Online-offline modes of identity and community: Elliot Rodger’s twisted world of masculine victimhood.

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Jan Blommaert

(with ICD 2017)[1]

 

  1. Introduction

Online environments have become an integrated part of social reality ; as a new, huge and deeply fragmented infrastructure for social interaction and knowledge circulation, they add substantially to the complexity of social processes, notably those related to identity work and group formation.[2] We see, on the one hand, the emergence of online communities of unprecedented size – think of the population using Facebook, or of the huge numbers of players on some Massively Multiplayer Online Games. All of these have long been provoking questions about identity and social impact, often tending towards views of  the destabilization of identity and of social cohesion (cf. e.g.  De Meo et al 2014 ; Lee & Hoadley 2007). On the other hand we have the online emergence of strongly identity-emphasizing and highly cohesive “translocal micro-populations” (Maly & Varis 2015), and practices of online meaning making, control and circulation that betray the presence of at least widely shared systems of normative consensus and conviviality (Varis & Blommaert 2015; Tagg et al 2017; LaViolette 2017). Given the scope and scale of the online world, it is clear that we have barely started to scratch the surface, and in this paper I cannot claim to do more than that.

In what follows, I will venture into the less commonly visited fringes of the Web 2.0, in a space called the “Manosphere” (Nagle 2017). The Manosphere is a complex of (mostly US-based) websites and for a dedicated to what can alternatively be called “toxic masculinity” or “masculine victimhood”: men gather to exchange experiences and views on the oppressive role and position of women in their worlds, and often do so by means of ostensibly misogynist, sexist, (often) racist and (sometimes) violent discourse. The intriguing point is that the Manosphere, as an online zone of social activity, appears to be relatively isolated and enclosed. Large numbers of men are active on these online spaces, but there is no offline equivalent to it: no ‘regular’ mass movement of angry men organizing big marches, petitions and other forms of offline political campaigning. The Manosphere population is very much a group operating in the shadows of the Web (see Schoonen et al 2017; Smits et al 2017; Dijsselbloem et al 2017; Vivenzi et al 2017; Peeters et al 2017; Beekmans et al 2017).

There are moments, though, of public visibility, and I shall start from one such moment. In May 2014, a young man from California, Elliot Rodger, killed six people and injured fourteen others (before taking his own life) around the UCSB campus at Isla Vista, in what looked like one  of many college shooting incidents (Langman 2016a).  Rodger, the son of a Hollywood filmmaker, sent out a long manifesto by email just before his killing spree, entitled “My Twisted Life: The Story of Elliot Rodger” (see Kling 2017),[3] as well as several YouTube clips recorded prior to his actions.[4] Since Elliot mentioned Manosphere sites in the text, the manifesto offers us an opportunity to look closer into the ways in which such online infrastructures provide affordances for constructing an – admittedly eccentric – logic of action, strengthening Rodger’s sense of victimhood and providing rationalizations for the murders he committed during what he called his “Day of Retribution”. More in general, this exercise may lead us to a more precise understanding of the role played by popular online culture infrastructures in the construction of contemporary “outsider” identity templates, individual as well as collective ones (cf. Becker 1963; also Foucault 2003).

Drawing from Rodger’s manifesto, I shall first sketch the universe of communication in which he lived, focusing on how his online activities interacted with offline forms of interaction. This will offer us a tentative view of Rodger’s “culture”, characterized by a strong affinity with masculine victimhood and violence, which he shared with parts of the Manosphere. The latter operates, along with several other popular-cultural elements, as a learning environment in and through which, through “ludic” but quite serious practices, a logic of action is constructed.

  1. Elliot Rodger’s twisted world of communication

Herbert Blumer summarized one of the central insights in the tradition of Symbolic Interactionism as follows:

(…) social interaction is a process that forms human conduct instead of being merely a means or a setting for the expression or release of human conduct. (Blumer 1969: 8)

With this in mind, let us have a look at how Rodger’s manifesto informs us about the kinds of social interactions he maintained.

Born in 1991, Elliot Rodger was 22 when he took his own life and that of six others; he was a digital native, and he had a long history of mental disorder (Langman 2016b).[5] His parents and acquaintances described him as extremely withdrawn, and Rodger himself in his manifesto frequently described his “social anxiety” – an incapacity to adequately communicate in collective face-to-face situations, which he invariably experienced as extraordinarily stressful. Here is an example:

The class I started was a political science class. I figured I would gain some useful knowledge by taking it, though I disliked the teacher because he had the tendency to randomly call on me to answer questions. I was still terrified of speaking in front of the class, even if it was for one sentence. My social anxiety has always made my life so difficult, and no one ever understood it. I hated how everyone else seemed to have no anxiety at all. I was like a cripple compared to them. Their lives must be so much easier. Thankfully, there were no couples in this class, but I still had to see them when I walked through the school. The only thing I could do was keep my head down and pretend they didn’t exist. I still cried on the drive home every day.

This communicative disability leads to isolation, and this isolation quickly assumes a very specific shape. As an adolescent, Rodger develops a strong heterosexual desire, but girls do not appear to be attracted to him. Consequently, his problem of loneliness shifts towards something more specific and acute: a problem of involuntary celibacy which he experiences as torture. Since the girls he fancies do connect with young men (in Santa Barbara, especially men described by Rodger as “hunky”), couples become his object of resentment, and  a sense of injustice is piled onto that of unhappiness:

As I spent a lot of time contemplating, I realized that my life was repeating itself in a vicious circle of torment and injustice. Each new semester of college yielded the same lonely celibate life, devoid of girls or any social interaction. It was as if there was a curse of misfortune placed upon me.

This injustice is acute, since Rodger imagines himself as superior to most other men of his age; he describes himself as “a perfect gentleman”, as good-looking, smart and generally attractive – which renders the fact that other men are more successful with girls outrageous:

How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half white myself. I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more. I tried not to believe his foul words, but they were already said, and it was hard to erase from my mind. If this is actually true, if this ugly black filth was able to have sex with a blonde white girl at the age of thirteen while I’ve had to suffer virginity all my life, then this just proves how ridiculous the female gender is. They would give themselves to this filthy scum, but they reject ME? The injustice!

Rodger attempts to turn this outrageous state of affairs around by material improvements: fashionable and top-of-the range clothing, a BMW car (a present from his worried mother), and dreams of wealth. In order to realize the latter, he spends large sums playing on the Lottery:

This must be it! I was destined to be the winner of the highest lottery jackpot in existence. I knew right then and there that this jackpot was meant for me. Who else deserved such a victory? I had been through so much rejection, suffering, and injustice in my life, and this was to be my salvation. With my whole body filled with feverish hope, I spent $700 dollars on lottery tickets for this drawing. As I spent this money, I imagined all the amazing sex I would have with a beautiful model girlfriend I would have once I become a man of wealth.

When these desperate attempts to acquire a fortune fail, fantasies of violent retribution emerge, always triggered by seeing young couples who “steal” his happiness and are, in that sense, “criminals” who deserve to be severely punished:

I wanted to do horrible things to that couple. I wanted to inflict pain on all young couples. It was around this point in my life that I realized I was capable of doing such things. I would happily do such things. I was capable of killing them, and I wanted to. I wanted to kill them slowly, to strip the skins off their flesh. They deserve it. The males deserve it for taking the females away from me, and the females deserve it for choosing those males instead of me.

And a detailed script is constructed for the Day of Retribution:

After I have killed all of the sorority girls at the Alpha Phi House, I will quickly get into the SUV before the police arrive, assuming they would arrive within 3 minutes. I will then make my way to Del Playa, splattering as many of my enemies as I can with the SUV, and shooting anyone I don’t splatter. I can only imagine how sweet it will be to ram the SUV into all of those groups of popular young people who I’ve always witnessed walking right in the middle of the road as if they are better than everyone else. When they are writhing in pain, their bodies broken and dying after I splatter them, they will fully realize their crimes.

What is striking in Rodger’s manifesto is the paucity of offline, ‘normal’ communication he describes. As we have seen, he suffers from communicative anxiety whenever he is facing a group of interlocutors; but even one-on-one communication situations are often described as unsuccessful or unsatisfactory. But as mentioned earlier, he is a digital native, and frequent reference is made to online interactions in his manifesto. From early on, for instance, he is a dedicated player of the MMOG World of Warcraft (WoW), and playing that game provides him a (delicate and fragile) sense of community:

Upon setting up my new laptop, I immediately installed all of my WoW disks. I logged onto my account and took a look at all of my characters that I hadn’t touched for a year and a half. Right when I logged onto my main character, I was contacted by James, and he invited me to join an online group with him, Steve, and Mark. They all gave me a warm welcome back.

