Arguing on the internet as a public forum

Titus Ensink

University of Groningen, Netherlands, The


Arguing on the internet as a public forum

During the last two decades the enormous growth of the internet as a medium has given rise to a number of developments in both private and public forms of communication and communicative practices. In this paper I will focus on one such development. Many existing ‘traditional’ newspapers started during the last few years a website next to their daily paper edition. Readers’ reactions to newspaper’s articles have always been possible via letters-to-the-editor. In that case, the newspaper’s editors decide on which reactions to make public. But in many internet newspapers there is a possibility of putting reactions online, without the newspaper’s editors as a ‘gatekeeper’ in between writing and publishing: any reader who decides to upload his/her reaction is able to make that reaction accessible to the whole world. In many cases one can see the first readers’ reactions appear within minutes after publication of some information on the newspaper’s website. It seems at first sight that readers are much less prone to serious argumentation, and often do not much more than putting forward claims or even condemnations and insults to other contributors, or to persons referred to in the newspaper’s article. It is easy to dismiss these reactions as some form of twaddle which without the public medium of the internet would have been only perceptible (and confined!) to immediate bystanders. From a sociolinguistic, particularly discourse analytic, point of view, however, these reactions are interesting in several respects. First, they are difficult to characterize as a genre of language use. In a sense, they should be considered a new genre which has characteristics intermediate between spoken and written interaction. Second, from a general point of view, these reactions appear as a clash between discourses_ (‘discourse’ in the sense of expression of a world view, not in the more common sense of a situated text). The clash does not appear as a formal discussion (such as argumentation theory would have it in the case of ‘traditional’ argumentative genres of language use) but as a coexistence of several incompatible utterances within the same ‘textual space’.

In this paper, I will discuss two questions on the basis of a corpus of several lists of readers’ reactions from a number of different (mainly Dutch) websites:

1. Which are the genre characteristics of the readers’ reactions on newspaper sites?

2. How can readers’ reactions be used as a source of information about prevalent discourses in society on a certain point in time?

Session: Paper session
Digital Language 3
Friday, April 4, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 02