Tracing the Non-Debatable Topic in Online Discussion

Tracing the Non-Debatable Topic in Online Discussion

Gabriele Bechtel (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-773-2.ch054
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This chapter discusses a phenomenon frequently observed in online discussions: “hard-to-discuss” topics. Using Bakhtin’s concepts of monologue and dialogue along with his idea of the subject as shaping variable in discourse, the author offers a close discourse analysis highlighting the intertextual dynamics involved in the discussions under scrutiny. The latter are taken from a well established German-American discussion board and center on Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine. Bringing a rhetorical perspective to the debate, which seeks a connection between actual discussions and ongoing debates on the (inter)cultural level, this chapter offers insights affecting both theory and practice of participatory online communication: Conceptually, it complicates the position of the participant in online contexts by showing the limits of the much-vaunted concept of interactivity. On a practical level, it informs the work of all those involved in the creation, administration and moderation of online discussion venues.
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Extant studies in rhetoric and communication seem to identify two critical factors when it comes to communicative problems or failure in participatory online environments: the computer-mediated context and the presence of differential power constellations. To begin with, some problems are ascribed primarily to participants’ location within a highly mediated context and its emerging conventions, which brings about behaviors that differ from those displayed in traditional face-to-face situations. Specifically, studies have pointed to the relationship between participants’ relative anonymity and a less inhibited, more aggressive way of behaving (Lea et al., 1992; McLaughlin et al., 1995; Millard, 1997; Gurak, 2000).

The second factor, unequal distribution of power, comes into play when a certain group of participants seems to enjoy a privileged position, for example, when established group members take the liberty of behaving rudely towards new members. Gurak (1997; 2002) writes that in the context of online groups “outsiders are regularly flamed until they have come to understand and assimilate the community ethos”, which serves as “the basis for what information other online participants will accept and believe” (2002, p.15). Along the same lines, Honeycutt (2005) found that some groups use hazing rituals similar to those practiced in fraternities and sororities in order to discipline new members. Similarly, Tepper (1997) describes the phenomenon of trolling, a “game that all those who know the rules can play against those who do not” (40). Whereas the early Usenet group examined by Tepper incorporated trolling as an accepted practice of “enforcing community standards and of increasing community cohesion”, more recent uses of the term tend to see trolling as a constant threat to the existence of online groups (Doctorow 2007).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Topic: Indicates the “name” of a thread, usually chosen by the participant who initiates it.

Posting: A contribution made to a discussion.

Participant: A person participating in online interaction.

Forum: A thematic subsection within a discussion board

Online discussion board: A website offering participants to take part in debates on specific themes. Discussion boards commonly require registration.

Thread: A commonly used format to visualize a discussion on a specific topic as a continuous sequence of numbered contributions

Participatory website: A website offering many-to-many interaction.

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