The first blog post I discovered on twitter was, very aptly, about the nature of communication on twitter itself. Even more aptly, it was tweeted by David Gauntlett, Professor of Media and Communications at Westminster University and general busy-body behind theory.org.uk.
In the post, Leisa Reichelt described the incessant exchange of status messages as an 'ambient intimacy' which keeps friends and colleagues just close enough to communicate with, but with the volume turned down - just enough to provide a little background music. Basically, phatic communication via web2.0.
The blog, unfortunately, quotes someone erroneously attributing this 'phatic function' to Mikhail Bakhtin rather than Roman Jakobson (at least they managed to get a Russian linguist). In Jakobson's (1962) six functions of communication, the phatic function establishes and maintains communciation, a kind of metacommunication. In speech, this includes chit chat to you neighbour about the weather to strike up a conversation and the macho grunts sports jocks exchange with each other; and in writing, the opening and closing formalities like 'Yours sincerely'.
A more appropriate attribution would be to Polish anthropologist, Bronisław Malinowski, who coined the phrase. His ethnographic studies of the Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea in the 1920s led to his observations that 'ties of union are created by the mere exchange of words' (Malinowski 1923:315 in Wardhaugh 2006).
The idea of web communication as phatic communion was something I had read before, although usually in the pejorative sense. Academics sceptically remark that "students are certainly engaged in communication. But has this communication led to any new understanding?" (Kern 2000:355 in Kramsch & Thorne 2002).
Though similarly sceptical, Kramsch and Thorne (2002) interestingly suggest that as computer-mediated communciation (CmC) tends toward the phatic function, rather than the instrumental, the nature of CmC may be very different to that assumed in Hymes' framework of 'communicative competence' that has underpinned so much of current EFL pedagogy since CLT.
I think that dismissing phatic communion as mere gossip, or idle chatter, misses the most important function of language. Exchanges of this type of communication may be empty of meaning in an instrumental sense, but they are rich in meaning in a social sense. In fact my own unscientific observations of my family or of commuters on trains leads me to think this could even be main function of language.
However, linguists and applied linguists, have tended to overlook this function and concentrate on the rationalized coding and decoding of messages as the main function of communication, and in doing so have adopted Shannon and Weaver's transmission model of communication (yes, I know they didn't call it that, but that it what it is). Anyone who reads the oringinal article will instantly understand my misgivings in uncritically transplanting a model from applied mathematics to something as social and cultural as human communciation.
Maybe the sheer magnitude of people that are communicating through web2.0, usually using English as a lingua franca, will lead to a reassessment of what 'meaningful communication' is in foreign language pedagogy. I am all for promoting 'ambient intimacy' in the EFL classroom2.0.
Am I being overly hopeful? Well, seriously interested at least.
Kramsch, C. & Thorne, S. (2002) Foreign language learning as global communicative practice, in Block & D. Cameron (Eds.), Globalization and Language Leaching, London: Routledge.
Jakobson, R. (1962) Selected Writings, The Hague: Mouton.
Wardhaugh, R. (2006) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, Oxford: Blackwell.