Thursday, 15 October 2009

Conversational Analysis of Internet Chat: Linguistics characteristics and interaction


Chat systems is one of the computer-mediated communication (CMC) systems which is a multi-user synchronous communication facility that is available all over the world to people with access to the Internet network of computer systems. They are intended to be a tool for social interaction between spatially dispersed people using the medium of computers.

Interaction on chat systems involves a deconstruction of traditional assumptions about the dynamics of communication, and the construction of alternative systems called “Internet language” (Reid, 1991).


Conversational Analysis which was advanced by Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson, is basically a “rigorously empirical approach which avoids premature theory construction. The methods are essentially inductive; search is made for recurring patterns across many records of naturally occurring conversations” (Levinson, 1983: 287). The data is based on real people in real life conversing with each other and how language is used to get their intention and message across. Unlike Discourse Analysis, CA does not restrict data to categorisation. Instead, CA focuses on the systematic properties of the sequential organization of conversation, in the way in which utterances are designed to manage it (Jamaliah Mohd Ali, 2004).

Although talk may appear as irregular, it is highly systematic. Thus, the aim of CA is to examine the rules that underlie conversations and towards which the participants accommodate. So, other than analysing the general rules and structure of talk, CA also analyse the regularities in more specific kinds of talks (Discourse Analysis, 2003).


This study examines logs of Yahoo! Chat interactions taken from a single computer. The raw data consists of two logs of Yahoo! Chat interactions in two public channels, which are Professors’ Chat (Room 1) and Study Group (Room 4), with each log running approximately half an hour. Although the channels are geared towards certain groups of people, these rooms are accessible by anyone with a Yahoo! ID. At the time of logging, both channels supported substantial levels of interaction. There were no fixed agendas or topics being discussed; participants generally talk about something that someone brought up. The logs also witness interactions being carried out in English, although this is not a requirement under Yahoo! Chat. This is could be because the chat rooms are not regional, which perhaps would see the participants use the regional language. While voice and video communication is turned on, they were not utilized by the participants.

The objective of the study is to look at the linguistic characteristics that the participants or chatters display, which includes typography, spelling, and the emoticons, how and why they are used as they occurred in public channel interactions. The study will also look at turn-taking found in the chat logs and how conversation and interaction take place with the merging of spoken and written language in one medium. Since the interactions in the chat rooms consist of the combination of human and computer-produced utterance and transmission, the study will also take into consideration how the mediation (the computer and Internet) affects the interaction.


1. Linguistic Characteristics of Yahoo! Chat

Computer-mediated communication has created new opportunities for real-time interaction among geographically dispersed individuals sitting at their computer keyboards. People engage in written conversation in the new linguistic genre, which combines characteristics of both written and oral language (Bechar-Israeli, 1996). The real-time, synchronous transmission of utterances between participants gives a very face-to-face conversational feel (Reid, 1991). They type their messages, and the text of these messages appears on the screens of their interlocutors.

Because language does not look as it does anymore in CMC due to the new linguistic genre, it becomes less transparent. As a result, it heightens meta-linguistic awareness. They are conscious of their audience and pay special attention to the display of communicative competence, to how their messages are displayed (Bauman, 1975, 1977 cited in Danet, Ruedenberg-Wright and Rosenbaum-Tamari, 1998). This is to ensure that they achieve the purpose of communication, that is to be heard and understood by other interlocutors.

Generally, since the messages are typed at a keyboard, there is a tendency to use conventions of written English, particularly spelling. However, a number of distinctive practices of spelling are found in the channels. This can be seen in Example 1:

Example 1 : Spelling

Sample 1.1. : “Professors' Chat:1”

InteractionSubstitution for :
2.old_lamp_lighter: isn't that a coco – coincidence
5.platothedick: i hang out in perv rooms about 22 hours a day, the other two i'm in parent chatperv – pervert
82.fisk_au: happy b'dayb’day – birthday
105.fisk_au: 1 nono - know
145.CookedSoose: rather defanged him, then, didn itdidn – didn’t
176.fisk_au: rectum? damn near kilt emem – them

Sample 1.2. : “Study Group:4”

