Textual Features of Cyberspace Intimidation

Aletha S. Hendrickson
University of Maryland, College Park

In Rhetoric and Social Imagination, George L. Dillon points out that "[w]riting (and reading) a relatively unsituated text is an act of social imagination: projection or construction of a self, an other, and a footing between them, out of bits of social and linguistic codes" (15). Little is at stake for either rhetor or reader in unsituated discourse such as instructions and documentation--and yet, acts of social imagination do occur which in turn establish footing between participants in discourse.

The Rhetorical Dimensions of Cyberspace
Aletha's Stuff:
Intimidation of Cyberspace | Types of Intimidation
Psychological Causes | Technological Causes | Active and Passive
Benign and Destructive | Works Cited | Notes

Footing figures particularly in "active" intimidatory discourse in that footing can be established, manipulated, and maintained by rhetors in an effort to pull the rug out from "the other" in a power move. In other words, in attempting to intimidate, rhetors manipulate footing to advantage. To illustrate, consider this typical excerpt from the late paper policies for a First Year English class:

Students who fail to turn a paper in on the assigned due date will receive a grade reduction for each day that the paper is late--NO EXCUSES ACCEPTED!
The student who has armed himself with an arsenal of stock late paper excuses is thrown off balance and succumbs to intimidation--at least, that is the intimidatory intent of the policy.

Footing signifies the perceptible changes in negotiated stance and projected ethos affecting participants in social exchanges. Interaction can be verbal, but I concentrate here on the written exchange typically seen in E-mail in which textual and linguistic features signal a rhetor's attempt at negotiating footing. This negotiation is akin to what, in Forms of Talk, Erving Goffman calls a "change of gears" or "significant shifts in alignment of speaker to hearers . . . " (126, 127). In the following E-mail exchange, a department head pressures members to contribute to the annual United Charity Campaign:

The Department of Academic Fiscal Oversight is looking for 100% participation in this year's United Charity Campaign. All employees are expected to return their response envelopes, whatever the contribution, to the secretary by 3:00 Friday.

Resisting the display of extrinsic or institutional ethos, a staff member realigns the footing in her reply:

Because of heavy, unexpected medical bills incurred this year, I cannot contribute as much to the United Charity Campaign as I would like. However, I am returning the UCC envelope with a token contribution.

George Dillon furnishes a useful way to understand how linguistic features suggest relative roles of interlocutors by distinguishing between "five distinct scales of stances or footings where only one (distant/intimate) has traditionally been assumed" that rhetors "select" or "set up" (32, 39, 42). I will discuss each of Dillon's scales of footing relative to an example demonstrating its role in cyberspace intimidation:

  1. Impersonal/personal--An attempt to suggest or to repress a personal relationship. Devices for the impersonal are passives, general class terms, and the generic "I" and "you" (Dillon 21).

    The following excerpt from "FCC Rules for Modem Usage" illustrates impersonal footing which is intimidating to novices to modems:

    If trouble is experienced, disconnect this equipment from the telephone line to determine if it is causing the malfunction. If the equipment is determined to be malfunctioning, its use should be discontinued until the problem has been corrected. No repair or modification of this equipment should be attempted. (33)

  2. Distant/solidary--Rhetors move a text toward solidarity with their audiences by recognizing "the Reader's knowledge, concerns, values, and responses" and by endorsing and adopting their point of view. Conversely, using jargon (insider language) casts the audience as an outsider (Dillon 24). Notice the language geared to solidarity in the Egghead catalog's ad for "Hard Drive Upgrade Kit," an aid to "make room for your Windows 95 storage needs":

    They're the ideal storage system for Windows, Windows 95, OS/2, NetWare, or UNIX-based operating systems running on 486-, PowerPC-, or RISC-based processors. . . . The 1.6GB not only gives you incredible storage depth, it also increases your access speed to a lickety-split 10ms! . . . 1.6GB drive features 16.6MB/sec. transfer rates, mode 4 support and 5200 RPM. (49) [emphasis mine]

    The insider jargon would intimidate the uninitiated to the world of gigabytes (an outsider).

  3. Superior/equal; authoritative/limited--Casting a superior or authoritative footing employs modals, emphatics, universal quantifiers, negatives, sweeping value judgments, consequences, and imperatives (Dillon 27-28). Conversely, casting an equal or limited footing emphasizes hedges, and [s]elf-deprecatory humor" (Dillon 28-29). Following is boxed, intimidatory text from a FoxPro database manual:
    If you reboot your computer with Ctrl+Alt+Delete or shut the power off without first quitting out of FoxPro, any databases or indexes that are in use at the time may be damaged or destroyed. It is absolutely essential that you exit FoxPro only by quitting. (1-8)

  4. Direct, confrontive/oblique--Dillon notes that confrontive footing puts the reader on the spot, while oblique footing considers the "Reader's desire to be thought well of . . . " (30). Confrontive footing is intimidating because it assumes that the rhetor has knowledge, power, authority, credentials, and reasons for assertions. Not putting the reader on the spot is a key to casting an oblique footing. The following confrontive passage is from onscreen E-mail instructions:

    This FTP Service can only used by those that are connected by dial-up and are using Kermit. If you are not using Kermit to connect, press ESCape. . . . If you wish to connect to another host by FTP and are using perform Kermit, press RETURN. Otherwise, press ESCape.

  5. Formal/informal--Formal language tends to accompany Impersonal, Distant, Superior, and Confrontive footings while Informal prose is more effective for Personal, Solidary, Equal, and Oblique footings. Formal diction employs "patterned prose" and "standard punctuation" (Dillon 31-32), but I see the genre, format, headings, and mood of a text as additional elements used to cast an intimidatory formal footing as shown in the following excerpts from a modem manual:
    Sendfax Result Code Table
    wCONNECT 2400/FAX Connection speed 2400 bps
    eCRC ERRORError in received frame
    kCSIRemote machine identification
    bDISRemote machine capabilities frame
    fFTTFailure to train
    jRTPRetrain positive (18)

Not surprisingly, such tactics of active intimidation occur also in more familiar institutional discourse: IRS notices, collection letters, class policies--to name but a few.

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