Old New Media (video lecture)

Jan Blommaert

Old media such as the radio were once new media, and there is a long tradition in which the introduction of new media raised questions and concerns very similar to the ones we now raise with respect to new media and their social, cultural and political effects.



Monti’s Trojan Horse, Pichai’s Progress and the English Cosmopolis


If aliens conquered the earth and decided to give their colony a new constitution, in what language would they draft it? If you didn’t say ‘English’, I bet you are just that humble alien who is yet to visit planet earth. You don’t need to be as intelligent as an alien anyway to know that speaking in English is the best option if your audience includes the entire humanity. Some humans don’t know English, but they surely know somebody or the other who does. Aided by the internet, English has turned out to be such a linguistic Big Bang that the question to ask is no longer whether or not your lives are touched by English, but to what degree it is, or how soon it will be.

No, this is more than a restatement of the obvious, or another invocation of the ‘universal language’ myth. This is the developing…

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Book proposals: two examples

unnamed (1)

I quite regularly get questions about how to write a book proposal from colleagues. Given the importance of books as an often-required credential for tenure and/or promotion, such questions are to be taken seriously.

Writing a book proposal is a bit of work, comparable to writing a research paper. But two advantages are yours:

  1. You know what you’re writing about, as the research for the book is usually completed by the time you write the proposal. In fact, I usually only write a proposal when I have an almost-complete book manuscript that just needs some tweaking and polishing in view of publishing as a book.
  2. Most publishers offer a template that helps us write them in a fairly structured manner. Most of these templates are very much alike – publishers are generally interested in the same things.

Concretely, a book proposal usually needs to offer:

  • A rationale for the book: why is this book worth publishing now?
  • An outline of the book, preferably by means of an annotated table of contents or a chapter-by-chapter overview.
  • An analysis of competition: which other books cover more or less the same field?
  • A view of the potential readership: general public? Students (undergraduate or graduate)? Advanced scholars?
  • Practicals: length of the manuscript, illustrations, timeline, possible permissions to be cleared, contact address and so forth.

Remember, as a rule of thumb, that a proposal should not just be a factual description of what you intend to offer the publisher: you have to offer an argument in the proposal, and it needs to be written as an argument for (a) the intellectual case you intend to build; (b) its quality, originality etc. and (c) its value for the publisher, in terms of markets, competition and so forth. What you really need is what is usually referred to as a pitch: a precise idea of who might read your book and in which ways they will read it. You write your proposal (or “pitch” it) towards this audience.

A book proposal is usually peer-reviewed, so you’ll get feedback and suggestions for revisions if applicable. When it’s approved and your manuscript is submitted and approved as well, the marketing people of the publishing house will send you a dreadful questionnaire in view of for their publicity strategy. You’ll be asked to list possible journals interested in reviewing the book, scholars in the field who can write cover blurbs (“endorsements” in polite language), courses or programs you know of in which your book can be used as a coursebook, conferences you’ll attend and so on.

So here are two book proposals, one I submitted some years ago to Cambridge University Press, the second submitted to Multilingual Matters. Some of you may recognize the books and may also be able to spot the differences between the proposals and the final product.

Example 1.










C 10

Example 2.


page 1

page 2

page 3

page 4

page 5page 6

page 7




Gentlemanly sexism

language: a feminist guide

Writing in the Law Society Gazette this week, Joshua Rozenberg asked why Lady (Brenda) Hale, who was president of the Supreme Court of the UK from 2017 until her retirement last month, did not get the job in 2012 when she first put herself forward. He draws on the account given by an insider, Lord Hope, who retired in 2013 and has since published his diaries. What he says is revealing, not just about the workings of the Supreme Court, but about a particular kind of sexism and the language that goes with it.

Below are some of the statements Rozenberg quotes from the parts of Lord Hope’s  diaries where he talks about Lady Hale. Most date from 2012, the year when she put herself forward for the presidency of the court but was not selected, and 2013, when she succeeded Lord Hope as deputy president.

