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EJC/REC Vol. 14, Numbers 1 and 2
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 14 Numbers 1 and 2, 2004






Rhiannon Bury

University of Waterloo


Abstract. Although much has been written in the last few years on gender identity in the virtual realm we call cyberspace, and race, ethnicity, nationality and sexuality are emerging themes, there is a paucity of work on class. This article seeks to expand the discussion on class beyond issues of the digital divide and critically examine language as a marker of class in computer-mediated communication. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of linguistic capital and Judith Butler’s notion of identity as performance, the author looks at the investments in and displays of not only accurate but effective expression by members of an electronic mailing list dedicated to the television series, The X-Files. By self-correcting typographical errors, by teasing other list members for making such mistakes, by formulating quick and witty replies and retorts, often based on word play and by praising others for doing so, list members marked themselves out individually and collectively as members of the university-educated middle class. This essay also points to the complex imbrication of gender and class. As female fans often assumed to be “obsessed” with an actor (David Duchovny), the research participants were subject to ridicule. A devalued gender identification is thus shored up by a valued class identification.

In the past ten years, a complex of what are often referred to as “Information and Communications Technologies” (ICTs) has entered the homes of middle class North Americans en masse. According to Nielsen NetRatings, 498 million people had home internet access by the end of 2001, almost double the number from three years previous. Forty percent of home users were in North America, 27 percent were in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and 22 percent were in Asia (ZDNet UK, 2002). In the United States, according to a Department of Commerce report, 54% of Americans had internet access (MSNBC, 2002). In the Canadian context, CyberAtlas reported on Feb 01 2002 that “the average online Canadian family spends over 32 hours using the Internet every week, and over 1,600 hours online per year” (CyberAtlas, 2002).

Judging by the proliferation of chat rooms, Multi-User Domains (MUDs), Graphical Multi-user Konversations (GMUKs), Usenet newsgroups and electronic mailing lists, what is taking place when America and company go on line is not only a search for information and/or entertainment but interaction with others using both synchronous and asynchronous forms of communication. Interestingly enough, the U.S. Department of Commerce report also found that email continues to be the most popular online activity. It is now used by 45 percent of the total population, up from 35 percent in 2000 (MSNBC, 2002).

Also taking form is a sizeable body of literature on computer-mediated communication (CMC) and the resultant social and spatial relations. Speaking specifically of its form, Jones (1999) notes that online participants produce “artifactual textual traces of interaction... instantaneously at the moment of utterance” (p. 13). Turkle (1995) suggests that “this new writing is a kind of hybrid: speech...frozen into artifact” (p. 183). Even with asynchronous communication, one refers both to “messages” being “posted” or “sent” to a newsgroup/ list as well as to “chats” “discussions” or “conversations.” Users try to approximate face-to-face interaction by using a variety of conventions, both borrowed from novels and scripts as well as invented specifically for this medium. Baym (1995), for example, describes these hybrid features in the context of interaction on the Usenet news group Cherny (1999) makes the case that MUDs like ElseMOO have developed their own register, related but not identical to those of note-taking, amateur and CB radio as well as sports commentary. Both scholars recognize the role of language use in the process of creating and maintaining community online. Little work, though, has been done which critically analyses the role of language in online interaction as a symbolic  resource and its imbrication with the production of a classed identity. Indeed, beyond issues of access and the digital divide between information rich and poor, very important issues I may add, discussions of class are notably absent in CMC literature. One exception is Kendall (2002), who looks at how a middle class identity is produced among participants of the MUD, Blue Sky. However, her focus is the content of interaction (what participants talked about), as opposed to the form (how they talked about it). This paper is an attempt to foreground the relationship between language and class in the context of online interaction. The data that I will discuss is from an ethnographic case study that I conducted with female fans of the American television series, The X-Files.


