Burqua’ suggests that contributors’ comments on news editorials are conditioned by editors’ newsworthiness criteria, communicative and rhetorical styles, and editorial norms. Specifically, in this controlled forum, readers’ brief comments include citations and the development of counter-arguments regarding the editorial. For example, an author named Res Publica quotes Voltaire in his or her counter-editorial comment: “As Voltaire might have said, “I disapprove of your dress, but I will defend to the death your right to wear it” (p. 259). Other readers, like mdoaleh, include personal stories as his or her counter-argument: “The issue of banning the Burqa is most hypocritical. My daughter one time decided freely to don the Hijab during her first year in university. The second year she took it off and donned a diamond nose stud” (p. 259).These commenters’ communication strategies align with the mixing of informal and formal registers used by the editor, bringing to light the generic integrity of readers’ comments.

Furthermore, the participatory nature of social media may also empower bloggers to construct an online identity (Lam, 2000). Malgorzata Sokol’s study conceptualizes academic weblogs, more popularly known as blogs, as spaces for information dissemination and publication, as well as for scholar-bloggers’ identity negotiation in academia. Using linguistic analysis and Hyland’s model of metadiscourse (2005), Sokol investigates authoring strategies, in particular, academic bloggers’ professional identity legitimization through the use of self-mention, self-promotion, and citation on English blogs of humanities scholars. The analysis of the blog entries reveals the prevalence of using the personal pronoun “I” versus “we,” as well as self-reference expressed through multimodal discourses, through the use of visuals, such as PowerPoint presentations, links to word documents on conference presentations, and hypertextual links to references, to establish authorship. This study reconfirms that academic blogs might strengthen bloggers’ academic identities because they are platforms for self-publishing, and they adhere to scholarly norms and norms established by the blogger community.

The authors in the last two studies, in section three, argue that the genre of microblogging, featuring real-time exchanges and updates characterized by short sentences, individual images, or video links, take the user experience to the next level. These studies focus on Twitter as a viable and effective marketing and branding genre that complements traditional advertising genres because short, real-time informal updates engage consumers in discourse that is relevant to the content creator. For example, Giorgia Riboni’s study examines the potential of corporate promotional tweets to recruit prospective customers from an imaginary global audience. Using Goffman’s (1981) concepts of animator, author, and principal, through the case study of the Twitter profile of ‘Whole Foods Market,’ the author analyzes communication and participation strategies in corporate tweets, replies, and retweets. The results suggest that most tweets employ informal language and are used as a promotional tool, while replies are mainly used for customer care. The persuasive power of retweets has been a challenge because of the difficulty to identify the author of retweets.

In a similar vein, Maria Christina Paganoni posits that the technological advances and the features of social media, including multimodality and interactivity, transform approaches to advertising and branding. When several (micro)blogging genres, such as blogs and tweets, are integrated on a corporate website, they seem to enhance the corporate aim “to promote a holistic perception of the product as a choice of lifestyle obtained through faithful consumption” (p. 324). For example, the blogpost on the ‘Coca-Cola Conversations’ blog on the corporate website about the 1936 China Paper Poster, known as Chinatown because it was designed for the Asian audience in the US, can be defined as informational, entertaining, and promotional. Paganoni’s case study of the company website and the branding potential of official tweets of the ‘Coca-Cola Company’ concludes that social networks are different from traditional marketing tools because they allow for meaningful community building between content creator and consumer.

The findings of the last two studies on the web-mediated promotional genre of corporate tweets enhance our insights of the persuasive power of the social media platform, Twitter. Even though Twitter might be destined to play a key role in corporate communication, analyzing and unpacking the promotional genre of corporate tweets seems to be a challenge because of the emerging nature of Twitter and the lack of research in this field.

EVALUATION

Recent technological advances have irrevocably altered communication practices, allowing for faster and more responsive communication. The synchronous nature of WMC allows for knowledge co-construction and information dissemination among experts and non-experts in real time; this communication is dynamic, live, and ongoing, thus blurring the boundaries between real and virtual worlds. The characteristics of WMC, such as hypertextuality, non-linearity, and multimodality, raise questions about the emergence of a virtual self, issues of authorship, boundaries, ethics, privacy, and web genre development through hybridization of text, image, audio, and video.

