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Review of  (In)Appropriate Online Behavior

Reviewer: Laura L. Paterson
Book Title: (In)Appropriate Online Behavior
Book Author: Jenny Arendholz
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 24.2941

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Arendholz’s study addresses the interpersonal element of online interaction, focusing specifically on fifty threads taken from ‘The Student Room’ website. She provides copious examples from her data in the latter chapters of the book, but the beginning is somewhat overshadowed with general discussions of (im)politeness theories. The introduction (titled as Chapter One) begins with an acknowledgment of the heterogeneity of the internet and the notion that it is fruitless to try and assess politeness across the whole web. The author notes that any study of online language is only a snap-shot of a state of affairs. Also provided are four clear research questions (which are returned to in the conclusion).

In Chapter Two, the author gives a brief history of the development of the internet, although there are very few direct links made to internet-based pragmatics. The chapter is focused on computer mediated communication (CMC) in general rather than on the particular text type selected for analysis. Arendholz discusses the use of CMC as a social tool and strongly justifies her argument that online communication can have interpersonal impact. She then provides a comprehensive and informative overview of ‘The Student Room’ forum. The author demonstrates how the fixed-elements surrounding each post (e.g. the user’s name, time on the forum, number of posts, affiliations, reputation, etc.) convey interpersonal information. This leads to the conclusion that there are standardised social cues in each post, independent of their linguistic content.

Chapter Three is the first of three theory-heavy chapters where the author presents her literature review and justifies her approach. Arendholz uses the concept of communities of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991) and includes a section on codes of conduct and emerging online norms. The second theory-heavy chapter, Chapter Four, moves away from the discussion of online data and consists of a general overview of theories of (im)politeness (Brown and Levinson 1987, Culpeper 1996, etc.). Towards the end of the chapter, Arendholz draws the focus back to the matter at hand and there is an interesting discussion in Section 4.4 of what needs to be retained, adapted, or dropped from existing frameworks to make them applicable for internet-based data. For example, she keeps the notions of positive and negative face, but rejects what she terms “static” theories (p. 75) based on Grice’s Cooperative Principle (1975), arguing that such models “cannot do justice to the dynamic nature of communication” (p. 75).

Chapter Five is more focused on message boards, but does drop back into explaining theories of impoliteness in places. We start to see some data in this chapter, and Section 5.7 on flaming is particularly on-topic. By Chapter Six, Arendholz (correctly) proposes that people do not construct their identities online independent of their offline personas because their offline identities are “too deeply entrenched” (p. 114) in their behaviour. Rather, users develop an online face, or, more likely, faces which they choose to perform. In order to explain this, Arendholz rejects the notion of identity construction (Locher 2011) and instead proposes that creating online personae is effectively “face constitution” (p. 114). There is some close analysis of data in this chapter. Arendholz analyses both users’ profile pages and some of their initial posts, with screenshots to support a multimodal analysis. From this point forward, the book is really focused on the analysis promised in its title.

Chapter Seven is clearly structured and begins with a justification for Arendholz’s chosen method of analysis. It focuses on the initial posts of fifty different threads on ‘The Student Room’ website (with Chapter Eight focusing on the rest of the posts under each heading). The chapter is full of examples that are analysed systematically. The author explains her data well and it is clear to the reader exactly what Arendholz’s corpus consists of. There is explanation of how the data has been separated into six categories (i.e. Getting to know others, Looking for like-minded others, Asking for advice, Asking for opinions, Blowing off steam, and Offering advice/information), with the author drawing out the core purposes for starting a forum thread. She covers some of the ‘standard’ features of CMC, such as smileys, but doesn’t devote too much time or attention to these things, noting that they are only one of a selection of ways in which users of ‘The Student Room’ can convey interpersonal meaning. She also notes that there isn’t a dichotomy of being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ online, as her data shows that even people who are labelled ‘trouble makers’ can have positive reputations on the site, and their posts can be cooperative as well as controversial in nature. At the end of the chapter, the author attempts to guess what alterations have been made to several posts since they were first published. However, she does acknowledge that there is no way to tell what was added or removed.

Chapter Eight is unusual in that it represents 36% of the book and is almost a hundred pages long. This chapter is the heart of the analysis. Each of the six categories identified in Chapter Seven are discussed in turn. Arendholz’s qualitative analysis of threads dominates the chapter, with supporting quantitative data used to summarise each section. Some of the examples given in this chapter are presented in earlier chapters, but there is also a lot of new data. The major findings of Arendholz’s work are that users of message boards tend to behave cooperatively, with most posts being unmarked for (im)politeness and thus conforming to apparent online norms. Based on her data, Arendholz lists some key features of creating/perpetuating interpersonal relationships in forums, and focuses on those cases in her data where these norms break down. Whilst direct interaction between participants is relatively low across the whole corpus (data on p. 165), the analysis is still fruitful.