Bringing English to Order[1]

Just as  “courtesy manuals” and etiquette handbooks served over the centuries to make explicit and legitimate the manners and conduct of the upper classes for the middle classes, grammars, dictionaries and writing handbooks have done the same for language usage. Until the Elizabethan era, English had no grammar, spelling rules or a national dictionary. It was one of the last vernacular languages in Europe for which a grammar was produced, in 1586 by William Bullokar, following the Spanish in 1492, with its ties to the project of imperialism (Illich, 1981), and the French in 1530 (Howatt, 1984). The first English grammars were modeled closely on Latin, the language of schooling, and were aimed at three groups: foreign students of English, primarily academics and scholars who needed a good reading knowledge of the language; school pupils who it was felt, would benefit from a basic course in the vernacular to help them with Latin; and finally private scholars with an interest in the philosophy of grammar (Howatt, 1984). With the emergence of the nation state and a new economic order, members of the bourgeoisie began attending universities along with the upper classes, and English became an official subject to be taught with the same rigor as Latin or Greek (Goodson & Medway, 1990).  What has become known generally as  “standard English” is in fact the variety spoken and written by the dominant social groups. For example, Black English Vernacular (BEV) was assumed to be substandard English until Labov made the case that it was simply a different variety (Cameron, 1992):  The presumed grammatical errors– double negative and concord be– were following the grammatical structure of West African languages.


While linguists may no longer endorse prescriptivism in theory or practice, the educated lay public is another story. As Cameron  (1995) observes, “I have never met anyone who did not subscribe, in one way or another, to the belief that language can be ’right’ or ’wrong’, ’good’ or ’bad’, more or less ’elegant’ or ’effective’ or ’appropriate’” (p. 9). Cameron discusses in detail what she calls the “the great grammar crusade” (p. 78) of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ideologically conservative politicians and educators (even Prince Charles jumped on the band wagon) bemoaned the supposed mangling of the English language in the mouths and at the hands of youth and advocated curricular reform. Indeed, educational institutions play a leading role in prescribing “correct” language usage, directly through instruction and assessment and  indirectly through the use of grammars, style guides and writing handbooks. Cameron coined the term verbal hygiene to describe efforts that promote the “cleaning up” or reforming of language or language use. While the explicit goal of grammar crusaders may be to stamp out “incorrect” usage, the function of their discourse is to differentiate those who possess the “write” stuff from those who do not. As Gee (1990) argues;


languages are social possessions, possessions that partly define who count as ‘real’ members of the group, ‘insiders’, we might say. As the language becomes a complicated and intricate form, not tied in any very obvious way to meaning, only children, people born into the culture, can master it fully, effortlessly... while ‘late comers’ never fully master these intricacies, and so always mark themselves out as ‘outsiders’. (p. 78)


Bourdieu (1977) uses the concept of linguistic capital, a form of cultural capital, to underscore the function of language in determining social status and class identity. As with material resources, people have varying amounts of symbolic resources, including language, at their disposal which have value within a particular language market (habitus).


Language, however, is not just a static marker of class identity or socio-economic status. It is also imbricated with the performance of identity. Butler (1990) uses the concept of performance in relation to the body and the achievement of an “internal coherence of sex, gender, and desire” (p. 23).  For Butler, “identifying with a gender under contemporary regimes of power involves identifying with a set of norms” (p. 126). Gender is thus an effect rather than a cause of the ways in which men and women think and act. Butler’s reference to “words, actions and gestures” (p. 136) suggests that gender performance is not just about ways of walking but ways of talking and writing. Moreover, the notion of performativity can be extended to encompass other identities such as race, ethnicity and class. Butler (1990) emphasizes gender and sexuality “for the simple reason that ‘persons’ only become intelligible through becoming gendered in conformity with recognizable standards of gender intelligibility” (p. 16). A normative identity such as middle class-ness, in part, is performed through regular and repeated use of the standard variety. It is also produced through the policing of that standard among others– in other words, through a practice of verbal hygiene.


Gender, Class and Online Female Fandom

With research interests in gender performance and online community making, and as a fan of the television series, The X-Files, at the height of its popularity in 1996, I set out to conduct an ethnographic case study with members of The David Duchovny Estrogen Brigades (known as the DDEBs). The original DDEB, ostensibly named after the lead actor who played FBI Agent Fox Mulder,  was set up in the fall of 1993 shortly after the series was first broadcast: 

I was on[2] awhile first, then as usually happens whenever a woman starts to express her appreciation for an actor on the net we started getting "me toos" from women and flack from the men.  (Why is it men can talk about actresses in public and not get flack, but let a woman talk about a man and we get jumped all over!) Anyway, that's why Julia and I started the original DDEB.... I pretty much quit reading a.t.x.. The signal to noise ratio got utterly unmanageable.(Kellie)[3]

The DDEB was not only a “safe space” in which to express admiration for Duchovny but also an opportunity to establish connections with other like-minded women, struck a chord for other female fans:

