Scholarly Contexts for Understanding Online Cultures




The nerdish, divergent-thinking, outspoken fanatic is one of the most prominent stereotypes of inhabitants of cyberspace. This stereotypical person surely exists somewhere to give strength to the myth, although we can't know if the Internet spawns such characters, or if it simply attracts people who are already a little offbeat, just as the idea of Alaska in the 1970s attracted Jack Nicholson-wannabes living black-sheep lives straight out of Five Easy Pieces. Having grown up with Alaskan-style extremists, I feel uniquely drawn to study and understand the sociology of Internet extremists. To understand this character, I have "gone native." Through ethnographic cultural immersion in a particular culture, I hope to begin to understand what makes the stereotypical Internet extremist tick. With such immersive research methods, I am choosing social relevance and depth over the critical distance and rigor of other social research approaches. I also want many of the categories and classifications I use to arise from the data I collect, in a primarily inductive style of analysis characteristic of ethnographic research, without imposing hypotheses on the culture prior to data collection and analysis (Fetterman 15).



My research also employs Fantasy-Theme Rhetorical Analysis, developed by Ernest G. Bormann for tracing social movements in small group communications. I use this method to code and study communication in a specific online culture. This study combines two modes of inquiry: (1) Locating and capturing texts from multiple sites on the Internet, and (2) Supplementing those texts with the ethnographic tools of participant observation and informant interviews, both electronic and face-to-face. Field data in the form of observation and interview notes were also subject to rhetorical analysis. In using ethnographic tools to collect supplementary texts, I am following the lead of other scholars who are attempting to broaden the base of what kinds of artifacts and observations "count" as rhetoric, as the field of rhetoric turns toward understanding cultures as they are socially constructed through language. These tools help me trace rhetorical patterns in a specific online culture in order to discover how authorities are being constructed. I will discuss my methods in more detail in the Methodology section below.


Research Methodology: Cultural Critique Explored through Fantasy-Theme Analysis

Steven Mailloux has framed culture as "the network of rhetorical practices that are extensions and manipulations of other practices­-social, political, and economic" (Rhetorical Power 59). Cultural rhetoric, then, according to Mailloux means taking on the study of "the political effectivity of trope and argument in culture" (Rhetorical Power xii). Mailloux has been developing a theory and practice of "rhetorical hermeneutics," which is a form of "cultural rhetoric study that takes as its topic specific historical acts of interpretation within their cultural contexts" (Rhetorical Hermeneutics 5-6). While Mailloux has raised a banner for work in cultural rhetoric coming from the side of literary criticism, others in rhetoric have moved in this direction as well, as evidenced in the theme of the Fifth Biennial Conference of the Rhetoric Society of America, "Rhetoric in the Vortex of Cultural Studies." In the published proceedings from the 1992 conference, Walter H. Beale's keynote address specifically seeks to navigate the convergences and divergences between rhetoric and cultural studies, which are also reflected in the other papers in that volume. One of the primary convergences Beale cites falls right into line with Mailloux's focus as well, as both rhetoric and cultural studies "share an interest in uncovering deeper understandings of the situatedness of all discourse, of literature as discourse, of discourse as a form of action and production, and conversely of culture itself as a text, a fabric of significations and representations..." (Beale 6). This dissertation attempts to cover the range of these interests, from looking at literal, tangible electronic texts as culture, and the Xenaverse culture itself as a text, containing many kinds of rhetorical actions and material productions.


