Relational Flow and the World Wide Web: Conceptualising the Future of Web Content
While academic approaches to the Internet have highlighted the uniqueness of the medium as a technological form, little attempt has been made to analyse the way it is used in actual social contexts. Based on Raymond Williams' analysis of television as a cultural form, this paper argues that the World Wide Web is best understood as a relational medium. As the Web and the relationships it is employed to realise become increasingly commercial in character, Web publishers need to develop strategies to manage and construct a desirable flow. Trends evolving from the commodification of hyperlinks, such as the emergence of a hierarchy of value amongst Web site genres, disputes over the right to link between Web sites without permission and the development of "push media," suggests that the Web will continue to develop in a manner similar to traditional broadcast media despite its differences as a technological form.
Recently, the social practices enabled by the World Wide Web (WWW) have come to represent the future direction of Internet communications. The WWW, first proposed in 1989, has expanded beyond its original aims of promoting collaboration amongst scientists to serving as the public face of the Internet for its widespread diffusion in industrialised countries. In net jargon, it is the definitive "killer app." An application whose development and functional capabilities have become a new paradigm for exchanging information and communicating via the Internet.
The increasing prominence of the WWW has led to many changes in our use of the Internet. Most notably amongst them has been the emergence of a critical mass of users which has not only radically re-oriented the priorities of a pre-existing online services industry (Feldman, 1997), but also the viability of using the medium in increasingly commercial ways. The 1993 release of the first graphical Web browser, MOSAIC, is perhaps the single most profound event in the development of computer-mediated communication. The growth of Internet use has been phenomenal during this period, signaling a boom for other industries as well. Computer sales, telecommunications traffic and the emergence of Internet Service Providers, amongst others, are a testimony to the increasing value of computer-mediated communication.
As the Internet and the WWW have come to stand for a diverse range of social practices it is difficult (if not precarious) to predict future developments. The flexible nature of the medium coupled with the relative volatility of industries which support its development, makes it very difficult to foreshadow the future. For example, an increase in the cost of a local telephone call, or the introduction of timed local calls, could radically restructure use of the Internet by increasing the importance of time, bandwidth and traffic volume as a concern for Internet users. This simple change in the telecommunications industry could squelch the public's interest in home-based Internet communications and, by restricting the online services industry's ability to generate revenue, potentially decrease the attractiveness of new generations of multimedia computers, amongst other things.
The Internet as it is realised today rests upon a precarious mutual interdependence between high-tech industries. However, as the Internet and, more specifically, the World Wide Web become increasingly integral to the publicity, sales, and service delivery aspirations for the corporate sector, the number of stakeholders participating in its development increases. This paper proposes that recent trends in Internet publishing and communication are best understood through a comparison with the techniques associated with broadcasting. In particular, this paper will focus on the way in which the increasing commercial nature of the WWW will impact on its use in the future. As such, the aim of this paper is to present a grounded analysis of future trends in WWW publishing based on its characteristics as a technological and cultural form.
As the WWW becomes increasingly commercial in character, the communication
it enables is increasingly similar to the type of communication enabled
by the development and institutionalisation of previous media technologies.
As a result, we are currently witnessing the emergence of traditional broadcasting
industry configurations between the broader online industry, its texts
and audiences (Cunningham and Finn, 1996).
These trends represent a stark contrast between current uses of the Internet
and the rhetoric which has surrounded it throughout much of its development.
I would like to question the traditional contrasts we have made between
the Internet and older media forms. In addition, I would like to
assert the relevance of more traditional concepts of media and cultural
studies, such as genre, audience and Raymond Williams' concept of "flow"
(Williams, 1974), in achieving a greater understanding
of communication enabled by the Internet and how it is likely to develop.
The historical development of the Internet has been well documented (Rheingold, 1993). It is not my intention to trace that trajectory, again, here. However it is important to point out that recent trends in computer-mediated communication, such as the impact of the World Wide Web on the growth of Internet usage and its increasing commercial character, strike a marked difference from its previous incarnation as a government supported infrastructure used by researchers and academics. This difference is not only apparent in terms of content but also in the way the medium is used (Ie. in how individuals and most notably corporations make use of the medium in light of their different content and purposes).
