From the Self to the Selfie

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Jan Blommaert, Lu Ying, Li Kunming

[Draft chapter, in Byron Adams & Fons van de Vijver (eds.) Identity in Non-Western Contexts, 2019]

Introduction

The central thesis of this chapter is that, since the beginning of the 21st century, we live in a social and cultural environment that has undergone fundamental and unprecedented changes due to the integration of online infrastructures in the patterns of everyday life conduct.[1] Since then, we inhabit the online-offline nexus, and while both zones have characteristics of their own, both have deeply influenced each other and must be seen as one sociocultural, economic and political habitat. This habitat is as yet poorly theorized, since we continue to rely largely on social theories and methodologies developed to account for patterns and structures characterizing offline conduct: theories of the Self. Such theories now need to be complemented by theories of the “Selfie” – the online configurations and performances of identity observable as normal, default modes of identity work in the online-offline nexus.

In what follows, we shall present a number of proposals for addressing the Selfie. These proposals will be grounded in an action-centered perspective on identity – to be explained at length in the next section – which, in our view, is necessitated by a fundamental feature of online social life: the absence of physical copresence in interaction situations, leading to a lack of the mutual monitoring work which was so central in, for instance, Goffman’s work as a means to achieve knowledge of the other (e.g. Goffman 1966). The other appears online, as all of us know, as a technologically-mediated avatar of which the “real” features cannot be established through the cues we so generously display in offline interactions. In examining online social conduct, consequently, knowledge of who the interlocutor is never an a priori but an effect of concrete social action, and while performing such actions knowledge of the other is presumptive or even speculative. Such action – interaction, to be precise – needs to be central in any methodologically safe approach to online identity.

We shall illustrate these proposals by means of two analytical vignettes, both taken from research on online identity practices on the Chinese internet. China, it must be underscored, offers the student of digital culture perhaps the richest panorama of phenomena and processes presently available. This is due to the massive spread of online (and mobile) online applications, the highly integrated and powerful nature of such applications, and the extraordinarily intense usage of these applications by a very large population. Details on this will be offered below. There is another advantage to working on online data from China: the advanced surveillance culture that pervades the Chinese internet and which has often been critically commented upon by outside observers  But while this surveillance culture is known and visible in the case of China, it is not exceptional at all. Surveillance culture is omnipresent in the online sphere wherever it occurs, to the extent that Zuboff (2019) speaks of “surveillance capitalism” as the system which we now inhabit.

This omnipresent surveillance culture has an important effect for what follows, since online identities – Selfies – always have two major dimensions: an “inside” one, referring to the identity work performed and inhabited by participants in online social action; and an “outside” one performed and ascribed by algorithmically configured data fed into user profiles. While all of us perform intense identity work whenever we operate online, all of us are simultaneously identified – through data aggregations – by surveillance operators active on a metalevel. There, we get an inversion: while the other is often unknown to everyday actors in everyday online interaction, the data-generated metaconstructions of profiles are all about full knowledge of the actor. While in what follows we shall be concerned mainly with the “inside” dimension, one should keep in mind that both dimensions of identity need to be addressed in order to get a comprehensive picture of the Selfie.

An action-centered perspective

Let us reiterate the main reason why we opt for an action-centered perspective on online identity work, for it is of great significance methodologically.  In online social environments, the “true” identity of actors involved in some form of social action is, by default, a matter of presumption. We assume that we are having a “discussion” with our “online friends”, and we notice comments from online friends X, Y and Z. X, Y and Z may not (and very often are not) be people we encounter in the offline sphere; consequently, the only identity we can attribute to them is based on what they themselves show and display to us while we engage in interaction with them.

Such online interaction, as we know,

  • is mostly scripted-designed and multimodal interaction;
  • performed by people we can identify only on the basis of what their profile information reveals; this information can be restricted by privacy settings, it can be misleading or outright fake;
  • it is curated in the sense that the actor can modify, edit, reorganize and even remove the messages deployed in the interaction and
  • technologically mediated through the algorithms of the application we are using, ensuring continuously adjusted “bubbles” of participants selected for involvement on data-analytical grounds. So even if we wish to direct our message to, say, all 2536 of my “friends”, we can never be sure that all of them will see that message, and we ourselves (the “senders” of the message in traditional communication theory) cannot see who can see our message. Thus, while we are directly chatting with X, Y and Z, a few hundred others – whom we do not (and cannot) know – may be witnessing the exchanges.
  • It is archivable in several ways: one, as part of our own archive of stored interactions; two, converted into user data gathered, ordered, kept and transformed by app providers, network owners, hardware manufacturers and security agencies; and dispatched to a market of customers interested in what Zuboff (2019: 8) calls “behavioral futures”.The latter form of “recycling”, note, is constant: all online actions are converted into behavioral-predictive data.

Online interaction, seen from that angle, is nonlinear and defies common models of communication dependent on the transparency of the communication and its resources, including the participants’ identities (individual and collective), the nature of the interaction and the message and their trajectories as consequential or inconsequential communicative events. Online interaction, we can see, is characterized by complexity, uncertainty and low predictability, which makes it hard to squeeze into ideal-type theoretical models.

Online interaction, however, remains observable as social action. And while we can say very little with any degree of a priori certainty about the nature of the interactions, the resources deployed in them and the individuals and collectives involved in them, the actions themselves can be used as a lead into all of this enabling post hoc statements on these aspects of action. Put simply: if we want to know online identities, we need to closely examine online actions.

This heuristic puts us firmly within a long lineage of interactionalist work – a tradition of social thought and methodology with roots in American Pragmatism and Phenomenology, mediated by George Herbert Mead (1934) and Alfred Schütz (1967), and developed by scholars such as Erving Goffman (e.g. 1966, 1974), Herbert Blumer (1969, 2004), Aaron Cicourel (1973), Anselm Strauss (1993), Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1966), Harold Garfinkel (1967, 2002) and many others.[2]

A number of principles characterize this tradition.

  1. The first and most important principle is that of interactional co-construction of social facts – the assumption that whatever we do in social life is done in collaboration, response or conflict with others. In fact, the people mentioned above argue that one can only talk of social action when it is interaction (e.g. Strauss 1993: 21), and for Blumer (1969: 7) “a society consists of individuals interacting with one another”.
  2. Interaction, in turn, is “making sense” of social order in concrete situations – this is the second principle. For the scholars mentioned, social order and social structure does not exist in an abstract sense but is enacted constantly by people in contextualized, situated moments of interaction. In Garfinkel’s famous words (1967: 9), in each such moment we perform and co-construct social order “for another first time”. The social is concrete, ongoing and evolving, in other words.
  3. The third principle is derived straight from Mead and can be summarized as follows: “we see ourselves through the way in which others see and define us” (Blumer 1969: 13). Somewhat more precisely, “organisms in interaction are observing each other’s ongoing activity, with each using portions of the developing action of the other as pivots for the redirection of his or her own action” (Blumer 2004: 18). This is the essence of Mead’s understanding of the Self: it is greatly influenced by anticipated responses from the others, and adjusted accordingly. The Self can thus never be an essence, a fixed characteristic, an a priori attribute of people: it is a situationally co-constructed performance ratified by others. Of course, Goffman’s work has greatly contributed to our understanding of this.
  4. Fourth, we do this interactional monitoring and anticipating of the others’ responses on the basis of an assumption of recognizability. When we experience something as meaningful, as something that “makes sense” to us, by recognizing it as something specific (cf. Garfinkel 1967: 9), a token of a type of meaningful acts which we can ratify as such. These types of acts can be called “genres” (Blommaert 2018: 51); Garfinkel called them “formats” (2002: 245), and Goffman (1974) theorized them as “frames”.
  5. Fifth, all of the preceding has a major implication for how we see the Self, how we theorize it and address it in research. Rawls’ (2002: 60) comment on Garfinkel nicely captures it, and the point can be extended to almost all the work in the tradition addressed here. Individual subjectivity, she writes,

“which had originally been thought of as belonging to the actor, [was relocated] in the regularities of social practices. (…) [A] population is constituted not by a set of individuals with something in common but by a set of practices common to particular situations or events”.