  1. [She is] a…

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The Sociolinguistics of Globalization, preface to the Chinese edition


Jan Blommaert

In a straightforward sense, this Chinese edition of The Sociolinguistics of Globalization is an illustration of what the book is about: the effective globalization of discourses, and the arguments and ideas they express. It also illustrates another crucial dimension of the sociolinguistics of globalization: the fact that such forms of globalization are never processes of uniformization, but of vernacularization. The same discourses, arguments and ideas are shared, but in the process they are converted into another discursive structure, grounded in local or regional universes of contextualization. Which is why I see this book not as just a ‘translation’ of the English original, but as a new ‘edition’, a Chinese edition addressing Chinese audiences – many of which may have been able to read the English version of the book – in a different way.

The core theme of the book is mobility: the fact that in an era of intense globalization, a study of language as an immobile, ‘fixed’ and sedentary object is entirely inadequate. Again, this Chinese edition illustrates this point. It is mobility – of people, objects and ideas – that brought the book to the attention of Chinese scholars, and the conversion of the book into a Chinese edition is another step in such patterns of mobility: it can now be integrated locally into existing intellectual and academic cultures. In so doing it will change such cultures, as well as the book itself. I expect new kinds of uptake and interpretation of the ideas articulated in The Sociolinguistics of Globalization, new forms of dialogue and new forms of follow-up research.

Another crucial point in the book is that globalization processes are real, situated historical processes. And this point enables me to elaborate the expectations of uptake, dialogue and follow-up research mentioned above.

The Chinese edition of this book appears a decade after the original version. The ideas articulated in it are even older. I started working in this direction in the late 1990s, and produced a steady flow of papers on topics related to the sociolinguistics of globalization, appearing throughout the first decade of the 21st century. The draft of the book was completed in 2008 and summarized this earlier work. If I look back at the real historical situatedness of the book, it was largely written in a world in which the Web 2.0 became an acquired thing, but in which social media, as we now know them, were new and relatively marginal. To mention the social media currently dominant in my part of the world, Facebook was created in 2004, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010. Smartphones were rare, and the first iPhone entered the market while I was working on the draft of this book. So when I wrote the book, I could only refer to a world which was globally connected through email, accessed through desktops or laptops (the iPad was launched in 2010), and in which average mobile phone owners used their phones for making calls and sending texts. Traditional mass media – printed press, radio and network TV – were still dominant and hardly challenged by the emerging online blogs or first-generation micromedia.

This world has vanished, of course, and this Chinese edition of my book now enters into a world in which online and offline dimensions of social (and sociolinguistic) life have become intertwined and define our everyday experiences of social and cultural reality. The People’s Republic of China, in particular, has rapidly developed into a society in which social media are immensely popular, in which online entertainment, shopping and banking have become everyday commodities, and in which behavioral digitization and data-driven analysis have reached unmatched levels of sophistication. Several of my own students have been able to document this development in great detail in their doctoral work, and the development is momentous. The infrastructures of globalization, including sociolinguistic globalization, have profoundly changed since I wrote the original version of The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. They have changed everywhere, and certainly in China, and this profoundly changed globalization context guarantees a new universe of interpretation for my book, new questions and topics of research to be tagged onto it, new kinds of relevance (or irrelevance) to be attributed to it. I am looking forward to that.

Among the very many reactions I received to the book since its appearance, the ones that I experienced as most gratifying were those in which colleagues and students expressed that the book had inspired them, and prompted them to develop new forms of research taking the proposals I made in the book much further. “Inspiration”, as we know, is not the same as “following” some kind of doctrine or tradition. It is its opposite: it is a form of intellectual liberation in which previously held (and often constraining) frameworks and ideas can be abandoned and new ones can be critically explored. I can say, with a mixture of pride and humility, that the book appears to have inspired large numbers of colleagues and students over the past decade, and has offered them the liberty to explore new directions in their intellectual and academic development.