These changes force one to take stock of previous claims surrounding the social, political and cultural importance of the Internet and dissect the discourses which have constituted the environment of ideas in which actual policy and industry decisions regarding its future are made. Traditionally, these discourses have based our understanding of computer-mediated environments on the decentralised and interactive nature of computing technology (Rheingold, 1993). From this emanates the tendency to contrast computer-mediated communication with the form of communication associated with the centralised institutions of broadcasting and the seemingly passive reception of content it promotes.
The two discourses implicated here are, firstly, those which articulate
the connection between use of the Internet and public participation in
civic affairs (Poster, 1997; Ess,
1996), as well as, those which stress a new form of textuality emanating
from the use of hypertext (Snyder, 1996; Landow,
1992; Bolter; 1991). The first discourse
addresses the potential for Internet communication to form a new benchmark
for citizen access to information and power. The second discourse addresses
the cultural impacts of the non-linear, or multisequential, nature of hypertext
and calls into question our traditional assumptions regarding the heretofore
passive role ascribed to "readers" in the production of meaning and therefore
their susceptibility to "preferred meanings" and ideological encoding.
While the Internet is often used as a forum for political participation and hypertext does indeed represent more scope for the reader to affect the unfolding of a "text," the understanding of future developments in computer-mediated communication must be grounded in the analysis of actual social contexts in which the technology is used. Various social contexts make use of the Internet differently. For some, Web publishing is a chance to add to the diversity of information available throughout the world and generate networks of contacts independent of geographical space. For others, it is another publishing venue from which to generate wealth. The WWW can accommodate both uses of the technology. As such, academic approaches to the Internet must be flexible enough to adapt to changing uses of the technology and be capable of addressing the broad range of applications which make up Internet use.
There has always been ambiguity regarding how to conceptualise Internet
communications vis a vis traditional media forms. Is the communication
enabled by the Internet a form of publishing? Is it private communication
- like traditional, or "snail," mail? The confusion is heightened
by the many software applications that can realise the communications potential
of the Internet differently. At the end of the day, the Internet
is series of telecommunications links using the TCP/IP suite of protocols,
amongst a few others, to exchange information. As White
(1996) has argued, the Internet is an abstract transactional space.
The software, hardware and technical standards which realize this space,
encode its functionality and ultimately shapes and constrains the behaviors
enabled via the medium.
The Internet, as a packet switched data network, is often cast as a vast decentralised space with no center or hierarchy. As a result, our understanding of the social, political and cultural implications of the Internet are based on a contrast with the centralised, and often tightly controlled, broadcast media. This contrast promotes speculation over the democratic impact of the Internet as potentially improving the overall health, diversity and participation in society's communications systems. While the lack of a central core of the Internet is true from the perspective of the network, its actual use and implementation can realise different results.
In Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Raymond Williams
(1974) argued that to really understand the uniqueness of television
as a communications technology one needs to analyse not only its content,
but also the way television presents its content (Ie. the way different
types of audiovisual content were presented in sequence or as a flow).
Concepts like genre, borrowed from the analysis of film and literature,
are able to deal with audiovisual content, but not the actual way that
content is delivered via television. The concept of flow captures
all the "messiness" of television as a cultural form and as it is integrated
into a set of practices known as broadcasting.
In all developed broadcasting systems the characteristic organisation, and therefore the characteristic experience, is one of sequence or flow. This phenomenon, of planned flow, is then perhaps the defining characteristic of broadcasting, simultaneously as a technology and as a cultural form. (Williams, 1974; pg. 86.)Williams was pointing to the fact that all previous forms of media were stand alone entities or events. Whereas with television, we are actually presented with various sequences of content with each channel presenting its own alternative version as a broadcasting strategy. Williams' concept of flow in television applies to interaction on the WWW as well. Rather than merely visiting a set of discrete content repositories, "browsing" the Web is actually more like constructing a "flow" from link to link and, most probably, site to site.
