Does context really collapse in social media interaction?

Jan Blommaert & Gosia Szabla

(Plenary paper, conference on Moving Texts: Mediations and Transculturations. Aveiro, 12 July 2017)

Abstract

‘Context collapse’ (CC) refers to the phenomenon widely debated in social media research, where various audiences convene around single communicative acts in new networked publics, causing confusion and anxiety among social media users. The notion of CC is a key one in the reimagination of social life as a consequence of the mediation technologies we associate with the Web 2.0. CC is undertheorized, and in this paper we intend not to rebuke it but to explore its limits. We do so by shifting the analytical focus from “online communication” in general to specific forms of social action performed, not by predefined “group” members, but by actors engaging in emerging kinds of sharedness based on existing norms of interaction. This approach is a radical choice for action rather than actor, reaching back to symbolic interactionism and beyond to Mead, Strauss and other interactionist sociologists, and inspired by contemporary linguistic ethnography and interactional sociolinguistics, notably the work of Rampton and the Goodwins. We apply this approach to an extraordinarily complex Facebook discussion among Polish people residing in The Netherlands – a set of data that could instantly be selected as a likely site for context collapse. We shall analyze fragments in detail, showing how, in spite of the complications intrinsic to such online, profoundly mediated and oddly ‘placed’ interaction events, participants appear capable of extraordinarily ‘normal’ modes of interaction and participant selection. In fact, the ‘networked publics’ rarely seem to occur in practice, and contexts do not collapse but expand continuously without causing major issues for contextualization. The analysis will offer a vocabulary and methodology for addressing the complexities of the largest new social space on earth: the virtual space of online culture.

 

  1. Introduction

In social media studies, the notion of “context collapse” has acquired considerable currency.[1] It is part of an – often tacitly adopted – theory of communication grounded, in turn, in a particular imagery of the social world, and stands for

“the flattening out of multiple distinct audiences in one’s social network, such that people from different contexts become part of a singular group of message recipients”. (Vitak 2012: 541)

This is generally seen as a problem, something that distorts “normal” assumptions about communication and requires caution and repair strategies. This problem is an effect of the specific features (affordances as well as constraints) of social network communication, the technology of which “complicates our metaphors of space and place, including the belief that audiences are separate from each other” (Marwick & boyd 2010: 115), and has taken us from a world of relatively transparent audiences to that of far less transparent “networked publics” (boyd 2011). Users on social network sites (SNS) have assumptions about whom they are addressing and interacting with, but the features of SNS do not correspond to these assumptions and create indeterminacy in audience selection, with confusion and uncertainty of users as one effect.

While the notion of context collapse certainly has its merits and should not be dismissed entirely – the indeterminacy of addressees is irrefutable – it invites critical scrutiny. In what follows, we shall engage in such an examination, aimed, specifically, at the assumptions about the social world and communication carried along with the notion. And we shall do this by means of a relatively straightforward approach: confront such assumptions with a detailed analysis of a sample of SNS interaction. The latter, we undertake by means of well-established methodological tools drawn from the interactionalist discourse-analytical tradition, notably linguistic ethnography and interactional sociolinguistics (e.g. Cicourel 1973; Gumperz 1982, 1992, 2003; Rampton 2017; Blommaert 2018).

Let us first look somewhat closer at how the problem of context collapse is sketched by some prominent authors and highlight some of the more questionable assumptions underlying such sketches.

The problem called context collapse rests on a general imagination of communication – in earlier times – as not (as) sensitive to context collapse. Before we had SNS, communication was relatively simple. Davis & Jurgenson (2014: 477) speak of “the relative segmentation [of communication] of earlier times”, and this has to do with a presumed clarity of audience and situation. People (it is presumed) used to know quite clearly with whom they interacted and, thus, how they should interact. The big problem caused by SNS lies in the latter’s unique affordances: communication through SNS is persistent, replicable, scalable, searchable and sharable – features, all of them, that characterize communication beyond the immediate interactional situation (or beyond the single speech event, to quote the title of an excellent recent study of such phenomena: Wortham & Reyes 2015).

This, of course, has effects on who can be addressed by SNS messages, and how such unintended audiences might respond and react to them. People tend to get confused on SNS in a specific way:

“While Facebook and Twitter users don’t know exactly who comprises their audience addressed, they have a mental picture of who they’re writing or speaking to – the audience invoked. Much like writers, social media participants imagine an audience and tailor their online writing to match”. (Marwick & boyd 2010: 128)

This analogy with professional writers turns SNS interaction into something special, exceptional. While SNS “combines elements of broadcast media and face-to-face communication” (id: 123), spoken face-to-face interaction is the normal default mode of communication, the source of people’s expectations and norms in interaction, also in scholarship:

“Most of these studies [on ‘normal’ interaction] draw from data and observations that involve people interacting face-to-face, where it is fairly easy to gauge the gender, race, status, etc. of the audience. Removing this ability creates tensions”. (ibid)

To be more precise:

“The requirement to present a verifiable, singular identity makes it impossible to differ self-presentation strategies, creating tension as diverse groups of people flock to social network sites”. (id: 122)

These tensions often have to do with issues of “privacy” and have effects in the ways in which people handle issues of unintended addressees, by means of privacy settings, self-censorship or “unfriending” and “blocking” (e.g. Marwick & boyd 2014; Sibona 2014; Dugay 2016).

We can pause now and take stock. Underlying discussions of context collapse, there is a social imagination of communicative simplicity and determinacy. SNS communication complicates a world in which “normal” interaction was:

  • Dyadic and spoken, with clear, transparent, “authentic” and verifiable (singular) identity positions deployed
  • in a linear, simple and bounded activity, not replicable beyond the speech event, not shareable, not searchable etc.
  • and with a maximum of social sharedness, relating to the nature and identities involved and the audiences addressed.

People, so it seems, had just one set of common assumptions about communication: those directing simple dyadic face-to-face conversation in a world known to both participants. Complex and non-homogeneous audiences used to be exceptional and only familiar to specialized practitioners: “professional writers” (Marwick & boyd 2010: 115). Within acts of communication, ordinary people performed simple bounded activities resting on shared assumptions and conduct-and-meaning frames circulating in a “real” community; all of this, together, constructed the “context” with which people were familiar. Such simple contexts are no longer afforded in the blended, complex networked publics of SNS, and tensions arise. As we can see, people are, in a way, “stuck” in specific contexts: “people from different contexts become part of a singular group of message recipients” (Vitak 2012: 451). And even in more sophisticated discussions, where the assumption of a “verifiable, singular identity” is replaced by a more Meadian-Goffmanian emphasis on specific and diverse forms of social roles and role expectations, such roles and expectations appear to “belong” to specific networks:

“These expectations inform appropriate – and inappropriate – lines of action and identity performance. In these terms, collapse refers to the overlapping of role identities through the intermingling of distinct networks”. (Davis & Jurgenson 2014: 477)

Groups – “audiences”, “networks” or “publics” – appear to have amazing degrees of stability and persistence, and “contexts”, in that sense, are features derived from group membership. It is the presence of such unintended audiences that generates context collapse.

  1. An interaction-centered alternative

There is no need, we think, for a lengthy refutation of the assumptions directing the concept of context collapse. All of them are sociologically and sociolinguistically questionable in a variety of ways.[2] Rather, we would state an alternative general principle and take it through into an analysis of a concrete example.

The principle is that of action, and we adopt it from the interactionist tradition (Goffman 1961; Blumer 1969; Strauss 1993; also Mead 1934). We have seen that some authors refer to this tradition in their attempt to escape the sociological overgeneralizations in the concept of context collapse; we intend to take this line of argument much further.

The literature on context collapse, we have seen, starts from assumptions about groups (‘audiences’), their features and stability in explaining interaction; and the latter is done generally: authors speak of ‘SNS communication’ as one single object, features of which include context collapse. Instead of these, we focus not on groups but on actual practices performed by people, and we focus on specific practices. People do not just communicate, they perform highly specific actions such as ‘asking’, ‘arguing’, ‘shouting’, quarreling’ or ‘storytelling’, and they do so within the space of higher-level social actions such as, for instance, ‘conversation’. It is within the layered structure of such complex actions that we consider ‘context’ and how people deal with it. Such contexts include chronotopic patterns of identity work (a term we prefer over for instance ‘role taking’) based on the genre characteristics of specific activities (Wang & Kroon 2016; Blommaert & De Fina 2017; Karimzad & Catedral 2017). All of this is interactional, i.e. it is driven not by just individual motives and choices but by social (normative) ones that need to be dialogically established and ratified in order to be meaningful in interaction.

We can turn this old interactionist principle into a simple, four-line methodological program for the sociolinguistic analysis of interaction (cf. Blommaert 2017, 2018).

  1. Patterns of communication necessarily involve meaningful social relationships as prerequisite, conduit and outcome;
  2. Such relationships will always, similarly, involve identities and categorizations, interactionally established;
  3. Thus, when observing patterns of communication, we are observing the very essence of ‘sociation’ (Georg Simmel’s term for the continuous evolving of society through social action), and of ‘groupness’– regardless of how we call the groups.
  4. And specific patterns of interaction shape specific forms of groups.

The points of departure underlying context collapse are turned upside down here: we do not start from images of groups, with actions and their features derived from them, but we start from actions and see which kinds of groups might emerge from them. In this sociolinguistic frame we approach groups pragmatically and axiologically, from the angle of the actual observable communication practices and through the values attributed to such practices. Groups, then, are not a priori given collections of human beings but must be taken from patterned sets of communicative behaviors and the relationships with which they are dialectically related. Whenever we see such ordered forms of communicative behavior, there is an assumption of active and evolving groupness – sociation – but the analytical issue is not the nature of the group (or the label we need to choose for it) but the specific social relationships observable through and in communication. All other aspects of sociation can be related to this. So if one needs the definition of a group: a group is a communicatively organized and ratified set of social relationships.

To shift back to context collapse notions: ‘networked publics’ do not exist in any real sense independently of specific patterns and modes of interaction, they are generated by them and they change from action to action, for each action can (and usually does) involve different forms of relationships between actors. When someone tells a story in a conversation, s/he ‘leads’ the event, so to speak; when a few minutes later that same person asks an informative question to the interlocutor, s/he shifts into a subordinate role in the event; and when the interlocutor’s phone rings, s/he changes from participant to non-participant in a moment’s notice. The ‘group’ made up of the interlocutors is, thus, unstable, continuously emerging and subject to dialogical (re-)ratification at any moment in the conversation, depending on what exactly goes on (see Rampton 2006; Goodwin 2007; Goodwin & Goodwin 1992 for excellent examples).

When we apply this frame now, we begin to notice certain things. For instance, we notice that people don’t usually interact with ‘audiences’ or ‘networks’ but with specific addressees placed in specific relationships with them during highly specific forms of interaction. In the examples given by Marwick & boyd (2014) to show the dynamics of privacy control on SNS, thus, we see that much of what people actually do is addressee selection (expressed quite transparently in lines such as “I wasn’t talking to you”, Marwick & boyd 2014: 1057), or more generally the construction of highly specific participation frameworks for specific actions (Goodwin & Goodwin 1992, 2004; Goodwin 2007). Dugay (2016) describes strategies of deliberate simultaneity and ambivalence performed by SNS users, so as to separate specific addressees from the broader audiences; and Sibona’s analysis of ‘unfriending’ on Facebook (2014) is evidently a practice of addressee selection-by-exclusion. Thus, the diffuse (and confusing) ‘audiences’ and ‘network publics’ causing context collapse appear, in actual practice, to be chopped into much smaller and highly specific sets of addressees. The reasons for that may be privacy concerns or anxieties over undesirable disclosure of information on SNS – we do not exclude that possibility. But they may also be an effect of much simpler features of social action on SNS. We shall now attempt to demonstrate that by turning to our case.

  1. Complex compound social action on SNS: A case

The case we shall examine in some detail is a long discussion on a Facebook forum for Polish migrants in the Netherlands.[3] The data, as will become clear, represent a lengthy and complex case of Facebook interaction, starting from an update which then triggers likes, comments and reactions to comments. The interaction ran for five days, from March 14 until March 19, 2016.[4] No less than 65 individuals were involved in the conversation, and the update triggered a total of 192 responses – ‘comments’ as well as ‘replies’ to comments. In our analysis, we shall call the entire interaction the event; the update defines the main action; comments and replies to comments are all actions. We shall need to provide more precise descriptions of those actions later. Thus, the main action, performed by a female journalist whom we shall nickname ‘Ala’, invited 79 comments and 113 replies: a total of 192 actions. In our transcript (available online) the main action is numbered 0, the comments are numbered as 1, 2, 3… etc, and the replies to comments as 6.1, 6.2, 6.2 … etc.

The main action occurred on March, 14, 2016 at 12.37 p.m. when Ala posted this update:

Ala (F): witam, jestem dzienkarka telewizijna I szukam polakow, co pracuja w szklarniach co chca cos opodwiadac o warunkach pracy lubmieszkac I pracowac zagranica bez rodziny. Chetnie infornacie na priw. Krecenjie moze sie stac tez anonymowo.

Translation: Hello, I am a television journalist and I am looking for Polish people, who work in greenhouses who want to tell me about the working conditions or living and working abroad without family. Gladly information on priv. Filming can also happen anonymously.

Due to the initial negative responses, the comment was edited at 01.40 p.m., and from then on appeared online in the following form:

Ala (F): witam, jestem dzienkarka telewizijna I szukam polakow, co pracuja w szklarniach co chca cos opodwiadac o warunkach pracy lub mieszkac I pracowac zagranica bez rodziny. Chetnie infornacie na priw. Krecenjie moze sie stac tez anonymowo. (bo duzo ludzy pyta dlaczego tak zle pisze: jestem urodzona w polsce, ale pracuje dla telewisji niemieckiej i holenderskiej. Przeprazaszam za bledy, ale wyjechalam z polski jakmialam 4 latka. wydaje mi sie jednak, ze kommunikacja w tej grupie powinna byc po polsku, dlatego starams ie..)

Translation:Hello, I am a television journalist and I am looking for Polish people, who work in greenhouses who want to tell me about the working conditions or living and working abroad without family. Gladly information on priv. Filming can also happen anonymously. (because many people ask why I am writing so badly: I am born in Poland, but I am working for German and Dutch television. I am sorry for mistakes, but I left Poland when I was 4 years old. It seems to me however, that communication in this group should be in Polish, that’s why I am trying).

The update of Ala is a straightforward statement with a request for assistance. Her Polish however is questioned, because it is orthographically, grammatically and pragmatically awkward.[5] The text visible above is understandable, but there are spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, and upper case or punctuation are (not unusually in online writing) missing too. Generally, the text is ‘awkward’, and Ala uses words which sound odd in particular sentences. For example, she says “Jestem urodzona w Polsce”, whereas it would be more expected to say ‘Urodzilamsie w Polsce’ or ‘Pochodze z Polski’ in this context. Her sentence literally translates to English “I am born in Poland”, whereas Urodzilamsie w Polsce would translate: “I was born in Poland”.

We sequentially numbered every participant as they entered into action and marked them as ‘F’ (female) or ‘M’ (male). 34 participants only commented once. Some of them commented as a reply to the event, others only replied to one of the sub-actions. 4 people stood out with their number of comments: Ala (F) posted 24 times on different entries; Participant3 (F) commented 11 times, but all of this as part of the complex discussion following of action 2. Participant4 (M) engaged in the conversation 11 times throughout the event; and prticipant13 (F) engaged 15 times, all of it in actions 2 and 6.  8 other people commented at least 5 times (Participant6 (M), Participant14 (F), Participant30 (F), Participant31 (M), Participant33 (M), Participant53 (M), Participant57 (M), Participant60 (M)). 19 people commented more than once, but less than 5 times. In general, different actions and sub-actions trigger different participation frameworks. The change is clearly visible, but overlap is present as well.

3.1 A complex, nonlinear social event made up of diverse actions

The event is nonlinear. There are thematic shifts, main lines of interactional activity interrupted by stand-alone dyadic interactions, and gender balance shifts. The first part of the event, actions 1-8, is dominated by female participants; actions 9- 34 shows a more gender-balanced profile, while from action 34 up until the final action 79, the interaction is dominated by male respondents.

It is also nonlinear in the sequential sense: people sometimes reply to comments, and thus perform responsive actions to ulterior actions, long after posterior actions had been performed. This is one of the particular affordances of SNS, and the clearest example of it here is the main action itself. Ala posted her original update at 12.37pm on March 14, 2016. This instantly triggered a heated discussion about the spelling and other errors in her text, starting with action 2 at 12.43. Ala edits her update about one hour later, after 16 turns in the discussion, which partly takes the sting out of the discussion on her language proficiency.

This brings us to the issue of actions in need of more precise descriptions. Ala’s update is, as we said, the main action. It introduces a thematic domain and an action format: she launches a request or invitation to Polish people working in Dutch greenhouse industries, to participate in a TV program she intends to make. The thematic domain, from then on, defines what is ‘on topic’ or ‘off topic’, and in that sense establishes the benchmarks for what we could call legitimate participation; the action format – a request – further establishes such benchmarks. The most ‘normal’ response to such an action is to accept or decline the request.

