While the activities of the writing process over a short term of intense composition have been extensively studied, the exigencies of academic and work-related writing deadlines inevitably foreclose the process, leaving a longer-term process beyond the scope of most of the writing we study, model, and teach. Indeed, according to Walter Ong, such an unfortunate closure is a feature of the print medium in general, a medium that detaches writing from its author, rendering a life's work of writing as really a series of successive short-term engagements.
We have relatively few examples of long-term writing processes available for us to be studied. With the World Wide Web, however, we now have the technological capacity and, increasingly, the social imperative to maintain a long-term continuously broadcasted public presence to the world. The Web, in the form of personal homepages, offers the conditions for popular participation in a writing process that is not normally foreclosed by short-term situational constraints.
The Web, however, presents individuals with a communication situation that creates imperatives that few individuals have ever confronted in their writing practices: how does one publish to an anonymous international public, as an individual without institutional sanction, and maintain an active broadcasted public presence over time.
In exploring how this question gets answered, I am looking at discourse producers that have a long tradition of maintaining and developing a continuous public image over time: namely, institutions, corporations, public organizations. It is such institutions that have developed discursive strategies for long-term public presence. Institutions, by the visibility of their public communication, form the most salient and the most successful communication role models for individuals new to the mass media, as most of us are.
In this presentation, I am seeking to develop the possible transactions between these two discursive contexts:
The research for this paper draws from a survey of writers of personal homepages, together with analyses of their homepages. First, I'll introduce the theoretical perspective of discourse analysts Norman Fairclough, a critical perspective on how discursive practices of one context can migrate into another context. Then we'll look at some findings of the survey and finally at some examples from the homepages.
Fairclough's theoretical perspective
First, I'd like to introduce two concepts from the work of discourse analyst Norman Fairclough, whose work explores the connection between discourse and power. Both of these concepts articulate the nature of discursive migrations from one domain to another.
The first concept is "colonization." Fairclough writes of how discourse from one part of the social structure can "colonize" other parts (197-98). He singles out the discourses of consumerism and bureaucracy as particularly pervasive in their reach (198). One site of such colonization that would be familiar to us is the discourses of higher education, in which, in one Canadian example, "deliverables" are now being offered in lieu of "education," "consumers" are now being served in lieu of "students," all of this being done by "suppliers" (Emberley).
Discursive migrations can occur over domains that are vastly different in scale, such as between institutions and individuals. This is the focus of Fairclough's second concept: "synthetic personalization." To illustrate this concept, Fairclough discusses a tactic of advertising and bureaucratic discourses, which, he observes, often represent institution-to-person relations in the guise of person-to-person relationships. Such relationships are thus represented as egalitarian and mutually motivated. We may conceive of "synthetic personalization" as somewhat akin to the literary trope of personification, but with different objectives. With synthetic personalization, the institution manipulates the representation of institution-citizen relationships and subject positions so as to resolve problems (217) and, more insidiously, to retain and build power (222).
One manifestation of such practices on the Web has been noted by Joseph B. Walther, who, in his 1996 article on computer-mediated communication, observes of some corporate Web sites:
The use of technicians' personal names and pictures as access points, rather than using vague department- or role-related addresses, is hypothesized to begin the personalization of professional and corporate-consumer relationships (31).
On web sites published by individuals, however, I am exploring the possibility that a similar practice is developing, but in the opposite direction. Individuals' discourses are being colonized by the discourses of institutions. Institutional discourses have a long pedigree developed in contexts of public communications and, in that tradition, have developed the means to accomplish effectively their communicative objectives with the broad public. Individuals, most of whose dealings with the public are almost exclusively in one-to-one or small group interactions, have few such resources in their communicative habitus and hence are susceptible to the handy and prestigious model in institutional discourses.
I will adapt Fairclough's usage of "synthetic personalization" and refer to the colonization of individuals' texts by institutional discourses as a process of "synthetic institutionalization": the individual represented as the institution. This colonization is "synthetic" because it represents individuals' own subject positions and their relations between themselves and their audiences in a manner that is hitherto not customary among private citizens. Synthetic institutionalization, I would contend, arises from and is contingent upon the specific conditions of Web communications:
In the speaking spaces of individuals, this colonization, synthetic institutionalization, is manifested in a number of ways. I will focus on one: namely, the maintenance and development of a continuous public presence over time. As I discussed earlier, our practice as writers is a practice of developing texts to a point of completion, a point which is often cued by specific deadlines. Beyond such deadlines, our texts are seldom revisited for further development or revisions. Our writing engagements with our texts tend to be brief and intense interactions, but with few enduring relationships.
