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Cultural Aspects of Communication Processes Online: Identity, Gender, and Language in Synchronous Cybercultures. Charlotte N.(Lani) Gunawardena Professor University of New Mexico USA EDEN 08 Annual Conference June 11-14 June, Lisbon. How Do We Learn? Where Do We Learn?.

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Cultural Aspects of Communication Processes Online:Identity, Gender, and Language in Synchronous Cybercultures

Charlotte N.(Lani) Gunawardena


University of New Mexico


EDEN 08 Annual Conference

June 11-14 June, Lisbon

how do we learn where do we learn
How Do We Learn? Where Do We Learn?
  • How do diverse sociocultural contexts shape communication processes online?
  • What are the communication conventions naturally developed by Internet users when they use the medium informally?





sri lanka
Sri Lanka





  • Generate a conceptual framework of sociocultural factors in visually anonymous synchronous chat by studying the informal use of the medium (often to build relationships with strangers)
research questions focused on
Research Questions Focused on:
  • How is identity expressed in informal visually anonymous online chat?
  • Are there gender differences in the negotiation of identity?
  • How is language used to express identity and communicate online?
study design
Study Design
  • Qualitative, ethnographic perspective to examine communication conventions and conduct interviews
  • Grounded theory building to develop a conceptual framework
  • Focus group and individual interviews conducted in Moroccan Arabic, French, Sinhala, Tamil & English
  • Interdisciplinary research team of 4: USA (1), Morocco (2), Sri Lanka (1).
similarities and differences in the study contexts
Similarities and Differences in the Study Contexts
  • Morocco – Arab, Berber, Muslim, Mediterranean African country, more recently colonized by the French, speaking Standard Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, Berber, and French
  • Sri Lanka – Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim country, predominantly Buddhist, more recently colonized by the English, speaking Sinhala, Tamil, and English.
  • General public who used Internet Cafés and university students who used the Internet in campus labs
  • Specifically those who used chat to communicate with people they do not know
  • Morocco – 55 adults (36 males, 19 females)
  • Sri Lanka – 50 adults (33 males, 17 females)
findings emerging conceptual framework
Findings: Emerging Conceptual Framework
  • Identity
    • Trust building
    • Self disclosure
      • Gender differences
  • Innovation of language forms to express identity and generate immediacy
tokens of identity
Tokens of Identity
  • ASL (Age, Sex, and Location)
  • Depending on context will reveal true identity, create a different identity, or blend identity in and ID (e.g.: “lone wolf”)
  • Moroccan concept of self is collective –calling on traits of groups to establish identity
  • Moroccans often caught between the “high context” world of Moroccan culture and the “low context” world of their European interlocutors
identity play
Identity Play
  • Anonymity - more open expression of identity –need not conform to social expectations of stating sex, geographical origin, class, age, etc.
  • Age and sex are more important than location when expressing identity. Location hinders access.
  • Stereotyping takes place more easily in text only environments (e.g.: Mohammed to “Green Python” to gain access to people)
  • Identity can be changed to appeal to different audiences
crossing boundaries
Crossing Boundaries
  • Role play in anonymous chat – Posing as Europeans or claiming a different gender identity
  • Construction of cybernetic identities enabled disenfranchised persons and communities to deal with exclusion & marginalization. Eg: AinLeuh – where the café is the domain of men, women make connections with men outside their community through the Internet
identity and trust building
Identity and Trust Building
  • Techniques to determine trust worthiness:
    • Asking a series of questions in the initial encounter and asking the same questions later to determine consistency
    • Extensive exaggeration usually signals someone faking “gender”
    • Mobile phones to verify authencity
trust building and use of media
Trust Building and Use of Media
  • Chatters have “heirarchized” methods of communication:
    • Chatting – low risk, easy to dismiss
    • E-mail – more personal and presents a larger risk than chat. More serious and honest when compared to chat.
    • Mobile phones – are riskier and incorporate a level of trust.
identity trust building and self disclosure
Identity, Trust Building and Self Disclosure
  • Disclosure of private life and personal experiences increases trust building
  • Self disclosure and building trust enhances social presence
  • Anonymity increases ability to self-disclose.
  • Anonymity also encourages superficial relationships
gender differences
Gender Differences
  • Virtual identities breach the dichotomy of public and private space in Moroccan society (Graiouid 2004). Females enjoy the anonymity which allows them to build relationships without compromising themselves.
  • Sri Lankan women less comfortable with self-disclosure online
gender differences1
Gender Differences
  • Women will take the extra effort to resolve misunderstandings even if the relationship is not that strong
  • Females reported being harassed online, and therefore, were more cautious
  • Native language is transliterated on the Latin keyboard to increase social presence

Moroccan Arabic in Latin Script:


(“Since they buried him, they forgot about him,”

an expression which means “After you used me,

you forgot me”)

3 7 9


II. Why = 3lach


III. Salam 3alikoum ! (Greeting)

IV. Numbers used to express Arabic

characters and sounds

3 → ع (ain)

9 → ق (kah)

8 → ه (hah)


Examples of Sinhala written in English:

Ayubowan – How are you?

Paw – I feel sorry for you

Hondai – good

Examples of Tamil written in English:

Aniyayam – what a waste!

language of chat
Language of Chat
  • Different idioms to express realness- feel of the conversation
  • Ideas or opinions that acknowledge chatter’s culture
  • French used for polite conversations, Moroccan Arabic to deal with conflict and difficult situations
  • Emoticons
  • Using other media- cell phones, webcams, e-mail
  • Challenge- in a high context culture, providing context when typing is difficult
language continued
Language (continued)
  • Paralanguage –a method for communicating social information – imagined ID, or pseudonym
  • Different font sizes and colors:
    • To enhance photos
    • Comic sans for friends
    • Arial and Century Gothic for more formal communication
implications for learning cultures
Implications for Learning Cultures
  • Expression of identity is important for relationship building, but self-disclosure is not easy, especially for women. Developing protocols for introductions will help
  • Creation of identity enables one to experience the world in a new way – will lend itself well to role play & simulations
  • Anonymity is important to facilitate honest dialogue on controversial issues
implications for learning cultures1
Implications for Learning Cultures
  • Posting photos with introductions can lead to stereotyping and reduce anonymity. It is important to devise other means of self-disclosure and provide a comfort zone especially for women
  • Context is key to understanding messages and participants should be encouraged to provide context to enable the deciphering of a message
future considerations
Future Considerations:
  • How is identity, gender and language expressed in virtual worlds such as Second Life?
  • This study will be published as a book chapter in the forthcoming book on “Learning Cultures” edited by Robin Goodfellow and Marie Noelle Lamy of the Open University, U.K., to be published by Continuum.
  • U.S. Dept. of State Fulbright Regional Research Scholarship 2004-2005
  • Research Assistants:
    • Fadwa Bouachrine, Al-Akhawayn University, Ifrane, Morocco
    • Ahmed Idrissi Alami, University of Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah, Fez, Morocco
    • Gayathri Jayatilleke, Open University of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka