Characteristics of the WWW Text: Tracing Discursive Strategies

Authors

  • Ananda Mitra

    Corresponding author
    1. Ananda Mitra (Ph.D., Univ. of Illinois) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Wake Forest University. His research interests include the exploration of the way in which South Asians are creating and negotiating diasporic identities in cyberspace. His work has been published in Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Convergence, and has appeared as chapters in books such as Doing Internet Research (Sage 1999) and Virtual Culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety (Sage 1997). He has also examined the way South Asian identity has been produced through Western film in his recent book, India through the Western Lens (Sage, 1999). He teaches courses in mass communication and new communication technologies.
      Address: Department of Communication, Wake Forest University, Box 7347 Reynolda Station, Winston-Salem, NC 27109
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Address: Department of Communication, Wake Forest University, Box 7347 Reynolda Station, Winston-Salem, NC 27109

Abstract

This paper considers the uniqueness of the texts and discourses produced by a specific group of World Wide Web (WWW) users. These characteristics include the intertextuality of the WWW text and the resulting formation of textual domains where no particular text can claim centrality. This decentering is reported as the result of a process of reciprocal intertextuality. These unique characteristics of the WWW text eventually produce an image of the group of people who write and read the text. The specific characteristics of the Web discourse suggests alternative ways of thinking of cyber-communities around the specific discursive strategies used by the authors.

Introduction

The explosive growth of the use of global networks of computers, commonly labeled the Internet, has increasingly led to questions about the way in which the Internet can be understood and analyzed as an emergent means of communication. Among the various questions being raised, there is a growing debate about the propriety of describing the users of newsgroups, Multi User Dungeons and Chat rooms as members of a community (see, e.g. Gates, 1996; Jones, 1995; Mitra, 1996, 1997; Rheingold, 1993; Turkle, 1995). This direction of research is of particular significance for the current project in that an understanding of the discursive structure of the Internet can provide an alternative way of conceptualizing the notion of virtual community.1 There is evidence to suggest that the idea of community on the Internet has not met with universal acceptance. Some have started from the premise that specific groups of Internet users may form cybercommunities. This premise has then been used to explore the specific aspects of these cyber-communities. Such exploration has focused, for instance, on the contexts within which the cyber-communities are formed, their norms of behavior, and the specific practices that hold the cyber-communities together (see, e.g., Baym, 1995; Jones, 1995; McLaughlin, 1996; McLaughlin, et. al., 1995). The other approach proposes that Internet users do not form a community, but compose assemblies of like-minded people without most of the normative elements of community (see, e.g. Beniger, 1987; Peck, 1987; Resnick, 1997).

Both ways of examining the authenticity of community on the Internet have presumed that communities can be, and need to be, defined around a set of criteria that have “worked” for a long period of time (see, e.g. Bellah, 1996; Dewey, 1927, 1930; Etzioni, 1993; Palmer, 1981; Selznick, 1996). In general, there have been few attempts to approach the question from alternative perspectives. In some cases, the merits of mobilizing existing sociological constructs of thinking about virtual communities have been examined but a specific approach to re-thinking virtual communities continues to elude scholars. This is well summarized in the work of Jones (1997) where it is demonstrated that much like the ambiguity of the notion of “community,” the idea of “virtual community” remains difficult to pin down. I argue, however, that it is perhaps possible to approach the question from a slightly different angle. In my approach, I begin by focusing attention not on the reproduction in cyberspace of the benchmarks of community in the physical world, but primarily on the texts and discourses that putative online communities produce. Here the notion of the text suggests that what is seen and read on a particular Web page carries a potential for meaning, and in hypertextual combination, these pages constitute a discourse of the Web. This approach would be framed within the discussions of the connection between discourse and community as suggested in Foucault's (1972) “discursive formation,”Fish's (1980) “interpretive community,” and Bizzell's (1982) “discourse community.” In all these approaches the common thread is that of the connection between discourse and community where it is suggested that communities are produced around discourses and the existence of communities is predicated upon the way in which network of texts are able to signify meaning to the community while the texts become signifiers for the communities as well.

For instance, in looking at discourse communities, such as the interpretive communities suggested by Fish, it is clear that such communities show two specific characteristics. First, such communities crystallize around a specific set of texts, and secondly, the people in the community share a set of common discursive and signifying practices. These practices include the ways in which they make sense of the texts, read the texts and produce new associated texts. Theses shared practices can then become indicators of the characteristics of the discourse community that is formed around the texts. In many ways, Foucault and Bizzell both make the same argument that discourse leads to the social formations and such formations (for Foucault) and communities (for Bizzell) are built and structured around signifying practices.