Changes in the nature of the WoW player community, however, make him decide to quit that game: too many “normal” people had joined WoW.

The game got bigger with every new expansion that was released, and as it got bigger, it brought in a vast amount of new players. I noticed that more and more “normal” people who had active and pleasurable social lives were starting to play the game, as the new changes catered to such a crowd. WoW no longer became a sanctuary where I could hide from the evils of the world, because the evils of the world had now followed me there. I saw people bragging online about their sexual experiences with girls… and they used the term “virgin” as an insult to people who were more immersed in the game than them. The insult stung, because it was true. Us virgins did tend to get more immersed in such things, because our real lives were lacking.

Other interactions with friends also proceed online, or are predicated upon prior online interactions:

During one of my frequent visits home in late Spring, I reunited with my old friends Philip and Addison. I hadn’t seen them since the night I emotionally cried in front of them at the Getty museum in the beginning of 2012. This reunion was sparked by the political and philosophic conversations I had been having with Addison over Facebook.

And Facebook also enables Rodger to keep tabs on his offline relations:

In November, my brief friendship with Andy, Stan, and their group faded away. I often saw on Facebook that they did things together without even inviting me, which is the same thing I’ve had to experience with other groups of friends that I’ve had in the past. I was always an outcast, even among people I knew. I grew tired of their lack of consideration for me, so I stopped calling them. They weren’t even popular anyway, and I wasn’t benefitting at all from their friendship. I still continued to meet with Andy at restaurants on occasion, however.

And then, of course, there is the Manosphere. Engaging with websites such as “PUAHate.com” (“Pick Up Artists hate”, taken down and renamed “Sluthate” after the Isla Vista killings) reassures Rodger that he isn’t the only one suffering from the cruelty of women:

The Spring of 2013 was also the time when I came across the website PUAHate.com. It is a forum full of men who are starved of sex, just like me. Many of them have their own theories of what women are attracted to, and many of them share my hatred of women, though unlike me they would be too cowardly to act on it. Reading the posts on that website only confirmed many of the theories I had about how wicked and degenerate women really are. Most of the people on that website have extremely stupid opinions that I found very frustrating, but I found a few to be quite insightful.

The website PUAHate is very depressing. It shows just how bleak and cruel the world is due of the evilness of women. I tried to show it to my parents, to give them some sort dose of reality as to why I am so miserable. They never understood why I am so miserable. They have always had the delusion that everything is going well for me, especially my father. When I sent the link of PUAHate.com to my parents, none of them even bothered to look at the posts on there.

Observe how Rodger describes the website as a place where a theory or worldview is constructed – an epistemic  move towards generalization, from the particular and idiosyncratic to the systemic and common. And note that he considers this an important factor of understanding, valuable enough to be communicated to his parents. He had discovered a space where his own feelings, outlook and experiences were normal, even normative. And he wanted to communicate this to those who, in his eyes, systematically misunderstood him and defined him as an outsider. It is telling that, in the entire manifesto, the above fragment is the only one in which he attempts to share a resource for understanding his predicaments, with people from whom he genuinely expects support and sympathy.

  1. Sources and templates: the cultural material

Given what we have seen so far, it is safe to say that Rodger saw websites such as PUAHate.com as formative learning environments, places where he learned how to see his individual predicament fitted into a larger system, and where he learned how to respond to this systemic injustice (cf. Schoonen et al 2017). But apart from Manosphere sites and the World of Warcraft game he was passionate about, Rodger mentions several other sources of inspiration: he was quite deeply involved in particular forms of popular culture.

Remember that Rodger grew up in the Hollywood movie milieu; in his manifesto, he suggests that stars such as George Lucas were (at least) family acquaintances, and he proudly describes attending several red carpet premières of Hollywood blockbusters. His father was involved as a second unit director in the production of the 2012 hit movie The Hunger Games.[6] This genre of violent dystopian fantasy (to which WOW can also be added) clearly belonged to his range of strong interests, and he got addicted to A Game of Thrones as soon as he read it:

For the rest of the summer, I took it easy and played WoW with James, Steve, and Mark; just like old times. I also started reading a new book series called A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin. This medieval fantasy series was spectacular. The first book of the series was A Game of Thrones, and once I read the first chapter I just couldn’t put it down. It was like nothing I had ever read before, with a huge array of complex characters, a few of whom I could relate to. I found out that it was going to be adapted into an HBO television series, and I became very excited for that.

Delving into fantasy stories like WoW and Game of Thrones didn’t make me forget about all of my troubles in life, but they did give me a temporary and relieving sense of escape, which I need from time to time. Life would be impossible to handle without those temporary respites.

We can sense the powerful appeal of imagined universes characterized by violence, sex, ruthlessness and brutality in Rodger’s words here. Popular culture products such as these provided him with templates by means of which he could organize his experiences and conduct. The latter is made explicit by Rodger with respect to yet another source : a movie called Alpha Dog.[7]

The Santa Barbara plan was formed on that night, but its roots stretch all the way back to when I just turned eighteen. It was all because I watched that movie Alpha Dog. The movie had a profound effect on me, because it depicted lots of good looking young people enjoying pleasurable sex lives. I thought about it for many months afterward, and I constantly read about the story online. I found out that it took place in Santa Barbara, which prompted me to read about college life in Santa Barbara. I found out about Isla Vista, the small town adjacent to UCSB where all of the college students live and have parties. When I found out about all this, I had the desperate hope that if I moved to that town I would be able to live that life too. That was the life I wanted. A life of pleasure and sex.

In other words: the entire scenario of his Day of Retribution is modeled on a template Rodger largely derived from a violent movie. Popular culture proves to be a learning environment in the most immediate sense here.[8]

Of course, Rodger’s manifesto isn’t a log of his online activities and popular culture interests. The few items he explicitly mentions can be assumed to have particular importance in his constructed world, but there must be far more. There is, for instance, the powerful effect of the dramatic shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, perpetrated by teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, which led not only to widespread outrage (voiced, among others, in Michael Moore’s award-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine),[9] but also to a video game called Super Columbine Massacre RPG (based on original surveillance camera images of the shootings),[10] and a number of copycat incidents in which perpetrators declared to be (or were later proven to have been) inspired by Harris and Klebold’s example. The Columbine massacre remains perhaps the most dramatic of the American school shootings, also because of its knock-on effects in other, similar incidents. It became, in effect, a template for similar actions.[11]

One such post-Columbine action, bearing striking similarities with that of Elliot Rodger, was the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. On April 16 of that year, a student called Seung Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people. Interestingly, he, too, had posted videos prior to his actions, and he, too, left a manifesto: a collage of texts and images, articulating a sense of victimhood and a desire for (violent) retribution bearing striking similarities to that of Rodger. Consider the following fragment from Seung Hui Cho’s text:[12]

By destroying we create. We create the feelings in you of what it is like to be the victim, what it is like to be fucked and destroyed. Because of your annihilations, we create and raise new breeds of Children who will show you fuckers what you have done to us. Like Easter, it will be a day of rebirth. It will be a start of a revolution of the Children that you fucked. You have never felt a single ounce of pain your whole life, thus, by destroying you, by giving you pain, we attempt to show you responsibilities and meanings of other people’s lives.

Cho, like Rodger, expresses profound pain and bitterness over what he must have experienced as a life destroyed by the agency of others – who, because of that, deserved to die. Cho calls himself a victim, and Rodger concludes his manifesto with exactly the same qualifications:

All I ever wanted was to love women, and in turn to be loved by them back. Their behavior towards me has only earned my hatred, and rightfully so! I am the true victim in all of this. I am the good guy. Humanity struck at me first by condemning me to experience so much suffering. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t want this. I didn’t start this war… I wasn’t the one who struck first… But I will finish it by striking back. I will punish everyone. And it will be beautiful. Finally, at long last, I can show the world my true worth.

The point to all this is that Rodger, in premeditating, preparing and executing his shooting, could draw on abundantly available cultural material for concrete and specific templates structuring his act. There is, as it were, a carefully elaborated aesthetics to the actions – see his “it will be beautiful” above. And in elaborating this aesthetics, Rodger draws on examples and models derived from earlier similar incidents as well as from the online and popular culture sources he intensely engaged with. All of this sources provide “logical” modes of action, patterns of argumentation and rationalizations that Rodger could invoke in designing his own actions.

