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Jüdische Weisheit


"Walla Chat":
An Ehtnographic View of an Israeli Internet Chat Site

Von Dotan Blais

The author explores the nature of a virtual Israeli community in terms of its communal values and the extent that they reflect mainstream cultural values in actual society. Socio-linguistic patterns in two Israeli chat rooms were examined – "Thirty-Plus" and "Forty-Plus" – located in the Israeli portal, "Walla." Characteristic talk events and key words were identified and studied as components of a linguistic code that reveals underlying values, i.e., the permissible and the taboo in a chat environment. This was followed by an analysis of the relationship between the chat discourse, chat community identity, and mainstream cultural identity.

As in all virtual communities, a series of linguistic patterns and combinations were revealed, having symbolic connotations of identity and status. Despite the absence in chat rooms of conventional identifying characteristics such as gender, ethnic origin, age or appearance, two distinct social categories emerged in the Walla chat rooms: permanent and non-permanent participants, identified linguistically as "we" and "they." The regulars largely set the parameters of the discourse and tended to reproduce values that typify mainstream Israeli discourse. The irregulars tended to undermine these chat norms.

The permanent participants established a consistent identity and a sustained presence in the site, guarding their chat name vigilantly. New or temporary participants had to demonstrate to the regulars that they merited their attention, often by provocative remarks. Moreover, non-permanent participants often changed names or "stole" names from, or used similar names as, regulars. This evoked responses similar to those in real-life situations when identity or status is stolen.

Other raw materials used in establishing a virtual identity were specific words, sentences, linguistic virtuosity, rhetorical ability, keyboard speed and dexterity, and the use of keyboard symbols. Non-regulars purposely avoided establishing a recognizable "face" and kept changing their identities, thereby enjoying greater freedom, preserving anonymity and protecting themselves against harm to their "face."

A chat practice that served to enhance the coalescence of the regulars was prolonged ritual greetings and farewells upon entry and departure from the site, often punctuated by smiley and kiss symbols. Temporary participants, by contrast, were not accorded these greetings, an attitude comparable to that toward a tourist in a foreign country.

Alongside the solidarity-enhancing attitudes of the linguistic practices in the chat site, participants have broad personal space for self-expression, thereby justifying a definition of such sites as a social body with a communal and tribal character. Clearly, however, not all the participants in the Walla site are part of the community. Whether by choice or as an intermediate stage in becoming members of the community, a large segment of the participants are impermanent, and some constitute an element of subversive opposition to the values of the community. They can be aggressive and abusive sexually or otherwise. The non-permanent participants help define the identity of the permanent participants in that they are perceived as a threat to the community, to the pleasurability of the chat experience, and sometimes to the solidarity of the community. This often evokes assertive linguistic counter strategies by the permanent members which weaken the non-permanents while reinforcing the normative community. Sometimes, however, the permanent group is unable to overcome the opposition of the outsiders. When a non-permanent participant feels no threat whatever to his/her "face," his/her challenge or harassment can harm the group. The existence of these two distinct social categories engenders perpetual tension between the normative and the non-normative, and chat norms are subject to the effects of recurring cycles of community buildup and breakdown, or boundary establishment and violation.

In the absence of a perceived threat to their face, some non-permanent participants go beyond challenging the community ethos and attack the Israeli ethos. The response by the permanent chat community to this kind of challenge is ambivalent, as their chat identity and their broader Israeli identity only partially overlap. Linguistic patterns in the chat discourse show a distinctively Israeli character, e.g., in an emphasis on communal togetherness; recurring demands typical of the sabra attitude to avoid intellectual pathos; and an Israeli approach to bereavement. These patterns, however, appear to undergo a certain restructuring to fit the chat mold.

Broadly, the author found that the identity of the permanent participants wavers between an Israeli component and a virtual component. His premise that culture, rather than medium, is the dominant element both in the construction of chat discourse and in defining its identity was not proven conclusively.

Kesher, No. 30, November 2001


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