The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
The aim of this paper is to investigate intercommunication ediated by computers, and to discuss its meaningful features from a joint theoretical perspective which combines some elements of sociocultural theory with some of socio- semiotic approaches.
This study is structured in three sections. The first one deals with "contextualization" and discusses some general characteristics of CMC environments. The second section deals with "semiotic mediation" and, speculates on the way(s) people appropriate and transform tools, and on to what extent distinctive uses of thesame tools may influence and/or create new practices. The third section deals with "textual analysis" and explores the concepts of "register" and "genre".
Reflections upon such steps of investigation emphasize the appropriateness of recognizing texts as a suitable unit of analysis, and suggest that, more than mediators in communicative events, texts may also be a "bridge": a tool for achieving action goals through an adequate selection of genre and register.
In her 1988 study, Murray identifies electronic mail (e-mail), electronic messages (e-messages), bulletin boards (b-boards), lists and forum as the five main varieties of computerized communication.
According to her investigation, e-mail is identified as asynchronous messages which can be sent to one recipient or to a mass mailing list. As a non-real time form of communication, immediate feedback cannot be fully guaranteed and, for this reason, it is considered the least directly interactive CMC subtype.
E-messages, in contrast, comprehend synchronous communication which are typically not stored: the interchanges scroll in real time at various rates across the screen. As Murray notices, professional computer users prefer this variety of communication which is the least planned and the most heavily interactive CMC type.
B-boards serve as public electronic announcements, often having wide and unconstrained circulation. Lists facilitate special-interest discussion groups and do not require simultaneous log-on, but allow users to contribute sequentially over time while forum supports interactive chatting.
Murray's taxonomy points out five very closely interrelated subtypes of CMC, without strictly clarifying their boundaries. Nevertheless, her classification gives us an interesting overview through which it is possible to differentiate ways of conveying information, of defining procedures, as well as of recognizing some of the users' preferences. On the other hand, it also suggests the identification of two opposed reasons for choosing computers as a medium of communication: one of a spontaneous and the other of a compulsory nature.
The spontaneous communication seems to be more frequently found in interpersonal private interactions and in academic group discussions. In such a context, CMC plays the role of an unplanned extra-activity which is motivated by a personal necessity of exchanging information and of being in touch with other discourse community members. This interaction, then, potentially creates a fruitful channel for clarification of concepts and theoretical views.
In contrast, the compulsory communication is more typically found in business settings. In such a context, the necessity of interacting is caused by the prototypical nature of the environment professionals are engaged in: communicating through computers constitutes a compulsory task included in the job description among the set of activities each one must perform.
The description outlined so far only introduces the existence of distinct CMC environments. As the contextualization involves many other angles of consideration, its description will be expanded throughout this presentation, and explored from other, and maybe, more precise perspectives.
Semiotic mediation is one of the central concerns in sociocultural theory. Vygotsky identified several sign-based tools which function in this way and, in the light of this consideration, he pointed out language as "the tool of tools" (Vygotsky, 1987; Wells, 1993).
In a CMC scenario where intercommunication is basically undertaken through language, texts assume a crucial importance because, in addition to being vehicles of information, they also reveal the participants' intentions and relationships, and simultaneously indicate the nature of various social activities. For this reason, it is relevant to consider the contextualized meaning of texts, by attempting to perceive them as process and product.
The univocal function is identified by the degree of univocality which guarantees that the text contents will be adequately received and decoded in a system of communication. The dialogical function is accomplished when the text ceases to be a passive link in conveying some constant information between input (sender) and output (receiver), and, due to its internal heterogeneity, becomes a thinking device which creates new meanings and provokes new thoughts.
By analysing CMC from such a functional perspective, it is possible to notice that this functional dualism seems to be displayed in all computerized messages like the two sides of a same coin: depending on conditions of production and/or reception, and on the nature of the communicative event, one side or the other will be more evident for consideration.
As a process of communication, Lotman (1988b: 55-56) postulates that each text has sociocommunicative functions which are grounded on the interrelationship between the context and its participants. These sociocommunicative functions not only emphasize the role sender (writer), receiver (reader) and text (mediator) play, but also situate these agents in a communicative event that takes place in a cultural context which possesses cultural tradition - as also happens in CMC environments. In this sense, Lotman's claims reinforce the concept of a text as a socio-semiotic artifact and, therefore, his conception seems to be coherent with the one advocated by Halliday & Hasan when they define texts as "the language that is functional", this means, "the language that is doing some job in some context" (1989: 52).