Thus, there has been substantial and significant research both at the conceptual level – rethinking what “language” may mean within a paradigm of mobile resources, for instance, or coming to grips with the intrinsic instability and complexity that follows from that paradigm, giving concepts such as “(trans)languaging” considerable traction. There has been significant research on sociolinguistic “superdiversity” as a means to describe a new ontology for the study of language in society; on the online globalization of semiotic and other cultural forms and the communities that contribute to their global spread; on new forms of language and forms of language usage no longer seen as linearly connected to a “source” such as English, but seen as forms of vernacular globalization and inflection; on the changing connections between diasporas and their nation-state communities of origin; on the changing nature of translation and interpreting in a globalized world, and so forth. I am not saying that none of this would not have been possible without The Sociolinguistics of Globalization; but the book perhaps offered a timely historical benchmark, a useful anchoring point from which such developments could evolve more swiftly and smoothly, simply because there was a vocabulary, a tentative framework and an ambition in the book that facilitated such developments.

The ambition was, in a way, to think big while addressing the very small details of language and its usage, and to think theoretically while we were doing empirical, clinically analytic work. Theoretically, two issues animated my effort. The first issue was methodological nationalism: the fact that much of sociolinguistic and related research still took the nation-state as an unquestioned unit of analysis, and – by extension – had developed excellent tools for examining local, sedentary and ultimately bureaucratically defined sociolinguistic circumscriptions, but only offered clumsy tools for addressing translocal, mobile phenomena associated with unstable populations dispersed over various sites in the world. In an age of globalization, this national and local theoretical horizon obviously demanded destabilization.

Observe, however, that the nation-state should not be dismissed as a unit of analysis: it had to be precisely located in a range of other scale-levels in any adequate analysis. To give a simple but clear example supporting the argument; the Wuhan corona virus crisis of early 2020 was obviously a local issue in Wuhan, where the first victims fell; but it was also a national issue because of the intersection of the danger of contagion and the hypermobility of Chinese citizens during the Chinese New Year period. This called for stringent measures at the national scale. But it quickly also became a global problem, affecting air traffic between China and the rest of the world and affecting various aspects of the world economy. A Volvo car plant in Belgium, for instance, had to reduce production because the transfer of parts from China had been disrupted by the Wuhan coronavirus crisis. What we see in this example is globalization in its purest form: a phenomenon spreads globally over various scale-levels (the local, the national, and the transnational), and at each scale level it becomes a different thing. The managers of the car manufacturing plant in Belgium did not experience the public health crisis experienced by the inhabitants of Wuhan – they experienced a local economic effect of this transnational phenomenon, largely caused by measures not taken by the people of Wuhan, nor by medical staff or virologists, but by the central government of the People’s Republic. Here, we can see how the nation-state operates as a switchboard between different scale levels in globalization processes, and how what happens at the national level can only be adequately understood when we consider what happened at the other scale-levels. Methodological nationalism is of no assistance here.

The second issue animating my effort was to definitively distance myself from the legacies of structuralism – the scientific paradigm defining the era of the modern nation-state. More in particular, I wanted to offer an alternative to the Saussurean “synchrony” in our fields of study: the emphasis on static, timeless and immobile features of language, and on abstract descriptions of “underlying” principles in understanding language and what it does in the real lives of real people. Language and its users, to me, are concrete things observable in real time and space; they are changeable, dynamic and only relatively predictable in their features, actions and effects. The study of language as flexible sets of mobile resources, unequally distributed over its users and subject to scale-sensitive contextual influences, was my alternative to the Saussurean synchrony. This alternative is paradigmatic, as it has numerous theoretical and empirical knock-on effects on the theory and practice of sociolinguistics. To return to the example of the Wuhan coronavirus crisis, for instance, we must be able to explain the differences between phenomena at different scale-levels in the same globalization process, as well as the nature of its local appearances. Turning to language, we must be able to explain why an accent in English that is seen as an indicator of middle-class belonging in, say, Nairobi or Karachi, becomes an indicator of marginality and inarticulateness in, say, London or Chicago.