That means that actions generate those who are involved in them, or to quote Rawls again, we see “situations that provide for the appearances of individuals” (2002: 46), and not vice versa. Converted into the vocabulary of this book: identities, individual and collective, are effects of social actions and not their ontological and methodological point of departure. They constitute, as it were, the “personnel” of social actions.[3]

Having sketched the main principles of the action-centered approach we shall use here, our task is now to link it to the specific characteristics of online interactions, as reviewed earlier. Specific forms of interaction will demand and afford specific forms of identity work and yield specific identities; the specific nature of online interactions, thus, may compel us to focus on identities that are not often seen as essential, “thick” or enduring. But they are identities, to be sure – Selfies rather than Selves. That means: they are concrete, interactionally ratified (and thus relational) inhabited-and-ascribed roles in online social action, recognizable as such by others and constituted out of a number of specific identity dimensions.

Our analytic vignettes will provide arguments.

Becoming an expert user of memes.

The internet is a mammoth informal learning environment, and learning practices, broadly taken, are among the most frequently performed online social actions. Search engine commands are of course cases in point, but even when people engage in discussions, chats or other forms of “ludic” activities, learning appears as one of the main dimension of action. Since online environments are also sites of extremely rapid innovation and change, continuous learning needs to be done in order to enter specific groups of users or remain a ratified member of such communities.

We enter the realm here of so-called “light” relationships, identities and communities, carried along and given substance by means of “light”, ludic practices of the kind so often described by Goffman (e.g. 1961, 1966) – practices not often attributed too much importance when seen from the outside, but often experienced as highly salient by participants and worthy of very considerable efforts (Blommaert & Varis 2015). Attention to such light phenomena is not a mainstream tactic in disciplines explicitly interested in identities. Yet it connects with the interactionist tradition we chose to align our approach with, and in which there was an outspoken interest in the mundane, routine phenomena in which social order could be observed and made palpable. We adopt from this tradition the view that the big things in society can be observed and understood in seemingly small and innocuous events.

Let us now turn to some data gathered from Sina Weibo and WeChat, China’s largest social media providers. As mentioned earlier, China’s online infrastructure offers a fertile terrain for the study of digital culture, unmatched perhaps by any other area in the contemporary world. The reasons for this are manifold and range from the sheer scale of the infrastructure (with nearly a billion people using online tools); the level of sophistication of social media platforms in which functions elsewhere requiring dozens of separate apps are integrated into one platform; the intensity of use of online infrastructures, notably of social media; and the specific features of Chinese language and culture played out in online activities (Du Caixia 2016; Li Kunming 2018; Wang Xuan 2018; Hua Nie 2018; Lu Ying 2018). The latter is of special interest when we feed it back to one of the core features of online interactions: their scripted-designed multimodal nature. The specific characteristics of Chinese script constitute tremendous affordances for wordplay, neologisms and graphic design based on scriptural elements (Hua Nie 2018).

Several such affordances are played out in what is known elsewhere as “memes”, and as “Biaoqingbao” in online China.[4] Biaoqingbao are (like memes) compound signs consisting of an image and – usually – a caption. Images can be summary, like line drawings, but also intricate and manipulated, as when a celebrity’s face is pasted upon a panda bear’s head; in every instance, such doctored images convey interactionally recognizable and ratified emotive meanings – anger, surprise, laughter, aggression, but also more finely tuned emotive responses. Captions often use existing Chinese characters with a twist – playing into the homophony of characters to produce sarcastic or ironic wordplay, obscenities or covert sociopolitical critique, and they sometimes acquire a long and fruitful life as constantly morphing, multifunctional signs (cf. Du Caixia 2016; Hua Nie 2018). Memes can become extraordinarily popular with millions of shares and instances of use, and Biaoqingbao designers can become minor online celebrities with a large cohort of followers whose electronically transmitted cash donations turn Biaoqingbao design into a profitable business venture (Lu Ying 2018). One specific mode of usage of Biaoqingbao is in what is known as “emoticon fights”, in which interactions are organized around the exchange of Biaoqingbao, each time trying to trump (or “defeat”) the opponent.

We have, in this brief survey of Biaoqingbao, already identified identity effects. Highly talented Biaoqingbao designers can acquire celebrity status and function as the recognized leaders of a community of followers. In addition, such success can move them into a more prosperous socio-economic position in Chinese society, outside of the formal economy and labor market. Manufacturing complex, witty and appealing Biaoqingbao is, thus, an activity that can shift positions in a field (to use Bourdieu’s 1993 well-known terms here), and such position shifts are, in effect, identity shifts as well.

But there is more. The relationship between Biaoqingbao makers and their followers, and among members of the users’ community as well, is characterized by hierarchies within a learning community. An example can make this clear.

In 2016, a complex and composite meme appeared on Weibo, displaying fragments of nine classic paintings in a certain sequence (figure 1).

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Figure 1: “posh” Biaoqing

The captions added to the painting fragments describe the emotional value attached to them, in phrases such as “Rembrandt style fright” and “Dutch mannerism onlooking”. And in her post, the maker of the Biaoqingbao wrote “please help yourself to Biaoqingbao” – an explicit invitation to start using the memes in the ways she had described.

What followed was a stampede towards these “posh Biaoqingbao”, with many thousands of people expressing an interest in them and inquiring about specific ways to use them. Such ways, the Biaoqing maker explained, would bespeak a cultured and sophisticated stance: using them in online exchanges would suggest an advanced level of education, erudition and taste. People quickly followed, reposting the original meme, designing and submitting some of their own making, and commenting extensively on the qualities and defects of all of them and offering informed suggestions as to their interpretation and potential of use in emoticon fights. In Garfinkel’s (2002) terms, we were observing “instructed action”, in which people tried, explored and implemented each other’s suggestions – and most prominently those of the Biaoqingbao maker – in discussions, negotiations and trials.

Let us rephrase some of what we have encountered so far. We observe how, around the new Biaoqingbao, a knowledge community is formed in which different levels of knowledge define the relationships between members. The Biaoqingbao maker is the instructor, so to speak, and within the community of followers definite differences could be noted between more and less “experienced” commentators. Newcomers in the rapidly expanding community had to submit to processes of learning-from-scratch or acquire a place as a competent member by displaying relevant experiences with similar signs and practices. Rules were made, learned, deployed and modified throughout the process of community formation and consolidation. And an online practice that had no previous history of usage quickly became a normatively ordered, mutually ratified and regulated mode of interaction. This process of normative ordering and mutual ratification, in addition, enabled the display of a sophisticated, cultured and educated persona in online interactions. The hierarchical internal structure of the learning community, thus, enabled new forms of outward identity work in confrontations with non-members.

The amount of energy used in this process of formation and consolidation of an online learning community are tremendous, and the magnitude of the efforts can be measured by the money donations offered by grateful followers to Biaoqingbao makers. Thus, even if what we observe here is easy to dismiss as mere entertainment and innocent just-for-fun interaction, elementary processes of social ordering, identity formation and group construction are being shown in the process. This process, let us note and emphasize, is a process of action construction – the joint construction of a specific genre of online social action – and the way in which the process develops is through a wide and layered variety of learning practices, of which individual and collective identities are an outcome. Such identities, note, are exclusively online identities, and their construction, elaboration and development require the specific infrastructures of online social spaces.

The care of the Selfie

The same goes for the phenomena we now turn to. One of the features offered on Chinese social media platforms is a live streaming app called Zhibo, and this function has become widely used for the development of new, informal forms of online economy. Goods and services are traded via online streaming platforms, and mobile money transfer (another function of the platforms we consider here) enables swift and safe transactions.[5] Li Kunming (2018: 129) reports more than 200 livestreaming platforms, with an audience estimated, in 2016, to have reached 325 million – half of the Chinese online population.

One particular commodity has become widely popular on Zhibo: female beauty. Women open online chat rooms where they entertain a male audience; income is generated by “gifts” that can be purchased through the app and sent in real time to the chatroom host. Chat room apps would offer a range of such gifts in various price categories, from a relatively cheap “kiss” to an awfully expensive “Ferrari” or “diamond”. Before we move to consider some aspects of identity construction in such chat rooms, a more general observation has to be made with respect to the characterization of online interaction we provided earlier.

In Goffman’s terms, much of what we observe in the way of online interaction would be disembodied communication (1966: 14), and scripted messages or memes, such as the ones we surveyed in the previous section, would be typical instances of such disembodied communication. Obviously, interaction through livestreaming is not disembodied, and there is even copresence enabling the kind of give-and-take of visual clues in realtime that Goffman described in such detail. In livestreaming events, we can speak of real encounters in the sense of Goffman (1961). There is a twist, however, and the twist is significant. First, while we obviously observe embodied interactions here, the communicating body is technologically mediated, and the same goes for the aspect of copresence. The women in the chat rooms appear on a screen – usually that of a handheld device – and they usually are visible only from the waist up. And their bodies are just part of what is displayed on the screen, as we can see from Figure 2. Next to the woman’s face, icons and message balloons constantly appear, and they are crucial parts of the interaction.

