Cyberspace has been celebrated for liberating us from the constraints of geography, of spatiality. So I found it revealing that, in some Web sites I've been examining as part of an empirical study, what is reinvoked is spatiality. Why import this artifact of the old world? My presentation today will address that question by exploring the rhetorical function spatiality, spatial metaphors, may be playing in a medium that ostensibly renounces spatiality.
I'm going to set out this situation with a narrative framework that we all learned in high school. Quite simply, I'll talk about . . .
First, the characters in this story, who, in my research, are the ordinary people who construct personal homepages.
For most people, participating constructively in a mass medium like the Web is an unprecedented communication situation. We proceed in a communication situation, scholars have long maintained, not just with our knowledge of language in the abstract, a Saussurean conception of language, but with a know-how, with our skills for getting things done. Pierre Bourdieu, for instance, emphasizes the social and temporal composition of our symbolic behaviour with his concept of the habitus, the repertoire of dispositions inculcated through a lifetime of social experience. One's know-how, a constituent of one's habitus, is applied based on one's "linguistic sense of place'," one's "practical mastery of situations" (Bourdieu, 1991, p.82). Bakhtin distinguishes between a dictionary knowledge of words and a facility with the genres associated with different situations, the latter of which provides subjects with the strategies for proceeding in those situations (1986). Drawing on Bakhtin, Berkenkotter and Huckin characterise such practical know-how of genres as "situated cognition," knowledge rooted in the environments in which genres are practiced and hence learned (1993, p.485). Uniting these perspectives is the understanding that communicators' adeptness in a situation draws on their practice in, their repertoire from, analogous situations.
Thus, we might well understand that the situation of successfully occupying the Web requires of Web authors not just new technical knowledge but the learning of a new public position. We must acclimatize ourselves as authors of a continuously "broadcasted" public presence, with an international audience largely of strangers, separated from us by indeterminate distances. Yet most of us cannot bring to this situation much experience in analogous media positions, so unprecedented is it in our repertoire. Hence, when people take up the role of Web producer, their response may include redefining or transforming this new situation into an analogous situation that is more socially viable.
Let's now turn to the setting for these characters in this new situation. The Web, of course, does not occupy any setting, a physical space, that is intuitive to us, not in the way other communications media do, but computer users and surfers do try to conceive of it more intuitively. Lakoff and Johnson, in their seminal work Metaphors We Live By (1980), illustrate how our conceptions of our world are shaped by the metaphors embedded in discourse. Howard Rheingold (1993), who has written about Internet-based communities, explores how the Internet is made conceptually comfortable by being modeled as a "cluster" of "places". Kevin Hunt characterises the medium as "a tangle of rhetorically constructed virtual spaces" (1996, p.387). He observes how the intangibility of computer networks is rendered more palpable with spatial metaphors:
[I]ncreasingly, users are beginning to conceptualize computers and computer networks as comprising spaces through which they can "navigate," . . . using language that maps physical attributes to the virtual locations. . . . (p.377)Such spatial metaphors are prominent in much of our discourse and understanding of the Internet: consider the word Internet itself, as well as Netscape, Explorer, Mosaic, cyberspace, Web, Information Superhighway, search engines, domains, sites, homepages, surfing, hyperlinks, information architecture, and so forthall spatially informed metaphors.
The role of spatiality has been articulated by Bakhtin (1981) in his concept of the chronotope, the construction of, literally, "time space." Bakhtin speaks of the chronotope as "provid[ing] the ground essential for the showing-forth, the representability of events" (p.250).
The ethereal domain of the Web offers an especially fertile ground for the construction of chronotopes, as a dominant representation of space has yet to consolidate itself among the diverse experiments shaping the new medium. Because the resources and interests that individuals bring to the Web are different from those of institutional producers, contending chronotopes might feasibly arise to accommodate and validate their different communication strengths. How, then, do homepage authors represent what they are doing with their electronic publishing? What kinds of chronotopes engender representability and legitimate activity on personal homepages?
I surveyed over 100 authors of personal homepages and analyzed their homepages. Evidence from this sample suggests that, like computer users in general, many Web authors filled the vacuum of the Web with spatial references.
As expected by the nomenclature "homepage," some of my informants conceived of their compositions with metaphors from what would be the primary territorial domain of individuals and nuclear families: the home. There are several references to "homes" and "houses," a "residence," and parts of homes such as "rooms," "corners," "kitchens," and so forththese are not references to real rooms and kitchens but to virtual ones invoked on the Web.
Other usages were a bit more extroverted in reaching beyond the home to create metaphors of communal or public spaces. The sample includes a "Tea House"; a "Bistro and coffee bar"; a "Bar & Grill" franchise with four "Locations" in four different cities, which are really four separate URLs; a "Whisky-Bar"; an "Arena"; what appears to be a restaurant ("Chéz Kyall"); a "Den of Delights"; a "castle"; and, for the more civic-minded, a "Meeting Place" and a "village hall".
The salience of these spatial metaphors, the majority of which constitute site titles or section titles of personal homepages, suggests that they play more than a perfunctory role. Indeed, as titles, they would play the foundational role of creating an orientation to a document, underpinning their site authors' conceptions of their work and of surfers' first impressions of these sites.
So we have specific spatialized settings for some Web homepages. Let's now consider the action enabled and performed by such settings, in particular the social actions.