To gauge the "political effectivity of trope and argument" in the Xenaverse Internet culture, Fantasy-Theme Analysis is well-suited. It has been used for the study of social movements and cultures, focusing on how a group constructs itself through common fantasy themes of setting, character (sometimes as a sanctioning agent), and action (or plotline). Originated by Ernest G. Bormann for the study of face-to-face small group communication, this method gathers chains of multiple fantasy themes into "fantasy types" or families of themes that are often invoked and dramatized as a form of in-group shorthand. More overarching rhetorical visions hold the themes and types together and serve to unify the group (Bormann). Fantasy-Theme Analysis has since been very successfully applied to social movements and cultures as one of the primary extensions of the method. Bormann credits the genesis of the method to research in small group communications by Robert Bales (Personality and Interpersonal Behavior). In noticing how "processes of group fantasizing or dramatizing as a type of communication" seemed to be a common characteristic of small groups, Bales dubbed such fantasizing as a "chaining process," which Bormann then developed into a dramaturgical approach to rhetorical analysis (qtd. in Foss). A dramaturgical approach is based on a dramatic metaphor, with the rhetoric cast into the frame of a dramatic performance (Brock et al. 173-4). Fantasy-Theme Analysis is also based on Bormann's symbolic convergence theory. According to Sonja K. Foss, two primary principles guide symbolic convergence theory: (1) "Communication creates reality," and (2) "Individuals' meanings for symbols can converge to create a shared reality" (122). This theoretical approach seems particularly well suited for cyberspace, a place that is not really a place, since it exists only in electronic communication. For social movements to exist in cyberspace, some sort of shared reality is necessary, perhaps even an extended set of shared metaphors that construct an interface.


According to Bormann, "individuals in rhetorical transactions create subjective worlds of common expectations and meaning." These common fantasy themes then chain into groups of similar themes, what Bormann calls "Rhetorical Visions" that serve as a "coping function for those who participate in the drama" (as qtd. in Brock et al.). There is a delayed reaction in the creation of fantasy themes, because the themes gain power when dramatized into group understandings of past settings, characters, and actions, as well as projections into future ones. As the events are taking place, the shared version of reality is chaotic and meaning is uncertain. With the creation of mutual fantasy themes and rhetorical visions, enough order and meaning can be generated from those events to sustain a social movement in many cases.


Bormann himself has encouraged the extension of his method into social movement studies, and he has followed up with significant analyses of fantasy themes in Cold War rhetoric, the hostage release and the Reagan Inaugural, and the Eagleton Affair, (Bormann and Shields 1996, Bormann 1982, Bormann 1973). In the 1970s the method was challenged by G.P. Mohrmann in a public debate in the Quarterly Journal of Speech. Mohrmann charged that Bormann had taken the method from the strongly Freudian-influenced psychology work of Bales, and thus did not escape the theoretical foundations of Freudian psychology, particularly concerns with double and hidden meanings, and the role of the unconscious (Bormann 1982). Bormann, however, responded that the theory was in no way tied to those Freudian foundations. He said it only relied on Bales's work for its impetus and a few key terms. Since that time, according to Bormann, the theory and method have evolved directly from the actual practice of rhetorical critics, expanding and growing with new terms and in new directions that are being influenced by findings from the rhetorical analysis of social movements rather than small group dynamics. Bormann has particularly encouraged works of cultural analysis, writing:

After we had documented the relationship between sharing fantasies in the small group and the development of group culture, the discovery of rhetorical visions raised research questions about the relationships between messages and the rhetorical visions of larger communities of people. Soon it became apparent that this line of inquiry would examine the relationship between rhetoric and culture and the rule of rhetoric in generating social knowledge (Ten Years Later 297).


