I was hanging out in two groups, alt.gothic.fashion and comp.lang.vrml. Here are some of my observations.
Judith wrote: > How is identity established...
The identity is established both explicitly and implicitly. The explicit way of establishing identity can be further diveded into two steps or layers. The first layer consists of all the self-contained pieces of information that frames the message, i.e. an email address, the name of the organization, the name of the groups the message is sent to, and the name of the sender (or a nickname). This first layer is a sort of a formal way of introducing yourself, governed by the rules of the particular medium. The second layer goes beyond the minimal structure and includes the ways in which the sender explicitly links the message to further personal information. This includes links to homepages (which has become very popular and adds a lot of personality to the message exchange), elaborate signatures and codes. This second level of introduction is often used to root yourself in the particular discussion group and thus establish an identity that is carefully sculpted. For example the goths would point you to their dark and romantically flourished pages full of dramatic pictures wheras the vrml experts would use the opportunity to show off their 3D galleries and cool research agendas. Then of course, there is the implicit identity that seeps through your message, revealing what some would call your true identity (however I am not really satisfied with that term, but won't go into that here).
> ..how do participants indicate the impression they have of each other?
People did not exhcange impressions of each other in my chosen groups. That was perhaps one of the reasons I picked them, I was getting really sick of groups like alt.activism.death-penalty or alt.alien.research where somehow the topic discussion had degraded into a hatred exchange of mutual impressions. These normally consisted of insulting comments that often tore apart a previously sent message, using it as evidence of that sender's stupidity, critisizing language use or lame wittyness. On the more balanced groups I examined, I noticed a couple of instances where people would refer to another user as a prime resource on a topic (for example by giving a pointer at their homepage) and then that other user would then post a message saying they felt honoured. In general I think try to avoid giving away personal impression, especially negative ones, if they are commited to keeping a particular group useful.
> What constitutes a "conversation" - threads...
A "conversation" starts when a person posts a message on a new topic, often introducing a question or a statement to be challanged. This posting then produces a chain of replies that finally die off. It is interesting to notice that it is impossible, especially in a non-technical group such as alt.gothic.fashion to tell whether a chain has been brought to a conclusion. For example the question "From day to day what kind of coats do you all wear?" can spin off a long branch of messages where people describe their garments, but the person starting the conversation is not responsible for concluding it (for instance by posting a message saying "yes, I see there is quite a variety of styles out there, thank you for sharing your opinions. Let's talk about make-up"). The branching nature of the newsgroups allows multiple threads to grow in parallel, so there is no need to end a topic before moving to the next. Threads seem to die off when there are no new contributions for some time. Occationally, during the course of replying to messages on a particular topic, another topic is brought up, i.e. the thread mutates into a different discussion. Often that discussion revolves around a term or some particular use of language in the first posting that somehow needed more explanation or wasn't that agreeable.
> What is the social structure of the group?
The VRML group is mostly used as a technical resource where a lot of people join (for the first time) to ask a particular question, not neccessarily with the intent to linger for long. These people tend to introduce themselves in a polite or a friendly manner ("Hello folks", "Good Day!") and then sign with warm greetings ("Thanks in advance" "best regards! John Smith"). Many even ask that replies be sent directly by email, indicating that they are not even going to wait for an answer in the group. However, those that are the most active in answering the questions do not use any introduction and rarely give an elaborate farewell. Probably because they feel they have already established a presence. Some of those people seem to spend a lot of time on the group, giving thorough answers to questions, clearly showing a lot of commitment to the discussion. As mentioned above, some reference each other perhaps both because these helpful "experts" start to know each other because of their consistent presence and also because this technical field is not that large and sports many real world conferences and meetings. The Gothic group is more complex because there is a lot of real world activity that creates localized social groups that then converse on-line among themselves as well as members of other groups. There are also many geologically isolated people (in small towns in Arizona) that hang out to feel that they are members of a group. People tend to use relaxed (if somewhat flourished gothic-style) language, similar to what you would use among your friends ("And if you've ever seen the squirrels jumping around, it's pretty damn cool!"). Some users on this list bring their current real life environment into the closing words of their posting as to indicate a continuing life outside the newsgroup, a way to make their image last ("Dammm cold in this appartment", "I really have to go blow my nose now").
There are always some problematic participants, usually in the form of arrogant people that are making fun of others to boost their own ego. That can either lead to a long flame chain, but I have also seen instances where these have simply been ignored. Sometimes someone tries to crush them right away with a really witty or an embarassing remark ("You're a bit new to be flaming. Go to the corner and eat your damned newbie treats. NOW.") There are also attempts to prevent flaming beforehand with disclamers or signatures that are not too inviting ("Don't email me, I'm not your friend"). Flaming or some problematic behavior is more likely on alt.gothic.fashion than in the VRML group, simply because of the Q&A nature of the latter as described above. However the VRML group does get a few Spams, but they are ignored.
> How is social (communicative) information conveyed? Are there discernable > gradiations of communicative competence?
Because of the asynchronus nature of this medium there is not much room for communicative signals. Turn-taking is of course manifested very explicitly in the way postings are serialized. The only variant is the inclusion of a previous message inside a reply, where the one replying can insert text at arbitrary points. Sometimes this becomes an iterative process, leading to long chains of muliple inclusions. In the groups I examined there were not many instances of brief messages containing a simple communicative signal (such as "yes"). People generally felt compelled to elaborate on their point of view if this was a matter of agreement or disagreement.
There were definately different levels of communicative competence. In the Gothic group in particular, some flourishing was common and it was clear that language proficiency and the right level of casual-ness was important to show how well people fit into the group. Newbies that were trying too hard to look sophisticated (lacking the natural relaxed tone) were quickly spotted and critisized for being immature and too desperate. The experts in the VRML group showed a certain kind of proficiency by being very efficient in their replies, i.e. they were not spending bandwidth on lengthy introductions or farewells (as described above), wheres the newbies felt they had to adhere to conventional letter standards.