Review of Email Hoaxes (also available in the LinguistList Reviews archive)
Reviewer: Marina Santini
AUTHOR: Heyd, Theresa
TITLE: Email Hoaxes
SUBTITLE: Form, Function, Genre Ecology
SERIES: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 174
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
The book is based on the thesis submitted by the author, Theresa Heyd, for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf in April 2007. It is a genre study of a computer-mediated text type, the email hoax (EH), in which the author investigates a corpus of EHs in order to assess whether a status of genre can be given to this discourse form. This research question leads to the definition of a framework for the linguistic analysis of genre in general.
The book contains seven chapters, an appendix, a table of contents and an index. Number of pages: 239.
Chapter 1, “Introduction,” is the introduction to the volume. EHs are defined as “a typical case of deceptive computer-mediated communication” (p. 1). EHs are false messages spread electronically via the forward function of email programs. The author’s general perspective on EHs is a pragmatic one, combining an internal discourse analytic view with a broader analysis of the communicative purpose of EHs.
Chapter 2, “Introducing the data,” is divided into a ‘prima facie’ analysis (i.e. a traditional component analysis) and the description of the EH corpus used in the study. The prima facie analysis is based on features subsuming the following attributes: channel, communicant identity, and message scope/makeup (see Table 1, p. 24). This analysis shows that EHs have unique feature patterns that distinguish them from other forms of deceptive computer-mediated communication. In summary, EHs are: 1) asynchronous 1-to-n messages transmitted via email, 2) communicated from individuated senders to a number of receivers within their social network (i.e. the sender is clearly identifiable by the receivers; additionally sender and receivers must know each other), 3) containing false information, together with directives for dissemination (see p. 24). EHs are then a discourse form with specific features, which are different from those in similar genres, such as Nigeria mails, spam or phishing emails. The identification of those specific features has guided the selection of documents included in the corpus used in the study. The corpus of 147 EHs is based on a content-based typology, namely virus hoaxes (31.3%), giveaway hoaxes (27.1%), charity hoaxes (28.6%), urban legends (8.9%), and hoaxed hoaxes (4.1%). The distribution of the different types is claimed to be representational of the actual distribution of EH in the real world. There is no explicit statement of the language of the documents in the corpus. Since all the examples are in English, the reader assumes that the corpus is made of EHs in English.
The other chapters analyse different aspects of EHs, namely “microlinguistic”
elements, chronological span, pragmatics, and narrativity.
Chapter 3, “Formal aspects of EHs: A microlinguistic analysis,” presents the descriptive breakdown of EHs. The term “microlinguistic” refers to “isolatable chunks of discourse” (p. 39) in terms of general/paraverbal aspects of form, analysis of structure, lexico-grammatical properties and discourse phenomena at the sentence level. First, some discourse features are analysed, i.e. message format and length; typography; spoken/written variation; vocativity; proper names and place names. Then, structural elements are broken down into smaller units, i.e. subject lines, and elements of the message body, such as greetings, user comments and closings. The author argues that EHs have definable functional motivations, e.g. the core messages – i.e. the actual textual matter of EHs (p. 64) – are strongly persuasive. The central property of EHs is, however, the duality between core and framework messages (Figure 4 p. 69 is very informative in this respect). This duality is the basis for the further analysis carried out in Chapter 5.