One difficulty exists in bringing Fantasy-Theme Analysis into play in the context of current trends in postmodernist-influenced cultural critique. Fantasy-Theme Analysis is a method with a "foundational" communication theory behind it: Symbolic Convergence Theory. With its origins in the 1970s, early uses of the method often incorporated quantitative instruments, particularly Q-sorts, to triangulate the analysis. Bormann has explicitly aimed Fantasy-Theme Analysis toward bringing humanist-style research and social science research together with the grounded and adaptive Symbolic Convergence Theory in "Fantasy-Theme Analysis and Rhetorical Theory" (450). This 1989 article indicates that Bormann has bold ambitions for the testing of Symbolic Convergence Theory in order to lead to a "general communication theory." This unifying theory would grow out of groups of rhetorical analyses which build together to make "special communications theories" (451, 455). This characterization brings to mind the language of the hard sciences, particularly special and general theories of relativity. The use of these terms belie a specifically modernist orientation toward developing foundational "Truth" in the form of a unified, generalizable, and potentially "predictive" theory (although the predictive directions have since been abandoned as the more quantitative studies gave way to qualitative rhetorical criticism). Modern-day cultural critiques, drawing from diverse directions such as British cultural studies, revisionist Marxism, and Foucauldian poststructuralism, all share to some extent a focus on the localized, contextualized, contingent truths of specific cultures. How can Fantasy-Theme Analysis be brought into the service of a postmodern-influenced, localized cultural critique such as I propose here? Will the method allow such an adaptation? I believe the method will accommodate such an adaptation because the particular focal point of analysis is on dramatized fantasy themes and rhetorical visions within the cultural contexts in which they are chained out. The findings of such rhetorical analysis need not lead to a generalizable, unifying theory. I would not generalize my findings about the Xenaverse culture to other Internet cultures without further particular and localized investigations into many other Internet cultures. While some trends may emerge from my conclusion which could inform studies at other sites of investigation, I am not working toward developing foundational "Truth" about Internet cultures.


Bormann emphasizes the different ways his method has been adapted to the specific practices and findings of rhetorical critics. Two examples illustrate this. First, in replying to the criticism made by Mohrmann that Fantasy-Theme Analysis is inherently Freudian because it was adapted from the psychoanalytic findings of Bales, Bormann implied that Bales's work served primarily a heuristic function toward the development of Fantasy-Theme Analysis and Fantasy-Theme Analysis was not reliant on psychoanalytic theory foundationally. Since Bormann intends the method to be grounded in the findings of actual research practices rather than "cut of theoretical whole cloth," it is unlikely cultural studies adaptations of the method would be objectionable (Ten Years Later 293). Second, in response to the supportive criticism of Roderick Hart that the method is often settled before the research question is formulated, Bormann asserts that he prefers grounded theory where the "theoretical cloth is woven as we do the study," and that "...most of the studies did have a theoretical impetus in symbiotic relationship with the method" (293). He adds, "If there was one thing we were wary of, it was what Kaplan calls the law of the instrument which he formulates as, "Give a small boy a hammer and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding" (293-94). This study strives for a similar "symbiotic relationship," grounding theory with the method, and adapting both to the specific circumstances found in the Xenaverse. My adaption of Fantasy-Theme Analysis, grown out of explorations of the particular and localized circumstances of the Xenaverse culture, is to bring postmodern-influenced cultural critiques of power and authority as exemplified by Foucault to the practice of Fantasy-Theme Analysis.



With Fantasy-Theme Analysis as my core method, in my analysis sections I also layer some other perspectives. Hypertext theory also has not yet been applied to the fictional/bardic output of many of the web-based fan fiction. I want to reconceive these texts as hypertexts, showing how the interstitial webbed contexts of hyperfiction in the Xenaverse exemplify current hypertext theory better than their more literary and experimental hyperfiction counterparts. In Camille Bacon-Smith's study of the Star Trek fan fiction phenomenon, which at the time of her study existed only in a community based in printed paper materials and face-to-face meetings, we can see that the fictional output by many of these marginalized women writers carried with it many similar characteristics often ascribed to electronic hyperfiction. In the Xenaverse, the writers, predominantly women, are exhibiting the same characteristics in their fan fiction, at a faster rate of exchange and possibly with a more intense sense of social connectedness.


The Politics of Online Research Praxis

In this research I do not rely only on texts captured off the Internet. This research is also based on participant observation, and I collected ethnographic data in the Xenaverse as well. There is a wealth of Xena texts in the public domain, free for the taking. But downloading texts is a far cry from actually becoming an accepted participant-observer in an online culture, what some may go so far as to call an online "community." (The term "community" is often contested by computer-mediated communication (CMC) scholars and techno-rhetoricians as being inappropriately applied in cyberspace, as Stephen Doheny-Farina notes.)