I decided as soon as I read Kellie’s post.  People think nothing of it if men talk about lusting after women, but if women discuss the sexual attractiveness of men, people act like were [sic] sluts. I wanted the freedom of being able to talk about lust without being exposed to condesension [sic] for it. (Hollis)  

I think it was in February of 1994.  I decided to join because I found the news groups to be a little hostile to women expressing their admiration of an actor.  Also I thought it might be fun.  I decided to stick around because the conversation was never limited to DD [David Duchovny] or to the X-files and because I met such interesting women from so many different parts of the world.(Moll)

The cap of 50 members was quickly reached, and two more lists, DDEB2 and DDEB3, were set up sequentially by January 1994, at which time a decision was made not to set up any more.  When I came across the DDEBs while surfing the web looking for X-Files fan sites,  I was struck by their FAQ which explicitly rejected the image of celebrity-obsessed “fangirls” implied by the name. I ended up spending a year online with nineteen members from the three lists in the context of a mailing list I set up to conduct research— the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade Research Project (DDEBRP). Those who participated in my study were between 25 and 40 and had at least two years of post-secondary education. Seven had begun and five had completed master's degrees. Like the DDEBs, the DDEBRP was a closed but unmoderated list in which members engaged in a number of practices to create and maintain not only a community of female fans but a community of female friends. While I do not have an exact total of the number of messages exchanged, I can say with confidence that it was in the thousands. In March and April 1997, list traffic ranged between 40 and 100 messages daily. During the summer months, the number of messages dropped dramatically, with several days passing with no messages being posted. By the final six months, a pattern had been established in which quiet periods of less than ten messages a day would be punctuated by intense exchanges comprising 20 to 40 posts a day over a period of several days. Taking a feminist, post-positivist (Lather, 1991) approach to research, I marked my “presence” as a producer of knowledge by choosing to be an active participant on the DDEBRP rather than an “objective” observer, silently downloading data. When I make references to “DDEBRP members” in my discussion of the data, I am positioning myself as a member of the community. By April 1997, I felt that I had collected a broad enough sample of list practices with which to start formulating hypotheses about the practices of community and performances of gender.

In my doctoral dissertation, I argue that online female media fans like the DDEB members are positioned in public internet forums as “minus male” (Spender, 1985). Spender speaks of “plus male/minus male” to signal a hierarchical relationship between the categories of male and female in which the former is seen as the norm and the latter a deviation or deficit from that norm. Women’s talk about actors, for instance, has been classified as “drool” by some male fans, a term that connotes childish and slovenly behaviour. As indicated by the participant responses quoted above, many female fans actively refuse this categorization and join women-only lists like the DDEBs. Yet, expressing admiration for an actor, even in this context, continues to be an ambivalent practice for members steeped in the “high culture” values of the educated middle classes (Bury, 2003 ). If DDEBRP members were on the “wrong” side of the gender hierarchy, they were on the “right” side of the class binary, possessing high levels of cultural and linguistic capital. Thus gendered practices that were vulnerable to being denigrated could be shored up or offset by normed classed practices. The last sentence in Kellie's response above raises class indirectly: the unacceptable “signal to noise ratio” on the X-Files newsgroup is not solely a reference to harassment and denigration from male participants but also the contributions of those one could call “the Internet masses”: those participants perceived to be unable to discuss topics in an intelligent, rational, coherent and accurate manner. In other words, those unable (or unwilling) to adhere to the standard of expression of the university-educated middle class. Several participants singled out America On Line (AOL) as the culprit, remarking that quality of discussion on public newsgroups dropped drastically when in 1996 the service provider's 10 million subscribers were given full access to the Internet, hitherto the domain of  universities and government organizations. As Dani quipped in one exchange, “AOL = Airbrains OnLine.” In the pages that follow, I  will present data demonstrating that the DDEBRP members possessed high levels of linguistic capital and made use of  the symbolic  resources at their disposal through accurate, effective and often humorous expression. Moreover, members engaged in verbal hygiene to varying degrees, self correcting or correcting others. Part of the process of community making, then, was marking one's membership in the larger discourse community of the university-educated middle class.