Institutions, by contrast, regularly maintain and develop public images. They develop new products and updated versions of old products, engage in elaborate advertising and marketing campaigns, undertake long-term contracts and projects, revise their corporate goals, and generally seek to maintain a continuous, visible presence in the community-to fashion a long-term relationship with their employees and with the public. Hence, the practice of long-term maintenance and development of a public presence is a potentially fertile ground in which to explore the discursive process of synthetic institutionalization on the Web.
This exploration is based on a survey of 110 homepage authors and a corresponding analysis of their homepages. Of the 110 homepage authors surveyed, 106 respondents indicated that they had made changes to their sites since first placing these sites on-line, and 105 indicated that they intended to make changes in the future.
While some respondents characterised their site changes as a cleaning task-removing errors--a majority indicated, in giving their reasons for past and future homepage changes, that they had either some experience in having made major revisions to their sites and / or some conception of a developing Web site. Hence, the understanding of a homepage as indeed a long-term, evolving communications project seems to be popularly held.
Tim Berners-Lee's metaphor
The survey asked for explanations of why past or anticipated future changes were undertaken or being considered. As a way to represent the range of explanations offered by respondents, let me first introduce a metaphor used by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee has observed how personal homepages have evolved in a way that was unanticipated in his earlier vision of the Web's potential for personal and family domains:
[T]he personal home page is not a private expression; it's a public billboard. . . . It's openness, and it's great in a way, it's people letting the community into their homes. But it's not really home. They may call it a home page, but it's more like the gnome in somebody's front yard than the home itself. (Web Journal)Tim Berners-Lee's distinction between the home and the gnome offers a rough-fitting but nevertheless relevant illustration of the range of conceptions my survey respondents revealed about their Web sites. The literal home, of course, is the site of familiar discursive practices of individuals, practices among family and friends. The literal gnome, by contrast, is the public display continuously present and continuously visible to the neighbours and to passing strangers. Prior to the Web, such a display would have been among the few semiotic means by which individuals would "broadcast" their work to an anonymous public. Now, on the Web, Berners-Lee's metaphorical gnome is, I am suggesting, constituted in part by the process of synthetic institutionalization: not one's "home" discourse but the discourse of public media relations.
I would not suggest that there are no "homes" or conceptions of "home" on the Web, only that this new context has created the conditions by which synthetic institutionalization is occurring, and that there are a lot more metaphorical "gnomes" in our world than there were a few years ago. To establish a contrast, let's first consider the conceptions of these "homes" expressed by my survey respondents as they accounted for the changes, past and future, to their homepages.
Home = Organic
I characterise these conceptions of homepage change as "organic," in part because of the terminology with which respondents conceived of their changing sites: terms such as "fresh," "stale," "stagnant." Here are some expressions of organic conceptions of Web site change:
Gnome = Strategic
The "gnomes" of the Web are conceived of differently. This conception of change over time I characterize as strategic, borrowing the term from Fairclough, who in turn borrows it from Habermas (Fairclough 198). I call these strategic because, broadly speaking, these conceptions of past and future changes are more directly concerned with getting results: maintaining ethos, encouraging return visits, and so forth. In contrast with the organic conceptions illustrated a moment ago, the strategic conceptions account for homepage changes by pointing to the exigencies created by the context and the audience of Web communications. Here are some expressions of strategic conceptions of Web site change:
Synthetic institutionalization on Web sites
To recap, thus far, I have introduced, theoretically, a process I call synthetic institutionalization and I have briefly characterised the accounts of homepage change offered by homepage writers. Of the two general conceptions of change I have contrasted-organic and strategic, or, if you prefer, home and gnome-it is the practice of the strategic, the gnome, that is compatible with the theory of synthetic institutionalization.
Having considered the explanations of survey respondents, let's now look at some of the manifestations of synthetic institutionalization that appear on personal homepages in the sample of 110 Web sites.
First, we'll consider a few brief signs describing homepage change, and then, second, I'll describe one of the longer-term practices of homepage change.