While many of the issues I raised here are being creatively addressed in work-in-progress, much of the work remains to be done. It is work to be done by people who are deeply familiar with the new forms of globalization characterizing our social systems nowadays, and adjusted to the extremely rapid changes characterizing these systems. It needs to be done by “globalization natives”, people for whom globalization, including its digital infrastructures, are simple facts of life. Which is why I expect a lot from the readers of this Chinese edition of The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. I expect this book to be relatively easy and straightforward reading for them, and I invite them to see it as an invitation to fact-check the claims and arguments in the book against their own lived experiences as members of communities that have witnessed tremendous changes over the past decades, most of them defined by the emerging prominence of China in a globalized world. Perhaps the answers I provided in the book will have to be rejected or amended. But I like to think that the questions I raised remain relevant and valid, for globalization and the patterns of sociolinguistic mobility it involves will not end soon – they will intensify.


English in the world today: a BBC World podcast

Blog | Research Centre for Multilingual Practices and Language Learning in Society


I was interviewed recently by BBC World for a program on English and globalization. Here is the podcast, and my “mind-bending” remarks start around minute 12.


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Carbon-neutral academic work

Blog | Research Centre for Multilingual Practices and Language Learning in Society

gold card vlak

Academics are travelers, and I have traveled a lot. There were, and are, good reasons for that: there is a host of crucial academic activities that involve traveling, and the most prominent of such events are conferences big and small, academic exchanges and visiting fellowships enabling close research collaboration with colleagues elsewhere. Since I considered this both a duty and a joy in my professional life, I had no hesitations booking flights to other continents where I would talk for about 45 minutes in front of a group of about 30 graduate students, and to do this at least five or six times per year.

The absurdity of such efforts took a while to sink in. Accumulated jetlags resulted in serious health issues, and a stern-faced cardiologist took time to explain to me in detail the disastrous effects of intensive and continuous air traveling on my body over an extended…

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Political discourse in post-digital societies


Jan Blommaert

Point of departure

The point of departure for what follows is this observation.[1] Since the beginning of the 21st century, we live our social, cultural, political and economic lives in an online-offline nexus, in which both ‘zones’ – the online and the offline – can no longer be separated and must be seen as fused into a bewildering range of new online-offline practices of social interaction, knowledge exchange, learning, community formation and identity work. The so-called ‘digital revolution’ has already happened, it has become ‘historical’ according to Florian Cramer (2014), and we have entered a ‘post-digital’ era in which big-tech innovation is matched by grassroots searches for agency, DIY media creation and hybrid media systems.

This has profoundly affected the flows of information in societies such as ours, and we need to get our heads around these new ways in addressing their outcomes: messages, meanings and the social configurations within which they circulate. This evidently includes political messages and meanings. Note that such messages and meanings are almost without exception mediatized (and thus mediated) messages and meanings, reaching their audiences due to the mediating impact of media systems. For most people, political discourse is indirectly accessed through the specter of the media they are exposed to.

One can reformulate this general observation. Digital infrastructures have become part of what is conventionally described as ‘social structure’ – the deep, generic and often invisible drivers behind actual social conduct – and such infrastructures now demand much more attention in research on messages and meanings (cf. Arnaut, Karrebaek & Spotti 2017). Concretely: not just the content should be central to discourse-analytic research, but systems of communication and the way in which they shape new sociolinguistic conditions for production, circulation and uptake of discourses, new resources, new actors and new relations between actors (Maly 2018). Post-digital environments are new sociolinguistic environments and discourse analysis cannot avoid attention to the sociolinguistic conditions affecting contemporary discourses.

The point of departure has been sketched. I shall now offer three connected reflections on the analysis of political discourse within these post-digital conditions.

Revisiting propaganda models

Propaganda models are linear models of political mass communication, in which the messages and meanings of powerful actors – politicians in this case – are passed on to ‘the public’ by mass media owned or operated by actors sharing the same interests as those articulated by the powerful actors. Mass media, in such models, act as an intensifying and expansive conduit for the interests of the powerful, and their monopoly in the public sphere ensures propaganda effects on ‘public opinion’.

Various versions of propaganda models (the most widely known one is Herman & Chomsky 1988) have been predominant in critical discussions of mass media and politics throughout the 20th century,[2] and they informed much early and influential work in Critical Discourse Analysis as well (e.g. Fairclough 1989). These models are grounded in a modernist imagination of ‘the public’ (hence the scare quotes I put around this term) and the public sphere, in which ‘the public’ is usually seen as ‘the masses’. The latter are amorphous and inert – therefore vulnerable to propaganda – and coinciding with the statistical notion of ‘population’, which allowed it to be investigated by means of notions such as ‘public opinion’ and to be structured into averages, majorities and minorities. As a political actor, ‘the public’ stood in a responsive relationship to politicians and state institutions on the one hand, and mass media on the other.

