Home / Articles / Volume 14 (2017) / Hanging Out on Xbox Live: How Teens Enter and Open Conversations in Party Chats
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This study investigates a group of teenage boys who spend most of their evenings in Xbox Live parties, which are audio-only multi-participant chat rooms in which interactants can talk to one another while engaged in different activities. This study uses conversation analysis to examine how the participants organize conversations, with focus on four kinds of interactional work: 1) the initiation of the interaction via the party chat invitation, 2) the opening sequence, during which the newcomer may be ratified into the party's participation framework; 3) indications of the newcomer's readiness to interact; and 4) the need to accurately identify speakers in the party. It also draws on ethnomethodology’s notion of accountability as a way of investigating how the participants establish mutual orientation and hold one another accountable to tacit social norms. The findings show how both the social context and the technological medium are intricate parts of the interaction. Although hardware and software can sometimes disrupt or reconfigure the way the participants expect to interact, they are able to adapt to the environment by doing accountability work, such as explaining, apologizing, clarifying, and questioning.


Conversation analysis (CA) drew many of its early insights from recorded telephone interactions (e.g., Hopper, 1992; Hutchby, 2001; Sacks, 1992; Schegloff, 1968, 1979; Schegloff & Sacks, 1973) and has inspired ongoing research on new forms of technology-mediated communication (TMC), such as chat room conversations and video conferences. A major contribution from CA is its emphasis on the practical work of talk – for example, the ways interactants establish co-presence and mutual orientation to conversation topics, manage turn-taking, and hold one another accountable to tacit social norms. Studies of telephone conversations have shown that people are able to adapt to the lack of resources such as gaze, gestures, and body language quite adequately (Schegloff, 2002). However, while early CA studies may have studied telephone conversations, the technology itself was often considered a secondary aspect of the interaction (Hutchby & Barnett, 2005; Schegloff, 2002). Nevertheless, many researchers have found it useful to use CA to draw attention to the importance of analyzing the broader technological context – for example, by looking at how the hardware and interface design shape how users manage and organize their interactions (Brandt & Jenks, 2013; Hung, 2011, 2017; Hutchby & Barnett, 2005; Jenks, 2009a, b; Jenks & Brandt, 2013; Markman, 2009; Mondada, 2008; O’Conaill, Whittaker, & Wilbur, 1993; Piirainen–Marsh & Tainio, 2009, 2014; Reeves, Brown, & Laurier, 2009; Reeves, Greiffenhagen, & Laurier, 2017; Sjöblom, 2011; Suchman, 2002; Wasson, 2006).

TMC has become an important way for teens to stay in touch and hang out with friends, allowing them to create “always on” connections that stay open for extended periods of time (Baron, 2010; Buhler, Neustaedter, & Hillman, 2013; Neustaedter et al., 2015). Although many of these connections are conducted through video-conferencing applications, a number of teens also use communication tools in gaming consoles to stay connected. Lenhart et al.'s (2015) study of teens and friendships reveals that playing video games with friends over the Internet is an important way for them to maintain their friendships, with almost 71% of boys (compared with 28% of girls) reporting that they use voice connections to communicate and collaborate through the computer or console.

This study uses CA to examine how a group of teens socializing on Xbox Live (XBL) manages their interactions in party chats, which are audio-only multi-participant chat rooms. The analyses focus on four types of interactional work: 1) the initiation of the interaction via the party chat invitation, 2) the opening sequence, during which the newcomer may be ratified into the party's participation framework; 3) indications of the newcomer's readiness to interact; and 4) the need to accurately identify speakers in the party. This study also uses ethnomethodology, particularly its notion of accountability (Garfinkel, 1967, 2002; Garfinkel & Sacks, 1970), to illustrate how the interactional work reveals tacit social norms among these participants. Koschmann, Stahl, and Zemel (2007) note that

accountability highlights that actors are capable of making choices and they have a shared, if provisional and defeasible, sense of propriety with respect to what they both can and cannot do and what they should and should not do. While this sense of propriety may or may not be something actors can account for, it is evident in what they do and the way they do it. (p. 140)

In interaction, accountability often reveals itself in complaints, in a similar way that trouble and repair in CA reveals the assumed orderliness of everyday conversation. By examining accounting practices, researchers can acquire insights into what participants expect of one another and how they achieve orderly interaction.

