3. INTERNET RELAY CHAT DISCOURSE

In the previous chapter the indications of the spoken nature of electronic communication were discussed. E-mail indeed shows features which support the notions of spoken discourse admitting of instant and uninhibited messaging. On the other hand, e-mail also admits of uninterrrupted and more thought-out, longer, verbalizations (Bordia, 1996). In that way many e-mail messages still conform to the very nature of asynchronous communication - where the interchange may be spread over several days. A message can be pre-composed in a word processor and pasted into the e-mail, which makes the e-mail into more of a monologue or a reading. Indeed e-mail often consists of short, quickly exchanged notes, but also sometimes of long elaborate messages (islands of communication) which do not require feed-back. In synchronous communication, on the other hand, messages are always short and usually require instant feed-back. The synchronous, real-time communication in Internet Relay Chat is therefore particularly amenable to comparison with face-to-face communication. Inquiring into the typed communication of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is immensely intriguing and highly time-consuming. The area of investigation is so extensive and inconstant that so far the medium is nearly unexplored in a proper scholarly manner. This means that the linguistic reality of the medium to some extent may be seen as terra incognita. Given the present author's relatively long experience of IRC, certain subjective reports may be stated. One is the impression that IRC mainly conforms to notions of spoken discourse. This chapter focuses on the ways in which spoken discourse is represented in synchronous computer-mediated communication. Some features that support notions of written discourse are mentioned as well.

The medium of IRC was invented by Jarkko Oikarinen in Finland in 1988 (Oikarinen, J.). Since it became extremely popular, IRC rapidly gained ground and is currently used in over 60 countries around the world by hundred of thousands of people. The users run a client program which connects to a server in an IRC network, much the same as in e-mail. All servers are interconnected and pass messages to all users over the IRC network. The users in IRC are fairly anonymous as they are known by nicknames only - but a user's PC can always be traced. In the IRC network, users meet on channels (rooms, virtual places, usually with a certain topic of conversation) to talk in groups, or privately. Sociolinguistically, the channels are to some extent equivalent to the real-life natural formation of conversational groups. On the other hand, the formation of a natural conversational group relies on geographical proximity. In IRC participants in a conversation are usually not in the same natural room or setting. Rather, participants are usually geographically vastly dispersed. Moreover, they often represent vastly different backgrounds. Gumpertz (1982) argues that natural conversation in modern urban societies reveals diffuse social boundaries where differing backgrounds of the speakers is the rule rather than the exception. In IRC, cultural and social diversity is even more tangible. There is no restriction to the number of people that can participate in a given discussion, or the number of channels that can be formed on IRC, and often a channel hosts users that are all from different countries.

The most widely understood and spoken language on IRC is English. Therefore most channel names (topics) are in English, as well as most IRC-software. A channel that hosts a language other than English has to indicate this in its topic. When joining a channel, users check the topic to see if there are any restrictions about language. On a non-restricted channel, users are allowed to speak a language everybody can understand and usually this is English. Some research into the use of the English language on IRC has been produced. Hock (1995) found that in IRC channels founded in countries where English is the national language or the second major language, English is the major language used by participants. He also noticed a general concentration of messages from English-speaking countries, such as the USA. This clearly reflects the unequal global distribution of access to the medium that obtained in 1995. Since then, Internet technology has become and is becoming more and more globally accessible. On the other hand, though the technology may favor English, its users are able to express their national identities through various textual practices. Nationality markers usually come through as soon as interlocutors realize their conversational partner is of the same nationality and not a native English speaker. They may switch into the common language or use it for certain expressions, such as greetings. Even among native speakers of English, nationality markers and code switching can occur. One area where native English speakers mark their identity is in various informal greetings. Hock (1995) exemplifies this by presenting the following greetings:


<Icpic> -g'day all (Australian)
<Barnsley> -cheers all! (British)
<MelGibson> -hiya kara!!! (US)

(Hock, 1995:30-34)

Interactants on an IRC channel usually, but not always, mark their entrance by an informal greeting. Depending on its topic and time of the day a channel can be very crowded. Channels can be quite chaotic, or calm. Channels can be open to everyone (thousands of channels are) but also closed and private and only open to friends. Channels on IRC are dynamic in the sense that anyone can create a new channel, and a channel disappears when the last person on it leaves. Just as in a real-life conversation with many people, it is not necessary to greet everybody on a channel personally. Accordingly, one "Hello!" or an equivalent is enough. Also, users do not expect everybody to greet them back. "On a channel with 20 people that would mean one screenful of hellos" (Pioch, 1993) - which would be rude to everyone on the channel. The same applies to goodbyes. After all, IRC talk is presented as text and text takes up space - a feature peculiar to written communication. In the example below (Figure 2) Vickim joins the channel #coffeeshop. Her entrance is noticed before her greeting and Jodada says "hi vivkim". Vickim's greeting is "Hi all" and some of the channel participants greet her, but not all.