InteractionSubstitution for :
9.mush_bear15: thats why men sucksthats – that’s
18.mush_bear15: man dont care bout the feelings of a girldont – don’t
bout – about
32.sweetsunshinebrightenyou: we're juz finejuz – just
46.mush_bear15: not 4 a woman4 – for
50.priyanka_mishra_lko: what r u doingr – are
u – you
52.sweetsunshinebrightenyou: i think that's silly, if u would die for someone u loved, coz, why dont u find another one?coz – because
dont – don’t
u – you
60.mush_bear15: rytryt – right
63.sweetsunshinebrightenyou: i'm telling the truth man, i mean if u wanna keep survive, why dont u think like that?wanna – want to
75.mush_bear15: yupyup – yes
76.mush_bear15: its ok to have a debateits – it’s
78.sweetsunshinebrightenyou: yea, its fun!yea - yes
87.sweetsunshinebrightenyou: so, mush bear, how r ya?r - are
ya - you
110.mush_bear15: nopenope - no
118.sonu_477: yaya - yes
143.sweetsunshinebrightenyou: well, i think every problems will have the solutions and all we have to do is, juz face it, coz soon or later it will endjuz – just
coz – because
146.sweetsunshinebrightenyou: well i have ever sad, but that wont stop mewont – won’t
168.sweetsunshinebrightenyou: i cc - see
180.loudpraying: CAN U FURTHER UR EXPLAINATION?ur – your
185.sweetsunshinebrightenyou: so wat do u think?wat - what
193.mush_bear15: UR ABSOLUTELY RYTur – you’re
ryt – right

The practices in Example 1 show that are several instances where the spellings diverge from standard written English. The most common in the study are substituting “you” with “u” or “ya” and “are” with “r”. There are also instances of simplification of words, such as “b’day” for “birthday”, “perv” for “pervert”, “ur” for “you are” and “ryt” for “right”.

Other than some different ways of spelling, other distinctive practices found in the chat logs are short-hand form of communication, the dropping of apostrophe and hyphen, the dropping of initial capital letters for proper nouns and beginning of sentence, and lowercase for “I”. This can be observed in Example 2 below:

Example 2 : Short-hand Forms

Sample 2.1. : “Professors’ Chat:1”

InteractionSubtitution for :
CookedSoose: LOL it's too early to spell!!!LOL – laughing out loud
63.old_lamp_lighter: g m selenag m – good morning
213.selena_serene: omgomg – oh, my God

Sample 2.2. : “Study Group:4”

InteractionSubtitution for :
223.loudpraying: LOLLOL – laughing out loud
163.mush_bear15: any1any1 - anyone

The chat participants also use short-hand form of communication as in example 2 above, substituting “laughing out loud” (to indicate the person is laughing) for “LOL” being the most common. Other short-hand forms are “g m” for “good morning”, “omg” for “oh, my God” and “any1” for “anyone”.

All these spellings would be considered “vernacularizing” changes, and we would expect to find them used especially among users of a particular channel (Paolillo, 1999). These linguistic features somehow is similar with the sounds of spoken English, such as “ya”, “yea” or “yup” for “yes” and “coz” for “because”. This is one way the chat participants use to create the face-to-face conversational feel in the medium. The dropping of apostrophe or hyphen, the dropping of initial capital letters for proper nouns and beginning of sentence, and small case for “I” as noted earlier could also be due to the fact that these written English characteristics would be invisible in spoken communication.

There are a few reasons why the chat participants are using unconventional spelling and short-hand for in the chat rooms. Because the interaction is carried out in the medium and messages are sent out using the keyboard, participants typed as fast as they can as so not to lose their turn in the interaction. Due to the fact that messages on the screen scrolls up when new messages come in (including messages generated automatically by Yahoo! Chat) , participants want to stay in the frame and not to be too far behind in their responses, as that may make them to lose the floor.

