Emoticons and Community Building in “Learn” (2)

… Gunawardena and Zittle (1997) found that social presence was a strong predictor of learner satisfaction in a text-based, web-based computer conference and that participants felt a higher sense of social presence by using emoticons … (Andreatta, 2003, p. 92).

“Used in context to illustrate a sentence that would otherwise be ambiguous, emoticons allow for an additional dimension of meaning to be achieved” (Andreatta, 2003, p. 97).


To recap:  our Sakai-based “Learn” CMS gives users the option to add emoticons to any Private Message or Discussion posting.  I can also add them to any Announcement.  While I’ve been trying to avoid comparisons between “Learn” and WebCT features and design, the fact is that many of my Rhetoric and the WWW students have previously used WebCT—which doesn’t include an emoticons tool.  I think this fact is relevant in framing recent student discussions in about emoticons (and netspeak) as strategies for rhetorically constructing web communities.

A bit of context setting: 
one of the major course assignments is a team seminar.  I won’t go into details yet about team formation and other kinds of scaffolding; for now it’s helpful to know that each team (3 or 4) had about a month to prepare a collaborative presentation on one of a number of given topic-areas pertaining to how web communities are rhetorically constructed.  I gave each team its own discussion forum to plan their work, upload work in process, and stay in touch. 

At the beginning of March, all teams submitted their presentations to me for content feedback.  I then assigned each team its own 3-day seminar presentation time and separate discussion forum.  So now every three days (weekends excluded), a new team uploads a final version of its presentation (a Word doc with visuals/links, or a PowerPoint), creates 3 – 4 threads with a governing discussion question arising out of its presentation, and then monitors/responds to/summarizes class comments.

One of the topic choices for the team assignment was to consider community building in “Learn.”  In focusing on emoticons and netspeak, the first team seminar chose “Learn” as one of three web sites under discussion.  With that in mind, the team asked such questions as—

•    Do emoticons and netspeak strengthen or diminish online community building?
•    When and where is it appropriate to use them?
•    Are emoticons/netspeak authoritative communication strategies—and if so, will that continue or decline?
•    Do emotions/netspeak help participants identify with an online community?
(I’ve paraphrased these questions and shall do the same with selected responses, except my own.)

In my last entry, I indicated a few reasons why I’ve chosen to use the emoticons-tool.  During the seminar, I tried to explain my choice to my students:

This team has raised the question—and several of you have also commented—on the use of emoticons here in Learn.  If this space is supposed to be the equivalent of a classroom, and if participants should therefore be minding their Ps and Qs, then why am I sprinkling them around so liberally?  I’ll not hide the fact that as the instructor, I’ve been trying to “model” or promote the idea that in this “classroom,” it’s okay to smile, laugh, frown, or groan!

Note, of course, my stress on trying to “model” a rhetorical act.  I set out using emoticons as a course design tool to help students feel they can identify with our “Learn”-ing community. 

None of the students responded to my post directly (which may or may not mean anything).  But as I followed this seminar, I picked out various attitudes about emoticons.  One student noted that in an online community, participants should follow the lead of those around them in determining how formal or informal their style should be.  There seemed to be a strong consensus among students that emoticons are informal.  Along those lines, several postings placed emoticons (along with netspeak) firmly under “casual communication only.”  In one or two instances, emoticons were equated with the way a younger generation communicates.

BTW, I’ve posted a link in “Learn” to an article from C-Net which notes that emoticons are now a quarter-century old, yet often still equated with “the younger generation”.

Several postings expressed the view that as an overused shorthand language, emoticons (again often equated with netspeak) can’t or shouldn’t be taken seriously.  One posting argued that emoticons are an unnecessary visual element whose use undercuts any value in the textual message.

At least one posting expressed dismay at the thought of emoticons becoming acceptable in workplace communication.  Interestingly, my non-U of W workplace uses Eudora (that workhorse of workplace e-mail systems), which has a built-in emoticons tool.  But I notice we use emoticons only for informal messages and only if the people already know each other.

At least two comments spoke to emoticons’ potential for irony, or even deception—traits endemic to any form of online communication.  How can we know that a “smile” really means a smile, asked one student.  Surely no one uses the “sad” face for any reason other than ironic, suggested another.

Finally, as this team noted, I—the professor—am the only one who uses emoticons regularly in “Learn” (one student uses them fairly often, and a few use them occasionally).  I have a theory about that, which I’ll share in my next entry.

Now that you have a sense of some of the students’ attitudes toward emoticons, look again at the two quotes at the beginning of this entry (as well as the ones in the previous entry).  See any contradictions? 
;- )  

More to come …

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1 Comment

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One response to “Emoticons and Community Building in “Learn” (2)

  1. Anonymous

    Emoticons, Ethos and Assessment
    Hi Amanda,
    These are interesting examples of your students’ opinions concerning emoticons. It certainly is the case that the appearance of a emoticon looses things up considerably in an email or posting (whether or not one uses the fancy icons or the ascii text faces). One thing I started to think about as I read your thoughts on your students responses is how I would respond to a message with emoticons if I didn’t know the person too well, or if the message was dealing with a formal issue. The presence of a smilely may or may not put me at ease. It could, depending on the circumstances, make me question the seriousness of the person writing the message, or even discount what I’m reading as not very important. It all depends on context, of course, which perhaps is one of the reasons why people equate emoticons with some sense of social presence in the rather two-dimensional world of text. But why is there suddenly a need for emoticons when people have been authoring sophisticated ideas in text for some time. Would Swift’s “Modest Proposal” be less likely to be misinterpreted by first year students if he had slipped in some well-placed emoticons (winking faces, I’m sure)? Do emoticons provide important body-language for text or are they just short-cuts to save time in constructing rhetorically refined and controlled statements?
    In the context of a writing course (or a course that deals with rhetorical analysis and such), another issue to think about is assessment. Students know quite well that they are being assessed on their writing, and they’ve likely internalized a lot of rules concerning what constitutes formal, academic writing. Some students might feel a bit self-conscious or, anxious, even, about being too informal in a discussion forum, unless of course some effort has been made to clearly define the criteria for evaluation within the forums (if they are being evaluated). And it can be awkward, to say the least, to swear, use slang or be too informal around people who are in positions of authority (like instructors), so I’m sure that some students are not quite comfortable clicking on an emoticon when in a classroom (even if it is an online one).
    I look forward to hearing your additional theories on why some students are more or less comfortable with these textual/visual hybrid structures!
    Jeff

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