Literature Review

Herring's (2007) classification scheme for computer-mediated discourse offers a useful framework for thinking about the ways in which technological and social factors influence computer-mediated communication (CMC). In broad terms, technological factors refer to the nature of the communication medium, such as synchronicity (e.g., asynchronous, synchronous) and channel(s) of communication (e.g., audio, text, video). Social factors refer to the situation or context of communication, such as the participants' relationships with one another, the goal(s) of their interaction (on both the group and individual levels), tone (e.g., playful, serious), and communication norms (e.g., etiquette). In this framework, neither the technological nor the social dominate; instead, both are seen as important influences on how people interact.

Using Herring's classification scheme as an overarching framework, the literature review presents research that examines how the technological medium and social factors shape TMC in different settings. The first section focuses on TMC used in formal settings, particularly business meetings and collaborative projects. I start here because these workplace studies show that the formality and purpose of the interaction are often reflected in the procedures of turn-taking and topic management. In these formal interactions, one can also see the hierarchy of the workplace reflected in the turn-taking system – for example, in the way the chairperson of a meeting fulfills their role by being the person who opens and closes the meeting and manages the turn-taking system. The second section examines TMC and recreational talk, where turn-taking rules can vary according to the nature of the interaction and the relationships among the participants. In recreational talk, participants tend to be more playful and tolerant of violations of interactional norms, especially when these violations are part of the affordances of the technological medium.

TMC in Formal Settings

Many studies of TMC in formal settings have focused on the opening sequences of meetings. This is because such sequences mark the transition from one type of talk – usually informal, small talk – to another, more structured kind of interaction. Business meetings have their unique opening sequences, during which pre-meeting small talk (Mirivel & Tracy, 2005) transitions into the meeting proper once the group reaches critical mass (Boden, 1995). After this, the chairperson can start facilitating the transition through a series of steps in collaboration with the other participants (Nielsen, 2013).

Although openings tend to transition through observable steps, regardless of whether they are face-to-face (FTF), mediated, or some combination of the two (Markman, 2009; Nielsen, 2013; Oittinen & Piirainen-Marsh, 2015; Santos Muñoz, 2016), there are still differences in how they occur, depending on the channels in use. Anderson, Beard, and Walther's (2010) analysis of "highly simultaneous" text-based chats, which are chats that deliver the message keystroke by keystroke instead of by turn, show that even a slight change in the communication channel can affect turn-taking. Even so, the authors note that the participants are able to adapt everyday conversational rules as needed and apply new ones that better fit with the medium. Conversation rules, such as self-selection for turn-taking, are used to allocate turns; however, new rules, such as waiting to allow recipients to finish reading the transmitted text, are necessary because it is understood that reading and responding via text requires more time. In multi-party audio-only conference calls, Halbe (2012) observes that, while pauses in FTF meetings may be acceptable if one is observed to be preoccupied, the absence of this visual information in conference calls makes pauses comparatively shorter, unless there is a known or suspected technical issue. Halbe also notes that the absence of visual cues, such as eye contact, also means that speakers in conference calls tend to name their intended recipient more frequently than in FTF meetings.

When video is available, participants use verbal check-ins, gazes toward the camera, and body language to indicate their readiness to open the meeting. Oittinen and Piirainen-Marsh (2015) show that participants achieve the openings jointly by observably shifting their focus to orient themselves to the meeting. Some of this involves directing eye contact toward the camera and shifting the body toward the screen from which the main action is to be projected. Other actions include closing the laptop they are using or pushing aside other work to indicate to recipients on the other side of the video that they are ready to begin. Santos Muñoz (2016) points out that a series of three openings is necessary before the meeting formally begins. 1) The Technological Opening involves a participant entering the conference room and claiming attendance. During this phase, the participant may check to see if the audio devices are working, but does not anticipate the meeting to begin. After assuring that the technology is functioning properly, they may even walk away from the conference until the time of the meeting. 2) The Interactional Opening allows participants to further display their attendance and limited availability. Sometimes this interaction is conducted through the text channel, and tends to involve pre-meeting small talk and greetings. 3) Finally, the Audiovisual Opening displays availability for audiovisual interaction, during which participants turn on their webcams and display reciprocal availability to one another through eye contact and additional greetings and technical check-ins if necessary.

As these studies have noted, the opening and closing sequences of talk in formal settings tend to go through predictable steps to mark the beginning and end of a conversation. These sequences can be useful resources when managing talk, because they reflect a shared understanding among the participants with regards to their roles and the goals for the encounter. Formal talk is also usually bounded by time, with predetermined start and end times that specify the anticipated duration of the interaction. These time-based boundaries are important in shaping openings and closings to meetings and managing expectations among the participants.