The main action, we can see, draws the main lines of the normative framework that will be deployed in judging the conduct of participants. The main action, in that sense, is always a normatively ratified action frame in which a preferred participation framework and preferred modes of activity are inscribed: people who collaborate with it (respond supportively and stay ‘on topic’) are welcome and legitimate participants; people who deviate from it are unwelcome and illegitimate participants. And at the end of the event, Ala can be satisfied. Of the 79 actions following her request, 31 are cooperative.[6] Participants either straightforwardly volunteer, add encouraging comments or offer further suggestions for developing Ala’s TV program.

But this is not all. Consider Figure 1, a graphic representation of the different actions that occur in the event:

ScreenHunter_575 Jun. 01 11.33

Figure 1: actions in the event.

We can see how the main action sets in motion not one line of action, but several: the event is a complex, nonlinear and composite event, made up of highly divergent actions, legitimate as well as illegitimate ones. And two lines of illegitimate divergence should be highlighted, for both can be said to originate, nonlinearly, from Ala’s main action.

One: Ala’s main action, we have seen, establishes the normative action and participant framework for the event. It is, however, also an action in its own right, the features of which are socio-semiotically salient as reflexive indexicals of identity. Thus, one very salient line of illegitimate participation revolves around the metapragmatics of Ala’s update. And this starts very quickly. After one first collaborative comment (action 1), a female participant (Participant 3) launches a direct attack on Ala’s update in action 2, just a handful of minutes after Ala’s update appeared online:

  1. Participant3 (F): Zajebista dziennikarka co bledy w pisowni robi..

Translation: Fucking great journalist who makes spelling mistakes…

Date:  March 14 at 12:43pm  Likes: 26

The comment, observe, receives 26 likes. In addition, it triggers several things. It triggers the longest series of replies to comments, 57, turning it into a ‘discussion-within-a-discussion’. We get a flurry of 48 replies in the hour following Participant 3’s comment; lower intensity interaction resumes later that night and continues until March 19.[7] Next to that, it also establishes language and identity as a separate line of activity throughout the event. Issues of orthographic stability and language competence are raised throughout this long discussion, and 13 actions directly or indirectly raise issues of language proficiency.[8] And finally, it triggers action censorship as part of the discussion: respondents are identifying linguistic errors of one another, but they are also engaging in self-correction by editing their original messages. Thus we can see that the formal, indexical features of the main action, apart from its thematic contours and action-and-participation frame, become a theme that informs all sorts of other actions, .[9] including general disparaging meta-commentaries such as in action 33:

  1. Participant45 (F): Jakby tak dokladnieprzepytac zasad gramatyki jezyka polskiego tych, co maja zawsze na ten temat duzo do powiedzenia….

Translation: If we only could test the knowledge of the Polish grammatical rules of those who always have so much to tell on this topic…

Date: March 14 at 4:02pm   Likes: 2

Or consider the actions 38 and 39 (and observe the expletives in 38, quite a frequent feature in the more heated parts of the event):

  1. Participant48 (F): Przeczytałam wszytkie te komentarze i dawno się tak… nie zdenerwowałam. Wstyd Wam powinno być wredne i zawistne baby!!! Ala Powodzenie i duzo sukcesów w pracy

Translation: I read all the comments and it has been a long time since I got so frustrated. Shame on you disgusting and envious chick !!! Ala good luck and lots of successes at work J

Date:  March 14 at 6:36pm  Likes:  5

  1. Participant49 (M): To wlasnie robi holandia z polakow

Translations: This is exactly what Holland makes of Poles

Date:  March 14 at 7:06pm  Likes:  2

Two: The topic proposed by Ala for her TV program – Polish workers in Dutch greenhouse industries – likewise becomes a self-standing motif provoking a range of comments and discussions. In several collaborative responses to Ala’s request, participants volunteer information about the labor conditions in such segments of the market, as in action 24:

  1. Participant36 (M): dalbym ci jeden temat jak lokuja ludzi jak swinie w oborach gdzie strumyk gownaplyniesrodkiem pokoju

Translation: I can give you one topic about how they locate people like pigs in barns where a stream of shit flows through the middle of the room

Date:  March 14 at 1:53pm  Likes: 0

Such collaborative responses are complemented by general remarks on The Netherlands, the Dutch people, and the Polish workers as well, and in the second part of the interaction a full-blown discussion develops on what we could call the ‘ethos’ of being a Polish immigrant worker in The Netherlands.[10] Consider the exchange in actions 45-47:

  1. Participant54 (M): skoro wam tak zle to dlacze zgadzacie siewciaz na takie traktowanie? zmiana pracy, poprostu. da sie inaczej troche wiary i samozaparcia a nie tylko narzekac

Translation: If it is so bad why do you still agree to be treated this way? Change job, as simple as that. You can do it differently, a little bit confidence and determination and not only complaining

Date:  March 14 at 11:41pm  Likes:  3

  1. Participant38 (F): Dokładnie zgadzam się całkowicie, trzeba pamiętać gdzie chciałoby się być i dążyć do tego małymi krokami. ….

Translation: Exactly I agree completely, you need to remember where you would like to be and to pursue one’s aim step by step.

Date:  March 15 at 6:04am  Likes:  1

  1. Participant55 (F): wystarczy się nauczyć holenderskiego i trochę postarać,ale wielu polakom się po prostu nie chce i wolą narzekać zamiast się ogarnąć

Translation: One only needs to learn Dutch and needs to strive a bit, but many polish people simply do not feel like it and they prefer to complain than to get a grip.

Date:  March 15 at 9:12am  Likes:  3

Ala is rarely addressed in those exchanges; in that sense they are illegitimate forms of participation in which participants ‘hijack’, so to speak, the broader thematic range of Ala’s update to engage in a discussion among themselves.[11] Such ‘nested’ discussions-within-discussions involve specific participation frameworks. Usually, a handful of participants dominate such divergent lines of action, excluding Ala and others. Yet, it is important to observe that this diverging line of discussion still has its roots in Ala’s main action; it is in that sense a nonlinear extension of it.

In sum, what we see is that over a period of five days, in 193 separate action, a complex social event unfolds in which varying groups of participants create a nonlinear web of actions, most of them rooted directly or indirectly in the main action but several of them involving important thematic and participation framework shifts. If we convert this now to the discourse of context collapse, we see different ‘audiences’ drawn from ‘networked publics’ engage in the interaction, jointly constructing something that looks quite chaotic and may yield confusion and tension. Let us now turn to this issue.

3.2 The rules of a complex game

The question is: given the chaotic mess of diverse actions and shifting participation frameworks, how do participants find their way around all of this? We shall address this question using the simple four-step interactionalist-sociolinguistic methodology mentioned above, and begin by a brief precision to the well-known notion of ‘contextualization’ (Gumperz 1982, 1992; Auer & DiLuzio 1992). Participants in interaction establish the meaning of what goes on in a particular situation by giving off and picking up ‘contextualization cues’. Such cues can be lodged in any and every aspect of communicative behavior: from language or language variety choice, register, style, genre and sequential organization to body posture, pitch, gestures, facial expression and gaze in spoken interaction. In written communication such as the ones we face on SNS, language and language variety (as we have seen) play a role, alongside specific orthographic (or heterographic: Blommaert 2008; Lillis 2013) forms of sign deployment including abbreviations, slang, emoticons and so forth.

Much of what these contextualization cues effectively do is to establish clarity about the action in which one is involved, and more specifically the chronotopic characteristics of the action: the ways in which different actions revolve around different thematic domains, include different kinds of participants and impose different normative patterns of actual conduct (cf. Goodwin & Goodwin 2004; also Blommaert 2015). This is not always a straightforward thing; in a celebrated article, the Goodwins quite long ago (Goodwin & Goodwin 1992) pointed to the fact that quite often, multiple interpretive frameworks (aka ‘contexts’) offer themselves in events, for “within actual interaction it is rare for only a single activity at a time to be on the table. Moreover those present may have competing agendas even within a single activity.” Therefore, according to the Goodwins, “[t]here are great analytical gains to be made by looking very closely at how particular activities are organized” (1992: 96; see also Rampton 2006 for elaborate illustrations). Needless to say, SNS interaction offers its own challenges in this respect, and the event we examine here is a case in point.

Yet, participants appear to be able to draw on a large and quite effective repertoire of forms of interactional conduct for sorting out what really goes on, and for ‘organizing’ their specific parts of the activity, to adopt the terminology of the Goodwins. So, too, in our example. Let us list some of the resources deployed by the participants in our event, starting with the simple ones.

Platform affordances

Facebook, like other SNS, offers a range of technologically configured tools for establishing ‘order’ in interactions. Two such tools demand particular attention here:

  • The system of comments and replies to comments, structuring both a sequentiality to FB discussion and a scaled hierarchical order of superordinate and subordinate comments.
  • The system of name tagging, enabling participants to select and identify direct addressees of an utterance and/or mention indirect addressees.

Both tools have disambiguating functions. The former enables participants to signal thematic coherence and scaled interactional roles. Posting a reply to a comment, for instance, signals a specific (subordinate, low-scale) reaction to the one who posted the (superordinate, higher-scale) comment, while it still, in a more flexible sense, remains inserted in the entire (highest-scale) discussion launched by the update. The assumption in comments and replies is that the superordinate participant is the addressee. Thus, if we go back to the examples above, action 24, the “you” is clearly Ala; and Ala is also the “fucking great journalist” in action 2.

The latter, evidently and explicitly, serves the direct function of addressee selection: from the potentially infinite ‘networked publics’, specific individuals are identified as the direct addressee in interaction. This does not prevent others from interfering, so to speak; but the function of name tagging is obvious, straightforward and effective, as we can observe here:

5.2 Participant22 (F): Participant3 powala mnie Twoja POPRAWNOŚĆ JĘZYKOWA.. A tak szczerze to współczuję takim ludziom jak Ty I Participant13. Miłego wieczoru

Translation: Participant3 I’ am absolutely blown away by your LANGUAGE CORRECTNESS… But honestly I feel sorry for people like you andParticipant13. Have a nice evening

Both tools are abundantly used in our example. We shall discuss an example in which we see both tools in practice in a moment. Let us note, at this point, that while both tools are clear in design and prescribed functions, deviations can be observed. In the event we examine here, people do not always move to the reply-to-comments tool for direct dyadic interaction – see the example of actions 45-47 above in which participants use comments for direct responses and additions to previous turns. And the example of action 38 above shows us that just naming or nicknaming people, rather than tagging them, serves the same function of addressee selection (“Ala” in action 38). Observe also, that the sequentiality offered by these tools may be undone by the non-sequentiality of real actions: a response to an utterance may come several turns after the utterance – other participants having responded more rapidly – which can give rise to misunderstandings as to addressee. We see very few instances of this in our event; one will be documented in the sample analysis below. In general, thus, we do not witness much ‘context collapse’ in our data, and these tools are a major factor in this.

Those platform affordances are technological resources specific to SNS; participants, however, also draw on cultural resources in the organization of their activities.

Policing

Goffman’s work is replete with descriptions of how people who are not necessarily profoundly acquainted with each other construct, observe and police rules for engaging in interaction (e.g. Goffman 1961, 1971, 1981). As soon as people have established the nature of a particular social action and the situation in which it will develop, such rules are used continually to maintain ‘order’ in the event. The most common way of doing that is by simply observing the rules of the game and adjusting one’s conduct to the chronotopic normative framework which has been ratified in the action. A more exceptional way is by ‘policing’ the event: explicitly stating or emphasizing the rules, especially when they have been violated, emphatically pointing to more appropriate modes of conduct for transgressing participants, outright excluding them, or qualifying them with labels flagging illegitimate participation.

In our data, a good deal of such policing occurs. Above, we already pointed to the fact that the event consists of a variety of activities, some directly responding to Ala’s main action (and, thus, ‘legitimate’) while others took a more divergent path only indirectly related to the main action. The latter activities, of course, are possible targets for policing, and Ala does quite a bit of that, particularly when she judges participants to be off-topic or negatively biased towards her:

6.9 Ala (F): jak Pani sie nic nie ma do powiedzenia, to proszesie nie mieszac

Translation: If you do not have anything to say, then please do not interfere

Date:  March 14 at 2:02pm  Likes: 0

Other participants do the same; here, Participant 4 directly addresses Participant 3 in response to action 2 (see above):[12]

2.13 Participant4 (M): Co sieczepiasz?nudzi Ci sie to pozmywaj gary.

Translation: Why are you picking on her? If you are bored, then clean the dishes.

Date:  March 14 at 12:54pm  Likes:  31

A little bit further in the same part of the event a female participant ‘rectifies’ a male one about gender bias in interactions such as those (the start of a self-contained ‘nested’ interaction on gender issues, ultimately involving four participants, 2.38-2.47):

2.38 Participant6 (M): Jakoś mnie wcale nie dziwi, że same kobiety komentują ten wątek;-)

Translation: Somehow I am not surprised that only women comment on this thread.

Date:  March 14 at 3:31pm  Likes: 0  Edited: 2

2.39 Participant13 (F): Participant6 wojnę chcesz rozpętać? O co cho?

Translation: Participant6 would you like to wage war? What’s your problem?

Date:  March 14 at 3:32pm  Likes:  0

We note frequent meta-commentaries dismissive of deviant conduct by participants, such as those:

2.50 Participant4 (M): Adek jak sie wyrwał.hehe

Translation: Adek how you blurt out. Hehe

[Adek is Participant18 who posted a reply earlier and who supposedly changed his name through the course of the conversation, eventually deleting his profile]

Date:  March 15 at 6:09am  Likes: 1

2.51 Participant20 (M): nie umiesz czytac idiotko? chyba dziewczyna wyjasnila czemu popelnia bledy. Niektorzy polacy calkiem zapominaja swojej ojczystej mowy!

Translation: Can’t you read idiot [idiot is in its female form]? A girl explained why she makes mistakes. Some polish people completely forget their native speech!

[This comment does not have a direct addressee, but most likely it is directed to Participant3, as the comment appears as a reply to the original post of Participant3]

Date:  March 15 at 9:49pm  Likes: 0

Adding to that, participants appearing overly aggressive or persistently uncooperative are labeled as ‘trolls’ – a well-known category of illegitimate participants on SNS:

  1. Participant57 (M): Tak tak pochwalcie się jak żałośni jesteścieże was biura walą w rogi. Ale oni walą tylko tych co sobie pozwalają na takie traktowanie. Jak ktoś jest sierota w życiu to trzeba to w tv pokazać.

Translation: Yes, yes, boast about how pathetic you are because the offices put something over you. But they only deceive those who allow them to be treated in this way. If someone is a wimp in life, it is necessary to show on TV.

Date:  March 15 at 12:48pm  Likes: 1  Edited: 2

48.1 Participant53 (M):Taki w gębie mocny jesteś? Widać zes robiony na próbę a starzy zapomnieli cie udusić. Internetowy trollu.

Translation: This is how big mouth you have got? It is clear that you have been made in a trial and your folks forgot to judge you. Internet troll

Date:  March 15 at 10:38am  Likes:  3

48.2 Participant52 (M):Pewnie koordynator pierdolony, ktory sam rodakow w dupe ruche na hajs. Participant57 korwa pozal sie boze

Translation: Probably fucking coordinator, who fucks his compatriots in the ass for money himself. Participant57 [addressed with first name], fuck, pathetic.

Date:  March 16 at 7:14pm  Likes:  0

We also see participants informing others of mistakes in perception, i.e. reshaping a ‘correct’ universe of interpretation for the interaction:

2.53 Participant20 (M): Adek sam walisz literowki cycu a innych uczysz

Translation: Adek you make spelling mistakes yourself, and you try to teach others

Date:  March 15 at 10:01pm  Likes: 0

2.54 Participant13 (F): Participant20 post Ali był edytowany

Translation: Participant20 the post by Ala was edited

Date:  March 16 at 8:43am  Likes:  0

A final form of policing is redirecting interaction. As soon as certain boundaries of information are judged to be reached, instructions are given to move to another form of interaction. When participants respond positively to Ala’s invitation to participate in the TV program, she redirects them towards the personal messaging function of Facebook; in a number of instances, this redirection is proposed to Ala by participants themselves, and of course there may have been people who did not participate in the discussion but contacted Ala directly through personal messaging. This function – another technical affordance – is well known and Ala, in the example below, can use slang to identify it:

  1. Participant25 (F): Ja chętnie opowiem 🙂 mam ciekawe doświadczenia:)

Translation: I will gladly tell my story J I have interesting experiences J

Date:  March 14 at 12:49pm  Likes:  1

7.1 Ala (F): chetnie na priw

Translation: Willingly on priv

Date: March 14 at 12:49pm  Likes:  0

Participants insisting on proof of Ala’s authenticity as a Polish journalist equally get redirected to the personal messaging tool; clear boundaries are being marked between what is allowable and what is not in specific formats of interaction:

76.3 Participant63 (F): jezelijestes uczciwa to podaj swoje nazwisko nie tylko Ala

Translation: If you are honest then give your surname not only Ala.