In this approach, the emphasis on the text is most significant and thus the discursive approach is somewhat different from the other ways of considering cyber communities. In most discussions of cyber communities, it is implicitly assumed that these virtual groups use the texts and discourses exchanged over the Internet as the primary means of communication among the members. Indeed, the online users are held together by the “textual glue” that they share on the electronic forum (McLaughlin, et. al., 1995). Although the text has been recognized to be central to the Internet, limited explicit attention has been paid to the characteristics of the text, particularly with respect to the relation between the texts, discourse and community.2 I am thus arguing for a closer examination of the texts and discourses that are open for interpretation in a variety of ways. Consequently, it is possible to mobilize the approach suggested by Porter: “A critical reading of the discourse of a community may be the best way to understand it (Porter, 1986, p.43)”.

I use Porter's approach to examine the texts and discourses of a pre-existing social bloc - immigrant Indians in the West. The choice of diasporic Indians provides a specific advantage in this analysis. Over the past three decades, there has been an influx of Indians in the West, particularly to the United States. A large number of these immigrants are professionals with technological training, and they have been able to use the available technologies to remain connected with each other. Among these technologies, the most recent emphasis has been on the Internet. It has been recognized that within the description of the discourse community there is also an acknowledgment of the existence of a priori conditions that make up the community by providing a “context” for the formation of the community (Baym, 1995; Vandenberg and Morrow, 1994). This aspect of discourse communities is evident among the diasporic Indians who can share a common set of discourses on the Internet as well as a common place of origin.

Indian immigrants have also used a variety of means to remain connected with each other as well as their original country. The creative means of remaining connected have been required because the Indian diaspora has not been geographically clustered, but has been spread out across the globe, with a significant concentration in North America. This geographic dispersion is significant because most of the methods of networking have been geared to overcome the barriers of distance and therefore the focus on the production of newspapers and magazines that can be sent to all members of the community, independent of location. In view of that historical tendency, the Internet has offered an excellent tool to stay connected and in many ways has been an extension of the pre-Internet discursive practices of the diasporic people (see, e.g., Mitra, 1996, 1997).

Indians in diaspora have also embraced the Internet as a principal communication tool for staying connected. Their extensive use of the Internet is illustrated by the significant presence of Indian sites on the WWW, as evidenced in the results of a “power search” conducted in August 1000, using a popular search engine of the WWW. The search yielded 329,030 pages containing the word “India”3, 4. Many of the links were to sites about India. These sites represent three categories of texts. First, there are sites created and maintained by Indian individuals living outside India; second, there are sites maintained by Indian individuals and corporations in India; and third, there are sites maintained by multinational corporations and organizations. Finally, it should be noted that the question of access to the Internet by the Indians in diaspora can be assumed to be relatively high. It has often been claimed (not without a certain implicit racism) that Indians in diaspora (particularly in North America) make up a “model minority,” a majority of them professionals who are usually well educated and in the middle and upper socio-economic classes, thus allowing them greater ease of access to computer technology and ultimately to the Internet. Indians have willingly embraced the Internet to stay connected with others of their countrymen who might be geographically distant.

Their geographic dispersion, extensive use of the Internet and superior technical training of the many Indians in diaspora make this group's use of the network worthy of examination. This paper explores the specific creative tendencies that define the group's use of the Web. Specifically, the goal is to discover the different signifying, textual and discursive strategies that can be identified in the texts and discourses produced by the Indians on the Web. Having acknowledged the debate concerning cybercommunities earlier in the essay, it is now possible to focus on the way in which the discourses are produced and structured by the Indians in diaspora. In doing so, I assume, prima facie, that there is a “real life” community of Indians in diaspora who existed far before the advent of the Web. However, understanding the Web discourse produced by this community can shed light on how groups can use specific discursive strategies to produce a virtual discursive presence on the Web. In short, the goal of this essay is to trace the characteristics of the Web discourse produced by Indians in diaspora. The object of analysis here is thus the texts or myriad Web sites produced by a group of people. This objective raises a set of methodological challenges that are worthy of note.

A Note on Methodology

First, given the non-linearity of the Web text it is important to be able to justify and locate the starting point of the textual exploration. In this case, to maintain consistency with past research on the WWW, the starting point of the analysis is selected on the basis of two key criteria - the number of links provided by a page and the frequency with which a page is visited. This choice was based on the argument that an appropriate starting point was a popular page that offered a large selections of links to transport the visitor to other pages (see, e.g. Mitra, 1997; Mitra and Cohen, 1998). These two criteria were met by a page maintained by an Indian graduate student, Srinivas Padmanavan, at the University of Alberta in Canada. In the February 1997 version, his page, entitled “India related Links,” offered about 1,400 links and experienced about 2,500 to 3,000 visits per day based on the site owner's self-report.5

Furthermore, given the large number of pages that can potentially become “data” for the analysis presented here, choices had to be made about pages which illustrate some of the arguments being presented in the analysis. However, because many of the pages were similar in content and structure, the decision was made not to use a large quantity of pages, but representations and examples that best illustrated an argument.

