The Web is relatively unique, among the electronic and mass media, in hosting voices as disparate as those of large institutions and of ordinary individuals. Such a heterogeneous media environment would lead us to ask about the possible dynamic, the possible influences, between these disparate "classes" of discourse producers.
My paper does this by proposing a theoretical model of the ideological influence of corporate media practices and bureaucratic discourses on what may be recognized as their undisciplined progeny: personal homepages. I begin by sketching this theoretical model. This model draws its empirical inspiration from a survey of 106 publishers of personal homepages, together with an analysis of their homepages. From these homepages, I'll then present evidence of institutional patrimony in the discourse by which homepage publishers both present themselves in public and seek relations with their public.
Discursive Colonization and Synthetic Institutionalization
The new communication uses and users fostered by a new medium can stir up some discursive turbulence, as discourses migrate into the newly opened communications vacuum. When discourses migrate beyond their original environments, discourse analyst Norman Fairclough (1989) urges that we look for causes in the dynamics of social and political power. Fairclough writes of how discourses from one area of the social structure can "colonize" other areas (pp.197-98). He singles out the discourses of consumerism and bureaucracy as particularly pervasive (p.198). For instance, one site of such discursive colonization familiar to North American educators is higher education, in which, in one case, "deliverables" are now being offered in lieu of "education," "consumers" are now being served in lieu of "students," all of this being done by us "suppliers" (Emberley, 1996).
As with imperial military colonization, discursive colonization promotes ideological reorganization (Fairclough, 1989, p.36). It crowds out alternative discourses and thus alternative perspectives and practices and thereby naturalizes the colonizer's perspectives and practices. On computer networks and in hypermedia, such a discursive colonization can support the political, economic, technological, and ideological colonizations warned of by several researchers (e.g., Johnson-Eilola (1997, p.101, 211), Selfe and Selfe (1994, p.482), Hawisher and Selfe (2000a, p.9, 15; and 2000b, p.286), McConaghy and Synder (2000), and Sullivan and Fernandez (2000)).
Fairclough (1989) observes another kind of discursive migration, which he calls "synthetic personalization," occurring between two extremely different kinds of voices: institutional and individual. To illustrate this concept, Fairclough discusses a tactic of advertising and bureaucratic discourses, which, he observes, often represent institution-to-consumer relations in the guise of person-to-person relations. To do this, an institution appropriates a human voice. Synthetic personalization seems superficially to be at odds with discursive colonization, since these two processes advance discourses with opposite registers of power. Yet, in Fairclough's view, synthetic personalization, like colonization, may be seen as a discursive tactic to exercise power (p.62); by "simulat[ing] . . . solidarity," synthetic personalization acts as a "strategy of containment" (p.195).
The appearance of personalizing practices on the Web has been noted by Joseph Walther in his observations 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" (1996, p.31). Similarly, Kevin Hunt describes cases of commercial Web sites that feature pages about their employees. He characterizes this practice as illustrative of what he calls "communal ethos," an ethos built of the connections among Web information sources and people (1996, pp.380-86).
On some of the Web sites of individuals, however, I am observing a reciprocal practice, similar to synthetic personalization but in the opposite direction. Individuals' personal Web spaces are being colonized by the discourses of institutions. Institutions, through their long pedigree in the media, have honed their discursive practices to best achieve their media objectives. Individuals, by contrast, who as a class have hitherto been effectively excluded from participating in the mass media on their own terms, would of course carry less media savvy in their communicative repertoire. Genre researchers Joanne Yates and Wanda J. Orlikowski (1992) observe that communicators in a new medium will draw on familiar genres from an antecedent medium. Several personal homepage researchers, including Jay Bolter (2000, p.20), Daniel Chandler (1998), Joseph R. Dominick (1999, p.646), Anna-Malin Karlsson (1998), and Hugh Miller (1995), have enumerated a number of pre-Web genres that they have observe on personal homepages, collectively offering repeated mentions of such widely familiar genres as résumés and advertisements. Prospective homepage publishers, we may postulate, would be seeking genres, models of how to behave in the media, yet with few role models of their own kind, they would be susceptible to influences from well-established media mentors. Their voices are thereby open to colonization by the handy and prominent models of institutions' public discourses.