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Fig. 2: Yizhibo chat room. © YouTube 2017.[6]

The embodied interaction, thus, is scripted, edited and curated, and it is multimodal and asymmetrical: while the woman can be heard by her audience members, the latter can only communicate to her by means of scripted messages; and while the woman is visible, her audience members remain invisible – their presence is attested through the messaging and the sending of gifts. The broad genre in these interactions can be described as flirting. The women show themselves, they move, talk, sing and respond to messages and icons of their audience, by expressing affection and gratitude. Thus, the woman in figure 2 kisses her webcam as a reward for a gift just received from one of her audience members. And this is the point where we see a tremendous amount of identity work being performed.

The women do not come online unprepared. There are certain normative templates for expressing femininity, and Li (2018) elaborates on the template called Baifumei – a Chinese term composed of “white-attractive-wealthy” and widely used to describe a particular ideal of feminine beauty. Baifumei are women with a pale skin, an oval-shaped face, eyes somewhat bigger than average, and “Western” in looks and preferences. Such looks can be acquired by elaborate and detailed make-up schemes, using specific brand creams, lipstick shades, eyeliner and mascara; and also by using electronic filters contained in the app for making the eyes look somewhat bigger and for adjusting the outline of the woman’s face. What audiences see in such chat rooms is clearly a Selfie – an electronically mediated and configured self-representation, necessitating great care whenever we refer to “embodiment” as a feature of these interactions.

Intricate behavioral scripts also need to be deployed and followed in interacting with the audiences as well. While a degree of vulgarity – expressed, for instance, in jokes, songs or wordplay – is not discouraged, obscenity clearly is. Women can present themselves as erotic, but they should not, and do not, undress in front of the camera, and too overtly sexualized moves or utterances would also be discouraged. The point is to be attractive to the men with whom they interact, to show attention and affection to them, to even express love to them – but all of this in ways that steer clear of associations with pornography and prostitution. The latter, of course, are criminal offences in China, and it is vital for the women to remain within the boundaries of what is politically, culturally, socially and legally acceptable.

This is important for several reasons. One – the obvious one – is that no one searches for trouble with the Law. But two aspects are equally important. There is the economic aspect, enabling the women to earn very considerable amounts of money (and to become financially independent that way) as long as their online performance satisfies the various normative expectations articulated and imposed by audiences, providers and authorities. And there is a social aspect to it as well: women can be free to flirt with men online in ways that, in offline China, could be perceived as deviant or offensive, and could have a range of undesired consequences. In other words: it is crucial that the women only perform their flirtatious practices online, as it keeps them safe and autonomous socially as well as economically. No wonder, then, that almost all women operate under an artist name: what they do online has to be and remain exclusively online.[7]

Let us summarize what we have covered in this vignette. The self-presentation of women in Zhibo chat rooms is governed by an elaborate “care of the Selfie” (a term obviously inspired by Foucault 1986, 2003). This care of the Selfie consists of a very wide range of normatively ordered actions aimed at creating and performing an identity exclusively designed for the online environment in which it is played out. It is proleptic identity work, anticipating the criteria of one’s audience and adjusting one’s appearance accordingly prior to seeking the audience’s uptake. The actions consist of preparatory practices organizing the presentation of the body online, as well as of interactional practices aimed at successfully performing the identity for which men are ready to present gifts. All of them combined are very real forms of identity – critical identities that enable women to acquire an income and a degree of autonomy hard to acquire elsewhere in society.

Conclusions

Our two vignettes showed how specific online actions generate specific online identities. These identities bear similarities, naturally, with other known forms of identity, especially when we compare them with the “light” but socially important identities described by Goffman, Garfinkel and others. At the same time, when we look at the details of identity construction in the cases we discussed, the influence of the online technological infrastructure is compelling. We are facing identity work here that is partly recognizable in terms of older established categories of identity, but which is at the same time entirely new in its loci and conditions for production.

The scale of such phenomena, and the pace of their production, circulation and change are tremendous, and this was one reason why we chose to illustrate our general points with examples from online China. Both the routine and ritualized exchange of Biaoqingbao, and the Zhibo chat rooms where female beauty is played out for male audiences, are very widespread phenomena involving hundreds of millions of individuals. These, in other words, are not marginal phenomena, they are structural ones.

Addressing them, however, demands an action-oriented approach in which the specific forms of online social action are examined in a search for their “personnel”, for the identities they allow, invite, enable and ratify. An approach in which we start from what is known about offline life risks bypassing the crucial effects of the online infrastructures on what is possible in the way of social action. It so risks to overlook the most important insight to be gathered from cases such as these: the fact that people have integrated online environments into their everyday social worlds, and that they have become fully competent members of a changed society that way, doing and being different things than before, and attaching great value to those things.

References

Berger, Peter & Thomas Luckmann (1966) The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Anchor Books.

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

Blommaert, Jan & Piia Varis (2015) Enoughness, Accent and Light Communities: Essays on Contemporary Identities. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 139. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/research/institutes-and-research-groups/babylon/tpcs/item-paper-139-tpcs.htm

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

Blumer, Herbert (2004) George Herbert Mead and Human Conduct. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1993) The Field of Cultural Production. Cambridge: Polity.

Cicourel, Aaron (1973) Cognitive Sociology: Language and Meaning in Social Interactions. Harmondsworth: Penguin Education.

Du Caixia (2016)The Birth of Social Class Online: The Chinese Precariat on the Internet. PhD diss., Tilburg University, September 2016.

Foucault, Michel (1986) The Care of the Self. Volume 3 of History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon Books.

Foucault, Michel (2003) Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France 1974-1975. New York: Picador.

Garfinkel, Harold (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology. New York: Prentice Hall

Garfinkel, Harold (2002) Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Goffman, Erving (1961) Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill.

Goffman, Erving (1966) Behavior in Public Places. Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings. New York: Free Press

Goffman, Erving (1974) Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New York: Harper and Row

Li Kunming (2018)Capitalization of Feminine Beauty on Chinese Social Media. PhD diss., Tilburg University, March 2018.

Li Kunming & Jan Blommaert (2017) The care of the Selfie: Ludic chronotopes of Baifumei in online China. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 197. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/research/institutes-and-research-groups/babylon/tpcs/item-paper-197-tpcs.htm

Lu Ying (2018) Emojis as a cash cow: Biaoqingbao-hatched economic practice in online China. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 217. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/39cc19a4-c143-4c00-8697-efee91494e34_TPCS_217_Lu.pdf

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

HuaNie (2018)Memes, Communities, and Continuous Change: Chinese Internet Vernacular Explained. PhD diss., Tilburg University, June 2018.

Rawls, Anne Warfield (2002) Editor’s introduction. In Harold Garfinkel, Ethnomethodology’s Program: 1-64. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Rawls, Anne Warfield (2004) Epistemology and Practice: Durkheim’s “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schütz, Alfred (1967) Phenomenology of the Social World. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Strauss, Anselm (1993) Continual Permutations of Action. New Brunswick: Aldine Transactions

Wang Xuan (2017)Online and Offline Margins in China: Globalization, Language and Identity. PhD diss., Tilburg University, December 2017.

Zuboff, Shoshana (2019) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. London: Profile Books

Notes

[1]Acknowledgments

[2] The work of scholars listed here has become known under a variety of labels, from ‘grounded theory’ (Strauss) and ‘social constructivism’ (Berger &Luckmann) to ‘symbolic interactionism’ (Blumer), ‘cognitive sociology’ (Cicourel) and ‘ethnomethodology’ (Garfinkel). To all of them, the label ‘ethnography’ can equally be applied. By using the term ‘interactionist’ we point to the fact that these disparate efforts are tied together by the shared basic-theoretical principles to be discussed next. The work of Anne Warfield Rawls (e.g. 2002; 2004) is exceptionally insightful in sketching the bigger picture of action-centered epistemologies connecting such different schools.

[3]To make this point very clear, observe that all of this evidently excludes methodological individualism from the theoretical repertoire of the interactionist tradition. See Blommaert (2018: 36-37) for a discussion.

[4]What follows is based on Lu Ying’s online fieldwork, part of her ongoing doctoral research on Biaoqingbao, its modes of usage and community of users.