These often implicitly held images have been pervasive in spite of the fact that most serious sociologists (from Simmel and Dewey to Habermas, Bourdieu and Giddens) would frequently warn against the fallacies of such amorphous and homogenizing views of ‘the public’ and ‘the public sphere’. And attempts such as those of Dewey and Habermas to make citizens less responsive and inert, and more proactive and influential in the political process, often got no further than proposals for more structured, well-informed, rational debate in ‘the public sphere’.

We now realize that this public sphere is profoundly fragmented. I suppose it always was fragmented, but the mainstream sociological imagination privileged artificial homogenization over actual fragmentation. In the online-offline nexus, we definitively must abandon this construct of a single and unified public sphere made up of ‘the masses’ and manipulated by the ‘mass media’. In the new hybrid media system in which old and new media constantly interact, algorithms do not target ‘the masses’, they target a multitude of highly specific audiences (‘micro-populations’ in the terms of Maly & Varis 2016) in what has become known as ‘micromarketing’ or ‘niche marketing’. ‘Mass’ effects – think of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump as US president – are achieved by establishing loose, temporal and unstable coalitions between such micro-audiences. ‘Mass’ media in the 20th century sense of the term (currently called ‘mainstream media’ or MSM) now also operate on the logic of micromarketing algorithms and in close synergy with online platforms and social media. They are no longer hegemonic in the ‘public sphere’ in the ways that led, e.g., Lipmann and Dewey to their reflections on the role of media in a democracy. And manufacturing consent in the way Herman and Chomsky understood it now demands intense and coordinated activity on far more and more diverse media platforms, operating in a fragmented field of media content production and circulation.

I’m afraid that the public sphere – a phrase that has been used a zillion times in social and political analysis – has become practically meaningless. And the propaganda models that were so predominant in public discourse analysis also need to be fundamentally revisited, because two of their key elements have been dislodged: mass media in the 20th century sense, and the public sphere in the modernist sense outlined above. They have been replaced by complex systems of communication aimed at micromarketing.

As for rational debate within this public sphere – the duty of democratic citizens and the task of their mass media in the eyes of generations of social and political theorists – the same conclusion seems compelling. If propaganda models need to be replaced by micromarketing models of public communication, the features of marketing need to be taken serious. I shall now recite the commonplace features of such marketing practices: they are irrational, aestheticized and emotive. But let’s note with some emphasis that these features were already attributed to Nazi politics by Walter Benjamin in 1936. It is safe to assume that aesthetics has never been absent from the political sphere, and that it may even be one of its key features in retrospect. Let us equally note that these features, while not rational, are epistemic nonetheless: they organize modes of knowledge construction, of argumentation and persuasion just as effectively as rational, fact-based practices (cf. Blommaert 2018a; Prochazka & Blommaert 2019). Meaning is as much an effect of discursive shape as it is of discursive content, as Dell Hymes (1996) famously reminded us. Clickbait simply reaffirms this, as does the prominence of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ (or outright lies) in contemporary political campaigns.

The implications of all of this are clear, and I will quickly sketch three major ones. All three are related to how we imagine the democratic system as an actually existing contemporary mode of organization of the political field.

First, we need to abandon the (cherished) idea of modern democracy as a rational system of decision-making, revolving around ‘the truth’ and with this ‘truth’ as the point around which consensus (and coalitions) can be formed. Few issues are presently as controversial as ‘the truth’, and commentators sometimes refer to our times as the ‘post-truth’ era. In actual practice, it is best to approach democratic decision-making as a ‘mixed method’ thing in which rational practices are just one element, and not always the prevailing one.

Second, we also need to distance ourselves from traditional views of contemporary democratic decision-making as carried along by relatively stable (and sociologically pre-defined) majorities engaged in rational debate with equally relatively stable minorities. And third, we need to distance ourselves from the idea of ‘public opinion’ as a reliable indicator of such majority-minority divisions.