Following Fairclough's lead, I will adapt the usage "synthetic personalization" and refer to this colonization of individuals' Web texts by institutional discourses as a process of "synthetic institutionalization": individuals on the Web adopting the voices of institutions. Synthetic institutionalization aligns individuals' amateur presences in the media with those of the media's most established classes: the .com's, .org's, etc. Simultaneously, however, individuals' collective identity as a separate class of discourse producers, a citizenry, risks being debased. Just as institutions, through synthetic personalization, affect solidarity with their human audience and thereby muddle that populations' sense of its own cohesiveness, citizens, through synthetic institutionalization, affect institutional mannerisms and thereby similarly muddle their own class identity. Institutional mannerisms might potentially delegitimize alternative individual stances and thereby diffuse citizens' potential solidarity as a new distinct class of migrants to the mass media.
Fairclough, in accounting for the relationship between language and its application of power, proposes that synthetic personalization manipulates two dimensions of human representation in discourse: subject positions and social relations (1989, p.217). I would propose that synthetic institutionalization would manipulate these same two dimensions:
Let's start with subject positions. Despite the label "personal homepages," several researchers have observed that most personal homepage publishers, surprisingly, do not display much of their personhood (e.g., Dillon and Gushrowski (2000), Dominick (1999), Nicola Döring (2002)). In my own study of over one hundred personal homepages, close to 45% of my sample did not make readily accessible even such basic personal information as their author's full name. In the tradition of institutional media discourse, there is little precedent, and few legitimate genres, for presenting ordinary people in public.
Among those of my participants who did present something of themselves, several drew on the discourse of one "correct," generic model of identity: the form. Consider, for example, the first few rows of one participant's form, which the participant introduces as encompassing her "vital stats":
Her "vital stats" resemble not so much a typical self-narrative of one's personhood in one's own voice but rather more, say, a driver's licence or a passport application or even a police report. Faithful to the format of the genre, this participant reproduces the expected category labels on the left-hand side of each cell, dutifully fills them in to the right, and tidily packages the display in a table. All of these categories identify some dimension of her body: size, age, color, background. Such an emphasis on demarcating the body, in part an effect of how we construct the female gender, would likely be reinforced by the cumulative action of encounters with institutional discourse, in particular bureaucratic genres, in which identities are often defined by seemingly objective or quantitative parameters of the body. She includes such information presumably because, well, that's what we always include in "official" presentations of ourselves.
The form is of course an institutional genre. Fairclough reminds us that the conventions embedded in "discourse type[s] embody ideological representations of subjects and their social relationships" (1989, p.157). In the case of official forms, Fairclough observes an increasingly prevalent "discourse technology" by which organizations both normalize the act of citizens revealing information about themselves and control the parameters and content of such self- revelation (p.218, 222). The form's anomalous appearance on personal homepages may thus be a result of the naturalization of this act of accommodating institutions and other public offerings of ourselves with structured, socio-economic confessions. In contrast with the conversational banter or expository prose with which we express ourselves in many other settings, this disciplined, Cartesian structure of the form bespeaks order and efficiency. Every piece of data about oneself is dignified with a hierarchical category label. The self-representation suggests not the slovenly human body but systematic institutional control. The form thus secures citizens' presumptuous debuts on the world stage. We can perhaps feel sure we are saying the right things about ourselves if we translate ourselves into "information" and display ourselves so officiously.
In introducing and describing themselves on their homepages, at least eleven participants in my study adopt this genre as if in response to elicited official versions of self-identity. Aside from these eleven, many other participants reveal about themselves primarily the kinds of classificatory information that is requested in forms or in other bureaucratic genres like resumes, information such as name, age, location, and employment, an observation shared by other personal homepage researchers as well (e.g., Karlsson (1998); Smith (1998, p.136); Stern (1999); Walker (2000, p.102)). Frequently, such information is presented in the format of a list or in telegraphic phrases rather than in narrative form.
