Monologue, Dialogue, Polylogue:
Online comments, focus group language, and the problem of identity-free communication

Robert Moses Peaslee (bio)
Texas Tech University

It makes sense to start with the preamble to “The Real World,” where it is proposed that reality is what happens “when people stop being polite and start getting real.” That wily formula – the idea that politeness (of all things) is the opposite of reality – is catchy….

-- Virginia Heffernan, NYT Magazine, 8 February 2009

Many scholars have investigated the potential for online communication to reinvigorate the political public sphere (Connery, 1997; Benson, 1996; Abramson, Arterton & Orren, 1988). Often, this work comes to focus on the central problem of politeness and its role in either crafting or discouraging truly democratic dialogue. Zizi Papacharissi (2004), in particular, makes a helpful distinction between “civility” and “politeness” to suggest that, among other things, online political communication may often be simultaneously impolite and civil, and that one ought not discount the effectiveness of digital communication based on the fact of its often sarcastic, inflammatory, or argumentative nature. Certainly, the Real World Formula – whereby conflicting personalities are placed like prize roosters into a kind of virtual social death match – has been aped repeatedly not for its depiction of “reality” but rather for its dramatic value. Does the removal of “politeness,” then, produce discussions and actions that are more truthful or simply more entertaining?

The current paper uses these discussions as a jumping off point for considering two sets of qualitative data surrounding a common cultural product. The product is the most recent film by director Oliver Stone, entitled W. (2008), which portrays selected episodes of the life and presidency of George W. Bush. The film was released on October 17 of an election year, during the final months of its subject’s tenure, and into the apex of a particularly emotional campaign cycle. In hopes of discovering what kind of audience reaction such a document might engender, four focus groups were conducted in Bush’s home state of Texas. At the same time, comments from several online portals for user feedback were collected and analyzed. All data were collected between the date of the film’s release and Election Day 2008 in order that the study might provide a snapshot of popular reception of the film and its attendant impact upon political speech and action.

One trend that has emerged from the data is the enormous disparity in civility or politeness between online posters, on the un-civil or impolite end of the spectrum, and face-to-face focus group participants on the other. Although the full range of traditional political viewpoints was represented in each of the focus groups (several informants used words like “love” or “hate” to describe their feelings for Bush prior to seeing the film), the tone of discussions was nonetheless never truly argumentative. In fact, several participants expressed satisfaction gained from the focus group experience specifically due to having “learned” something from colleagues of different political stripe. Online comments, however, were seldom discussions and, where there was any exchange, it was generally combative, hostile, and often utilized stereotypical language.

Dahlgren (2005) has pointed out that, when it comes to the relationship between communicators in the online public sphere, “there must be some semblance of impact, some indication that the political talk of citizens has consequences, or else disengagement and cynicism can set in – as is precisely what many observers claim has been a pattern for a decade or so in the mainstream, mass mediated systems of political communication of the Western liberal democracies” (152-53). One might argue that a fundamental example of the kind of consequence to which Dahlgren alludes is that of being heard, or, rather more to the point, of being listened to. Another example would be to reciprocate and listen to others. Below I ask whether computer mediated communication (CMC), in the case under study, offers the realization of this kind of “impact” in the way in-person discussions of the same topic appear to do; that is, under the circumstances presented by a series of “comments” boards online, does dialogue take place? If not, does this form of “communication” have (constructive) consequences for political deliberation? Moreover, I ask whether the defining characteristic of CMC is its destabilization of identity, and whether that characteristic makes dialogue more difficult (if not decreasingly possible). Finally, what, exactly, are “comments”? How do they operate and are they worthy of a separate category, if only for analytical purposes?

The data suggest that online communication may indeed support a kind of chaotic speech freedom (polylogue), made all the more “authentic” by the removal of identity barriers. On the other hand, however, face-to-face communication, even where the particular text under study was emphatically personal to many informants, resulted in a dialogic event. The study concludes, then, that what is conspicuously absent from discussions of the democratic potential for online communication is not the problem of civility so much as the problem of identity and audience. The online sphere encourages a specific kind of language, one that recognizes its own anonymous and therefore untouchable nature. It becomes, in other words, a kind of monologue or one-way communication.

The Internet public sphere

This last statement will be controversial. The general popular and academic refrain concerning the impact of CMC upon political life is one of acclamation, an acclamation that, while it has been tempered with an increasing scholarly ambivalence, results largely from the participatory potential of online communication and its inherent antagonism to the kind of limits imposed by the classical, bourgeois public sphere. Moreover, proponents of CMC as a democratic tool will point out that the venerable but ultimately politically erosive model of one-to-many publishing and broadcasting is rightly giving way to a chaotic entanglement of peer-to-peer communication in which central power structures become increasingly obsolete. In the age of Huffington and Kos, Facebook and Twitter, that is, communication occurs outside the parameters of the institutional sender and popular receiver paradigm.

There are several measurements by which we might strengthen such positions, especially with regard to political communication. Several commentators have pointed out the ways in which CMC has changed journalism practices and First Amendment law (Bradshaw, 2008a, b; Dailey, Demo & Spillman, 2008; Frederickson, 2008; Henry, 2007; Kirtley, 2008; Neal, 2007; Rector, 2008; Sweetser, 2007). These changes are generally framed as challenging, but ultimately positive for the ideal of democratic communication. The 2008 presidential election in the United States has been extolled as that point at which “one-way media lost” their grip on the public consumption of electoral news (Learmonth, 2008) and an indication that perhaps professional journalism’s place in the election cycle ought to be reconsidered (Fiedler, 2008). The Pew report on “The Internet and the 2008 Election” cites dramatic four-year increases in online democratic participation, from watching online political videos, to accessing campaign materials, to making online contributions to presidential campaigns. Overall, according to Pew, the percentage of American adults who look online for information about presidential campaigns has climbed from 16 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2008. These shifts on the part of news consumers toward CMC are echoed anecdotally by the ever-increasing list of shuttered daily newspapers and the troubling bottom lines of network news divisions. Similar trends have been observed outside the borders of the United States in places such as South Korea (Kim & Johnson, 2006).

And what is it that attracts the attention and imagination of the average online news consumer? Often, the tendency is to think of online news media as a kind of amalgam of activity, but, as Johnson and Kaye (2009) have helpfully pointed out, there are several different kinds of participatory news portals, and not all are created equal. Measuring credibility assumptions among users of online news resources, Johnson and Kaye separated out several categories for specific analysis: “issue-oriented Web sites, candidate Web sites, blogs, electronic mailing lists/bulletin boards and chat rooms/instant messaging” (175). Of these, blogs were found to be the research population’s preference in terms of their status as “believable, fair, accurate and in depth” (ibid.). Indeed, blogging has become a popular object of investigation, and rightly so. Imagined as an “authentic” space of self-expression and dialogue, in reality it is rather more hybridized in its agencies, an example of what Robert Glenn Howard (2008) has called the “vernacular web.”

