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Review of  Email Hoaxes

Reviewer: Marina Santini
Book Title: Email Hoaxes
Book Author: Theresa Heyd
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 21.75

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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

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 a 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.

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 et al. (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 et al. (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, linguists in general, and, to
some extent, corpus linguists, computational linguists and Internet practitioners.


Askehave I. and Nielsen A. (2005). Digital genre: A challenge to traditional
genre theory. Information Technology and People, 19(2), 120-141.
Bateman J. (2008). Multimodality and Genre. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke-New York
Biber D., Connor U. and Upton T. (2007). Discourse on the Move. Amsterdam: John
Benjamins Publishing Company.
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
Pennsilvania Press.
Martin J. and Rose D. (2008). Genre Relations: Mapping Culture. London: Equinox.
Paolillo J., Warren J. And Kunz B. (forthc. 2010). Genre Emergence in Amateur
Flash. In Mehler A., Sharoff S. and Santini M. (eds.). Genres on the Web:
Computational Models and Empirical Studies. Dordrecht: Springer.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Marina Santini is a computational linguist interested in genre, sentiment, and other discourse categories (also known as non-topical descriptors). Her research interests span from web documents to corpus design and construction, automatic feature extraction, and classification algorithms.