Predictable, structured sequences are not unique to talk in formal settings. The next section, which examines talk in recreational contexts, shows that recreational talk can have its own rituals or norms of interaction that are both negotiated among the participants and shaped by the medium.

TMC in Recreational Talk

Many studies of TMC and recreational talk have also examined how participants initiate conversations, with particular attention directed toward how the medium affects interactional work. Schegloff's (1968, 1979, 2002) description of the telephone ring as the first pair part of a summons-answer adjacency pair offered a crucial insight that demonstrates how the communication device is incorporated into the interactional work. In their study of Finnish mobile phone users, Arminen and Leinonen (2006) observe that the availability of caller ID allows recipients to tailor their answers accordingly, depending on whether or how well they know the caller and whether the caller ID is blocked. Similarly, Licoppe (2010), focusing on summons in the form of phone rings and instant messaging notifications, argues that users have become "pragmatic amateurs" (p. 300) in the way they shape interactions in advance – for example, by using customized ringtones to reduce the disruptive nature of traditional ringtones. These customized ringtones also help the user decide more quickly whether or how they want to respond.

Brandt and Jenks' (2013) study of public Skypecasts, which are voice-based chat rooms conducted through Skype, describes how the software sets up a series of intermediate "rooms" that give participants different levels of access to the primary chat room conversation. Newcomers are able to listen passively in the "listening room," but if they wish to join in a conversation, they have to request permission from the host and be transferred to the "waiting room." If the host grants access, the newcomers are moved to the "speaking room" where they have technical access to speak but may still have to wait for their turn (Brandt & Jenks, 2013; Jenks, 2009a, b; Jenks & Brandt, 2013). Since the participants in their study were meeting on Skype to practice their English, they were mostly strangers to one another, and an additional "getting to know you" exchange was necessary before the conversation could proceed (Jenks, 2009a). Note that newcomers go through two separate opening sequences, one shaped by the way Skypecasts are designed, and the other based on more conventional conversation norms. Like some of the Xbox party chats to be discussed, these Skypecasts are designed to give the host control over when and whether a newcomer is allowed into the chat room; and, since these participants are strangers, they have to get to know one another before they can become ratified as participants (Jenks, 2009).

Rosenbaun, Rafaeli, and Kurzon (2016a, b) examine users interacting through video chat in public Google Hangouts. They use Goffman's (1963) notion of focused and unfocused interactions, describing them as two ends of a continuum that participants may move along over the course of an interaction. Since these users have video, audio, and text channels available to them, they use "cross-modal exchanges," defined as "exchanges in which the production channel is different from the interlocutors’ preferred feedback channel" (p. 29), to manage participant roles and mobility – for example, when shifting from peripheral to full participation (Monk & Watts, 2000) or vice versa. They also note that the affordances of the technology can create miscues, such as when the audio picks up extraneous noise from a user and assumes the user is speaking by displaying her video feed in the main video window (Rosenbaun et al., 2016b). Other instances of interference can arise from the users' physical setting, such as when an unexpected person enters the room where the Hangout is occurring. The authors note that these interferences are sometimes incorporated collaboratively and playfully into the ongoing conversation, thus blurring the boundaries between the domestic and digital spheres. On these occasions, users simultaneously orient to both domains of interaction by temporarily subordinating one stream of action while dealing with the other (Licoppe & Tuncer, 2014).

Playfulness appears to be an important way that participants manage TMC in recreational talk. In discussing text-based CMC, Herring (2013) notes that participants adapt to the medium quickly, and have more tolerance for potential interference, such as disrupted adjacency pairs, compared to spoken FTF communication. Conversational norms, such as the expectation for subsequent turns to be related to the previous turn's topic, are less stringently observed because of the ease with which turns can be interrupted by other participants or by system messages.

Although researchers may choose to emphasize or focus on the technological or social in their analyses, it is important to keep in mind that the technological medium and social factors are both relevant. Herring (2013) suggests that investigating different varieties of CMC helps researchers better understand how the channels of communication affect the way conversation works. Following that, this study analyzes party chats on XBL in order to add to the corpus of existing TMC research. In these party chats, users communicate mostly by spoken interaction, although visual and textual channels also play important roles, such as when a user has to go outside the communication system to reach a non-responding participant. The analyses focus on four important kinds of interactional work: 1) the party chat invitation that initiates the interaction; 2) the opening sequence; 3) indications of the newcomer's readiness to interact; and 4) the proper identification of speakers in the party. These analyses draw attention to how the participants interact within the design of the technological environment and how they hold one another accountable to the group's social norms through complaints, questions, and clarifications of intentions.


The data for this study come from a group of teens socializing in XBL party chats. XBL, first launched in 2002, is the digital hub for Xbox game consoles. Although some of the sample talk occurs while the teens are gaming together, for the purposes of this article, the gaming aspect is not the focus of the analysis. I came to know these teens through another project while working at a high school in the western part of the United States. Knowing my interest in researching games, they invited me to join their evening party chats on XBL. The core participants in the study were Grant, Jensen, Perry, Mitch, Casey, and Connor.1 At various points in their lives, they had all attended the same school, but some had transferred or dropped out at the time of this study. All are native speakers of English. The teens spent roughly two to four hours on XBL every evening and usually more on weekends. The study was approved by the institutional review board at the author’s university, and the participants gave their consent to be studied, as well as permission for me to record their party chats. The recordings were made with a screen-capturing device (Elgato), which recorded the audio from the party chat as well as audio from any media (e.g., from the game or streaming video) playing on the console. It also recorded the screen I saw on my end of the console. Although the screen recordings only captured what was on my screen, this was a constraint shared by everyone else in the party.

XBL parties can be created by any user who has a Gold membership, which is a paid service that grants users full access to XBL features such as multiplayer gaming, party chats, free monthly games, and streaming video. All the participants in the study were members, since a Gold membership is required for users to play with others online. An important feature of XBL party chats, unique to the Xbox system at the time, is its support for cross-game voice chat. This allows people to talk in the same party even if they are playing different games or media. This affordance has a significant effect on party chats because it does not bind users to a particular game or application. Party chats can accommodate up to eight people. All parties have a host who can set the party to be open or invite-only. Anyone on the user's friends list can join an open party chat, while invite-only parties require that the host send out an invitation to those they want to join. The Xbox Dashboard and user profile screens provide various kinds of information that communicates a user's activity and availability for conversation and/or play. Even without joining a party, you can see what activity your friends are engaged in and whether they are in a party. Once in a party, the Dashboard (Figure 1) displays the activity of those in the current party. The symbols on the left of the usernames indicate who is speaking (or where noise is coming from). The green symbols in the middle show whether someone is in a joinable game, and the controller icon represents the current user. The information on the right shows what game or application the person has open. Some of this information can also be found in the user profile interface (Figure 3), which shows similar information, as well as more details in certain applications. For example, if a user is watching a YouTube video, the video's title would be visible in the user's profile.

Figure 1. Xbox 360 Party Dashboard

Altogether, 38 sessions, totaling approximately 75 hours of data, were collected between mid-2012 and early 2013. After each session, the data were imported into Final Cut Pro for analysis. Final Cut Pro is video editing software that allows users to "zoom in" on particular segments of media for closer study and annotation. Relevant moments, such as when someone entered a party, were identified and their timecodes noted in a spreadsheet. The transcriptions follow CA conventions presented in Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson (1974), and can be found in the Appendix.


The Party Invitation

When a user logs onto XBL, a notification appears and flashes for a few seconds on that user's friends' screens. Party invitations also flash in a similar way. If users miss the invitation notification, they can find the invitation in their message box and enter the party by clicking on the invitation. The invitation tends to be treated as invitations would be in a FTF context, where acceptance is the preferred response (Sidnell, 2010). In excerpt (1), Grant and I are the only ones in the party when Mitch enters. Grant and I have exchanged some small talk prior to the start of this excerpt, but that has subsided. Mitch is already logged on to XBL, but his profile is indicating that he is on Netflix. When he finally does enter the party chat, Grant complains about his joining late, suggesting that there are tacit expectations for invitations to be accepted soon after they are delivered, unless an acceptable reason is offered.

In party chats, the norm is for a newcomer to greet the party (Hung, 2017). However, if the newcomer does not initiate some form of greeting, then someone in the party may address the newcomer first, or check for trouble, as Grant does in line 6. The continued silence from Mitch, the noise in line 8, which sounded like he was just putting on his headset, and his availability check in line 9, suggest that Mitch is not available to talk when he first joins the party and probably has not heard Grant's complaint in line 4. Mitch apologies for not joining earlier anyway (lines 12, 16-17), explaining that he was watching the television show The Walking Dead. Grant, who in previous conversations has indicated that he is a fan of the show and often urges his friends to watch it, accepts Mitch's explanation with a positive assessment (line 18). What is analytically interesting is that a late joining is grounds for complaint and apologies. The invitation exercises a form of social obligation. With telephone calls, the caller does not really know why a call goes unanswered and would have to infer the reason (e.g., the recipient is busy, angry, not at home, and so on). The fact that Mitch is logged onto XBL but does not respond to the invitation is treated by Grant as something complainable and by Mitch as something that necessitates an apology and explanation.

