The voice of the web is not positive, negative or neutral
The voice of the web
The voice of the web (buzz), means everything in the web about someone, about a company or a product, a party and so on. Everything means everything, but there is something that makes the difference between the web and a traditional press review: the content of blogs and social networks. We will discuss the second, as the blogs can be considered, to some extents, as a kind of press. So, we will consider the social networks the typical environment of the voice of the web.
The voice of the web's importance has grown for journalists, politicians, companies. Nothing bad, as the voice of the web carries for free a great deal of information. But they have to interpret correctly this great amount of information and data, and to synthetize it.
The current tripartition
Currently, all around the world, the voice of the web is interpreted according to the following tripartition: the contents may be positive, negative or neutral.
We deny that something about communication can be neutral. Communication excludes neutrality, by definition. It makes no sense to discuss it: it is not an acceptable topic. Despite of that, we read even in main papers that neutral is the majority of the comments of the voice of the web. We argue that are categorized as neutral those comments that who analyses the voice of the web cannot categorize, for some reasons, as positive or negative.
So, let's turn to positive and negative. We will try to give them the maximum possible value. We think that is useful to extend the synthetic meaning of positive and negative with some more analytic meanings, i.e. assent/dissent, agreement/disagreement, identification/distinction, confirmation/confutation, approval/disapproval, applause/protest/insult, suggestion/correction, etc.
The list may be longer, but it is clear enough that the poles positive/negative may satisfy only those who seek for a very approximate interpretation of what the voice of the web says. More, those poles say nothing about other functions that the messages may have.
To tell the truth, the polarity positive/negative seems to be the product of a calculation instead of the product of an interpretation of linguistic actions. In other words, this polarity seems to come out from an informatics ratio instead from and informative ratio. If we say that the 3 is green, a mathematician would deny. So, let us deny that such a polarity is able to comprise all of the meanings of all of the utterances. Phenomena must be considered juxta propria principia.
Written communication exists since ancient times. Nobody classified texts as positive or negative until now, when the voice of the web became a problem. So, we have to ask ourselves what are the characteristics of the voice of the web's messages. It seems to us that they are the following:
the authors are rarely professionals of written communication (i.e. they are not journalists, novelists, academics);
the comments are almost always responding to an input (an article, a post, a statement);
the comments are published thanks to technologies that make possible a kind of conversation among all those who participate.
We consider this last point the most relevant. The technologies of Facebook, of the old forums (and even of some blogs) are designed specifically to promote the immediate exchange of information and interaction among participants. The dynamics are well known: initial post, comments of the post, comments of some comments.
That dynamic promotes (and to some extent implies) that the modalities of the written communication adapt themselves to the modalities of the conversation. In this particular context it happens that what is written is similar to what is spoken. To say it better, the characteristics of the written comments are not analyzable only according to syntax and semantics.
At this point, it seems to us clear enough that the tripartition positive-negative-neutral is born to give some ratio to texts that: a) are not included in traditional classifications; b) are not analyzable according to grammar. If that is the question, the tripartition is not going to give an answer.
A written conversation
How to interpret a written text that occur in a conversative dynamic is a problem that must be solved with a methodological approach which respects the nature of this phenomenon. We may contribute to this and we hope that the topic will be further developed.
The source of a conversation is the relation between two or more people, i.e. the speakers and their receivers, not their words. Words come later and come out contemporaneously with the thought, which, on its side, reacts to the modalities and the development of the interaction. This is the first reason why a speech is so different from a written text. But what happens when the conversation is written? Does something change? The main difference is that the conversation is written, but it remains a conversation, which depends on the conversative dynamic.
We have investigated the phenomenon (our paper is under scientific review). We have defined this kind of writing operation "the written conversation", and we have discovered that the basic criterion to interpret it is the pragmatic category of the illocution.
John Austin, in the middle of the last century,
identified in an utterance: a) the locution, that is the value of the
utterance according to grammar and semantics; b) the illocution, that is
the communicative intention; c) the perlocution, that is the effect that
the utterance may produce. For instance, if in a cold room A says to B
"The window!", A means that B closes the windows, and does not mean to
inform B that in the room there is a window. In other words, to
understand a written conversation we have to skip from a grammatical
analysis of the utterance to a pragmatic analysis of the context of the
utterance, that is to the analysis of the illocutions and of their
The point is that there are several illocutions. Linguists had variously classified them and we have not the purpose to discuss with their theories. Anyway, according to his personal everyday experience, everyone is able to understand that there are much more illocutions then positive-negative values. For instance: a question, a request, a will, an explanation, a quotation, an hypothesis, an imprecation. We could go ahead with other examples, but this list is long enough to demonstrate that, given that nothing is neutral, very few is positive or negative.
The illocution is the realization of the communicative intention of the speaker or writer. His intention derives directly from the relational dynamic and is expressed coherently with the intention, in the written conversation as well. A syntactic and semantic analysis of this kind of writing is possible, but it makes sense only as a support to a pragmatic analysis of the illocution.
Therefore, to achieve the goal to give a classification of the web written conversations we need to classify the illocutions. But we need to recognize something more. If the illocution represents my purpose, to this purpose corresponds an attitude, a kind of behavior through which I approach to communication. This attitude must be coherent with the illocution and amplifies its effectiveness. We refer to the theory of the argumentation to combine illocutions and attitudes, that is to combine pragmatics and argumentation. So we say that is possible to classify written conversations into three types of attitudes:
In our research, we saw that:
to the first attitude are related contents with poor conversative importance, as they refer mainly to personal experience;
to the second attitude are related more often relevant contents, as they aim to be constructive;
to the third attitude are related very predictable contents, as they refer to the attitude itself in order to confirm it.
All comments depend on the initial post. This means that it makes no sense to examine each single post, but we need to examine the entire thread, starting after the initial post.
Writing a good initial post is crucial to obtain a good conversation, i.e. pertinent, fair, constructive. We are going to think that the poor contribution of good ideas in the web written conversations is due even to the poor conversative quality of the initial posts. Too often in those posts there is a bad approximation of the assumptions and the premises; they set an incoherent relation with and among the participants; they are ambiguous on the purpose of the conversation. Mistakes of those kind makes the participants to suspect hypocrisy, and leads the conversation to fail.
Webimpossibile [http://www.webimpossibile.net/]è un progetto di Giovanni Acerboni e Lorenzo Spallino. Nato nel maggio 2004 per ragionare pubblicamente sullo stato del web, contiene riflessioni e spunti su internet, cultura e diritto. Aggiornamenti del sito vengono segnalati attraverso una newsletter a pubblicazione non periodica. Condizioni di utilizzo alla pagina http://www.webimpossibile.net/cpright.htm.
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