It was also observed that in the Professors’ Chat, the participants utilized the conventional conversation transcription method, where uppercase is used to indicate raising of voice on the word or sentence, either to stress a point, shout or yell. Otherwise, all of the chat participants use lowercase consistently. For example:

Example 3 : Uppercase (“Professors’ Chat:1”)

InteractionPurpose :
6.CookedSoose: so it's YOUR fault plato!To blame only platothedick for bringing all the perverts into the chat room.
68.blue_eyed_jagged_edged: I am REALLY glad you gave me that image platoBeing sarcastic to platothedick, with the stress on the word “really”.
96.CookedSoose: HAPPY BIRTHDAY DEAR PLAAAAAAAAAAAATOOOOOOOOOOOOTo indicate shouting of “Happy Birthday” in an excited manner to platothedick.
The multiple “A” and “O” are to show loudness of the shout.
137.CookedSoose: morning PROP!!!!!!!!!!!!To indicate excitement to see prop by shouting his name.
152.blue_eyed_jagged_edged: look at this...just fucking LOOK at it...To indicate irritation, calling attention to the following statement.
163.blue_eyed_jagged_edged: I mean for fuck's SAKETo indicate irritation, with stress on the word “sake”
169.selena_serene: it's ALIVETo stress the word “alive”, as if surprise, in a jocular manner.
117.blue_eyed_jagged_edged: look at THISTo indicate irritation, calling attention to the subsequent statement.
200.selena_serene: YESSSSSSSTo indicate excitement in agreeing to a suggestion.
208.selena_serene: GLORIA,..G L O R I A ......gloria.........To indicate singing and shouting the name “Gloria”.

In Example 3 above, we can see that the chat participants use uppercase is used to indicate raising of voice on a particular word or sentence, whether it is to stress a point, shout or yell. This is perhaps done with specific intention in mind, such as blaming (line 6), being sarcastic (line 68), showing excitement (lines 96, 137, 200), showing irritation (lines 152, 163) and showing loudness (lines 169, 208). This shows that the chat participants are aware of the conventional conversation transcription method and know how to use and manipulate it as paralinguistic markers in chat rooms to compensate the lack of visual and auditory clues to communicate with others.

2. Emoticons

Emoticons in CMC are facial expressions made by a certain combinations of keystrokes, usually producing an image of a face sideways. They are icons for the expression of emotion, often indicating non-seriousness or playfulness, and are considered as an aspect of paralinguistics. Generally emoticons are used in online chats, E-mails, or online message boards (Danet, Ruedenberg-Wright and Rosenbaum-Tamari, 1998).

In this study, it was found that chat participants did not make use of emoticons a lot. Most of the time, they played with words to express their intention and emotions, especially chat participants in the Professors’ Chat:1. However, chat participants in Study Group:4 used it quite frequently, most of the time to show their emotions in reference to statements or questions. The following are examples of emoticons and the purpose of their use in the study (emoticons which are not part of the conversations are excluded from this analysis).

Example 4 : Emoticons

Sample 4.1. : “Professors’ Chat:1”

15.just4nz: every chatroom needs its own resident pariah - Let Plato be the delegated one :DThe emoticon is a grinning face used to indicate that he is joking.
140.propagumbhis: Gilly *L*The emoticon is a type of smiley used to greet CookedSoose and indicate that he is pleased to see her there.

Sample 4.2. : “Study Group:4”

68.loudpraying: :-BThe emoticon is a face with two teeth showing (implying a typical nerd), used to indicate that he has nothing more to say and his argument ends there.
89.loudpraying: ;-)The emoticon is a winking face, to indicate that he is joking.
136.sweetsunshinebrightenyou: i almost never! :DTo indicate that she is joking.
192.sweetsunshinebrightenyou: :/The emoticon is a confused face, to show that she is confused.
207.mush_bear15: :DTo indicate that she is laughing to sweetsunshinebrightenyou’s joke about someone they both know.
222.sweetsunshinebrightenyou: :)To show that she is in agreement to loudpraying’s funny statement.
226.mush_bear15: >:)The emoticon is known as “evil smile”, here it is used to indicate that she agrees to loudpraying’s ridicule on someone they both know.
229.sweetsunshinebrightenyou: i'm 17 f, and call me Dee :)To show that she is introducing herself in a friendly manner.
233.sweetsunshinebrightenyou: :)To show that she is pleased to meet others in the chat room.
244.sweetsunshinebrightenyou: nice meeting u :)Smiling to mush_bear15, to show that she is pleased to meet mush_bear15.

From example 4 above, we can see that chat participants use emoticons to compensate the lack of visual and auditory clues in the interaction on the Internet. The use of emoticons is seen as a display of awareness on the part of the chat participants of the importance of visual and auditory clues in interaction. To replace emoticons with words would take more time to type them, so the use of emoticons can also be seen as a short cut to get messages across.