In IRC, as in other CMC, certain netiquette has become commonsense. In some compilations, the rules of proper IRC conduct are called chatiquette (CNET, Inc., 1995-1997). Some of these rules reveal the typically spoken nature of the communication; suggesting chatters behave as they would in any normal real-life conversation. Chatiquette, as well as netiquette, usually consists of witty, but vague, regulations that encourage 'friendly' behavior and discourage 'harassing' and 'annoying' statements and actions. At best, chatiquette reminds users that people on IRC form their opinions about others on the channel only by their actions, writings and comments. In other words, to put it linguistically, IRC does not convey all the extra-linguistic and social cues that normal conversation does, and users need to be aware of this. By using certain commands, users can beep the channel or tell the others about their actions, but no other audible or visible means are at hand. In regular IRC all that is presented is the "spoken" text (apart from beeps). "Think before you type" is a common advice in chatiquette. "If you use offensive words, you will be frowned upon" (Pioch, 1993). Users are discouraged to dump (send large amounts of unwanted information) to a channel or user. Dumping is likely to get a user kicked off the channel by the channel operator or killed off from IRC altogether. Dumping causes network burps, causing connections to go down because servers cannot handle the large amount of traffic. In other words, IRC is meant for short, interactive contributions to a common topic, and not for long, thought-out verbalizations.

1 *** Vickim (vmcghee@p9-m1-ne1.dialup.xtra.co.nz)
has joined #1coffeeshop
<Jodada> ok 4 feet would be enough
<Jodada> hi vivkim
5 <Vickim> Hi all
<BumbleB> hiya vick
<Jodada> vickim i mean
<Merlin^> okay, you can have mine too
<Merlin^> hiya vickim
10 * Jodada is wavin' at YOU~~~ -=< hvnfire2.wav >=- 302062 bytes
<Vickim> 4,4 Hi Kane & Sandi!
<Vickim> 0,4 Hi Kane & Sandi 1,1!
<Vickim> 4,4 Hi Kane & Sandi 1,1!
<Vickim> 0,0 1,1 Hi Kane & Sandi!
15 <Sandi5918> hey vickim
* Jodada is wavin' at YOU~~~ -=< foghorn.wav >=- 61578 bytes
<dark_dante> 1,4um...
<]{ane> Vickie!!!!!!!!!
<]{ane> How are you ?
20 <Jodada> 12,1~ 8` 4; 13. 11~ 12` 8* 4` 13; 11.
1 16,1 -=< Heaven V3.0 1997 by Angelfire >
<Jodada> 12,1~ 8` 4; 13. 11~ 12` 8* 4` 13; 12,1http://www.xtdl.
com/~roseptl/heaven/heaven.html 13,1.; 4
<Vickim> Long time huh?
25 <Jodada> arg
* Jodada is flippin
<Jodada> i think i need a new mirc allready
<Jodada> lol
* Jodada looks for another
30 <Merlin^> go for it Joda
<]{ane> Yeah it has been!
<Vickim>I'm great- great Xmas & I turned 40 on Boxing Day-what a party!
* Jodada is wavin' at YOU~~~ -=< warning.wav >=- 37386 bytes
<Jodada> Merlin^ is a lamer :)
35 <Jodada> lol
*** WinKey (~-@208.155.204.104) has joined #1coffeeshop
  ...
 
<dark_dante> go to bed
<dark_dante> RIGHT NOW YOUNG MAN!
<Jodada> can't do it
115 <Jodada> since i live alone i feel that i can be my own parent now
thank you very much
<Jodada> nice try tho lol
<BumbleB> lol
<Focalplane> lol
120 <Vickim> I'm off to watch a movie- see you all again
<dark_dante> hehehe
* Vickim waves goodbye
<Jodada> vickim
<Focalplane> nite vick
125 <WinKey> bye bye Vickim
<BumbleB> night vick


Figure 2. Sample IRC conversation (Some text replaced with ... to save space) The full conversation is found in Appendix 3, sample 1.