Sometimes, those who are online may send out text messages (via phone) to others who are not logged on in order to get them to show up. Excerpt (2) occurs soon after excerpt 1 (1). Unlike Mitch, Perry was not logged onto XBL. From the excerpt, it becomes known that Grant has sent out a text message to both Mitch and Grant earlier, and neither of them has seen it. When Perry eventually logs on, he joins the party right away. As such, he was not snubbing an invitation. After some small talk, the following conversation ensues:

Grant's complaint (lines 3-4) that he had texted Mitch "a hella long time ago" because Mitch "wouldn't join the party" reasserts the expectation that party invitations should be accepted, and that not joining parties is potential grounds for a complaint. Perry predicts that he probably received a similar message from Grant (lines 6 and 8), although it does not seem that he has read it yet. Grant asks what Perry has been up to (line 9) but Perry interrupts him by going off on a slight tangent (skipped minutes). After the tangent, Grant returns to the question again (line 12). Both times that he asks the question, Grant puts a slight stress on "YOU," thus presenting it in a slightly accusatory tone. Perry does not interpret it as a complaint (line 14); instead, he thinks that Grant is referring to a different conversation. When Perry explains that he was eating (line 17), Grant switches to a different topic in the next turn. Since Perry does not see his lateness as a snub or treat Grant's question as a complaint, he does not initiate a repair, and Grant does not wait for one but rather changes topic in the next turn.

Excerpts (1) and (2) both show how the technological medium can become part of interactional work, in this case, an invitation/summoning. The notification that indicates when a user is online is an automated part of the system. The notification expresses some level of availability (that the user turned on the Xbox) but it does not indicate their readiness to engage. This is similar to the various openings that Santos Muñoz (2016) describes in her study, in which users may first enter the chat room but remove their headphones until they are ready to start the conversation. Likewise, it is not uncommon for the participants in the present study to accept a party invitation and then walk away to do something else before returning. Excerpt (2) also shows that they engage in a kind of cross-modal communication similar to the participants in Rosenbaun et al.’s (2016) study, except that the new channel exists outside the present communication system (i.e., XBL). Just as one might call someone and follow up with a text message if the other person does not pick up, Grant goes outside the XBL system and uses SMS to get Perry's and Mitch's attention.

The visual design of XBL party invitations can sometimes lead to unintended invitations, especially to novices like myself, who was comparatively new to party chats in general and the social norms of these teens in particular. Figure 2 shows an invitation I received from Jensen. While normal party invitations would show "Join Party" and "Decline Party" as the top two options, Figure 2 shows "Join Party and Game" as well as an accompanying message on the right that relays a similar message. Although a "Join Party" option (which would let the invitee join the party without joining the game) is also available, the positioning of "Join Party and Game" on the first row and as the default choice prioritizes it as the more salient message, and the accompanying message on the right further asserts its importance.

Figure 2. Party and Game Invitation

However, this turns out to be an unintended invitation, as seen in excerpt (3), when Jensen partially rescinds the game invitation while maintaining the party invitation's validity:

Upon clicking "Join Party and Game," the system adds the invitee to the party, then launches the game. In the present case, since the game disk was not in the console, the system asked for the game disk to be inserted. When Jensen hears me talking about looking for the game disk (line 8), he realizes that I have accepted the game invitation and makes a point of explaining that the game invitation was unintended (line 9). After my laugh (to mitigate the awkwardness) and a noticeable pause (line 13), he goes on to clarify that the party invitation was intended (line 14). He explains, in some detail, how the physical design of the controller and his instinct to press X makes it easy to accidentally invite someone to a game (lines 14-18). In game controllers, 'X' is one of the main buttons that affirms the user's intention to proceed with an action. As such, it is reasonable to assume that Jensen's instinct to press 'X' came out of habit. As with Mitch's self-initiated accountability work, Jensen felt the need to explain his intent, even at the risk of performing the potentially face-threatening act of rescinding an invitation.