First, there are a number of signs and phrases generated by institutions in their activities of remodeling themselves and their public image over time or in promoting new products and services. Some of these appear on personal homepages in the sample. Consider the following three banner statements:
By far the most conspicuous of phrases derived from institutional discourse are the ubiquitous "under construction" signs, which have quite successfully colonized the Web. Sadly, the terms traditionally reserved for changing and developing text-terms such as "composition" and "revision"--almost never appear; in the sample there is no instance of a sign or announcement stating "under composition" or "under revision." At most, there are occasional references to new sections that homepage authors hope to "write."
The usage "under construction" is a revealing example of synthetic institutionalization. Institutions "construct" edifices. Individuals, by contrast, may "write" or "compose" a document, and individuals may "build" a tool shed, but in general individuals have not hitherto "constructed" objects or spaces or had them "under construction." Construction is a long-term activity, a public activity, a prestigious activity, and, in the eyes of many, a masculine activity. "Writing" or "composition" or "revision," is popularly perceived to have none of these qualities. Synthetic institutionalization is thus a means of representing homepage writing with legitimacy.
If we now turn from these brief samples of discourse to sustained, strategic discursive practices, we find that perhaps the most ambitious practice of long-term synthetic institutionalization is the regularizing of change according to the calendar. For instance, eight sites in the sample make a promise of a weekly change or update. These weekly changes include promises of new photos (p-sp), new jokes in a joke archive and new personal "reports" (g-kgi), new feature links to select exemplary Web sites (v-s), new vocabulary words on a page devoted to improving one's vocabulary (g-kgo), newly written haiku in a personal haiku collection (a-aa), new gossip solicited from surfers for a "gossip column" (h-s), and new "rants" on a site authored by self-proclaimed "slackers" (y-gy). As well, another five survey respondents, though they were not asked about the regularity of their updates, did suggest a degree of regularity of their site updates, ranging from once a week to once a month (b-cb, b-to, m-lm, r-ir, r-mr).
Perhaps the most familiar models of these regularized changes are institutional practices that adopt precise units of time: weekly specials, book-of-the-month clubs, quarterly reports, etc., and, of course, the organization of most work lives in week-long segments. Such marshalling of time is a result of the capacity to command human and material resources with such precision as to plan the future and to bring those plans to fruition, in part to extend a degree of control over the activities of groups such as employees and customers. It is a manifestation of power. On homepages, the weekly changes are certainly not manifestations of personal growth. In the synthetic institutionalization of homepages, the uncontrolled time of organic change is overcome by the power and prestige of strategic, controlled development. Colonization occurs from discourses of greater power to those of lesser power.
Carrying out these promises of regularity is another matter, especially in these cases of personal Web sites, in which one's primary resource is simply oneself. In six of the eight weekly practices discussed, there is clear evidence in the dates of the site archives that the weekly intervals became significantly longer than seven days. (On the other two sites, there was no dated evidence with which to reach a conclusion one way or the other.) The most common pattern is a maintained commitment over the first few weeks, followed by gaps or periods of slack.
When these writers confront the discrepancy between advertised practice and actual practice, they are compelled to abandon synthetic institutionalization and re-adopt to a personal voice. For instance:
With these examples, we have seen how the discursive practices of individuals, when these individuals enter into a mass medium, are colonized by the established discursive practices of the mass media, which have long been monopolized by institutions. These cases of synthetic institutionalization in the practice and discourse of homepage change are just one type of several that I have found in my research. Other usages from my sample of web sites show a similar pattern of synthetic institutionalization:
The legitimacy of institutional discourse that seems to warrant such colonization of individuals' discourse derives ultimately from the power that institutional voices have in our society. It portends a future in which we all maintain and develop not homepages but public relations sites for ourselves; not, to use my own name, "John Killoran's Homepage," but rather "John Killoran Ltd.," or "John Killoran, Inc.," or "John Killoran .com."
Berners-Lee, Tim. "Interview: Tim Berners-Lee." World Wide Web Journal. Vol. 1, No. 3: Summer 1996. Available: http://www.w3j.com/3/s1.interview.html. June 25, 1996.
Emberley, Peter C. "Hot-button politics on campus." The Globe and Mail. July 27, 1996, D1/D5.
Fairclough, Norman. Language and Power. London: Longman, 1989.
Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge, 1982.
Walther, Joseph B. "Computer-Mediated Communication: Impersonal, Interpersonal, and Hyperpersonal Interaction." Communication Research, Vol.23, No.1, February 1996, 3-43.