Susanne Mühleisen (Bayreuth/Germany)
Janet Giltrow and Dieter Stein (Ed.) (2009): Genres in the Internet. Issues in the theory of genre. Amsterdam: Benjamins. (= Pragmatics & beyond Series, 118)
Despite an assumed generic character in form and function, text, speech and media genres are subject to synchronic variation and diachronic change. A text type such as, for instance, the cooking recipe (see Görlach 2004) has changed considerably in the course of the history of English. Between the first records of Middle English cooking recipes (12th to 15th century) and the recipes given in Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, the text type has experienced changes not only in form and linguistic choices, but also in readership, the social situation in which it occurs, as well as its distribution. What makes the rhymed Middle English preparation instructions for fritters (ffor frytures. With egges and flowr a batour thow make/Put barme therto I vundertake ... "For fritters. With eggs and flour make a batter/Add yeast, I advise", in Görlach 2004: 128) belong to the same text genre as their 19th century equivalents? It is clear that purely formal characteristics cannot be the key factor in genre definition, but that also functional aspects have to be taken into account. Bhatia, following Swales (1990), defines "genre" as a "recognizable communicative event characterized by a set of communicative purpose(s) identified and mutually understood by the members of the professional or academic community in which it regularly occurs" (Bhatia 2003: 13). From a pragmatic perspective, genre may then be seen as "social action" which is tied to a recurring socio-historical situation and marked by rules of cooperation as well as linguistic form. When the situation ceases to exist, the genre can accordingly also be expected to expire.
The text genre "recipe" is still alive and well. Like many other text types which until recently appeared mainly in print, recipes can now also be found in the Internet. Has the transfer to the new medium resulted in a change in text type? Or genre theory? Has the Internet created genuinely new genres?
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A recent collection of articles, Genres in the Internet. Issues in the theory of genre, edited by Janet Giltrow (University of British Columbia) and Dieter Stein (Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf) explores these questions in its introduction and ten contributions by scholars from Canada, the United States, and Germany. The introduction by the editors, "Genres in the internet: Innovation, evolution, and genre theory", addresses questions of genre theory in the light of Internet genres. According to Giltrow and Stein, the new communication setting "reconfigures the conditions to which pragmatic features of language respond" (9), not only in terms of numbers of people interacting with one another synchronically across distance, but also in terms of the possibilities of archiving of the interaction, etc. The main issues that arise in the transfer of traditional genres to the Internet are questions of the stability of a genre, i.e. losses and systematic changes of the traditional form and function, additional properties of Internet genres, as well as questions of ancestry of potential "new" genres to be found on the Internet. One of the developments that are triggered by the new medium is certainly that cultural specificities tend to be erased and a greater homogeneity is achieved in Internet genres than in traditional genres. Furthermore, the role of English as the dominant language of the medium will be interesting to observe in the development of new Internet genres given that, already, most of them are English-based. The editors raise a number of questions regarding the emergence of new global norms in Internet genres and the communities that recognise and use them:
A certain homogenisation can be detected in the volume itself in terms of the choice of genre the individual contributions are concerned with in that most of the contributions in the volume focus on the blog as an Internet genre. In Amy J. Devitt's (University of Kansas) "Re-fusing form in genre study" blogs feature in a re-analysis of two important studies of blogging in order to address a more general theoretical question of the rehabilitation of form as a relatively neglected factor in recent genre studies. Devitt argues for a new fusion of form and function in which form is also recognised as variable and interacting across genres ("inter-genre-ality").
In a number of articles in this volume, the blog per se is in focus: is it a hypergenre? What makes a blog a blog? What distinguishes it from its closest ancestor in traditional media, the journal or personal diary?