  1. The aftermath: becoming cultural material

Elliot Rodger, as a digital native, not only consumed online popular culture, but as we have seen, he also created some. His manifesto was electronically circulated hours before his fatal drive into Isla Vista, and I already mentioned that he had uploaded several videos on YouTube as well. Both the manifesto and the videos are remarkable: the text is exceedingly well written and structured, and the videos appear to be well-rehearsed staged performances. Undoubtedly, Rodger’s exposure to the Hollywood professional in-crowd was formative.

Evidently, the Isla Vista shooting was headline news in the US, and several major TV networks controversially broadcasted fragments from Rodger’s YouTube videos, bringing material from the extreme fringes of the Web into mass circulation, and thus creating the raw materials for what we know as “memes” – a new and complex online popular culture genre in which (static or moving) image and message are blended in highly productive and diverse ways, often for no other apparent purpose than conveying “cool” conviviality in online communities (cf. Blommaert 2015; Varis & Blommaert 2015). A particular line from Rodger’s “Day of Retribution” video became emblematic in such memes: “I am the perfect gentleman”. Figure 1 illustrates this.

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Figure 1: Elliot Rodger “Gentleman” meme. Source: https://me.me/i/th-elliot-rodgers-is-autistic-gentleman-supremacy-e-golden-mem-3683956  (20 November 2017)

Other memes poked fun of Rodger’s materialism and naiveté in dating girls,[13] and still others simply copied elements from Rodger’s manifesto and circulated it as a serious, instructional message, as in Figure 2.

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Figure 2: Elliot Rodger text-quote meme. Source: https://onsizzle.com/t/elliot-rodger

(22 November 2017)

There is nothing exceptional to all this: memes can find their sources in nearly all and any event or aspect of life, so choosing a high-profile and heavily publicized incident as the object of memes is self-evident. The point is, however, that Rodger was directly influenced by specific sources and operated within existing templates when he committed his acts; but that he also became a format after the act. He and his killings became cultural material either providing legitimacy or rejecting his logic of action. In the present economies of knowledge and information, online infrastructures provide a colossal discursive overlay upon the more conventional news reporting.

Naturally, there was no shortage of uptake of the Isla Vista killings in the Manosphere, and this uptake was ambivalent. In discussions on Manosphere platforms, men condemned Rodger for being a “loser” while others praised him as a hero, as in Figure 3.

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Figure 3: screenshot of Manosphere discussion on Elliot Rodger. Source: https://imgur.com/r/4chan/AET4cgb  (20 November 2017)

The interesting thing, however, is how the figure of Elliot Rodger became entirely absorbed in the ideological structures of the Manosphere. One of these structures is sketched by Angela Nagle as follows:

“One of the dominant and consistent preoccupations running through the forum culture of the Manosphere is the idea of beta and alpha males. They discuss how women prefer alpha males and either cynically use or completely ignore beta males, by which they mean low-ranking males in the stark and vicious social hierarchy through which they interpret all human interaction.” (Nagle 2017: 89)

The Manosphere itself is split between alpha- and beta-male camps, and beta-males are usually encouraged either to turn themselves into alpha-males, or altogether reject (and possibly destroy) that world of male-female relationships (cf. Schoonen et al 2017; Vivenzi et al. 2017). The beta males, obviously, are the victims of a world in which women choose alpha males, and the label is shorthand for an entire system of rationalizations of unhappiness, involuntary celibacy, loneliness and revenge.

If we now return to Rodger’s manifesto using Nagle’s description of alpha and beta males, it is overly clear that Rodger self-identified as a beta male, a victim of a society in which women – way too independent and manipulating as they were, in his view – consistently ignored him in favor of more brutal, muscular and rugged types of (alpha) men. The latter, whom Rodger saw as stupid and naïve because they walked into the traps set out for them by women, also became his enemies, and eventually his victims during his Day of retribution. This act of uncompromising beta-masculine ideological rectitude turned Rodger into some kind of icon of the beta male camp, as we can see in Figure 4:

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Figure 4: Elliot Rodger the beta male meme. Source: http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1092353-beta-uprising  (20 November 2017)

And within the Manosphere, he became a template of such till-death-do-us-part rectitude, important enough to have his acronym “ER” included in the glossary of Sluthate (the renamed successor of PUAHate.com).[14] Rodger’s figure indexes a radical, even extremist position which can be copied (as a template) by others. Smits et al (2017), for instance, describe the interactions of a man nicknamed “About2GoER” on Sluthate. The name signals intimate identification with “ER” (Elliot Rodger), and suggests a similar path of future action to that taken by “ER” (“about to go”). About2GoER “states that he rather wants to be with ‘slayers that are funny’ than ‘faggots that want the world to feel sorry for him’” (Smits et al. 2017) and is aggressive and extravagantly offensive, even by the quite impressive standards of Sluthate.

To sum up and conclude the analysis of the Elliot Rodger case: we have seen how his actions were “formatted”, so to speak, on the basis of sources and templates he had learned and developed in the online-offline world of the Manosphere, games and other forms of popular culture; and we have seen how his line of action, in turn, became part of the cultural material informing and providing action templates for others. Such templates provide a logic of action in which experiences, knowledge, feelings and aspirations are brought in line, so to speak, in a way that plausibly motivates specific lines of action. In the case of Rodger, the templates he had learned and developed converted loneliness and unhappiness into a strong and ideologically structured sense of victimhood – an identity of “victim”- which in turn, logically, motivated the extremely violent, destructive revenge on those whom he considered to be the perpetrators of the “crimes” that made him lonely and unhappy. We see here, in many ways, a classic instance of what Raymond Williams (1977) famously called “structures of feeling”: seemingly incoherent reactions and responses to experienced social realities that gradually become “structured” by ideological framings provided by similar feelings articulated by others. In the process, we witness the emerging of individual and collective identity categories (“victims”, “beta males”) and commonly ratified (“normal”) lines of action, which can now be ideologically rationalized as “the truth”. Rodger, in short, operated within the “culture” of the beta males – a culture of victimhood and resentment – and he took this cultural logic to its limits.

  1. Conclusion: the ludic formatting of online-offline social life

I now must take one step back, away from the concrete (and admittedly harrowing) case of Elliot Rodger, and explain how “outsiders” such as Rodger can inform us on more widespread social phenomena and processes. And we need to recall Blumer’s thesis, quoted earlier: what I have surveyed in the case of Rodger are, in essence, forms and patterns of social interaction forming human conduct, not just reflecting or expressing it. If we add George Herbert Mead’s view to this, such forms of interaction also form (not just reflect or express) who we are – our “minds”:

“We must regard mind, then, as arising and developing within the social process, within the empirical matrix of social interactions.” (Mead: 1934: 133)

In a slightly overstated rephrasing of Mead’s point, we could say that who and what people are is a residue of the totality of social interactions they engaged in over their lives, and specific aspects of who and what people are will be the residue of specific kinds of social interaction. Analytically, then, the crux of the matter is to understand the precise nature of these interactions. And this is where we need to engage with the peculiarities of the new online-offline communicative worlds we presently inhabit.[15]

We know a few things already – though not many. Identity work has acquired an outspoken level of fragmentation and mobility, something that can be imagined as “chronotopic”, in which different resources and normative behavior templates (“microhegemonies”) need to be deployed in specific TimeSpace configurations (cf Blommaert & Varis 2015). The elaborate identity repertoires needed for adequate levels of integration in this ever-expanding field of identity work requires permanent learning and re-learning work, and most online environments can be empirically described as “communities of knowledge”: chronotopes in which specific identity resources can be formed, learned and policed (cf. Blommaert 2018, chapter 4).

We also know that such communities – even if they operate as real communities, including forms of leadership and authority, normative behavioral scripts and levels of integration – are open, undemanding and flexible when it comes to membership, and that older conceptions of what it means to be a member impede a precise understanding of the actual forms of attachment developing between individuals and groups. The Manosphere is a case in point: even if men can be regular visitors and contributors to Manosphere forums, and attach great importance to interactions on these forums (as did, apparently, Elliot Rodger), the community does not have the robust and perennial structure of, say, a trade union or a sports team. As Smits et al (2017) showed, outspoken dissidence and even hostility are (even if grudgingly) tolerated, and as Vivenzi et al (2017) demonstrated, people can enter and leave as they wish.