Invitations are impositions because they put the recipient in a position of having to accept out of politeness or decline in a face-threatening act. Game invitations are even bigger obligations, because they make more demands of the invitee’s time and attention. In FTF conversations, explicit invitations are often preceded by pre-sequences to check for availability (e.g., "Are you free on Friday?") before the actual invitation is given, so that speakers can avoid the face-threatening act of declining an invitation (Sidnell, 2010). It is rare to offer an accidental invitation in a FTF interaction. In TMC, however, where certain aspects of interaction have been delegated to the hardware and/or software, it is possible to invite someone unintentionally. Furthermore, the phrasing of the "Join Party and Game" invitation is recipient designed for someone who is expected to want to join the inviter's party and game; however, in this case, this recipient design was at odds with Jensen's actual intent for me. This may explain why he felt it was important to ensure that we achieved a shared understanding of the invitation's intent and to mitigate any further awkwardness.


Analyses of opening sequences in XBL parties suggest a tendency for newcomers to make themselves known to the party, and for someone in the party to acknowledge their presence in response (see Hung, 2017). The responding party need not be the host or inviter, and only one person needs to acknowledge the newcomer. In these XBL parties, the interactional work of identification has mostly been handled by the technology, although misidentifications can still occur (see Excerpt 10 below). While straightforward openings with greeting-greeting adjacency pairs are not uncommon, it is just as likely for a newcomer to a party to open with something more playful or start a topic or ask a question soon after joining the party. In doing so, newcomers are often able to ratify themselves as part of the participation framework by opening with a remark that elicits a response from others in the party. For example, in excerpt (4), Casey enters the party chat singing a song (line 5), and Grant responds by uttering the next lines of the song (line 8):

Although Grant is able to continue the next lines to Casey's song, he does not seem to know the lyrics well and misattributes the song to the wrong band. This sequence, in which Casey indicates his presence and readiness to talk and Grant acknowledges in response, leads them both into a new topic of conversation about the song, quickly ratifying Casey as part of the party.

Openings can also be a way of indicating a person's mood. In excerpt (5), Perry, Mitch, and I are on Minecraft. Casey and Grant are also present, although Casey has been silent, and Grant has his headset unplugged. I am trying to find my way to Perry and Mitch in Minecraft when Jensen enters the party. Although Jensen is not in the game himself, he quickly orients those in the party to him by his playful opening (line 8):

"Wiggidy" is slang, usually used as an intensifier before an adjective, although Jensen seems to use it more for alliteration in his opening (line 8). His play on words lets him communicate simultaneously to the party that he is present, ready to talk, and in a playful mood. Although Jensen's opening can be a first pair part of a greeting, it is not treated as such. Perry's response in line 10 is not a second pair part to a greeting or opening. Instead, it is more of a pre-sequence (Schegloff, 2007) to a pseudo-complaint – "pseudo" in the sense that it is a gentle jab and not a genuine expression of displeasure – which is finally stated in line 13, when Perry asks Jensen not to use that phrase again.

The various XBL interfaces, such as the Dashboard (Figure 1), are sometimes used as a resource by a newcomer to question why someone in a party is doing what they are doing. In excerpt (6), Grant and I are watching one of the U.S. presidential debates that took place in 2012 between President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, which was being streamed on XBL; Jensen is also in the party but not watching the debate. When Jensen invites Perry to the party,3 Perry must have checked Grant’s activity before entering because he asks about it right away, without pausing after his greeting:

Although Perry's question (lines 3-4) is intended for Grant and/or myself, Jensen responds instead (line 5), but only to say that he is watching ESPN and not the debate. After a fairly long gap of 42.0 seconds, Perry repeats the question, this time addressing Grant specifically (line 7). Grant gives him a non-answer "because" (line 12); when Perry waits for him to elaborate (line 13) and presses for him further (line 14), Grant remains silent. Eventually, Perry abandons the topic (line 17) and exits the party (although he does rejoin it an hour later, after the presidential debate has ended).

A similar example is presented in excerpt (7), when Perry joins the party consisting of Casey, Mitch, Grant, and myself. At the time, no one was engaged in conversation in the party, as Casey's status showed him as "Away"; Mitch was on Netflix; and Grant was on YouTube. Figure 3 shows Grant's user profile at the time, which reveals the video Grant was watching.

Figure 3. Grant’s user profile during excerpt (7)

In (7), Perry must have also looked at Grant's profile, because he is able to identify the specific video Grant is watching:

Since the name of the video Grant is watching can be seen in his profile, Perry already knows what Grant is watching when he asks about it (lines 7 and 10). As with excerpt (6), Perry is really asking Grant to account for why he is watching what he is watching. As Jenks (2009a) notes, we can find out about what is considered appropriate communication by examining whether and how recipients respond; for example, inappropriate questions are treated with silence or complaints. In both excerpts (6) and (7), Perry feels it is appropriate to ask Grant to explain why he is watching what he is watching. In (6), Grant gives an unsatisfactory response, and Perry, believing that he will not be receiving a satisfactory answer, leaves the party. In (7), Grant does eventually answer, albeit only after several additional turns. Perry's questions about Grant's activity are similar to Grant's questions about his friends' activities in (1) and (2), which suggests that it is acceptable to ask these questions and even to insist on an answer, but only up to a point.