Date: March 19 at 10:25am  Likes: 0

76.4 Ala (F): Kto do mnie pisze dostaje

Translation: The ones who write to me get it.

Date: March 19 at 12:26pm  Likes: 0

Thus, a very broad and powerful range of norms appears to be at play in this complex event, guiding and directing actions, both specifically in themselves and in relation to more general line of action – Ala’s main action, conventions established within the Facebook group, or rules projected onto appropriate interactional behavior on SNS in general. The event is extremely complex, but not unregulated – on the contrary, there is a continuous articulation, implicitly as well as explicitly, of norms of legitimate participation. And there is an across-the-board exploitation of the platform affordances available to participants, supporting the organization of actions. All of these elements serve the purpose of contextualization, of helping participants understanding what goes on in such complex interactions.

3.3 Navigating multiple contexts

Let us now close this empirical examination with a sample analysis in which the comments and observations made above can be synthetically combined.

Recall the warning provided by the Goodwins: we rarely see just one action in real bits of interaction; more often we observe people making sense of complex overlapping and interlocking activities, through elaborate work of contextualization. We have already seen the particular complications generated by SNS interactions: it is scripted discourse, the sequential occurrence of it does not necessarily mirror the interactional sequentiality. Add to this the diversity of participants and the lack or fragmentation of mutual knowledge among participants, and we get an idea of the tasks of contextualization confronting participants.

In our data, the actions 2.26 to 2.36 generously illustrate the complexity of interaction on SNS such as Facebook. Remember that this fragment occurs in the long interaction following action 2 (performed by Participant 3), quoted earlier. Let us look at the full transcript of this part of the event.

Fragment 2.26-2.36

2.26 Participant15 (F):Participant 3 [Adressed with Miss and only first name], pisze się “nie rozumiem”, a nie “nie rozumie”  to tak w gwoli ścisłości co do Pani znajomości języka polskiego. Pozdrawiam serdecznie

Translation: Miss Participant3, you write [“nierozumiem”] and not [“nierozumie”] I do not understand J This is to the preciseness of your Polish Language competences. The warmest greetings

Date:  March 14 at 2:36pm  Likes:  10  Edited: 2

2.27 Participant16 (F): A ty Participant3? [Adressed with the first name only] może pochwalilabys się znajomością holenderskiego??? Wstyd robisz jadąc po kimś kto wyemigrował dawno temu i być może nie miał styczności w dużej mierze z językiem polskim. Znam wielu takich ludzi… Ala życzę powodzenia!!! I wybacz tym zawistnym ludziom.

Translation: And you Participant3? Maybe you would like to boast about with your knowledge of Dutch??? It’s a disgrace to besmirch someone who emigrated long time ago and maybe was not heavily exposed to Polish language. I know many people like that… Ala I wish you good luck!! And forgive these envious people.

Date:  March 14 at 2:35pm  Likes:  10

2.28 Participant10 (F): Participant15 przeczytaj swój ostatni komentarz i zastanów się nad sobą i nad tym co piszesz. Nie widzisz czubka swojego nosa a innym błędy wytykasz. Straszne chamstwo tutaj. Z pustaka cegły się nie zrobi.

Translation: Participant15read your last comment and rethink your own actions and what you have been writing. You cannot see an inch beyond your nose, but you point out others’ mistakes. Terrible boorishness here. You won’t make a brink out of an air-brick

Date:  March 14 at 2:38pm  Likes:  2

2.29 Participant14 (F): Czubka swojego nosa to nie widzi Pani Participant3. Polecam przeczytać sobie posty od początku, bo chyba jakieś nieporozumienie zaszło. Pani Participant15 wypowiedziała się treściwie I kulturalnie.

Translation: Mrs Participant3 is the one who does not see an inch beyond her nose. I recommend to read the posts from the beginning, because I think that that some misunderstanding arose here. Mrs Participant15 expressed herself concisely and politely.

Date:  March 14 at 2:41pm  Likes: 3

2.30 Participant13 (F): Participant14 ale napisała “w gwoli” i czar prysł haha😛

Translation: Participant14, but she wrote preciseness “w gwoli”[it should be written gwoli scislosci] and the spell broke hahah

Date:  March 14 at 2:42pm  Likes:  0

2.31 Participant15 (F): Pani Participant10, dziewczyna napisała posta, radzi sobie jak radzi w języku polskim, ważne jest jednak, że sobie radzi. Wytłumaczyło się bieżącego nawet na wstępie dlaczego pisze tak, a nie inaczej. Została zaatakowana i wyśmiana przez innego członka grupy, który niestety ani poziomem elokwencji, ani poprawnej poprawnej pisowni poszczycić się nie może. Pani więc wybaczy ale zastosowałam stare powiedzenie: kto jest bez winy niech pierwszy rzuci kamień. Pozdrawiam

Translation: Mrs Participant10 [addressed with first name only], the girl wrote this post, she manages the way she can in Polish language, the important thing is however that she manages. She explained right from the start why she writes in this fashion and not differently. She was attacked and derided by another member of this group, who unfortunately cannot pride oneself with the level of eloquence nor correct spelling. You forgive me miss, but I will use here an old saying: the one who is with no guilt should throw the stone first. Greetings.

Date:  March 14 at 2:43pm  Likes: 5

2.32 Participant10 (F): Przepraszam, źle zrozumiałam, myślałam że Pani atakuje Alę. Przepraszam raz jeszcze

Translation: I am sorry, I misunderstood, I thought that you were attacking Ala. Once again, I am sorry

Date:  March 14 at 2:45pm  Likes:  0

2.33 Participant15 (F): Mea culpa Mrs Participant13  ☺ gwoli ścisłości ☺

Translation: Mea Culpa Mrs Participant13 Jgwoli scislosciJ[corrects her spelling error]

Date:  March 14 at 2:46pm  Likes: 1

2.34 Participant13 (F): Participant15 Amen! Pozdrawiam 😉

Translation: Participant15 Amen! Greetings 😉

Date:  March 14 at 2:47pm  Likes:  1

2.35 Participant14 (F): Participant13, również należę do osób, które lubią ogładę wypowiedzi i ortograficzno-gramatyczną poprawność. Ale nie napastujmy tych, którzy tak pisać nie potrafią.

Translation: Participant13, I also belong to people, who like neat utterances/ statements and orthographic-grammatical correctness. But let’s not harass those, who cannot write like that.

Date:  March 14 at 2:47pm  Likes:  0

2.36 Participant13 (F): Participant14 zgadzam się. Nie napastujmy. W ogóle nikogo nie napastujmy. Ale dla mnie było niejasne jak osoba, która nie potrafi pisać jest dziennikarką. I wyjaśniło się. Dlatego cofnęłam mój wstępny hejt 😂

Translation: Participant14 I agree. Let’s not harass them. In general, let’s not harass anybody. For me it was unclear how a person, who cannot write can be a journalist. And it explained itself. That’s why I took back my initial troll/ hater message.

Date:  March 14 at 2:54pm  Likes:  1

There are four main participants (all of them female) in this bit of interaction: Participants 10, 13, 14 and 15. The interaction starts with two consecutive direct reactions to action 2, in which Participant 3 is directly addressed; in 2.26 Participant 15 reacts, and in 2.27 Participant 16 joins in; both get a large number of likes. Action 2.26 the becomes the object of a response (20.28) by Participant 10, directly addressing Participant 15. Both participants will continue their exchange in 2.31 and 2.32. This, we could say, is one conversation.

But in between the turns of the interaction by Participants 10 and 15, Participant 14 has placed a reaction to 2.28, attacking Participant 3 and defending Participant 15. Again, we can see this as an attempt at ‘correcting’ the context, as a form of policing in other words. This intervention, however, is immediately followed by a riposte in 2.30 from Participant 13, pointing out to Participant 14 a writing error in Participant 15’s earlier utterance. This, we could say, is a second conversation.

Action 2.30, next, becomes the point of departure for two more conversations. Participant 15 responds in 2.33 to Participant 13 with “mea culpa”, to which Participant 13 adds “Amen” in 2.34. Remember that participant 14 was mentioned in 2.30, but was only an indirectly addressed participant in that sense. The direct addressee of 2.30, Participant 14, responds in 2.35, and this conversation ends with conciliatory words from Participant 13 in 2.36. Observe how in 2.36 mention is made of a feature of SNS interaction we already encountered: Participant 13 refers to an earlier comment she had removed from the interaction.

Each of the four participants is involved in two separate conversations in this fragment, and the response in one conversation (viz. 2.28 and 2.30) can serve as the point of departure for another one – thus action 2.30 is the point of departure of two separate conversations. Shifts from one conversation into another are swiftly made, mostly by means of name tagging, and no misunderstandings occur, in spite, even, of the odd sequentiality of written texts in the reply tool.

Graphically, the different actions – four interlocking conversations, in which each participant is involved in two of them – can be represented as follows:

ScreenHunter_610 Jun. 25 12.35

Figure 2: Four interlocking conversations.

Each conversation, needless to say, demands its own small chunk of specific context (and, thence, its specific forms of contextualization); each one needs to be marked indexically by participants as separate from others, while still in some way connected to higher-scale ones; and all need to be sustained and concluded in collaboration with people who might be, and often are, strangers in offline life. This complex work is done by the participants without much apparent difficulty. The participants in this bit of SNS discourse (of whom we cannot assume much mutual knowledge) successfully navigated multiple contexts activated in overlapping, interlocking actions, awkwardly occurring as written signs on a screen.

Does context really collapse?

Let us summarize what we have seen in our case analysis.

  1. We have observed a complex and compound social action, the ‘event’ as we called it. This event is non-homogeneous thematically, in terms of modes of interaction and styles of expression, and in terms of participation frameworks.
  2. This means that this event was made up of an intricate web of nonlinearly organized sub-actions: comments, replies to comments and so forth;
  3. This web of actions displayed specific interaction modes and participation frameworks, all demanding normative enactment. Participants appeared to have a high awareness of the rules of the game, most clearly when they explicitly policed parts of it.
  4. Each of these actions showed a relatively unproblematic ‘context’: participants used various mechanisms to solve possible complications in addressee selection, provided useful correcting information to each other, and completed complex interactional tasks.
  5. All in all, participants displayed an acutely accurate sense of the specific actions they were involved in, adjusted their conduct accordingly and sanctioned that of others.

The event, recall, did not take place on a personal Facebook wall; it happened on a forum serving a large community, and it is safe to assume that the administrators of the forum do not personally know every member of the forum. In that sense, the case we have analyzed could have been sensitive – even typically so – to context collapse as a feature of SNS communication. We did not see any evidence of that; we saw a good deal of evidence to the contrary: that participants have a pretty well developed sense of what they are involved in, with whom, and how – their contextualization skills were rather advanced and did not seem to slacken in the face of a lengthy, meandering and often high-tempered SNS discussion. Contexts did not collapse; if anything, they multiplied and expanded into a mountain range.

They are, however, specific contexts characteristic of specific forms of action. Responding to a question involves a different kind of context than launching expletives to a participant whose conduct was judged to be inadmissible; and volunteering to collaborate with Ala in her TV project involved yet another context than challenging her credentials as a Polish journalist. Regarding SNS interaction, to repeat Goodwin & Goodwin’s (1992: 96) words, “there are great analytical gains to be made by looking very closely at how particular activities are organized”. Too general a picture leads to superficial, and sometimes factually unsubstantiated claims and insights. We found such aims and insights in studies on context collapse.

As we said at the outset, it is not our intention here to dismiss or disqualify what scholars have described as context collapse. Our intention was to bring a more precise picture to the table, and what we hope to have shown is that the term perhaps stands for a smaller set of actual SNS communication phenomena than often suggested. Yes, there may be moments where SNS users experience discomfort by the indeterminacy of addressees and that issues of privacy determinate the choice of modes of interactions and of participation frameworks. Let us use the term context collapse for such phenomena. But let us remember that in the data we presented here, addressee selection as well as the segmentation of, and shifts between, participation frameworks did not lead to substantial difficulties. People do usually not address “audiences”, they select specific addressees and, depending on the specific nature of the action they are involved in, are not overly disturbed when others join in.

Let us therefore not use context collapse as a general feature – a defining feature – of SNS communication. Even if the Web 2.0 has shaped tools affording the construction of terribly complex modes of interaction (such as the one we documented here), and even if such degrees of complexity have no equivalent in the offline world of interaction, people actually appear to know their way around. They appear to have built forms of competence for maneuvering such complex interactions, and for determining their possible (and desired) roles in them. The sociation processes shaped by SNS are new and have no precedent. But they can still be described as forms of social action collaboratively performed by people drawing on the available resources and the normative expectations they hold with regard to specific forms of social action. It is this capacity that we call ‘contextualization’, and this capacity appears to be quite flexible, expandable and dynamic when we look at actual instances of SNS communication.

References

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Notes

[1] The data for this paper are drawn from Gosia Szabla’s fieldwork on the online and offline networks in the Polish community in Belgium and The Netherlands.

[2] The assumption that dyadic spoken conversation is the most ‘elementary’ kind of interaction is a widespread one in several branches of language and communication studies – Conversation Analysis, of course, being the most prominent one. The assumption is however vulnerable to a broad set of critical objections, and we can distinguish some broad lines of critique: (a) a ‘primordialist’ critique in which one might argue that rather than ‘conversation’, ‘narrative’ might as well be considered the most elementary form of interaction (many narratives are conversationally organized), or ‘argumentation’ (many conversations are argumentative); (b) a culture-historical one revolving around the observation that communication cultures today are, almost everywhere, marked by spoken and written forms of communication, where the suggestion that 21st century adolescents in, say, Copenhagen, would still draw their cultural assumptions about communication from spoken forms only is hard to sustain; and (c) an analytical one observing that ‘conversation’, as an activity type, can be broken up into several sub-types such as narratives, question-answer sequences, silence and so forth – ‘conversation’ is too rough a label to cover such diversity. We adopt and shall use this latter objection in our analysis.

[3] Though we cannot belabor this point to any satisfactory degree in the space of this paper, the event presented as a case here is in itself, of course, an abstraction. The Facebook discussion we examine here appeared on a forum, and the histories of themes, modes of interactions, shifting ‘camps’ and conflicts on this forum evidently provide a backdrop – a higher-scale context – for what happened in the case we focus on. The sensitivities regarding the ‘correctness’ of the Polish language, for instance, were frequently articulated on the forum, as was, more generally, the issue of what it means to be a ‘true’ Polish migrant.

[4] Initially, the conversation received 75 likes; on June 22, 2017 (date of data retrieval) there were 73 likes. 11 to the initial message, and 65 to the edited one. There were no new comments after March 19, 2016. The entire data set, in transcript, can be consulted on https://alternative-democracy-research.org/2017/06/26/data-set-context-collapse/

[5] The translations from Polish into English were very challenging, due to (a) the features of online SNS writing (abbreviations, erratic case usage and punctuation, emoticons, slang); (b) the thematic salience of ‘correctness’ in Polish language display in these data, which caused participants to edit their comments or willfully play with it. Since this thematic issue is not the core of our argument here, we decided to render the essence of the utterances in our translations, but without trying to reproduce the grammatical errors in English.

[6] Actions 1, 7, 10-13, 15-19, 23-29, 31-32, 34-35, 42-44, 48-49, 60, 74-75, 77.

[7] This observation points to a different feature of SNS interaction: the fact that phases of high-velocity interaction are alternated with phases of slower and more fragmented interaction. We must reserve a fuller discussion of this feature for later work.

[8] Actions 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 22, 27, 33, 36, 41, 60, 65, 72.

[9] At one or two points in the discussion, participants suggest that Ala is not a journalist at all, that she is a fraud, an unreliable person and so forth. We did not include those items in our count of actions related to language proficiency and its relationship to Polish identity, although there might be a case for seeing it as a further branching of the same theme. As noted earlier, the broad theme of Polish identity (and its defining forms of conduct) is a recurrent one in this Facebook group, and this is where we observe the broader context seeping into this particular event, creating indexical links across separate events (cf. Wortham & Reyes 2015).

[10] A Total of 28 comments (not counting replies) can be listed in this category: actions 15, 19-21, 23-28, 30-31, 39-40, 42-47, 51-52, 54-58, 74.

[11] Similarly, the actions 2.38-2.47 are a self-standing, quite combative discussion between a male and female participant in gender issues in the discussion.