3. Turn-taking

Turn-taking in spoken conversation can be said to follow a normative ideal of precisely alternating turns, it refers to the timing of the transition from one speaker turn to the next, which is ideally supposed to occur with no (or minimal) gap, and no overlap between speakers. It is alternating because it is expected that participants will take turns speaking in an orderly fashion. Thus, in dyadic exchanges, one person speaks, the other responds; the first speaks again, the second takes the following turn, and so forth. CMC, in contrast, exhibits numerous violations of both the “no gap, no overlap” principle and the principle of orderly turn alternation (Herring, 1999). Researches on conversational interaction shows simultaneous feedback has an important role as it signals listenership, timing turn-taking and maintaining continuous interaction (Mclaughlin, 1984).

Interaction on the Internet in the study has shown successful turn-taking taking place, where there is no overlap and minimal gap between the exchanges and one speaker speaks at one time. For example:

Example 5 : No overlap and no gap

6.platothedick: i hang out in perv rooms about 22 hours a day, the other two i'm in parent chat
7.CookedSoose: so it's YOUR fault plato!
8.platothedick: what is my fault?
9.CookedSoose: you bring all the pervs back here with you
10.platothedick: it probably is
11.CookedSoose: lol

In the example above, we can see the exchanges between platothedick and CookedSoose are not interrupted and there is no overlap or gap. Both of them take the floor in the instance they see the message from the other appears on their screen.

There are also instances where the chatter (speaker) selected which chat participant to speak next by producing the first part of the adjacency pair, such as in a greeting or a question, although they are not always successful because of the multi-participant nature of the chat room. Some examples of adjacency pairs (greetings) are as follows:

Example 6 : Adjacency pairs (Greetings)

Sample 6.1

61.nflfirefighter: Morning Selena
65.selena_serene: hello nfl

Sample 6.2

71.CookedSoose: hello selena
73.selena_serene: soosey

However, although turn-taking in Internet chat is similar to spoken communication, researchers in CMC have found that there are various limitations imposed on group interaction by the properties of the medium, such as high production and reception, and “chaos”. One of the properties of the medium which are obstacles to interaction is the lack of simultaneous feedback which is due to the features of CMC. Online chat is text-based, and chat participants rely on fewer channels than face-to-face interaction for transmission of the message. Because users do not see other participants, they do not have access to paralinguistic and non-verbal information, which are equally important as the verbal information. Another feature is the fact that most free chat systems make use of messages are sent in their entirety when the message originator presses “send” or “return”, rather than one keystroke at a time. Therefore, participants cannot respond while message is being typed, and they do not even know that are being addressed to until a complete message appears on the screen (Herring, 1999). As a result, discontinuity and overlap within turn sequence occur.

Another problem is disrupted turn adjacency, which is due to CMC systems transmitting messages linearly, in the order received by the system. Thus in multi-participant interactions, a message may be separated in linear order from a previous message it is responding to, if other messages are been sent in the meantime (Herring, 1999). We can see this in Example 7 below (messages generated automatically by Yahoo! Chat system are excluded from this analysis):

Example 7a : Overlapping and interleaved interaction in Professors’ Chat:1

71.CookedSoose: hello selena
73.selena_serene: soosey
74.fisk_au: selena
75.just4nz: Good morning Selena
76.selena_serene: fisky
77.platothedick: selena
78.blue_eyed_jagged_edged: hi slee
79.selena_serene: pluto
80.platothedick: i'm old today
81.platothedick: i feel ancient
82.selena_serene: is it your Birthday?
83.fisk_au: happy b'day
84.blue_eyed_jagged_edged: slee you lost your pretty font again
85.selena_serene: heh heh
86.platothedick: i think i have a complex
87.CookedSoose: it's your birthday plato????
88.CookedSoose: happy birthday dear plato
89.fisk_au: I like this colour
90.platothedick: funny enough gilly it is
91.CookedSoose: happy birthday dear plato!
92.fisk_au: should I change?
93.platothedick: thanks
94.selena_serene: fisk,, looks like cat vomit
95.platothedick: fisk no one reads it anyway
96.blue_eyed_jagged_edged: yes fisk change