“Someone’s stealing my letters again”:  From Hybridity to Verbal Hygiene

Although my raw data was far too extensive to search systematically for language use and style, I reviewed the data samples included in my dissertation, admittedly a small percentage of the total set. At first glance, the DDEBRP exchanges suggest that the use of Standard English was not of particular concern to its members. Certainly, the approximation of informal face-to-face interaction was a practice valued by the community. Slang and colloquialisms were regularly used (“hey there,” “he’s dead meat,” “that’s cool,” “that really sucks,” “your web pages blow away mine”). Also, members often mimicked informal oral patterns when agreeing, (“yeah”, “yep”), disagreeing (“nah”) and interjecting (“well,”  “wow,” “no way”). Yet, morphological phenomena (Cherny, 1999) such as contractions of formulaic expressions were rare (“ dunno”, “gonna” “wanna” “comin' atcha”), used only for stylistic effect. Finally, as has been demonstrated in the context of MUDs, IRC and Usenet, play with modality (Cherny, 1999) was typical on the DDEBRP. Three emoticons or  “glyphs” were used on a regular basis in descending order:  “the smiley”, variations of which include :-), :), and :D; the “wink” ;); and the face of sadness or disappointment :(. Text symbols such as asterisks were also used for emphasis but sometimes capitals were used to signal a raised voice, particularly for the “sound” of laughter (BWAHAHAHAHA). Brackets were used to set off physical gestures and actions ( <grin>, < clearing throat>, <Mrs Hale’s rant snipped>).


If contractions were uncommon, the same was not true of the features Cherny (1999) categorizes as abbreviations and shortenings. Here written not oral communication, note taking specifically, was being emphasized. DDEBRP members regularly used some of the abbreviations found in other types of CMC: btw = by the way, imho = in my humble opinion,  i/rl = in/ real life, LOL = laugh out loud, rofl = roll on floor laughing.  Specific to the DDEBs and by extension the DDEBRP, was the use of initials for actors’ names or shows: DD = David Duchovny, GA = Gillian Anderson, xf = The X-Files, ST: TNG = Star Trek: The Next Generation. Cherny notes that in many instances, “economy overrides linguistic prejudice” (p. 90) in CMC.


Efforts to approximate conversation or abbreviate/shorten, however,  should not be confused with a lack of attention to or lack of concern for accurate and effective language use. To gauge the use of  “correct” or standard English by the DDEBRP members, I followed  A Canadian Writer’s Reference (Hacker, 2001), a guide recommended by many Canadian universities. It is divided into six sections: “Composing and Revising,” a “how to” to writing an academic essay; “Grammatical Sentences,” covering topics such as subject-verb agreement, pronouns, adjective and adverbs, sentence fragments and comma splices and run-on sentences; “Effective sentences,” covering topics such as parallelism, coordination, subordination and sentence variety’ as well as the self-explanatory sections on “Word Choice,” “Punctuation”, “Mechanics” (capitalization, abbreviations and spelling), “Documentation,” and “Review of Basic Grammar.”  Consider the following excerpt from a DDEBRP exchange on romance novels. Several members had criticized the quality of this popular genre of fiction. Ardis joined the thread to defend romance novels and the women who read them:


From: Ardis[4]

And, dammit, I enjoy them! I know many women who do. -- and those women aren't stereotypical housewives looking for "mind candy" -- they're like *us*, m'dears. They have broad interests, have educations beyond high school, even tend to be feminists (though many eschew the term).  You wanna know who they're like? The regular ATXC [] audience.

Ardis' contribution clearly illustrates a hybrid form of communication that nonetheless relies on a high level of linguistic capital. Her message contains a contraction of the mild expletive “damn it”, the form of address “my dears” and “want to.”  She also abbreviated the name of a Usenet newsgroup related to X-Files fandom. In terms of deviations from the standard, she began two sentences with a connector, did not capitalize her second sentence, misused dashes and dropped the connector in the third sentence. At the same time, her sentence structure is both accurate and effective (the dropped connector in the third sentence works stylistically). Ardis put quotation marks around “mind candy”, marking it out as slang or a colloquial expression not normally found in standard written language. Also of note was her choice of the verb “eschew”, a term one would expect from an educated speaker or writer. It is therefore highly unlikely that she would have made the more basic “errors” with coordination and punctuation had she understood CMC exclusively as formal written communication.   As Bourdieu (1977) notes,

the dominant class[es] can make deliberately or accidentally lax use of language without their discourse ever being invested with the same social value as that of the dominated. What speaks is not the utterance, the language, but the whole social person. (p. 653)

My analysis of the data did reveal basic grammatical errors but, in light of the above, they need to be understood as typographical since they were not repeated in other messages sent by the same user. Examples include missing apostrophes to mark possession or contraction ( “a days work,” “Its going to be interesting”); word choice (“it's hard to give something your not sure you love your all,”“of perhaps CM [Cancer Man] just wanted her,” “I love the really pissed look on here face”) and spelling (“years of unrequeited love,” corosive”).

