Invisible lines in the online-offline linguistic landscape


Jan Blommaert & Ico Maly


Ethnographic Linguistic Landscape Analysis (ELLA) was developed as a way of addressing in a more satisfactory way the structure and significance of linguistic landscapes as an object in the study of sociolinguistic superdiversity (Blommaert & Maly 2016). The effort was inspired by a refusal to perform ‘snapshot’ linguistic landscape analysis based on hit-and-run fieldwork and yielding a Saussurean synchrony as analytical outcome. Instead, we wanted to emphasize the dynamic, processual character of superdiverse linguistic landscapes through a combination of longitudinal fieldwork, detailed observations of changes in the landscape, and an ethnographic-theoretical framework in which landscape signs are seen as traces of (and instruments for) social action (cf. Blommaert 2013).

It is the latter point that we seek to examine more profoundly in this paper. The aspect of social action remains, in general, an underdeveloped aspect of Linguistic Landscape research (LL), and here, too, the Saussurean synchrony can be identified as an underlying sociological imagination in much work. Social action, it seems, is located within a geographical circumscription – a neighborhood, a street, a town – which is seen as the locus of action of a sedentary community. LL signs are routinely interpreted as reflecting, in some way, the linguistic repertoires of those who live in the area where the signs have been emplaced. This, then, enables LL researchers to make statements about the demographic composition of such areas of emplacement, projected into statements about the sociolinguistic structures in that area.

The concept of social action, thus interpreted, remains highly superficial and deserves and demands far more attention. The question that needs to be raised is: who is involved in social action in such areas? And what is the locus of such actions? Linguistic landscapes in superdiverse areas often offer clues that significantly complicate the assumptions about sedentary populations mentioned above. A simple example can be seen in Figure 1.


Figure 1: Antwerpse Algemene Dakwerken. © Jan Blommaert 2018

This picture was taken in the inner-city district of Oud-Berchem, Antwerp (Belgium) in the summer of 2018; we see a van with a Dutch-language inscription “Antwerpse Algemene Dakwerken” (“Antwerp General Roofing Works”), but with a Polish license plate locating the van in the area of Poznan. While the inscription suggests locality – a reference to Antwerp on a van emplaced in Antwerp – the license plate suggests translocality. Thus, building work performed in Antwerp appears to be connected to actions performed in Poznan – recruiting a workforce, manufacturing bespoke materials, warehousing heavy equipment and so forth. In an era of transnational mobility, such things are evident, but they raise the fundamental questions outlined above.

Such questions, we believe, are becoming even more pressing and compelling as soon as we adjust our baseline sociological assumptions and accept that contemporary social life is not only played out in an ‘offline’ physical arena of copresent participants encountering each other in public space (the focus of Goffman 1963), but also in online spaces crosscutting the online ones in complex ways (cf. Blommaert 2018). We live our lives in an online-offline nexus. This simple observation renders us aware of the fact that social actions can be organized, set up, “staffed” and distributed in online as well as offline spaces; and it helps us realize that much of what we observe in the way of social action in superdiverse (offline, geographical) areas has, at least, been conditioned and perhaps even made possible by online infrastructures, in terms both of actors and of topography. This point we intend to illustrate in what follows.

A focus on action

Before moving on towards these illustrations, we must briefly clarify the focus on action we shall bring to this analysis. Our own view of action is deeply influenced by an older tradition of action-centered sociology, of which Goffman (1961, 1963), Cicourel (1972), Blumer (1969) Strauss (1993) and Garfinkel (1967, 2002) can be seen as co-architects (see Blommaert, Lu & Li 2019 for a discussion).

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”.

The latter point is of crucial importance here. It emphasizes 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, and in an online-offline nexus, identifying this “personnel” is the challenge: who is actually and concretely involved in social action as actor? Who actually contributes to the actual form and structure of social actions? To these questions we can now turn, and we shall use ELLA as our tool.

Invisible lines

The method we employ in ELLA is very simple: we observe everything we notice in the way of publicly displayed language material. But we do not stop at the level of language – even if that language is, evidently, an important clue for locating e.g. diasporic audiences – but we look at what is actually contained in the signs. And one feature of a great number of publicly displayed signs nowadays is online information: references to websites, social media accounts and so forth. This already directs us towards a highly relevant insight: that “public” as a feature of sign emplacement now has at least two dimensions: the local public emplacement of signs – the concrete place where signs are put and shown to potential audiences – as well as a translocal, online public sphere with which the local signs are profoundly connected. This insight, in our view, forces us out of the local area and out of the customary modes of LL fieldwork: we have to move from the street to the computer, and we follow the online information displayed in the signs.

The superdiverse area of Oud-Berchem counts a large number of new shop-window evangelical churches catering for specific diaspora audiences from Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia (Blommaert 2013). One such church is located in premises previously occupied by a Chinese restaurant. A couple of posters are affixed to the austere front of the building; Figure 2 displays one of them.