The strength of the studies in this volume lies in the thorough contextualization of digital genre development as a dynamic and complex system and the web as a medium where virtual world and reality collide (Kramsch, 2010). In this online world, digital genres expand upon traditional print genres, evolving into meaningful and dynamic social practices that have yet to be contextualized. However, their flexibility in format and language and their permanence stimulate knowledge co-construction between expert and non-expert users, as well as the construction of the self in dialogue with others. Even though studies suggest that emerging genres seem to challenge existing norms and practices in professional communities, the authors of the above-mentioned studies suggest that evolving nature of web genres as well as web genres’ coexistence with traditional genres might suggest a deeper transformation in communication practices.

The analysis of the relationship between traditional genres and newer web genres are contextualized in each study from a sociocultural stance. Technology-driven changes revolutionize the migration of traditional genres to the web and open opportunities for collaborative information dissemination. Communication in professional communities needs to be reframed in this hypertextual environment, where text, still images, video, and audio coexist, and where technological affordances act as catalyzers in emerging genres. Arguably, as the editors and authors suggest, these existing analytical tools and theories also need to be fine-tuned, and new analytical tools are needed to properly define and analyze emerging online genres.

Overall, a thorough discussion on theoretical frameworks and literature reviews characterize studies on more established genres, like websites and blogs. For instance, Giuliana Garzone eloquently showcases the concepts of web-genre migration and the genesis of blogging through the case studies of ‘Huffington Post’ and three Kodak’s blogs, ‘Grow Your Biz,’ ‘Plugged In,’ and ‘A Thousand Words’, and Bettina Mottura effectively contextualizes the WMC between the Chinese government and the public through the analysis of the government website and online interviews with the Prime Minister. Enrico Grazzi’s study stands out from the other studies because it ambitiously proposes to tackle the pedagogical implications of using social networking sites and memes in an EFL setting from the teacher’s perspective. While the author provides insights to second language acquisition theories and models, such as communities of practice (Wenger, 1998), Sociocultural Theory and the Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1962), and highlights concepts, such as digital identity, NNS, and cross-cultural communication, the links between theories and concepts could be more detailed. Furthermore, perhaps because of the lack of research on memes and the author’s ongoing research at the time of the publication, the author does not provide an analysis of contemporary relevant studies that focus on this phenomenon. In some studies, a thorough presentation of the research methods, including study design, instruments, data collection procedures, and interpretation of results, as well as a discussion of practical implications in light of the conducted study would increase the replicability of the study and would be invaluable for both researchers and English teachers interested in using social media in their English language classes.

Furthermore, in-depth discussions on relevant studies are missing, especially in the studies on Twitter, perhaps because this platform is still emerging and there is not an abundance of research in this area. While this book reviews theories and literature on WMC in detail, the methodology sections in most studies fail to provide much in-depth discussion on study design. For example, in the article by Sokol, theory and literature take up four pages, and the analysis takes up six pages, while the methodology is only briefly mentioned. The lack of methodological rigor, perhaps because of limited space, makes these studies harder to replicate. Even though these works lack methodological rigor, they still provide theoretical frameworks and practical insights on genre evolution and technological advances.

Overall, the chapters offer descriptive examples to highlight the interactive and participatory nature of WMC and the effects of digital literacy and interactive online communication. While most studies showcase how corporations and governments exploit WMC to legitimize their power and agenda, few studies explore how grassroots organizations and citizens form online communities. Furthermore, with technological advances, more research should address the effects of social media on society (i.e. privacy and copyright). Further studies should focus on the newest trends in WMC, such as ‘Pinterest,’ ‘Instagram,’ and ‘Google +,’ in different sociocultural contexts. Similarly, such studies should provide practical implications on how these online platforms, including gaming platforms and virtual worlds like ‘Second Life,’ might influence impact society and culture.

REFERENCES

Askehave I., Ellerup Nielsen, A. (2005). Digital genres: A challenge to traditional genre theory. Information Technology and People, 18(2), 120-141.

Bakhtin, M. M. M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (No. 1). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Goffman, E. (1981). Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hyland, K. (Ed.). (2005). Metadiscourse: Exploring Interaction in Writing. Continuum International Publishing Group.

Kramsch, C. (2010). The Multilingual Subject. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kress, G. & van Leeuwen, T. (2006). Reading Images. The Grammar or Visual Design. London: Routledge.

Lam, W. S. E. (2000). L2 literacy and the design of the self: A case study of a teenager writing on the Internet. TESOL Quarterly, 34(3), 457-482.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swales, J. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Mental Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Andrea Lypka is a second year PhD student in the Second Language Acquisition and Instructional Technology (SLA/IT) program at the University of South Florida(USF). Her research interests include identity, multimodality, and individual learning differences.

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