The value of the standard variety of English to the DDEBRP community became explicit at moments when verbal hygiene was exercised:


From: Drucilla

[Rhiannon wrote:]

> I thought the scene of Scully doing CPR and trying to get him to keep

>breathing was very moving.

Me too. Daphne? Why haven't you spoke up? They finally had Scully trying to help people, like you've been wanting!

Upon noticing that she had used the incorrect form of the past participle, Drucilla immediately self-corrected in a follow up post: “Augh! SpokeN! Not Spoke. Someone's stealing my letters again....” While making light of the error, she nonetheless was signaling to the other community members that she was a competent user of the valued standard variety. Erin did the same thing when she noticed that she had typed, “I've been a bit quite lately (lucky for you) <g>”:

From: Erin

Well...that was obviously supposed to say 'quiet'...sheesh. I think I'm going to call it a night.

Similarly, in commenting on forming meaningful relationships on line, Liz noted that in the beginning, “everyone’s staking out there positions.” It was only when Daphne used that portion of her text in a reply that she noticed her error and provided the correct form in capital letters along with a self-rebuke: “*THEIR*! Course, sometimes they *are* 'out there'! :-) I can't believe I did that :-).” In addition to making the correction, Liz provided evidence that she knew how to use the three words correctly with an attempt at a word play. Daphne then emphasized ( “heh, heh, heh. See how imperfect the English language is? ;->” but then teasingly suggested that Liz should in fact have known better: “Or maybe it's just user error :->”. That these self-admonishing responses seem excessive for the “crime” committed underscores the function of “good” grammar as a form of covert prestige in the community and the importance of demonstrating that one has the “write” stuff.

Beyond points of grammar and sentence structure, some members expressed doubts about their ability to write in a focussed, coherent, and clear manner, as if writing an academic paper: “Am I making sense?”; “I’m just rambling/babbling”, “not sure if this is on topic”. In one of her contributions, Sonya made explicit the connection between writing well-developed  papers in university and writing well-developed messages to a mailing list:


I can't believe I've written all this! I hope some of it at least was understandable to someone. Where was all this energy when I was writing papers last year in school? I must be having some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, where all of a sudden I'm reliving papers I should have written (but never did...) in college.

In one thread, I found myself being corrected by another member:

From: Rhiannon

....So maybe that will peak your interest....

From: Mrs Hale

pique!!! pique!!!

This reminds me of the time I was reading some erotica and the writer said something like, "Mulder licked the pique of her breast”. I was ROFL [rolling on the floor laughing].

From: Rhiannon

Oh gawd, I can't believe I did that. And I only teach English for a living!! I guess my only excuse was it was the 130th post I was responding to....Thanks for the humourous correction (BTW that's Canadian spelling this time)

In making the correction, Mrs Hale added another humorous example with the same set of words. As part of her “signature”, she added,  Mrs Hale, whose mother was frightened by a thesaurus”. Thus, making the correction was about shoring up and legitimizing her own linguistic resources as it was questioning mine. For my part, I reacted in the same way as Daphne, Erin and Liz, admonishing myself while stressing I knew the difference between “peak” and “pique.” Lest there be any question of my linguistic resources, I clarified the legitimacy of the Canadian spelling of “humourous”. My response also contrasts the legitimacy of mimicking oral patterns (“oh gawd” instead of “oh god”) with the illegitimacy of confusing words that sound the same but are spelled differently. This distinction is further highlighted in Megan’s response to Mrs Hale’s anecdote in which the former shared one of her own about the humor of sound/spelling errors can be:

I have a friend that was grading some papers for the class she was TA for and one of the closing lines was "the Greeks were able to take a peak into moden [sic] science" (or soemthing [sic] like that). We were jsut [sic] dying from images of all these men in togas trying to carry a mountain :)

Ironically, in recounting the student’s inaccurate word choice, Megan made three spelling mistakes, none of which drew any comment on as they were obviously the result of inaccurate keyboarding rather than a lack of linguistic capital.  Echoing Butler (1990), the performance of her middle class identity was sufficiently “intelligible.”

