Review of Cyberpragmatics
AUTHOR: Francisco Yus
SUBTITLE: Internet-mediated communication in context
SERIES TITLE: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 213
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
Daria Dayter, English Linguistics, University of Bayreuth, Germany
This book builds on and consolidates extensive earlier work by the author in
cognitive pragmatic analyses of Internet-mediated communication. In this
8-chapter volume, Francisco Yus first presents his theoretical framework and
then proceeds to apply it to various genres of computer-mediated communication
(CMC). The analysis covers synchronous (e.g. chatrooms, Internet Relay Chat,
instant messaging), as well as asynchronous internet genres (e.g. email, blogs,
Twitter), along with such concomitant topics as politeness on the Web and the
presentation of identity.
The title of the book is elucidated in the Introduction (pp. xi-xiv):
Cyberpragmatics, a term coined by the author himself, refers to the approach
that applies cognitive pragmatics to Internet interactions. Consequently,
Chapter 1 (pp. 1-20) ''Pragmatics, context and relevance,'' presents a concise
review of Sperber and Wilson's (1986) Relevance Theory, which is the main
theoretical framework of the volume. The author devotes particular attention to
tying the traditional notions of the theory to the behaviours of Internet users,
e.g., multitasking (p. 12), oralisation of typed text (p. 17), or strategies of
dealing with excess information (p. 20). Ultimately, he formulates the objective
of cyberpragmatics as a quest to determine “to what extent these qualities of
cyber-media [special placement on oral/written, visual/verbal and
synchronous/asynchronous continua -- reviewer's note] affect the estimation of
relevance'' (p. 16).
As the title “The presentation of self in everyday web use'' prompts, the second
chapter (pp. 21-44) resonates with the seminal analysis of multilayer identity
by Erving Goffman (1959). Here, the author traces the complexity of interweaving
virtual and offline identities by using two graphic models: the Two Triangles
Model (p. 23), which weighs against each other the various aspects of physical
and virtual identity; and the Faceted Identity Model, which represents several
possible combinations of the two (p. 38). Furthermore, Yus points out the
tendency towards hybridisation of physical-virtual interactions and arrives at
the conclusion that “there are many possible combinations between physical and
virtual sources of identity, and for many Internet users the virtual sources may
be a valid (rather than added) alternative to the physical ones, and they may
even overcome the latter'' (p. 40).
In the third chapter (pp. 45-92), the author convincingly adapts Relevance
Theory to the analysis of Web environments, which is the main thrust of the
book. Three perspectives are named for a cognitive pragmatic analysis of CMC:
from the author's point of view, from the textual point of view, and from the
reader's point of view (pp. 46-49). One main point that is brought up is the
discussion of excessive information available online (labelled 'infoxication' by
Yus) and its effects on the estimation of relevance. Yus states that on the
Internet, one can find “surprising balances of cognitive effects and mental
effort when the content of a web page is processed'' (p. 63). An example of such
a situation is a popular website where users can watch cheddar cheese rot in
real time, when a low number of cognitive effects and low mental effort
nevertheless result in eventual positive relevance. Finally, to explicate
different expectations of relevance on- and offline, the transfer of a printed
newspaper into an online form is discussed.
Chapters 4-6 describe the main web genres: blogs, social networking services
(SNS) and Twitter (pp. 93-149), synchronous media such as chatrooms (pp.
151-218), and e-mail (pp. 219-254). In Chapter 4, Yus applies the three
perspectives of cognitive pragmatic analysis to asynchronous web environments.
In the case of blogs, an additional perspective proves to be pertinent to the
cognitive pragmatic description of this genre -- interaction between bloggers
and readers. Interaction is also a cornerstone of the subsequent examination of
user's identity adjustment on SNS; through a circular scheme, Yus demonstrates
how profiles and (mutually) manifest information interreact in a step-by-step
process of formation of a faceted identity (p. 120). Touching on the problems of
oversharing and context collapse common among young users of SNS, the author
recognises these as a consequence of the underlying intentionality of making
manifest information about oneself -- namely, the enjoyment provided by
recognition of the size and quality of one's network (p. 122). The chapter
closes with an overview of Twitter, a microblog that appears to represent one of
the above mentioned “surprising balances” that attracts users despite the high
cost of processing and low relevance of most tweets.
Chapter 5 investigates how the process of utterance interpretation, from
understanding an explicature to deriving an implicature based on contextual
information, is aided by special strategies in a context-poor environment of
text-based 'virtual conversation.' Yus argues that this poverty is not always a
limitation, but rather an advantage, sparing the user “the challenge of
controlling the interrelation of verbal and nonverbal information'' (p. 156).