In the sample above, because of the number of participants the chat room in the study is high, exchanges are overlapped and interleaved. Here, we can see that the participants respond upwards to a previous participant in each case. One interaction is between platothedick and selena_serene, fisk_au and CookedSoose, and another is between blue_eyed_jagged_edged and selena_serene. We can see that selena_serene was engaged for a moment with two interactions at the same time with platothedick and blue_eyed_jagged_edged (lines 82 – 85). Later (line 88), fisk_au initiated another conversation with the rest of the participants, which they responded to. Example 7a shows that exchanges overlap and turns are often disrupted by other messages in between. These patterns of interaction can be represented (based on Herring, 1999) in Example 7b:

Example 7b : Overlapping and interleaved interaction in Professors’ Chat:1

In online chat, overlap, disrupted adjacency and interleaved exchange are very common. The lack of simultaneous feedback, time taken to type a message and multiple conversations and interactions in one chat room cause speaking turns to be lines away from one another. As a result turn-taking appears to be chaotic and incoherent.

However, although online interaction lacks certain important features of spoken communication, this study observed that chat participants were able to adapt to the medium in order to make the interaction successful (based on Herring, 1999). In turn-taking, they have created methods of signaling listenership and holding the floor, despite the nature of the medium and CMC.

In signaling listenership, some of the chat participants use emoticons, short-hand forms of communication (such as LOL), “heh heh” and “oh”. It is important because “practices such as these heighten the interactivity of CMC by signaling listenership and encouraging others to continue” (Herring, 1999). We can see this in Example 8 below:

Example 8 : Signaling listenership

Sample 8.1 : Study Group:4

220.mush_bear15: HE DONT KNOW HOW TO CHAT
221.mush_bear15: THATS ALL
222.sweetsunshinebrightenyou: :)

Sample 8.2 : Professors’ Chat:1

9.CookedSoose: you bring all the pervs back here with you
10.platothedick: it probably is
11.CookedSoose: lol

Sample 8.3 : Professors’ Chat:1

84.blue_eyed_jagged_edged: slee you lost your pretty font again
85.selena_serene: heh heh

Sample 8.4 : Professors’ Chat:1

167.fisk_au: it twitched
169.wickedly_innocent1: ohhhhh

The chat participants in the study were also found to be able to indicate to others that they are still holding the floor, specifically to those whom they are talking to, although messages from other chatters sometimes interleaved. They are able to do this quite successfully because those in the conversation were found not interrupting the message flow. Basically, the chat participants use two methods of holding the floor, which are sending incomplete sentences until they are finished talking (as in Example 9) and using multiple full-stops (as in Example 10).

Example 9 : Holding the floor (incomplete sentences)

Sample 9.1 : Professors’ Chat:1

23.platothedick: i've frozen or something
24.platothedick: but
26.platothedick: my penis still tingles

Sample 9.2 : Professors’ Chat:1

156.fisk_au: looks
158.fisk_au: at
159.fisk_au: 'it'

Sample 9.3 : Study Group:4

7.mush_bear15: depression
10.mush_bear15: gives teenagers
11.mush_bear15: stress

Sample 9.4 : Study Group:4

58.mush_bear15: nope
59.mush_bear15: she's
60.mush_bear15: ryt

Example 10 : Holding the floor (multiple full-stops)

Sample 10.1 : Professors’ Chat:1

153.blue_eyed_jagged_edged: look at this...just fucking LOOK at it...
160.blue_eyed_jagged_edged: 'How are we to decide whether the man or woman we send to parliament is earning their keep?'

Sample 10.2 : Professors’ Chat:1

221.fisk_au: I went to school with a kid clled Grammar
222.fisk_au: oh
224.fisk_au: wait...
226.fisk_au: it was Grahame

As we can see, although online chat lacks features of face-to-face interaction, chat participants in the study were found to be able to compensate that lacking with their creativity to ensure communication in online chat is successful.


To conclude, interaction on chat systems on the Internet has produced a new set of systems called the Internet language. This new system of communication differs from the conventional type of communication because it is a result of convergence of both written and spoken language in one medium. Despite the weaknesses due to the nature of the medium, communication in online chat can be considered as successful in getting the message across, similar to spoken communication.


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