The practice of verbal hygiene was not limited to messages produced by community members. When Drucilla and Liz announced that they had posted a joint piece of fan fiction to a website, several members praised it, including Bel, who said, “It’s a wonderful story. Well worth reading.” After Liz thanked her, she added:

You're welcome. I just regret not getting out my little red pen fast enough to point out the typos I found before someone else did. I missed out on my chance to feel superior. :-)


Writing's easy, editing's the hard part.... or is that the other way around?                       

While she used the smiley to indicate that she did not intend to insult the authors and softened her position on the hierarchical relationship between writing and editing with a question, her investment in accurate language use was clearly established for the other members of the community. Neither author seemed to have taken offence; both agreed with Bel and added their own anecdotal evidence in support of this position:

From: Liz

You're a sick woman, Bel... I like that in a person. :-) Drucilla? Didn't you say you had been making the corrections? Maybe Bel would like to take a gander at the 'corrected' version. :-)

Drucilla and I dragged out an old fan-fic with the idea in mind of de-fan-ficcing it and sending it off for publication (we hope :-). I found one minor character's name that we spelled at *least* 18 different ways. Ok, maybe 4, but it was embarrassing. And we *did* proof it!!!!....

From: Drucilla

....Sure, I could do that if she wants. Then she can find all the ones I missed :-).

The anxiety underlying this exchange about being recognized as a “good” writer by other members of a community who are also middle class may seem excessive. I argue that this anxiety is likely heightened by the genre of writing in question: fan fiction. Writing fiction based on characters from television series is hardly a valued practice, falling on the “wrong” side of the high culture/low culture binary. In accordance with what Bourdieu labels “bourgeois aesthetics” (quoted in Jenkins, 1992), fans are seen as unable to distinguish between “good and “bad” because they are too emotionally attached to the object of their fandom; in other words they lack “objectivity” and distance. Moreover, “good” writing is associated with originality; fan fiction would be understood as derivative, the work of hacks.

Another indication of the prestige afforded by DDEBRP members to accurate and effective language use was the praise offered or questions asked of those who were seen as “expert” users:

From: Mrs Hale

[Sonya asked:]

>what *is* the technical term for "a <noun> of <something>"?

The term is "collective noun", as in a pride of lions (almost typed loins..), an unkindness of ravens, etc. There was a really neat book that came out years ago listing all the known collective nouns. I don't remember the title but I think it had swans in it.

Mrs Hale then made a word play with the concept, signing off with the tag line, “a synapse of nerves”. In a different thread, Sonya complimented her for a play she made on the use of the pronoun “we” to speak for the three DDEB lists:

>We think it is a good idea, too, but then we have been speaking with

>the royal 'we' anyway for years. :D

Oh, Mrs Hale, you have such a gift for words. :-)

While Sonya’s question had been an open one, Daphne addressed a question on etymology directly to Mrs Hale: “I promise I won't get on my high horse about judgmental thinking :->. BTW, where does the term high horse come from? Mrs Hale, I bet you know.” In one of the threads in which the concept of technology was being discussed, Mrs Hale teased Daphne for being “a closet phenomenologist.” In her reply, Daphne repeated the comment prefaced by “Mrs Hale exhibits her superior vocabulary,” and then said, “I'm sorry, that word isn't in my dictionary. What does it mean? Have something to do with scent glands perhaps??? Hmmmm??? Or maybe the reading of bumps on the head???...” Although Daphne did not know the exact meaning of the word, her “guesses” were educated ones that implied that she knew the specialized terms “pheromones” and “phrenology”.

Even Mrs Hale was not above correction. In response to a message by Bel about a certain feeling that she had had that something was going to happen, Mrs Hale suggested that it was clairvoyance, which she defined as “French, to hear clearly”:

From: Hollis

Slight correction - clairvoyance is from the French to *see* clearly. Clairvoyants see images in their minds telepathically. Clairaudience is psychically hearing something. I believe that just having a feeling like Bel did is merely called intuition. I prefer the Scottish term for it - kenning. :) So, does that make Barbie psychic?