[12] Observe the number of ‘likes’ attached to 2.13 in spite of the gender bias of the utterance. The term for ‘(nit)picking’ introduced in this utterance was adopted by several other participants in later actions.

by-nc

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TINA undressed 2: History without agency

banksy_rat_you_lie_doorway

Jan Blommaert 

This morning, ING Bank announced a worldwide restructuration in which 7,000 jobs will be cut, about half of which in its Belgian branch. The restructuration did not come as a surprise to many employees and observers, in spite of ING having done not too badly at all – the last decade saw a net profit of around 11 billion Euro, with over 7 billion in dividend, and a 30% increase in the CEO’s remuneration last year. So it is not that the bank is on the brink of collapse or that its shares are nosediving. Thus, why this range of deep-cutting measures?

ING communicated its decision in a statement called “Accelerating Think Forward“. The restructuration is part of a strategy implemented since 2014 (“Think Forward”), which now demands acceleration, more specifically “a number of initiatives to further improve the customer experience, further grow primary customers and lending, and increase efficiency”. The bank has done quite well, as we have seen. However, says CEO Ralph Hamers, “[w]e also promised to keep getting better and that is exactly what today’s steps are aimed at. Our recent successes allow us to do so from a position of strength.”

The past is, thus, just the take-off for the future. This future is by definition not known. But nevertheless, ING reads the signs:

“Customers are increasingly digital and bank with us more and more through mobile devices. Their needs and expectations are the same, all over the world, and they expect us to adopt new technology as fast as companies in other sectors. In order to continue to lead in digital banking, we need to offer a better customer experience, that’s instant, personal, frictionless and relevant. At the same time, banks are confronted with continuous regulatory burden and a prolonged period of ultra-low interest rates. These factors put pressure on the returns which are necessary to fund growth and investments, and cover our cost of capital.”

Observe how ING suggests that the prime mover behind this plan is the customer, whose preferences, demands and expectations have shifted into a direction that demands “a better customer experience, that’s instant, personal, frictionless and relevant”. Money only appears at the very end of the statement:

“In line with our strategy, we will be introducing ING Group financial targets for 2020. We will maintain our ING Group CET1 ratio above the prevailing fully-loaded requirement, currently 12.5%, with a leverage ratio above 4%. Our target for the cost/income ratio is 50-52%. In light of the continuing regulatory uncertainty, we are not updating our RoE target (currently 10-13% of ING Bank IFRS-EU equity), but we reiterate our intention to pay a progressive dividend over time.”

Given that we are talking about a bank operating in a competitive global banking universe and owned by shareholders demanding specific levels of return on investment, it is relatively safe to suspect that the real prime mover is profit, and that the new customer experience is a means to that end.

The reversal of those two elements brings us to the TINA (There is no alternative) frame. In an earlier piece I discussed how a particular discursive use of identity forms part of the TINA frame; here we see similar things happening with history. And to summarize the point, we see how in the ING statement, a particular distinction is made between

  • history with agency, and
  • history without agency

The history-with-agency is the strategy presented by the bank. Its plan “Thinking Forward” already incorporates a clear agentive frame – it’s the bankers who think – and “accelerating” that plan is obviously also something decided more or les sovereignly by the bank’s executives. The strategy, in short, articulates how the bank intends to control a future through specific measures designed to benefit from…. a history over which they have no agency. And this history-without-agency is described in the paragraph in which the developments in customer expectations and market circumstances are given.

From a purely factual viewpoint, the bank has co-shaped all the conditions presented in that paragraph. ING customers have, for years, been pushed towards more digital and less branch-based banking activities through measures implemented by no one else but the bank (and often contested by the customers themselves). The same goes for the “regulatory context” referred to, including the “ultra-low interest rates”, which occured often both in response to existing banking problems, as well as at the request of banking lobbies. None of these forces, thus, can structly be depicted as alien, outside forces over which the bank has no control. The same counts a fortiori for the elephant in the room: profitability target setting. The shareholders are the bank, and as we have seen in the fragment above, they have received 10-13% percent “Return on Equity” – a quite extraordinary level of profit, reflecting, one could say, quite unrealistic levels of expected profit growth. And these target settings are not forced upon the bank by outside forces.

The paradox, however, is that ING presents the entire operation as a rational response – their agency – to forces of history that they can only follow, by trying to remain ahead of them. In other words: they are suggesting that they respond to historical forces by shaping them. “Sorry, but there is no other way to respond to future challenges than to create them ourselves.” This paradox is nicely woven into the delicate discourse of cause-and-effect in the statement, and this particular discursive move feeds into the TINA frame: things are what they are, there is no alternative for history than a future shaped by us. We can see this nicely in this final fragment:

“While not all plans we present today are finalized, the intended initiatives are expected to result in a reduction of ING´s workforce in Belgium by around 3,500 FTEs and by around 2,300 FTEs in the Netherlands for the years 2016-2021. These numbers include the intended move to an integrated banking platform, with the remainder of functions affected spread over intended programmes in IT, operations, Wholesale Banking and various business support functions. At the same time, we will add colleagues in parts of our business where we expect to accelerate growth given our plans to continue to attract new customers and increase lending to support the economies we are active in.”

It’s all about agency here, and incidentally the agency articulated here touches precisely those causal forces previously described as beyond the grasp of the bank – the objective directions of history in the banking world.

At the heart of TINA, there is a lie – we all know that. The lie revolves around the suggestion of non-agency, of absolute and uncontrollable actors shaping fields of action in which those using the TINA frame claim to have just minimal, responsive, and therefore rational agency. While in fact, they are the actors. In other words: they pretend to be the victims of a future they themselves are engineering. And this future is, of course, an absolute and undisputable given, to which they can only adjust their course of action.

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TINA undressed 1: Identity politics as identity without politics

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Jan Blommaert 

On a hot day in July 2016, four policemen walked onto a beach in Nice, France, ordered a Muslim woman to take off part of her hijab dress, in full view of dozens of other tourists, and fined her for violations of the local decency regulations. The incident was captured by a photographer (which makes the public undressing even more disconcerting) and the images went viral. They triggered a fierce international debate on the why and how of such interventions, in which Muslim female dress is seen as a direct index of a deeper threat – that of jihadism.

How could these four policemen see their intervention as “normal”? After all, one can question, on grounds of common sense, quite a few aspects of a situation in which four armed men order a woman to publicly undress, and sanction her “over-dressedness” on a beach as an act of indecency. The answer can be found elsewhere, in a feature of public debate which has become pervasive whenever Islam and its (real or imagined) characteristics are the theme. There is a highly peculiar use of identity in such arguments, and I shall attempt to sketch it in what follows.

As I said, the incident triggered a massive debate in mass and social media, in which broadly two camps could be discerned. One camp saw the police action as normal and argued that hijab does not belong in our society, since it is an emblem of Islamic backwardness regarding male-female equality. The other camp saw it as a transgression of civil liberties – the freedom of religion – and as an illustration of the absurdities to which the War on Terror (read: the West versus Islam) had led. Both camps overlap to some extent (but certainly not in absolute terms, as we shall see) with the traditional Right-Left distinctions in the political field.

In Belgium, too, this debate raged, and the Belgian-Flemish Social-democrats took a position which largely sided with the first camp. For this, evidently, they were attacked by fractions of the Left. And on 15 August, a member of the Social Democratic party posted the following update on Facebook (Dutch original, my translation).

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There is, in se, nothing remarkable about the text, other than that it combines several arguments found in hundreds of other interventions in these discussion. I summarize them as follows:

  1. The text makes a neat distinction between “us and them”, and both parties are treated in a fundamentally different way.
  2. The “us” party is characterized by epistemic superiority: we know how wrong “they” are, and we know what “they” should do in response to that.
  3. The “they” party is described as a situated entity in the “here-and-now” chronotope. Their actual and concrete behavior is the focus of discussion.
  4. The “we” party, in contrast, is described as absolute and timeless, in a “here-always” chronotope, by invoking “our” history (Enlightenment) and “our” values.
  5. “Their” behavior is political: concrete forms of behavior are seen as an immediate and distinct threat to “democracy”. Our reaction to this, in contrast, is explicitly depoliticized and presented as a simple factual, rational, observation.

This neat (and recurrent) separation of different universes for “us” and “them” enables the author to conclude that the Social-Democratic emphasis on law and order has nothing to do with traditional political Left-Right distinctions. It is a matter of rational reasoning – a simple statement of “problems” – which refers not to specific really-existing political directions, but to our fundamental identity. Thus, it wasn’t President Hollande’s socialism that motivated the four policemen’s action, it was the values of Enlightenment.

We see here how identity is used as a very powerful argument, suggested to transcend everyday politics and to be played out at an existential and timeless level of essential identity. Small features of “their” behavior can now be seen as absolute challenges to who we are, and as in need of responses that protect that fundamental identity. Such responses can – or must – be given by political actors of all shades and colors: actual political positions (and traditions) do not matter here, for our very essence is at stake. And just like in economic matters, addressing the threat of Islam is captured in the TINA frame – there is only one way to respond to it, and that is to defend the absolute status of “our way” and accept no compromise, let alone an alternative strategy, in that battle. Since there is just one way, this way must be “rational”.

Decades ago, scholars such as Manuel Castells, Immanuel Wallerstein and Eric Hobsbawm warned us that identity would become the battlefield of the globalized political world. They were right, and we begin to see how this battlefield is organized: by a politics of identity which denies its political – contestable and debatable – nature, and instead offers itself as an absolute feature.

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Mathematics and its ideologies (an anthropologist’s observations)

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Jan Blommaert 

What is science? The question has been debated in tons of papers written over about two centuries and resulting in widely different views. Most people practicing science, consequently, prefer a rather prudent answer to the question, leaving some space for views of science that do not necessarily coincide with their own, but at least appear to share some of its basic features – the assumption, for instance, that knowledge is scientific when it has been constructed by means of methodologies that are shared intersubjectively by a community of scientific peers. The peer-group sharedness of such methodologies enables scientific knowledge to be circulated for critical inspection by these peers; and the use of such ratified methodologies and the principle of peer-group critique together form the “discipline” – the idea of science as disciplined knowledge construction.

There are, however, scientists who have no patience for such delicate musings and take a much narrower and more doctrinaire view of science and its limits. I already knew that – everyone, I suppose, has colleagues who believe that science is what they do, and that’s it. But a small recent reading offensive on the broad social science tradition called Rational Choice (henceforth RC) made me understand that such colleagues are only a minor nuisance compared to hardcore RC believers. For the likes of Arrow, Riker, Buchanan and their disciples, now spanning three generations,”scientific” equals “mathematical”, period. Whatever is not expressed mathematically cannot be scientific; even worse, it is just “intuition”, “metaphysics” or “normativity”. And in that sense it is even dangerous: since “bad” science operates from such intuitive, metaphysical or normative assumptions, it sells ideology under the veil of objectivity and will open the door to totalitarian oppression. What follows is a critique of mathematics as used in RC.

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Sonja Amadae (2003), in a book I enjoyed reading, tells the story of how RC emerged out of Cold War concerns in the US. It was the RAND Corporation that sought, at the end of World War II and the beginning of the nuclear era, to create a new scientific paradigm that would satisfy two major ambitions. First, it should provide an objective, scientific grounding for decision-making in the nuclear era, when an ill-considered action by a soldier or a politician could provoke the end of the world as we knew it. Second, it should also provide a scientific basis for refuting the ideological (“scientific”) foundations of communism, and so become the scientific bedrock for liberal capitalist democracy and the “proof” of its superiority. This meant nothing less than a new political science, one that had its basis in pure “rational” objectivity rather than in partisan, “irrational” a priori’s. Mathematics rose to the challenge and would provide the answer.

Central to the problem facing those intent on constructing such a new political science was what Durkheim called “the social fact” – the fact that social phenomena cannot be reduced to individual actions, developments or concerns – or, converted into a political science jargon, the idea of the “public” or “masses” performing collective action driven by collective interests. This idea was of course central to Marxism, but also pervaded mainstream social and political science, including the (then largely US-based) Frankfurt School and the work of influential American thinkers such as Dewey. Doing away with it involved a shift in the fundamental imagery of human beings and social life, henceforth revolving around absolute (methodological) individualism and competitiveness modeled on economic transactions in a “free market” by people driven exclusively by self-interest. Amadae describes how this shift was partly driven by a desire for technocratic government performed by “a supposedly ‘objective’ technocratic elite” free from the whims and idiosyncracies of elected officials (2003: 31). These technocrats should use abstract models – read mathematical models – of “systems analysis”, and RAND did more than its share developing them. “Rational management” quickly became the key term in the newly reorganized US administration, and the term stood for the widespread use of abstract policy and decision-making models.

These models, as I said, involved a radically different image of humans and their social actions. The models, thus, did not just bring a new level of efficiency to policy making, they reformulated its ideological foundations. And Kenneth Arrow provided the key for that with his so-called “impossibility theorem”, published in his Social Choice and Individual Values (1951; I use the 1963 edition in what follows). Arrow’s theorem quickly became the basis for thousands of studies in various disciplines, and a weapon of mass political destruction used against the Cold War enemies of the West.

Arrow opens his book with a question about the two (in his view) fundamental modes of social choice: voting (for political decisions) and market transactions (for economic decisions). Both modes are seemingly collective, and thus opposed to dictatorship and cultural convention, where a single individual determines the choices. Single individuals, Arrow asserts, can be rational in their choices; but “[c]an such consistency be attributed to collective modes of choice, where the wills of many people are involved?” (1963:2). He announces that only the formal aspects of this issue will be discussed. But look what happens.

Using set-theoretical tools and starting from a hypothetical instance where two, then three perfectly rational individuals need to reach agreement, observing a number of criteria, he demonstrates that logically, such a rational collective agreement is impossible.  Even more: in a smart and surely premeditated lexical move, in which one of Arrow’s criteria was “non-dictatorship” (i.e. no collective choice should be based on the preferences of one individual), Arrow demonstrated that the only possible “collective” choices would in fact be dictatorial ones. A political system, in other words, based on the notion of the common will or common good, would of necessity be a dictatorship. In the age of Joseph Stalin, this message was hard to misunderstand.

And he elaborates this, then, in about hundred pages of prose, of which the following two fragments can be an illustration. (I shall provide them as visual images, because I am about ready to embark on my own little analysis, drawn from contemporary semiotic anthropology.)

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Fig 1: from p90, Arrow 1963

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Fig. 2: From p79, Arrow 1963.

The prose on these pages became epochal: in it, one read the undeniable proof that collective rational social action was impossible, unless as a thinly veiled dictatorship – a death blow to Marxism of course, but also the definitive end of Durkheim’s “social fact” – and that basing policy on such a collective rationality (as in welfare policy) was bound to be futile. This was now objectively, scientifically proven fact, established by the unimpeachable rigor of mathematical logic, of which Arrow and his disciples believed that it could be applied to any aspect of reality.

Arrow, we saw, mentioned the limitations of his inquiry; evidently, he also used several assumptions. Amadae (2003: 84) lists four of them:

“that science is objective; that it yields universal laws; that reason is not culturally relative; and that the individuals’ preferences are both inviolable and incomparable”.

The first three assumptions touch on his conception of science; in other words, they describe his belief in what mathematical methods do. I will return to them below. The fourth assumption is probably one of the most radical formulations of Methodological Individualism (henceforth MI). MI is the label attached to the theory complex in which every human activity is in fine reduced to individual interests, motives, concerns and decisions. In the case of Arrow and his followers, MI leads to the assumption that “society” is merely an aggregate of individuals. It is clear that this MI assumption – an ideological one, in fact a highly specific ideology of the nature of human beings and their social actions – underlies the “proof”, makes it circular, and from an anthropological viewpoint frankly ridiculous, certainly when each of such individuals is a perfectly rational actor who

“will always pursue his advantage, however he defines it, no matter what the circumstances; concepts of duty and responsibility are alien to the instrumental agent pursuing his goals” (Amadae 2003: 272)

Note that Arrow does not allow comparison between individuals (he will do so, grudgingly and conditionally, in 1977 in response to Rawls’ discussion of justice: Amadae 2003: 270). This is important in three ways. One: it is a key motif in his “objective” approach, in which any normative judgment (e.g. a value judgment about preferences of individuals) needs to be excluded from the analysis, because any such judgment would bring in “irrational” elements and open the door to totalitarian policy options. Two: it thus underscores and constructs the case for mathematics as a method, about which more below. And three: it also provides a second-order ideological argument in favor of Man-the-individualist, for if individuals cannot be scientifically compared, they surely cannot be scientifically grouped into collectives.

And so, on the basis of a mathematical “proof” grounded in a set of highly questionable assumptions and operating on an entirely imaginary case, Arrow decided that society – the real one – is made up of a large number of individuals bearing remarkable similarities to Mr Spock. And this, then, was seen as the definitive scientific argument against Marxism, against the Durkheimian social fact, against the welfare state, socialism and communism, and in favor of liberal democracy and free market economics. It is, carefully considered, a simple ideological propaganda treatise covered up by the visual emblems of mathematics-as-objective-science. The assumptions it takes on board as axiomatic givens constitute its ideological core, the mathematical “proof” its discourse, and both are dialectically interacting. His assumptions contain everything he claims to reject: they are profoundly normative, idealistic, and metaphysical. Every form of subjectivity becomes objective as long as it can be formulated mathematically.