Such forms illustrate how public subject positions for citizens can be partly derivative of the positions articulated by institutional practices. Citizen-publishers reproduce an image by which they would be recognized as definable, manageable objects of their socio-economic environment.
Let's now turn to social relations. According to the model of synthetic institutionalization, person-to-person relations on personal homepages are colonized by the discourse of institution- to-consumer relations. Let's look at one example of institution-consumer relations: loyalty programs.
Business practices offer familiar models of how consumer loyalty can be solicited and secured, such as with product and service improvements that remotivate consumers. On the Web, improvements may take the form of site changes or updates. All but five of the respondents I surveyed indicated that they intended to make further changes to their sites. While some explained that their sites would evolve organically as they themselves grow and change as persons, others conceived change as directly instrumental in getting results: maintaining the ethos of an active Web presence, encouraging return visits, and so forth. These participants, aware of the fickleness of customer loyalty, seem to conceive of site updates as a marketing strategy to maintain local traffic.
Perhaps the most ambitious application of such a strategy is the regularizing of site additions according to the calendar. For instance, seven sites in my sample make a promise of a weekly update. The most familiar models of these regularized updates are publishing schedules and other institutional practices that adopt precise units of time: weekly magazines, book-of-the-month clubs, quarterly reports, and, of course, the organization of most work lives in week-long segments. In institutional practice, such a control over time regulates the behavior of employees and habituates consumers to their consumption. In the synthetic institutionalization of personal homepages, the untamed time of organic personal change is colonized and disciplined by the power and precision of strategic planning. Such a regime not only presumably habituates surfers to revisit a site, but perhaps also habituates Webmasters to feel they must regularly update it.
Carrying out these promises of regularity is another matter. In five of these seven weekly practices, there is clear evidence in the dates of the site archives that the weekly intervals dragged on significantly longer than seven days. The most common pattern is a maintained commitment over the first few weeks, followed by periods of slack. Such tardiness exposes contradictions between the power of real institutions and the relative powerlessness of synthetic institutions. When these homepage publishers confront the discrepancy between advertised practice and actual practice, they are compelled to abandon the production regime implicated by synthetic institutionalization and return to an organic personal approach. For instance, one participant "apologize[s] for taking over a month to get a new link of the ‘week'...." Another participant introduces the "Joke of the Week Archive" by joking, "Additions have become a lot more sporadic than once per week, but it's still a catchy title!" After a lapse of several months, another participant re-introduces his "Haiku of the Week Archive" with a title page that blurts out, "Welcome to the Rebirth of Haiku: The Haiku of the Whataver! [sic]."
With such loyalty programs, institutional models offer what may seem to be media-savvy means of establishing and maintaining relations with surfers. While such familiar institutional models have worked well for institution-to-consumer relations, their transplantation to personal homepages may not bring about more fulfilling citizen-to-citizen relations. Synthetic institutionalization of citizens' relations potentially obscures alternative models of Web relations, such as those rooted in collaboration, or those that can be sustained by the flexibility of social and personal development rather than by the impersonal calendar.
So, to sum up, I've argued that because of the precedence institutions hold in the mass media, the new medium of the Web has been open territory for institutional colonization. Ordinary citizens, a class hitherto excluded from media participation on their own terms and therefore a class largely of media novices, are susceptible to colonialism's tacit logic: speak the colonizer's language; thus, when in the media, behave as a media entity, as a quasi- (synthetic-) institution. I want to caution that synthetic institutionalization is not a ubiquitous process but rather one of many ideological movements enacted on the Web. Nevertheless, as I have illustrated, the effects of this logic are apparent in some of the subject positions people occupy and some of the relations they promote, positions and relations that are derivative of those of the medium's primary colonizer.
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