With the Internet becoming ubiquitous in contemporary western world cultures, questions about how computer-mediated communication (CMC) affects people's lives arise. As with any immersion into a novel culture it takes some time for the uninitiated to begin to feel at home in "cybersociety" (Jones, 1995:1). Experienced participants in CMC claim that e-mail, newsgroups, Internet Relay Chat, Multiple Users Domains, the World Wide Web and other CMC devices radically reconfigure patterns of social interaction. Some go so far as to assert that CMC will revolutionize social life and liberate it from the principles and processes that shape offline relationships. Others express fears of the potential effects of the new communication technologies saying "cyberporn" and violent propaganda will poison the use of CMC. No matter what our current perceptions or future predictions of the medium may be, the fact of the matter remains that CMC is here to stay, and our analytical exploration of this rapidly changing world has only just begun.
To be able to look beyond the neologisms and complexity of information technology, it may be fruitful to put the electronic age into a historical perspective. The advent of the computer as a medium for human communication is indeed revolutionary. On the other hand, the computer is only one of the many extensions of human modes of communication that have taken place in history and as such it may be regarded as a natural part of the evolution. All sudden extensions in modes of communication have had a powerful determining effect on the course of history. George McMurdo (1995) in his article on the changing contexts of communication takes a retrospective view of characteristic communication features in the cultures preceding the Electronic, namely the Oral, Written and Print Cultures. The cultures are not to be thought of as solely chronological, mutually exclusive, historical periods, since oral cultures for instance still exist in vast parts of the world. Even so, in the eyes of the contemporary western world citizen these cultures happen to coincide with sequential history.
All developing societies, says McMurdo (1995), have passed through the phase when the Oral culture was the only mode of communication. During this phase the storage, transmission and dissemination of linguistic information occurred face-to-face and the se nse of social space was defined by range of collective "earshot". In this preliterate society, existing ways of doing things were not questioned and since there were no written records to refer to, myth, history and social reality merged into one. Politi cal power in the oral culture rested on verbal fluency and retentive memory and thus the socially influential individuals were often poets, bards and balladeers. Most striking of all, there were no facts in oral cultures. The absence of facts is not easy to grasp in a literate world where we rely on recognized facts easily found in reference books. The very etymology of the word fact, "things made or constructed", tells us its use emerged in a later era. In the oral society, knowledge was stored in the corporate memory of its citizens. It was when the need to store this knowledge elsewhere was recognized that the written culture emerged.
In the Written culture, personal distant communication became feasible instead of face-to-face communication. With the invention of writing, lengthy and complex orders or instructions could be conveyed over a distance, creating a detachment between speaker and audience. Whether in hieroglyphics on papyrus or in present day letters, the written word remained constant over years, decades and centuries. Prevalent myths could at once be regarded as objective history. The permanence over time also entailed the emergence of records accumulating information such as laws and religious regulations. Formal documents incorporated communities into states and states into empires. Written communication, to this day, sacrifices the richness of face-to-face communicatio n - a fact that will be thoroughly examined in later chapters of this essay. Nevertheless, the significance of writing in the scheme of things cannot be understated. Writing enabled systematic scholarship in human affairs and laid the foundations of teach ing and learning in European educational institutions.
In the mid-fifteenth century the workload of the scribes dramatically diminished as printing was invented. With the emergence of the Print culture, the written word could reach an even greater audience. Printing therefore essentially magnified the consequ ences of writing. The greater availability of readable information slowly but steadily caused an increase in literacy. Written documents had previously mainly been theological works and chronicles - now the printed books began to disseminate scientific sp eculation as well. Printing and large-scale production of books created the notion of authorship as we know it today. Linguistically printing had a standardizing effect. Spelling and vocabulary changed more slowly and languages became more consistent in t heir usages. Printing also had a preserving effect on ideas. More than anything, however, print had the effect of dissociating age from wisdom - a feature we often ascribe to the information technology of today. As knowledge could be picked up from a book , the young could by diligent study acquire the same knowledge as the previously so respected old had gained in a lifetime. In many respects, the age of unquestioned authority was over.
The advent of the Electronic culture in the middle of the twentieth century marked a new era in human communication. Radio and television - the initial mass analog electronic media - and telecommunications such as the telephone and the fax machine signifi cantly contributed to changes in social, economic, cultural and political life. All of these media, however, lie outside the scope of this essay. Humbly enough, the initial tentative usage of computer-mediated communication was restricted to seven-bit low er ASCII characters. Nevertheless, when the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) officials in the late 60's managed to enable communication between computers in geographically dispersed areas an unprecedented new kind of interactive mass co mmunication was about to begin. Later, with the development of client-server protocols, and the ARPANET turning into the Internet, we experienced a rapid increase in the versatility of information formats presented. Today the Internet is the communication channel for millions of connected computers and their users, transferring pictures, animations, sounds, documents, videoclips, computer software and any other conceivable computer-retrievable information. Along with the increasingly user-friendly interfa ces, the number of Internet-users has exploded (Heller, 1997). Estimating the number of users is difficult due to the constant expansion, but a reasonable estimation is that the Internet currently hosts communication between 100 million people and that by the year 2000 the number will have nearly doubled. Essentially, however, the Internet, although a network in name and geography, is a creature of the personal computer. At the end of the day what is presented and transferred via the Internet is human inf ormation - created and retrieved by individuals or groups of individuals by their computers.