For Leontiev, the concept of activity answers to a specific need of the active agent: it moves toward the object of this need and terminates when it is satisfied. Consequently, the concept of activity is necessarily connected with the concept of motive.
Activities are translated into reality through a specific or a set of actions which are subordinated to the idea of having a conscious goal. Comparatively, activities and actions are genuinely diverse realities which do not coincide: one action can be instrumental in realizing different activities; conversely, one motive can give rise to different goals and, accordingly, can produce different actions.
Actions are developed through operations which are concerned with conditions. The distinction between actions and operations emerges clearly in the case of actions involving tools: while actions are connected to conscious goals, operations are related to routinized behaviors performed automatically, without including the same level of consciousness.
Based on such a framework, my claim is that, at the level of operations, CMC environments present many routinized procedures: as soon as the user gets acquainted with the instrumental conditions, the equipment utilization becomes an automatic operation performed without much conscious effort.
Differentiation among contexts, however, may be better evidenced if we consider the other two levels of analysis (activities and actions). Then, by focusing on activities (motives), I would say that, broadly speaking, CMC is generally used in order to communicate. This need may appear either as an answer to an interior necessity of expression, or in response to someone else's appeals. In other words, this motive may have a spontaneous origin (as it seems to be the case in academic settings), or it may be caused by functional reasons (as in business settings). Anyway, this argument per se is not convincing enough to conclude that this mentioned activity is the only or the most important one shared by all CMC environments. However, although conceptually abstract, there is no reason to avoid placing communication among many other activities performed in whatever context we might take into account.
At the level of actions (goals), the confrontation between academic and business settings gives us a relatively easier way of outlining a comparison among CMC environments. According to my personal observation and to some data informally gathered from computer users, the most common actions might be listed as: making announcements, requests, summaries, proposals; arguing about particular topics (e.g., negotiation steps, transaction procedures, theories, techniques, references); sending and/or receiving lists (of products, of bibliographic references, etc.); applying for participation in events; giving general warnings or specific instructions; and so on.
On the other hand, some actions seem to be particularly restricted to specific settings. So, in business, among others, users have to submit budgets, send invoices, discuss terms of bids, describe details of equipment items, update staff hierarchical reorganization, for instance. In the academic field, submitting research papers for other scholars' reactions, sending abstracts and/or handouts of presentations, discussing theoretical viewpoints, for example, seem to be some of the differentiated actions performed.
This mentioned distinction reveals that, although using the same instrumental and semiotic tools (i.e., computers and texts, respectively), individuals are involved in achieving several goals and, then, in performing some actions that may or may not coincide. In other words, when using tools, individuals may conversely perform similar/distinct operations to accomplish similar/distinct goals. Therefore, the relationship between the use of tools and the performance of actions can be interpreted by what is labelled "individual(s)-operating-with-mediational-means" (Wertsch & Tulviste, 1992: 8). Such a consideration suggests that when using tools, individuals may appropriate their original purpose and apply it repeatedly; or, on the other hand, they may transform it somehow and, consequently, generate new practices. This is to say that "conventional" uses of tools may replicate "traditional" practices, while "innovative" uses of those same tools may create "new" ones.
It seems to be the case of individuals using computers for communicative purposes and, to some extent, it explains the level of difficulty found when one tries to identify and list the various actions performed in various CMC contexts: as a quite recent practice, the analysis of its implications is still confined to a microgenetic level (Vygotsky, 1987), and the investigation narrowed to specific moments of interaction occurring in particular cultural settings.
The explanation presented so far is not intended to be exhaustive nor conclusive. In contrast, it aims at opening a channel for debate by pointing out that various CMC contexts -although revealing certain similarities and/or discrepancies in terms of activities (motives), actions (goals) and maybe in terms of operations (routinized behaviors)-, are to some extent interconnected by the mediational role played by texts and computers, seen as tools. These mediational means may be (and I do think they have been) manipulated in various repetitive and/or creative ways.
Such a claim leads to the concept of register. This term was originally proposed by Reid (1956) to refer to a variety of a language appropriate for a particular situation. Since then, although being re- interpreted, it has preserved the original relationship between language and context as its fundamental feature.
By adopting a Hallidayan approach, register can be analyzed from two perspectives.
From the perspective of situation, it can be configured through field, tenor and mode. Field indicates the nature of social activity and can be associated with the management of ideas. Tenor accounts for the personal relations among participants in the activity, their roles and status, and the degree of social distance between them. Mode is related to the role of language in the activity, the channel and medium used for communication and, thus, it is associated with discourse management.