The five-page ending that is Chapter Nine (the conclusion) reads as rather brief given the chapter that precedes it. The author targets each research question in turn. However, only the response to the final research question(s) (i.e. “How are interpersonal relations formally expressed and interactively negotiated by experience and new message board members? How many instances of (the various types of) positively and negatively marked behaviour can be found?” (p. 261)) focuses on what users of ‘The Student Room’ actually wrote in their posts. The conclusion focuses directly on the questions the author has asked, but there is no extended discussion of the results of Chapters Seven and Eight.


This is an interesting study in a relatively new field of research and, as such, should be forgiven for some of its structural issues. The heavy end-weighting of the analysis and the disproportionately long Chapter Eight are much more focused on the topic promised in the title of the book than the theory-heavy chapters that Arendholz begins with. Whilst the theoretical discussion which dominates the first two thirds of the work is interesting, it is not always focused on the title of the book and thus the reader is left waiting for the explicit links between theory and analysis to become clear. The largely theory-based chapters, especially Chapter Four, may have been included to expand the potential audience of the book and make it more accessible to those unfamiliar with theories of politeness, but overarching theories are not really what this book is about. Given the title of the book, it is unlikely that a reader would be expecting an introduction to politeness theories, and Chapters Three and Four are, for the most part, distracting to readers who already have experience in this field. Nevertheless, these chapters could potentially be useful as advanced reading for students wishing to undertake projects in internet-based pragmatics. They would also be of interest to scholars researching how theories of offline behaviour (in the sense of non-CMC interaction) need to be adapted for the analysis of internet-based data.

For those solely focused on the analysis of online language, the data does not come to the fore until Chapter Seven (of nine) and this is a little too late. Qualitative and quantitative analyses should have been introduced long before, especially given that there aren’t many links back to the theory-focused chapters, which draws their relevance into question. The analysis chapters are disproportionately long compared to the rest of the book and the key findings would have perhaps been better disseminated throughout the chapters rather than dealt with all in one place.

Whilst the data is largely accessible and well-presented, there are a few issues. When discussing different posters on the message boards, Arendholz uses the initial letter of their avatar for reference. This can sometimes lead to confusion as it is unclear whether ‘D’ in one thread is the same participant as ‘D’ in another thread. Sometimes participants are only separated by capitalisation (e.g. ‘A’ and ‘a’, p. 229). Additionally, some examples are debated beyond what the data can support. For example, Arendholz proposes that a dialogue may have ended because of the inclusion of an ‘x’ at the end of a post (p. 173), yet provides no evidence for this conclusion. Whilst these are relatively small qualms, it is perhaps more detrimental that the definition of politeness proposed on page 83, which underpins Arendholz’s classification of data, is worded rather strangely: “From the speaker’s perspective, politeness is rational because purposeful (non-)linguistic behaviour, which (un)consciously aims at maintaining social order by showing consideration for others”.

Nevertheless, this is a thought-provoking study, and readers have the option to focus their efforts on Chapters Seven and Eight, paying less heed to familiar discussions of politeness. Arendholz’s results, which are highly testable, indicate that there is a culture of unmarked online cooperation, with both overt politeness markers and rudeness being kept to a minimum. Overall, whilst the data is certainly worthy of academic study, the theory-heavy chapters that make up most of the book leave the reader wanting more discussion of online forums and less general theorising. Yet, as a starting point for research on pragmatics in forums, Arendholz’s general approach and categorisation of data is very useful and arguably robust.


Brown, Penelope & Steven Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Culpeper, Jonathan. 1996. Towards an anatomy of impoliteness. Journal of Pragmatics 25(3). 349-376.

Grice, Herbert Paul. 1975. Logic and conversation. In Peter Cole & Jerry L. Morgan (eds). Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts, 41-58. New York: Academic Press.

Lave, Jean & Etienne Wenger. 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Locher, Miriam A. 2011. Situated impoliteness: The interface between identity work and relational construction. In Bethan Davies, Michael Haugh & Andrew J. Merrison (eds). Situated Politeness, 187-208. London: Continuum.
Laura Paterson works as a Teaching Fellow in English Language at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on interplay between social and syntactic factors in the selection of epicene pronouns in written British English. She is also part of a research group analysing discourses of marriage in the UK.