Chapter 4, “The dynamics of EH transmission: Chronological aspects,” deals with the formation and life cycle of EHs. More specifically, in this chapter the author analyses the EHs transmission patterns and the message “archaeology” (p. 81), i.e. its textual variation and change. The transmission of EHs is started by an originator. By bringing the message into circulation a first generation of receivers is created. All participants in the communication chain after the originator fulfil a double role, since they are receivers and simultaneously potential senders (Figure 5 p. 80 shows a schematic outline of communication processes in the EH life cycle up to the third generation). The chronology of texts (or “message archaeology” in Heyd’s terms) is based on the observation that the texts of EHs tend to undergo changes over time, i.e. an existing EH becomes the textual basis for a new variant. When this happens, the receiver becomes in turn the originator of a new communication chain. The chronological approach discribed in this chapter is grounded in two traditions of text analysis, namely philology and ethnography. The philological approach aims at a faithful reconstruction of the text. The ethnographic perspective is centred on the observation of genuine cases of EHs in their original environment. Three cases are analysed, namely the ‘Jessica Mydek’ charity EH, the ‘Internet flower/a virtual card for you’ virus EH and the ‘Microsoft Beta’ giveaway EH. The three case studies show that the chronological factor – i.e. the changes that accumulate in an EH during its circulation – plays a central role in the textual shape of EHs. Additionally, it is shown that the changes occur at virtually every textual level (e.g. message extensions, signatures, and lexico-grammatical modification). The author’s conclusion is that EHs are textual forms belonging to digital folklore, or ‘netlore’ (p. 127), a new form of folklore. Similar to traditional folklore, digital folklore is characterized by multiple existence (i.e. a text exists in at least two places simultaneously) and variation (i.e. small-scale differences can be noticed among existing texts). However, multiple existence and variation apply to digital texts and their technicalities, such as emails and the email ‘Forward’ option (see p. 208), and not to paper documents, like in traditional folklore. Chapter 5, “The pragmatics of EHs,” focuses on the theoretical modelling of pragmatic processes in EHs. Leveraging on Grice’s cooperation principles (p. 129-134), this chapter explains the “pragmatic duality” (p. 153) that characterizes EHs and sketches a model of hoaxing as a complex speech act. This theoretical analysis is complemented by the analysis of metadiscursive comments made about EHs by users who participate in the chain of communication. The presentation of textual evidence shows how pragmatic duality pervades the discourse phenomenon of email hoaxing at every level of its life cycle. The duality refers to the ambivalence between sincerity and deception in various discursive aspects of EHs: readers can forward EHs because they sincerely believe the message, or, conversely, warn their addressees and, eventually, they can even engage in metadiscursive negotiations which get back to the sender. The author’s conclusion is that this ambivalence lies at the core of EHs as a genre.
Chapter 6, “Narrativity in EH,” concentrates on narrativity in EHs. The chapter describes current theories of narrativity and closely examines narrative structures as they occur in the EH corpus. Narrativity is seen as a fundamental characteristic of human discourse. Heyd summarizes some recent theories where narrativity is seen, for example, as an “intriguing link between biological necessity and rhetorical structure” (p. 157). However, the analysis of narrativity in EHs is mainly based on the three narrative features of the Labovian model (Labov 1972), i.e. temporal structuring, tellability (a.k.a. reportability of a story) and the existence of a narrative persona. The presence of a narrative persona is the most frequent narrativity feature in the EH corpus. By contrast, tellability is the least frequent of the three features, and the only one more frequently absent than present. When the individual features for narrativity are grouped together, eight constellations are possible, six of which occur in the corpus.
In summary, in the corpus 56 items (38.1%) are full narratives satisfying all three narrativity criteria; 68 items (46.3%), the largest proportion of texts, can be described as partially narrative, displaying one or two of the three narrative features; only 23 texts (15.6%) are distinctly non-narrative. The fact that narrativity does not occur at equally high levels throughout the corpus is explained by content-specific constraints for particular subcategories. For instance, charity EHs and urban legends have a stronger tendency towards a narrative text form, whereas giveaway EHs and virus EHs are more likely to be non-narrative. This difference is due to the fact that urban legends and charity EHs are more prone to emotional themes that are supposed to foster readers’ sentiments and altruism, while giveaway and virus EHs are more grounded in self-interest and technical information (p. 184). The question of “what is the motivation behind these messages’ striving for narrativity” (p. 186) is answered as follows: “When people forward EHs, they do so with deep motivations that are fundamentally ingrained in our behavioural patterns. EHs may not be socially relevant, worthwhile, or even sincere in terms of their contents and scope; yet due to the discursive mechanisms they offer, they fulfil deep needs of our everyday existence: gaining status; maintaining social networks; and quite simply, telling juicy stories to our peers” (p. 189).