The fact that his “impossibility theorem” is, till today, highly influential among people claiming to do social science, is mysterious, certainly given the limitations specified by Arrow himself and the questionable nature of the assumptions he used – the most questionable of which is that of universality, that mathematics could be used to say something sensible on the nature of humans and their societies. The fact that these people often also appear to firmly believe that Arrow’s formal modeling of social reality, with its multitude of Mr Spocks, is a pretty accurate description of social reality, is perplexing, certainly knowing that this mathematical exercise was (and is) taken, along with its overtly ideological assumptions,  to be simple social and political fact (observable or not). Notably the MI postulate of individuals behaving (or being) like entirely sovereign and unaffected consumers in a free market of political choices, “proven” by Arrow and turned into a factual (and normative) definition, leads Adamae (2003: 107) to conclude “that Arrow’s set-theoretical definition of citizens’ sovereignty is one of the least philosophically examined concepts in the history of political theory”. (To Arrow’s credit, he was ready to revise this assumption in later years; Richard Thaler (2015: 162) quotes him saying “We have the curious situation that scientific analysis imputes scientific behavior to its subjects”). Nonetheless, this definition promptly and effectively eliminated a number of items from the purview of new political science: the public sphere, the common good, and even society as such – Arrovians would use the simple argument that since society was not human (read: not individual and rational), it could not be seen as an actor in its own right. Margaret Thatcher, decades later, agreed.

Arrow and his followers set new standards of political debate, arguing that political issues (think of social welfare) were not “real” if they didn’t stand the test of logical analysis. Unless facts agreed with mathematical coherence (as shown in Fig. 2 above), they were not  proven facts; mathematics became the standard for defining reality, and the phrase “theoretically impossible” became synonymous for impossible in reality, separating fact from fiction. I find this unbelievable. But the point becomes slightly more understandable when we broaden the discussion a bit and examine more closely the particular role of mathematics in all of this. And here, I turn to semiotic anthropology.

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My modest reading offensive also brought Izhtak Gilboa’s Rational Choice (2010) to my table. Gilboa – a third-generation RC scholar with basic training in mathematics – offers us a view of what I prefer to see as the ideology of mathematics in all its splendor and naiveté. Before I review his opinions, I hasten to add that Gilboa is quite critical of radical interpretations of Arrovian choice, including Game Theory, admitting that the complexity of real cases often defies the elegance of established theory, and that we should “keep in mind that even theoretically, we don’t have magic solutions” (2010: 85). Yet he declares himself a full blown adept of RC as a “paradigm, a system of thought, a way of organizing the world in our minds” (2010: 9). And this paradigm is encoded in mathematical language.

Gilboa expresses an unquestioned faith in mathematics, and he gives several reasons for this.

  1. Accuracy: Mathematics is believed to afford the most accurate way of formulating arguments. “The more inaccurate our theories are, and the more we rely on intuition and qualitative arguments, the more important is mathematical analysis, which allows us to view theories in more than one way” (20). Theories not stated in mathematical terms, thus, are suggested not to allow more than one way of viewing. Too bad for Darwin.
  2. Rigor: Mathematics brings order in the chaos. Such chaos is an effect of “intuitive reasoning” (29). Thus, mathematical formulations are rigorous, ordering modes of expressing elaborate conglomerates of facts, not prone to misunderstanding. They form the theoretical tools of research, bringing clear and unambiguous structure in fields of knowledge in ways not offered by “intuitive reasoning”. The latter is a curious category term, frequently used by Gilboa to describe, essentially, any form of knowledge construction that cannot yet be expressed in mathematical language.
  3. Superiority. This follows from (1) and (2). There is mathematics and there is the rest. The rest is muddled and merely serves to test the mathematical theory. Thus (and note the evolutionary discourse here, marked in italics), when a mathematical theoretical model is thrown into “more elaborate research”, such research may prove to be “too complicated to carry out, and we will only make do with intuitive reasoning. In this case we try to focus on the insights that we feel we understand well enough to be able to explain verbally, and independently of the specific mathematical model we started out with” (29). Non-mathematically expressed knowledge is obviously inferior to mathematically expressed knowledge: it is “intuitive”. Yet, it has its importance in theory testing: “mathematical analysis has to be followed by intuitive reasoning, which may sort out the robust insights from those that only hold under very specific assumptions” (ibid).
  4. Simplification: throughout the entire book, but actually throughout most of what we see in RC at large, there is a marked preference for mathematically expressed simplicity. Complex real-world problems are reduced to extremely simple hypothetical cases involving pairs or triplets, as when complex market transactions are reduced to two people bargaining in a game-theoretical example, or the three Spocks in Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem who are supposed to instantiate millions of voters or consumers in large-scale political and economic processes. Such mathematical simplifications often bear names – the Prisoners’ Paradox, Condorcet’s Paradox, the Pareto Optimality or the Von Neumann-Morgenstern Axioms – and are presented (be it with qualifications) as “laws” with universal validity. The simple cases of mathematical theory are proposed as accurate, rigorous and superior modes of describing (and predicting) complex realities.
  5. Psychological realism. Not only are the mathematical formulations accurate descriptive and predictive models of actual social realities, they are also an accurate reflection of human cognitive folk methods, even if people are not aware of it: “Statistics is used to estimate probabilities explicitly in scientific and nonscientific studies as well as implicitly by most of us in everyday life” (56-57). Gilboa as well as many other authors doing this kind of work have the amusing habit of describing people who apply the Von Neumann-Morgenstern Axioms in deciding where to take their holidays and experience very severe logical problems when their behavior violates the Prisoners’ Paradox or exhausts the limits of objective reasoning.
  6. Convincing-conclusive. Finally, Gilboa makes a somewhat curious point about “positive” versus “negative rhetoric”. Negative rhetoric consists of “tricks that make one lose the debate but for which one has good replies the morning after the debate”, while “positive rhetoric consists of devices that you can take from the debate and later use to convince others of what you were convinced of yourself. Mathematics is such a device” (19).

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The six features of Gilboa’s approach to mathematics are, I would argue, an ideology of mathematics. They articulate a socioculturally entrenched set of beliefs about mathematics as a scientific project. And while I am the first to express admiration for mathematics as a scientific tool which, indeed, allows a tremendous and unique parsimony, transparency and stability in notation, I think the broader ideology of mathematics needs to be put up for critical examination. For mathematics, here, is not presented as a scientific tool – call it “method” or even “methodology” – but as an ontology, a statement on how reality “really” is. We already encountered this earlier when I discussed the mystery of Arrow’s Theorem: no facts are “real” unless they can be expressed in mathematical, formal language. And to this, I intend to attach some critical reflections.

Let me first describe the ontology I detect in views such as the ones expressed by Gilboa, occasionally returning to Arrow’s first three assumptions mentioned earlier. I see two dimensions to it.

  1. Mathematics expressions are the Truth since mathematics represents the perfect overlap of facts and knowledge of facts. And this Truth is rationality: mathematical expressions are expressions of fundamental rationality, devoid of all forms of subjectivity and context-dependence. This enables mathematical expressions to be called “laws”, and to qualify such laws as eternal, universal, and expressions of extreme certainty and accuracy. Recall now Arrow’s second and third assumption: that science (i.e. mathematics) yields universal laws, and that reason is not culturally relative – since it can be described in a universal mathematical code.
  2. Mathematics as an ontology has both esoteric and practical dimensions, and these dimensions make it science. Concretely, mathematics is not something everyone can simply access because it is esoteric – see Fig 2 above for a graphic illustration – and it is practical because it can be applied, as a set of “laws” flawlessly describing and predicting states of reality, to a very broad range of concrete issues, always and everywhere.

Combined with the first point, mathematics as the (rational) Truth, we understand not just Arrow’s first assumption – that science is objective – but his wider (political) project as well. The scientific underpinning of a new social and political science had to be mathematic, because that was the way to avoid ideological, cultural or other forms of “subjectivity” which would make such a science “irrational”, and may lead it towards totalitarian realities. Mathematically stated laws (on any topic) are – so it is suggested – independent of the person formulating them or the place in the world from where they are formulated; their truth value is unconditional and unchallengeable; accepting them is not a matter of personal conviction or political preference, it is a matter of universal reason. This is why Gilboa found mathematics convincing and conclusive: confronted with mathematical proof, no reasonable person could deny the truth, for, as expressed by Gilboa, mathematical formulations reflected – esoterically – the folk reason present in every normal human being. And so we see the comprehensive nature of the ontology: mathematics describes human beings and by extension social life in a truthful, unchallengeable way.

It is at this last point – the “postulate of rationality” as it is known in RC – that this modern ideology of mathematics appears to have its foundations in Enlightenment beliefs about reason as fundamentally and universally human, and so deviates from older ideologies of mathematics. These are well documented, and there is no need here to review an extensive literature, for a key point running through this history is that mathematics was frequently presented as the search for the true and fundamental structure of nature, the universe and (if one was a believer) God’s creation. This fundamental structure could be expressed in rigorous symbolic operations: specific shapes, proportions, figures and relations between figures – they were expressed by means of abstract symbols that created the esoteric dimension of mathematics. Doing mathematics was (and continues to be) often qualified as the equivalent of being “a scientist” or “a wise man”, and if we remember Newton, the distinction between scientific mathematics and other esoteric occupations such as alchemy was often rather blurred.

It is in the age of Enlightenment that all human beings are defined as endowed with reason, and that mathematics can assume the posture of the science describing the fundamental features and structures of this uniquely human feature, as well as of the science that will push this unique human faculty forward. It is also from this period that the modern individual, as a concept, emerges, and the American Declaration of Independence is often seen as the birth certificate of this rational, sovereign individual. Emphasis on rationality very often walks hand in hand with methodological individualism, and this is not a coincidence.

Observe that this ideology of mathematics is pervasive, and even appears to be on the rise globally. Mathematics is, everywhere, an element of formal education, and universally seen as “difficult”. Training in mathematics is presented in policy papers as well as in folk discourse as the necessary step-up towards demanding professions involving rigorous scientific reasoning, and success or failure in mathematics at school is often understood as an effect of the success/failure to enter, through mathematics, a “different mode of thinking” than that characterizing other subjects of learning. Mathematics, in short, often serves as a yardstick for appraising “intelligence”.

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From the viewpoint of contemporary semiotic anthropology, this ideology of mathematics is just another, specific, language ideology: a set of socioculturally embedded and entrenched beliefs attached to specific forms of language use. The specific form of language use, in the case of mathematics, is a form of literacy, of writing and reading. So let us first look at that, keeping an eye on Figures 1 and 2 above.

Mathematics as we know it gradually developed over centuries as a separate notation system in which random symbols became systematic encoders of abstract concepts – quantities, volumes, relations. Hardcore believers will no doubt object to this, claiming that the notational aspect is just an “instrumental”, ancillary aspect and that the core of mathematics is a special form of reasoning, a special kind of cognitive process. They are wrong, since the notational system is the very essence of the cognitive process claimed to be involved, which is why mathematicians must use the notational systems, and why school children can “understand” quite precisely what they are being told in mathematics classes but fail their tests when they are unable to convert this understanding into the correct notation. Seeing knowledge as in se detached from its infrastructures and methods of production and transmission is tantamount to declaring the latter irrelevant – which begs the question as to why mathematics uses (and insists on the use of) a separate notation system. More on this below.

The system, furthermore, is a socioculturally marked one, and the evidence for that should be entirely obvious. Recall Figure 2. The mathematical notation system follows the left-to-right writing vector of alphabetical scripts (not that, for instance, of Arabic or Chinese); unless I am very much mistaken “written” mathematical symbols (as opposed to e.g. geometrical figures) are alphabetical and not, e.g. hieroglyphic, cuneiform or ideographic (like Chinese characters); and they are drawn from a limited number of alphabets, notably Greek and Latin alphabets. Just click the “special symbols – mathematical symbols” icon in your wordprocessor now for double-checking. In spite of historical influences from Ancient Egypt and Babylonia, the Arab world, India and China, 19th century codification and institutionalization of mathematics (like other sciences) involved the Europeanization of its conventions.

The system is separate in the sense that, in spite of its obvious origins, it cannot be reduced to the “ordinary” writing system of existing languages: the fact that the symbol “0” for “zero” is of Indian origins doesn’t make that symbol Sanskrit, just as the Greek origins of the symbol for “pi” do not load this symbol with vernacular Greek meanings; they are mathematical symbols. But it can be incorporated (in principle) in any such writing system – Figures 1 and 2 show incorporation in English, for instance – and translated, if you wish, in the spoken varieties of any language (something it shares with Morse code). The symbol “<” for instance, can be translated in English as “less/smaller than”. Figure 1 above shows how Arrow translates ordinary English terms into mathematical terms, and the language-ideological assumption involved here is that this translation involves perfect denotational equivalence (the symbols mean exactly what the words express), as well as a superior level of accuracy and generalizability (the concrete of ordinary language becomes the abstract-theoretical of mathematical notation – the words become concepts). Here, we see what language ideologies are all about: they are a synergy of concrete language forms with beliefs about what they perform in the way of meaning. Thus, the difference between ordinary writing and mathematical writing is the belief we have that the latter signals abstraction, theory, and superior accuracy (something for which logical positivism provided ample motivational rhetoric).

This notation system is, in contemporary anthropological vocabulary, best seen as a specialized graphic register. That means that it can be used for a limited set of specific written expressions, as opposed to an “ordinary” writing system in which, in principle, anything can be expressed. We see it in action in the way I just described – reformulating ordinary expressions into “concepts” – in Figure 1, while Figure 2 shows that the register can be used for entire “textual” constructions in the genre of “proof”. The register is parsimonious and, in that sense, efficient. Writing “125364” requires just six symbols; writing “one hundred and twenty-five thousand three hundred and sixty-four” demands almost ten times that number of symbols.

It is, as a graphic register, extremely normative; it is an “ortho-graphy”. Mathematics deploys a closed and finite set of standardized symbols that have to be used in rigorously uniform ways – the symbol “<” can never mean “more than”; both their individual meaning and the ways in which they can be syntactically combined are subject to uniform and rigid rules. Consequently, while in “ordinary” writing some errors do not necessarily distort the meaning of an expression (most people would understand that “I cam home” means “I came home”), a writing error in mathematical notation renders the expression meaningless. So many of us painfully experienced this in the mathematics classes we took: our understanding of the fundamentals of mathematics did not include any degree of freedom in choosing the ways to write it up, since mathematics is normative, orthographic notation. This, too, is part of its specialized nature as well as of its esoteric nature: mathematics must be acquired through disciplined – nonrandom and highly regimented – learning procedures, and knowledge of specific bits of the register are identity-attributive. Some mathematicians are specialists of calculus, others of logic, for instance, while the identity label of “genius” would be stuck on outstanding mathematicians of any branch.

That is the specific form of language we see in mathematics; the language-ideological values attributed to it are, like any other language ideology, sociocultural constructs that emerged, are consolidated and develop by observing socioculturally ratified rules and procedures; and these are (like any other sociocultural convention) highly sensitive to developments over time and place. Very few contemporary mathematicians would be ready to defend the claim that mathematics reveals the fundamental structure of God’s creation, for instance, but it is good to remember that this language-ideological value was once attached to it, and that the people who attached it to mathematics were profoundly convinced that this was what mathematics was all about. Similarly, not too many contemporary mathematicians would perceive alchemy as an occupation compatible with the scientific discipline of mathematics, while Isaac Newton appeared not to have too many doubts about that.

There is nothing eternal, absolute or undisputable to the language-ideological assumptions accompanying mathematics. The suggestion, as I noted a widespread one, that mathematics would involve a “different way of thinking” is a quite questionable one. It is a different way of writing, to which a specific set of language-ideological values are attached. Children who are “not good at mathematics” at school, probably have more of a literacy problem than of a cognitive one – let alone one of inferior intelligence.

And if we return to Gilboa’s six features above, we might perhaps agree that his first two features – accuracy and rigor – are intrinsic affordances of the specific register of mathematics (things mathematics indeed can do quite well). The third feature (superiority) is a belief probably shared by members of the community of mathematicians, but not per se demonstrable, quite the contrary. Because the fourth feature – simplification – points to a limitation of the register, i.e. the fact that not everything can be appropriately written in the code. Ordinary language writing offers an infinitely vaster set of affordances. It is, at this point, good to remind ourselves of the fact that abstraction involves “stripping down”, i.e. the deletion of features from a chunk of reality; that this deletion may touch essential features; and that this deletion is often done on the basis of unproven assumptions.

The fifth feature – psychological realism – cries out for evidence, and those familiar with (to name just one) Alexander Luria‘s 1920s research on modes of thought will be inclined to take a more sobering and prudent view on this topic. There is no reason why the fundamental structures of rationality would not be expressed, for example, in narrative-poetic patterns rather than in mathematical-logical ones. And as for the sixth feature – the conclusive nature of mathematical proof: this, I suppose, depends on whom one submits it to. If the addressee of a mathematical argument shares the ideological assumption that such an argument is conclusive, s/he will accept it; if not, submitting mathematical proof might be not more conclusive than singing a Dean Martin song.