The expectation to accept a party invitation soon after it is sent sometimes leads to moments when the host and/or the invitee are not ready to interact immediately, even after the invitation has been accepted. For example, in excerpt (8), Mitch, Grant, and I are playing a cooperative game on Call of Duty: Black Ops when Casey enters the party:

The party is not set up as an invite-only party, and since Grant is in the middle of a game, Casey most likely joined the party without waiting for Grant's invitation. Since Casey is a regular member of the group, his joining without an invitation is not met with disapproval.5 However, Casey’s presence is not immediately acknowledged. When he indicates his presence and asks if anyone is there (line 6), no one in the party ratifies him as being a part of a group that is primarily oriented to the game. Instead of answering Casey, Grant ignores him and directs his turn at Mitch (lines 8-9). Casey has to claim the floor himself and start a new topic, asking if anyone got any Halloween candy (line 10). Only then does Mitch respond and Casey's participation status get fully ratified. The informal conversational rules among the teens reflect the playful nature of their friendship and the informal purpose of these social gatherings. While actions such as ignoring Casey's question (line 6) might have seemed rude in other contexts, it is accepted that the rest of the party is engaged in a joint activity, and that, if Casey wants to join the conversation, he has to find a way in, either on his own or when someone in the party eventually offers a way for him to participate.

Excerpt (9) illustrates how accepting an invitation and joining the party does not necessarily indicate readiness to interact. In this excerpt, Grant has sent out a "Join Party and Game" invitation to his friends for Gears of War 3 and is anxious to get started. Even though Mitch joins the party, he is not ready to interact and communicates this to Grant:

Grant's exclamation in line 5 expresses his surprise at seeing Mitch log on just when he was calling him on the phone. Mitch does not begin with a greeting. Instead, he postpones his availability and indicates that he is not yet ready to talk because he wants to get his soda (line 6). Grant's note to Mitch (lines 7-8) lets him know that when he sees Grant's missed call on his phone, he won't have to worry about it. This interactional work again shows how conversation is used to contextualize what the technological environment cannot fully account for. At times, interactions in mediated environments can leave some traces, like missed call notifications, which can serve as quasi-invitations or, more precisely, rejected/ignored summons. Just as Mitch asked Grant in excerpt (2) why he had texted him, Grant here moves to preempt potential confusion by letting Mitch know that he had just tried calling and that Mitch can ignore it when he sees his missed call. Finally, when Mitch returns, he indicates his availability (line 9) and Grant directs him to join his Gears of War 3 game (line 11). While Mitch affirms that he has, he is still seen as only being in the party on XBL and not in the game, so he confirms again that he did join a while back (line 12-13). The screen does not indicate that Mitch is in the game, only that he is in the party, so Mitch's explanation communicates that he tried to join before but, for some reason, was not added to the game then.


The notification that flashes when someone logs onto XBL or joins a party helps identify the person, but this notification only displays the person's username, called a "gamertag" on Xbox, and not the person's actual name. This can make it difficult for persons who are less regular members of a party to be properly identified, especially if they do not know each other that well in "real" life. Excerpt (10) shows Mitch having trouble remembering Connor's real name and mistakenly calling him "Chase" instead:

In line 6, Perry tries to complete Mitch’s turn by offering Connor's gamertag, which is not what Mitch wants to recall, especially since his gamertag is readily available. Mitch then calls Connor by the wrong name, before immediately self-correcting (line 8) and apologizing for his mistake (line 11). It is interesting to compare this with an example in Brandt and Jenks' (2013) study, in which the participants were not close friends in real (offline) lives. In their case, the participants seem not to have preferences with regards to whether they are referring to each other's real names or usernames, as long as they are able to connect the voice to a unique identifier. Since the teens in this study do know one another outside of XBL, they only refer to one another by their real names and not their gamertags.7 Although Connor is not a regular member of the party, he is not a complete stranger, since they all used to attend the same school. Mitch's need to remember Connor's actual name suggests that their relationship is at such a level that it is no longer appropriate to only remember him by his gamertag.