[5] What follows is largely based on Li Kunming’s (2018) PhD research (cf. also Li & Blommaert 2017). Additional information was obtained from Lin Jie through her ongoing fieldwork, and we gratefully acknowledge her input.

[6] This image is a still from a YouTube clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIykXNIt3yc

[7] Li Kunming (2018) observes that many of the women who run such chat rooms hail from remote and socio-economically marginal areas in China. They very often lack the qualifications for upward mobility in the formal labor market, and their online economic activities are one way of compensating for such disadvantages. Note that successful women in this business can make millions and acquire the status of celebrity in online China.

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is on message

800px-kerri_evelyn_harris_and_alexandria_ocasio-cortez_1

Jan Blommaert

(Also published on Diggit Magazine)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to the US House of Representatives during the tumultuous midterm elections of late 2018. Running for the Democrats in the 14th District of New York – including the Bronx and part of Queens – she won a landslide, crushing her Republican opponent with 78% of the vote. Born in 1989, Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest female Congresswoman ever. And not only that: she became a digital media phenomenon of global scope.

From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to AOC

The point of departure for what follows is that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a highly unlikely candidate for such instant political stardom. Born in the Bronx as the daughter of lower middle-class Puertorican parents, submitting a CV in which academic brilliance is blended with activism and with menial jobs as bartender and waitress, and – more than anything else – proudly proclaiming unambiguously socialist principles: this is not the stuff that dreams are made of in the contemporary world of high office in the US. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is clearly an outsider.

But here is the thing: during her campaign and even more after her election, the image of the outsider was and is consistently, and quite brilliantly, used in her favor. This image  became the umami ingredient in terrifically designed and effective social media campaigns creating waves of viral popularity for which only Mr Trump himself provided a precedent. But with a difference: whereas the social media campaigns of Trump and others were overwhelmingly financed by corporate donors, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign funding was drawn from civil society and individual sources – her top donor is Columbia University and in the list of industrial sectors providing funding, the category of “others” (read: people who cannot be associated with an industrial sector) largely leads the pack. Crowdsourcing and volunteers provided the basis for Ocasio-Cortez’s enormous exposure and visibility during and after the campaign.

Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign used all social media platforms – there is nothing exceptional to that. However, there is again a difference worth noting. Her campaign YouTube channel looks dismal with its 7.800 subscribers; the one million friends and followers of her Facebook page  are a crowd commanding some more respect. But things get more impressive. Her main Twitter account (user name @AOC) is followed by about 2,5 million people, and – most remarkable of all figures – the official Ocasio-Cortez Instagram account counts 1,9 million followers, which places her nicely into the league of global entertainment and sports stars (many of whom follow her account). Posts there get hundreds of thousands of likes and tons of comments.

In fact, it is through her intense usage of Instagram as a strategic mass-communicative device that Ocasio-Cortez stands out and innovates political digital culture. While the Twitter account is dominated by largely political updates, it is on Instagram that Ocasio-Cortez merges the roles of politician and popcult influencer. And it is there that we see the smart and carefully curated visual display of someone at once glamorous and plebeian, wearing designer fashion and Walmart, young and mature, sophisticated and plain, model and politician, frivolous and professional. All of these dimensions are picked up by followers and eagerly commented on, as we can see below. While the Twitter account is the brain, the Instagram account is the heart of Ocasio-Cortez’s communication strategy. And it’s a massive success.

screenhunter_1445 jan. 21 14.18

The effectiveness of the strategy becomes clear when we look at a detail: the fact that her name has become a media and public opinion acronym. AOC rapidly became, like FDR and JFK before her, the shorthand name used by supporters and opponents alike to talk about the unlikely candidate from New York’s District 14. Its effectiveness also becomes clear when we look at another phenomenon: the amount and intensity of media aggression directed at AOC. Ocasio-Cortez has become the target of daily avalanches of media criticism from her opponents. And in the same way as with Donald Trump in 2016, this negative exposure turns her into an even greater icon and creates a veritable brand, called AOC.

This brand label, incidentally, can be read on any bottle of French wine or on French cheese, where it stands for Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée and flags the authenticity of the origin of the product, along with its exclusive qualities and flavors. There is no end to the creative associative wordplay and innuendo that can be performed through the use of “AOC”, and the main indexical vector of “AOC” – let’s not forget – is positive.

AOC is on message

AOC is the outsider in Washington DC: this was the central theme in her campaign, it was the message. The message was constructed in two ways. One, by emphasizing her humble origins and her very modest material circumstances in self-presentations such as the central YouTube campaign clip. And two, by responses to opponents attacking her for being “out of place” in the world of high politics.

To start with the first, the campaign clip (viewed about 800.000 times) opens with a shot of AOC in a plain bathroom getting ready for a public appearance, accompanied by the statement “I wasn’t born to a wealthy or powerful family”. The frame is clear: the “normal” profiles of people running for high office in the US include such wealthy and powerful family backgrounds. AOC pictures herself, right from the start, as an outsider. But the title of the clip is The Courage to Change, and here is the full message: by running for office, AOC displays the courage to change the political system. It is exactly by being an outsider that she will be an agent of change – it is because I don’t belong here that I must be here. We hear an echo here again – be it an echo from within an entirely different socio-economic corner of society – of Mr. Trump’s central campaign message. Only outsiders can “drain the swamp” on The Hill.

The message, evidently, is powerful. And Ocasio-Cortez hammers it home relentlessly, by posting pictures on Instagram featuring other outsiders – her newly elected female peers in Congress (especially the Muslima Ilhan Omar, as in the Intagram post above), members of ethnic and Native American minorities, ordinary folk, suffering people.

And it is played out in virtuoso ways whenever Ocasio-Cortez comes under fire from opponents claiming that she is the wrong person for Congress. When in early January 2019 critics “unearthed” a ten-year old video of AOC, a student then, dancing on the roof of Boston University, a barrage of moral accusations was launched at Ocasio-Cortez. Mainstream as well as social media cried wolf about this “clueless nitwit” who obviously lacked the gravitas required for service as a member of Congress. AOC responded instantly with another video on Twitter and Instagram. The 11-seconds clip was a masterpiece: it shows the outsider in front of her office door in the House, dancing to Edwin Starr’s classic “War (what is it good for?)” and stating, with a wink, “Wait till they find out Congresswomen dance too!” The clip got more than 20 million views in three weeks’ time.

screenhunter_1446 jan. 21 14.19

The point made here is: “I won’t be changed by Congress, Congress will be changed by me” – I will continue to do the things others consider transgressive and out-of-place, because that is what change is all about. And in that sense, transgression becomes the very thing she broadcasts: the suggestion that people must get used to someone who doesn’t fit the standard formats. She posted updates saying that House staff keep mistaking her for a spouse or an intern, and when a photoshoot in which she wore a very expensive set of designer clothes was being used by critics to doubt her humble origins and socialist orientation, she simply had to state that the clothes were of course not hers but borrowed from a designer for the photoshoot, and that they were inspired by the vintage look of left-wing radical activist Angela Davis – and the topic was entirely hers. Again, Twitter and Instagram were the main fora for such media-counterterror actions. With stunning visual self-presentations accompanied by concise razor-sharp statements, she dominates debates on these fora.

People are “on message” when the features they display adequately point towards the image they try to convey of themselves. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has understood the tremendous affordances of social media for “messaging” and takes political digital culture to yet another level. For rarely has anyone been so spectacularly “on message”. And while she’s in actual fact merely a (very) junior Congresswoman with a lot to prove, she’s risen to be one of the biggest things in the contemporary global political and celebrity worlds – in no time at all. Her maiden speech in the House is the most frequently viewed video ever produced by CSPAN.

Is she punching above her weight? Well, her first real policy proposal – to raise the top tax rate for the very wealthy to 70% – morphed from unspeakable and too-silly-for-words to a prime time national debating topic and opinion poll winner in a matter of weeks. It looks as if the weight categories have been redrawn lately…

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From groups to actions and back in online-offline sociolinguistics.

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Jan Blommaert 

(Commentary text, special issue “Society through the lens of language”, ed. Najma Al Zidjaly, Multilingua 2019; prepublication draft)

It is profoundly flattering and humbling at the same time to be asked to comment on a body of other scholars’ work inspired by and drawing on one’s own.[1] The reason why it is flattering should be self-evident; the reason why it is humbling is less easy to explain. It has to do with how these other scholars demonstrate, in their application of ideas and notions drawn from my work, the limitations of the latter – the loose ends; the points where a concept or line of argument is merely an inspiration to be reshaped by entirely different approaches to the issue; the places where my individual efforts reached their limits and demand the creative commitment of a community of others. I encounter all of these in this collection of papers, and the work of these authors pushes and motivates me to take things further.