First, a space facilitates the work the author must do to legitimize the otherwise suspiciously vain, egocentric exercise of putting up a personal homepage. Our very nomenclature for these thingscalling them "homepages"helps deflect such stigma and legitimize our place in this new medium. After all, everyone, we assume, has rights to a home, and by extension everyone should thereby presumably have rights to a homepage. (Had these things instead been called "electronic brochures" or "electronic billboards" or "electronic books"and of course brochures and billboards and books are organizational prerogatives, not things that most ordinary people do on their own behalfthen an individual's posting of such electronic documents would seem all the more preposterous.)
A text's positing of a "space" may thus be seen as a social act of legitimizing its author's very presence on the Web in the first place. Anne Freadman, in her work on genres, points out that a text performs its function in part by establishing a place to speak:
[P]lace' is no mere metaphor. . . . A society is, in this sense, a system of quite literal places, and the setting of a text may be read as a symbolic representation of the work the text does to find a place to speak. . . . (1987, p.110)These newfangled things called homepages do not emerge out of a traditional place to speak. Thus, as interlopers in the mass media, homepage authors may be proactively staking their claim, marking their place to speak. A metaphorical territoriality offers them some of the franchise that has always been adjoined to property. Defining the Web in this way, individuals have at least a nominally equal right to contribute to this mass medium as institutions do. Defined otherwise(as an "electronic billboard" or indeed) as the "Information Superhighway"the Web would offer fewer rights of franchise to information-poor citizens. After all, we may drive on highways, but we don't ourselves presume to build parts of them.
After legitimizing a personal homepage, spatiality can support that page's ongoing activities, what its authors can be and do and what its surfers are emplotted to see and do. Bakhtin discusses how familiar social scenes such as the road, the castle, the parlour make possible certain kinds of narrative transactions (1981, pp.243-47). Kenneth Burke would view such a function as, in part, a completion of the dramatistic dimensions of a situation, as he writes, "both act and agent require scenes that contain' them" (1945/1969, p.15). Likewise, the social scene evoked on the Web can index certain kinds of positions and transactions.
It is revealing that almost all of the spaces evoked by participants provide human-scale settings: homes and social venues. In contrast with the national and multinational status of much of the Web's landscapes, such human-scale spaces are proportional to the social action and interaction of human agents.
For instance, one participant maintains a large site entitled "Kevin's Bar & Grill." In his survey responses, he describes how his initial conception of a specific social space provided him with a familiar precedent for an otherwise unfamiliar project: "I started with the basic concept of a corner pub, and then extrapolated what areas people would want to hang out in." Among his site's features are, for instance, what he refers to as a "wall" of comments posted to him by "customers" (surfers to the site).
Such chronotopes redefine Web sites from their defaults as information repositories into social venues. Many of these metaphorical spaces, such as homes, bars, cafes, restaurants, and galleries, function as familiar locales that occasion socializing among strangers. They can bring the author of a site into the scene as a protagonist, an appealing vantage for Web authors, many of whom are young and not often protagonists in their non-Web lives.
Such chronotopes also emplot guests, customers, conversants. Human-scale chronotopes evince the kinds of transactions that can take place among social equals, a citizen-to-citizen exchange. The space furnishes a representational ground for touring the locale, sharing hypertext visits to favorite destinations, filling out a guestbook entry, "conversing" with the site author by e-mail, and so forth. In this rendering, the Web is not about information narrowly conceived, but about socializing.
We can see this in authors' discursive behaviour. Tellingly, since most of the settings evoked on personal homepages are of a scale such that their entire space is within earshot, the small enclosed spaces naturalize the use not of the written language but of the colloquial speaking voice. The diction these authors use, as well as the range of textual featuressuch as multiple exclamation points and ellipses; diversity of typography such as upper-case letters and variable font formats and sizes; spellings modified to fit pronunciationall express the pace, tone, and volume of a voice, together with the accompanying facial expressions and full body comportment.
And that leads to a point about the larger plot encompassing these characters and actions. Overall, what many individuals are occupying their homepages with are deployments of their body. The chronotopes I've been discussing create a setting for such embodiment The colloquial discourse many go out of their way to use is compatible with such human-scale settings and is, according to Bourdieu, just a subset of the bodily repertoire, what he calls the body hexis, with which we engage our environment.
The sample of participants' Web sites reveals other dimensions of the body hexis: many participants revealed on their homepages their geographical locale (usually town, i.e., their home space), place of birth (again, their home space), travel photos (temporary spaces they've occupied), their body's appearance (through photographs) and age, nuclear family and their genealogical tree, etc. With such topics prominent among the contributions of personal Web authors, the non-space of cyberspace becomes invested with transcriptions of the corporeal. As Bourdieu maintains, the bodily hexis expresses "one's whole relation to the social world" (1991, p.86; 1977, p.660). The corporeal is the one resource with which each subject can claim to offer something unique.
That relation distances individuals' presences on the Web from those of institutions, which, of course, don't have a bodily hexis. Though the Internet has been publicly celebrated as an information resource, as the Information Superhighway, the body and its social space redefines the Web's situation as not so much epistemological as ontological. The knowledge resources with which to make relevant contributions are more convincingly claimed by institutional sites. By contrast, individuals' meaningful participation is consummated by creating a chronotope that enables them to occupy the Web metaphorically with transcriptions of their body: its extension in space, its duration in time, its geographical location past and present, the places it has been to, the sounds it makes with its face, its biological affiliations, and so forth. A primary orientation of the homepage author, the plot underlying his or her contribution, is the struggle to redefine the medium as a human social space, to assert a virtual presence corporeally, to say simply "I am here."
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