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Language-ideological attributions are always sociocultural constructs, and therefore they are never unchallengeable and they can always be deconstructed. What we believe certain forms of language do, does not necessarily correspond to what they effectively do. There is, for example, a quite widely shared language-ideological assumption that grammatical, orthographic or other forms of “correctness” are strict conditions for understandability (“you can only make yourself understood if you speak standard language!”), while realities of human interaction show that tremendous largesse often prevails, without impeding relatively smooth mutual understanding. There is also a widespread language-ideological belief that societies are monolingual (think of the official languages specified in national legislations and, e.g., adopted by the EU), while in actual fact dozens of languages are being used. It is the job of my kind of anthropologists and sociolinguists to identify the gaps between facts and beliefs in this field.

Seen from that perspective, there is nothing in se that makes a mathematical proof more “objective” than, say, a poem (it is good to remember that in the Indian Vedic tradition, mathematical statements were written as sutra poetry, and that even today “elegance”, an aesthetic quality, appears to be a criterium for assessing mathematical proof). The status of “objectivity”, indeed the very meaning of that term, emerges by sociocultural agreement within specific communities, and none of the features of the register are in themselves and directly elements of “objectivity”. The notion of objectivity as well as the symbols that are proposed as “indexes” of objectivity, are all sociocultural constructs.

Paradoxically, thus, if we recall Kenneth Arrow’s extraordinarily far-reaching claims, the status of objectivity attributed to mathematics is a vintage Durkheimian “social fact”: something produced by societies and accepted by individuals for reasons they themselves often ignore – it’s a sociocultural convention wrapped, over time, in institutional infrastructures perpetuating and enforcing the convention (in the case of mathematics, the education system plays first violin here). Its power – hegemony we would say – does not turn it into an absolute fact. It remains perpetually challengeable, dynamic, an object of controversy and contention as well as a proposition that can be verified and falsified. Saying this is nothing more than stating the critical principles of science as an Enlightenment product, of re-search as literally meaning “search again” even if you believe you have discovered the laws of nature. These critical principles, we will recall, were the weapons used against religious and dictatorial (“irrational”) postures towards the Truth. They are the very spirit of science and the engine behind the development of sciences.

The intimate union between RC, mathematics, MI and the specific views of human nature and social action that were articulated in this movement, cannot escape this critique. Practitioners of this kind of science would do well to keep in mind that a very great number of their assumptions, claims and findings are, from the viewpoint of other disciplines involved in the study of humans and their societies, simply absurd or ridiculous. The axiomatic nature of rationality, the impossibility of collective choice and action, the preference for extraordinarily pessimistic views of human beings as potential traitors, thieves and opportunists – to name just these – are contradicted by mountains of evidence, and no amount of deductive theorizing can escape the falsifications entailed by this (inductive and not at all, pace Gilboa, “intuitive”) evidence.

MI, leading, as in Arrow’s work, to the refusal to compare individuals’ preferences and to isolate human beings from the complex patterns of interaction that make up their lives, is simply ludicrous when we consider, for instance, language – a system of shared normatively organized sociocultural codes (a “social fact”, once more) which is rather hard to delete from any consideration of what it is to be human or dismiss as a detail in human existence. Here we see how the “stripping down” involved in mathematical abstraction touches essential features of the object of inquiry, making it entirely unrealistic. We have also seen that the language in which such “truths” are expressed is, in itself, a pretty obvious falsification of MI and other RC asssumptions. And more generally, facts gathered through modes of science that Gilboa tartly qualifies as “intuitive reasoning” are also always evidence of something, and usually not of what is claimed to be true in RC.

Such critiques have, of course, been brought to RC scholars (an important example is Green & Shapiro 1994). They were often answered with definitional acrobatics in which, for instance, the concept of “rationality” was stretched to the point where it included almost everything, so as to save the theory (but of course, when a term is supposed to mean everything it effectively means nothing). Other responses included unbearably complex operations, attempting to keep the core theory intact while, like someone extending his/her house on a small budget, adding makeshift annexes, windows, rooms and floors to it, so as to cope with the flurry of exceptions and unsolvable complexities raised against it. I found, for instance, Lindenberg’s “method of decreasing abstraction” (1992) particularly entertaining. Recognizing the complexity of real-world issues, and aiming (as anyone should) at realism in his science, Lindenberg constructs a terrifically Byzantine theoretical compound in which the scientist gradually moves away from simple and rigid mathematical formulations towards less formal and more variable formulations  – hence “decreasing abstraction” or “increasing closeness to reality” (Lindenberg 1992: 3). He thus achieves, through admirably laborious theoretical devotion, what any competent anthropologist achieves in his/her fieldnotes at the end of a good day of ethnographic fieldwork.

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This brings me to a final point. Mathematics is a formal system, and a peripheral language-ideological attribution it carries is that of “theory”. Theory, many people believe, must be abstract, and whatever is abstract must be theoretical. People working in the RC paradigm like to believe that (theoretical) “generalization” in science can only be done through, and is synonymous with, abstraction – mathematical expression in formulas, theorems, or statistical recipes.

In dialogues with such people, it took me a while before I detected the cause of the perpetual misunderstandings whenever we tried to talk about issues of generalization and theorization across disciplines, for we were using the same words but attached them to entirely different cultures of interpretation. Their culture was usually a deductive one, in which theory came first and facts followed, while mine operated precisely the other way around. I had to remind them of the existence of such different cultures, and that their view of theoretical generalization – necessarily through abstraction – was an idiosyncrasy not shared by the majority of scientific disciplines.

Theoretical statements are, in their essence, general statements, i.e. statements that take insights from concrete data (cases, in our culture of interpretation) to a level of plausible extrapolation. Since every case one studies is only a case because it is a case of something – an actual and unique instantiation of more generally occurring phenomena – even a single case can be “representative” of millions of other cases. This generalization is always conjectural (something even hardliners from the other camp admit) and demands further testing, in ever more cases. I usually add to this that this method – a scientific one, to be sure – is actually used by your doctor whenever s/he examines you. Your symptoms are always an actual (and unique) instantiation of, say, flu or bronchitis, and your doctor usually concludes the diagnosis on the basis of plausible extrapolation: although s/he can never be 100% sure, the combination of symptoms a, b and c strongly suggests flu. If the prescribed medicine works, this hypothesis is proven correct; if not, the conjectural nature of this exercise is demonstrated. Unless you want to see your doctor as a quack or an alchemist who can’t possibly speak the truth (which would make it highly irrational to go and see him/her when you’re ill), it may be safe to see him/her as an inductive scientist working from facts to theory and usually doing a pretty accurate job at that.

People who believe that mathematics, and only mathematics, equals science, are in actual fact a small but vocal and assertive minority in the scientific community. If they wish to dismiss, say, 70% of what is produced as science as “unscientific”, they do so at their peril (and sound pretty unscientific, even stupid, when they do so). That includes Mr Popper too. The question “what is science?” is answered in very many forms, as a sovereign rational choice of most of its practitioners. Enforcing the preferences of one member of that community, we heard from Kenneth Arrow, is dictatorial. And since we believe that science is an elementary ingredient of a free and democratic society, and that pluralism in reasoned dialogue, including in science, is such an elementary element as well – we really don’t want that, do we?

References

AMADAE, Sonja, N. (2003) Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

ARROW, Kenneth (1951) Social Choice and Individual Values. New York: Wiley (2nd ed. 1963).

GILBOA, Itzhak (2010) Rational Choice. Cambridge MA: MIT Press

GREEN, Donald & Ian SHAPIRO (1994) Pathologies of Rational Choice: A Critique of Applications in Political Science. New Haven: Yale University Press

LINDENBERG, Siegwart (1992) The Method of Decreasing Abstraction. In James S. Coleman & Thomas J. Fararo (eds.) Rational Choice Theory: Advocacy and Critique: 3-20. Newbury Park: Sage.

THALER, Richard A. (2015) Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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The 9/11 format and its consequences

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(Belgian Prime Minister Michel and Interior Minister Jambon after the capture of terror suspect Salah Abdeslam, Brussels, 18 March 2016.)

Jan Blommaert 

In early 2002, I published an article co-written, in Dutch, with my MA class of that time. The article offered an analysis of international media reporting of the events of September 11, 2001 – the attacks on the WTC towers in Manhattan and the Pentagon near Washington. This analysis had been done upon the students’ request. My class that year was scheduled to address different topics, but the 9/11 crisis was so dominant that we decided to sink our teeth into the media coverage of it – and into the ways it had affected all of our minds.

The 9/11 format

The conclusions of our analysis can be summarized as follows. First, there was uniformity: the same images, explanations and arguments, and the same expert voices, “went viral” straight after the events in a perplexing show of global media uniformity. Within hours after the planes hit the Twin Towers, a worldwide “script” was circulating in all major media outlets.

Two, this script was manufactured before any clear and decisive factual evidence was available. News media all over the world interrupted their programs and went for a nonstop “breaking news” format (a constant element since then). For many hours, such “open studio” programs offered little else than an endlessly recycled loop of the same images, repeated over and over again, interlarded with every possible rumor that could be passed on by – literally – anyone. Confusion reigned, of course, and journalists knew as little and were as disoriented as we, humble spectators. And so every speculation, fantasy and fear could be offered as “unconfirmed reports” to the audiences around the world – runors of more suspect planes flying over the US, of planes being downed by US Air Force jets, of Palestinians in the West Bank cheering at the news, and so forth. “News”, that day, acquired a weird and seemingly unrestricted semantic elasticity.

In spite of the absence of a flow of hard facts, certain “facts” emerged very soon. The name Osama Bin Laden, for instance, was mentioned (and, consequently, consistently repeated) long before any clear indications were discovered about Al Qaeda’s involvement. To Bin Laden, the Afghan Taliban-regime was instantly added, as well as, more peripherally, the Palestinians, Muslims in general, and the “rogue states” that made up Reagan’s infamous “Axis of Evil” – think of Irak and Iran in particular. As soon as those names appeared, the quest for other possible perpetrators ceased. The bad guys in the script, thus, were known in the first few hours after the attacks, long before any evidence tied them to the attacks. And by whom? by “analysts” from the FBI, the CIA, and “experts” such as the former Israeli Prime Minister Barak.

Three, the reporting was – and this sounds wrong of course – arrestingly aesthetic. The images that went around the world were extraordinarily beautiful. Longshots of the tip of Manhattan, with the miles-long smoke colums drifing over the water, fantastically framed images of the collapsing towers, and even this superbly composed picture of Pulitzer-winning war photographer Jim Nachtwey:

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The following photographs were all made on 9/11 and are described here in Nachtwey’s own words: ÒIn my mind it all went into slow motion. Everything was floating. I thought I had all the time in the world to make the picture, and only at the last moment realized I was about to be taken out.Ó

In the days following the drama, more estheticized images circulated, sometimes overtly referring to US political propaganda. Consider, for instance, this famous picture of New York firefighters raising the flag on the WTC rubble, and compare it to the legendary Iwo Jima photo (which was, in turn, converted in the Marines Monument in Washington DC):

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WW2_Iwo_Jima_flag_raising

The visual power of the media reporting, thus, was stunning and unprecedented in scale of distribution. And it contained a grammar of visual design which was not politically neutral – Nachtwey’s picture opposes the collapsing WTC towers – an attack by Islam – to an embattled Christianity, and the reference to Iwo Jima puts the Twin Towers in a lineage with US war efforts and their heroes.

For this is point four. Three roles were highlighted throughout the media reporting: victims, perpetrators and heroes. We have seen who the perpetrators were and how quickly they were identified. The heroes were the firefighters, the police and secutity forces, the Mayor of New York Giuliani, members of the Bush administration such as Rumsfeld (reported to have personally assisted in search-and-rescue operations after the Pentagon attack), and numbers of “small” heroes. The heroes filled many hours of human interest reporting. As did, of course, the victims – not just the direct victims (those who perished or got injured in the attacks) but also the panicking public, the shocked and dazed witnesses and the thousands of ordinary Americans all over the country who cried on camera and decorated themselves, their cars and houses with US nationalist emblems.

To the extent that “rational” actors appeared – the experts, politicians and analysts – they all rode on emotions. Statements such as “I have no words to express my horror”, “our first thoughts are to the victims” or “we should take time to heal our nation” prefaced political statements suggested to be “of secondary importance at presence”; the statements themselves remained – once more – at the level of general emotional appeal: we learned the phrases “an attack against freedom”, “against democracy”, “against our way of life” then and there. Such statements, even if emotive, had enormous effects. Bush, tears in his eyes, divided the world into “those wo are for us and those who are against us”, and unleashed a “war on terror” which, fifteen years onwards, still causes immense suffering around the world (and whose innocent victims, let it be added, see “those who are for us” and “those who defend freedom” as simple terrorists). They turned the US into a Patriot Act society, in which “terror suspects” have been unlawfully detained and abused in places such as Guantanamo for 15 years now.

Summarizing these points, the news reporting was outspokenly – almost exclsuvely – emotive. It showed emotions, it constructed and played into emotions of shock, distress, fear, anger and pride. The 9/11 format was a format of emotive mass-response. In terms of facts, the main fact we received was, precisely, emotional: we should all be upset, sad, enraged and proud about 9/11 – regardless of what exactly happened then. The mass emotional response was the way in which 9/11 was reported.

Stop thinking, let’s cry

I have seen this format, down to its details, re-occur since 2001 in almost any reporting of similar events – the London and Madrid bombings, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan in Paris, and of course yesterday after the bombings in Brussels. September 11, 2001, let me note, preceded the advent of social media. And what we have seen since the breaktrough of Facebook and Twitter is a colossal “echo chamber effect” in which this very scenario acquires even more strength and impact, and … even more uniformity. It creates, to put it bluntly, a form of political correctness in which one particular, complex, moralized behavior script is seen as the only adequate public response to such events. And that behavioral script can be summarized as “stop thinking, let’s cry”.

The response to the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, January 2015, was an emotional tsunami, with millions of people (most of whom, of course, had never even seen a copy of Charlie Hebdo magazine) posted “Je Suis Charlie” as their banner or profile picture on social media, and took it to the streets in mass mournings.

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The same happened after the November 2015 attacks in France: French flags were posted and “mourning” (preferably in public and on social media) was the only acceptable response. Observe that the French government issued a prohibition on public manifestations soon after the attacks, and announced that it might have to suspend the European Charter of Human Rights for a while, in the name of security.

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The Brussels attacks were no exception: while confusion reigned about the what-who-why of the attacks, “mourning” again became the framework of response, and people deviating from that political correctness (I plead guilty) were bitterly reprimanded: “have you no heart?” “this is no time for politics”, “you have no respect for the victims”, “can’t you wait until tomorrow before you start analyzing?” and so forth. So public mourning was what had to be done, it was the only adequate public action to be taken yesterday. Compare, by the way, the picture above (Paris, November 2015) and below (Brussels, March 2016) and observe how both events have an almost identical architecture. We live in and by formatted rituals, it seems.

Brussel-screenshot

 

There is nothing wrong with emotions, naturally, and I too was profoundly shocked and grieved by what had happened. Friends of mine were at Brussels Airport when the bombs detonated, and I couldn’t stop wondering what would have happened if the attackers had chosen to execute their plan a few days earlier, late last week, when I was passing through that Airport. Yes, emotions are part of it.

It becomes highly problematic, however, when only emotions dominate the response, when there is nothing else besides the emotional response. For – remember the structure of the 9/11 format – this direction of response zooms in on one range of phenomena, even suggests that those are the only phenomena that matter. While much more is happening, and much bigger things are at stake. The structure of the news reporting, for instance, is of critical importance, for it is the only window through which most people “know” such phenomena. News reporting, therefore, needs to be carefully monitored. Political responses as well, for even if they are (as we saw earlier) prefaced by solemn expressions of deep emotional solidarity, and even if they are qualified as “of minor importance” compared to the suffering of the victims and the pain and grief of the public, they change our societies.

In Belgium, but I suspect in France as well, the overwhelmingly emotional political correctness has covered and obscured a strengthened political undercurrent of increasing racism and Islamophobia, and (unsurprisingly) a tendency to extra-parliamentary and totalitarian “special powers” governance in the fields of security and policing. This undercurrent has been clearly noticeable since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, and gained force, of course, in November 2015 when suspects of the Paris attacks were proven to be residents of Brussels.

Since the attacks in Brussels yesterday, the chokingly whispered expressions of emotional upset by leading Belgian right-wing politicians have been blended with bold (and highly questionable) statements in which immigration – think of the refugee crisis – was directly linked to the attacks; with accusations of guilt-by-association against the entire Muslim population of the Brussels district of Molenbeek; with cursory remarks that “evidently”, privacy rules should not stand in the way of security demands; and with calls to speed-vote repressive and surveillance measures previously dismissed by the parliamentary majority. All of this has happened within 36 hours after the events, while most of the public looks away, refuses or dismisses rational and critical reflection and diverts its attention to candle marches and silent wakes for peace. Again, there is nothing wrong with such activities – I organized them myself in November 2015 – but one should also remain a cool, vigilant and carefully thinking citizen. Let’s cry, but don’t stop thinking.