DD on "Wry" Bread:  Humor as Linguistic Capital

Beyond possessing sufficient linguistic resources to write accurately and effectively, the DDEBRP members placed high value on the use of language for humorous effect. Hints of this can be seen in the data samples presented in the previous section. Baym (2000) argues that the extensive reliance on humor among online media fans is part of the process of community making. On the DDEBRP, witty “one-liners”, quips, retorts and extended repartee were central features of interaction, functioning to establish and maintain community. However, it is also important to recognize that these practices are also classed and involve performances of middle-class identity. After all, quickly formulating an adroit “one-liner” or coming up with a work play during an email exchange with a fast server that approaches “real time” conversation requires a high level of linguistic capital.

Word play was the most prevalent form of humor. The following  sample comes from a thread on how the existence of the DDEBs can be understood in relation to ICTs:

From: Daphne

Rhiannon wrote:

>So, I don't think it is useful to think of technology solely in terms

>of its function or its form for that matter. We need to think of what

>it *enables* as well as what it *disables*I would argue that the

>technology that allows us to set up electronic lists and send email

>*is* an integral part of the DDEBs in that it enables the DDEBs to be

>without being them.

Well, now we're getting somewhere. At least today, we're not BEING the medium. :->

Daphne had felt that in previous comments I had emphasized the technology over human relations and her reply draws on Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan's often quoted line “the medium is the message.” This reference is also clever because it identifies me as a Canadian researcher (most of the participants were American) with a Canadian theorist. Then it was Mrs Hale's turn to play on the word “medium”:

Daphne wrote:

>At least today, we're not BEING the medium. :->

No, today, Mrs Hale is being a Large.

Mrs Hale


The wordplay is underscored by the graphic representation of garment sizes found on labels.

A sizable (word play intended) number of the humorous exchanges involved expression of desire for David Duchovny. The context of the next sample was an expressed dislike of the acronym for the research list: DDEBRP. Geneva quipped that it sounded like  “DDE-BuRP”. Drucilla noted that it sounded to her like “DDEB-RIP” as in “rest in peace”. Erin, however, took Drucilla’s association and changed its meaning, coming up with a narrative:


David suddenly finds himself surrounded by wonderful, independent, non-patriarchal <g> [grin], lusty women...he gets a fearful look on his face and whispers quietly, "DDEB?" Witnesses say that the next sound heard was the ripping of his clothes.....

The image had shifted from what Dani referred to as a “vulgar body noise” and death to a celebration reminiscent of Bacchic ritual with women in the role of seducers. In another exchange, Mrs Hale concluded a message on Duchovny with the one-liner, “Would like some DD Jelly”. This led to a humourous exchange of food metaphors with Winnie:

From: Winnie “Wouldja like some fries with that?"[Last name]

On white, wheat or rye?

From: Mrs Hale

What else but....WRY bread? (ducking, running)

As I noted earlier, expressing admiration/desire for a celebrity is risky business for female fans who value bourgeois aesthetics, even in a women-only space. Humor thus functions to deflect or downplay such expression to a certain degree.

DDEBRP members who displayed such linguistic dexterity often received responses, directly or indirectly praising their efforts.  For example, the final line of Hollis' message on clairvoyance is a wordplay on the verb “to ken” and the name “Ken”. Drucilla responded as follows: “*** ggggrrrrooooaaannnn*** Go to your room, young lady!” At the end of a “mock flame war” by two members (members pretending to insult each other), Drucilla  sent the following message:


From: Drucilla

Oh, don't do this to me while I'm at work! People always look at me weird when I fall off my chair and roll around on the floor laughing!!!

Others would send messages containing only “laughter”: “BWAHAHAHAHA” or the abbreviations  “LOL” or “rofl”.

In addition to bringing members together and creating a substance of an educated middle-class community, clever play with language also fostered competition among members, however unintentional. The exchange below began with a playful search for an appropriate collective term for the DDEB members as admirers of Duchovny:

From: Drucilla

Daphne wrote

>Bet he'd [Duchovny would] just love the idea of having a passel of

>worshipful cyborgs.

A passel?  Is that a technical term?  Like a gaggle of geese or an unkindness of ravens?  :-)

From: Winnie

Just what *would* the proper term be for a bunch of DDEBers?  A worshipfulness? ;-)  A covy?  A duchovny?