Of course, the interactive nature of Web environments gives the user more control over the flow than is the case in traditional broadcast media. On commercial television the flow is seemingly dominated by programming strategies aimed at holding an audience over an evenings' viewing as well as clustering specific demographic groups around specific times for the benefit of advertisers (e.g. female viewers in the afternoon, teenage viewers in the early evening, etc.). The concept of genre is a key factor in allowing broadcasters to manage and plan a successful sequence or flow.
How then do Web designers manage and plan a successful flow? Observing recent trends in Web publishing reveals a number of strategies by which flow is managed, typically surrounding the strategic use of hyperlinks. The concept of genre also plays a key role in the enactment of flow via the WWW. However, I wish to propose an alternative construction of genre to the one that is adapted from literature for the study of film and television: One that, rather, is based on the qualities of genre that are characterised by the knowledge we draw on in our everyday interactions in real world social situations.
Indeed all social interaction, including computer-mediated communication, is generic to some extent. When we communicate with others we enact typical patterns of behaviour based on our knowledge of social situations as well as social roles and types. These behaviours build into repertoires over time and become our backdrop of cultural knowledge we draw on in everyday life. When we encounter others we typically have some way of understanding who they are and what we are both meant to be doing and saying. Computer-mediated communication, including interaction over the WWW, works the same way, as users, over time, develop a sense of digital literacy by which they can interpret online encounters and behaviour. As such, based on our generic expectations of digital events we come to understand who people, or entities are, what they want, or are trying to accomplish.
One could argue that the very success of the graphical interface is the way it draws on our taken for granted everyday knowledge through iconic and metaphoric representations of objects, events and types of space. However, in the case of interaction on the Web, our understanding of flow often foregrounds such questions as who is the provider of this content? Why have they published it on the Web? Given what I want to know, who on the Web is likely to provide such information? It is questions like these that make up the necessary literacy which is capable of constructing a successful flow on the WWW.
In summary, our knowledge of genre is integral to our ability to understand
the WWW. As is the case with everyday social interaction, to be successful
on the Web we need to understand who we are dealing with. As Web
publishing becomes increasingly promotional in nature, I argue that we
need to look at how Web sites relate to the user as well as how they relate
to the rest of the Web in order to meet with success. In the absence
of a real world interlocutor, the textual cues through which our dialogue
partner is presented become vital to reconstructing their aims and purposes.
The virtual spaces created by computer networks are only enabled through the concept of interface. At one point in time the interface to the world of cyberspace was distinctly unattractive and difficult to use. Online services, such as text-based videotex systems, were greeted less than enthusiastically in their first commercial incarnations, the French Teletel system being the exception (Aumente, 1987). Graphical Interfaces to the WWW have altered this situation dramatically and have laid the foundation for the emergence of a digital literacy which will shape future uses of the Internet.
Interfaces are semiotic resources which construct or play on situation types. Situation types develop characteristic ways of conveying experience and encoding relationships which become a cultural resource that is known and made use of by participants. For example, the encoding of relational communication markers (tone, mode of address, formality, politeness) in the interface of automatic banking machines most likely promoted their use. Ironically, when compared to actual encounters with tellers in your typical urban bank the interface is perhaps more polite and inviting than the grunts and monosyllabic patter that normally takes place. It is in this sense that the interface is a proxy for a real-world person. On the Web, the participants would be the user and the Web site designer. However, it is important to note that while the relational proxy is encoded by the designer, it typically reflects the goals and aspirations of a third party organisation who has commissioned the use of Web technology.
In previous research looking at the linguistic realisation of relational tenor in computer interfaces it was found that one of the characteristics of menu and command language interfaces was that in their attempts to simulate face to face communication an appropriate relational tenor was rarely carried through (van Leeuwen & Shaner, 1990). A user might be greeted with the friendliest of welcomes, but when something goes wrong they are greeted with "Error Type 1" or "Fatal Execution Error" - or worse, the computer might hang and not respond at all; the ultimate in rudeness. It is moments like these, points of Heideggerian breakdown in human-computer interaction (Winograd & Flores, 1987), that the user is forced to question their taken-for-granted mode of operating and examine the cultural knowledge which has guided their behaviour.
