Cornelius Puschmann, Lies at Wal-Mart, in Janet Giltrow and Dieter Stein (eds) Genres in the Internet, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2009.
The chapter by Cornelius Puschmann presents a novel and stimulating analysis of an emerging faux genre in a lively style.
Cornelius in his “Lies at Wal-Mart” explores a very little investigated aspect in genre studies, i.e. genre subversion (also called genre mimicry). Genre subversion is the flouting of a genre prototype. A genre prototype can be defined as “an amalgam of formal, technical, stylistic and cultural aspects, which together form a recognizable conceptual category” (p. 58). But what are the constitutive features of a genre prototype and how can they be measured? What constitutes a good instantiation of a particular genre? Where does a particular genre start and end? As we all know, these questions have not an obvious answer because of the difficulty of defining the concept of genre unanimously. Arguably, Cornelius points out, “genre means something to both researchers and non-academics; to film critics, journalists, scholars of literature, information retrieval experts and computer scientists alike. But, problematically, it appears to mean something different to all of these experts” (p. 49).
Cornelius argues that the co-occurrence of selected formal features (i.e. visual presentation and linguistic expression) evokes a certain genre. He suggests that the presence of these features leads to calculable assumptions on the part of the reader regarding the communicative goals and authorship of a text. These assumptions can be then exploited for covert goals. Cornelius says: “Exploitation can be regarded as a proof for the existence of a genre, since the exploiter must assume that his audience will recognise the genre he is imitating based on formal criteria if he wants his manipulation to succeed. In other words, genre salience is indicated by genre abusability” (p. 51).
As an example of abusability, Cornelius analyses a company/corporate blog — Life at Wal-Mart — that systematically replicates the characteristics of typical personal blogs to exploit several formal and technical criteria to which it adheres and then flouts other functional and communicative aspects. In Cornelius’ view, Life at Wal-Mar is a flog (e.i. a fake blog or faux blog) that overtly violates the conventions of the blog prototype. Blog conventions are broken down into three categories (presentational/technical, linguistic and contextual) populated with many features (see Table 2, p. 59).
The key question with corporate blogs is: how can a blog, which is prototypically “personal”, serve organizational goals? In Life at Wal-Mart the covert strategy of “subversion” is chosen by flouting a genre like the blog in order”to harvest the positive associations that the public audience has with the blog prototype as personal and discursive in absence of the actual qualities that have lead to such a view”(p. 60).
The violation or appropriation of a genre is not a new phenomenon. Other CMC examples that come to my mind are the so-called Nigerian letters and email hoaxes. Now, Cornelius explicitly labels this concept by proposing the notion of genre subversion. He also suggests a handy and well-structured grid that can be easily applied to other web genres.
In my view, the notion of genre subversion can be seen as a facet of that genre awareness and genre competence that many web users seem to be missing. Genre awareness and genre competence would stimulate and increase web users’ social web intelligence through a deeper understanding of genre conventions and expectations. Genre awareness and genre competence would help them assess the genuineness, reliability, authenticity and the actual purpose of information they find on the web, where the risk of being misled or misinformed is high (see the WebRider project in the main menu).
*** Pls, feel free to point out typos and other inaccuracies to me!