After having analysed the specificities of EHs in Chapters 2-6, in Chapter 7, “A genre study of EHs,” the author addresses the larger research question formulated in the introduction: Is the EH a self-contained genre? In order to answer this question, she proposes a genre framework that relies on four different parameters. The vertical view (parameter 1) provides levels of descriptions of increasing specificity, which starts from the most general level, passing through an intermediate level, down to a sublevel. This view comes from the prototype theory and appears to be highly applicable to genre theory, with the intermediate level of genre descriptions being the most salient one. The horizontal view (parameter 2) accounts for genre ecologies, where it is the interrelatedness and interdependence of genres. The ontological status (parameter 3) concerns the conceptual framework governing how genre labels should be ascribed, i.e. by a top-down or a bottom-up approach. In the top-down approach, it is assumed that the genre status depends on the identification of manifest and salient features, be they formal or functional. By contrast, a bottom-up approach assumes that the genre status is given by how discourse communities perceive a discourse phenomenon to be a genre. The issue of genre evolution (parameter 4) relates to the fast-paced advent and evolution of the Internet and to the interrelation with sociotechnical factors, that give rise to genre creation, genre change and genre migration. The author suggests that the frequently evoked hybridity of CMC genres can be accounted for by the transmedial stability that predominates on the functional sublevel and by genre evolution that occurs on the formal sublevel. The interaction between these two factors explains the co-presence of old and new in many digital genres (see p. 201).
The genre framework is then used to assess whether email hoaxing may constitute a discrete genre entity. The answer is ‘yes’ (p. 203). The position is supported by the bottom-up perspective: The category label ’email hoax’ is readily available to the discourse community of experienced Internet users. From a top-down perspective, the study has gathered descriptive features pertaining to EHs both on a linguistic/structural and on a functional/purpose-based level (parameter 3). From the horizontal point of view (parameter 2), EHs are positioned in a genre continuum: many precursors have been identified which share a certain portion of features with EHs. However, the closest antecedent of email hoaxing is not the pre-digital hoax, but rather the paper-based ‘officelore’ item. Officelore is an “umbrella term for drawings and jokes, poems and narratives and other paper-based items of popular culture that are passed along via a social network” (p. 206) (“social network” here refers to departments of public and private organizations). From the vertical viewpoint (parameter 1), digital folklore “is posited as a discourse genre that constitutes a supergenre for a broad variety of formally differentiated subgenres of which email hoaxing is one example” (p. 210). Other examples of digital folklore are ‘joke lists’ and ‘prayer chains’. From the point of view of genre evolution (parameter 4), the author notes that email hoaxing is becoming less productive by the year. This observation provides an opening to new themes of genre research, such as genre death, extinction and fossilization.
The full picture of the communicative purposes of EHs emerges from this book: EHs are posited as a hybrid genre with transmedial stability and distinctive linguistic features (p. 7). More specifically, it is proposed that email hoaxing is a (sub-)genre of the digital folklore supergenre, i.e. a linguistically defined subform that has elements in common with other similar subgenres, such as email petitions and prayer chains. The study of EHs presented in the book offers an interesting qualitative genre analysis, based on the linguistic and discourse analytical tradition. However, other aspects, such as technological and psychological factors, are also taken into consideration. In some respects, this book complements and enriches the top-down genre analyses based on “moves” and “appeals” described in Biber, Connor and Upton (2007), since it offers additional perspectives on genre textuality, such as narrativity and genre evolution.
The most interesting contribution of the book is, in my opinion, the genre framework proposed by the author. The four parameters described in the last chapter should provide “a flexible framework that can accommodate for discourse phenomena of all kinds and shapes” (p. 202). Although I am not entirely sure that these four parameters are sufficient to account for the variety and complexity of the current genre repertoires in digital environments, the hope is that Heyd’s genre framework — together with other recent genre analytical frameworks (e.g. Askehave and Nielsen (2005), Bateman (2008), Bruce (2008), Martin and Rose (2008), or Paolillo, Warren and Kunz (forthc. 2010)) – will help us understand and gain more and more insights into the complexity of CMC, digital genres, web genres and all the new genre forms emerging from web-based social network utilities, such as Facebook or Twitter.
The book is suitable for teachers, genre analysts, Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) analysts, discourse analysts and, to some extent, corpus linguists, computational linguists and Internet practitioners.
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