The core motivation for human communication has remained constant throughout history - what has changed is the context and the media for our transfer of information. Given this insight, we can more accurately begin to examine the linguistic components of computer-mediated communication. How are computer-mediated messages realized and how is linguistic communication carried out? Computer-mediated language is for the most part written text and the dominant language is English (Goodman and Graddol, 1996). Th e Internet does support communication in languages other than English, but the technology itself is unfriendly towards non-roman scripts. The dominance of English often remains undisputed simply because of the sheer number of Anglophone users and the fact that most communication software is invented and produced in English-speaking communities. The fact that the USA has dominated computer and software development means that the entire discourse of computing and computer science is based on American Englis h. Most technical terms for computing, both formal and informal, derive from American English as well as most of the world's programming languages and operating systems. Even British writers use American spellings for some computer terminology - for instance a computer program is spelled the American way in British English, while a TV programme is not (Goodman and Graddol, 1996).
The subject of this essay is the way people communicate over the Internet. Different modes of Internet communication provide different rates of interactivity. Some of the services provided in the global communication network are intended to enable instant , interactive sharing of ideas and information (communication services). These include services such as electronic mail (e-mail), Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and Multiple User Domains (MUDs). Others are primarily intended to facilitate the storage and retri eval of information (information services). These include services such as file transfer, newsgroups, gopher-servers and the World Wide Web, though the latter is becoming increasingly interactive. The Internet continuously provides new dimensions for comm unication which further expand the limits of the medium. In recent years, services like Internet telephony and interactive videoconference have gained ground, providing users with oral, aural and visual communication means. Telephony and video-based Inter net services are, however, still experiencing labor pains and are not yet commonly used. The scope of this essay is to examine the text-based communication ubiquitous in our communication of today. In my linguistic investigation of Internet communication, its "electronic discourse", I will focus on the most interactive text-based communication services of the Internet - electronic mail and Internet Relay Chat. These services hold the historical advantage of being among the first on the arena of the global network and the current value of being the most prevalent and appreciated.
Text-based Internet communication does not display the characteristics of traditional print genres. Instead, it often shows the spontaneity and informality of spoken, rather than written, language. Bordia (1996:150) briefly summarizes comparisons between CMC and face-to-face communication concluding that computer-mediated communication indeed is "a combination of written and oral styles of communication". This hybrid nature makes CMC unique in the history of linguistics and an enthralling source for disco urse analysis. Communication services on the Internet serve to substitute writing for spoken conversation. They extend the domain of writing to cover areas of communication that previously were limited to face-to-face interactions, mail and the telephone. Also, they allow for inexpensive communication between vastly dispersed parts of the world and parts of society, leading to changed social relationships, social groupings and to altered perceptions of time and space. The communication may be asynchronous , as in e-mail, linking participants at times of their own choice or it may be synchronous - in "real time" - as in IRC and MUDs. In the latter instance, the identity and agency of participants (characters) in the communication are often opaque. Real-life names are rarely used - instead participants use aliases for their characters. Furthermore, the characters may choose to speak as imaginary characters instead of in their real voices.
The present essay discusses two of the mentioned text-based CMC media, giving a more detailed discussion of their features and the nature of their transferred electronic discourse. Chapter two deals with e-mail and chapter three takes up Internet Relay Ch at. Concurrently, parallels are drawn between the electronic discourse and traditional notions of what constitutes written and oral communication respectively. The essay approaches the media from an essentially sociolinguistic point of view, aiming at ren dering an introduction to new terminology (neologisms) and the nature of the linguistic interaction in "cybersociety". Examples from authentic communication are analyzed as well as compilations of frequent terms encountered by the present writer over the years of her experience in computer-mediated communication. All along, reference to documented scientific research in the field is made. Most of the reference material is articles, since not many books on the subject have yet been written. In the discussi on of discourse, reference is mainly made to recently published linguistic works, which consider electronic texts, such as Goodman and Graddol (1996) Redesigning English - new texts, new identities and Rintel and Pittam (1997) Strangers in a Strange Land. Any reader uninitiated in the field of computer-mediated communication is recommended to read December (1996) Units of Analysis for Internet Communication. December vigorously presents the framework of background knowledge upon which this study of Internet communication relies. The consulted on-line sources and databases are stated in the bibliography as well as all consulted books, abstracts and articles.