New forms of diaspora, new forms of integration

Migrants smartphones

Jan Blommaert 

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

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

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

ScreenHunter_732 Feb. 03 11.42

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Teaching the language that makes one happy


Jan Blommaert 

During my time at the London Institute of Education (2005-7), I was deployed in the TESOL section and worked with an outspokenly international group of students. These students were recruited after a rigorous selection in which superior IELTS scores were mandatory. All were, consequently, “fluent” in “English” when they arrived in London. The scare quotes around both terms above will become clear as we go on. For the thing is: all of these young people were highly skilled globalized junior academics, but many of them were unhappy in London.

I talked to a great many of them and started making observation notes on their English conversational proficiency. I also asked them how they felt about their English proficiency, and when one of them replied “I can’t understand their [i.e. UK English] jokes and that frustrates me”, my curiosity was triggered. I started talking to them on the specific bit of English they felt they lacked in London. The answers were highly diverse, but some stood out. One recurrent answer was: I don’t have the English that can help me find a boyfriend/girlfriend – the English one needs to flirt and enter into a love relationship with someone. Another was: I don’t have the English I need to understand entertainment shows on British TV. And yet another: when I go out for drinks with British friends, I just can’t understand a lot of what they’re saying in the pub. Many articulated frustrations about the fact that their limited English proficiency made it very difficult for them to come across as an interesting, witty, creative and nice person. Many felt socially awkward and lonely, and had the impression that making real friends was terribly hard, given the constraints they experienced in informal social interaction with others.

Their responses reminded me of my own experience teaching and living in Chicago in the Winter of 2003. From 9 to 5, I would be talking shop there, and interlocutors would have perceived me as highly articulate and confident, perhaps even eloquent in English. As soon as I left the UofC campus and went shopping, however, I felt I was lacking almost all of the English I needed to identify the right meat cuts, vegetables or cleaning products. And one of my most catastrophic communicative experiences was when I had to call a plumber about a drainage problem in my bathroom: I lacked literally every bit of English required to adequately explain the problem and was reduced to begging the plumber to come over and see for himself. On campus, I was a “near-native” user of English, while in the supermarket or with the plumber I must have sounded like just another immigrant struggling with basic English vocabulary.

Such anecdotes are relevant for at least three reasons.

  1. They show us that “language learning” is effectively register learning. My students and myself had acquired the academic register characterizing contemporary globalized academic practices and culture; we had not, au contraire, acquired the registers that controlled specific informal social and cultural communication modes, and could consequently not perform the roles we were supposed to play in and through them.
  2. In the case of my students, they also show that “language” testing is in actual fact register testing: high IELTS scores indicate a high level of active and passive proficiency in a limited set of registers and genres qualified with a  (rather unhelpful) umbrella term as Academic English. They do not indicate a general socioculturally adequate competence in English, and do not as such announce a generative or cumulative competence. That is: having achieved high levels of academic register-genre proficiency does not automatically generate (or even facilitate) competences outside the domains covered by such registers and genres; such specific register-genre competences must be learned separately.
  3. And most importantly, they show us a thing or two about integration. Let me elaborate that latter point.

There is, in the context of migration and superdiversity, a policy response which is widespread across Europe (and further afield) in which language learning is proposed as the key to “integration”. The latter is a word in search of a clear definition (and has been for decades), but in actual practice, it is usually paraphrased as “participation in social life”, with some emphasis on facilitating entrance into the labor market. Observe that “integration” is usually presented as one single process in which someone presently “not part of society” will become part of that society by a unilateral effort of adaptation, in which language learning is crucial since – one frequently reads – one cannot participate in the life of a community without communicating with other members.