Drucilla quickly suggested “an assimilation” but it was Geneva who received the accolades for “duchoven,” a play on the name of the actor and a group of witches (coven)”

From: Drucilla


From: Daphne

BWWAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAA! I read this as Dutch Oven. Please! I don't want to be a cooking utensil. I just got over being a computer! :->

From: Sonya

Geneva, this is *beautiful* I love it. I'm sure we'll come up with all kinds of ideas here, but I love yours. I don't know how the catholic sisters would feel about it, but as a (sometimes) pagan, it's so cool.

From: Mrs Hale

Geneva, you're a genius!!!! Even if you are blonde.

Mrs Hale


Daphne and Geneva then engage in repartee:

From: Geneva

But wouldn't you like DD [David Duchovny] to get all hot if he were inside you? <vbg> [very big grin] For that matter, he could be a lot of fun in the kitchen...

From: Daphne

For some reason, I see DD as a take-out man, myself...

The next day, in the context of a new thread on the possible reasons for the lack of participation of some members, the desire and pressure to display the “write” linguistic stuff became apparent. Sonya, who had acknowledged Geneva's word play, attributed her “quietness” to the fact that she was “just generally not too good at short, quick-reponse [sic] posts, at least not yet, on any list I'm on.” Winnie named her new job and her young son as limiting her ability to start and join threads, and then admitted:

And I *so* want to write pithy, reasoned or just plain glib responses.

How about I admit that I was so pleased with myself for coming up with "a duchovny of DDEBers" that I was (ego ego) looking forward to strokes from the group over it? Only to be upstaged by "duchoven"? I have nothing to come back with. I'm just not that witty.

Or maybe I'm just tired.

It is interesting how Winnie modified her complaint that her contribution had been ignored, by laying the blame at her own feet: it was not the others who had not met the community standard of supportiveness, but she who was unable to meet the community’s standard of linguistic prowess.


Cyborgs and Class Matters

A decade ago, there was much enthusiasm for the possibility of freeing oneself of the limitations of the body and body-based identities (see Rheingold, 1993; Rushkoff, 1994). However, numerous critical analyses followed that recognized that gender and race are no longer irrelevant in CMC just because one cannot see one's interlocutor or be seen (see Balsamo, 1996; Bell, 2001; Herring, 1996; Nakamura, 2002; Rodman, Kolko, & Nakamura, 2000; Wolmark, 1999). As I have tried to demonstrate in this paper, language is the linchpin between the body and identity. Language cannot be understood exclusively as a tool of communication. As Benveniste (1971) points out, language is not external instrument that human beings invented for our use; rather it defines us and makes us human. Moreover, our identities are never solely material but are both products and processes of discourse. The DDEBRP members possessed high levels of linguistic capital and through list interaction performed not only gender identities but class identities. By using accurate and effective language, by self-correcting typographical errors or faulty sentence structures, by mocking the errors made by others or teasing other list members for making mistakes, by formulating quick and witty replies and retorts, often based on word play and/or praising others for doing so, list members marked themselves out individually and collectively as members of the university-educated middle class. For female fans like the DDEBRP members, “plus-middle class” status can function to balance out “minus-male” status in online media fandom.

What broad conclusions can be drawn about class and cyberspace? In the context of computer-mediated communication, gender, race and ethnicity become more akin to “real life” ( “RL”)  identities like sexuality or class. By this I mean that they are not immediately “legible” to others. In other words, cyber-participants, at least by today's standards of technology, are not able to be pinpointed and identified as men or women, as African-American or white by the power of the gaze. Granted, over time and depending on what is said and how it is said, these identities will “seep through” in a variety of ways. Class, so far as it is bound up with language, becomes more akin to RL gender and race. Because of the centrality of language in virtual environments– “one becomes a thing of words alone” as Rushkoff (1994) puts it– one's stock of linguistic resources is, quite literally, on the line.


[1] This heading is the title of a book by Goodson & Medway (1990).

[2] is the Usenet newsgroup dedicated to talk about The X-Files.

[3] “Kellie” and “Julia” are real names and I have used them with permission in the context of this particular quote as the information identifying them as the founders of the DDEB is available to anyone who visits their websites. All other participant names are pseudonyms and were chosen by the participants.

[4] In presenting data from the DDEBRP, I have tried to approximate the form of the original email messages. To save space and preserve confidentiality, I have removed or modified the lines from the message “header”, any lines from a previous message that were included in the body of the replies, as well as any “signatures” or “signature files”. In exchanges, I have “threaded” the messages by subject and only placed ellipsis marks between messages if I have removed any from the thread.


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