I am interested on technological environments in which people can explore their identity. Therefore I chose to analyze a newsgroup that comes together around identity, more specifically, culture. And since I am from Argentina, the decision wasn't hard to make: alt.culture.argentina
Most of the exchanges in this newsgroup happen in Spanish and refer, directly or indirectly, to the Argentine culture. It could be very hard for a non-Argentinean participant to understand the jokes and the tone of the messages. Communicative competence, in this group, is mainly given by the fact of belonging to a same culture, regardless of the country of residence. Average messages are very short and often are intended to make fun of someone else's posting. There are no flames but the tone is very ironic and direct. I had a lot of fun while reading the messages because I could relate to the inside culture of the group, although I didn't know any one of the single individuals. It was like being back in Argentina ! I could imagine the gestures of the people while writing certain messages and I could also predict how certain message was going to be responded.
I reviewed messages that were posted for a week. In the following paragraphs I group the messages in personal and impersonal categories. Personal messages include enough information about the sender (age, name, situation, etc.) for the reader to form a pretty good mental model of the interlocutor. Impersonal messages might or might not include a signature but the body of the message lacks personal information.
These are some of the topics that were discussed:
- Asking help to find relatives in Argentina: those messages were generally sent in English by an "outsider" of the group who introduced him or herself by apologizing for the lack of Spanish knowledge. When a foreigner posts a message to the group he usually does it in Spanish to try to show his or her respects to the culture of the group.Typically this "help request" messages had a formal structure which included a greeting, a thank you note and a farewell with signature at the end.
- Asking to contact other Argentineans leaving in a foreign country: those messages were posted in Spanish by an "insider" of the group, an Argentine person leaving in a foreign country. I particularly identified one sender who started a long thread and received many responses. She was a young woman recently arrived to California. She wrote a long personal message (about 20 lines, which in this newsgroup is very long) telling about her situation and asking for advise, tips and signs of affection from other Argentineans in similar situation to whom she could relate to. This message received many emphatizing replays and, surpring enough, none of the replays had a joking tone or made fun of her.
- Discussing the "Patagonia issue": The thread started by someone asking why there were not that many Jewish in that southern region of Argentina. After a few exchanges, someone posted that the reason was the failure of the anti-Semitic plan "Andinia". This anti-Semitic rumor, widely spread in the country, says that the Jewish people wanted to establish the state of Israel in Patagonia. It was interesting to notice that none reacted offended to that posting (although I could easily identified, between the participants, some Jewish names). I believe that the reason of this is the tone of the newsgroup. Joking and saying offensive things without the intention to offend, are part of the implicit rules of this group .The thread continued with a discussion over the ownership of the glaciers in Patagonia( this is a long lasting conflict between Argentina and Chile) and finally concluded with several exchanges accusing and blaming Chile. This thread lasted the whole week I analyzed and evolved in many different ways however it always kept a similar tone of discussion. In general, people were writing from the tops of their heads, without thinking about political or social connotations of their message. The notion of "politically correct" does not apply to this newsgroup, as it is showed by the "nationalistic" themes in this thread.
- Random messages: most of them are in English, posted by "outsiders" and try to sell some services, especially travel services, or promote products.
Some characteristics of this particular newsgroup:
Identity: In general, writers do not start their messages with a greeting and do not always include a signature. Identity seems to be established by the mere fact of being an Argentinean participating in the group and sharing the same language. It is not easy to distinguish if the writers are currently living in Argentina or somewhere else. Location doesn't seem to be as important as cultural belonging (except in the personal messages type).
Conversation: Writers jump into the body of the message without quoting previous postings or referncing the topic. It is very hard to understand what the message is trying to respond to. This shows a lack of communicative competence regarding the text-base media. The only way to figure out to which posting the message is replaying is to look at the header and the "Re:" with the title of the previous message. Messages are very short and they rarely start a thread that continues over a long period of time (with the few exceptions that I mentioned above). I found a gradation of communicative competence. For example, one of the writers uses a very interesting way to saying farewell, by emphasizing the text-based nature of the medium. He finishes every message with " Nos leemos", which means "we will read each other".
Social Structure: I couldn't identify any differentiation of roles, except from people that would frequently participate in the conversations and other that would just post a single message. There was a clear difference between what I call the "insiders" and the "outsiders". This division does not refer to the degree of belonging to the newsgroup , but to the Argentine culture.
Social Information: Disagreement is very strongly expressed in this group and writers use misspellings and other discursive devices, such as writing the words as they sound and not as they should be written, to intentionally create an apologetic message, without directly apologizing. The following message is a very clear example of this. The italicized words are intentonal misspellings:
[pero no ojota, no te enoje. lo lindo de esto es el entrannable lazo que hay entre esto do grupo tan historicamente unidos por la desgrayia. Hay algo de sutil en todo esto, algo que da para la joda y pamplina sin la ageyion malintenyionada. saludos cordiales isidoro]
The English translation would read as follows: " The nicest thing is this affectionate relationship [intentionally misspelled] between these two groups historically linked by disgrace[intentionally misspelled]. There is something subtle in all of this, something that lends itself to jokes but without ill-intention aggression [intentionally misspelled]. Sincerely yours, Isidoro."
At some point, one the writers did a crossposting to alt.culture.spain. He received some unfriendly comments from people in his own newsgroup (alt.culture.argentina) and later send a long and careful e-mail stating why certain crosspostings should be allowed in the newsgroup. This message was the only example that I could observe of someone trying to analyze, at a meta level, the functioning of the newsgroup. This was an attempt to come up with some rules for this group which seems to be highly disorganized.