So how do we imagine the specific forms of social interaction within such “light” communities of knowledge? Let us turn to a, perhaps, unexpected and counterintuitive (and rarely visited) corner of social thought.

In his classic Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga emphasized what he saw as an important counterpoint to Weber’s rationalization drive in Modernity: the playful character of many social, cultural and political practices. In our tendency to organize societies along rational management patterns, Huizinga insisted, we risked losing sight of the fact that much of what people do is governed by an irrational logic, a ludic pattern of action. Even more, much of what we see as the rational organization of societies is grounded, in fact, in play (Huizinga 2014: 5).

Huizinga (2014: 7-14) lists several features of “play”. I shall select a number of them.

  • (i) Play is significant: it is a site of meaning-making in which “something is at play”;
  • (ii) it is, at the same time a voluntary activity often experienced as a site of personal freedom;
  • (iii) it is relatively unregulated and unconstrained by established rules and forms of control (distinguishing “play” from a “game” such as chess or poker);
  • (iv) it is an authentic activity in which we observe the unconstrained “playing out” of the self; it outside the range of what is commonly seen as “useful” or “effective” (it is done “just for fun”);
  • (v) it is enclosed in the sense that it often requires a particular spatiotemporal organization different from that of other activities; and finally,
  • (vi) given all the previous characteristics, it is also a serious activity demanding focus, intensity and skill, and it has an inevitable aspect of learning to it.

Two remarks are in order. One, with respect to the characteristic of authenticity (iv above), it must be underscored that it is perfectly normal to play someone else while expressing some essential “self”. In fact, forms of play in which roles are assumed by players, masks or other garments are worn or names are being changed for the duration of the event are found everywhere. In the online world it suffices to think of highly developed communities such as those of cosplay and gaming to see the point; but think also of the widespread use of aliases or nicknames on social media platforms. Just as we can distinguish a Foucaultian “care of the self” in various forms of play, we see a “care of the selfie” in online play as well (cf Li & Blommaert 2017). In Rodger’s case, we saw plenty of such impersonations, and we saw plenty of hard work invested in the “care of the selfie”: the elaborate aesthetics of his manifesto and his videos, for instance.

Two, with respect to (v) above – Huizinga’s requirement of spatiotemporal “isolation” for play – we can emphasize the chronotopic nature of ludic practices. Play is often reserved for, and reliant upon, restricted and elaborately organized TimeSpace configurations. Think of a “play room”, “playground” or “play corner”, of “holiday” and “leisure” as segmented TimeSpace configurations reserved for ludic activities, but also of current expressions such as “quality time” or “me time” (a segment of time spent on ludic, non-work activities). Observe, by the way, the strong moral ring of such terms: they refer to things we absolutely need and value highly; denial of such things is often perceived as unacceptable. In online activities, the TimeSpace configuration is present as well, and relatively undemanding in addition: we need an individual and an online device, and little more is required. Which is why “spending time behind your computer” is often perceived as “asocial” or “individualistic”: we perceive an individual alone with his/her device, who is deeply involved, of course, with a community not sharing the physical TimeSpace but very much present and active in the “virtual” one. In Rodger’s case, we saw how the perception of offline social awkwardness bypassed his intense engagement with online and popular culture communities “below the radar”, including those of the Manosphere. And we saw the pervasive effect of these forms of separated, enclosed forms of involvement on his “mind” (to use the Meadian term here).

If we now take Huizinga’s characteristics and apply them to the “light” forms of membership in online communities, we see a potential for application – perhaps not to all forms of online membership but to many of them. We can see how attachment to online groups is not (in a great many instances) conditioned by permanent, heavily ordered, policed and “total” involvement – one does not have to become an expert in, say, advanced Barbecue techniques just by visiting Barbecue-focused websites or forums, and one does not have to participate in all events on a cosplay forum in order to be a “member”. One can also enter and participate on such online platforms without subscribing to the full range of norms, expectations and cultural premises prevailing there, and one can articulate one’s participation in terms of very different intentions and desired outcomes than the next person. An online gaming forum is not a school, even if we find organized and tightly observed learning practices on the online gaming forum too. It turns the gaming forum into a ludic learning environment in which different forms of knowledge practice are invited, allowed and ratified. Such practices – precisely – are “light” ones too – think of “phatic” expressions of attachments such as the retweet on Twitter and the “likes” on Facebook: knowledge practices not necessarily experienced as such, and rather more frequently seen as “just for fun”. And capable, in that sense, of generating “structures of feeling” shared among participants in the community.

But do note Huizinga’s final characteristic: ludic practice is serious practice. The relatively “light”, mobile and flexible features of online communities do not prevent intense and profoundly focused forms of attachment. The experience of freedom and authenticity, and the absence of obvious “normal” forms of usefulness and efficiency might, on the contrary, precisely contribute to the sometimes phenomenal investments made by members in their attachments to such groups. There is a degree of intimacy evolving from ludic practices (including the “phatic” ones just mentioned): people make friends while playing, because play enables them to show their “authentic” self, to show the “truth” about themselves.[16] Here, once more, are the “structures of feeling”: something is genuinely shared and constructed through such ludic forms of practice, and this sharedness is experienced as important and formative.

It is formative of strong normative templates, as we have seen in the case of Rodger. What he learned and developed in his online-offline enclosed communities of knowledge was a strongly normative (“normal”) sense of being and of action – a logic of action, as I called it earlier, or a “culture”. Rodger derived from his engagement in those communities an absolute certainty about his identity as a victim of a world that conspired to steal away his (sexually focused) happiness, and enough of a commitment to take this logic of action to its very end. And in so doing, he, in turn, contributed templates of thought, action and identity to other members of that community – his use of available formats contributed to a further solidification of these formats.

This is quite something in the way of social effect. Extreme cases of “outsiders” such as Elliot Rodger should alert us to the powerful “cultural” effects of the new online-offline worlds we inhabit, and for which, presently, we only have diminutive terms: “virtual” or “light” communities engaging in “playful” forms of attachment. The very lightness of these terms must encourage us to critically re-examine them, time and time again.

 References

Appadurai, Arjun (1996) Modernity at Large : Cultural Consequences of Globalization. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press.

Becker, Howard (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: The Free Press.

Beekmans, Inge, Anne-Marie Sweep, Linmin Zheng & Zhifang Yu (2017) Forgive me father, for I hate women. Diggit Magazine (in press).

Blommaert, Jan (2015) Meaning as a nonlinear effect: The birth of cool. AILA Review 28: 7-27.

Blommaert, Jan (2017) Ludic membership and orthopractic mobilization: On slacktivism and all that. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 193. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/6cfbdfee-2f05-40c6-9617-d6930a811edf_TPCS_193_Blommaert.pdf

Blommaert, Jan (2018) Durkheim and the Internet : Sociolinguistics and the Sociological Imagination. London : Bloomsbury.

Blommaert, Jan & Piia Varis (2015) Enoughness, accent and light communities: Essays on contemporary identities. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 139. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/5c7b6e63-e661-4147-a1e9-ca881ca41664_TPCS_139_Blommaert-Varis.pdf

Blumer, Herbert (1969) Symbolic Interactionism: Perspectives and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press

Castells, Manuel (1996) The Rise of the Network Society. London : Blackwell

De Meo, Pasquale, Emilio Ferrara, Giacomo Fiumara & Alessandro Provetti (2014) On Facebook, Most ties are weak. Communications of the ACM 57/11 : 78-84.

Dijsselbloem, Jan, Ashna Coster, Boudewijn Henskens & Eva Veeneman (2017) Because of Patriarchy! Diggit Magazine (in press)

Foucault, Michel (2003) Abnormal. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. New York: Picador

Kling, Ben (2017) Elliot Rodger, Male Entitlement, and Pathologization. Medium, May 23, 2017. https://medium.com/@benkling/elliot-rodger-male-entitlement-and-pathologization-c394500309b3

Langman, Peter (2009) Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters. New York: Macmillan.