Bart Cammaerts (2008) has pointed out the “problematic” nature of triumphalist images of “the blogosphere as a deliberative space, as a model for an online (Habermasian) public sphere where every person is free to air his or her views, thus making rational dialogue between equal status-free participants in public debates possible” (371). He points out five phenomena that call into question the participatory character of the Internet and blogs, three of which exist at the structural/organizational level and two of which exist at the level of the individual. In the former, Cammaerts includes market forces, various sources of censorship, and “appropriation by political (and cultural) elites” (361). All of these currently exist as a reality, although the last is perhaps the most apparent. According to a 2006 survey of blog readers, 44 percent of respondents had household incomes over $90,000 annually, 78 percent held an undergraduate degree or higher, and 82 percent hosted their own blog (Political blogs reader survey, 2006). In addition, there is some indication that blogging may not offer material which is all that oppositional to that available via traditional media outlets, and vice versa (Messner & DiStaso, 2008). In Cammaerts’ latter category of individual antagonists to online political participation, meanwhile, he includes social control/online intimidation and the problem of “anti-publics” (369).  The first refers to attacks upon interlocutors known generally as “flaming,” while the second highlights the ability of groups and individuals who hold views counter to those of democracy to use participatory CMC channels for disseminating their message. While the current study does not engage with blogs, per se, it is most concerned with these individual, rather than structural, constraints upon truly democratic speech in the context of participatory CMC. It is at the level of the individual that several discourses germane to democratic articulation converge, and so the following remarks interrogate the status of that individual in CMC, how it relates to the individual embodied in face-to-face communication, and what the comparison of these two manifestations of individuals and the talk in which they engage can add to the ongoing discussion of CMC as an emancipatory channel for democratic speech.

Publicity, identity, and the spiral of silence

While much of the criticism and debate concerning Habermas’ central thesis on the ideal nature of the modern public sphere focuses on the assumptions he makes about who is included in such a sphere (Fraser, 1990; Negt & Kluge, 1993), there exist parallel concerns about the character of the talk-context. Even in an all-inclusive public sphere, that is – and the latter is still a chimera, a hypothetical or a heuristic at best – there remains the specter of unspoken power. Although Habermas imagined the public sphere as a status-free zone of communication and debate, the embodied relations of power inherent in discourses of patriarchy, wealth, and education, among others, continue to cast shadows. The very notion of a “reasonable” argument, for example, relies upon implicit, agreed upon definitions of “reasonable” shared generally amongst the educated and the eloquent. Other forms of argumentation (those relying upon emotional appeals, for example) are “othered” in such a context. As Slavko Splichal (2006) attests, contemporary censorship “is manifested in a variety of subtle ways in which different institutions enforce or legitimate rules of public discourse, although they disavow their censorial nature” (100). There also remain the banalities of intensity and verbal skill: he or she who speaks loudest and most quickly is most likely to be heard. The problem of identity, finally, has never been overcome in interpersonal or mediated debate. Who someone is, after all, fundamentally impacts the degree to which they are found credible, authoritative, or, on the other hand, personally dangerous to a degree such that agreement is in one’s best interest.

One of the most influential strains of theory regarding this phenomenon is Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s (1974) construction of the “spiral of silence”. In this work, Noelle-Neumann engages with a “quasi-statistical picture of the distribution of opinions which the individual gains from his social environment” (44) to construct of model of echo chamber-like interactions between the actor and the social whole, such that the more the actor encounters a “public” opinion oppositional to her own, the less likely she is to voice her own opinion:

Voicing the opposite opinion, or acting in public accordingly, incurs the danger of isolation. In other words, public opinion can be described as the dominating opinion which compels compliance of attitude and behavior in that it threatens the dissenting individual with isolation, the politician with loss of popular support. Thus the active role of starting a process of public opinion formation is reserved to the one who does not allow himself [sic] to be threatened with isolation. (ibid)

Her methodology, famously and steadily tested and critiqued (Hayes, 2007; Moreno-Riano, 2002; Neuwirth, 2000; Salmon & Kline, 1983), involved asking her respondents to imagine an in-person encounter on a train (always a comfortable place to begin with) in which they were asked for their opinion on controversial issues. The results suggested, of course, that media were of particular importance in creating the assumed “majority” opinion, thus acting upon the individual’s own opinion formation and/or expression. Implicit, however, in the study, was the role of interpersonal communication and dialogic strategies (what Goffman [1967] has called “face” in another context) in substantiating such mediatized discourses of opinion. In a group of like-minded anarchists, that is, we continue to talk like anarchists regardless of what the media might say. It is only in the context of interpersonal communication – where identity and civility (or politeness) come into play – that mediated discourse of normativity become reified. The threat of isolation, after all, comes not from the media, but from those with whom we associate.

Be that as it may, Noelle-Neumann’s thesis sparked an entire school of thought regarding the influence of media institutions and products upon the individual too lengthy to recapitulate here (see Salmon & Glynn, 1996 for a helpful review). I engage with spiral of silence theory here primarily to point out its similarity to critiques leveled against Habermas’ bourgeois public sphere. In the latter, certain civic populations and “unreasonable” debate strategies are excluded from what claims to be an all-inclusive exercise. Despite the idealized removal of status and identity, meanwhile, both of these markers remain (how could they not?) when we partake in corporeal communication. In the situation analyzed by Noelle-Neumann and those who have come since, identity remains a key problem. What do we have to fear, after all, from a negative interpersonal experience if “who we are” is not available information? It is only because of our concern over our “reputations” – a correlative but not identical term to “identity” – that we censor ourselves.

Thus is it was that the Internet quickly became a solution to the problem of identity. If, after all, we could shed the risk associated with attaching our reputation to our public statements, wouldn’t then self-censorship evaporate? One finds little aversion to isolation when it is, finally, not oneself, but one’s “avatar” (a term I use here generically to denote an Internet identity rather than the more specific connotation of a constructed, virtual “body”) who is put at risk. Thus, the thesis has generally been formulated, the spiral of silence and other chilling effects upon speech related to identity might be subverted by a changeable environment replete with opportunities for fluid identities, multiple publics and platforms, and a lack of centralized authority.

Identity, trust and authenticity

For centuries, despite the problems posed by structuralist and post-structuralist theory (Barthes, 1977; Foucault, 1984), identity has remained a cornerstone of public deliberation. Framed as authorship, solidified by the signature, identity has been fundamental to, among other things, the Byzantine legislation surrounding public communication. Copyright, obviously, is an example of this relationship between information, identity, and power (Coombes, 1998) which faces erosion in the era of CMC, and, more recently, the protection of public speech rights has been threatened in the United States by a growing unease among reticent members of the judicial branch with the status of “ungovernable bloggers” who hide “behind the anonymity that the Web permits” (Kirtley, 2008, 54). Despite the fact that, so far, according to Frederickson (2008), free speech law is evolving in favor of anonymous public speech, the number of complaints against it is on the rise. Part of this due to the overarching ideals of publicity as expressed by Habermas, which, as Jodi Dean (2001, engaging with Bentham) points out, emerge from the historical condition of secrecy: “Publicity holds out he promise of a revelation, the lure of the secret” (632). In other words, public discourse emerges as the expression of a public certainty that power possesses knowledge and will, when interrogated, give it up. This, ultimately, is a posture of belief. The author, the signatory, the credentialed all offer publicity a reason to trust the very institutions it constantly interrogates in search of the secret. Anonymity, then, is a destabilizing force in this relationship.

If we return to the idealized rhetoric surrounding CMC as a transcending of the power relationships inherent in a source-receiver broadcasting model, we can see that the problems posed by changes in regimes of identity and anonymity open up new opportunities for power to operate. Institutional efforts at advertising and public relations have cottoned on quickly to the potential for social and interactive CMC environments for more effective message control (Bulik, 2008). Media commentators wring their hands in worry over whether or not children can discern between content and advertising in televisual production, and yet consumers of CMC content find themselves in a similarly precarious position. Identity, and our knowledge of it, gives us as audiences a crucial implement in the media literacy arsenal. How does one know that one’s interlocutor online is or is not a sales person, a spin doctor, or a well-compensated, professional partisan hack, all of whom can and do feign informality in their writing to pose as “regular” people? The result is that novel contestations emerge in the consideration of that most venerable of mass communication terms, “source”. Sundar and Nass (2001, pp. 58-59) offer a helpful typology of sources in the CMC era: first, “visible sources,” or gatekeepers, “which are seen by the receiver to be delivering the message or content” and are evaluated in terms of credibility; second, “technological sources,” or the media or channels which transmit the content; and third, “receiver sources,” which are made up, on the one hand, by “self as source,” and, on the other, by “audience as source.” The first of these represents the receiver at the individual level, while the latter represents the individual at the collective level. While it could be argued that self-selection of media material predates CMC, certainly the last of these three categories is substantially bolstered by the participatory potential of Web technology. As the authors state, “the onus is now upon the receiver to actively sift through content and select a portion of it for consumption. That is, the receiver becomes the source, albeit only a selecting one” (59).  In both manifestations of receiver sources, then, the trust bestowed by the receiver is no longer upon institutions but rather upon other receivers, which, as the authors point out, suggests support for a “bandwagon effect” thesis. The qualification for determining the reliability of a piece of information becomes its frequency of having been determined reliable (the Wiki model) rather than its determination as reliable by institutional authorities. One wonders what such a situation adds to public discourse when, as a strategy employed so as to avoid being duped by disingenuous online commentators, we follow the crowd.