In IRC discourse, people are free to experiment with different forms of communication and self-representation. In the example above Vickim, Jodada, Bumble B, Merlin^, Sandi5918, dark_dante, ]{ane and WinKey interact. Their nicknames are within angle brackets and what they say is presented right next to their name. The excerpt presents the discourse from the point where Vickim enters until she leaves. In their research on interaction management Rintel and Pittam (1997) say the openings and closings of public IRC interactions, as well as natural interactions, are particularly important to the establishment and maintenance of interpersonal relationships. Their research analyzes language from ten logs of IRC interaction on two channels and their findings suggest that IRC has functions that resemble FTF communication to a great extent. The opening phase of FTF interactions is greatly effected through nonverbal behavior, such as cues conveying social status, age, gender, health and mood. In IRC, however, nonverbal behavior as such is not possible. On the other hand, the orthographic nature of IRC allows for a number of linguistic strategies that convey nonverbal behavior. One is the choice of name a user has. A person's nickname becomes highly significant in the construction of IRC persona and for perceptions about other interactants. The 'right' choice of name is the first impression-making device a user has. Even though a nickname (nick) can be changed any time on the user's own initiative, some users keep their nick for a longer time than one chat session. This means that regular participants of a certain channel may recognize each other (see for instance lines 11-15 in figure 2). When joining a channel one is presented with a list of all participants. Some of them are active and their discourse is displayed. Others are passive participants that lurk in the background. Lurking for a long time in a channel may be perceived as rude behavior in IRC, much the same as eavesdropping in real-life conversation is considered impolite.

When users interact on IRC, their syntactic and semantic choices make up almost the entirety of their interaction. IRC conversation between mutually acquainted experienced users bristles with orthographic analogies to nonverbal behavior and spoken discourse. Frequent use of smilies, or emoticons, is one analogy to spoken discourse (line 34 in figure 2). Another is to develop a distinct writing style. (On the other hand distinct writing styles are identifying features in casual letters as well). In IRC the most important feature of any writing style is that it must be fast. To keep up with the sometimes frenetic pace of multiple interactions, the typing must be a nearly automated process. Occasionally, the pace of the electronic discourse in IRC literally corresponds to the speed of spoken language. Typed words, however, take longer to decode than spoken words and IRC interlocutors use certain strategies to compensate for this. Certain abbreviations and acronyms are common in the discourse. The interlocution featured in figure 2 is a particularly elated one, judging from the frequent appearance of the abbreviation lol, which stands for laughing out loud. Certain abbreviations and acronyms have become conventionalized in IRC in that all users recognize and frequently use them. LOL (or lol) is often encountered, and so is BRB (be right back), CU (see you), CUL8R (see you later), M/F (male or female?), ROTFL (rolling on the floor laughing), U2 (you too) and BTW (by the way). A comprehensive list of the most common abbreviations and acronyms is found in Appendix 4.

Other means that speed up the IRC conversation, making it emulate normal speech rate, are personalized tropes and schemes for greeting or bidding goodbye. Some IRC software may be personally preset with a number of different scripts, signatures and messages of which the user has disposal at his/her discretion. Often these messages consist of applied graphics, some very artistic, that convey a certain mood or help convey the tone of a person's other messages (see Appendix 3, sample 2, line 3-5 for an example). By typing a certain command followed by an action one can convey a third person statement that indicates one's current actions or thoughts. In figure 2 action lines are found in line 10, 16, 26, 29, 33 and 122. By far the most common action lines are * nick takes a coke and, originally enough, equivalents of * nick slaps nick1 around with a large trout. Action lines often reveal the pubescent atmosphere prevalent in certain channels, but they also convey the high level of informality that obtains in most channels. IRC interaction is indeed colloquial language in conversational style.

Newbies to IRC often use rigid grammar in their typing - their sentences have initial capitals and end with full stops, personal names have initial capitals, and all their spelling is immaculate. Apparently orthographic conventions acquired over years of schooling are difficult to discard. With increasing experience, however, most users adapt their language to the medium of IRC. Experienced users of IRC, tacitly and yet out of obvious necessity, have developed a particular style that acts much like nonverbal behavior while at the same time increasing the speed of delivery. The grammar and punctuation in IRC messages created by experienced users represent a standard that is at once very quick to type and readily identifiable to new users. Lower-case letters are an evident feature, as is abbreviation. Rintel and Pittam note that there is one major guideline for the creation of abbreviations - "use the shortest, easiest-to-type, 'phonetic' equivalent of a word" (1997:524). This leads to contractions based on slang speech patterns such as "lo!" for "Hello!" and "sup?" or "Wassup?" for "What's up?" (see figure 2, line 124, for another). It also leads to single letters representing whole words, such as "how r u" for "How are you?". Frequent use of expressions like these clearly indicates a user's long experience of the medium.