What we now know is that

  • Integration is not a single process but a multiple one, in which several very different forms of “integration” need to be achieved, into numerous specific social milieux and niches, each organized and characterized by their own sociocultural normative codes, in order to be, let us say, happy as a social and cultural being.
  • Integration into the “most important” social milieu – academic work in the case of my students, the labor market in the eyes of many policy makers – does not guarantee integration into the different milieux and niches that make up social life outside the “most important” segment of it. As my own experience showed, one can be highly integrated in the segment of labor and the sociocultural milieu that sustains it, and poorly integrated (even highly marginal) in several other social milieux. In fact, this assemblage of different degrees of “integration” in which one is simultaneously very well integrated in some segments of sociocultural life, less integrated in some others and not integrated at all in another set of them – is perhaps the default mode of “integration” any person would have in social life in general, at any point of time.
  • Consequently, teaching competences and skills deemed useful for “integration” would seem to require a very precise diagnostic stage in which the specific register-genre needs valid for targeted social milieux (and thus defining a range of very different integration processescan be identified and followed up by more precise and specific knowledge transfer.

Being “fully integrated” as a person, when one investigates it in some detail, actually refers to a set of experiences of satisfaction – happiness, let us say – derived from a perceived smoothness in social contact beyond the borders of narrowly conceived and functionally defined social milieux such as that of labor. It actually means that one is integrated into the full set of social milieux experienced as crucial for a satisfying social life. When we teach people the language they need for this purpose, we have to teach them the specific bits of language that make them happy. The term “happy” sounds funny, perhaps, and there is no tradition in language teaching where it has ever been central. I suggest we take it very seriously.


Indonesia, its youth and “light communities”


Jan Blommaert

Comments on the panel “Margins, hubs and peripheries in decentralizing Indonesia” (part 1), Conference on ‘The Sociolinguistics of Globalization”, Hong Kong University 5 June 2015. Panel convenor: Zane Goebel. Line-up: Michael Ewing, Dwi Noverini Djenar, Lauren Zentz, Meinami Susilowati.

All of the papers in this part of the panel focused on youth language and the sometimes problematic ways such “new” forms of speech clash with strong nation-state institutional cultures of standardization. Over and beyond this general focus, three points merit deeper engagement; let me review them briefly.

1. Youth language, universally, is an example of how societies (in spite of often very strong homogeneistic self-imaginations) in effect contain numerous “niches” developing at different speeds, occupying specific spatiotemporal arenas, and operating along specific normative frameworks projected onto behavioral scripts in which specific forms of language are part of what counts as accepted/acceptable behavior. It was Cicourel who stated that what people effectively do when they do the work of interpretation is to try and make sense of situations by reading social structure into it. I shall have more to say on social structure in a moment, but the point can already be made that social structure is manifestly plural: different structures interact and intersect, triggering often unbalanced confrontations of normative frames – what is “meaningful” and therefore socially and politically expectable – with often unexpected outcomes.

2. Furthermore, the papers all showed how such confrontations of different normative frames represents the experience of change. Indonesia, like any other place on earth, changes fast as an effect of globalization (and, in this case, also because of momentous national political shifts), and the on-the-ground experience of such change often takes the shape of conflictual discourses of normativity (again projected, concretely, into behavioral scripts encompassing specific forms of language usage). These normative frames provide a sense of “order” (recall Cicourel’s idea bout understanding as reading social structure into situations), and it is the clash of different “orders” that creates the sense of insecurity, anguish and destabilization we often see and encounter in data on people’s actual social experiences. In our own jargon, it is the immersion in a polycentric social environment that constitutes the baseline experience of macro-changes triggered by globalization. It is the encounter with not one single, transparent and hegemonic social structure, but with multiple structures in competition over spaces, membership and socially ratified meaningfulness with the potentially threatening effect of restratification, that consitutes the lived experience of “change” for many.

3. But even more importantly, what are these contrasting and conflicting “orders” like? In order to answer this question, we need a distinction between nation-state and globalized forms and representations of “community”. Remember that, in the tradition of Durkheim, Weber and Parsons, the nation state was typically a local, “thick” community – a community in which people shared vast amounts of resources through common backgrounds, institutional governmentality and socialization.