Thus, this decentralization of information evaluation and decoupling of the utterance from its author is, at its heart, illustrative of a redefinition of trust. As Keiron O’Hara (2004) points out, this is a problem considered as far back as Socrates, who felt that writing, by separating in time and space the idea and its author, de-authenticates the experience of thought:

Socrates…is arguing that the written word cannot be trusted. It may say the wrong thing, to the wrong people. It may mislead, there is little possibility of putting matters right. Socrates lays great store by presence. If he is present whenever his philosophy is expounded, then he remains in control; he can present his ideas in the best light, tailor their presentation to the audience, deny certain people access to them, and evolve them in the light of new information or circumstances. (82, emphasis in original)

Implicit in O’Hara’s formulation of Socrates’ ideal of presence is a critique of his exclusionary configuration of the public. At the same time, however, this ideal of presence is one that allows trust in the communicative event through attribution. Thus, even as the public sphere, as it has been considered from antiquity through the Enlightenment, provides avenues for the retention of power positions, it simultaneously argues for an authenticity based on trust. The knotty problem of trust in communication remains an issue today. CMC’s ascent as a (the?) major player in democratic and political communication has been effected (especially in the case of blogs) by a festering distrust of what are generally referred to as the “mainstream media” (Hamdy & Mobarak, 2004; Kaye, 2005; Seipp, 2002). Meanwhile, Pew reports that 60 percent of its respondents in 2008 felt that “the internet is full of misinformation and propaganda that too many voters believe is accurate” (p. iv), and Flanagan and Metzger (2007) conclude that Internet users are “skeptical of web-based information, know they should verify the information they get online, and yet fail to do so” (334). Even if they did verify this information, if the bloggerati are to be believed, the traditional sources of “objective” information would offer no good avenue for doing so. Is the individual seeking reliable information simply adrift?  Is that the ideal suggested by imploding face-to-face communication as power-inflected, exclusionary, and, therefore, invalid as a form of democracy? Given that trust in online communication is largely untenable, it seems unsurprising that much of what people find online is contributory simply to reinforcement via likeminded communicators or cynicism. A recent study (Zhang, Johnson, Seltzer & Bichard, 2008) investigating the relationship between social networking media, social capital and political participation concluded that “to stimulate civic and political participation, we need to focus on encouraging more interpersonal discussion about politics” (24).

Identity and trust in interpersonal communication

The lauding of the eclipse of the problem of the interpersonal encounter may be premature, or at least not terribly well considered. We might consider just what exactly is gained and what is lost. In the move to virtual democracy, we lose, prima facie, the influence of status upon the dialogic event. This is, as far as it goes, unquestionably a move toward the emancipation of voices of alterity (Coombes, 1998). But just as soon as we shed the discursive advantages of identity (the authorial position) we don the new discursive advantage of opacity. The problem of opacity/transparency is summarized nicely in Georgia Born’s discussion of the “audit”: “The logic of audit means that auditing itself comes to be audited; the phenomenon is recursive and self-reinforcing. The only thing that cannot be queried is the rationality of audit itself. Auditing claims to deliver an ideal of transparency in organizations [sic]; yet the audit process itself is opaque, closed to scrutiny.” Note the circle here. Transparency in institutions and processes necessitates publicization of the authorial position. Even as we leave behind the transparency that an identity provides (as author, as journalist, as professional) – a transparency that is often deleterious to the search for “truth,” since “transparency can encourage people to be less honest, so increasing deception and reducing reasons for trust” (O’Neill, 2002) – we must contend with a radical uncertainty which, unlike the uncertainty occasioned by the “evasive and uninformative statements” (ibid.) of embodied, cautious transparency, has at last no anchor whatsoever.

Paradoxically then…positions are often maintained in the face of widely available and well-authenticated contrary evidence…Proponents of views…may not heed available evidence and can mount loud and assertive campaigns for or against one or another position whether the available evidence goes for or against their views. As the quantity of (mis)information available rises, as the number of bodies with self-conferred credentials and missions and active publicity machines increases, as the difficulty of knowing whether a well-publicised (sic) claim is a credible claim increases, it is simply harder to place trust reasonably. Milton asked rhetorically, “Who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”. Today the very prospect of a ‘free and open encounter’ is drowning in the supposedly transparent world of the new information order. (ibid)

The advantage, that is, that systems of verification (e.g. professional organizations, peer-review, credentials) offer is a method for extending trust beyond face-to-face relationships.

Interpersonal deliberation was critiqued solidly, as we have seen, by Noelle-Neumann’s thesis. A problem with Noelle-Neumann’s theory, however, is the assumptions made about “silence” as a negation of participation. Recently, several studies on “lurking” behavior online have concluded that silence (as lurking), rather than representing a response to a repressive social opinion climate, is a valid and variegated form of participation (Nonnecke & Preece, 1999; Preece, Nonnecke & Andrews, 2004; Rafaeli, Ravid & Soroka, 2004; van Uden-Kraan, et al., 2008). What, then, do these findings suggest about the interpersonal encounter? The focus on silence as an indicator of one’s subjugation at the hands of verbose (and therefore powerful) group members ascribes an ad-hoc victim or follower status to those who do not speak. Paul Reynolds (1984) has critiqued this move as an implicit assent to the “blabbermouth theory of leadership” (405). The focus on silence as a retreat in Noelle-Neumann also discounts the importance of listening as a rhetorical strategy.

Research on participation in specifically political discussion groups has shown variable results. Price, Capella, and Nir (2002) created an experiment by which respondents were asked to state opinions on political matters and found that “encountering disagreement in political conversation” (which the researchers manufactured rather than observed in a live dialogic event) “contributes to more deliberative opinion“ or “the ability to ground one’s viewpoints, not only in supportive arguments but also in an understanding of the kinds of arguments that others might make in taking an opposite stand” (107). Similarly, Gastil and Dillard (1999) found that the political deliberation undertaken by their subject population “had at least a short-term effect on the sophistication of participants’ schematic networks. After forums, participants had more differentiated and integrated views, and they exhibited less attitudinal uncertainty” (20). Brundidge (2008, 2006), on the other hand, has found that some Internet political discussion contributes positively to ideological heterogeneity.  In Brundidge’s work, “chat and instant messaging were positively predictive” of such heterogeneity, but “political discussion via website bulletin boards and political discussion via email were not”. She postulates that discrepancy is due to the fact that “chat and instant messaging…may be the type of computer-mediated communication most like face-to-face discussion, the strongest predictor of exposure to political difference” (2006, p. 18). This is due, as Brundidge points out, to the “synchronous” nature of these communications, occurring in real time and subject to immediate feedback (albeit a feedback mediated via the screen). In a similar vein, Mutz and Mondak (2006) found the workplace to be an arena where, unlike a church or a social group, one is forced to communicate with an unexpected variety of people and their attendant backgrounds and beliefs. The result is that such a context creates opportunities for the exposure to and appreciation of countervailing socio-political points of view. Workplaces are, in this way, a kind of synthetic environment populated by individuals with whom we might not otherwise engage in dialogue. These observations help describe the situation presented by the focus group. The latter occurs generally among disparate individuals in real time rather than, as is often the case in church or online, either among like-minded others or over an extended time period in which an individual posts a comment and either waits or remains uninterested in a response.