Langman, Peter (2016a) Multi-Victim School Shootings in the United States: A Fifty-Year Review. https://schoolshooters.info/sites/default/files/fifty_year_review_1.1.pdf

Langman, Peter (2016b) Elliot Rodger: An analysis. https://schoolshooters.info/sites/default/files/rodger_analysis_2.0.pdf

Langman, Peter (2016c) Eric Harris: The search for justification. https://schoolshooters.info/sites/default/files/harris_search_for_justification_1.3.pdf

LaViolette, Jack (2017) Cyber-metapragmatics and alterity on reddit.com. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 196. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/6614d6f8-3b03-4c8a-8ac9-b56ecf4b9cb1_TPCS_196_LaViolette.pdf

Lee, Joey J. & Christopher M. Hoadley (2007) Leveraging identity to make learning fun : Possible selves and experiential learning in Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). Innovate : Journal of Online Education 3/6, article 5. http://nsuworks.nova.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1081&context=innovate

Li Kunming & Jan Blommaert (2017) The care of the selfie: Ludic chronotopes of baifumei in online China. CRTL+ALT+DEM 22-11-2017. https://alternative-democracy-research.org/2017/11/22/the-care-of-the-selfie/

Maly, Ico & Piia Varis (2015) The 21st-century Hipster: On micro-populations in times of superdiversity. European Journal of Cultural Studies 19/6: 1-17

Mead, George Herbert (1934) Mind, Self and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nagle, Angela (2017) Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right. London: Zero Books.

Peeters, Saskia, Natalia Wijayanti, Magan van Meer, Dennis de Clerck & Jonathan Raa (2017) The Threat of Toxic Masculinity: From Online Manosphere to Toxic Masculine Public Figures. Diggit Magazine (in press)

Schoonen, Maud, Hannah Fransen, Ruben Bastiaense & Norman Cai (2017) The Manosphere as a Learning Environment. Diggit Magazine (in press)

Smits, Laura, Meauraine van Gorp, Madelinde van der Jagt, Marissa Bakx & Noura Yacoubi (2017) Extreme Abnormals. Diggit Magazine. (in press)

Tagg, Caroline, Philip Seargeant & Amy Brown (2017) Taking Offense on Social Media: Conviviality and Communication on Facebook. London: Palgrave Pivot

Varis, Piia & Jan Blommaert (2015) Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes, and new social structures. Multilingual Margins 2/1:  31-45.

Vivenzi, Laura, William Schaffels, Gabriela De la Vega & Lennart Driessen (2017) Infiltrating the Manosphere: An Exploration of Male-Oriented Virtual Communities from the Inside. Diggit Magazine (in press).

Williams, Raymond (1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Notes

[1] ICD 2017 is shorthand for the 2017 class in my “Individuals and Collectives in the Digital Age” course at Tilburg University, with whom I explored the issues documented in this text. I am deeply grateful to all of them: Marissa Backx, Ruben Bastiaanse, Inge Beekmans, Norman Cai, Ashna Coster, Dennis de Clerck, Gabriela De la Vega, Jan Dijsselbloem, Lennart Driessen, Hannah Fransen, Boudewijn Henskens, Daria Kholod, Thi Phuong Anh Nguyen, Dianne Parlevliet, Saskia Peters, Jonathan Raa, William Schaffels, Agotha Schnell, Maud Schoonen, Laura Smits, Eva Stein Veeneman, Anne-Marie Sweep, Madelinde van der Jagt, Meauraine van Gorp, Megan van Meer, Laura Vivenzi, Natalia Wijayanti , Noura Yacoubi, Zhifang Yu, Linming Zheng.

[2] This is the point of departure of Blommaert (2018), and this paper is part of the larger Durkheim and the Internet project. Evidently, the observation is not new, and I let myself be profoundly inspired by, among others, early visionary texts such as those of Castells (1996) and Appadurai (1996).

[3] The manifesto is an unnumbered 141-page document; in what follows, consequently, I cannot provide page number for the fragments I shall use. The full text is available in original form on https://medium.com/@benkling/elliot-rodger-male-entitlement-and-pathologization-c394500309b3. As we shall see further below, writing a manifesto is in itself part of a format for such forms of crime. Probably the most famous instance of the format was the 1515-page long 2083: A European declaration of Independence by Norwegian mass-murdered Anders Breivik, 2011. See https://publicintelligence.net/anders-behring-breiviks-complete-manifesto-2083-a-european-declaration-of-independence/

[4] Several of these clips can still be viewed on YouTube. His “Day of Retribution” clip can be viewed (with parental guidance) here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-gQ3aAdhIo. See also Rodger’s profile on Criminal Minds Wiki: http://criminalminds.wikia.com/wiki/Elliot_Rodger

[5] See this excellent article for a detailed account of Elliot Rodger’s life: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/02/us/elliot-rodger-killings-in-california-followed-years-of-withdrawal.html

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hunger_Games_(film)

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alpha_Dog

[8] Langman’s (2016a) review of half a century of college shootings in the US shows a dramatic increase of such incidents since the turn of the century, an era coinciding with the generalized introduction of the Internet as a household commodity. Harris and Klebold, we can note, were both active on online platforms in the peripheries of the Web. We cannot make categorical statements here, of course, but the Elliot Rodger case shows a direct influence of these new popular-cultural infrastructures on the formatting of his killing spree.

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowling_for_Columbine

[10] http://www.columbinegame.com/

[11] See Langman (2009; 2016c) for an analysis of Eric Harris’ motives and personality; Langman’s remarkable website contains original documents related to school shooters including Harris and Klebold, and it is helpful to look at the similarities across cases after the Columbine incident. A full analysis of these documents is beyond the scope of this paper. For a sober analysis of public multi-victim shootings in the Us, one can consult the FBI report examining incidents between 2003 and 2013: file:///C:/Users/c/Downloads/(U)_ActiveShooter021317_17B_WEB.PDF

[12] See https://schoolshooters.info/sites/default/files/cho_manifesto_1.1.pdf. On Criminal Minds Wiki, a clear parallel is drawn between Cho’s and Rodger’s shooting formats: http://criminalminds.wikia.com/wiki/Elliot_Rodger

[13] See for an example https://www.memecenter.com/fun/3276299/elliot-rodger-aka-jew-rich-boy-dating-simulator-2014

[14] See http://sluthate.com/w/Glossary#ER

[15] What follows is based on Blommaert (2017).

[16] This explains the very widespread genre of “confession” on social media. Confession, as Foucault (2003) observed, is a veridictional genre, a genre of truth-speaking in which an uninhibited self communicates fundamental truths to other uninhibited selves. Elliot Rodger’s manifesto and videos are, evidently, veridictional genres. And the density of “confessions” on the Manosphere is documented in Vivenzi et al (2017) and Beekmans et al (2017).

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The care of the selfie

ScreenHunter_747 Nov. 22 11.23

The Care of the Selfie

Ludic chronotopes of baifumei in online China

Li Kunming & Jan Blommaert

Introduction: from the self to the selfie

In online-offline societies, both zones of social life offer specific affordances, some of which are compatible or complementary, and some of which are overlapping and conflictual.[1]Theorizing this new kind of social system is a task that still awaits the full efforts of a large scholarly community; consequently, much of the theory currently used for addressing new social phenomena draws on mainstream views designed to cope with pre-Internet societies (but see Castells, 1996; Appadurai, 1996; van Dijck, 2013; Blommaert, 2017b). In what follows, we intend to document the ways in which online infrastructures in China offer affordances for chronotopic identity work not otherwise available in offline contexts. More specifically, we shall describe the practices of young Chinese women designing and marketing imageries of feminine beauty and attractiveness on social media. While describing these phenomena, we also intend to sketch a conceptual framework for addressing such forms of online practice. The latter, we believe, is necessary, for online social practices display features that may be similar to more common offline forms of social conduct, but may still deviate in crucial ways.

It is due to such deviations that online infrastructures offer specific, complementary affordances to users, and these affordances need to be described by means of a conceptual vocabulary that does not reduce online forms of social action to their offline near-equivalents. The key issue in what follows is that of identity, broadly taken. There has been, and still is, a strong tendency, both in expert and lay discourse, to describe online identity work as “virtual” (with connotations of “fake”) and as opposed to offline “real” identity work (see e.g.,Indalecia, 2010; also Adrian, 2008). The point we must take on board right from the start is that identity work in online context is as “real” as the work we observe in offline contexts, and that we need to be far more precise and specific in describing the peculiarities of online identity work. We can follow the tradition of Mead (1934) here, who emphasized that every social context demands specific forms of organization of the self, and add the fundamental insight of Erving Goffman (1959) that any form of identity is an outcome of “dramaturgical” performance work and is thus, in a sense, “ludic” (Blommaert, 2017a). Thus, what we encounter in the Chinese online contexts we will examine is as “real” a performance as any other, and we should focus on the specific nature of that kind of performance and the conditions under which it can happen.