The work reported in the paper in this collection articulates a fundamental shift in perspective: not merely an adjustment of method and of the choice of data, but a shift at the level of what I called (following C. Wright Mills) the “sociological imagination” informing sociolinguistic work (Blommaert 2017, 2018).[2] It is a shift from a scholarly universe almost entirely dominated by theoretical and methodological preferences for offline spoken discourse in fixed and clearly definable timespace, sociocultural and interpersonal contexts and identities, to one in which the world of communication is – at the most basic level – seen as an online-offline nexus in which much of what we assumed to be natural, primordial and commonsense about language-in-society needs to be revised, rethought and redeveloped.

The argument I tried to build was that in such revisionist exercises, the facts of communication are a fine point of departure for reassessing their place in what we conventionally call the social order or social structure. This outspoken empirical bias inevitably leads to a focus on small things: actual moments of interaction taking the shape of meaningful social conduct, provoking effects of ascribed and/or inhabited identity, group formation, alignment and/or distancing (cf. Parkin 2016). These small things include the kinds of routine acts of communication often qualified as “phatic” or otherwise “light” – the use of emojis, memes and likes in social media discourse; sharing, retweeting and reposting; forms of deference, politeness and repair in online conversation; the acquisition and deployment of implicit codes for “normal” conduct in online gaming communities; and the establishment of conviviality in ad-hoc and “light” online groups. Precisely such phenomena are central to the papers in this collection, and the authors all demonstrate how such innocuous, “light” forms of communication have powerful ordering effects in the communities in which they are normatively ratified, structuring not just personal and collective identities, but lodging such identities firmly in highly specific, circumscribable chronotopic forms of context. The chronotopic nature of identity work is hard to overlook in online interactions – all the papers in this collection testify to that – but the validity of that point is undoubtedly much wider (cf. Blommaert & De Fina 2017; Karimzad & Catedral 2018; Kroon & Swanenberg 2019; also Agha 2007). And in the same move, the specific chronotopic character of online discourse points us towards a crucial analytic feature too often neglected but fully addressed by the authors in this volume: infrastructures for social action.

Infrastructures, actions, moralizations

As briefly mentioned above, studies of language-in-society have long taken spoken dyadic interaction as the “primitive” and, consequently, the theoretically most fundamental form of language and language usage. This meant that, in practice and in several braches of the study of language-in-society, a highly fragmentary notion of ‘context’ emerged, often restricted to the ‘co-textual’ features of discourse, i.e. the parts of discourse preceding and following the particular fragment to be analyzed. The invocation of elements of so-called ‘distal context’ (non-immediate [or non-co-textual] inferential material) has consistently been a bone of contention, notably in sub-branches of conversation analysis, and has remained a diacritic identifying specific ‘schools’ and approaches (cf. Gumperz 1982; for discussions see e.g. Silverstein 1992; Cicourel 1992; Duranti 1997; Blommaert 2001). Such narrow views of context, obviously, did not address the fullness of what Goffman called “the social situation”:

“A student interested in the properties of speech may find himself having to look at the physical setting in which the speaker performs his gestures, simply because you cannot describe a gesture fully without reference to the extra-bodily in which it occurs. And someone interested in the linguistic correlates of social structure may find that he must attend to the social occasion when someone of given social attributes makes his appearance before others. Both kinds of students must therefore look at what we vaguely call the social situation. And that is what has been neglected.” (Goffman 1964: 134)

Observe how Goffman balances two dimensions of the social situation here: (a) the ‘hard’ physical setting for interaction and (b) the sociocultural conventions governing the interaction. The first dimension is, if you wish, ‘infrastructural’ and points towards the material conditions affecting the situation and delineating the affordances available to participants. In an age of social media, this infrastructural dimension becomes compelling, and for the simplest possible reason: no form of online communication is possible without the affordances offered by the technology shaping the online sphere of social life.

Infrastructural aspects of the situation are, thus, determining the actions performed online, and they form the decisive argument in favor of the newness of the communicative and interactional phenomena we observe there: no equivalent for the present usage of emojis and hashtags, to name just those, existed prior to the availability of the infrastructures presently organizing and enabling their discursive deployment. These infrastructures have effectively and profoundly reordered the deep structures of the sociolinguistic economies in which we live – the sociolinguistic system in the words of Dell Hymes (1996).[3] There remains, therefore, a huge task ahead of redescribing and reinterpreting modes of interaction and communication that may, indeed, look similar to forms previously attested, but now incorporated in entirely new and fundamentally different patterns of circulation, distribution and social effects. Linguistic similarities should not obscure sociolinguistic differences.

This brings me to the second point. These infrastructures shape new conditions for social action, and close attention to such actions is indispensable in the huge task I just outlined.

One good reason for this is offered in Sinatora’s excellent discussion of online activism in the context of the Syrian crisis, and Tovares’ equally incisive analysis of Ukrainian YouTube examples illustrating emerging grassroots political movements. In both cases, we can see how the online infrastructures shape new public spaces affording modes of political critique and mobilization not otherwise, or elsewhere, possible in that way and to that degree of intensity.  Such new spaces are chronotopic (as Al Zidjaly and Sinatora emphasize), in the sense that we should see them as specific timespace configurations in which participant roles, behavioral scripts and appropriate resources for realizing the script are interactionally established as normative. We get, to adopt Garfinkel’s (2002) terminology for a moment, chronotopically circumscribed “formats” for social action requiring constant “congregational work” by those participating in the social actions.

This congregational work is performed by means of new multimodal discursive resources. YouTube clips (as in Tovares’ analysis) evidently belong to this category, but perhaps the clearest examples of new multimodal semiotic resources are the emojis, selfies and memes discussed in the papers by Graham and Gordon, now deployed as normal and unremarkable discourse-functional instruments – an expansion of the repertoires of participants in online discourse events, and a rescripting of genres such as those of “debate” or “learning”.  As for the latter, Gordon demonstrates how the use of pictures (selfies, notably) can be deployed as an argumentative device in strategies of persuasion, articulating a particularly compelling “veridictional” epistemic stance – pictures don’t lie, and displaying them puts the addressee in the equally compelling position of “eye witness”.

Such forms of stance-taking and addressee-positioning can be ranged under what Najma Al Zidjaly calls “complex identity work” in online environments. It is the deployment of specific resources – indexicals, in other words – in online chronotopes that enables such complex modes of identity work, and those can be transient and “light”, as in Graham’s online gaming communities. But they can also be oriented towards more traditional “thick” identity categories, such as nationality and ethnolinguistic belonging in Tovares’ discussion of Ukrainian YouTube clips. The “congregations” doing the congregational work can, thus, be organized and oriented in very different ways: pointing towards relatively enclosed online chronotopes (such as that of online gaming), as well as towards a relatively more open online-offline set of chronotopes, such as those of nationality and ethnolinguistic “groupness” or (as in Sinatora’s paper) positions within an existing political field. In each case, we need to look into the fine grain of the congregational work performed by the actors, for we usually only have the actions as hard evidence.

To clarify the latter: in observing online discourse, we cannot as a rule use reliable a priori assumptions about the participants, nor the ratified resources deployed. Participants, as we know, often operate as an avatar in online interaction, rendering impossible any robust inference as to gender, age, nationality and so forth. Add to this the algorithmic effects on audience-shaping and the presence of inactive participants in online interaction (sometimes called “lurkers”) and the methodological issue is clear: we usually don’t know who is involved in the interaction, and this counts both at the individual level and the collective one. As for resources, we can only observe the values and effects they acquire in the interaction itself – take as examples the convivial effects of “light” practices of emoji exchange, of repair and of “winking and nodding” described in the papers by Gordon, Tovares and Graham. There is no a priori “convivial” function to the resources deployed by participants, they are interactionally and chronotopically established as ratified resources within a particular congregation, and they are done so by overwhelmingly “moral” practices of normative ratification, uptake and re-deployment.