Thus, in text-based chatrooms or instant messenger the user exudes less
information than in face-to-face communication, and can choose how much
information about him/herself to communicate ostensively. When users wish to
compensate for the absent audio and video channels in online conversation, a set
of strategies is available to them: written text oralisation by means of
typographic innovation (e.g. phonematic repetition, homophone or prosodic
spellings, abbreviations, etc.), emoticons, and stage direction. By looking at a
number of interactions, the author establishes that although users register the
difference between a neutral and a more intense emotion expressed through
typographic innovation, they do not distinguish between various degrees of
emotional intensity which could hypothetically be expressed through different
amounts of creative text use, e.g., letters repeated five versus ten times (pp.
180-188). Finally, the reader is introduced to a new member in the family of
chats, the 3D chat. Yus concludes that even if a virtual conversation is
complemented by a 3D avatar that can perform nonverbal behaviour, the situation
is radically different from a face-to-face conversation since all nonverbal
information is intentionally ostensively communicated and not unintentionally
exuded (p. 213).
Chapter 6 continues the investigation of internet-mediated interaction by
focusing on three subtypes of the e-mail genre: private email, newsgroups, and
e-mail distribution lists. The author once again reviews the synthetic
oral-written quality of CMC by following the four dimensions of analysis by
Baron (1998), i.e., social dynamics, format, grammar, and style. While many
creative strategies for text oralisation are found in e-mail as well, informants
still largely perceive it as a more formal medium than SNS, chatrooms, or
instant messenger, suitable for communication with superiors. Yus observes that
''[o]ne of the most interesting pragmatic features of e-mail is that it is an
ostensive technological medium'' (p. 238) and thus ''the arrival of an e-mail
carries the presumption of its eventual relevance'' (p. 239). The interpretation
of an e-mail depends on a number of features carrying contextual cues that
influence estimations of relevance: who the sender and the addressee are, the
e-mail address, the subject line, the body of the message (e.g. quoting
techniques), and the signature. The analysis of examples predominantly drawn
from earlier studies on the topic proves that users ''clearly play with the
expectation of relevance which, at a subsequent stage, the recipient expects to
be confirmed by reading the message itself'' (p. 245).
Chapter 7 (pp. 255-285) supplements the pragmatic analysis with a look at
politeness on the Net. Relying largely on maxim-based (Lakoff 1973, Leech 1983)
approaches to politeness, the author invokes the concept of 'netiquette' and
proceeds to describe various situations leading to its transgression. In
relation to the well-known practice of flaming (i.e. hostile and insulting
interactions), Yus cites the twofold distinction between unmotivated and
motivated rudeness (Kasper 1990) and contrasts flaming with simple
non-observance of netiquette. Several examples, which are similar to other
chapters drawn from earlier studies on the subject, lead the author to conclude
that ''on the Internet, the reduced quantity and quality of [...] contextual
assumptions entail a hyper-reliance on purely textual attributes for the
expressions of politeness'' (p. 269). A recap of Brown and Levinson's (1978)
Politeness Theory, which introduces several studies of face in CMC, is followed
by an attempt to couple Relevance Theory and cognitive approaches to politeness
(e.g. Escandell Vidal 1996, 1998). In the end, it is hypothesised that
politeness norms on the Net exhibit a tendency towards an Anglo-Saxon pattern
due to the increasing pressure of English as the lingua franca of the Web (p. 270).
In his final chapter, Yus returns to his initial statement that the inferential
procedure for utterance interpretation is the same on- and offline. However, in
retrospect, the statement is qualified by the insight that the availability of
contextual information and the attributes of the utterance (or message) can
influence the evaluation of interpretation, and that these features certainly
differ in virtual and physical environments. Introducing avenues for future
research, the author emphasises the importance of future studies that focus on
information presentation via mobile phones. Finally, it is claimed that
cyberpragmatics ''should provide an answer to the puzzle of cognitive
satisfaction that often defies the equation of 'cognitive effects against
processing effort' predicted by relevance theory'' (p. 295).
This monograph appeals to linguists interested in computer-mediated discourse
analysis, language on the internet, and pragmatic approaches to new media. Due
to a somewhat dense writing style, the volume is certainly not an 'easy read'
for a broad audience, or an appropriate main text for a seminar. However, the
first chapter is recommended to students as a clear and concise introduction to
In the Introduction, the author states that this book is the consolidating stage
of his work on a particular analytical approach. Indeed, the survey of earlier
work on the subject, by the author himself and by other scholars, comprises a
significant part of the monograph. This is especially noticeable in Chapters
4-6, where each Web genre is first described at length (the necessity of this
step is arguable for well-known genres such as email, blogs, or chat) and later
multiple classifications and feature sets by many different analysts are cited.