These conditions are, as we know, determined by the technology that defines the online world. Conditions for online social interaction do not include the physical co-presence in a closed and synchronized TimeSpace arrangement characterizing, for instance, ordinary offline conversations. In that sense, these conditions exclude direct physical (tactile) contact between interlocutors, as well as the mutual monitoring access to the interlocutors’ bodies – that crucial reservoir of knowledge of the self and the other in interaction, on which Goffman focused so much of his attention.[2] In return, technologically mediated interactions such as the kinds we shall discuss offer a number of very different affordances. The specific set of affordances we shall discuss here revolve around the design and construction of an artefactualized, technologically mediated representation of the self. As a shorthand for these affordances, and paraphrasing Foucault (1986), we shall use “the care of the selfie”: an elaborate complex of “ludic” practices aimed at constructing and performing a specifically online (and more specifically small-screen) “image of personality” in which usually three different elements have to be carefully created and maintained:[3]

  • an avatar: an online name often containing significant clues as to the particular image of personality offered in interaction;
  • carefully doctored pictures or video-streamed images of the selfie;
  • specific online interactional scripts to be observed in contacts with audiences.

We shall see that when such rules are observed, a specific chronotopic environment emerges within which highly sophisticated forms of identity work can be interactionally performed, in ways that have no equivalent in the Chinese offline social spheres. Let us now turn to the case itself.

Becoming baifumei by refusing it

The term baifumei has over the past number of years developed from online slang to a very widespread term in Chinese popular and media culture, pointing towards a particular “type” of Chinese woman (Li, Spotti & Kroon, 2014). The compound baifumei (白富美) was coined by internet users out of three Chinese lexemes, namely bai白, fu富and mei美. Each of these three constituent lexemes has a range of related meanings and discursive figures, grounded in Chinese tradition (as shown in Table 1). When used to describe people, especially women, bai primarily refers to the whiteness of one’s skin; fu to a great amount of wealth in one’s possession; and mei to an attractive appearance.

ScreenHunter_740 Nov. 22 10.45

Thus, baifumei identifies a woman who is attractive in a highly specific way (the white skin is critical) and who is, in addition, financially well-off. The connection between beauty and wealth brings a degree of moral ambivalence to the label due to the suggestion of prostitution or related forms of conversion of female attractiveness into money.  In addition, the label is easily associated with an extravagant, luxurious and mercenary lifestyle. The caricature in Figure 1 features a stereotypical baifumei: a beautiful woman with a slim figure, fair skin, well-developed breasts and an elaborate hairstyle, obsessive about her looks and indulging in shopping sprees, buying piles of handbags of the big brands.

ScreenHunter_737 Nov. 16 13.32

Figure 1: A caricature of a baifumei girl (source: http://www.china.org.cn/china/2013-12/27/content_31022201.htm, last access in January 2014)

This potentially threatening ambivalence notwithstanding, baifumei has been adopted by large numbers of Chinese women as a model of self-presentation in online contexts. It has become, in other words, a model for the care of the selfie, approximations of which may result in “authentic” baifumei membership. This authenticity needs to be designed (in the sense of Kress, 2010) by drawing on the available resources, perceived as contributing to that kind of authenticity, and in very precise and particular ways specific to the online contexts in which it must be performed.[1] According to Blommaert and Varis (2011, p. 144), identity practices are “discursive orientations towards sets of features that are (or can be) seen as emblematic”. In this sense, to be considered as an authentic baifumei, one has to comply with the semiotic array of features and discursive practices that leads to “enough” baifumei identity features – not too little and not too much. To get close to such level of enoughness and with that of authenticity, one needs to have a good control on the dose of “enoughness” that ought to be perpetually adjusted, reinvented and amended (Blommaert & Varis, 2011). And women aspiring to the baifumei label use specific online contexts for testing, developing and improving their identity performances.

One such online context, and a quite popular one, is the “Baifumei Bar” forum on the online platform Baidu Tieba (see Li, Spotti & Kroon, 2014; Li, 2018). On this “Baifumei Bar” forum, baifumei authenticity needs to be played out visibly and is constantly subject to its audience’s (both male and female) interactional assessment of the performed “selfie”. The selfie, as we have seen, consists of a stage name, a doctored visual image, and carefully scripted interactional behavior. The latter is achieved by balancing two major categories of discursive moves: “affiliating acts” and “distancing acts”. The performance of baifumei often begins with a distancing act and a self-denial as a baifumei person. However, underneath this initial distancing move and others that may follow, affiliating acts are implicitly articulated. A concrete example will show this.

We shall look at the profile of a woman called *fang[2]; in September 2014,Li (2018) noticed her top-ranked post in the baifumei bar, with 6578 replies up to the time of this contribution.[3]The post was headlined as follows:

ScreenHunter_741 Nov. 22 10.46

As we can see, *fang straightforwardly denies being a baifumei, explaining she is just a selfie lover. Let us now take a look at these selfies. The headline is followed by the three pictures included in Figure 2:[1]

ScreenHunter_734 Nov. 16 13.30

Figure 2: Three photos posted by *fang (source: https://tieba.baidu.com/f?kw=白富美, last access on 10 August, 2015)

The choice and the visual architecture of the pictures are deliberate. Picture A in Figure 2 reproduces a screenshot of *fang’s iPhone lock screen, backgrounded by a close-up photo of her. Compared with the selfie in a dim-lit bedroom in photo B, *fang’s skin tone in A is much paler. While different from the half-length portrait in A, *fang in B displays her sartorial skills: a red blouse, patterned shorts, a bracelet and red high-heel shoes. C is a photo taken in a BMW car, a stereotypical emblem of wealth, not just in China. Observe that the driver in photo C is a man: *fang’s boyfriend and the owner of the car, as later confessed by *fang. The photos are designed in a well-ordered sequence from A to C, in which the attributes of being bai (fair-skinned), fu (wealthy) and mei (beautiful) are highlighted one after another. This clue unveils *fang’s “backstage preparation” (in Goffman’s words) towards baifumei authentication. Observe also how the self-disqualification of baifumei in her opening line is instantly contradicted by the “grammar of visual design” in the three photos (Kress & van Leeuwen,2001).

On the second étage of her post,[1] *fang wrote the following:

ScreenHunter_742 Nov. 22 10.46

With a departure from the baifumei-affiliating act in Figure 2, *fang here disclaims her intention of wanting-to-be-baifumei: her updates should be merely seen as a realistic documentary of her daily life. She suggests challengers to save their malicious remarks and leave her profile space. This, if interpreted in Goffman’s terms, is an example of dramaturgical circumspection, in which a prior warning serves as a defensive measure and a safeguard. In the above two examples, *fang’s stance toward baifumei develops from the initial pronounced ‘distancing’ to a covert graphical ‘affiliating’ and then to the ‘distancing’ again. The orderly and multimodal stance pattern can be understood as the “line”, as used by Goffman (1967), to address the pattern of verbal and nonverbal acts that a person takes in a communicative event. The line is dynamic and, as in *fang’s case, is maneuvered constantly and strategically for appropriate impression management.

After the opening, we have seen in Example 2, the post thread continued and got both positive and negative comments. *fang often dismissed compliments and found a way out of the less commonplace challenges. On the 97th étage, a man (called Male A here) interacted with *fang as follows:

ScreenHunter_743 Nov. 22 10.46

In this example, by using the online register term “逆袭 (ni xi)”[1], Male A shows his aspiration to conquer a baifumei girlfriend or marry a baifumei girl. This obviously refers to *fang, and we can see that Male A identified *fang as a baifumei, in spite of her systematic disclaimers. *fang replies with a sweating-face emoticon which allows her to avoid a direct positioning: *fang could either feel overwhelmed or embarrassed by Male A’s words. Then Male A repeats his request and gets refused. The refusal is a reply made to Male A’s befriending (or marriage) request but does not directly rebuts his allusion to *fang’s baifumei identity. We see the play of affiliating and distancing acts at work here: disguised as a refusal, *fang tacitly got confirmed as a baifumei girl.