Rational questions

This morning’s Belgian national radio brough vox pop fragments from the streets of Brussels. I heard people say things such as “it’s a pity, but we’ll have to change our lifestyles” – meaning: learn to live with increased surveillance and aggressive random police controls. Totalitarian and repressive policing has been accepted as an inevitability, one day after a terror attack. Or more precisely, after a day of deep and total immersion in a see of emotive response in which we let others do the thinking for us.

And so we find ourselves in a void now, in which those who govern us have been given, apparently by unspoken consensus, the monopoly of rational debate, analysis and conclusion. Our vital role as free citizens in a democracy – to distrust government and to be critical, reasonable and vigilant at all times – has been surrendered, because in the crucial hours of debate and decision-making, we preferred not to pay attention to such details – “wait until tomorrow”.

That is sad and potentially very endangering, for there are several rational questions that must be asked.

For example: all European states adopted since 9/11 what can be called the “Patriot Act” model of the “war on terror”. The recipes deployed by the Bush administration were globalized, so to speak, as a panacea for the fight against Muslim radicalism. I believe that the attacks of the past year in Paris and Brussels serve as pretty conclusive empirical evidence of the fact that this approach to security – repressive, based on totalized surveillance, and never free of racist and Islamophobic dimensions – does not work. I have trouble seeing the Brussels attacks as proof of successful security policy (and I hope I’m not alone). So: where is the alternative? Are there alternatives being considered? If so, which ones? And if not, why not – knowing that it’s hard to solve a problem with the techniques that caused it?

Or again: given that attacks such as the Paris and Brussels ones are exceptional phenomena – even extremely exceptional phenomena (thank heavens) – why would we organize our societies with such exceptions as benchmarks? Why would we allow the exception to become the rule, the “normal state” of a society, when it comes to crime, security and internal peace? Why would we make the murderer into the template of the citizen?

Concretely: the Brussels attacks happened while Belgian society, since more than a year, was already in a state of high alert, with armed soldiers patrolling the streets of the major cities. Now that such measures have proved to be grotesquely inadequate, how much more of the same can we accept? What, in other words, are we ready to accept as a “normal” society?

And so on. The attacks have raised a very large number of such big questions, not just worthy of reflection but in dramatic need of reflection. Because when I look around me, I see people wondering why machine guns are pointed at them at the entrance of the railway station, but quietly moving on towards their platforms – the abnormal has been normalized. When citizens stop reflecting about the distinction between these two dimensions of social organization, or believe that such reflection is best left to others who are not necessarily smarter or more democratically minded than themselves, our society is in great danger.

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New forms of diaspora, new forms of integration

Migrants smartphones

Jan Blommaert 

“Integration” continues to be used as a keyword to describe the processes by means of which outsiders – immigrants, to be more precise – need to “become part” of their “host culture”. I have put quotation marks around three crucial terms here, and the reasons why will become clear shortly. “Integration” in this specific sense, of course, has been a central sociological concept in the Durkheim-Parsons tradition. A “society” is a conglomerate of “social groups” held together by “integration”: the sharing of (a single set of) central values which define the character, the identity (singular) of that particular society (singular). And it is this specific sense of the term that motivates complaints – a long tradition of them – in which immigrants are blamed for not being “fully integrated”, or more specifically, “remaining stuck in their own culture” and “refusing” to integrate in their host society.

Half a century ago, in a trenchant critique of Parsons, C. Wright Mills (1959: 47) observed that historical changes in societies must inevitably involve shifts in the modes of integration. Several scholars documented such fundamental shifts – think of Bauman, Castells, Beck and Lash – but mainstream discourses, academic and lay, still continue to follow the monolithic and static Parsonian imagination. I what follows I want to make an empirical point in this regard, observing that new modes of diaspora result in new modes of integration.

In a splendid MA dissertation, Jelke Brandehof (2014) investigated the ways in which a group of Cameroonese doctoral students at Ghent University (Belgium) used communication technologies in their interactions with others. She investigated the technologies proper – mobile phone and online applications – as well as the language resources used in specific patterns of communication with specific people. Here is a graphic representation of the results for one male respondent (Brandehof 2014: 38).

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This figure, I would argue, represents the empirical side of “integration” – real forms of integration in contemporary diaspora situations. Let me elaborate this.

The figure, no doubt, looks extraordinarily complex; yet there is a tremendous amount of order and nonrandomness to it. We see that the Cameroonian man deploys a wide range of technologies and platforms for communication: his mobile phone provider (with heavily discounted rates for overseas calls) for calls and text messages, skype, Facebook, Beep, Yahoo Messenger, different VOIP systems, Whatsapp and so forth. He also uses several different languages: Standard English, Cameroonian Pidgin, local languages (called “dialects” in the figure), and Fulbe (other respondents also reported Dutch as one of their languages). And he maintains contacts in at least three different sites: his own physical and social environment in Ghent, his “home environment” in Cameroon, and the virtual environment of the “labor market” in Cameroon. In terms of activities, he maintains contacts revolving around his studies, maintaining a social and professional network in Ghent, job hunting on the internet, and an intricate set of family and business activities back in Cameroon. Each of these activities – here is the order and nonrandomness – involves a conscious choice of medium, language variety and addressee. Interaction with his brother in Cameroon is done through smartphone applications and in a local language, while interactions with other people in the same location, on religious topics, are done in Fulbe, a language marked as a medium among Muslims.

Our subject is “integrated”, through the organized use of these communication instruments, in several “cultures” if you wish. He is integrated in his professional and social environment in Ghent, in the local labor market, in the Cameroonian labor market, and in his home community. Note that I use a positive term here: he is “integrated” in all of these “zones” that make up his life – he is not “not integrated”, I insist – because his life develops in real synchronized time in these different zones, and all of these zones play a vital part in this subject’s life. He remains integrated as a family member, a friend, a Muslim and a business partner in Cameroon, while he also remains integrated in his more directly tangible environment in Ghent – socially, professionally and economically. This level of simultaneous integration across “cultures” (if you wish) is necessary: our subject intends to complete his doctoral degree work in Ghent and return as a highly qualified knowledge worker to Cameroon. Rupturing the Cameroonese networks might jeopardize his chances of reinsertion in a lucrative labor market (and business ventures) upon his return there. While he is in Ghent, part of his life is spent there while another part continues to be spent in Cameroon, for very good reasons.

I emphasized that our subject has to remain integrated across these different zones. And the technologies for cheap and intensive long-distance communication enable him to do so. This might be the fundamental shift in “modes of integration” we see since the turn of the century: “diaspora” no longer entails a total rupture with the places and communities of “origin”; neither, logically, does it entail a “complete integration” in the host community, because there are instruments that enable one to lead a far more gratifying life, parts of which are spent in the host society while other parts are spent elsewhere. Castells” “network society” (1996), in short. We see that diasporic subjects keep one foot in the “thick” community of family, neighborhood and local friends, while they keep another foot – on more instrumental terms – in the host society and yet another one in “light” communities such as internet-based groups and the labor market. Together, they make up a late-modern “diasporic life”.

There is nothing exceptional or surprising to this: the jet-setting European professional business class does precisely the same when they go on business trips: smartphones and the internet enable them to make calls home and to chat with their daughters before bedtime, and to inform their social network of their whereabouts by means of social media updates. In that sense, the distance between Bauman’s famous “traveler and vagabond” is narrowing: various types of migrants are presently using technologies previously reserved for elite travelers. And just as the affordances of these technologies are seen as an improvement of an itinerant lifestyle by elite travelers, it is seen as a positive thing by these other migrants, facilitating a more rewarding and harmonious lifestyle that does not involve painful ruptures of existing social bonds, social roles, activity patterns and identities.

What looks like a problem from within a Parsonian theory of “complete integration”, therefore, is in actual fact a solution for the people performing the “problematic” behavior. The problem is theoretical, and rests upon the kind of monolithic and static sociological imagination criticized by C. Wright Mills and others, and the distance between this theory and the empirical facts of contemporary diasporic life. Demands for “complete integration” (and complaints about the failure to do so) can best be seen as nostalgic and, when uttered in political debates, as ideological false consciousness. Or more bluntly, as surrealism.

References

Brandehof, Jelke (2014) Superdiversity in a Cameroonian Diaspora Community in Ghent: The Social Structure of Superdiverse Networks. MA dissertation, Tilburg University (unpublished).

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

Mills, C. Wright (1959 [1967]) The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes and new social structures

Piia Varis & Jan Blommaert

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

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Abstract

There is a long tradition in which “phatic” forms of interaction are seen as (and characterized by) relatively low levels of “information” and “meaning”. Yet, observations on social media interaction patterns show an amazing density of such phatic interactions, in which signs are shared and circulated without an a priori determination of the meaning. We address the issue of “virality” in this paper: the astonishing speed and scope with which often “empty” (i.e. not a priori determined) signs circulate on the internet. We address “memes” – signs that have gone viral on the Internet – as cases in point. Virality as a sociolinguistic phenomenon raises specific issues about signs, meanings and functions, prompting a shift from “meaning” to “effect”. This effect, we can see, is conviviality: the production of a social-structuring level of engagement in loose, temporal and elastic collectives operating in social media environments.

Key words: phatic communion, social media, virality, memes, meaning, function, community, identity.

Introduction

In a very insightful and relatively early paper on the phenomenon, Vincent Miller (2008) questions the ‘content’ of communication on social media and microblogs (Facebook and Twitter, respectively), and concludes:

“We are seeing how in many ways the internet has become as much about interaction with others as it has about accessing information. (…) In the drift from blogging, to social networking, to microblogging we see a shift from dialogue and communication between actors in a network, where the point of the network was to facilitate an exchange of substantive content, to a situation where the maintenance of a network itself has become the primary focus. (…) This has resulted in a rise of what I have called ‘phatic media’ in which communication without content has taken precedence.” (Miller 2008: 398)

Miller sees the avalanche of ‘empty’ messages on new social media as an illustration of the ‘postsocial’ society in which networks rather than (traditional, organic) communities are the central fora for establishing social ties between people. The messages are ‘empty’ in the sense that no perceptibly ‘relevant content’ is being communicated; thus, such messages are typologically germane to the kind of ‘small talk’ which Bronislaw Malinowski (1923 (1936)) identified as ‘phatic communion’ and described as follows:

“’phatic communion’ serves to establish bonds of personal union between people brought together by the mere need of companionship and does not serve any purpose of communicating ideas.” (Malinowski 1923 (1936): 316)

For Malinowski, phatic communion was a key argument for his view that language should not just be seen as a carrier of propositional contents (“communicating ideas” in the fragment above), but as a mode of social action the scope of which should not be reduced to ‘meaning’ in the denotational sense of the term. In an excellent paper on the history of the term ‘phatic communion’, Gunter Senft notes the post-hoc reinterpretation of the term by Jakobson (1960) as ‘channel-oriented’ interaction, and describes phatic communion as

“utterances that are said to have exclusively social, bonding functions like establishing and maintaining a friendly and harmonious atmosphere in interpersonal relations, especially during the opening and closing stages of social – verbal – encounters. These utterances are understood as a means for keeping the communication channels open.” (Senft 1995: 3)

Senft also emphasizes the difference between ‘communion’ and ‘communication’. Malinowski never used the term phatic ‘communication’, and for a reason: ‘communion’ stresses (a) the ritual aspects of phatic phenomena, and (b) the fact that through phatic communion, people express their sense of ‘union’ with a community. We will come back to this later on.

When it came to explaining the phenomenon, Malinowski saw the fear of silence, understood as an embarrassing situation in interaction among Trobriand Islanders, as the motive underlying the frequency of phatic communion. In order not to appear grumpy or taciturn to the interlocutor, Trobrianders engaged in sometimes lengthy exchanges of ‘irrelevant’ talk. While Malinowski saw this horror vacui as possibly universal, Dell Hymes cautioned against such an interpretation and suggested that “the distribution of required and preferred silence, indeed, perhaps most immediately reveals in outline form a community’s structure of speaking” (Hymes 1972 (1986): 40; see Senft 1995: 4-5 for a discussion). There are indeed communities where, unless one has anything substantial to say, silence is strongly preferred over small talk and ‘phatic communion’ would consequently be experienced as an unwelcome violation of social custom. This is clearly not the case in the internet communities explored by Vincent Miller, where ‘small’ and ‘content-free’ talk appears to be if not the rule, then certainly a very well entrenched mode of interaction.

This, perhaps, compels us to take ‘phatic’ talk seriously, given that it is so hard to avoid as a phenomenon in e.g. social media. And this, then, would be a correction to a deeply ingrained linguistic and sociolinguistic mindset, in which ‘small talk’ – the term itself announces it – is perceived as not really important and not really in need of much in-depth exploration.

Schegloff’s (1972; Schegloff & Sacks 1973) early papers on conversational openings and closings described these often routinized sequences as a mechanism in which speaker and hearer roles were established and confirmed. This early interpretation shows affinity with Malinowski’s ‘phatic communion’ – the concern with the ‘channel’ of communication – as well as with Erving Goffman’s (1967) concept of ‘interaction ritual’ in which people follow particular, relatively perduring templates that safeguard ‘order’ in face-to-face interaction. In an influential later paper, however, Schegloff (1988) rejected Goffman’s attention to ‘ritual’ and ‘face’ as instances of ‘psychology’ (in fact, as too much interested in the meaning of interaction), and reduced the Goffmanian rituals to a more ‘secularized’ study of interaction as a formal ‘syntax’ in which human intentions and subjectivities did not matter too much. The question of what people seek to achieve by means of ‘small talk’, consequently, led a life on the afterburner of academic attention since then – when it occurred it was often labelled as ‘mundane’ talk, that is: talk that demands not to be seen as full of substance and meaning, but can be analyzed merely as an instance of the universal formal mechanisms of human conversation (Briggs 1997 provides a powerful critique of this). Evidently, when the formal patterns of phatic communion are the sole locus of interest, not much is left to be said on the topic.

As mentioned, the perceived plenitude of phatic communion on the internet pushes us towards attention to such ‘communication without content’. In what follows, we will engage with this topic and focus on a now-current internet phenomenon: memes. Memes will be introduced in the next section, and we shall focus on (a) the notion of ‘viral spread’ in relation to agentivity and consciousness, and (b) the ways in which we can see ‘memes’, along with perhaps many of the phenomena described by Miller, as forms of conviviality. In a concluding section, we will identify some perhaps important implications of this view.

Going viral

On January 21, 2012 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted an update on his Facebook timeline, introduced by “Here’s some interesting weekend reading” (Figure 1). The message itself was 161 words long, and it led to a link to a 2000-word article. Within 55 seconds of being posted, the update got 932 “likes” and was “shared” 30 times by other Facebook users. After two minutes, the update had accumulated 3,101 “likes” and 232 “shares”.

Figure 1: Screenshot of Zuckerberg’s status update on Facebook, January 2012.

Given the structure and size of the text sent around by Zuckerberg, it is quite implausible that within the first two minutes or so, more than 3,000 people had already read Zuckerberg’s update and the article which it provides a link to, deliberated on its contents and judged it ‘likeable’, and the same goes for the more than 200 times that the post had already been shared on other users’ timelines. So what is happening here?

Some of the uptake can probably be explained with ‘firsting’, i.e. the preoccupation to be the first to comment on or like an update on social media – most clearly visible in the form of comments simply stating “first!”. Another major explanation could be ‘astroturfing’: it is plausible that many of those who “like” and “share” Zuckerberg’s update are in fact Facebook employees deliberately attempting to increase its visibility. We can guess, but we simply do not know. What we do know for sure, however, is that as a consequence of a first level of uptake – people liking and sharing the post – there are further and further levels of uptake, as other users witness this liking and sharing activity (some of it may already be showing in the figures here), and consequently make inferences about the meaning of the post itself, but also about the person(s) in their network who reacted to it. Further layers of contextualisation are thus added to the original post which may have an influence on the uptake by others.

Different social media platforms offer similar activity types: YouTube users can “view” videos and “like” them, as well as adding “comments” to them and adding videos to a profile list of preferences; Twitter users can create “hashtags” (a form of metadata-based “findability” of text, Zappavigna 2011: 792) and “retweet” tweets from within their network; similar operations are possible on Instagram as well as on most local or regional social media platforms available throughout the world. Each time, we see that specific activities are made available for the rapid “viral” spread of particular signs, while the actual content or formal properties of those signs do not seem to prevail as criteria for sharing, at least not when these properties are understood as denotational-semantic or aesthetic in the Kantian sense. We shall elaborate this below. The ace of virality after the first decade of the 21st century is undoubtedly the South-Korean music video called Gangnam Style, performed by an artist called Psy: Gangnam Style was posted on YouTube on 15 July, 2012, and had been viewed 2,065552172 times on 18 August 2014. Competent as well as lay observers appear to agree that the phenomenal virality of Gangnam Style was not due to the intrinsic qualities, musical, choreographic or otherwise, of the video. The hype was driven by entirely different forces.