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"Lies at Wal-Mart: Style and the subversion of genre in the Life at Wal-Mart blog" by Cornelius Puschmann (Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf) shows how corporate blogs use prototypical features of the blog (e.g. segmentation of the text into entries or posts, use of hyperlinks, the use of first person pronouns, the use of active rather than passive voice, identification of blogger's name or pseudonym, etc.) for commercial self-promotion. In a detailed analysis of the blog of a US retailer (Life at Wal-Mart) the possibilities of the mimicry of a genre are insightfully explored. In the next chapter, "Situating the public social actions of blog posts", Kathryn Grafton (University of British Columbia) looks at the constitution of a public and mediated self in blog posts about a public event such as Canada Reads. In public forums as well as in other CMC genres (e.g. "profiles" on social-networking sites, "travel videos" on YouTube, etc.) acts of self-cultivation and validation are carefully adapted to the situation. Elizabeth G. Maurer (University of British Columbia) follows up Goffman's (1955) idea of face-work in the presentation of self in blogs. Her contribution, "'Working consensus' and the rhetorical situation: The homeless blog's negotiation of public meta-genre" takes an interactional perspective on blogs in which the face negotiation between participants in discursive encounters is seen as vital for an interpretation of the rhetorical situation. Arguments over ancestry – the diary? – and classification of blogs by both bloggers and critics are discussed in the next chapter, "Brave new genre, or generic colonialism? Debates over ancestry in Internet diaries" (Laurie McNeill, University of British Columbia). The author investigates the generic history of this just one and a half decades old genre, as well as gendered battles over definitions: whereas the diary is seen as "feminine", the Web is considered to be a more "male" space. As McNeill points out, "The blog, as an extension of the more manly journal, must, by association be 'gender-neutral' – that is, not gendered as feminine – and its cyberspace milieu supports this gender-bias" (McNeill 2009: 155).
Other contributions are situated in a particular educational, historical or literary context. The chapter "Online, multimedia case studies for professional education" by David R. Russell and David Fisher (Iowa State University/University of Arkansas at Little Rock) is concerned with the use of genre simulation for educational purposes. By analysing students' responses in a case study, they are able to show how genre knowledge is also part of a successful assumption of professional identity. In her article, "Nation, book, medium: New technologies and their genres", Miranda Burgess (University of British Columbia) looks at the coherence of new media and their history from a broad perspective. By comparing media meta-discourses of the 1990s with discussion of changes in communications technologies and readerships from early 19th century Britain, Burgess demonstrates how concepts of "nation" and "book" serve as "reassuring ballast" (211) in these discourses and she proposes an understanding of genre formation as a response to the experience of media change.
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Sebastian Domsch (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München) explores the "migration" of the book review – traditionally in print media, here also in electronic form – to consumer reviews in online shops such as Amazon. His chapter, entitled "Critical genres. Generic changes of literary criticism in computer-mediated communication", illustrates not only a re-location of authority towards the consumer but also shows how a Bakthinian dialogic form rather than a monologue is an essential feature of the online consumer review.
The final two contributions focus on the idea of "newness" and change in CMC genres. Theresa Heyd (The University of Texas at Dallas) uses the test case of digital folklore for her proposed "model for describing 'new' and 'old' properties of CMC genres" which allows both continuity and change. Carolyn Miller and Dawn Shepherd (North Carolina State University), finally return to the blog (from personal blog to public affairs blog) in order to explore the relationship between rapid change and tendencies of recurrence and typification in the genre. In their chapter "Questions for genre theory from the blogosphere", the authors use the example of the blog in order to theorize generally about the relationship between genre and medium, which leads to the insight that the blog, after all, might not be a genre, but rather a medium in itself:
This might, ultimately, explain the abundance of studies concerned with blogs in this volume. Despite the fascination that this particular medium/genre holds, one might have wished for some more variety, both in type of social action and also in linguistic and cultural context – there are, after all, languages other than English that are used in the Internet.
The Internet has revolutionised many aspects of communication in a very short time span. By bringing together Computer Mediated Communication studies and issues of genre theory, this volume is a highly important and innovative contribution to the exploration of communicative, textual and technological changes that are involved in this development. The high level of theoretical reflection and the wealth of empirical analyses across contributions make Genres in the Internet an essential read for scholars in text linguistics, CMC studies, pragmatics, as well as literary studies and education.
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Bhatia, Vijay K. (2003): Analysing Genre. Language use in professional settings. Harlow: Pearson Education.
Goffman, Erving (1955): "On face-work: An analysis of ritual elements in social interaction", in: Psychiatry: Journal of Interpersonal Relations 18 (3): 213–31.
Görlach, Manfred (2004): Text Types and the History of English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Swales, John (1990): Genre Analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.