Dialogue, poly-logue, monologue: Comparing online and focus group political speech

Both online and in-person political communication, then, offer challenges to the ideal of democratic dialogue. This study began as an inquiry into public reception of a film text, but the data collected suggested a striking dissimilarity in the tone, the strategies, and the outcomes of electronic versus corporeal discussion. By using the common object of a popular film to explore the differences between these two data sets, this study does not intend to suggest an experimental design whereby the film acts as a standard stimulus presented to subject populations. Rather, then data engaged herein are analyzed in a spirit of exploration, context and particularity, and the trends suggested by them are then applied to the problems discussed above. This is a mode of analysis termed “grounded theory” (Glaser and Strauss, 1967), whereby the investigator allows the data to suggest avenues for analysis and fruitful areas of discovery.

Data for this study were collected under two conditions. The first was focus group interviews. Focus groups participants (n=21) were selected via convenience and snowball sampling (Lindlof, 1995) and were made up of undergraduate students and community members within the vicinity of a major Southwestern U.S. university town. Focus groups lasted approximately 90 minutes and participants were compensated for their time by way of a cash payment. Focus group data were collected over roughly two weeks in late October and early November of 2008. The film’s October 17, 2008 release date in the U.S. precluded any audience engagement prior to that time. Since the study was designed to engage with audiences prior to Election Day 2008, so as to maximize the potential for understanding W.’s impact at a very particular time (which, of course, is how it was imagined as a media product), the window for data collection closed on 4 November 2008.

Focus group question schedules were designed to offer avenues for further discovery during the course of the group discussion. Questions were open-ended and followed an outline that navigated groups through several categories of questioning. Participants were asked about their self-appraisals in terms of their consumption of cinema and political content, and were also engaged on the topic of their appraisal of the film’s director, Oliver Stone, and their expectations for the film prior to seeing it. Participants were then asked to evaluate the film in their own terms, with particular emphasis on their feelings regarding the film’s accuracy and its representation of their home state. Groups and interviewees were then asked to evaluate the film in terms of its context as a cultural document, with emphasis on its status as a cinematic biography of a sitting president and its release date. The next group of questions engaged with the participants’ political behavior and their interest in or activity around the upcoming election. Subjects were enjoined, finally, to discuss the degree to which the film either motivated further political behavior (campaigning, blogging, etc.) or impacted their likelihood to cast a vote.

The second data set was composed of online “comments,” a category of CMC political speech that – despite its utility and ubiquity as a feature on the Web sites of several mainstream media outlets that states, “We are listening to you” – appears to remain untheorized. These comments were appended by non-professionals to materials produced for public consumption by major online outlets. Such online speech acts do not fall under the headings of discussion boards, electronic mailing lists, or Wikis. They arise in response to a posted media product and do not rely on a consistent membership within the community. Posters do not establish threads but rather pile comments atop one another. They offer no avenues toward establishing RSS feeds or other automatic correspondence services. There is minimal information harvested on the poster (although this varies from site to site), but one is required to include one’s email address. They share some characteristics with discussion boards in that the comments are generally moderated and posters are given screen names. The comments do not occur synchronously, as they do in a chat forum, but rather sequentially (and can often be organized by the reader by their date and time of posting, rating, or other characteristics).

Nor do comments fall exclusively into a single category within the taxonomy of “sectors of Net-based public spheres” outlined by Dahlgren (2005, p. 153, italics in original), who describes five structural forms in which online political communication takes place. These include, first, both top-down and horizontal versions of “e-government”; second, the “advocacy/activist domain,” including “traditional parliamentarian politics, established corporate and other organized group politics (e.g., unions), and the new politics of social movements and other activists”; third, the “vast array of civic forums…generally understood as the paradigmatic version of the public sphere on the Net”; fourth, the “prepolitical or parapolitical domain, which airs social and cultural topics having to do with common interests and/or collective identities; and, finally, the journalism domain, which includes all elements of the vast online journalistic universe. Comments could be considered key components of each of the last three of the above categories, but it is less important to pin them down into a descriptive category, it seems, than it is to understand their rhetorical function and their attendant impact upon online political speech.

In this case, comments were captured from six online sources:,,,,, and the Internet Movie Database. Given the above numbers suggesting the skewed nature of blog readership in socio-economic and other categories, these online media were chosen – rather than Huffington or Daily Kos – with an eye toward mainstream news outlets, including one which is generally described as left-leaning ( and its conservative counterpart ( was chosen in response to the study’s initial interest in popular reception of the film as a text, rather than as an instigator of political speech more generally. Due to earlier screenings in other parts of the country, comments on the film were available earlier than its opening date in the location of the focus groups, so the timeframe for comment collection began earlier but concluded (as did the focus groups) prior to Election Day in the United States (4 November 2008).

Focus groups were videotaped and then transcribed. These transcriptions and all collected online comments were then loaded into the NVivo qualitative data analysis software, where all entries were coded in terms of both substance and form (that is, what the participants/commenters talked about and the manner in which they talked about it). The resulting codes were analyzed using the constant comparative method (Clark, 2004; Glaser and Strauss, 1967), whereby trends and patterns derived from code placement and correspondence were continuously reevaluated as new information became available. Thus the following modes of analysis (polylogue, monologue, and dialogue) emerged from the data rather than being applied a priori to it.

These three categories of talk are defined herein as follows. “Polylogue” refers to those exchanges where interlocutors refer to one another in such a way as to engage specifically, but in the end simply talk past one another. This amounts to an exchange of statements from which emerges no new understanding, and often such exchanges, as we shall see, devolve into shouting matches. “Monologue” refers to those statements that are not meant for any particular individual but rather are offered purely as ends in themselves. The reason for offering a monologous statement is simply to express it. “Dialogue,” finally, I define here as an engagement between two or more interlocutors in which greater understanding of the others’ beliefs or positions is either sought or obtained. These definitions are offered as heuristic tools limited for use in this paper, not as concepts that should be understood as universals.


Consider the following exchanges, each of which was culled from online comment boards:[1]

bOludo and cdfoxtrot4

(Posted by b0ludo at 9:54 PM, Oct 26, 2008): Bush is like the rest of middle America. The one you all seem to love bashing. Loves God, loves his heterosexual family, and you''ll take his gun from his dead cold hand. That is the November surprise nobody is expecting.

(Posted by cdfoxtrot4 at 10:16 PM, Oct 26, 2008): Bush is like the rest of middle America. Blah, blah, blah.

(Posted by B0ludo): Except that Bush is NOT from middle America. He was born into an extremely wealthy, powerful family. His dad was president, and his grand-daddy was a senior political figure. He can trace his heritage to English royalty. He''s NOT from middle America. It''s the idiots who think he''s one of them and voted as such, that are responsible for the moron-in-chief having eight years to f_uck everything up.

mickey and Darren

(Posted by mickey at 5:22PM, Fri, Oct 17, 2008): As someone who is a born again christian, I find George W. Bush uses christianity to excuse what he does. I doubt he truely knows the Lord as his Savior.

(Posted by Darren at 6:21PM, Fri, Oct 17, 2008):
As an Atheist living in a free country with a supposed seperation of chruch and state, I don't want to hear your religious BULL CRAP.