Finally, an analysis such as this also has to address the impermanence of the texts being examined. The authors constantly update their sites, making additions and providing fresh links as new pages are made available. Sometimes the textual modifications are minor and inconsequential, but at other times, these changes can have significant implications. In this study, for instance, Padmanavan's page changed significantly during the course of analysis from being an exhaustive resource of only Indian sites to being a resource for the entire South Asian community. Virtually any analysis of Internet discourse runs the risk of being dated by the time it sees print. There is always a resulting sense of urgency in frantically trying to stay current with the changes in cyberspace.

With these methodological approaches and limitations in sight, it was eventually possible to identify several characteristics of the WWW discourse that help to shape the form of the discursive cyber-community of diasporic Indians. In this analysis the primary characteristics of the WWW text are examined along with a discussion of the significance of the attributes of the texts.

Characteristics of Hypertextual Intertextuality

The Seed Text

The starting point of the exploration of the India-related WWW sites begins with Padmanavan's page. His page is not very long, but provides a comprehensive presentation of key information about India. The top of the page provides the reader with a clear label identifying itself as a page about links related to India. The page then provides the visitor with three images that are quintessentially Indian - the Indian map, the Indian flag and the Taj Mahal. Following that, the author identifies himself and offers the reader the opportunity to explore his personal home page as well as communicate with him and his other visitors via the guest book. Scrolling down, the page then provides a search engine for specific searches about India. For repeat users, the page also offers a chance to explore the new additions to the page, making an implicit assumption that the additions undoubtedly refer to India. This is followed by a set of citations to the page as well as 37 items, called “categories,” which present various pieces of information about India. Finally, at the bottom of the page, Padmanavan provides a “hit” counter that counts the number of visitors to the page as well as a link to the “Rail,” which is an Internet-wide travel-related site.

Each section of the page represents different themes that of potential interest to people of different social and experiential backgrounds. For example, each of the 37 categories offers the reader a set of hyperlinks that could be of significance based on the lived experience of the visitor. The notion of lived experience is linked to the idea of a discursive formation, where the material real life of a member of a formation is intimately connected to the discursive formation that an individual would ally with. Thus, what is significant in the real material life of a visitor to the page might easily be discovered in a discursive form on the page itself. For instance, a visitor for whom Indian religions might play a significant role, would have the opportunity to explore innumerable links about various Indian religions; a person whose interests rotate around Indian classical music would also find a large set of texts that would connect with the topic of Indian music. Other links offer connections to areas of interest like Indian fashion, Indian film music, news about India, Indian food and other India-related interest areas.

Thus, each of the links represents the intersection of the “lived communities” of the diasporic author and reader, and what Barthes has called the “social space of writing” (1979, p. 81). In other words, the significance of linking characteristics of hypertext is the overlap between specific texts and experiences that readers bring to the text. Indeed, this overlap is possible because of the hypertextuality of the WWW discourse which produces unambiguous and explicit connections with the lived experiences of the community members (see, e.g., Beach & Anson, 1992; Chi, 1995; Fairclough, 1992; Moulthrop, 1989). As in the case of all intertextually connected texts, the WWW pages do not remain in isolation, but are always and already connected with other texts (see, e.g., Barthes, 1979; Kristeva, 1980; Leitch, 1983). In the case of Padmanavan's page, for instance, there is evidence that the intertextual connections are organized to provide the readers with an exhaustive list of links that would connect them with issues that could resonate with their lived experiences, such as a interest in music, religion, Indian fashions, or Indian news.

Pages that are hypertextually linked by Padmanavan also exhibit this organization. For instance, the Indian Student Association page at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (http://www.mit.edu/activities/sangam/home.html) offers categories such as links to other Indian sites, cultural events arranged by the student organization and so forth. Disclaimers that announce the purpose of the page also emphasize this organizational pattern. Often the communal objective of the page is explicitly described and the lived allegiances of the reader reproduced in the network of texts. Witness, for instance, these two disclaimers from pages maintained by Indian student organizations:

We are a group of enthusiastic people who love to bring the multifaceted, dynamic face of India (both modern and its rich cultural heritage) to MIT; and thereby make MIT an all the more interesting place to be (Mishra, 1997). It (Indian Student Association of Northwestern University) enables persons of Indian origin to enjoy such events as they might otherwise miss, and helps othersto appreciate the rich cultural heritage of India by raising awareness about the region (Sen, 1997).