The point to all of this however, is that we see a communicative phenomenon of astonishing speed and scope: large numbers of people react on a message by expressing their “liking” and by judging it relevant enough to “share” it with huge numbers of “friends” within their social media community. At the same time, in spite of Zuckerberg’s message being textual, it was not read in the common sense understanding of this term. The “like” and “share” reactions, consequently, refer to another kind of decoding and understanding than the ones we conventionally use in text and discourse analysis – “meaning” as an outcome of denotational-textual decoding is not at stake here, and so the “liking” and “sharing” is best seen as “phatic” in the terms discussed above. Yet, these phatic activities appear to have extraordinary importance for those who perform them, as “firsting” and “astroturfing” practices illustrate: people on social media find it very important to be involved in “virality”. People find it important to be part of a group that “likes” and “shares” items posted by others. It is impossible to know – certainly in the case of Zuckerberg – who the members of this group effectively are (this is the problem of scope, and we shall return to it), but this ignorance of identities of group members does seem to matter less than the expression of membership by means of phatic “likes” and “shares”. What happens here is “communion” in the sense of Malinowski: identity statements expressing, pragmatically and metapragmatically, membership of some group. Such groups are not held together by high levels of awareness and knowledge of deeply shared values and functions – the classical community of Parsonian sociology – but by loose bonds of shared, even if superficial interest or “ambient affiliation” in Zappavigna’s terms (2011: 801), enabled by technological features of social media affording forms of searchability and findability of “like”-minded people.

We need to be more specific though, and return to our Facebook example. “Liking” is an identity statement directly oriented towards the author of the update – Zuckerberg – and indirectly inscribing oneself into the community of those who “like” Zuckerberg, as well as indirectly flagging something to one’s own community of Facebook “friends” (who can monitor activities performed within the community). Patricia Lange, thus, qualifies such responsive uptake activities (“viewing” YouTube videos in her case) as forms of “self-interpellation”: people express a judgment that they themselves belong to the intended audiences of a message or sign (2009: 71). “Sharing”, by contrast, recontextualizes and directly reorients this statement towards one’s own community, triggering another phase in a process of viral circulation, part of which can – but must not – involve real “reading” of the text. Also, “liking” is a responsive uptake to someone else’s activity while “sharing” is the initiation of another activity directed at another (segment of a) community. So, while both activities share important dimensions of phaticity with each other, important differences also occur. These distinctions, as noted, do not affect the fundamental nature of the interaction between actors and signs – “sharing”, as we have seen, does not presuppose careful reading of the text – but there are differences in agency and activity type.

This is important to note, because existing definitions of virality would emphasize the absence of significant change in the circulation of the sign. Limor Shifman (2011: 190), for instance, emphasizes the absence of significant change to the sign itself to distinguish virality from “memicity”: memes, as opposed to viral signs, would involve changes to the sign itself. We shall see in a moment that this distinction is only valid when one focuses on a superficial inspection of the formal properties of signs. When one takes social semiotic activities as one’s benchmark, however, things become more complicated and more intriguing. We have seen that significant distinctions apply to “liking” and “sharing”. In fact, we can see both as different genres on a gradient from phatic communion to phatic communication: there are differences in agency, in the addressees and communities targeted by both activities, and in the fundamental pragmatic and metapragmatic features of both activities.

To clarify the latter: “sharing” an update on Facebook is a classic case of “re-entextualization” (Bauman & Briggs 1990; Silverstein & Urban 1996) or “re-semiotization” (Scollon & Scollon 2004). Re-entextualization refers to the process by means of which a piece of “text” (a broadly defined semiotic object here) is extracted from its original context-of-use and re-inserted into an entirely different one, involving different participation frameworks, a different kind of textuality – an entire text can be condensed into a quote, for instance – and ultimately also very different meaning outcomes – what is marginal in the source text can become important in the re-entextualized version, for instance. Re-semiotization, in line with the foregoing, refers to the process by means of which every “repetition” of a sign involves an entirely new set of contextualization conditions and thus results in an entirely “new” semiotic process, allowing new semiotic modes and resources to be involved in the repetition process (Leppänen et al. 2014). The specific affordances for responsive and sharing activities offered by social media platforms are thus not unified or homogeneous: we can distinguish a gradient from purely responsive uptake to active and redirected re-entextualization and resemiotization, blurring the distinction made by Shifman between virality and memicity.

Let us have a closer look at memes now, and focus again on the different genres of memic activity we can discern.

The weird world of memes

As we have seen, Shifman locates the difference between virality and memicity in the degree to which the sign itself is changed in the process of transmission and circulation. Memes are signs the formal features of which have been changed by users. Shifman draws on Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene (1976), who coined “meme” by analogy with “gene” as “small cultural units of transmission (…) which are spread by copying or imitation” (Shifman 2011: 188). We have already seen, however, that even simple “copying” or “imitation” activities such as Facebook “sharing” involve a major shift in activity type called re-entextualization. Memes – often multimodal signs in which images and texts are combined – would typically enable intense resemiotization as well, in that original signs are altered in various ways, generically germane – a kind of “substrate” recognizability would be maintained – but situationally adjusted and altered so as to produce very different communicative effects. Memes tend to have an extraordinary level of semiotic productivity which involves very different kinds of semiotic activity – genres, in other words.

Let us consider Figures 2-3-4 and 5-6-7. In Figure 2 we see the origin of a successful meme, a British World War II propaganda poster.

keep-calm-and-carry-on-8044

Figure 2: British wartime propaganda poster.

A virtually endless range of resemiotized versions of this poster went viral since the year 2000; they can be identified as intertextually related by the speech act structure of the message (an adhortative “keep calm” or similar statements, followed by a subordinate adhortative) and the graphic features of lettering and layout (larger fonts for the adhortatives, ­the use of a coat of arms-like image). Variations on the memic theme range from minimal to maximal, but the generic template is constant. Figure 3 shows a minimally resemiotized variant in which lettering and coat of arms (the royal crown) are kept, while in Figure 5, the royal crown has been changed by a beer mug.

Batman

Figure 3: Keep calm and call Batman

keepCalmAndDrinkBeer_KeepCalmShop

Figure 4: Keep calm and drink beer.

In Figures 2-3-4 we see how one set of affordances – the visual architecture of the sign and its speech act format – becomes the intertextual link enabling the infinite resemiotizations while retaining the original semiotic pointer: most users of variants of the meme would know that the variants derive from the same “original” meme. The visual architecture and speech act format of the “original”, thus, are the “mobile” elements in memicity here: they provide memic-intertextual recognizability, while the textual adjustments redirect the meme towards more specific audiences and reset it in different frames of meaning and use.

The opposite can also apply, certainly when memes are widely known because of textual-stylistic features: the actual ways in which “languaging” is performed through fixed expressions and speech characteristics. A particularly successful example of such textual-stylistic memicity is so-called “lolspeak”, the particular pidginized English originally associated with funny images of cats (“lolcats”), but extremely mobile as a memic resource in its own right. Consider Figure 5-6-7. Figure 5 documents the origin of this spectacularly successful meme: a picture of a cat, to which the caption “I can has cheezburger?” was added, went viral in 2007 via a website “I can has cheezburger?”. The particular caption phrase went viral as well and became tagged to a wide variety of other images – see Figure 6. The caption, then, quickly became the basis for a particular pidginized variety of written English, which could in turn be deployed in a broad range of contexts. The extraordinary productivity of this meme-turned-language-variety was demonstrated in 2010, when a team of “lolspeak” authors completed a translation of the entire Bible in their self-constructed language variety. The Lolcat Bible can now be purchased as a book through Amazon.

Figure 5: I can has cheezburger?

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Figure 6: President and a possible voter having cheezburger

yes you can has cheeseburger

Figure 7: I has a dream.

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The different resources that enter into the production of such memes can turn out to be memic in themselves; we are far from the “copying and imitating” used by Dawkins in his initial definition of memes. People, as we said, are extraordinarily creative in reorganizing, redirecting and applying memic resources over a vast range of thematic domains, addressing a vast range of audiences while all the same retaining clear and recognizable intertextual links to the original memic sources. This fundamental intertextuality allows for combined memes, in which features of different established memes are blended in a “mashup” meme. Figure 7 already illustrated this, and Figure 8 shows another mashup meme:

keep calm arrow

Figure 8: Keep calm and remove the arrow from your knee.

We see the familiar template of the “Keep calm” meme, to which a recognizable reference to another meme is added. The origin of this other meme, “then I took an arrow in the knee”, is in itself worthy of reflection, for it shows the essentially arbitrary nature of memic success. The phrase was originally uttered by characters from a video game “Skyrim” (Figure 9). The phrase is quite often repeated throughout the game, but this does not in itself offer an explanation for the viral spread of the expression way beyond the community of Skyrim gamers.

1354329549_An arrow in the knee Some fresh oc_6ad7ab_2932806

Figure 9: Skyrim scene “Then I took an arrow in the knee”

The phrase became wildly productive and can now be tagged to an almost infinite range of different expressions, each time retaining a tinge of its original apologetic character, and appearing in mashups, as we saw in Figure 8.

What we see in each of these examples is how memes operate via a combination of intertextual recognizability and individual creativity – individual users adding an “accent” to existing viral memes, in attempts to go viral with their own adapted version. The work of resemiotization involved in such processes can be complex and demanding. Mashup memes, for instance, involves elaborate knowledge of existing memes, an understanding of the affordances and limitations for altering the memes, and graphic, semiotic and technological skills to post them online. The different forms of resemiotization represent different genres of communicative action, ranging from maximally transparent refocusing of existing memes to the creation of very different and new memes, less densely connected to existing ones.

Two points need to be made now. First, we do not see such resemiotizations, even drastic and radical ones, as being fundamentally different from the “likes” and “shares” we discussed in the previous section. We have seen that “likes” and “shares” are already different genres characterized by very different activity patterns, orientations to addressees and audiences, and degrees of intervention in the original signs. The procedures we have reviewed here differ in degree but not in substance: they are, like “retweets”, “likes” and “shares”, re-entextualizations of existing signs, i.e. meaningful communicative operations that demand different levels of agency and creativity of the user. Second, and related to this, the nature of the original sign itself – its conventionally understood “meaning” – appears to be less relevant than the capacity to deploy it in largely phatic, relational forms of interaction, again ranging from what Malinowski described as “communion” – ritually expressing membership of a particular community – to “communication” within the communities we described as held together by “ambient affiliation”. “Meaning” in its traditional sense needs to give way here to a more general notion of “function”. Memes, just like Mark Zuckerberg’s status updates, do not need to be read in order to be seen and understood as denotationally and informationally meaningful; their use and re-use appear to be governed by the “phatic” and “emblematic” functions often seen as of secondary nature in discourse-analytic literature.

Conviviality on demand

But what explains the immense density of such phatic forms of practice on social media? How do we make sense of the astonishing speed and scope with which such phatic forms of communion and communication circulate, creating – like in the case of Gangnam Style – perhaps the largest-scale collective communicative phenomena in human history? The explanations, we hope to have shown, do not necessarily have to be located in the features of the signs themselves, nor in the specific practices they prompt – both are unspectacular. So perhaps the explanations must be sought in the social world in which these phatic practices make sense.

In a seminal paper, Alice Marwick and danah boyd (2010: 120) distinguish between email and Twitter. They have this to say on the topic:

“(…) the difference between Twitter and email is that the latter is primarily a directed technology with people pushing content to persons listed in the “To:” field, while tweets are made available for interested individuals to pull on demand. The typical email has an articulated audience, while the typical tweet does not.”

The statement demands nuancing, for we have seen that even minimal forms of activity such as “sharing” involve degrees of audience design – the seemingly vacuous identity statements we described above, lodged in social media practices, are always directed at some audience, of which users have some idea, right or wrong (cf. Androutsopoulos 2013). Imaginary audiences are powerful actors affecting discursive behaviour, as Goffman and others have shown so often (e.g. Goffman 1963), and Marwick and boyd’s early statement that “Twitter flattens multiple audiences into one” – a phenomenon they qualify as “context collapse” – is surely in need of qualification (Marwick & boyd 2010: 122). The intricate social-semiotic work we have described here certainly indicates users having diverse understandings of audiences on social media. Different social media platforms offer opportunities for different types of semiotic and identity work, and users often hold very precise and detailed views of what specific platforms offer them in the way of audience access, identity and communication opportunities and effects (cf. Gershon 2010).

At the same time, Marwick and boyd are correct in directing our attention towards the kinds of communities in which people move on social media. In spite of precise ideas of specific target audiences and addressees, it is certainly true that there is no way in which absolute certainty about the identities (and numbers) of addressees can be ascertained on most social media platforms – something which Edward Snowden also made painfully clear. In addition, it is true that lump categories such as Facebook “friends” gather a range of – usually never explicitly defined – subcategories ranging from “real-life friends” and close relatives to what we may best call, following Goffman again, “acquaintances”. Goffman (1963), as we know, described acquaintances as that broad category of people within the network of US middle class citizens with whom relations of sociality and civility need to be maintained. Avoidance of overt neglect and rejection are narrowly connected to avoidance of intimacy and “transgressive” personal interaction: what needs to be maintained with such people is a relationship of conviviality – a level of social intercourse characterized by largely “phatic” and “polite” engagement in interaction. Acquaintances are not there to be “loved”, they are there to be “liked”. Facebook is made exactly for these kinds of social relationships (van Dijck 2013), which is perhaps also why a discourse analysis of Facebook interaction reveals the overwhelming dominance of the Gricean Maxims, that old ethnotheory of “polite” US bourgeois interaction (Varis forthcoming).

But let us delve slightly deeper into this. The communities present as audiences on social media may be at once over-imagined and under-determined: while users can have relatively precise ideas of who it is they are addressing, a level of indeterminacy is inevitable in reality. This means, in analysis, that we cannot treat such communities in the traditional sense of “speech community” as a group of people tied together by clear and generally shareable rules of the indexical value and function of signs (Agha 2007). Indexical orders need to be built, as a consequence, since they cannot readily be presupposed. Virality, as a sociolinguistic phenomenon, might be seen as moments at which such indexical orders – perceived shareability of meaningful signs – are taking shape. The two billion views of Gangnam Style suggest that large numbers of people in various places on earth recognized something in the video; what it is exactly they experienced as recognizable is hard to determine, and research on this topic – how virality might inform us on emergent forms of social and cultural normativity in new and unclear large globalized human collectives – is long overdue.

Some suggestions in this direction can be offered, though. In earlier work, we tried to describe ephemeral forms of community formation in the online-offline contemporary world as “focused but diverse” (Blommaert & Varis 2013). Brief moments of focusing on perceived recognizable and shareable features of social activity generate temporary groups – think of the thousands who “liked” Zuckerberg’s status update – while such groups do not require the kinds of strong and lasting bonds grounded in shared bodies of knowledge we associate with more traditionally conceived “communities” or “societies”. In fact, they are groups selected on demand, so to speak, by individual users in the ways we discussed earlier. People can focus and re-focus perpetually, and do so (which explains the speed of virality) without being tied into a community of fixed circumscription, given the absence of the deep and strong bonds that tie them together, and the absence of temporal and spatial copresence that characterizes online groups.

A joint “phatic” focus on recognizable form or shape offers possibilities for such processes of groupness, while the actual functional appropriation and deployment of signs – what they actually mean for actual users – is hugely diverse; the infinite productivity of memes – the perpetual construction of memic “accents” – illustrates this. Here we begin to see something fundamental about communities in an online age: the joint focusing, even if “phatic”, is in itself not trivial, it creates a structural level of conviviality, i.e. a sharing at one level of meaningful interaction by means of a joint feature, which in superficial but real ways translates a number of individuals into a focused collective. Note, and we repeat, that what this collective shares is the sheer act of phatic communion (the “sharing” itself, so to speak), while the precise meaning of this practice for each individual member of the collective is impossible to determine. But since Malinowski and Goffman, we have learned not to underestimate the importance of unimportant social activities. Memes force us to think about levels of social structuring that we very often overlook because we consider them meaningless.

This neglect of conviviality has effects. In the superdiversity that characterizes online-offline social worlds, we easily tend to focus on differences and downplay the level of social structuring that actually prevents these differences from turning into conflicts. Recognizing such hitherto neglected levels of social structuring might also serve as a corrective to rapid qualifications of the present era as being “postsocial” – a point on which we disagree with Vincent Miller. There is a great deal of sociality going on on social media, but this sociality might require a new kind of sociological imagination. We will look in vain for communities and societies that resemble the ones proposed by Durkheim and Parsons. But that does not mean that such units are not present, and even less that they are not in need of description.

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