Riza-13 and misskizzy

(Posted by Riza-13, Oct 18): Okay, listen up. George Bush may have made many mistakes during his Presidency, but he did NOT KILL Americans!!!! That is such BS!!! He PROTECTED this great country and stood up to the evil terrorists that in NO WAY want to cooperate with us, and that is something NO DEMOCRAT COULD HAVE DONE, especially those morons Al "Let's-All-Give-Terrorists-Hugs" Gore and John "Hollywood-Is-Better" Kerry. 9-11 came as a direct result of the CLINTON Presidency because he FAILED to act on all the terrorist attacks that happened in the 90's!Whether or not we agree with Bush on everything he did (I don't), whether we're conservative or liberal, we should all be indebted to this man for at least one thing: KEEPING AMERICA SAFE!!!Hate Bush all you want, but DON'T call him a killer. (And please, take a grammar lesson, ya'll).You people, and Oliver Stone especially, should be ashamed.

(Posted by misskizzy, Oct-18): To Riza13...what rock do you live under? Of course Bush is responsible for killing over 4, 000 Americans...troops that the Iraq war, which he started and sold to the American people with a bunch of lies. America is not safer..more people hate America now than 8 years ago... wake up!

MCP12346 and an unknown poster to whom he/she responds

(Posted by: MCP12346 Oct-18): "Not the Demo-craps" Wow that is so mature... I could say Repugni-cun* but then I would stoop to your beer drinking cocaine sniffing frat boy level. Bill Clinton lied about receiving a ####... George Bush lied about a war which has cost 10's of thousands of lives and never needed to happen in the first place. Sure... blame it on Clinton when Bush himself had warning several days before 9/11 and still did nothing. Don't you remember "bin laden determined to attack United States". Ummm Katrina and the current economic disaster happened on the current Presidents watch... if he was such a seer and had god on his side then why weren't these things fixed before they happened? Well as far as Katrina it is because he placed unqualified political friends in charge of FEMA.Yes we may all be dead before anything is fixed... because you republicans have run up 5 trillion in additional national debt and have just added a $ 400+ billion dollar deficit with the last budget. It's kind of hard to find the money when you socialist pinko corporate welfare republicans blew it all paying off Wall Street because they lost so much money due to your deregulation policies.P.S. Go sniff around Hannity and Faux news... its where people like you belong.

What similarities can we divine from these representative examples of polylogous online speech? They are each arguments that neither seek nor find any kind of resolution, even in cases where (as with mickey and Darren) they do not necessarily offer opposite viewpoints. They are analogous to two drivers angrily tooting their horns in passing. They are decidedly uncivil and impolite, resorting to inflammatory and insulting language. They utilize received public scripts about responsible information consumption, a variation on what have been called “accounts of the media” (Hoover, Clark and Alters, 2004), and critiques of the mainstream media.

Even where the exchanges are significantly more developed, their result in terms of meaningful communication remains negligible at best. Consider Mark and Jane, posters who engaged in a lengthy discussion beginning with Jane’s dismissal of Stone’s film:[2]

Jane (Sun, Oct 19, 08 at 12:25 AM): This movie gets an "F" . Oliver Stone is a whiny, liberal **** bag trying to push his narrow-minded beliefs down the throats of America.. yet again. You want to know why Batman was a success? Because it wasn't politically driven. It was a movie that was about Good vs. Evil. The Good is G W Bush.. The evil is Oliver Stone, and all the other mindless media pawns out there believing this ****.

Jane then begins attacking posts further down the list.

Jane (12:36 AM): Debra--Katrina.. is how it's spelled. Your first mistake. That wasn't Bush's fault. You can thank the LIBERAL Mayor Nagin didn't do crap, and Governor Kathleen Blanco. Get your facts straight. Bush reached out with FEMA 3 times, and they didn't want the help. Dang, you are clearly a media lemming. Girl, you are stuck on stupid to accuse Bush of that. The BAIL OUT? WTH!? That was because of the Clinton admin. with Fannie Mae. DUH. They MADE banks give loans to people that couldn't afford to pay.

Jane Sun (Oct 19, 08 at 12:29 AM): Get the message, Hollywood... We don't care about your liberal agenda driven crap job movies like W and Charlie Wilson's War. George W Bush is the President of the US. Deal with it, and we kicked your butt in 2 elections with this guy. Why? Because we think, therefore, we are conservatives. And, well.. Because we CAN! And we will again! Show some respect. Make movies about what people WANT to see. Ha, ha, it is bombing at the box office, and people compare it to a LAME SNL sketch...

Jane (12:39 AM): The liberation of Iraq is a good thing. Bush did that. He cut taxes, and we haven't been attacked since 9/11. His moral character should never be in question when you liberals have Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy to answer for.. PUHLEASE! Ted killed a woman, and Bill is a womanizing, liar. G W Bush is a Christian, and he is an honorable man of God. The reason why people like Oliver Stone and the liberal media hate him so, is simple put-darkness hates LIGHT. They hate good.

Mark enters the conversation by way of interjection.

Mark (12:41 AM): Jane, You are full of hate and horribly misguided.

Jane [still taking issue with an earlier comment by “Twist”] (12:45 AM): To TWIST: George W Bush is not a bigot. He is the first to put African Americans in a high ranking office. Hello Condelezza Rice, and Colin Powell. I didn't see Bill do that.. Or Carter... Or ANY supposed "open minded" liberal. He will not burn in hell, he is a child of the most high God. Jesus Christ. And, you don't know his heart, I would say YOU are the bigot, TWIST.. Not George W Bush.

Jane (12:48 AM): Mark, no I am not full of hate. I am sick of the liberal media ramming outright lies down our throats. What Oliver Stone was full of hate and misguided. And I laugh at the box office numbers thus far.. That is what you get, Ollie!

Mark (12:53 AM): Yes, Jane. It's called hate, and you're a poster child for angry, uninformed knee-jerk know-nothing who seems to be afraid of matters you never learned how to think about.

Mark (12:57 AM):Also, Jane, I can't wait to read your review of Religulous, if you have the internal fortitude to go see it.

Jane (1:02 AM): Mark, obviously, I know more than you do. :-)

Mark (1:02 AM): Jane, you're just wrong. Go to bed.

Jane (1:03 AM): "Facts are stubborn things"--Ronald Reagan. I go by facts. You go by hear say by the liberal media. I would say you are the know nothing lemming.

Jane (1:04 AM): Isn't it time for your binky?

Mark (1:05 AM): Jane, I have a college student who thinks just like you, and he is failing because he is a self-professed expert in matters he knows nothing about. In politics and religion, I doubt you've ever met a truth that really was. 

Jane (1:10 AM): I know that George W Bush is a leader. He had guts. He is a genius when it comes to action. He protected this nation from another attack. I know that you have no earthly idea who I AM. And for you to judge me by a couple of posts that you happen to not agree with is very arrogant and rather judgmental. Your son is probably failing because colleges are filled with liberal minded professors trying to mold naive minds like their own.

Mark (1:13 AM): It's not my son. I teach. It's my job to help people think independently, and you are surely one in need of critical thinking skills. Bush is a failure, always has been, always will be. Did you learn nothing while watching the movie, or were you just shallow enough to form illogical conslusions?

Jane (1:15 AM): Why don't you go see American Carole? You suggested Religulous...Which was ridiculous. Of course there will be hatred in all sorts of religions. What makes you think that his assessment is TRUTH? It's satire. Do you not get that? I know Bill Mahr is an odd fellow that tries to be outrageous, but truth be told, he is just an ugly little man that people laugh at from time to time.. Notice LAUGH AT.. Not with. Unless, you too, are an ugly little man.