As illustrated above, there is a conscious and explicit effort to produce specific connections with people who share particular characteristics and national origins. It is possible to continue to use further examples to illustrate this tendency of establishing connections between texts and lived experiences, but suffice it to say that the majority of sites about India attempt to do this.

This fundamental characteristic of the hypertext - its intertextuality - is the source of much of the uniqueness of the WWW discourse.6 Indeed, it is because of the intertextuality that it is possible to observe the other attributes of the WWW text. The first attribute of the text is the way in which the texts connect with each other to produce unique discursive domains.

Discursive Domains

Discursive Domains I use the term “discursive domains” to refer to specific hyperconnected interest areas to which the WWW texts point. Padmanavan's page offers two broad discursive domains that can be identified in the linkages offered from the page. On the first level, there are links to other India pages and to the pages that refer to Padmanavan himself. These links would take the reader to other resources that refer to India. Thus, the link called “India Home Pages” provides 267 secondary links to other pages that address issues of importance to India. Consequently, the reader has the opportunity to be connected with any of those 267 texts that belong to the network of discourses about India. I identify this “India domain” as the first discursive domain with which Padmanavan's page is connected.

The finding of the Indian domain is hardly surprising. It is only to be expected expected that Indian students in the West would produce an Indian domain in their discourse. It is here that Indian students voice their experiences as diasporic individuals in a country that they have voluntarily moved to. The experiences related to immigration are elucidated in this domain as this domain proliferates with the presence of sites where people who experience diaspora begin to engage in a discussion about the immigrant identity and the consequent benefits and burdens of movement. Very often, there is a desire to bring together, in this domain, the voices of other Indians who are living through the process of producing and circulating a new identity. This is a common strategy that is witnessed in the case of other student-monitored India-related pages, as illustrated by the list provided by Bhatti (1997) where the author claims:

This is an attempt by me, Noel Bhatti, at trying to get all the personal home pages on the net owned by Indians and Desis in general one listing. Hopefully this might spur out into some kind of network that can be beneficial to all of us (Bhatti, 1997).

The Indian domain, a product of the hypertextuality of the Web, can provide a forum where the specific needs of diasporic people can be met repetitively because sites proliferate, and many of the sites explicitly offer the connections with the place of origin and its unique characteristics. For instance, in the disclaimer to her page called “Bollywood Madness,”7 another author asserts that her site is authoritative:

Want to see pics of your favorite Bollywood stars? Want to keep up with the latest Bollywood hit songs? Well, you've come to the right place … (Machado, 1997)

Padmanavan also provides connections to pages about specific film stars such as the one about Bombay super-actress, Madhuri Dixit, maintained by Ganapathy (1997) titled, “Mad about Madhuri Page.” Similar connections can be found with pages about Indian sports such as the one maintained by Singh (1997) where the disclaimer reads:

For those who live and die by the Indian Cricket Team. Who stick with it through thick and thin. This page is for fanatics by fanatics (Singh, 1997).

Thus, the connections to India are explicit and the India domain is defined by the categories of India-related links.

While there are visibly more links to the India domain, it is in the second domain that the complexities of the diasporic experience begin to be manifested. In the case of Padmanavan's page, the second domain begins with a link to the University of Alberta. If one were to follow this link further, it would be clear that Padmanavan's page has now connected the reader with a vast discursive space produced by the numerous hypertextual links that the University offers. These include connections to specific University departments, resources and people at the University. For instance, Padmanavan provides a link called “University of Alberta” which is the point of entry into the network of pages maintained by the University, and includes links to items such as “Message from the President,” and “Orientation Guide.” These links produce a separate but crucial discursive domain for Padmanavan, that I call the “host country domain.” In this definition, the term “host country domain” refers to the sites that represent the discourses of the people and institutions of the country where the people in diaspora have voluntarily (or involuntarily) moved to from the diasporic peoples’ putative place of origin.

The first significance of the host country domain has to do with the way in which Padmanavan has relegated the University-related links to the second level of hypertextual connections. Given the technology of the WWW hypertext, it is possible to produce different degrees of separation by providing links at different levels. In the case of Padmanavan's page, the visitor is met with specific sites about India on the first level. There is little ambiguity about these links that clearly claim that they are connections to other texts about India. There is, however, no direct connection to the University of Alberta site. There is a larger degree of separation that connects the reader with the host country domain.8 Only if the visitor were to delve deeper into the site and click on the linkage to Padmanavan would the browser encounter a link to the University. In other words, the casual reader would not be able to tell that Padmanavan's page is in any way connected to the University. It is only when the visitor has moved around the page and its linkages would that connection be evident. Indeed, this is a phenomenon that is common to most individual home pages maintained by diasporic Indians (see e.g., Agarwal, 1997; Khan, 1997). In some instances, this domain is not even mentioned, as in the case of an “Indian Music” link from Padmanavan's page. A visitor to the page would be met with the following disclaimer at the top of the page:

This section of my page is solely dedicated to the great ghazal singers Jagjit and Chitra Singh (Shukla, 1997).