Both elements – the majority-minority divisions and the notion of public opinion – too often operate as unchallenged a priori assumptions in analysis. In times of micromarketing and fragmented audiences, such assumptions need to be empirically demonstrated if we wish to get a precise view of the actual political process and the role of discursive action in that process. If we take these three implications on board, we are facing a more general one. An adequate understanding of the contemporary political system requires another sociological imagination (cf. Blommaert 2018b), for the one we tend to carry along in our analyses reflects a political process that might have been accurate in the 20th century, but no longer corresponds to the field that prevails today.

Revisiting models of communication

I can now turn to the second reflection. It is, obviously, connected to the previous one and can be seen as a more specific extension of it of particular immediacy for discourse analysts. Here, too, my remarks address deep and influential assumptions often implicitly articulated in analysis – assumptions about the model of communication underlying analysis.[3]

I shall start from something which all of us learned during our first year of language studies: Saussure’s sender-receiver model of communication (Saussure 1960: 27). (See Figure 1)


Figure 1: Saussure’s model of communication

We see two (male) individual humans, A and B; A produces an utterance originating in his brain and transmits it through his mouth to the ears of B, who processes it in his brain and responds to it. Both A and B perform these acts synchronically (in a real moment of interaction) and symmetrically: the acts of A and B are identical in Saussure’s model. All of this is very well-known, but we should remind ourselves that this simply dyadic sender-receiver model is, to a large extent, still the default model for imagining communication at large, and thus serves as the backdrop for communication theorizing. Note: it is individual, human, spoken, linear, synchronic and direct within a clear sender-receiver relationship.

With this in mind, let us turn to the actual contemporary forms of communication in the post-digital era. Here is the main structure of communication on Twitter. (See figure 2)

twitter schema

Figure 2: Communication structure on Twitter

We see a very different and much more complex structure of communication here. The tweet, produced by someone (e.g. president Trump), is sent to an algorithm – a nonhuman ‘receiver’, if you wish – through which artificial intelligence operations forward it to numerous specific audiences (A 1, 2, …n in figure 3), whose responses are fed back, as data, to the algorithm and thence to the sender of the tweet in nonstop sequences of indirect, mediated interaction. Parts of these audiences can relay their own uptake of the tweet (via the Twitter algorithm) to secondary audiences (A 5, 6 … n in the scheme), who can do the same – and so on, enabling a tweet to reach audiences not initially accessible, both immediately after the moment of tweeting and much later. The audiences (also often called ‘bubbles’) are constructed by the algorithms out of users’ data-yielding profiles, and they are selected on the basis of a range of ‘data points’ including topic keywords, hashtags and histories of prior interactions. The audiences consist of individuals, sure; but in the case of Trump and many other high-profile accounts also of bots – computer programs behaving like ‘normal’ Twitter users and generating specific forms of response such as liking and retweeting and sometimes dramatically increasing the volume of traffic for tweets.

What we need to take along here is this:

(1) There is no linear, symmetrical and direct sender-receiver structure on Twitter, because the platform itself provides an algorithmic mediator for all and any interaction.

(2) The participants are, consequently, not all human, as very crucial parts of the communication structure are controlled by automated AI technologies.

(3) As an effect of these algorithmic mediations, there is not a single ‘audience’ (or ‘public’) in the structure of communication, but a fragmented complex of ‘niched’ audiences often with incompatible interests or political orientations.

(4) There is also not a single producer of discourse here: political discourse is produced and circulated by all actors within this model, humans as well as non-humans.

(5) The entire system is permanently in motion, with constant interactional conversions of actions performed by (human and nonhuman) participants into data further shaping and regulating the effects of the actions (cf. Maly 2018).

(6) These actions are indirect, i.e. mediated by technologies as well as by the uptake and feedback actions of (unknown and unintended) audiences.

(7) They are also not synchronic but spread over variable spans of time. Actions can be performed months or years after the original moment of tweeting, because of the archiving capacity of online platforms.