Bibliographic entry


I am working from a model of "critical research praxis" which problematizes the power dynamics of the one-way taking of texts versus the reciprocity of entering into a group and becoming accepted into the ongoing conversations (Cushman, Sullivan and Porter). Cyberspace is full of lurkers. A person becomes invisible simply by not saying anything. You are both there and not there. Indeed, producers, writers, and stars of the "Xena: Warrior Princess" ("X:WP") show have been known to lurk anonymously in the Xenaverse, observing, adding a charged and often panoptic quality to the conversations, since one never knows whom they may be entertaining unawares. As a researcher I want to be accepted, and I don't want to be invisible in the Xenaverse. With my interactions in this cyberspace culture then, I have worked to establish an online ethos, a persona that strives to embody a responsible, open, participant-observer role for myself.

 Bibliographic entry for J.D. Bolter's _Writing Space_.


There is a good reason to be politically sensitive to relations of power in the Xenaverse. One of the most prominent metaphors in cyberspace is also one of the most politically oppressive: that of a frontier space to be conquered and colonized. For me to lurk anonymously in the Xenaverse, taking research texts from the Xenaverse culture and not returning anything, in effect treats this online space as an "unknown territory" to be colonized and explained by research, as the theories of Malea Powell suggest for other arenas. Powell, herself Eastern Miami and Shawnee Native American, has found the traditions of academic scholarship to be like finding an "unoccupied" piece of territory and making it "our own scholarly homestead," in order to colonize the unknown territory in the same way North America was colonized by the Europeans (Powell "Custer's Very Last Stand").


Yet because cyberspace expands with its users, there seem to be no prior occupants to dispossess, and there can be no direct "land shortages," except for those from the socioeconomic groups which are denied access to technology, a serious and important issue, but one which lies outside the scope of this dissertation.


Sullivan and Porter's book, Opening Spaces: Writing Technologies and Critical Research Practices, foregrounds the agenda of social change by developing a methodological frame for critical research praxis. I find their work immediately applicable to my own in the Xenaverse. In their broader, technology-focused view, social change can include "liberation of the oppressed (Freire), improved communicative relations (Habermas), increased power for computer users, improvement of social conditions, improvement of work conditions (Zuboff), and in academic contexts, the improvement of learning conditions and the empowerment of students" (Sullivan and Porter 20). Sullivan and Porter point out that critical theory alone is not sufficient and can benefit from greater self-reflexivity and skepticism of its own foundation, and as such needs poststructuralism as well, particularly Foucault and feminist theory. The result is the creation of a new conglomeration they call "resistance postmodernism" (Ebert) or "postcritical" research.

Bibliographic entry

Bibliographic entry for J.D. Bolter's _Writing Space_.

Bibliographic entry


Ellen Cushman, in an important College Composition and Communication article, considers the issue of politically activist research directly, casting the "Rhetorician as Agent of Social Change." Cushman describes activism as going beyond the larger social movements most people think of, to micro-level interactions, such as "accepting a civic duty to empower people with our positions, a type of leftist stealing from the rich to give to the poor" (14). The micro-level is also where critical pedagogy works toward greater democratizing purposes, in reciprocal dialogues with learners as advocated by Freire, where the teacher is a learner as well. This activism applied to cyberspace raises a question: "If cyberspace is my neighborhood, what kind of citizen am I?" Freire wrote, "A partnership connotes people working together toward common goals. must seek to live with others in solidarity... [and] solidarity requires true communication" (as qtd. in Cushman 63). The goal of empowering people at the micro-level is to approach something very much like real democracy, what C. Douglas Lummis calls "radical democracy."


Activism and Radical Democracy Online

Lummis defines "radical democracy" from its Greek root words, demos, or people, kratios, rule. The people rule, or are sovereign. However, according to Lummis, the word "democracy" has become like a pabulum, overused and misapplied to the extent that it means nothing. The basic premise of Lummis's book Radical Democracy is that "democracy is radical everywhere." (9) He claims democracy is more radical, more subversive, more empowering, more threatening, than Marxism- that the notion of people actually holding sovereignty is, in principle, to the left of Marxism. The people already ARE sovereign according to Lummis, and in advocating what he calls "transborder democracy," he argues that "for the radical democrat, imperial democracy is no longer a possibility... The struggle for democracy must be not the struggle for a democratic country, but for a democratic world" (138). By this statement Lummis does not call for us all to don our President Wilson hats and endeavor to "make the world safe for democracy," and democratic imperialism. Lummis advocates activism on a world-wide scale in respecting all peoples and cultures, with an important exception: working to halt oppression, such as "when serfs grasp their forelocks, when soldiers do close order drill, or when slaves pick cotton" (Lummis 44).