This is followed by a description of the singers and other links about the singers and their music. At the bottom of the page the author provides a return to the author's home page (http://top.eng.utoledo.edu/'nshukla/) which in turn presents an index of links including items such as: “About Me,”“My Favorite (Indian) Film Stars,” and “Newspapers and Magazines from India.” It is only when the reader follows the “About Me” link that there is a connection provided to the University of Toledo. Thus, a visitor arriving at the Shukla page from Padmanavan's link would need to follow several “clicks” before reaching the University connection. However, the links to India are far more easily accessible. I argue that the large degree of separation and the inconspicuous links to the University reflect the “priority” attached to the discourses produced around the host country domain.

Based on the WWW text produced by the diasporic Indians, there are two discursive domains. First, the India domain of discourses about India is presented on the foreground of the WWW pages, and the second domain represents that connections with the adopted country, which in the case of the WWW is relegated to deeper levels of hypertextual intertextuality. This possibility of producing hierarchical linkages also results in the process of decentering, where the texts do not “stand alone” but are always and already decentered because of their hypertextual characteristics. Much like the production of discursive domains, the process of decentering is a unique characteristic of the WWW text.

Hypertextual Decentering

The decentering process is an innate characteristic of hypertext since the experience of reading hypertext proves to be based more on the way it is constructed, with its linkages and connection, than on its “written-ness” (Landow, 1994, 1992a, 1992b; Rosello, 1994). Thus the experience of reading hypertext is often dependent on the amount of surfing that the user is willing to do. Since the rationale for using hypertext to present information is to utilize its non-linear nature, the author of hypertext expects that the reader would indeed surf and hover to obtain the greatest benefit from the hypertext. This potential of surfing points to yet another fundamental characteristic of global hypertext - its lack of a unanimous center (see, e.g., Kamberelis & Scott, 1992; Short, 1992). Because of the process of surfing, it is difficult to pin down any central text within the massively interconnected hypertext of the WWW. It is likely that a user will enter the realm of the WWW from the specific text, but that text might not remain the center of attention for longer than a few moments as the links from the site draw the user away to other texts. To be sure, this process of surfing is predicated upon the degrees of separation of each link from the original text, and some domains might remain more “hidden” than others. Yet, the process of constant movement across texts results in a decentering where the identification of a unanimous center, or central text, becomes particularly difficult.

This tendency is exhibited in the case of the India-related pages accessible from the site maintained by Padmanavan. The decentering potential of the pages is dependent on the way in which the reader is able and willing to explore the myriad of other sites in the India domain. Padmanavan's page is one of many possible points of entry into the discursive space, and the richness of the discourse built around the page is predicated upon the extent to which the readers are willing to follow the links from the provisional center to the interconnected set of texts that Padmanavan makes available. In providing more than a thousand connections to the India domain, Padmanavan is willing to relinquish primacy and provide the opportunities of decentering. This process of decentering leads to an altered relationship between the author of the text and the text itself.

The people in diaspora have now seized the decentering aspect of the text and have used this characteristic to begin to build a discourse around the decentered text, using that characteristic of the text more than the centralizing tendency of canonized texts and egoistic authorship. Consequently, the Indians in cyberspace are often willing to forego control and textual centrality for the sake of producing an interconnected network of texts. It was recognized by the authors and readers of the texts that the purpose of the hypertext is not centralizing an image of Indians but to democratize the image by a far more egalitarian approach. This particular goal is achieved by opening up a space that can contain a variety of options of discussing different issues, where a particular author does not retain control, but many authors can contribute to the discourse in the specific corner of cyberspace. The removal of the emphasis on authorship results in the focus on participation and community building as compared to the egoistic endeavor to claim a particular point of view as necessarily the central and unique voice for a group of people. The key consequence of this recognition is that the centralized author-ity is replaced by de-centered participation as evidenced in the following disclaimers:

This is the online Indian community. Wander around our discussion groups and make this a friendly community.

Keep in touch with India and other Indians through this page (http://www.indiansuburb.com).

Goal: To forge meaningful alliances between all individuals interested in India (http://www.forindiansabroad.com).