(8) Finally, we are observing scripted communication here, not spoken communication. We are in a field of literacy here; this field is extraordinarily diverse and involves, for instance, different kinds of platforms on which literacy practices are performed. The conversion of all actual online practices into data, to be used in AI and in micromarketing, must be included into this.

These are empirical observations, and specific ones. But even if we would prefer to minimalize their potential for extrapolation and generalization (something I would not encourage), these observations do not in any way fit into Saussure’s old model of communication, nor can they be made to fit into it. The model is simply irrelevant as a tool to generalize the actual modes of communication we face when looking at these types of examples.

Models of communication in the post-digital era need to be models in which the characteristics of the online-offline nexus are absorbed as a reality affecting the phenomenology of communication in the most profound sense. This is, I think, a matter of realism in scientific practice: the frameworks for generalization we use need to be grounded in empirical analytical insights reflecting the ‘is’ of communication, not its ‘ought’. More concretely, political discourse analysis needs to be re-footed on the basis of the new kinds of communicative economies (including resources, actors and relationships between actors) we observe and inhabit.

A polycentric world of communication

The latter remark takes us back to what was said earlier: political communication in post-digital environments involves a multitude of actors, some of whom are human and some non-human, and all of whom operate both as producers and receivers of political messages. The idea that political discourse is the discourse of professional politicians alone, or even primarily, is an anachronism. True, politicians often provide the ‘input’ for the complex communication processes outlined in the previous section; but they do not determine its effects, intensity or scale of circulation – things performed by the multiple audiences (including bots) in interaction with platform algorithms. Here, too, we can observe the limits and inadequacies of the older propaganda models: demonstrating that ‘the public’ is ‘influenced’ by politicians’ political messages – in which the politician (and his/her messages) is the key actor – nowadays requires a very intricate analysis of ‘who does what’. Outcomes of such analyses might suggest that parts of the public influence other parts of that public, or more precisely: they might suggest that not politicians, but specific audiences influence other audiences, and that this is achieved by means of a multitude of processes of re-entextualization (Silverstein 1996).

Entextualization refers to the process by means of which discourses are successively or simultaneously decontextualized and metadiscursively recontextualized, so that they become a new discourse associated to a new context and accompanied by a particular metadiscourse which provides a sort of ‘preferred reading’ for the discourse. This key concept helps us understand that ‘virality’ – the large-scale distribution of messages by means of online ‘copy’ practices such as reposts, retweets and so forth – is not, in fact, a series of repetitions of ‘the same’ message, but a series of re-entextualizations (cf Varis & Blommaert 2015). In such re-entextualizations, the message of a politician is taken by an audience member – it is appropriated, if you wish – and inserted into an entirely new act of communication involving a new producer (the audience member) and addressees (the audience member’s own network of online ‘friends’ or ‘followers’) in a new kind of interaction, with the algorithms mediating this new and more complicated process, the ‘data’ of which are fed back to the politicians’ original act of communication, even if the characteristics of the new act of communication diverge strongly from those of the original (‘input’) act.

Concretely, imagine that I retweet a tweet launched by president Trump. I am not one of Mr. Trump’s supporters; in fact, I’m highly critical of his presidency and I became a ‘follower’ of Mr. Trump’s Twitter account because it offers me plenty of powerful arguments to be critical. My retweet would reach a network of people broadly aligned with my views (my bubble), and it is likely that this specific audience of mine will understand my retweet as a critical comment on Mr. Trump, not as an act of support for him and his views. My retweet, in short, is a re-entextualization that conveys a negative message on Mr. Trump, not the positive one articulated in lots of other retweets (and preferred, one dares to venture, by Mr. Trump himself). But the Twitter algorithm will add my retweet to the total ‘virality’ of Mr. Trump’s original tweet, allowing him and his supporters to interpret my act as a form of popular support for (and possibly even agreement with) Mr. Trump’s message.