Next to infrastructures and actions, moralizations form the final element in the analytical line I can extract from the papers in this volume, and together they cast, in my view, the foundations for a programmatic analytical strategy.. The complex identity work outlined by Al Zidjaly proceeds largely by means of ratifications of (or challenges to) interactional patterns congregationally emerging in online chronotopes. In simpler terms: the moral-normative interactional order is an emergent phenomenon in which existing and relatively enduring moral-normative codes (such as those circumscribing national belonging in Tovares’ paper, political positions in Sinatora’s paper, or membership of specific gaming communities in Graham’s paper) can be blended with, or exchanged for, purely situation-specific actor positions articulating specific epistemic-affective-moral stances in an ongoing event – as we can see in Gordon’s examples of online discussions on weight loss (cf. Tagg, Seargeant & Brown 2917; see also Goodwin 2007). The moral dimension shines through in the plethora of “light” interactional practices of conviviality in online environments – something observable in all the papers in this volume (and see also Varis & Blommaert 2015). And it is best epitomized by the various forms of “like” functions that have become a standard feature of all social media platforms.

From groups to actions and back

I mentioned earlier the established preference in many branches of the study of language-in-society for dyadic spoken interaction as the most elementary and theoretically fundamental form of human communication. And my review of the papers in this volume was aimed at showing the creative revisionism practiced and displayed by the authors. In passing, I hinted at the uncertainty, unavoidable in online contexts, about participant identities, both individually and collectively.

I wish to expand a bit on this latter point, for this, too, refers to an age-old assumption used in studies of language-in-society. The assumption can be summarized as follows: whenever we analyze language-in-society, we see language as the final part of a heuristic triad:

GROUP > INDIVIDUAL > LANGUAGE

In plain terms: the language we analyze is tied to a “([non-]native) speaker”, who in turn is a member of a “(speech/language) community”. Concretely, when we analyze a French utterance, we consider it the product of a speaker of French, who is a member of the French language community. Features of that community affect the individual speaker, and in sequence affect the particular forms of language produced by that individual. Communities and individuals – as identity constructs – are thus seen as pre-existent and somehow “reflected” in the features of language we have in front of us. And while language is a variable given, degrees of stability are attributed to the speaker and the community.[4]

This is a form of sociological imagination, and – I am not the first to observe this – it is flawed on several points (see e.g. Blumer 1969; Cicourel 1973; Williams 1992). One of its flaws is the focus on language as an outcome, a product with a sui generis character, rather than on interaction in which language is deployed as part of a larger behavioral arrangement. In sociological terms, the flaw is in the absence of a theory of action explaining the social order in relation to language-actors.[5] There is no space here for developing the full argument, but when we take interaction as the point of departure – as the most essential form of social action in general – the order of the triad is reversed:

INTERACTION > INDIVIDUAL > GROUP

 The papers in this volume provide sound empirical reasons for adopting this alternative theory of action, and I have briefly mentioned them above. In the online chronotopes addressed here, the identity of participants is a matter of fundamental and unsolvable uncertainty, and the tentative or indicative nature of interactional moves (already emphasized by Mead; see Blumer 2004) is highlighted. When we make an interactional move, we do so with an anticipated reaction and uptake by the interlocutor in mind; when the addressee is unknown, such proleptic moves are inevitably more perilous than when we make them in the presence of a better known interlocutor. We thus attempt to make meaningful moves, but unless there is ratifying uptake from someone else our attempts are merely indicative of what we wish to achieve.

This problem was described in an earlier literature on online interaction as “context collapse”:

“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)

Context collapse is the effect of a technology which “complicates our metaphors of space and place, including the belief that audiences are separate from each other” (Marwick & boyd 2010: 115). We see how, in this definition of the problem, the flawed assumptions mentioned above control the argument. We can only produce clear and transparent meanings from within clearly defined communities of which we as well as our audiences are members – so it seems. When we examine the interaction itself, however, we see different things: people are eminently able to make themselves understood even in the presence of unknown or diffuse audiences (Szabla & Blommaert 2018; also Tagg, Seargeant & Brown 2017; Georgakopoulou 2017). In fact, it is through the specific actions by participants that “audiences” take shape and that the modes and resources required to make sense to them are identified, very much in the ways documented in this volume by Gordon and Graham. We see how the particular actions of participants precipitate specific identity positions and patterns of normativity within the congregation, regardless of the a priori uncertainty about all of this.

I see the growing awareness of the impact of the online infrastructure on really-existent sociolinguistic economies as an opportunity to change the general direction of our heuristic strategies: not a heuristic that takes us from groups (linearly) towards individuals and eventually towards language; but one in which we start from actual instances of interaction and move towards individuals and groups. This may enable us to make far more accurate and realistic statements about who is who in the online-offline nexus of communication. But even more importantly: it would equip our disciplines with an exceptionally powerful theory of action and, consequently, with exceptional relevance for more general social-theoretical arguments and constructs.

 

References

Agha, Asif (2007) Language and Social Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, Jan (2001) Context is/as critique. Critique of Anthropology 21/1: 13-32.

Blommaert, Jan (2015) Commentary: Superdiversity old and new. Language and Communication 44: 82-88.

Blommaert, Jan (2017) Society through the lens of language: A new look at social groups and integration. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 178. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/0a9afaa2-3e77-4ff4-b267-899296bf4150_TPCS_178_Blommaert.pdf

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

Blommaert, Jan & Anna De Fina (2017) Chronotopic identities: On the spacetime organization of who we are. In Anna De Fina, Didem Ikizoglu & Jeremy Wegner (eds.) Diversity and Superdiversity: Sociocultural Linguistic Perspectives (GURT Series): 1-15 Washington: Georgetown University Press.

Blumer, Herbert (1969) Symbolic Interactionism: Perspectives and Method. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Blumer, Herbert (2004) George Herbert Mead and Human Conduct (ed. Thomas Morrione)Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

Cicourel, Aaron (1973) Cognitive Sociology: Language and Meaning in Social Interaction. Harmondsworth: Penguin Education.

Cicourel, Aaron (1992) The interpenetration of communicative contexts: Examples from medical encounters. In Alessandro Duranti & Charles Goodwin (eds.) Rethinking Context: 291-310. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Duranti, Alessandro (1997) Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Eckert, Penelope (2012) Three waves of linguistic variation: The emergence of meaning in the study of variation. Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 87-100.

Garfinkel, Harold (2002) Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Georgakopoulou, Alexandra (2017) ‘Whose context collapse?’ Ethical clashes in the study of language and social media in context. Applied Linguistics Review 8/2-3: 1-32.

Goffman Erving (1964) The neglected situation. American Anthropologist 66/2 (Part 2):133-136

Goodwin, Charles (2007), Participation, Stance and Affect in the Organization of Practice, Discourse and Society, 18 (1): 53–73.

Hymes, Dell (1996) Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice. London: Taylor and Francis.

Karimzad, Farzad & Lydia Catedral (2018) ‘No, we don’t mix languages’: Ideological power and the chronotopic organization of ethnolinguistic identity. Language and Society 47/1: 89-113.

Kroon, Sjaak & Jos Swanenberg (eds.) (2019) Chronotopic Identity Work. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Marwick, Alice &danah boyd (2010) I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience. New Media and Society 13/1: 114-133.

Parkin, David (2016) From multilingual classification to translingual ontology: A turning point. In Karel Arnaut, Jan Blommaert, Ben Rampton & Massimiliano Spotti (eds.) Language and Superdiversity: 71-88. New York: Routledge.

Rampton, Ben (1995) Crossing: Language and Ethnicity among Adolescents. London: Longman.

Silverstein, Michael (1992). The indeterminacy of contextualization: When is enough enough? In Peter Auer & Aldo Di Luzio (eds.) The Contextualization of Language: 55-76. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Silverstein, Michael (1998) Contemporary transformations of local linguistic communities. Annual Review of Anthropology 27: 401-426

Szabla, Malgorzata & Jan Blommaert (2018) Does context really collapse in social media interaction? Applied Linguistics Review 9/4: 1-29.

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

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

Vitak, Jessica (2012) The impact of context collapse and privacy on social network site disclosures. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 56/4: 451-470.

Williams, Glyn (1992) Sociolinguistics: A Sociological Critique. London: Longman

Notes

[1] I am grateful to Najma Al Zidjaly for a million things, including bringing me to Oman to attend a spectacularly interesting conference; including her relentless enthusiasm for preparing this collection of papers; and including her infinite patience in waiting for my contribution to the collection..

[2] Note that I use the term “sociolinguistic” here in its widest sense, not as a disciplinary label but as a loosely descriptive term to capture work addressing language-in-society. For such work, a wide range of disciplinary terms can be and are being used.

[3] I am making this point with some emphasis because of persistent denials of the innovative character of online sociocultural and sociolinguistic conduct and the necessity to rethink some theoretical foundations of our disciplines as a consequence of this innovation. For an early discussion, see Blommaert (2015).