Jane (1:19 AM): I see both sides. I tend to go to the right more. Why? Because I don't feel like I should have to support everyone and their mama because I excel. Why should I be punished and "share the wealth" to Betty Sue down the street that wants to sit on her butt and pop out kids for a check? I think the less government, the better. I don't want others deciding what to do with MY hard earned money. I got a job, I go to work. Do you ever wonder why republicans aren't protesting? Because WE have jobs!

Mark (1:22 AM): Jane, Your ignorance is showing again. Like Democrats don't have jobs? Your arrogance is also showing since you have no idea why poverty and all its consequences exists.

Jane (1:22 AM): Did you ever think that maybe YOU are the one that thinks he knows it all? That you are so right? You called me "wrong".. What is wrong with my opinion? You liberals want to dictate everything, I tell ya. I feel that I am right. You disagree. Doesn't make YOU right. Just means we have differing opinions.

Jane (1:25 AM): Well, if they have jobs, why are they protesting? Why aren't they outraged by Obama wanting to raise taxes and we are in a "recession"..? Hmmmmmm.. Strange, huh? What about ACORN and the voter fraud going on there? Obama gave them money. Did you know that? My ignorance .. ha, more like your lack of recognizing the truth.

Mark (1:25 AM): Jane, I'm the first one to say there are a lot more things I do not know that I do know. I'm just saying with respect to you, I've seen your limited thinking and false conslusions in many people over the years. Sure, you're entitled to your opinions, but please don't present them as facts.

Mark (1:29 AM): I've grown tired of replying to you, Jane. You think you know things. You don't. One day you'll awake and wonder why you never got it. 

Jane (1:29 AM): Anyone can go and work at McDonalds and work their way up. There are plenty of opportunities for anyone to excel. Perhaps you are confusing laziness with real poverty. People in dire need of help, we have mission centers, outreach programs, we have all sorts of organizations to get anyone that wants help the help they need. There is no excuse, but the life they have chosen. Like the song goes "That one is only poor Only if they choose to be".. So true.

Jane (1:32 AM): My opinions on how someone looks are just opinions. The Clinton Administration was the cause of the fall of Fannie Mae. That is a fact. Bush did extend FEMA three times to Louisiana during Katrina. That is a fact. It is a fact that both Nagin and Blanco no longer hold their offices because of their lack of inaction. That had NOTHING to do with Bush. It is also a fact that we have liberated Iraq. And we haven't been attacked since 9/11.

Jane (1:35 AM): Grown tired= liberal lingo for-- I am frustrated that I can't make you think like me. Present them as facts? They ARE facts. Why are you so animate about facts when you listen to the liberal media? They lie every day.. every second of the day.

Mark (1:36 AM): Now you think you know what I listen to. You don't. You're just wrong. Dead wrong.

Jane (1:40 AM): Oh, I am sorry, you also listen to Hollywood libtards like Stone... I forgot about that. If he is the measure as to what you stand for, I really feel sorry for you and your students. You are perverting young minds to think like your own.

Mark (1:41 AM): Jane, Your lack of critical thinking skills is coming across loud and clear.

Jane (1:46 AM): And all you can do is say "you are wrong"... LOL. Your lack of debating skills shows me that YOU have no idea what you are talking about, and all you do is call the other person "wrong" without any tangible talking points. What next? Are you going to call me a "meanie" or TRY to throw a pie at me like they did to Ann Coulter?

Mark (1:49 AM): Wrong people hate to be called wrong. I wouldn't waste a pie on you, although I enjoyed it when the Yippies years ago pied Kissenger and other warmongers. You mention Ann Coulter? Now I know you're shallow and empty of any useful knowledge.

Jane (1:51 AM): Ann Coulter could run circles around you. The lady is highly intelligent, I doubt that is a requirement to attend one of your classes.

Mark (1:53 AM): You like to attack on a personal level. Ann Coulter couldn't walk around a block around me. I've always wondered about "her" Adam's apple.

Jane (2:00 AM): You have attacked me on a personal level. I can't do the same? You liberals are all the same, you dish it out, but you sure can't take it. Ann Coulter would make mince meat out of you, I am certain of it. Her adams apple.. LOL. Wow. I guess it is true, whiny libtards don't like a strong, opinionated woman. Especially if that woman is a republican. Does this fear of a strong woman stem from you lacking in other areas, perhaps?

Mark (2:02 AM): Jane, You are sick. Good night.

Jane (2:03 AM): Check mate.

Mark (2:04 AM): In your dreams.

Jane (2:07 AM): I don't dream of whiny liberals that try to demonize the President, and teach students to hate.

Mark (2:07 AM): Says you.

Jane (2:09 AM): Oh go to bed, Walter Mitty.

What is the net result of such an exchange, lengthy though it may be? It is a conflict which produces nothing; a fire with no heat. Even the lurker, that passive member of the Internet audience so often overlooked as a participant, is presented with precious little more than a reification of tired arguments and clichéd (and strikingly similar) characterizations of time-worn enemies. Mark and Jane achieve no apparent communication here. They simply yell at one another until one of them submits on the basis of fatigue. Presumably, they both find gratification in the expression of their opinions, but to what end?


Monologous speech describes those comments that express opinions but neither respond to previous statements nor pose any questions to the community, such as it is. Such statements are again likely to include dismissive or stereotypical language, insults, exclamations, and indelicate phrases (often profanity will be implied with grammatical tricks in order to get by filtering software). Here are some exemplars taken from various online comment boards:

fckthebhaters :
i think this movie will be stupid he is not the worst presidennt atleast he didnt lie under oath about havinng an affair in the white house. any other president might not admit it but the choice was right. either have war and more terrorist or take em down. its not even a war unless congress was to declare war which they did not

matter77: No other president was hated more than Abraham Lincoln. He was considered incompetent, a personal failure, and was despised by both sides. They blamed the war on him, and if he didn''t start it he didn''t do enough to stop it, they said. Several attempts were made on his life and JW Booth eluded capture for so long because there so many sympathisers in neighboring Maryland.
And now I think arrogant lazy punks like you are the cause of America''s decline. You''ll find someone, anyone to blame but yourself. You repeat nonsense you hear elsewhere and don''t have any idea what you are talking about. You surround yourself by people who think exactly like you do and say the same things you do and if even it meant the United States would be utterly destroyed, you would spew off the same garbage about others just one more time. The reason you opposed the war in Iraq was because it wasn''t about you. You are just as stupid as the day is long and deserve everything you get. Idiot.

jerryomara: If this idiot writer thinks that makes Bush look better or more likeable he is on Drugs he just looks a different kind of fumbling stupid a hole

idnnsg: I haven''t seen this movie because I can''t stand GW, so why spend 2 hrs watching a movie about him? That said, now that the NRO is claiming that the movie makes GW more "likeable", I''m sure it must do a pretty good job portraying him as the despicable little r@t-b@stard that he truly is. (The NRO''s hit ratio of truth to fiction is about 0.00001 percent.)

Want proof of how badly they twist reality? When Bush is asked what were his biggest mistakes in Iraq, he can''t name a single one! And they think the audience will feel sorry for him because "a president in wartime with American lives on the line can%u2019t glibly answer a question like that"! What absolute BS!!! At that point in time, we ALL knew there were NO WMDs!!! The biggest mistake was illegally invading a country that did not attack us for NO GAWDD@MN REASON! (except to steal their oil and park a bunch of military bases on their soil. Oh, yeah, and so Baby Bush could be a "war president" and get away with whatever he wanted!) We don''t "feel sorry" for the rat-b@stard! We condemn him for 4,000+ dead US soldiers (and maybe a half million dead Iraqis) who did not need to die! We condemn him for wasting our country''s blood and treasure! We condemn him for turning the entire world against us!