In providing such disclaimers the producers of sites likes the ones above realize that when seizing the opportunity provided by cyberspace it is far more critical to respond to the calls to community than to assert textual domination within their own community. The marginalized have already accepted a position of subordination in real life, and the opportunity of producing a network is perhaps far more appealing than to contest the supremacy of a particular text or author. This is evident in the way Padmanavan's page has changed, when in March of 1997, he chose to emerge as a page connected with a group called “Milan” (meeting), which is dedicated to creating a community of South Asians in North America. Indeed, in laying out the goals of the page the various authors readily relinquish author-ity in saying that the purpose is “to bridge the gap for all South Asians in North America” (Milan, 1997). This inclination is also evident in some of the disclaimers provided by sites accessed from Padmanavan's page. For instance, one of the author's claims:

The Worldwide Indian Network (WIN) is an action-orientated (sic) network that serves the international Indian community. The backbone of this Network is a group of people with access to the Internet. The Network promotes social, cultural, political and educational causes pertaining to the Indian community's needs, aspirations and goals. Currently, the Network spans twenty-one countries on five continents (Kapur, 1997).

This reflects the tendency to attribute author-ity to a group rather than centralize the text to one person.

Hypertextual Reciprocity

The pages on the WWW do not operate in isolation from each other, but gain their discursive richness by providing reciprocal links with other pages. This is not very different from the way in which people are often connected together in reciprocal links in social and organizational networks (see, e.g., Monge and Eisenberg, 1987). Indeed, if the texts were not interconnected the WWW reader would have been limited to a single text without the opportunity to explore beyond that text. This would have undermined the very raison d'être of decentering. The hypertextual links from Padmanavan's page thus provide the opportunity for producing a non-hierarchical network of texts where no single text can claim primacy or superior legitimacy (Aarseth, 1992).

In the best of all conditions, such reciprocal linkages would lead to the democratization of the discursive experience where no single text would be more central than another. McCorduck asserts that “the primacy of text is over,” but he also cautions that “the text is hardly dead” (McCorduck, 1992, p.255). This is precisely what is being observed in the case of the texts about India. No single text is laying claim to primacy, but all the texts, in their reciprocal combination, can exercise significant strength (see, e.g., McQuail, 1995). Any reader who might arrive at Padmanavan's page will have to confront a significant presence of India in cyberspace. Then if the reader is to follow any of the links he or she would enter a virtual world where most of the texts speak to each other through explicit inter-reference, thus empowering each other and producing a viable presence of diasporic Indians on the WWW. The India domain is thus produced through a process of interconnectedness that allows the visitors to be able to refer to each other and acknowledge each other's discursive existence in cyberspace, thus mimicking real life social networks.

The importance of reciprocity is, however, most evident in the way it impacts the discourse when the give-and-take is absent. This is witnessed in the case of the host country domain with which Padmanavan is connected. This domain was composed of the links that Padmanavan offered to the University. Although the links were relegated to inconspicuous places in Padmanavan's page, a persistent and curious reader could reach the links. Unlike the India-related links, The University of Alberta pages are neither mutually connected, nor do they refer back to Padmanavan, except on rare occasions through avenues such as the online phone book. This domain - both in cyberspace and IRL - has little reciprocal connection with Padmanavan, even though Padmanavan chooses to connect to this community from his page.

There are thus specific characteristics that can be identified from the discursive work of Indians. In closing it is useful to explore the significance of these characteristics for the specific group as well as other groups who could be using the Internet.

Conclusion

The objective of this study was to explore the characteristics of a specific discourse on the WWW and then draw a set of conclusions about the significance of the discursive structure and strategies that could be identified for the case of the Indians in diaspora. In the case of the marginalized diasporic individuals, these characteristics include the production of discursive domains, the willing relinquishing of author-ity, and the insistence on the production of a network through reciprocal links. Each of these characteristics also points toward certain conditions experienced by the people producing this discourse.

First, the creation of a discursive space based on a “place of origin,” as in the case of the Indian domain in cyberspace, has been a traditional tendency among all immigrants. The connection between the discursive domain and the cyber-community is made explicit since the author indicates that there is a specific expectation that the page would result in a network of readers which could cohere around the India domain. This tendency has been traditionally true of diasporic people who have consistently attempted to retain connections with their “homeland” and people from the homeland (see, e.g., Esman, 1986).

Secondly, the identification of the Indian domain and the host country domain refers to the tendency to acknowledge the dual allegiance of the people in diaspora, while promoting the connection with other Indians by making those links most explicit. The prioritization of the discursive domains within the cyber-communities can also reflect and “refract” the complexities of the everyday lived experience of diasporic Indians. For example, in the real life of the work place, most Indians have to interact primarily with the group of non-Indians with whom they work. This experience is, however, reversed in the case of the WWW sites such as that of Padmanavan. In cyberspace, the primary zone of interaction is with the Indian domain, and that host country domain is relegated to inconspicuous and hidden links. The Indian diasporic people have been able to seize the technology to assert, in cyberspace, a presence that prioritizes their allegiance to a place of origin rather than their connection with the adopted country. This signifies a reversal of the allegiances, where the real life experience is challenged in cyberspace by making the diasporic affiliations more central. Thus, the connection between the lived experience and the discursive space is problematized by the way this second discursive domain is produced and presented. In hiding the links to the host country domain, and in some cases by not presenting this domain at all, the authors are able to subvert their dual allegiance. While this is impossible in real life, it is possible in the realm of cyberspace where the authors can live the experiences they prefer and not the ones into which they find themselves, for whatever reasons.