Careful not to essentialize democracy nor to exclude economic democracy in the workplace, Lummis makes no institutional proposals. Instead, he focuses on the "state of democracy." Democracy then becomes a word like "justice," for instance, an ideal which would never be defined by current courtroom practices. He asks, if one takes a radical democratic position, what does it entail? So he posits an imaginary, ideal-type character, "The Radical Democrat," and then asks, "What does she think? Do? Become? And if someone else chooses a different route, can you still call it "democracy?" This does not come in with a prescribed agenda, because to do so would risk imperialism, the imposing of a will from the outside. As with critical pedagogy, this kind of micro-level activism enters into cultures and communities, enters the dialogue to understand and learn.


For Cushman, the "radical democrat" is the critical, activist researcher. For Freire it is the critical pedagogue. For me, it is the critical citizen. It all amounts to the same thing. There is democracy where people have power: tangible, legitimate power. Or as Lummis put it, "Democracy is a critique of centralized power of every sort, charismatic, bureaucratic, class, military, corporate, party, union, technocratic." It is the "antithesis to all such power" (25). As such, I believe we should consider every position we take in terms of the power relationships it engenders. This also includes thinking about the colonizing of cyberspace, as well as the taking of texts so the researcher can gain power by writing a dissertation. The potentially colonizing relationship between researcher and researched creates a power imbalance that must be acknowledged and countered, whenever possible, by fostering a more reciprocal relationship between research co-participants.


Bourdieu discusses reciprocity, or give and take, in The Logic of Practice, where he writes of "modes of domination" where "A man (sic) possesses in order to give. But he also possesses by giving. A gift that is not returned can become a debt, a lasting obligation; and the only recognized power--recognition, personal loyalty or prestige-- is the one that is obtained by giving. In such a universe, there are only two ways of getting and keeping a lasting hold over someone; debts and gifts..." (Bourdieu 126) Cushman wants to create a critical research praxis that pays attention to ethical debts when researchers enter communities, by knowing "how exchanges create and maintain oppressive structures." Although I am not working to improve literacy practices online nor pursuing social justice programs to put a laptop on every desk, I do have an activist agenda: to achieve radical democracy and social emancipation from domination. Currently one of the most promising sites of democratic resistance to dominant cultural hegemony is foundon the Internet.



Many theorists have claimed that online communications and hypertext in particular fosters greater democratization (Nelson, Bolter, Landow, Coover, Ess, Selfe and Selfe, Faigley, Moulthrop). Most of these claims emerged out of the early, heavily theoretical days before the Internet had a more graphical user interface (GUI) such as we see now on the World Wide Web. When Ted Nelson was making his claims about a "docuverse," the "docuverse" itself had not yet been created. Early hypertext adopters, such as Joyce, and Moulthrop, worked with a Macintosh Hypercard-like interface in "Storyspace," which did not become widely used beyond the circle of the "Eastgate School," named after Eastgate Systems, the primary publisher of Storyspace hypertexts (Moulthrop "Breakdown Lane"). George Landow also had support at Brown University for hypertexts in "Intermedia," which, when the Intermedia project was cancelled, were moved into "Storyspace" as well (Landow Hypertext 2.0). In those days prior to the arrival of graphical browsers for the World Wide Web, late 1993 and into 1994, theorizing about hypertext and the potential for democratization outstripped the more rudimentary implementation of hypertextual systems.