By avoiding the temptation to draw upon face-to-face communication as a metaphor for our interactions with computers, graphical browsers make better use of our cultural knowledge of objects and events. Better in the sense that the experience offered by the WWW doesn't rely on a model for interaction that it can never carry through. Over time, our experiences in these contexts for action contribute to the development of a digital literacy, which accumulates over time and becomes crucial to Web browsing. However, resisting the temptation to model face-to-face interaction does not completely remove a relational element from our interactions on the Web. Instead, it becomes even more crucial to understand the contextual factors regarding the type of relationship being offered, or realised, the more implicit it becomes. Our knowledge of genre needs to move beyond equating the term with "types of content," to addressing the relational aspect of computer interaction and its connection to types of Web content.
As the WWW begins to generate some stability in the contexts for action it presents to users, we come to understand what is being asked of us, who we are dealing with and what we might like to do. For example, knowledge regarding the structure and meaning of domain names can provide a Web browser with crucial contextual information. Web sites from within the government top-level domain have different purposes and adopt different modes of address from those typical of the commercial domain. Likewise, understanding the relational tenor of a Web site, as it is encoded in the very structure of choices offered to the user, is undoubtedly important to the creation of a successful sequence, or flow, from both the user's and designer's perspective.
It is this concept of genre as relational flow that I believe best captures
important aspects of Web design practice as well as the practices of Web
users. The recent proliferation of content on the WWW makes navigation
more difficult and, as such, our knowledge of how to design and realise
a desirable relational flow increasingly becomes the primary focus of behaviour
on the WWW. The future of the WWW is likely to continue to be preoccupied
with the management of sequence and emerging trends point to the problems
that arise in this area given the increasingly commercial nature of Web
publishing. Prominent among these trends are the commodification
of hyperlinks through the adoption of the Web advertising business model,
the emergence of legal disputes over hypertext linking to other commercial
Web sites, and the emergence of new client interfaces, known as "push media"
which more closely resemble the techniques of broadcasting.
Generating value from the WWW is increasingly dependent on being able to realise relationships which are commercial in orientation. As a result, Web design is increasingly oriented to the management and construction of flow. Like broadcasters, Web designers have traditionally developed strategies which focus on managing the potential sequence in which their content is revealed. Concerns over navigation encourage designers to encode an underlying structure to the site which can aid the user in conceptualising how the content is organised. The distributed nature of hypertext also forces one to consider the implications of how one Web site leads to another. Hyperlinking, or the practice of linking one's own material to others on the WWW, is indeed the very basis of what originally made the web attractive as a source of information.
Prior to the burgeoning popularity of the Internet, the Internet community was largely self regulating. Publishing on the Web came with certain non-binding responsibilities, such as considering how your material added to, rather than merely duplicated, the available content on the Web. Conceptualising the WWW as an "infostructure" highlights the fact that the Web should first and foremost be an integrated resource for finding information and resources (Tilton, Steadman and Jones, 1996). An infostructure is directly related to the realisation of collegial relationships and developing the Web into a mutually beneficial resource. The seamless integration of related but different material, achieved through hyperlinks between Web sites, adds value to the overall Web as an information repository.
However, one could argue that using the WWW to realise relationships which are primarily commercial in nature (E.g. the sale of tangible products or services, or Web content) renders the practice of linking between sites problematic. One particular problem arises from the fact that linking to others on the WWW, rather than duplicating content and trying to provide it better than others, tends to lead people away from your site. For Web sites dependent on advertising, the ethics of old are clearly not the most profitable way to generate value through Web publishing.
At one time the business model of online services was the dominant approach to generating revenue from the Web. Publications on the WWW sought to deliver content and interactivity which would attract significant subscription revenue. Today, the advertising-supported site is far more common. Advertising, typically in the form of clickable banners, is today the primary means of generating revenue through Web sites. Click-through rates, which represent the number of individuals one Web site delivers to another, can be measured to determine the success of a banner and, indirectly, the centrality of the advertising supported site within the potential flow of the WWW.
Advertising on the WWW reduces hyperlinks to a mere commodity. The goal of commercial Web publishing seeks to increase the centrality of one's Web site in order to extract the most value from links to advertisers. As a result, Web publishers increasingly share many of the same concerns as broadcasters, leading to a hierarchy of value among Web sites, based on types of content or services, or their ability to publicise the site.