The papers in this panel, however, showed invariably “light” communities often tied together by shared “niched” practices (Goffman’s “Encounters” can also inspire us here). These light communities, remarkably, are local – see the emphasis on locally grounded youth vernaculars in the papers here – but translocally infused and framed, which is why they are often seen and decried as “westernization” while strictly local vernaculars and indexicals are used. The new globalized order, thus, with its intense physical and virtual mobilities, appears to stimulate and even privilege the formation of “light”, local communities whose orientation is not towards the nation-state but towards ideals and imageries drawn from the wider world, and involving specific spaces of deployment, specific actors and specific codes of meaningful practice. To return for a moment to the issue of structure: the “light” communities represent a “light”, flexible, volatile and fast-moving structure, interacting with and often only perceptible from within “thick” and slower-moving structures. Our disciplinary traditions have consistently emphasized the “thick” structures, while “light” ones tended to be dismissed as insignificant or superficial.

I’m afraid we can’t afford this any longer. The tremendous importance of “light” communities, and the fact that for those inhabiting them they often experientially, emotionally and socially prevail upon the traditional “thick” communities of family, religion, ethnicity or nationality, is perhaps the most pressing theoretical and descriptive issue in the study of globalization nowadays. From practices and their performers and performing conditions, over the kinds of communities they generate, to specific modes of social structure they propel: this to me sounds like a research program of considerable interest. The papers in this session provide excellent and substantial food for thought in this direction.


The conference program, including the panel lineup and the abstracts, can be accessed via


Language, behavioral scripts, and valuation: Comments on “Transnationalizing Chineseness”

3.2 handwritten Chinese in Berchem

Jan Blommaert

Commentary, panel on “Transnationalizing Chineseness: language, mobility and diversity” (organizers: Shuang Gao & Xuan Wang; line-up: Xiaoxiao Chen, Shuang Gao, Hua Nie, Nkululeko Mabandla & Ana Deumert, Han Huamei – discussants Lionel Wee & Jan Blommaert). International Conference “The Sociolinguistics of Globalization: (de)centring and (de)standardization”, Hong Kong University, 4 June 2015.

Let me first point out that this panel was organized by two relatively junior scholars – Shuang Gao and Xuan Wang – and that they managed to bring together an exceptionally engaging and stimulating panel. They deserve a huge accolade for that. The points raised by them and by the authors of the papers in this panel are substantial and none of the participants can be accused of shoddy work. Neither can they be accused of irrelevance: the transformation of “Chineseness” as an effect of the global rise to economic and political prominence of the People’s Republic is a true globalization phenomenon of colossal scale, and each of the papers showed us how such terrifically large-scale transformations set down, so to speak, in actual small-scale situations, places and moments. The picture I added as a caption to this text shows that it also occurs in my own neighborhood in inner-city Antwerp, where a local Cantonese restaurant-owner, member of an older diasporic generation, addresses potential customers for renting a flat, and does so in an unstable hybrid of Cantonese and Mandarin and of simplified Chinese script and traditional character script. The global shift in “who is the Chinese in the world” forces him to readjust not only his linguistic and literacy repertoire, but to change his economic orientation, towards a new and very large community of immigrants from Mainland China – a population virtually unknown in most places in the world until the 1990s.

Such immigrants were also invisible in South Africa and Namibia (papers by Mabandla & Deumert and Han, respectively), and their contemporary presence in European societies can bump into uneasy and unpleasant walls of anachronistic stereotyping, as Hua Nie’s paper on ethnic stereotyping in “Holland’s Got Talent” so painfully showed. International tourists in China were also a rare commodity, and Chen as well as Gao document the ways in which Chinese state-governed media respond to the growing presence and politico-economic importance of the scores of international tourists presently flying into Chinese airports. For such tourists, the reassuring message is provided that the Chinese language is dauntingly difficult but nothing to worry about – multilingual celebrities such as Mama Moon (Gao) and travel writers in mainstream Chinese media (Chen) reassure the foreigners that they will have an easy time communicating with the Chinese. That, in the process, one of the world’s largest languages is made near-invisible is a price willingly paid, remarkably, by a reinvigorated Chinese nationalism.