From a semiotic perspective, field is associated with the ideational metafunction of language through which information among members of societies is transmitted; tenor is connected to the interpersonal metafunction which establishes, maintains, and specifies relations among those members; and mode is related to the textual metafunction which provides texture and organization of discourse as relevant to the situation.
By reflecting on register from the Hallidayan viewpoint, some interesting considerations may be raised in terms of field and mode in CMC environments.
As pointed out before, CMC can be generated either by spontaneous or by compulsory reasons. These two opposed motivations may impact on the nature of social activities participants are engaged in and, then, they may constitute distinctive features that individualize, for instance, the academic from the business context. In my opinion, such connotations suggest a field subdivision, revealing the existence of a functional field (as in business), and of a non- functional field (as in academic settings).
Contemplating mode and, therefore, considering computerized messages from a discoursive perspective, it is possible to assume that CMC emphasizes the constitutive role of language (Halliday & Hasan, 1989), which may display features of written and spoken continuum, suggesting that a new hybrid kind of discourse has been emerging (Ferrara et al., 1991: 22).
The concept of register from its various perspectives and approaches, leads us to a resulting association with the notion of genre.
There has been an increasing investigation of genre in order to reach a more comprehensive definition of such a construct. Nevertheless, despite distinguishable variations, there has been a consensus which identifies genre as a goal-oriented entity, recognizable by certain structural attributes. According to some recent investigations, genre has been increasingly seen as the enactment of cultures as it is embedded in institutional affairs. For this reason, and based on Bazerman's considerations (1992:17), Swales claims that "it is perhaps time to give more attention to systems of genre" (1992:11).
In the light of such viewpoints and in the attempt at merging both of the theoretical apparatuses exploited in this paper (i.e., sociocultural theory and socio-semiotic approaches), I would conjecture that, if there are systems of genre related to communicative events and based on individuals' shared purposes, then, consequently, there would be systems of goal. Such goals would be reached through the performance of actions which, in their turn, would engender other systems, i.e., systems of action. Setting this scene, texts - as goal-oriented tools - would be also associated with these systems of action and would reveal some prototypical features, recognizable in and/or replicable to similar situations.
If this is the case, I would interpret the previously mentioned list of potential actions performed in various environments, as an inventory of potential genres manipulated by different discourse communities when under the same contextual conditions, and motivated by the same goals. In addition, I would speculate that, depending on the nature of the activity and/or on the purpose, some systems of genre tend to be more commonly employed across several settings indistinctly, while some others tend to be restricted to particular ones. In other words, I would suppose that some genres or systems of genre are of public domain, while others would be exclusively manipulated by certain specialized communities.
Regarding the mediational perspective, which accounts on computers and texts as instrumental and semiotic mediators respectively, two aspects may be pointed out. Firstly, by contemplating the relatively recent use of computers for communicative purposes, it is possible to perceive the difficulty in designing a comprehensive and totally acceptable taxonomy which includes all CMC types, and clearly delineates boundaries among them. However, the search for a taxonomy does not constitute a substantive concern for the label e-mail seems to be the more recurrently applied to identify non-real time communicative practices undertaken through computers.
Secondly, the appropriateness of recognizing texts as an adequate unit of analysis suggests that their role goes beyond the mere mediation between individuals engaged in communicative events. Much more than this, they represent a coherent bridge that connects the two exploited theoretical rationales, making them suitable and complementary. Such an association makes me assume that from a sociocultural view, texts are semiotic tools through which individuals reach their goal(s) and, ultimately, their motive(s). Complementary, from a socio-semiotic view, such texts carry out ideational, interpersonal and textual functions which reveal forms of managing information, of interacting with other individuals, and of organizing and adapting discourse according to the context, its participants and their purposes and motivations.
Considering the environmental perspective, my assumption is that different motivations generate different ways of using computers and communicating through them. However, this conjecture should be strengthened by something else than theoretical speculation, observation or intuition. For this reason, aiming at inquiring into whether this implication is really tangible, further studies should be conducted to identify to what extent spontaneous and/or compulsory reasons impact on the way of conveying messages and performing actions. In this sense, I suggest supplementary investigation on various contexts in order to better understand their nature and the nature of their participants' typical activities, and to verify whether the suggested distinction between functional and non-functional fields can be supported as stated.
Finally, from a discoursive perspective, I emphasize a close relationship between systems of action and systems of genre, possibly grounded on their conceptual goal-oriented nature. In addition, I would also suggest a comparative exploration of genres conveyed through assorted means (others than the computer itself), in order to conclude whether or to what extent the medium influences or generates new processes and/or strategies of writing and communicating.
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