Web sites which are magnets to people browsing the Web are strategically placed to generate the most revenue from this type of business model. Traditionally, these have been the large search engines, such as Digital Equipment Corporation's Altavista, Yahoo! and InfoSeek to name but a few. The Web outlets of the traditional broadcast media, such as CNN and Time's Pathfinder are also strategically placed in this hierarchy based on their ability to cross promote their sites through other media outlets.
The use of advertising in this manner would suggest that the aims of Web site development are increasingly similar to the aims of broadcasters: Capture a large audience and hold them. In this way Web publishing is increasingly similar to broadcasting. In television broadcasting, genre is a way of constructing an audience for specific advertisers. Indeed the archetype of TV genres, the soap opera, still bears this in its name. By trading on our knowledge of Web genres and domain names, site designers have the same potential to manage and predict Web audience behavior. The more the potential flow becomes ingrained in the audience's understanding of how the technology actually works, the greater everyone's potential becomes to manage how a successful sequence might be enacted.
Marshall (1997) has argued that the primary aim of large commercial sites on the Internet is to extract value through the production of an audience commodity. Indeed the trend toward capturing user preferences is symptomatic of this fact. In some cases preferences are captured covertly, through the use of "cookies" which allow a Web server to keep track of your visits to the site. Another example is the Firefly Web site, which allows users to register and indicate their preferences for popular entertainment products in order to locate an online chat partner with similar tastes. In general though, the main strategy involves not only commodifying the audience but also the flow which leads from the site.
The fact that some outlets are more strategically placed than others to do this produces a hierarchy of value amongst Web sites. In the process of being best placed to construct and distribute Web users as a commodity these sites are, in effect, best positioned to manage the concept of flow through the commodification of hyperlinks. Not all Web sites are created equal despite the decentralised nature of the Internet. The argument that all nodes on the network, from the perspective of the network, are equal, does not account for the fact that some will deliver content and services that make them more attractive. Thus, the tendency in contemporary Web design is to, first, centralise the site in the overall flow, by providing an attractive service or content, and second, manage the audience's behaviour to either follow the link via the advertising banner or keep them viewing pages until they find a banner they would like to follow.
The tendency in Web publishing is to make every effort to centralise oneself within the constructed flow. CNET: The Computer Network, originally a media production arm of INTEL, established an advertiser supported network of sites dedicated to the distribution of shareware software and computer industry news in 1995 (CNET Press Release, 1995) . To accomplish this, CNET presents itself as a series of distinct Web sites specialising in specific information and services. This is accomplished through the reiteration of a similar domain name for each site. CNET.Com, News.com, Search.com, and Browsers.com all lead to one of CNET's advertiser supported sites. Again, the implications here are the centralisation of one's content within the flow of users'/audiences' choices. Whereas we used to conceptualise the users' behaviour in terms of browsing, typically from site to site - CNET's approach allows the user to browse without ever having to leave its network of advertising supported sites. The structure of CNET's domain names is the equivalent of a successful advertising slogan which places the telephone number of the proprietor within a clever jingle. By drawing on a simple easy to remember domain name CNET contributes to the spread of digital literacy while increasing the trademark value and notoriety of its Web sites.
In addition to the centralising tendencies of commodified hyperlinks, other issues have arisen which reveal the strategies of Web publishers in managing flow. In particular, disputes have arisen over the legality of linking to other commercial Web sites without permission or prior agreement as to the monetary value of such links. In 1996, Ticketmaster Inc., a large multinational ticket vendor, began legal action against the Microsoft Corporation for unauthorised links to ticketing information and forms on its Web site. The links were made from two of Microsoft's Sidewalk Web sites in Seattle and New York, both of which are advertiser supported regional events guide. Ticketmaster Inc. alleges that Microsoft, by linking directly to pages within the Ticketmaster site without permission or remuneration, are in effect trading directly on Ticketmaster's trademark and reputation for providing a quality service. Ticketmaster argues that their reputation and trademark has a value and they should be able to directly control the way this is marketed (Gardner, 1997).