Experience is a determinant factor not only for individual users' communication strategies. Studies of CMC over time reveal that experience is a determinant factor also for how interactive CMC is perceived by scholars in the field of sociolinguistics. In early studies of CMC (such as Kiesler, Seigel and McGuire, 1984) it is argued that text-only CMC systems filter out most social-context cues and that this leads to impersonal interaction. Later work, on the other hand, acknowledges that, given sufficient time, users adapt their communication strategies to available communication channels. Scholars in the 1990's, therefore, can report that IRC readily resembles socially rich oral chat, despite its orthographic nature. As early as 1991, for instance, Reid suggests that interactive CMC systems can satisfy interpersonal needs and support socioemotional content (Reid, 1991). Further, December (1993) suggests that IRC exhibits characteristics of oral discourse in that it allows for explicit and empathetic sociability and rapidity. In 1997, Rintel and Pittam conclude that IRC, though it has characteristics in common with several oral media such as casual telephone conversation and written media such as casual letters, is closest in analogy to casual group FTF interaction (1997:509). All in all, this suggests that with increasing experience and as time passes, CMC media develop towards a more comfortable linguistic form, rather than away from it. The technology itself, with increasingly intuitive and user-friendly software, contributes to making the medium of IRC suit humans, rather than the other way around.

Yet, IRC is computer-mediated communication and as such it allows for computer-specific typically written information to be transmitted. Some of this information, scripts and bots for instance, is of a kind that could never occur in other "oral" environments. Scripts are pre-written (or rather programmed) features that occur frequently in IRC. They are created locally by a user and may be distributed once the user is on a channel. Usually scripts, as mentioned earlier, help up the conversation or add a certain friendly nonverbal dimension to it. Bots (short for robots) are another kind of preprogrammed information, mainly programs, that may be run on a channel from an individual user's computer. Some bots are friendly like the regular scripts and do good work as file- or info-servers or even entertain users with funny or brainteasing games (Mardam-Bey, 1995). Other bots, however, are vicious and intentionally sadistic. A vicious bot can appear, for instance, as a flood of nonsense text that covers your chat client (computer screen) for several minutes and blocks all other communication. Bots were originally designed to "protect" channels from takeovers (a certain hierachy of channel-operators normally applies) and as such they were intended to serve IRC users. Users brushed aside by such bots, however, subsequently developed the vicious bots with the intention of disturbing or destroying ongoing communication. Unfortunately, the emergence of bots is inescapable in a medium that encourages development by means of experiments. On the other hand, the medium itself would have been impossible if it had not been for one experimentally motivated user of the Internet in 1988 (Oikarinen, J.).

As IRC is subject to continuous development, many improvements of the medium are made every year. Advancement in computer technology continually makes the medium more accessible and affordable, and speeds up and facilitates the transmission of information. Most importantly, however, a development of diverse IRC software has come about that displays a concern with the transmission of the very discourse itself. Over the years of IRC's short history, users and researchers have recognized the importance of adapting the new technology to the dynamics of group and personal interaction. This has led software creators to design CMC systems that not only encourage more people to participate in computer communication but enable participants to sustain reciprocal interaction. Several of today's IRC clients, contrary to their predecessors, have a graphic-based interface that provides a normative structure which greatly facilitates sustained group interaction (Ahern, 1994:247). Certain software recognizes users' desire to speak personally with each other and other software integrates the discourse in a virtual, three-dimensional environment. The main challenge for software creators has been to add personal and extra-linguistic features to the linguistic text-based communication. Chat clients of today display an increasing number of functions that convey nonverbal behavior and environments that are designed to emulate natural conversational situations.