Much of that early theorizing would eventually fall into the category of technological determinism, or the belief that inherent qualities in the technology would determine human and social behavior (Winner).These are the claims that the technology itself would spawn an increased democratic participation in society, almost automatically. Most of the rhetoric surrounding electronic cultures and hypertext comes close to utopian optimism. It looks to the advantages of information sharing, networking, egalitarian access to forums and conversations, (although access to the technology itself is unfolding in ways which perpetuate an elitism of computer haves against have-nots), higher levels of literacy and semiotic thought (Bolter), the overthrow of traditional and textual authorities, and nonlinear or nonhierarchical relationships. In Bolter's "network culture," disintegrating hierarchies lead to "greater and greater freedom of action" in accord with "the goals of liberal democracy" (232), where "our whole society is taking on the provisional character of a hypertext: it is rewriting itself for each individual member" (233). The Internet does seem to level the playing field and distribute power, and users can present themselves to the best their personal and monetary resources will allow. On discussion listservs and in chat rooms it is more difficult for dominant personalities to "hog the conversational floor" because of the impossibility of interruption and the ability to delete. And on the Web, even Fortune 500 companies still have to give people a reason to come to their sites, as traditional boundaries and hierarchies do not seem to carry as much power. That has been a tough lesson for many of the new commercial web sites to learn. It would appear that there was some basis for the sometimes utopian claims being made about the technology (see Faigley).


Even when these democratic hopes for the Internet have become little more than slick AT&T "You Will" campaigns and MCI glosses about social equity online, they still exert some force, ironically. Scholars have begun the larger enterprise of critically testing some of these democratization claims (Selfe & Selfe, "Politics of the Interface," "Democratic Social Action"). For instance, social domination patterns in electronic chat rooms can silence people through "internal and external coercion," even when participants have equal opportunities to speak (Boese, Habermas ). Susan Herring has found that conversation patterns of male dominance from face-to-face discussions match the patterns from listserv discussions, where women still only participate in mixed gender groups by posting about 20 percent of the messages (Herring, Herring, Johnson, & Dibenedetto). Herring's detailed look at two specific discussions in two different Internet newsgroups shows that domination by male group members remains consistent. At points in the discussion where women did assert themselves in greater numbers (often using qualifiers and hedge words), group backlash was immediate and silencing, with threats from some male members to unsubscribe from the list. It seems the Internet has become little more than an elaborate mirror for whatever patterns of social behavior we bring with us into these new cultural spaces. Cynthia and Richard Selfe have noted an oppressive presence of the State, or the military-industrial complex, in shaping computer culture-spaces, and have suggested that democratic social action in these virtual spaces is actually a subversive activity, one possibly best undertaken by "nomadic feminist cyborg guerrillas (Selfe & Selfe "Democratic Social Action") to work against "the logics and practices of domination" (Haraway).



Langdon Winner has recommended that, even while casting aside technological determinism, we still need to examine the politics of artifacts. Some artifacts can encourage democratic access by distributing power and control among many. Other artifacts can have built-in features that lead to centralized control, effectively taking choice away from the average user (Winner). The highly touted "Push" technologies on the Internet right now are one such example of taking user choice away while claiming to give users greater choice to set guides for filtering what they want to be shown. Push technology brings elements of programmed media to the Web, delivering or "pushing" content to users. In all, issues of democratization and authority in online cultures are at a crucial time in terms of radical democratic activism. They are under contention in the relatively new and unformed spaces of the Internet. The issue of democratization online is illustrated in the struggles and achievements of the Xenaverse. This dissertation explores the ways in which democracy both is and is not being enhanced online.

 Bibliographic entry


The icon of Xena's Breastplate continues to trace the scholarship on constructions of authority which helped to frame my study. The icon of Gabrielle's Staff tells the story of my evolving understanding of hypermedia theory before the influence of the World Wide Web. Continuing on the path of Xena's Sword takes you on to "The Xenaverse in Cyberspace" data sector of my study. As always, the Chakram goes to the Navigational Map, which can take you anywhere in this dissertation. Feel free to chart your own path.


The Ballad of the Internet Nutball: The Xenaverse in Cyberspace

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