I don''t need the NRO to tell me what to think about this movie, or about GW Bush or Johnny McSame. Contempt is too polite a word for the feeling these r@t-b@stards invoke.

fedor8: Let’s not kid each other here. The politically disinterested flightless birds of Timbuktu know what purpose this movie serves. Set to be released only days before the Presidential elections, the movie is just one more in a long line of Hollywood's blatant propaganda films ("American President", "Fahrenheit 451", and about a thousand others), financed by their powerful and rich, though infinitely clueless Left. Naturally, Stone only stopped an inch short of making a movie about John McCain himself; that would have been too obvious even for the unsubtle Stone and his liberal cronies. The title "W" ends up being nothing more than an abbreviation for "Wote Obama". (No-one said Stone can spell!). Unlike Spielberg or Soderbergh, Stone isn't a closet Marxist: he has always been pretty much out of the closet, barely hiding his passion and limitless adoration for dictator Fidel Castro and other criminal sociopaths on the international political scene. (When you support a blood-thirsty despot you basically lose all moral rights to criticize any democratically-elected public official.) Hence even to refer to him as a "liberal" is quite misleading. He has more in common with Lenin than Joseph Biden (not intellectually, though: IQ-wise we're talking Donald Duck here). 

Besides, how very BRAVE of Oliver Stone to single out the very unpopular Bush for big-screen ridicule... Why didn't he make this movie in, let's say, 2003? 

Once again Oliver Stone proves that he's lost his mind utterly and irrevocably not only by making this kind of inevitable, cheesy drivel, but by proving that he can't cast a $50 school play, let alone a major big-budget movie. Bush may not be the greatest intellectual around, but to pick Josh Brolin to play him would be the ultimate insult - to anyone. Brolin exudes ZERO intelligence; besides, he does not look the part, he can't act at all (unless Travolta-like overacting is what you seek), he is too young, and his face resembles that of a stereotypical American college jock i.e. not even remotely that of a politician: liberal, conservative or Martian. For the life of me I can't picture this nepotistic offspring playing anyone but American football heroes, serial-killing truck-drivers or wife-beating alcoholics….

Fedor8 continues for several dozen more lines. His prose is carefully constructed – much more so than fckthebhaters’, for example – and one might suspect that he or she spends a great deal of time writing (perhaps even blogging). But for all fedor8’s eloquence and humor, his comment neither seeks nor finds a response. Presumably, he or she feels empowered by the ability to express these opinions, opinions that he or she might otherwise temper in the company of others. Without being overly flip, though, I think it’s fair to apply here the age-old question about trees falling in forests: if an action, regardless of its magnitude, has no audience, is it any action at all?


Dialogue, finally, describes exchanges that show evidence of a move forward on the part of communicators’ understanding (of phenomena, of the other viewpoint) as a result of the communication event. In all of the hundreds of online comments analyzed, only one exchange fulfilled this very basic criterion, the following between Ashley and Mark (it is unknown whether this is the same “Mark” profiled above):

Ashley (Fri, Oct 17, 08 at 08:23 PM): I want to see the movie, but I doubt I will. I am the lone political buff in my circle of friends. It has always made me laugh to see people calling Bush an idiot AND a lying manipulative war criminal. He's either one or the other, folks. C'mon. I personally don't think he's either. It is possible to admit someone was a bad president without attacking them personally. Look at Jimmy Carter.

Mark (Fri, Oct 17, 08 at 11:10 PM): Ashley, please go see it. The movie is NOT a Bush bash by any means. This is a dark expose that explains the chasm W. and his Poppy are living through. The movie also shows how W. was usurped by the likes of Rummy, Vice and Rove.

Ashley (Sat, Oct 18, 08 at 10:50 AM): Oh, I know Mark. I'm not saying the movie is a Bush bash. I just have no one to see it with. :( I love politics and political movies. A little odd for a 21-year-old, but whatever. 

Ashley (10:55 AM): Oh, and another thing, I was not talking about the movie, but Bush-bashers in general. I should have made that clear, but I didn't. :/ Okay, I'm done monopolizing the comment board.

Ashley and Mark use measured language here, qualify their statements, and are even polite to one another (Mark uses the word “please” unironically). That these statements cannot be applied elsewhere in the pool of collected comments suggests the latter’s striking dissimilarity to those transcribed from focus group proceedings.

As the comment board did for Mark and Jane, on the one hand, and Mark and Ashley, on the other, the focus group acted as a magnet that attracted respondents from both sides of the political spectrum. While there are several exchanges within the transcripts I might offer as examples of dialogue, in the space remaining I would offer two in particular alongside some key information about those involved. The first of these is a discussion bookended by the extreme political positions of Lynne – a lifelong, vociferous, and beleaguered Democrat – and Colby, whose “love” of Bush was made clear within his first introductory statements.

Colby and Lynne

COLBY: I follow politics very closely, um, just cause this year counts. I think, we’ve had eight years of Bush, and I love Bush…and now it’s Obama or it’s McCain, and there’s 300 million people in American and those are the only two that America could come up with [laughs].
I just know there’s a lot more people out there we could be voting for. But, I don’t care for CNN…I’m a Republican, my parents are Republican. It’s not that my they brainwashed me into being a Republican, it’s just the way I am, I guess. I do watch CNN, even though I hate it. I watch more Fox, because it’s fair and balanced [using hand gestures to suggest quotations] as they call it. I love Bill O’Reilly, especially the debate with Obama, that he had, or the interview with Obama… I’ll go online a little bit, but I don’t blog or anything. I normally wake up with FoxNews. I watched every debate, recorded them, went back and watched them again…

Moderator: [to group] Well, what made you all decide to go and see the film in the theater?

LYNNE: I decided to go because I thought that this would be an interesting forum for discussion. If it hadn’t been for the invitation [to the focus group] I would not have gone to see W. I can’t stand watching him on TV [motions in deference to COLBY]…

COLBY: [laughs]

LYNNE: I mean he just…he’s just not, just not my guy. So I do not know how…

COLBY: He’s not an English major!

LYNNE: That’s for darn sure. Um, I thought it was interesting to remove myself from my personal feelings a little bit, because I am a Democrat, to watch the…[Stone’s] characterization of Bush. And I thought the cast was great. So I had to kind of step back and watch it, and detach from the fact that it was kind of about him, you know? That is was just an interesting study about this…this personality. So that’s why I went. And it was a good cast. It was well-produced. It was Oliver Stone. And I like Oliver Stone films. I mean, I’ll go because of a certain director also, as well as the cast. So that’s why I went.
[Pauses to reflect] What…Do you remember the scene…There was also a sense of him…um, how do I want to say this? Not paying attention. I mean really not paying attention. When he went to the hospital to visit the soldiers—

[group recognition of the scene]

LYNNE: --and it was like, it wasn’t even a media moment, it was…he was doing it because it was something on his list of things to do, and he was crossing it off his list, but he doesn’t think about what it is he’s doing. Like when that guy was completely burned, and that close-up where he’s grabbing his thumb to say good-bye, it’s like, ‘Ow!’ I mean, my first impulse was, ‘Good God, what the Hell are you doing?’ You know?

[group laughs]

LYNNE: I mean, that’s just crazy! You know? And then, after that, whether it was that same guy or not, he goes, ‘Oh, y’all just come down and see us in Houston!’ It was like everything was just a show, you know? Everything was just kind of flip, like he doesn’t really, thoughtfully process things. And that was the point I got from those whole sequences.

COLBY: Yeah, I agree.

Later, another member of the group asks what “the Democrats” would have thought about the film. Lynne, as the only member of the group to self-identify in this fashion, answers:

LYNNE: I wouldn’t have gone to see it.

COLBY: ‘Cause you think…I don’t know how you would have [read] the actual trailer. I mean, what did you think of it?

