Research on the Virtual / Digital Discourse
The interest in the virtual discourse began to manifest in the 1980s, when some linguists signalled the effect of electronic communication on language . Thus, the study of virtual discourse focuses on language and language usage in the electronic environment, involving the application of methods of discourse analysis to interpret it.
In the first instance, the preoccupations for virtual discourse turned to a certain discursive genre, materialising in descriptions of virtual communication systems (the IBM synchronous message system or the Swedish COM conference system). Since the 1990s, an exploration has been made of this type of discourse.
The first wave of studies, focusing either on empirical descriptions of language in the virtual environment or on the variety of discourse in this environment, appears as a reaction to the existing perception of the virtual discourse. It is known that, in general, certain properties have been routinely attributed to virtual communication such as anonymity, impersonalism, egalitarianism, fragmentation or orality, generated by the nature of the channel. These studies have contributed to the development of the research axis by individualising this type of discourse and plotting its boundaries as a discoursive genre.
Subsequently, the studies on the discourse revealed the indisputable influence that situational and technical factors exert on communication, generating its variety and complexity. The importance of environmental characteristics for understanding the nature of language in the digital environment has been demonstrated, while the effects of the electronic environment on the users’ linguistic behaviour have been pointed out. Moreover, these particularities create a unique, special environment that, far from the competitive influence of other communication channels or the physical context, allows the study of verbal interaction and of the relationship between discourse and social practice.
The idea is that the virtual environment considerably marks the communication process in all its aspects, especially the way in which it unfolds. Both changes in the communication practices regarding the type of interaction and writing, the content of communication and the public exposure (by adopting a virtual identity) are mentioned as well as the emergence and development of certain social communication channels (blog, forums, social networks) .
In terms of organisational interactions in the virtual environment, P. Levy emphasises the role played by the computer and the virtual networks in creating the interactive character of communication: ‘The cyber-space provides cooperative construction tools for a common context for multiple, geographically scattered groups. The communication highlights its entire pragmatic dimension. It is no longer a diffusion or a transport of the message, but an interaction within a situation that everybody seeks to alter or stabilize, a negotiation of meanings, a process of mutual recognition and a contribution of individuals/groups in the communication process’ .
Herring identifies two features of the virtual environment as sources of barriers in organising the interaction :
Interruption/fragmentation of the chaining of replies caused by the fact that the messages are posted in the order they are received by the system, without taking into account the message with which a reply is related.
Absence of simultaneous feedback due to reduced audiovisual indices.
Verbal exchanges in the electronic environment are characterised by more rapidity than those specific to the written form of communication (e.g. letters, published essays, which require the other’s response). On the other hand, compared to oral verbal exchanges, in the electronic environment, the verbal exchanges take place at a significantly slower pace, even in situations when the forms of electronic communication unfold in real time.
The discourse in the virtual environment allows the simultaneous participation of several interlocutors, which is difficult if not impossible in other environments due to cognitive limits on the ability of participants to perform more than one exchange at a particular moment .
Dissemination of electronic messages implies a transfer of information that does not occur in a context of coexistence: the transmitter and the receiver are not in the same physical context; the transmitter addresses a receiver he or she does not see and sometimes does not even know. Nevertheless, apparently, this fact leaves the impression of direct interaction, even ‘private’, in the opinion of King .
All these particularities of the discourse, which derive from the specificity of the environment in which it takes place, create the feeling of a distinct experience to the protagonists in relation to what the written or oral communication provides. Face-to-face interaction has a rich informational transfer environment updated in the many channels that go into operation: visual, auditory, gustatory, tactile, etc. In contrast, virtual communication only has a visual and sometimes auditory channel for transmitting information. The finding led to the conclusion that the electronic environment is an inappropriate one for the development of social relations. Despite the lack of specific direct communication indices, this claim was denied by the many expressive possibilities used by participants.
The electronic environment allows interlocutors to act/interact concomitantly on multiple communication channels (e.g. they listen to music while chatting). This capacity offered by new communication technologies is called polyfocality .
In contrast, the virtual environment is permissive from this point of view, the phenomenon being called mutual monitoring possibilities: writing or engaging in a discussion in the real world does not impede a chat conversation at all, for example. Moreover, the environment gives users the opportunity to manifest themselves in the primary involvement without the interlocutor/interlocutors might feel offended. It is a shift in attention, in focus, which ultimately works as a limit imposed by the environment.
Therefore, communication in the virtual environment appears both permissive and coercive: on the one hand, it expands the possibilities of the interlocutors, on the other it restricts. In this sense, attention is more a social issue than an individual one, always being manifested in relation to someone (paying attention to someone/attracting someone’s attention). Debray  uses the concept of mediology by attributing it a meaning that embraces both the one of ‘communication media’ and a significance related to their function.
Refraining from focusing on the means in a strict sense and rather focusing on their functional valences of the communication (‘to be in between’, to bind, to organise), this design implies understanding the concept of means in the present-day communication in a broader sense, given by the indissociable cohabitation of the technology and the social.
Encompassing the meaning of the interactional field, the context in virtual communication implies the social-individual game (which allows us to live together separately). According to Bougnox , technical equipment acquire their profound significance, completed by utilisation: ‘No technique in itself carries its full meaning, as no statement is carrying meaning outside its enunciation’.
The analysis of the discourse seeks to understand the interactions in society, by trying to identify and analyse the rules used by individuals, the relationship between the linguistic regularities, on the one hand, meanings and finality, on the other hand that are negotiated through the discourse. In this respect, Maingueneau points out that the object of discourse analysis is neither the textual organisation in itself nor the communication situation, but the ‘enunciative device that correlates a textual organization and a determined social place’ .
In the opinion of van Dijk, ‘discourse analysis gives us powerful and yet subtle instruments of highlighting the everyday manifestations of social problems in communication and interaction’ . Rovenţa-Frumuşani  highlights the legitimacy of research that is found both at the level of content interpretation—through the existence of units that can only be dealt with using the discourse framework and the interpretation of the discourse that exceeds the sum of the meanings of the sentences—and at the level of the text-context relationship, using the ability to elucidate the utilization of language by individuals in real situations.
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Lavinia Suciu (April 3rd 2019). Introductory Chapter: Discourse and Discourse Analysis. A Retrospective Approach, Advances in Discourse Analysis, Lavinia Suciu, IntechOpen, DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.82823. Available from: https://www.intechopen.com/chapters/65233
- Title: “Research on the virtual/digital discourse”
- Authors: “Lavinia Suciu”
- Source: “https://www.intechopen.com/”
- License: “CC BY 3.0”