Recreational forms of talk tend to share certain features, such as a generally playful and improvised quality (Herring, 2013; Rosenbaun et al., 2016b). However, there are still differences in how these forms of talk manifest, depending on the participants’ relationships with one another, the purpose of the interaction, and the technological setting in which the interaction occurs. The analyses above have examined how important interactional work is shaped by the technological environment as well as the interactional context. It should be emphasized that, although many of the analyses involve technology, I have focused specifically on visual and interactional features of the technology, and not on technical interference such as static and noise. Specifically, the analyses have looked at how the technology becomes part of the interactional work.

The technological environment is the XBL party chat, which is conducted primarily through audio. This means that users cannot rely on visual cues to know whether someone who has logged on or joined the party is ready to interact. The design of the technological environment, from the software interface to the hardware of the controller and headphones, affects the interaction, sometimes creating unintentional actions that need to be remedied in conversation. For example, in excerpt (3), Jensen explained that his instinct to press the X button on the controller to send out an invitation had social consequences when the default action – in this case, sending out a "Join Game and Party" invitation – was not what he intended for the recipient. The software interface, such as the Dashboard and user profile screens, offers an opaque window into what other users are doing. The Dashboard is sometimes used as a neutral screen for unfocused interactions, allowing people to monitor what others are doing. The user profile screen lets people see a bit more, such as when Perry enters the party to ask why Grant was watching the presidential debate in excerpt (6) or a particular YouTube video in excerpt (7). In addition, these screens provide basic information, such as whether a user is online or not and, if so, whether they are already in a party. For example, when Grant, in excerpts (1) and (9), saw that Mitch was online but had not accepted his party invitation, he interpreted Mitch’s invitation as a missed or ignored summons and proceeded to get his attention in other ways.

Knowing when and how to join or start a conversation is a fundamental part of all communication, regardless of medium. Although the exact configuration of channels varies, TMC studies have revealed that participants must adapt to different technological environments in order to smooth out any uncertainties that may have been caused, directly or indirectly, by the technology. In formal settings, participants are able to adapt to the technology through more structured protocols and sequences because the social context, including institutional hierarchies, participant roles, and so on, sets up the anticipated participation framework that guides the interaction (Markman, 2009; Mirivel & Tracy, 2005; Nielsen, 2013; Oittinen & Piirainen-Marsh, 2015; Santos Muñoz, 2016). When trouble does occur – for example, when opening or closing sequences are disrupted – participants have to get back on track jointly to restart the sequence (Nielsen, 2013). In recreational talk, it is possible that the lack of a structured protocol means that there is more room for potential trouble to occur. At the same time, such troubles may also be resolved more quickly, especially among friends, because there is more room for flexibility, playfulness, and improvisation.

As Herring (2007) emphasizes in her classification scheme, both the social context and the technological medium are intricate parts of computer-mediated interaction. The analysis presented here provides further support for approaching TMC in a way that takes both the technological and the social into account. In the case of XBL party chats, although hardware and software can sometimes disrupt or reconfigure the way they expect to interact, participants are generally able to adapt to the environment by doing accountability work, such as explaining, apologizing, clarifying, and questioning. In addition to ensuring that intentions are not misunderstood, these practices help reveal tacit social expectations and norms shared by the group. Examining how interactional work is done extends our understanding of how users communicate under various hardware and software conditions, and gives those who design these environments insights that may help them understand the effects that these environments have on the way users communicate.


I would like to thank my participants for letting me hang out with them during the many hours we spent on XBL. I would also like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for Language@Internet and Susan Herring for their helpful comments on this article.


  1. All names and gamertags have been replaced with pseudonyms.

  2. Carol is a character from the show The Walking Dead, which Grant was watching on Netflix at the time.

  3. I infer here that Jensen invited Perry, because Jensen told me in prior conversations that he creates only invite-only parties.

  4. This conversation occurred a few weeks after Perry and Mitch gave Grant grief for following politics, so his non-answer here may be due in part to an unwillingness to rehash that conversation with them again.

  5. Non-regular members do sometimes join, but usually only briefly or with the host's permission. Sometimes, uninvited members can be treated by others in the party in an unfriendly manner.

  6. It is unclear who "Kiddo" (pseudonym) refers to here. Prior to this, the participants were discussing athletics, both from their school and professional players.

  7. XBL gives users the option of showing their real name in their profiles, and most of the teens in this study chose to do so. However, some vary their real name by spelling it slightly differently or using only their last name.


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Biographical Note

Aaron Chia Yuan Hung [hung@adelphi.edu] is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction's program in educational technology at Adelphi University. His research focuses on social interaction and collaboration in technology-mediated environments, using approaches such as actor-network theory, ethnomethodology, and conversation analysis.


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