Then on the 348th étage, the following communication happened between *fang and another man (called Male B here):

ScreenHunter_744 Nov. 22 10.47

On this étage, *fang identifies with Male B as a diaosi (屌丝, literally “penis hair” and figuratively “loser”),[1] distancing herself from the covert baifumei identity established on the 97th étage. However, *fang’s self-identification with diaosi fluctuates. In one of her posts, she once became outraged at a boy who had described her to as a diaosi. Hence, *fang’s self-identification with diaosi here is, to a large extent, a tactic aimed to establish a rapport with Male B.It is a form of self-belittling in Goffman’s terms, in which one’s own positive qualities are deliberately underplayed: “if a person knows that his modesty will be answered by others’ praise of him, he can fish for compliments” (Goffman, 1967, p. 24).

Seen from the above examples, *fang’s “line” is changeable and context-adaptive, from the initial distancing in the headline to the affiliating in her photo arrangement, and then distancing once more, with another affiliating act following. However, the line*fang takes is not in any way a consecutive distancing-affiliating sequence. What emerges prominently and importantly from the data is that *fang never makes her affiliating acts obvious, overt and pronounced. By contrast, she shows her distancing in a clear and assertive way. Although *fang did sometimes face questions about her true motives from critical participants, her dramaturgical circumspections and performed modesty won her a widely ratified baifumei identity, as attributed by men. It is an interactional achievement, resulting from highly skilled and flexible, “ludic” performance practices.

The ludic economy of baifumei

The practices performed by *fang are entirely conditioned by the technological environment in which she performs them: an online forum explicitly designed for and devoted to baifumei identity work. They are, in that environment, entirely “normal” – an expected behavioral script that demands careful performance, and in which participants draw on available cultural and technological resources for adequate outcomes. Such practices are, consequently, chronotopic in the full sense of the term (Blommaert & Varis, 2015; Blommaert & De Fina, 2016). The chronotope, however, is not a closed TimeSpace constellation: it draws on cultural materials that have their origins in older traditions and organize conduct in a variety of social spheres.

The careful play of distancing and affiliating acts performed by *fang is a case in point.Modesty is highly valued as a traditional virtue of China. “Virtue” is called mei de (美德lit. beautiful moral) in Chinese. With the same ‘mei(美) (beautiful) as in ‘baifumei’ (白富), mei de indexes the general beauty of a person. Chinese people are, in many contexts, expected to understate their personal accomplishments rather than speak highly of their own merits. So, a woman’s modesty, if recognized, will be related to the Chinese virtue and add weight to the “enoughness” of the baifumei identity.

A very similar interplay between cultural tradition and new online technological affordances can be observed in the second case we examine here: the performance of baifumei on Zhibo (直播, literally “online live-streaming”). By June 2016, there were about 325 million livestreaming users in China, accounting for nearly a half of the Chinese total netizen’s population (CNNIC, 2016). Across about 200 livestreaming platforms (iiMedia Research, 2016), there are 4 million participants (both hosts and watchers) simultaneously present in about 3000 livestreaming rooms at peak times. And one extraordinarily popular form of live-streaming involves baifumei women performing forms of online flirting and intimacy with male audiences, who, in return, donate “gifts”. In contrast with the static images and texts we observed on Baifumei Bar, we are facing moving real-time images and interactions here.

ScreenHunter_732 Nov. 16 13.28

Figure 3: User interfaces of Yizhibo, Yingke and Momo (source: yizhibo.com; yingke.com; momo.com, last access on 14 December, 2016)

Such performances occur within a technologically circumscribed arena, enabling certain forms of interaction while constraining or excluding others. Almost all major internet companies in China have launched such livestreaming services, and the actual shapes of the interfaces are quite similar. Yizhibo (一直播), Yingke (映客) and Momo (陌陌), three of the most influential livestreaming platforms in China, look alike in their user interface layouts. More specifically, all of them have the status zone (marked as No. 1 in Figure 3) at the top, hostesses’ performing zone at the center (No. 2), the threading of viewers’ messages at the left lower part (No. 4) and the viewers’ operation zone at the bottom (No. 5). The homogeneous interface designs and livestreaming technological frameworks have resulted in severe competition between different livestreaming service providers in China. The success of each depends much on how many excellent hosts they can manage to attract. One such highly successful host, active on Yizhibo, is called Dongbei Wuxue.

Dongbei Wuxue (东北污雪) is a top-ranking “talkshow” hostess on Yizhibo. As mentioned earlier, the avatar or screen name used in selfie performances is of importance, so let us first examine the name. Dongbei (东北, literally “north east”) explicitly refers to a regional background, widely seen as “peripheral” in China, and incidentally also showing the largest number of female live-stream hostesses.Wu (污), a Chinese adjective which literally means “polluted” and “dirty” is put in juxtaposition with xue(雪), the “snow”, which is generally considered to be pure (as it is white) in Chinese culture. As a screen name, DongbeiWuxue’soffers layers of inferential meaning and suggests a sense of cynicism and dark humor, matched by DongbeiWuxue’s dramatic, stylized and entertaining speech style. These characteristics prove to be effective. At the time of data collection on 11 December 2016, Dongbei Wuxue had already harvested 79,000 followers and earned 37,059,600 credits on Yizhibo, which amounts to 370,596 RMB (approximately 47,269 Euros) through 53 broadcasts within 46 days.[1]DongbeiWuxue’s income is about 54 times the average national income per capita. She is a highly successful baifumei entrepreneur who employs several assistants in her business.

As we have seen, the interface of Yizhibo is characterized by a multimodal design, which is meant to be interactive and spontaneously responsive to ongoing communications during livestreaming. The essential structure is: a female hostess interacts with an online (male) audience, members of which can send messages and offer “gifts” to the hostess, all of which is publicly visible. These gifts are shown as symbols on the screen but, converted by the platform, represent real money income for the hostesses. First let us have a close look at the interface design of Yizhibo as shown in Figure 4.

ScreenHunter_731 Nov. 16 13.03

Figure 4: The Yizhibo livestreaming interface design for Dongbei Wuxue (source: Yizhibo iOS application, last access on 9 January, 2017)

We now begin to understand the features of the specific chronotope of livestreaming female-male interactions. With all those multimodal elements in motion and interaction with each other, the message flow in the livestreaming is dialogical and responsive to ongoing communications. When new messages pop up, previous messages will immediately move up on the user interface and recede out of the audience’s vision. Given that online livestreaming rooms are often crowded with viewers, new messages from viewers constantly appear, move up and then disappear – all at great speed. But the relative prominence of particular audience members (within the parameters of the system) is made visible. As shown in Figures 3 and 4, the Top Five spenders among the viewers are listed on the top right on the users’ interface, and their prominence is immediately visible to all viewers. The system also includes interactional asymmetry: Dongbei Wuxue as the hostess runs a continuous livestreamed performance in front of an audience, members of which can only communicate with her through text messages and gifting. The audience has no acoustic or visible-tangible presence. Given this exposure discrepancy, apart from text messages, gifting is an important tool for an audience to interact with Dongbei Wuxue.

Gifts occupy a large and central space in the interface design, the very epicenter of the stage, as with the glittering diamond in Figure 4. Gifts are further technologically glorified by triggering an array of enlivening animate effects. And gift senders, especially those sending expensive items, are greatly appreciated by Dongbei Wuxue and more likely to be directly addressed in friendly and intimate ways. Each time after receiving the gift of “love”, which costs 10 RMB (approximately 1 euro), Dongbei Wuxue immediately shows her “love” by air kissing and playing a piece of love music that has been popularized by Feicheng Wurao (非诚勿扰, “If you are the one”), a famous Chinese dating program hosted by Hunan Satellite TV. Figure 5 features Dongbei Wuxue expressing her gratitude for a gift through air kisses while depicting the heart-shaped gesture for “I love you (我爱你)”. This immediate expression of appreciation is orchestrated to a large number of viewers, amplifying the importance of generous gifts and the prominence of those who offer them.

ScreenHunter_747 Nov. 22 11.23

Figure 5: Dongbei Wuxue’s gestural response to a “love” gift (source: Yizhibo iOS application, retrieved on 9th January 2017)

The gesturing and facial expressions of joy and gratitude are evident. But as we have seen, the system also allows the hostess to directly talk to her audience, while audience members can only respond through text messages. Discursively, such moments of affection are expressed as follows:ScreenHunter_745 Nov. 22 10.48

 

ScreenHunter_746 Nov. 22 10.49

As soon as *Re sends in his gifts, Dongbei Wuxue’s attention focuses on him, while interaction with other participants is not entirely interrupted. *Re, however, gets treated to repeated and emphatic verbal and nonverbal expressions of love and intimacy. Such moments of direct address in interaction shape the kind of ludic “imagined togetherness” (Mortensen, 2017) which is a key feature of online flirting, and which is much coveted by male audience members. All of this evolves in the highly specific contours of the online livestreaming chronotope, in which such ludic roles, relationships and practices can be enacted as features of “normal” interactional conduct.