[4] Classical variationist sociolinguistics is a textbook example of an approach operating on this assumption (for a discussion, see Eckert 2012). But the idea of the (native) speaker is much more widespread across language-focused disciplines and, certainly in assumed connection with more or less established communities, perennially problematic, as Ben Rampton (1995) conclusively demonstrated. See also Silverstein (1998) for an incisive analysis of the problem.

[5] Or, one could alternatively say, the flaw is in the adoption of a highly simplistic linear theory of action in which features from the community are merely “carried over” or “transmitted” by individuals into language. See Blumer (2004, chapter 1) for a lucid discussion.

The citizen in the European GDPR: We’re all data subjects now

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Jan Blommaert

As of May 25, 2018, the new European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will be enforced. This new regulation took a long time to prepare and implement, for its scope is vast and its effects will be huge. Reading the voluminous documentation about the GDPR, especially when done with a moderate dose of critical discourse analysis, yields some puzzling and potentially disconcerting insights.

What is the GDPR about?

On the EU website dedicated to the GDPR, the aims of the regulation are described as follows: the GDPR “was designed to harmonize data privacy laws across Europe, to protect and empower all EU citizens data privacy and to reshape the way organizations across the region approach data privacy.” Even if the term “data privacy” is used as the element of coherence, we can anticipate something very complex here. We get a regulation that (a) creates legal uniformity regarding data privacy throughout the EU (and beyond); (b) in some way defines and delineates (and so presumably “empowers”) the data privacy rights of EU citizens, and (c) regulates and streamlines the ways in which data privacy is currently handled by “organizations”. The latter can be almost anything, from a boy scouts troupe to a multinational corporation, from a badminton club to a newspaper, from a university to a government department and internet provider. Knowing how the EU proceeds in its legislative work, one can only imagine the density of lobbying work that has preceded the GDPR, for almost anyone is affected by it.

Surely, data privacy is one of the most pressing concerns these days. The Cambridge Analytica-Facebook data leaks scandal is still being rolled out to the public, cybercrime (including identity theft, hacking and copyright violations) has become a top security priority, and all of us have had the pleasure of receiving emails from extraordinarily friendly people inviting us to re-activate our bank accounts or social security numbers by sending all our personal details over. So it is clear that something needed to be done about such new forms of risk in an online-offline world. And yes, in the GDPR there are long and carefully worded sections “empowering” citizens when it comes to data privacy.

But much more attention is given to the transactional aspects of personal data: the conditions and rights to acquire, store and use such data in commercial, security, research and other contexts. The GDPR codifies the age of the Internet of Things, of Big Data and of the many ways in which Big Data generates social, economic, cultural and political effects, most of them entirely new and, consequently, poorly regulated. The citizen’s rights to privacy are defined in a regulated world in which such data are traded, exchanged, merged, and analyzed by a tremendous range of other actors. And that is where things become intriguing.

From citizen to data subject

The text is what we would now call “posthuman”: human beings are not central in them. This becomes clear from the standard use of the term “data subject” in the GDPR rather than, for instance, “citizen”.  To understand the implications of that, we need to take one step back and consider the most fundamental definition in the GDPR, that of “personal data”. Personal data stands for “any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person (‘data subject’); an identifiable natural person is one who can be identified, directly or indirectly, in particular by reference to an identifier such as a name, an identification number, location data, an online identifier or to one or more factors specific to the physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural or social identity of that natural person”. 

The “identifiable natural person” is equated with “data subject”. This is not self-evident, but the reason lies in the small phrase “directly or indirectly” when it comes to being identified. Such innocuous-looking frases always look crucial to the critical discourse analyst, for they are deliberately vague while tremendously inclusive. They create an almost infinite scope for what counts as “identification” and, by extension, “identity”.

For here is the thing: one can be “identified” not just by anything directly leading to the “natural person” but even more by aggregations of indirect data gathered by others and within others’ range of legitimate agency through almost every instrument currently in place. The GPS data of your mobile phone, the algorithms of your social media profiles and your Amazon.com shopping routines, the IP address of your computer, records of medical check-ups and footage from surveillance cameras or drones placing you somewhere: all of these are “identifiers” that generate personal dataBut without the “natural person” as an active, intentional agent – it is not the “natural person” who creates and controls these traces of identity. We are in the world of “profiling” here and, indeed, I can be “implicit in the algorithm” and identified as a bundle of correlated features only indirectly suggesting particular actions – to which actions I can be held accountable nonetheless.

Are such data still “personal”? Can they be reasonably used as “identifiers” not just of people but of their individual character, behavior and actual (intentional) actions? In a 2015 interview, European Data Protection Supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli was clear: no. Butarelli saw a post-personal (or posthuman, as I called it) future ahead: “the concept of ‘personal data protection’ will disappear in the near future, as will the concept of ‘personal data’. We will all be easier to predict and identify even without data about our individual identities, it will be easier to reuse the information and group it together with other information and interpret it accordingly”. He went on: “The concept of ‘data-subject’ and therefore of the individual will in all likelihood disappear too, as we will be grouped together according to segments of information (…) The difference between ‘personal’ and ‘non-personal’ will then be blurred”. We are, in the most literal sense of the term, the profiles constructed of us by Big Data. And since, in the views of the European Data Protection Supervisor, we are facing the end of the individual, one should wonder what’s left of privacy?

Who owns “me”?

Most of the identifiers discussed in the GDPR are not created by the “natural persons” they index, I said. I must add: many of them are not even owned by these “natural persons.” We return to the core purpose of the GDPR here: it should enable and regulate the trading, exchange, storage and use of data about “natural persons” but by other commercial and noncommercial actors. Yes of course, the GDPR now stipulates that when personal data leading to an identifiable “natural person” are being used, these persons have to be informed and consent must be asked and obtained. The latter, however, is far from an absolute rule in the GDPR. There are several exceptions and there is a gigantic loophole under the label of “anonymized data” – the thing Butarelli alluded to when he spoke of people being grouped according to “segments of information” rather than anything properly “personal”. This, in actual fact, is what the term “data subjects” actually means: people grouped and identified as “type” or “category” X, Y, Z on the basis of Big Data aggregations, of specific combinations of data leading to specific profiles for people. Such constructions can sometimes lead to “individual identities”, as Butarelli said. But they need not.

The thing is that even if data are not properly “personal”, in the end they still are about, and from, “natural persons”, no matter what the degree of privacy protection is. After all, the entire thing revolves around identifiability, and even if the data gathered on me are used in “non-personal” ways, what is being done with such data can still have an impact on me. So there is a very wide space left for constructions of “me”, for which I can be held accountable in variable ways, but which have not been made by me, nor are they owned by me – profiles of me are creations and commodities made by others about me, and what the GDPR does well and in detail is to organize a firm legal footing for trading and exchanging such items in a Big Data market. Data subjects, in the sense just described, are the product in that market; if the specific data subject is me, I am a product, not an actor in the deal. Not much citizen empowerment can be observed in the process.

The clever play of words in EU texts such as the GDPR has, on many previous occasions, had the tactical advantage of silencing or delaying public debate. Public declarations on the GDPR will continue to foreground the phrase in which EU citizens are said to be empowered with respect to data privacy. A careful reading of this text, however, raises several large and pretty fundamental questions left unaddressed by the decision makers – and for that, too, precedents are plenty in the history of EU decision making.

For more information on GDPR, see here.

 

The pleasures of an alias on social media.

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Jan Blommaert

One of the intriguing things I keep hearing from people who are active on social media is that they use an alias there, because the use of their real name would prevent them from ‘being myself’. This always triggers a critical question from me: isn’t your real name part of your core identity? And how can you be really yourself when you avoid using that absolute and primary identity label of yours – your real name?

While the point might seem trivial to some, it is quite a challenge to widespread perceptions of what it is to be ‘real’. In his classic Seeing like a state, James Scott explained at great length how important the use of fixed and structured personal names was for the emerging nation-states of Modernity. The names we got (often somewhere in the 18th-19th century) became the alfa and omega of the bureaucratic system of governance: when a name could be conclusively stuck onto an individual, that individual was ‘known’ and could be treated as a subject with rights, entitlements, duties and obligations derived from bureaucratically administered laws and rules. We carry our names, consequently, on a range of identity documents: passport, social security or health insurance card, driver’s license, staff card, library card, and so forth; we write and read our names on the top of thousands of official documents that regulate our everyday lives. Why? Because our names identify us as real, as really existing persons that can be identified, held responsible, involved or excluded from social and political processes. In view of that, avoiding to use your real name, hiding it from others or giving a false name when asked for it, is strongly associated with deviance, abnormality, transgression, crime.