Illustrative examples in these sections also largely come from other studies,
with the exception of Twitter analysis, which is based on the author's own
(Spanish) dataset. While the exhaustive bibliography is extremely useful to
anyone who wishes to gain an overview of the field, a reader with a background
in CMC studies would welcome a stronger focus on the subject proper, as found in
Chapters 2 or 3. These brilliant chapters marry a relevance theoretical
framework to text-based computer- mediated discourse and constitute an
interesting and insightful contribution to the field. Despite the criticism,
however, the first part of the volume also is by no means merely derivative.
Although he builds upon the work of many scholars, Yus asks questions rarely
posed and thus adds a perspective on CMC that complements the established
accounts by danah boyd (2006, 2008), Susan Herring (2007, 2008), Nancy Baym
(2010), and others.
The only substantial criticism can be levelled at Chapter 7 ''Politeness on the
Net.'' With little attention devoted to internet discourse, the chapter mostly
recaps well-known politeness theories. When discussing internet discourse, the
author frequently adopts a simplified view of politeness on the Web. Some
contentious claims are made concerning the status of “flaming,” indiscriminately
classified as “rudeness” (p. 265), or the important role played by 'netiquette'
rules (pp. 256-258, 265). Surprisingly, contemporary work on politeness by Watts
(2010) and Locher (2010) is almost completely ignored in favour of widely
criticised maxim-based theories. Finally, the closing statement about the
adoption of Anglo-Saxon politeness as a global internet norm calls for more
empirical data to support it.
Overall, Cyberpragmatics is a worthy member of the well-established Pragmatics &
Beyond series by John Benjamins Publishers. While some disparate pragmatic
studies of CMC do exist (Kouper 2009, Ho 2010, Vásquez 2011, etc.), this is the
first monograph solely devoted to the topic. A multitude of theoretical and
practical studies reviewed throughout the book make it useful for researchers
dealing with CMC. Despite minor drawbacks, the book is interesting and rich in
content throughout, and boasts discernment of deeper workings of human
communication on the Web as well as a comprehensive review of existing literature.
Baron, Naomi. 1998. Letters by phone or speech by other means: The linguistics
of email. Language and Communication 18: 133-170.
Baym, Nancy. 2010. Personal connections in the digital age. Malden, MA: Polity
boyd, danah. 2006. Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8: writing community
into being on social network sites. First Monday 11(12).
boyd, danah. 2008. Taken out of context: American teen sociality in networked
publics. PhD Dissertation. University of California-Berkeley, School of
Brown, Penelope and Stephen Levinson. 1978. Politeness: Some universals in
language use. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Escandell Vidal, Victoria. 1996. Towards a cognitive approach to politeness.
Language Sciences 18 (3-4): 629-650.
Escandell Vidal, Victoria. 1998. Politeness: A relevant issue for relevance
theory. Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses 11: 45-57.
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The presentation of self in everyday life. New York:
Herring, Susan. 2007. A faceted classification scheme for computer-mediated
discourse. Language@Internet 4: article 1.
Herring, Susan. 2008. Language and the internet. In: Wolfgang, Donsbach (ed.),
International Encyclopedia of Communication, 2640--2645. Oxford: Blackwell.
Ho, Victor. 2010. Constructing identities through request e-mail discourse: Face
in Interaction. Journal of Pragmatics 42 (8): 2253--61.
Kasper, Gabrielle. 1990. Linguistic politeness. Current research issues. Journal
of Pragmatics 14: 193-218.
Kouper, Inna. 2009. The pragmatics of peer advice in a LiveJournal community.
Language@Internet 7: article 1.
Lakoff, Robin. 1973. The logic of politeness; or, minding your P's and Q's. Papers
from the Ninth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society. Chicago:
Chicago Linguistic Society: 292--305.
Leech, Geoffrey. 1983. Principles of pragmatics. London: Longman.
Locher, Miriam, ed. 2010. Special issue on ''Politeness and impoliteness in
computer-mediated communication'', 1, Berlin 2010 (=Journal of Politeness Research).
Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson. 1986. Relevance: Communication and cognition.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.
Vásquez, Camilla. 2011. Complaints online: The case of TripAdvisor. Journal of
Pragmatics 43: 1707-1717.
Watts, Richard. 2010. Theorising linguistic politeness phenomena. Paper
presented at Fifth International Symposium on Politeness, Basel.
(25 December, 2011.)
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Daria Dayter received her first degree from the Russian Christian Academy
for the Humanities, Saint-Petersburg, Russia, and her M.A. from the
University of Bayreuth, Germany. She is a research assistant in the English
Linguistics department, University of Bayreuth, Germany. At the moment she
is working on a PhD project on pragmatic aspects of microblogging and
'pragmatic poverty' in other forms of text-based communication. Her
research interests include language in the internet, computer-mediated
communication, youth language, and politeness theory.