Other cases of such disputes have also emerged on the WWW, although they typically involve smaller organisations linking to the content of larger more established media providers who generate their own copyrighted material. One such case, Washington Post vs. Total News Inc. involved the use of frames. The use of frames allows Web designers to firmly keep individuals browsing the Web within one Web site while also letting them roam the Web in another part of the screen. Clearly a desirable design goal given the centralising ambitions of contemporary Web design techniques. In the above case, the Washington Post's content was, in effect, presented out of context by its inclusion within the Total News' framed Web site. As a result, the Post's material appeared as though it was a natural part of the service provided by the Total News Web site (Sampson, 1997).
The Ticketmaster case, however, is not as obvious a potential violation of trademark or copyright. In this case, the plaintiff insists that any unauthorised links to its site must point to the Ticketmaster homepage, which would also be the most lucrative spot for advertising content. In other words, Ticketmaster is seeking the right to manage the flow which could potentially unfold within its site. In many ways, this case challenges previously accepted practices of linking. Interestingly, while there may have been an implicit rule of politeness which encouraged the seeking of permission before linking, and thereby generating more traffic for their server to cope with, it has not been the established practice in Web publishing. Such cases have the potential to radically constrain the ability of smaller Web publishers to participate in the construction of a desirable flow. Restrictions on linking could potentially create two tiers of Web sites, those that are central and those that are peripheral to the most attractive flow.
The need to maintain and construct a valuable flow is already having an impact on the interface of the future. "Push media," so called because its content is delivered to the user rather than actively searched for, increasingly bypasses the WWW completely. Content is delivered directly to the user via e-mail or separate client software which automatically connects and downloads content directly from the company's server at the click of a mouse.
The Pointcast Inc.'s Pointcast Network and Berkely Systems Inc.'s AfterDark are two examples of companies' products with strategic alliances with respected content providers who make use of different client software to deliver information via the Internet. Users can download the content direct from the company's server after selecting what information they would like to receive. The content is then displayed, complete with advertising, via the client program or through a screen saver format. In some cases, the software comes complete with integrated Web client, providing an interactive display of the advertiser's site in combination with the pushed content.
In by-passing the WWW, push media typically provide a different means of realising the abstract transactional space of the Internet. Current Web browsers make the activity of searching for information explicit, drawing on our traditional conceptualisation of the Internet as an active communications medium. Push media deliver content in a way more akin to traditional mass media. While this might be a welcome solution to information management in the face of so much abundance, it fundamentally alters our traditional conceptualisation of how computer-mediated communication works.
Future interfaces are likely to reflect this shift away from the active
browsing of links toward the transparent reception of content. Examples
from the online multi-player gaming environment already abound with attractive
graphical clients which cast the process of moving from server to server
in a way which removes it from the metaphor of active information seeking.
Time Warner's The Palace is a graphical chat environment which is
distributed with the necessary server software to allow users to create
their own graphical environments. 3DO's Meridian 59 is another example,
this time in the form of a multiplayer role playing environment.
As the user moves around in 3DO's virtual space, hopping from computer
to computer is rendered, outside of transmission times, almost completely
transparent. As the quantity of information on the WWW becomes increasingly
difficult to manage, push client software provides an attractive alternative
to having to construct a desirable flow. From a publishing perspective,
push media bypasses the need to compete within the hierarchy of values
already established amongst Web sites.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that the strategies which will shape the future of the WWW are best understood as attempts to manage the sequential nature of Web content. The commodification of hyperlinks in advertising supported sites, legal disputes arising over the right to link to other sites on the WWW and the development of push media all point to the importance of maintaining a central position within the Web's overall flow. As a result, the strategies and design techniques represented on the Web today have more in common with the strategies and techniques of commercial broadcasters than previous conceptualisation of the Internet would have us believe.
The Internet is best understood as a relational medium. The diverse
range of applications which enable communication via the Internet, at the
most basic level, bring people into contact with one another. Rather
than starting from more abstract potential outcomes of such contact, such
as the Internet's impact on citizen participation or the textual qualities
of hypertext, research on the future directions of the Internet should
be grounded in the specific configurations of relationships realised through
computer-mediated communication. By focusing on the actual social
contexts in which the technology is applied, academic understanding of
the Internet will be better placed to deal with potential paths of its
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