LYNNE: I don’t know that I ever saw the trailer, actually. Um, I had read an article in the paper about it…I mean, I got to where I couldn’t stand to watch him on TV.

Subtle but crucial in this exchange is a common communication strategy almost completely absent in online comments, except when used sarcastically or rhetorically: the question. Similarly, as the focus group winds down, Lynne queries the group on another matter:

LYNNE: I have a question for you all. Do you think that Bush is a self-reflective individual? To where he really will look at all of this, and really ponder and worry about it? You know, since he really just had his little architects sort of…[thinking]

COLBY: Conjure up?

LYNNE: Yeah, conjure up what it is for him to do? Or…is he self-reflective, or is he just going to go, ‘Wow, I’m so glad that’s over with [miming the washing of hands], I’m going to go back to the ranch’ [laughs]

COLBY: I think he’ll worry about it for the rest of his life. He’ll have to have Secret Service with him until he’s dead.

ERICA: I think that he’ll look…I mean, I’m sure he looks, even now, I’m sure he looks back, thinking ‘Oh, I should have done that differently, I should have done that differently.’ But think mainly what he has in his head is he did the best he could at the time, at the time that he did it. I mean, he was given a really crappy deck, or a crappy hand, and it kind of—

COLBY: But also everybody is their own person. And he could say no.

Autumn and Andreas

Autumn is a college-aged Anglo female with strong family roots in staunch conservatism. Her father is a clear opinion leader for her, such that her impressions of the film going in were significantly inflected by his distaste for Stone. She left the film in a state of angered dissonance, having been exposed by Stone to a number of uncomfortable pieces of information about Bush. Andreas, on the other hand, is an articulate, Latino college male with a progressive political stance. The following exchange illustrates nicely the dialogue in which these two largely opposite participants took part:

Moderator: Did anyone walk out of the film feeling in some way more or less engaged with the political process?

AUTUMN: I guess I feel more engaged…Cause there was a lot of stuff I had no idea….Yeah, it’s weird, now that we’re talking about it, it really doesn’t make me mad. ‘Cause I’ve been listening to the way everyone else thinks, so it’s kind of changed the way I felt about the movie.

Moderator: You mean here? Tonight?

AUTUMN: Yeah, just sitting here talking, like you’ve [to ANDREAS] said a couple things that I would never have thought of watching that movie. Like instead of [the film’s] showing, like, real-life things making him seem more like a human being, I felt that they were attacking him in the movie and making him look stupid. And you know now that I’m thinking about it, well, you know, they showed him how he lived his life. He lived a normal college – my normal college life [miming quotes] – he lived it. And then they showed him growing up, you know, to be like a real professional person. Yeah. So that’s what I think. Like the way that they viewed things, I did not view, in the movie, but now, looking back, it makes a lot of sense. You know, they weren’t attacking him, they were showing his life. I thought they were – see I went with a negative impression anyway.  I thought it was going to be funny, I thought they were going to be making fun of him. And I don’t find that to be really funny. You know, you have to be respectful. He still is the President of the United States, regardless of whether you like him or not. You know, so….I guess I was more engaged because I learned a lot of stuff that I had no idea was happening.

Moderator: It sounds to me like you both came out with a desire to learn a little bit more about him, maybe?

ANDREAS: I think it’s interesting that both sides saw the film and got something different out of it.

AUTUMN: yeah, ‘cause I learned a lot from you [to ANDREAS], and I was expecting you to be anti-Bush, ‘I hate Bush,’ blah, blah, blah…But there’s where you go and judge a book by its cover. You say ‘Democrat,’ so I automatically go, ‘Oh, you’re anti-Bush.’ You know, which is wrong for me to do that, but it’s like, that’s the world we live in. You know, we do that, and that’s the wrong thing to do, and I apologize for that [to ANDREAS]…

But again, you did inform me on some of the stuff that I didn’t realize and like, I don’t know…But I got something out of this.

One way of reading these exchanges is to suggest that in-person proximity to someone of antagonistic political position serves to dull conversation, to promote a kind of quiescence for the purposes of preserving decorum. I would like to conclude by complicating that argument.


Civility or politeness is a strategy generally employed in the face-to-face encounter. When communicating via CMC, these rhetorical strategies seem to disappear. Some find this to be a positive, since the less filtering takes place the more “true” comment results, and the less embodiment of unseen discursive categories the greater chance that all parties will be given the opportunity to speak. I think the matter is rather less settled. One of the reasons that civility decreases online is due to the fluidity of identity and the lack of concern for repercussions upon one’s reputation. Is identity, then, rather than an encumbrance to “true” talk, actually a provider of trust in the dialogic encounter and therefore a requirement for truly constructive democratic speech? The online comments highlighted here (and there are many others for which these serve as representatives) do not engage so much as harangue, attack, belittle, or proclaim. Compared to the focus group exchanges included above, the few true exchanges that do take place are argumentative in nature and do not appear to result in a richness of understanding for either party. It is in this way that I propose the study of CMC’s contribution to political speech be reexamined. Certainly, the focus group environment is a synthetic one and not representative of the type of face-to-face encounter in which average citizens might find themselves. On the other hand, given its still socially and economically circumscribed nature, we may make similar evaluations of the blogosphere. In the comments analyzed above, which appear to exist in a forum visited by CMC literati and neophytes alike and more closely resemble a kind of public space, do not such declaratory and demeaning statements serve to squelch rather than promote dialogue? Is there not reason to see such statements as modes of broadcast rather than modes of exchange? The decoupling in CMC of statements from their authors may indeed remove several cumbersome elements of power relations that might otherwise chill such speech, but it is fruitful to consider what is relinquished in such a bargain.

I am not proposing that focus groups should be convened in cities and towns around the country to promote democratic dialogue (although, when one considers efforts such as James Fishkin’s [2002] toward “deliberative democracy”, why not?), but rather that using this opportunity to compare the results of such a focused social context with online political speech allows one a better view of what might be a specific weakness of Internet democracy and brings into sharper relief what is lost in the devaluing of interpersonal conversation as a valid form of deliberation. Much of the former argument’s force depends upon a sense of politeness as a discursive structure that disallows or discounts alterity. This is certainly what prompts Papacharissi (2004) to make the distinction between politeness and civility. As she points out quite rightly, “civility is misunderstood when reduced to interpersonal politeness, because this definition ignores the democratic merit of robust and heated discussion” (260, emphasis added). The goal of the preceding has not been to argue this point with Papacharissi, but rather to ask whether discussion isn’t actually a bit of a misnomer for what proceeds online. The ideal of virtual democracy, and the attendant valorization of identity-free talk it affords, amounts to a belief that something approximating communication results from chaotic speech freedom. But an important aspect of politeness – and not necessarily, as Papacharissi defines it, civility – is the act of listening. Based on the observations above, the latter is absent in all but a miniscule few online political interactions. Does, paradoxically, the lack of a solid, public identity online produce a “reality” of conflict for its own sake in much the same way as does the hyper-identities of Real World cast members? An argument against what I have suggested here might point out the benefit of robust CMC communication (whether polylogue, monologue, or dialogue) to the lurking reader of such comments, but the paucity of constructive dialogue online might be said to mirror the kind of drama-inflected “reality” found on cable television. If the goal of those concerned about the relationship between political discussion and media technologies is to promote fora in which problems might be solved rather than exacerbated and opposing viewpoints might be understood rather than ignored, the problems of identity, trust, and, yes, politeness, remain crucial.


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[1] Online comments are reprinted here exactly as they appear on the screen. Spelling errors, typos, emoticons, and emphases are left intact as the posters entered them.

[2] I include the times at the beginning of each of Mark and Jane’s comments so as to orient the reader to their rapid progression.

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