To appear in the Handbook of Discourse Analysis, edited by Deborah Tannen, Deborah Schiffrin, and Heidi Hamilton. Oxford: Blackwell.
Susan C. Herring
Computer-mediated discourse is the communication produced when human beings interact with one another by transmitting messages via networked computers. The study of computer-mediated discourse (henceforth CMD) is a specialization within the broader interdisciplinary study of computer-mediated communication (CMC), distinguished by its focus on language and language use in computer networked environments, and by its use of methods of discourse analysis to address that focus. Most CMC currently in use is text-based, that is, messages are typed on a computer keyboard and read as text on a computer screen, typically by a person or persons at a different location from the message sender. Text-based CMC takes a variety of forms (e.g., e-mail, discussion groups, real-time chat, virtual reality role-playing games) whose linguistic properties vary depending on the kind of messaging system used and the social and cultural context embedding particular instances of use. However, all such forms have in common that the activity that takes place through them is constituted primarily -- in many cases, exclusively -- by visually-presented language. These characteristics of the medium have important consequences for understanding the nature of computer-mediated language. They also provide a unique environment, free from competing influences from other channels of communication and from physical context, in which to study verbal 1 interaction and the relationship between discourse and social practice.
1.2 A brief history of CMD research
Human-to-human communication via computer networks, or interactive networking, is a recent phenomenon. Originally designed in the United States in the late 1960's to facilitate the transfer of computer programs and data between remote computers in the interests of national defense (Levy, 1984; Rheingold, 1993), computer networks caught on almost immediately as a means of interpersonal communication, first among computer scientists in the early 1970's (Hafner & Lyon, 1996), then among academic and business users in elite universities and organizations in the 1980's, and from there into popular use -- facilitated by the rise of commercial Internet service providers -- in the 1990's. The first wide-area network, the U.S. defense department sponsored ARPANET, was replaced in the early 1980's by the global network Internet, which as of January 1999 comprised more than 58,000 networks supporting an estimated 150 million users (Petrazzini & Kibati, 1999). The study of computer-mediated discourse developed alongside of interactive networking itself, as scholars became exposed to and intrigued by communication in the new medium. As early as 1984, linguist Naomi Baron published an article speculating on the effects of "computer-mediated communication as a force in language change". The first detailed descriptions of computer-mediated discourse soon followed, with Denise Murray's
(1985) research on a real-time messaging system at IBM, and Kerstin Severinson Eklundh's (1986) study of the Swedish COM conferencing system. However, it was not until 1991, with the publication of Kathleen Ferrara, Hans Brunner, and Greg Whittemore's "Interactive Written Discourse as an emergent genre", that linguists and language scholars began to take serious notice of CMD. The immediately following years saw the rise of a wave of CMD researchers,2 working independently on what has since emerged as a more or less coherent agenda: the empirical description of computer-mediated language and 3 varieties of computer-mediated discourse. Since the mid-1990's, CMD research has continued to expand at a rapid rate, staking out new areas of inquiry and resulting in an ever-growing list of published resources. In part, the first wave...
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