On social media, however, the practice is widespread. Very large numbers of otherwise decent and upstanding citizens operate ‘undercover’, if you wish, hiding behind the mask of a bogus name and arguing that it is this mask that enables them to be ‘real’ in interactions with others on social media. It shows us how different the rules and codes of social media interaction are, and how these technologies have shaped a different area of social action operating alongside those of the ‘real’ world of nation-state bureaucratic and social life.

The people I know and with whom I had the occasion to talk to about this practice argued that an alias grants them a modicum of freedom of speech on social media. In that sense, it offered them some degree of freedom to speak freely, without the obstacles and restrictions generated by offline life. Their real names, as said above, connect them to the rights and entitlements, but also the restrictions of offline existence, and such restrictions might be compelling. Their employers, for instance, might not be amused by some of the Tweets posted by known employees; such expressions of individual opinion and subjectivity could get them into trouble with political patrons, relatives or other members of the offline communities in which they function. The structures of their ‘real’ offline social existence, in short, prevent them from speaking freely in the public sphere generated by social media.

The use of an alias, thus, is usually an effect of conscious and calibrated decisions in which the opportunities of the online public culture are weighed against the conventional restrictions of offline public culture. Different sets of norms and codes of conduct are measured against each other, and the conclusion for these people is that you can only be uniquely and really yourself on social media when you delete or mask your real name – when you become someone else or remain an anonymous voice, in other words.

I see this as part of ‘the care of the selfie’. We are familiar with the argument developed by a range of scholars, from Foucault to Goffman, that our social existence in Modernity is dependent on large and infinitely detailed sets of norms and regulations for impression management, aimed at appearing as a ‘normal’ subject in the eyes of others. These norms and regulations are socially sanctioned, and all of us are invited to internalize and incorporate them through self-regulation and self-censorship – the things Foucault called ‘the care of the self’. What the use of aliases on social media demonstrates, I think, is how this offline care of the self is now complemented by similar sets of norms and regulations governing our online social lives. The use of aliases, along with a range of other practices, is part of a constructed ‘selfie’, an identity designed solely for online presence.

When meticulously constructed, maintained and applied, this selfie offers us the pleasures of aspects of social life not attainable elsewhere. Or, if you wish, it offers us membership into a community culture that runs in conjunction with the cultures of offline communities but can no longer be detached from it. Which is why we can be truly ourselves there in very different ways from those we practice elsewhere.

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Take care of your CV!!

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Jan Blommaert

On contemporary identity asset management

My university offers students a range of tools and tips for a particular genre of autobiography: the curriculum vitae or CV. The CV is considered of great importance in view of future careers, and in view of that, students are encouraged to start hoarding valuable CV elements, which then need to be handled very much in the ways asset managers handle real capital.

Surely, my university is not the odd one out. In fact, a brief search on the internet yields enormous numbers of CV-supporting resources, from standard CV templates and “best practice” examples  to “how to” sites and online courses or training packages suggesting ways to brush up, polish or customize the potentially less appealing aspects of your CV and turn you into the best product on the labor market.

The CV and who you really are

I often ask my students the following question. Imagine you fancy someone and want to date him or her; imagine you manage to get a date, and during that first encounter your interlocutor hands you his or her CV, saying: “it’s all in there”. Would you go on dating him or her? Would you accept a CV as an adequate way to really get to know that person? And if not, why not? Isn’t your CV supposed to be a truthful account of the curriculum of your vita? Or is the CV a lie?

Students usually dismiss the question with arguments such as “hey, I don’t want to employ that person, I want to date him or her”. And dating, naturally, demands an identity presentation which is very different from the one you would offer a potential employer. In dating, you want to meet the real person, while when you apply for a job, it’s about what you have to offer to do that job. A CV is a selection, let’s say, of one’s autobiography. A selection specifically tailored to the demands of an economic role. And sure, you should not lie in your CV. But no, you should equally not tell everything to your potential employer. With someone you date you equally should not lie, but there should be a measure of completeness in your identity presentation: you’re also not supposed to hold back things from each other.  In dating, you must see the entire person. This is common sense.

Or is it? There are studies pointing out that finding employment in a liberalized and flexible labor market involves vastly more than just displaying and accounting for “professional” qualifications, and that employers increasingly emphasize personality features as elements for employability: dynamism, natural leadership, optimism, energy, eagerness and determination. So there too, we see that withholding the entire person from the potential employer’s gaze can play against you. The potential employer, for instance, may find additional, contradictory or qualifying information on you through your social media accounts, and such information can jeopardize your career chances. So while the CV is, indeed, a selection of your autobiography, other parts of it also play a role. The division between a work-oriented identity presentation and one intended for personal relationships is no longer that clear cut.

Identity asset management

This is, in fact, stressed by my university’s career center.

“Your CV will not stand out if you did not undertake any extracurricular activities. Therefore you should start building up a good CV during your student days. The most useful strategy is to gear your extracurricular activities to the job you are envisaging after your graduation.”

Such extracurricular activities include serving on a student board, promoting student participation and taking extra courses. Elsewhere in my university, posters and flyers tell me that joining the student union on foreign trips is a “boost to your CV”, that spending a term in a foreign university equally provides extra CV dash, and that learning foreign languages is a highly valuable asset for your CV. Employers – so one suggests – will be able to read precisely these non-formal identity features off your CV when they see such extracurricular points there. That is when your CV will “stand out”.

The logic behind all of this is an economic logic. It has been described by numerous scholars, including Michel Foucault, as a neoliberal logic in which individuals are strongly encouraged to “privatize” themselves, turn themselves into a micro-enterprise in a competitive market where one has to “stand out” in order to win. They must do so by means of a permanent autobiography, a continuously reorganized and enriched story about who they are. And they must do the latter by a form of hoarding – by accumulating and amalgamating separate items of identity, judged to be valuable in the terms of the market, and perpetually performing what can best be called identity asset management to it. The valuable identity items – identity assets – need to be accumulated, invested, maximized as to return-on-investment, traded and submitted to the value estimations of numerous others.

Take care of your CV

Foucault uses the term “veridiction” for such phenomena. We have strong beliefs that particular forms of identity presentation are “the truth” – which is why you cannot lie in your CV. Your identity assets, seen from that angle, are small chunks of “truth” about yourself. Yes, you did obtain an MA degree in 2016, and yes, you also did take Intermediate Italian evening classes in your graduation year. But, Foucault underscores, this “truth” is, in actual fact, a social truth, a truth fashioned according to the formats proposed by others. Yes, most of us have internalized the criteria of others, believing that they are our own (and, thus, absolute as a truth). But support infrastructures such as my university’s career center show that these criteria are very much out there, and that internalizing them requires a learning and socialization process.

Which is why your assets have to be managed. You have to constantly upgrade and rearrange them, expand and reconfigure them, withdraw them from low-yield investments and reinvest them in high-yield ones, so as to “stand out” whenever you have to stand out. Your identity is your real and lasting private assets fund, and you need to manage it well – carefully when needed, aggressively when possible. And you need to do this because the social criteria for identity asset value are unstable, fluctuating and volatile – like “the markets” in general – and your identity capital’s value depends on such fluctuating valuations.

Identity asset management is the format of truth

I now have to return to the dating-and-CV example above. Students made a distinction between the specific and selective character of the CV as a genre tailored for an economic context, and the completeness of the person we seek in dating. I gave one qualification already: also in the economic context we see the expectation of completeness when it comes to identity presentation. You need to be more than just labor force, you need to be the most interesting and fabulous person on earth in order to get the job we offer.

There is a second qualification as well. When we examine dating apps – and there are many of them, and tens of millions of people use them – we see how the logic of identity asset management is played out on these platforms as well. Profiles on dating sites are equally a highly selective and specific composition of identity assets, not made for the labor market but for the market of friendship, love and sex. And these identity assets are managed whenever anyone swipes the screen or adds a comment to someone else’s profile or messages.

As zones of social activity, dating and employment may have more in common than what common sense suggests. What we can see is that both are affected by the same economic logic of identity asset management, even if the particular “fund” of assets might be very different. In this online-offline world of ours, this form of identity presentation may have become a format of truth. Or at least, it may be well underway to becoming such a format.

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