IRC channels in early IRC clients are public by default - anyone can notice a public channel, see its users and join the conversation. By certain commands and configurations private and secret channels can indeed be created, but user modes can be set to "invisible", making users hard to trace. Therefore, early IRC clients must be said to encourage anonymity and, to some extent, impersonality. To remedy this, computer scientists have been concerned with the development of software that allows users to interact more personally. One of the most popular chat clients today, ICQ (read I seek you), features the results of their efforts. As the name indicates, ICQ enables the location of individuals on the Internet; in other words, the program indicates when friends or associates are online. Integrated in the program are functions that, among other things, enable personal chatting. A conversation in ICQ resembles to a great extent a telephone call in that it is deliberately initiated by previously acquainted users. Therefore, ICQ conversation is more personal and goal-oriented than regular IRC conversation. ICQ, unlike regular IRC, also makes it possible for users to speak at the same time. The flow of text is immediate - each typed grapheme immediately appears on the interlocutor's screen. The ability to speak at the same time speeds up the conversation tangibly compared to regular IRC. A matter of peculiar interest is that in ICQ speaking at the same time is not impolite or annoying, as in real-life conversation. Rather it is occasionally desirable in order to speed up the conversation. A subjective remark regarding ICQ conversation is that it tends to entail less use of emoticons than regular chat. Possibly previously acquainted interlocutors are not afraid their orthographic messages will be misinterpreted, since they are already familiar with each other's personalities. On the other hand, abbreviations are more frequent - previously acquainted users more rapidly begin to share the norm of abbreviation-creation. A conversation in ICQ is normally carried out between two or three users and each user has a number of synchronous functions at hand in addition to chatting. One of these, file transfer, is particularly interesting since it brings an evidently non-verbal dimension to the chat. By transferring files (or URLs, Uniform Resource Locators) to each other, users can view the same documents at the same time, in other words they can share the same virtual space. When users share the same virtual space and chat about what they see, they sense a peculiar proximity which bridges the geographic distance between them.

Another group of software for Internet relay chat that takes advantage of users' very desire to share a virtual space is avatar chat. Avatar chat is often called virtual reality (VR) chat, since conversations take place in a shared virtual environment - a spatial metaphor and an architechtural motif. Each user is represented by an avatar (a cartoon character, a photo or other image) and the environment in which communication takes place is a programmed space that resembles environments well-known to people - based on reality or science fiction. Channels become rooms, countries or worlds. The communication is typed texts, but users also navigate their avatar around the virtual space with their mouse. They can build property and homestead in the avatar world (cyberspace) and visit their neighbors or any public building or park. The typed messages usually appear in bubbles over the characters' heads and some means of conveying extra-linguistic expressions are at hand - avatar chat usually offers limited animation tools, so avatars can express emotions or move their arms, wave or look angry, for instance. Though avatar chat software is still in its infancy (only a few years old), it has already added an important dimension to CMC which has not been realized before. Primarily, it facilitates the formation of conversational groups because the avatars can virtually walk up close to whoever they want to talk to. A quick survey of the virtual space informs the avatar of what groups are chatting, who is yet standing alone and who is desirable as a conversational partner. Chatters can dress their avatars as they want to, change their hair color or even change their sex and thus convey cues to whatever purpose they have in mind. The conversations therefore also tend to be more context-oriented than regular chat. When users are provided with nonverbal cues, the content of their conversation often focuses on those cues. Some avatars are of course fantasy images of the actual persons behind them, but some look virtually the same as the real persons. Avatar chat is an extension of the entirely text-based virtual realities called MUDs (multiple user domains). MUDs have a much longer history, as they were among the first CMC media to appear and, consequently, some research has been carried out into the pragmatics of MUDs. Some findings of MUD research may, however, be said to apply to avatar chat as well. One is the complex tie between the real and virtual identities and the concentration of chatters who use their avatar to idealize their appearance and social identity (Jacobson, 1996:468). Some chatters take on an entirely fictional personality as they enter their avatar, while others remain the same as in real life.

Each of the different manifestations of Internet Relay Chat displays different features. Taken as a whole, IRC is a highly interactive means of text-based 'oral' communication. Software for IRC ranges over a scale from the entirely text-based, comparable to CB radio, to the personal, comparable to the telephone, and the virtual reality kinds which intentionally emulate real-life situations. Reid (1991,1993) argues that interaction on IRC involves a deconstruction of traditional assumptions about the dynamics of communication and a construction of alternative systems. Analogies can indeed be drawn between IRC and natural spoken discourse in that IRC fosters casual chat, in that all users are present at the same time, messages are not saved (normally), and they are usually answered with little time delay. Analogies can also be drawn between IRC and written discourse in that it allows for scripts and bots to be transmitted, personalized tropes and signatures may contain graphic effects and personal writing styles may reveal a person's character and experience with the medium. Most importantly, however, IRC displays new forms of communicative practice which conform to neither oral nor literate behavior. Chatting in virtual realities where users are free to experiment with identities and self-representation is, after all, not chatting in real life in the full sense of the word. Text-based IRC may, in the future, prove to have been a brief passage between stages of radical development in human discourse itself. We know so far that IRC, and other CMC, challenge our assumptions about the socially defined differences and boundaries between written and spoken English. Perhaps, reading and writing practices in the future will display entirely new structures in response to ever more complex and dynamic developments in communication technology.

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