We observe polycentricity here: the circulation of political messages in the online-offline nexus does not, in any way, allow us to attach one single interpretation to that meaning. Sixty thousand retweets of Mr. Trump’s message cannot be read as sixty thousand acts of support and agreement – widely divergent interpretations will be included in what looks like simple repetitions of the same message. Observe (but I can only mention this in passing here) that new interpretations can be added much later, given the archival capacity of the Web: the tweets can be invoked as evidence in litigation, for example, or as evidence of contradictions or unconventional policy shifts by the president. Online messages inevitably end up in a system of communication in which the actually communicated meaning of such messages is open to very profound indexical re-orderings and, hence, of very different readings depending on the kinds of appropriations mentioned above.

Explanations for this can be found in the Twitter model of communication I sketched above: we are facing nonlinear, asymmetrical and non-synchronic acts of communication here, involving different ‘indexical centers’ (cf. Blommaert 2005). In the example I gave, I am such an indexical center for my own Twitter audience, and the indexical order I apply to Mr. Trump’s message will be very different from that attributed to it by supporters of the president, who represent another range of indexical centers. The algorithms, of course, are also very powerful indexical centers in the entire process. In each instance, entirely different sets of social, cultural and moral norms will be applied to the messages, and what such messages actually do in communication will depend on such widely divergent norms (cf. Blommaert 2019).

This feature of political (and other) communication in the post-digital era is yet another argument against simple propaganda models. Politicians quite often understand the numbers of retweets as well as the numbers of ‘followers’ or ‘friends’ of their social media accounts as evidence of the level of popular (often called ‘democratic’) support they command – an anachronistic reading grounded in the propaganda model and very much at odds with the actual facts of communication, uptake and effect of their messages. As said earlier, there is no way in which we can see online audiences as yet another embodiment of ‘the masses’ in the 20th century, modernist sense of that term.

Good and bad news for discourse analysts

The last reflection has a clear implication: politicians need to be aware of the widely divergent meanings that their messages allow, and need to spend a great deal of care for the actual forms of communication they engage in. Advanced big-data based micromarketing assists them in the process, but messages targeting specific audiences still have the capacity to spill over into unintended audiences and generate a powerful negative backlash that way. Remember that the ultimate aim is to construct (temporary and ephemeral, but real) coalitions of different audiences; negative backlash from unintended audiences can render the construction of such coalitions more difficult or impossible.

All of this is good news for political discourse analysts. It is also bad news. The good news is that the increased attention for actual forms of political communication creates a demand for nonstop, intensive and sophisticated discourse analysis. I did my PhD in 1989 on Swahili political discourse in Tanzania. In those days, our material consisted of a finite body of texts – speeches given and texts written by politicians, possibly complemented by mass-media reports of such speeches and texts. Political discourse analysis today is much more exciting, for accurate analysis now involves the capacity to change analytical strategies whenever the field and its constituent elements change – and this is now a permanent process.

This, of course, can also be seen as bad news. The toolkit with which I engaged with my Tanzanian texts in the 1980s was outstanding in its usefulness and clarity – we had standard ‘recipes’, so to speak, for doing the work of political discourse analysis. We no longer have the comfort of such clarity, for political discourse analysis, as just mentioned, now includes perpetual adjustment of perennially unfinished tools and tactics to adequately address a moving target. This challenge is theoretical, methodological, but also practical. Political discourse analysis is of crucial importance if we want to understand the complexities of the societies we inhabit. So there is not just a demand for such analysis but a need to continue providing it. The fact that this work becomes more difficult and more demanding should not deter us – the answer to it is a key scientific ambition called ‘innovation’.


[1] This essay is the written version of the opening statement of a Babylon webinar on this topic, held on 25 November 2019 and involving audiences from Brazil, Argentina and Australia. I am grateful to all participants for the very stimulating discussion we had during the webinar. A video version can be found here.

[2]The debate between Lippman (1922) and Dewey (1927) can serve as an example. The debate structured two major lines of argument regarding the connection between politics, media as information providers, and the public, a pessimistic line and an optimistic one, respectively. These lines provide an accurate heuristics for following 20th century debates on the role and place of media in western democracies. Obviously, the views of e.g. Horkheimer & Adorno (1947) and Postman (1985) – to name just those influential voices – also fit into the same mold.

[3] The following paragraphs are adapted from Blommaert (2019).


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