The textual possibility asserting one's connection with the India domain is a new phenomenon for people in diaspora. For a long time it has been argued that diasporic communities tend to lose their ethnic identity in situations where the “diaspora is small in overall number” (Landau, 1986, p.94). However, the WWW has now produced a forum where that tendency can be reversed. Here, the ethnic identity is strengthened since the authors and readers can constantly produce text and discourses that connect them to their place of origin, in this case represented by the India domain. This connection is maintained through the recursive links to such homeland cultural staples as the “flag, national anthem, constitution, official history” (Conner, 1986, p. 21). It is precisely these images that are mobilized to establish the connection with the homeland, as is evident at the top of Padmanavan's page with references to the Indian flag and such quintessentially Indian icons as the Taj Mahal.

Thirdly, the willing abandonment of authorship is a demonstration of how computer networking can undermine the “fixity of the text,” and “calls into question the authority of the author” (Bolter, 1992, p. 23). The decentered text poses a challenge because it results in subverting the traditional centers of discursive formations that are often built around the authors, texts and canons. However, I would argue that this decentralization is not troubling in the case of the diasporic or marginalized, whose sense of the “center” has already been problematized by the process of diasporic migration and the insistence on the part of the dominant to define the diasporic as the “other.” Furthermore, in the case of the Indian diaspora, there was also no opportunity to produce an internal text that could become the center of community formation for the diasporic Indians in the West. Given the geographical distance between the people in the diaspora, the only common text that could be produced was the WWW text, which by definition is decentered.

Indeed, the consequence of hypertextual decentering is a questioning of the traditional centers of author-ity, and the dilution of the hierarchies of discursive power (Aronowitz, 1992). While the center is perhaps desirable in real life communities, for diasporic discursive cybercommunities this dissolution could be necessary for the life of its members. Moreover, the decentering is possible and sustained because most authors give up author-ity by creating a network of interconnected texts held together by a shared sense of reciprocity. When an author provides a link to another text, there is the hope that the author of the other text will reciprocate with a complementary link.

Finally, what is also evident is the difference in extent of reciprocity between the two discursive domains - the Indian domain and the host-country domain. This difference is significant because it demonstrates the way in which the Indian identity is stretched across the communities of cyberspace. This phenomenon is metonymic with the experience of real life. Our everyday lived experiences are made up of communicative practices where we constantly connect with different communities. Scholars such as Fiske (1989) made this observation far before researchers’ interest in cyberspace by saying that, as individuals in society, we have “nomadic subjectivities” (Fiske, 1989, p. 24) and we are constantly shifting our allegiances to different groups. In Fiske's words:

These popular allegiances are elusive, difficult to generalize and difficult to study because they are made from within, they are made by the people in specific contexts at specific times (Fiske, 1989, p. 24-25).

This is particularly the case for diasporic individuals who must constantly negotiate a dual identity. For migrant individuals, there is the need to adapt to the host country, and on the other hand there is also a constant need to remain connected with other people in diaspora who have comparable and common experiences. In terms of the latter desire, Esman (1986) says:

The ability of diasporas to function as an interest group is the opportunity structure of the host country. This denotes the degree of freedom available to organize and to promote their group interests (Esman, 1986, p. 338).

The discursive groups have problematized the notion of diasporic identity by altering the “opportunity structure.” The WWW has provided a free and open forum where the host country can exercise little control. Diasporic individuals can congregate in discursive cyberspace without fears of policing and control. At the same time, the members of the diasporic groups cannot deny their dual allegiances, and feel the need to acknowledge their connections with the multiple discursive domains even if such connections might not be reciprocated. Indeed, identity is the product of such allegiances that are often provisional, tend to change, and are made up of weak and strong ties.

In summary, the Indian use of the technology of the Internet reflects the communal experience of immigrants in diaspora, and the Internet provides a center where the common experience can be shared. In the case of the Indians, this is an experience of identity-negotiation as they have to assert their presence in their country of adoption. This negotiation takes place on many fronts, from workspace to cyberspace. The cyber-community has now developed a pattern of interaction and expression of their identities. In cyberspace, the cyber-community has been able to assert their roots and their connections with a country of origin. They have been able to distinguish themselves from people of other nationalities and they have been able to present their national heritage in detail, particularly in response to the lack of such detail in the dominant mass signifying system of the West. In cyberspace, the Indian immigrants have been able to acknowledge each other by reciprocating in intertextual connection, and have thus relinquished author-primacy to produce a more horizontal network of connections. Even though geographically distant from each other, the people have been able to crystallize a shared image of themselves that they are able to distribute to the entire world.

