Book Review: Email Hoaxes (2008)

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
YEAR: 2008
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.


Askehave I. and A. Nielsen (2005). Digital Genre: A Challenge to Traditional
Genre Theory. Information Technology and People, 19(2), 120-141.
Bateman J. (2008). Multimodality and Genre. Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave Macmillan
Biber D., U. Connor and T. Upton (2007). Discourse on the Move. Amsterdam: John
Bruce I. (2008). Academic Writing and Genre: A Systematic Analysis. London/New
York: Continuum.
Labov W. (1972). Language in the Inner City. Philadelphia: University of
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Martin J. and D. Rose (2008). Genre Relations: Mapping Culture. London: Equinox.
Paolillo J., J. Warren and B. Kunz (forthc. 2010). Genre Emergence in Amateur
Flash. In Mehler A., S. Sharoff and M. Santini (eds.). Genres on the Web:
Computational Models and Empirical Studies. Dordrecht: Springer.

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