In what follows, I will briefly review some general and analytical reflections prompted by these papers; together, they can perhaps serve as a heuristic for further empirical research; for me, they testify to the extent to which I was intrigued and captured by the exceptional scholarship presented in this panel.

1. An initial and seemingly trivial point is that the papers all addressed change, and the scale of the particular case of change – a global repositioning of “Chineseness” – has been mentioned above. In my view, studying globalization amounts to studying change – and not “flat”, linear change, but a terrifically complex array of different forms and modes of change, operating at different speeds, with different objects and instruments, mobilizing different forms of actors and resources, and with different (often unpredictable and nonlinear) outcomes. Thus put, the point that these papers address change loses its trivial ring, because we are traditionally not well equipped to address such complex and dynamic patterns of non-stability – our structuralist and synchronic toolkit has prepared us for precisely the opposite. As we shall see further, one important (and apparently constant) feature of such patterns of change is restratification: the “reordering” and “re-ranking” of cultural and symbolic capital such as language and forms of identity. The image in the caption shows precisely such restratification: the restaurant owner’s Cantonese and traditional script – until recently unchallenged in their hegemony as the linguistic emblems of “Chinese in the world” – are rapidly being overtaken by the codes of the People’s Republic, Putonghua and simplified script, forcing the author of the little advertisement to un-learn his usual codes and re-learn, problematically, the new codes. Almost all the papers in this panel showed aspects of such restratifications, in which people and their identity codes assume new, often contested, positions in the symbolic hierarchies that direct social life.I shall return to this issue below.

So we’re not really good at studying change; but the papers gave us a couple of perhaps useful leads into a productive way of addressing them. I picked up, in particular, three points that we best see as three different aspects of one bundle – an “object of change”, so to speak, for a sociolinguistics of globalization. Let me review them one by one.

2. The first point, and again seemingly evident, is that we study the ways in which processes of change affect and operate on and in language, in processes of meaningful social interaction and the resources used for them. We see that language, for instance in the presentation of Mandarin in the China Daily (Chen) becomes emblematic – no longer a “linguistic” thing strictly speaking (not used to produce denotational meaning), but a cultural thing, even a political and moralized one, as Gao’s discussion of the multilingual celebrities in the Chinese media showed. Languages, different degrees of proficiency in them, and specific ways of using them, become emblems of legitimate belonging, exemplary citizenship, personal character (or lack thereof, as in the “devious” Chinese traders in Northern Namibia discussed by Huamei Han). This works in several directions: constructively as a way of identifying oneself, but also destructively as a way of stigmatizing the other and removing the social capital potentially attributed to the other’s linguistic resources – as when a jury member in Holland’s Got Talent imitates the “l-r confusion” stereotypically attributed to Chinese immigrants (“number 39 with lice?” instead of “with rice?”). Small, almost homeopathic specks of performed or displayed language can be, and are, turned into powerful identifiers (and stratifiers) in the sociolinguistic world of globalization.

3. But, importantly, language rarely occurs alone. What we have seen in the papers (and in other recent studies), is how language almost always comes with a sort of indexical “envelope”, so to speak, of behavioral scripts. Such scripts can best be described as imaginable situations in marked (i.e. nonrandom) spacetime, provoking enregistered (and therefore normative, expected and presupposed) modes of behavior. The little bits of Chinese provided by the travel writers in Chen’s paper occurred in discussions of cuisine, in itself marked as “exotic” but presented as part of the “experience” of heritage tourism in China.

To unpack the definition somewhat: the behavioral scripts assume the form of actual real-life situations which we can somehow imagine (e.g. working for a Chinese employer in a Namibian shop, Huamei Han; or Chinese people “typically” being involved in small-scale but transnational trading or catering, Mabandla & Deumert and Nie Hua, respectively), and onto which we project normative patterns of behavior and – thence – templates of character and identity (the Chinese employer being harsh and demanding, the Chinese tradesmen being relentlessly competitive, the restaurant owner speaking nonnative varieties of language, etc.). Note that I mentioned “marked spacetime” as part of the definition: a crucial element in all of this is the actual spatial and temporal frame in which these behaviors are suggested to occur, or are preferred to occur: they are, in that sense, fundamentally chronotopic.