These are elements of the discourse discovered in this analysis of the Web presence of a specific group of people. It is also necessary to examine the discourse of other groups, particularly groups that could have some a priori existence, and observe if similar (or different) discursive strategies can be identified. It is important, however, to note that any prior communal existence needs to be supplemented by easy access to the Internet. While Indians in diaspora have demonstrated that they have access and are willing to utilize the access, that might not be true of other communities who might share commonalties with Indians in diaspora but lack access or are unwilling to utilize the Internet. But for marginal groups who are able and willing to use the Internet, an examination of the discourse could begin the development of a set of criteria and a typology that could be a point of departure to re-examine the utility of the label “cyber community.” However, as demonstrated in this essay, I would argue it is first important to analyze the structure of the Web-space to discover how specific groups are utilizing the textual and discursive opportunities being provided by this technology. That analysis can eventually lead to a better understanding of the community of authors who are producing the texts.

Footnotes

  • 1

     The notion of the “discursive structure” merits further elaboration, as this will be a central construct later in the essay. Here the notion of discourse refers specifically to the organization of texts beyond the specific use of symbols where discourses are composed of a network of texts. Such networks are implicated by ideological concerns, and the way in which the network is produced, circulated and maintained reflects the ideological structure of a particular community or society at a moment in time. As Fiske (1987) argues, a discourse is a system of representation that “circulate[s] a coherent set of meanings about an important topic area.” From this perspective, the idea of the discourse as used and extended in this essay refers specifically to the network of texts that appear on the Web and address a specific area of interest.

  • 2

     Increasingly, a large portion of these texts and discourses is the hypertext of the World Wide Web (WWW). This presents a textual form that is strikingly different from the more traditional texts and discourses of the Internet such as the exchanges on newsgroups, bulletin boards and chat rooms (see, e.g., Johnson, 1995). Hypertext uses the connectivity offered by the Internet, and the hypertext transfer protocol (frequently abbreviated as “http”) to recursively link files written in the hypertext markup language (abbreviated as “html”) to construct a practically infinite network of files. Users of the WWW can “visit” any of these interconnected files (often called “sites” or “home pages”) by using their networked computer's pointing device, and “clicking” on the appropriate hyperlink. Most frequently, these “sites” contain textual and graphical information that work together to make up the WWW discourse. This centrality of the text suggests the possibility of focusing on these texts to explore how cyber community formation occurs.

  • 3

     The search was conducted on August 26, 1999, using the advanced search option of the HotBot search engine (http://www.hotbot.com). Other search engines could yield different values given the way in which search was conducted. In this particular case, the search was conducted with the restrictions “India but not Indiana” in the content of a WWW site.

  • 4

     A comparable developing country such as Brazil has a lower presence with a similar search. On the other hand, a country such as China with a significant immigrant population has more pages than India. Among the South Asian countries India certainly has the largest presence, and among developing countries in general, India is significantly represented.

  • 5

     .There is significant amount of debate about the way in which the “starting page” for analysis should be selected. It is possible to use the notion of “popularity” of a text by looking at the “hit count” reported in the page. However, these numbers can be artificially inflated. Another criteria could be the number of links the page provides and the number of times the page has been linked to by other pages. Finally, it needs to be noted that the starting page, while important, is only the point of departure for a large set of other pages that can be explored. Given the fact that this page had a large number of links from the page, many of which were reciprocated with a link back to the page, it seemed to be an appropriate point of entry into the network of India related pages on the Web.

  • 6

     The notion of intertextuality as discussed here refers to the way in which specific texts are connected with each other either by implicit conventional references as in the case of genres of texts, or by explicit references to each other through the use of hypertextual links. For the purpose of this essay the terms intertextuality and hypertextuality have been used interchangeably to make reference to the way in which the Web text explicitly connects one text with another though the use of hypertext markup language.

  • 7

     The term “Bollywood” refers to the common slang term for India's flourishing movie industry (located in the city of “Bombay” (now renamed “Mumbai”)), acknowledging the influence of Hollywood on the Bombay movie industry.

  • 8

     The idea of “degrees of separation” refers to the distance of one text from another in terms of the number of clicks on the pointing device that are required to move from one spot on the non-linear text to another. For a more elaborate discussion of the construct see Mitra's work on the methodology of doing Internet research (Mitra and Cohen, 1998).

Ancillary