With her slim figure, well-developed breasts and long hair, white-skinned Dongbei Wuxue embodies the baifumei model of feminine “selfie” beauty. She is often scantily clad and as a good jokes teller (more specifically, an excellent teller of risqué jokes), she is good at drawing male audience’s attention. Being energetic, optimistic and talkative, Dongbei Wuxue has excellent social skills to maintain a nice rapport with her audience, including shifts from collective audience address into one-on-one interactions addressing specific audience members in acts of “imagined closeness”. The “selfie” she presents online is a virtuoso one, drawing on a vast repertoire of identity features and characterized by superbly executed performances. An important part of this revolves around handling the gifts from her male audience members.

Different from traditional business and mercantile practices, economic transactions in livestreaming undergo a semiotic “romanticization” process, where the audience’s money spent in showrooms is sugar-coated by a dazzling array of virtual gifts, which serve as cultural proxies that navigate the ambivalences mentioned earlier and reduce the risk of moral condemnations and allegations of prostitution The semiotic representation of the gifts, in particular, avoids the connotation of “payment-for-sex” by calling – in a “ludic” way – on established Chinese traditions of courtesy and hospitality. In China, which is characterized by collectivism and Guanxi, gifting practices are widely seen at all walks of life (see Steidlmeier1999; Luo et al. 2012). Compared to the potentially high cost for offline safe intimacies, the gifting expenses for live-streamed intimacies can be quite low. Hence, emerging livestreaming platforms provide males more chances to communicate with and befriend those desirable hostesses, who are less accessible to most men in their offline lives. For someone like Dongbei Wuxue, the reference to traditional forms of gift-giving enables her to be (sometimes explicitly) erotically appealing to the men, while avoiding the social stigma (and legal sanctions) attached to prostitution. In addition, it enables her to earn an income many times larger than what ‘regular’ offline jobs would offer her.

All of this is made possible by an online technology and its semiotic and interactional affordances. In livestreaming some viewers are willing to pay very substantial sums to buy virtual gifts to please the hostesses they prefer (see Li & Wei, 2017). In return, hostesses conspicuously display their gratefulness for the viewers’ gifting and perform that appreciation to an extent that a big audience can well recognize and glorify the gift sender. All of this, however, stays in the online environment and does not migrate offline: the courtesy of the gift is responded to by means of a dramaturgy of online flirtation. The livestreaming hostesses usually respond more actively, elaborately and intimately to those big spenders, with directly addressed words, facial expressions, body postures and gestures. In other words, with a certain amount of payment in the form of gifting, a viewer can get involved in specific public but intimate genres of interaction, ranging from being mentioned by name to being air-kissed and offered a love confession. Interactional events such as these can only happen in the tightly circumscribed online TimeSpace configurations provided by the Internet applications; and when they happen, they happen according to the normative formats befitting this specific chronotope.

Conclusion: ludic selfie chronotopes

In his classic Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga (1950/2014) emphasized the playful character of many social, cultural and political practices. In our tendency to organize societies along rational management patterns, Huizinga insisted, we risked losing sight of the fact that much of what people do is governed by an irrational logic, a ludic pattern of action. Even more, much of what we see as the rational organization of societies is grounded, in fact, in play. Huizinga (1950/2014, chapter 1) listed several features of “play”. Play is significant, for instance: it is a site of meaning-making in which “something is at play”; it is at the same time relatively unregulated and unconstrained by established rules and forms of control; it is also an authentic activity in which we observe the unconstrained “playing out” of the self; it is an enclosed activity in the sense that it often requires a particular spatiotemporal organization different from that of other activities (a “playground”); and finally, it is also a serious activity demanding focus, intensity and skill (see Blommaert 2017b for a discussion).

We have examined “playgrounds” here – technologically mediated and configured enclosed TimeSpace configurations in which ludic activities revolving around authenticity can be played out. With respect to this authenticity, it must be underscored that it is perfectly normal to play someone else while expressing some essential “self”. In fact, forms of play in which roles are assumed by players, masks or other garments are worn or names are being changed for the duration of the event are found everywhere. In the online world, it suffices to think of highly developed communities such as those of cosplay and gaming to see the point; but think also of the widespread use of aliases or nicknames on social media platforms. Just as we can distinguish a Foucauldian “care of the self” in various forms of play, we see a “care of the selfie” in online play as well. This selfie, we hope to have illustrated, demands forms of knowledge and skill specific to the online chronotopes in which it is presented and performed. We have seen complexes of norms at play in our examples, in which older and established cultural material was blended with the particular affordances of online platforms in such a way that different forms of identity work and male-female relationships could be constructed and enacted in playful ways – by elaborate forms of graphic doctoring of images, delicate forms of interaction and joint choreographies of the body and the features of the online apps. These playful practices are, however, significant and serious, and certainly in our discussion of Dongbei Wuxue’s work, something “was at play” – there was a real, “hard” economic transaction buried within the ludic, frivolous and artful interactional work she performed for her audience, and this transaction takes place in a neoliberal competitive market arena. There is nothing “virtual” to the income she generates through her talk shows, even if the stuff she offers in the transaction is just a “selfie”, a semiotic, immaterial artifact that needs to be meticulously and carefully constructed and checked (as *fang showed us) in order to be ready for economic transaction.

Online identity work and processes of community formation remain poorly understood social facts, often suffering from reductionist interpretations grounded in a pre-Internet sociological imagination. We believe it is helpful to approach the complexities of such new social facts with the help of frameworks such as the one we have attempted to illustrate here. In the cases we have discussed here, we detect traces of significant socio-economic change. The women engaging with the ludic selfie chronotopes offered by Internet providers can enter a labor market and develop economic activities not legitimately accessible, or more strictly policed, in offline spheres of society. Of course, such new economic activities will always look insignificant when measured against the standards of the mammoth Chinese formal economy; at the same time, as we have mentioned earlier, they are not marginal and may constitute more than just symbolic opportunities for people often marginalized in the bigger socio-economic game. This in itself should suffice as a reason to explore phenomena such as these as integral parts of the development of new social systems.

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Notes

[1]This paper draws on cases analyzed in Li Kunming’s PhD dissertation (Li, 2018).We are grateful to Sjaak Kroon and Max Spotti for guidance and suggestions throughout the research project, and to Caixia Du, Hou Mingyi, Lu Ying and Ted Nieh for critical discussions on the issues presented in this paper.

[2]Goffman surely was not alone, and contemporary scholarship on social interaction emphasizes the intrinsic fusion of visual, tactile and verbal aspects in communication. See, e.g., Goodwin (2007) and Bezemer & Kress (2014).

[3] For alternative surveys of practices for online self-presentation, see, e.g., Adrian (2008) and boyd (2014).

[1]Kress’s notion of “design” refers to the strategic semiotic work performed by subjects in interaction with others, with particular goals in mind (Kress, 2010, pp. 26-27, italics in original):

“Design meets the interest of the rhetor (…) in full awareness of the communicational potentials of the resources which are available in the environment and needed for the implementation of the rhetor’s interest.”

[2]The Chinese character fang (芳), which etymologically refers to a specific kind of fragrant grasses in ancient China and metaphorically refers to a girl’s desirable appearance,is often used as a girl’s call name in China. In this sense, the screen name is part of the selfie *fang puts on stage.

[3]Data are retrieved at 23:29 on 28 September, 2014 (UTC+1:00, Amsterdam).

[1]Originally, the photos are in a vertical sequence.

[1]Étage or “floor” is often used in Tieba as a simulator to a construction in the offline world. The first post of a thread is called the First Etage and the rest in the same way in a chronological order. An étage can be maintained by others’ replying to it. Changing an étage in Tieba usually means an ending of the previous conversation turn and the beginning of a new one.

[1]The original Chinese term ni xi is a military jargon noun, which literally means “inverse attack”. It has been widely used on Chinese social media in its figurative sense to refer to one’s procurement of life-changing social upward mobility.

[1]The term diaosi is widely used to describe the large groups of people feeling excluded or marginalized in China’s booming socio-economic environment. For more discussion on diaosi, see Yang et al., (2014) and Du, (2016).

[1] Data are retrieved at 14:39:16 on 11 November 2016.