Language is mixed into these behavioral scripts as, sometimes, the key emblem that points to and invokes – indexes – the entire script and its normative dimensions. So language is rarely alone, and even when it operates alone, it often emblematizes, as a metonym, the broader package of behavioral expectations and identity templates. As linguists, we tend to overemphasize the former and downplay the latter, while phenomenally – as phenomena – they usually co-occur

4. The normative dimensions bring me to the final point. We already have language (in particular modes of occurrence) and the wider behavioral scripts within which they appear and operate. The third element is normative judgment, valuation. The two former features almost always appear wrapped in an evaluative frame – understood here in its Bakhtinian sense, as the social value attributed to “meaning” – and when we address change (here we come to our point of departure), it is the evaluative frames that might be of paramount concern. For all the papers (and other studies) showed that the global transformation of “Chineseness” (as with other forms of large-scale globalization-induced transformation) collapsed into actual real life situations in which we saw an unfinished struggle between old and new evaluative frames. The jury member in Holland’s Got Talent projected the “old” evaluative frame of “Chineseness” onto the candidate – a “new” PhD student and accomplished opera singer from Mainland China; and Nie Hua’s data on internet debates on the incident showed partly coordinated but also partly very different orientations in the “old” Chinese community in the Netherlands, and the “new” community. Similarly, Mabandla & deumert’s excellent historical overview of Chinese diasporas in South Africa showed how the “new” immigrants partly inscribe themselves into a slow and enduring structure of economic activity – small-scale trading and catering – but also move into more hybrid and dynamic forms of “entanglement” with the present conditions of economic, social and cultural life.

Thus, all the studies presented in this panel showed processes of social, cultural and political identity-formation developing in a polycentric environment in which various normative “cores” or “foci” could be identified – behavioral scripts, in short – but not necessarily in an equivalent way. Some behavioral scripts and their evaluative frames move slower than others, they affect other places, other social roles, other sociocultural and political effects: different spacetime frames, activity modes, membership criteria, and forms of value attribution clashed into often highly uncomfortable and sometimes densely conflictual actual situations. And this polycentric arena, I would argue, is the empirical engine of what we can observe in the way of change. Note, in passing, that when Nik Coupland emphasized reflexivity as the condition of globalization in his plenary, I assume that he has this normative and evaluative dimension firmly in mind; from what I see in our field, reflexivity in actual fact looks more like a highly effective sort of “pricing strategy”, something with a real bite in terms of power effects, rather than like a lofty meta-concern without social consequences. The same obviously counts for Penny Eckert’s “indexical fields”, which should also be understood as fields in which powerful evaluative effects prevail.

In conclusion: I have suggested three interlocked aspects of an object that might be useful in studying change in a sociolinguistics of globalization: the specific ways in which change settles down in and on language, the “packaging” of language in broader behavioral scripts, and the normative encoding and evaluation of this package in actual social practices developing in necessarily polycentric social arenas. Together, I do hope, they provide an empirical roadmap for an adequate study of phenomena of tremendous relevance and impact on our present world and the lives we lead therein.


The conference program, including the panel lineup and the abstracts, can be accessed via


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

Piia Varis & Jan Blommaert

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit



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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going viral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The weird world of memes

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

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


Figure 2: British wartime propaganda poster.

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


Figure 3: Keep calm and call Batman


Figure 4: Keep calm and drink beer.

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

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

Figure 5: I can has cheezburger?


Figure 6: President and a possible voter having cheezburger

yes you can has cheeseburger

Figure 7: I has a dream.


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

keep calm arrow

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

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

1354329549_An arrow in the knee Some fresh oc_6ad7ab_2932806

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

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

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

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

Conviviality on demand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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