Figure 2

Figure 2: services at the Latin-American church. © Jan Blommaert 2018

The poster offers mundane information: the weekly organization of services in the church. We notice that the information is bilingual, in Dutch and Spanish (here is the level of language), and we already know from previous fieldwork that the church is run by pastors from Peru and caters for a relatively small congregation of faithful hailing from several parts of Latin America.

At the very bottom of the poster, however, we notice a web address: When we follow that link, we enter a very different sphere (Figure 3).

figure 3

Figure 3: Experience Bethel.

Bethel TV is a globally active religious enterprise, based in California, and offering for-money religious services and commodities to a very wide audience of customers around the world. The Bethel TV website contains all the features of commercial websites, including the “free trial” offer, preferably followed by the “premium” subscription (Figure 4).

figuur 4b

Figure 4: Bethel Premium

Note the implications of this. We have moved from a sociolinguistics of offline areas and communities into a sociolinguistics of digital culture, and both are inextricably connected in a locally emplaced sign. That we find ourselves fully in the realm of digital culture becomes clear when we follow some more links. Bethel TV is active on a great number of social media platforms, and prominently on YouTube, where its channel has almost 150,000 subscribers (figure 5).

Figure 4

Figure 5: Bethel TV YouTube channel

YouTube channels along with other social media activities, let us note, are a frequent feature of the new evangelical churches in Oud-Berchem. Thus, Apostle Johnson Suleman, the pastor of a church serving a small West-African congregation in Oud-Berchem, is far bigger online than offline. His YouTube channel has over 106,000 subscribers and shows footage of services held in Belgium, Switzerland, Canada and several other countries (Figure 6).

Figuur 6

Figure 6: Apostle Johnson Suleman online

The case of Apostle Johnson Suleman suggests a slightly different analysis than the ones we provided in earlier work: the church in Oud-Berchem is not connected with the “homeland” of its founders (Nigeria in this case), as a kind of “station” in a network of diasporic community members seeking to worship. It is a node in a transnational network of actions, performed by an itinerant pastor-entrepreneur. The center of this network is not Lagos or Abuja: its center is online, it is the YouTube channel that ties together a range of activities and actors dispersed over several countries. And the case of Bethel TV shows how local churches are resourced by religious multinationals also connecting a multitude of small local nodes in a global network.

We see now, through this online-offline ELLA, how lots of invisible lines run to and from a local area – Oud-Berchem – and how explaining what goes on in this local area demands attention to what the invisible lines bring and take in the way of resources and “personnel” to concrete, situated actions such as Sunday churches, and to concrete, situated modes of community-making. Members of the congregation have 24/7 access to some services of “the church”, regardless of where they are physically stationed. Figure 7, from the website of yet another evangelical church located in Oud-Berchem, illustrates this.

Figuur 7

Figure 7: Web testimonials

The website offers a page for “testimonials”, and apart from two Antwerp-based members, we also see a testimonial from a member based in Manchester, UK. Members not present in the actual physical locale of the church can watch the services on YouTube and draw similar spiritual satisfaction from it.

Conclusion: ELLA 2.0

When we follow the leads from locally emplaced signs towards the online sphere they point towards, we begin to see vastly more. This move from offline to online and back, we consider to be of major importance for ELLA, for it directs us towards a far more precise view of actors and topography of action. As for actors, the actions performed in specific offline places are dispersed and operate locally as well as translocally. The “personnel” of locally performed actions, thus, is far broader and more diverse than what an exclusively offline LL analysis would show. As for topography, we see invisible lines connecting places as far apart as Oud-Berchem and California, and resources, formats and personnel are provided in all these places and made available for local enactment.

We thus find ourselves in an ELLA 2.0, an online-offline ethnography starting from linguistic landscapes and taking us to the structure of social actions in superdiverse neighborhoods. Its findings inevitably distort the acquired imagery of sedentary diaspora demographics as the cornerstone of superdiversity studies: “multi-ethnic” neighborhoods as the locale within which social actions by their populations must be confined, or privileged analytically. The online-offline nexus no longer affords such views.


Blommaert, Jan (2013) Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes: Chronicles of Complexity. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

—– (2018) Durkheim and the Internet; On Sociolinguistics and the Sociolinguistic Imagination. London: Bloomsbury

Blommaert, Jan & Ico Maly (2016) Ethnographic Linguistic Landscape Analysis and social change: A case study. In Karel Arnaut, Jan Blommaert, Ben Rampton & Massimiliano Spotti. (eds.) Language and Superdiversity: 191-211. New York: Routledge.

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

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

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

—– (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.

—– (1963) Behavior in Public Places. New York: The Free Press

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

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


From the Self to the Selfie


Jan Blommaert, Lu Ying, Li Kunming

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


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).

ScreenHunter_03 Feb. 19 14.28

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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

Lu Ying (2018) Emojis as a cash cow: Biaoqingbao-hatched economic practice in online China. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 217.

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



[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:

[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.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is on message


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…


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


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:


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:


 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.



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.

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


[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.

Formatting online actions: #justsaying on Twitter


Paper for a special issue of the International Journal of Multilingualism entitled “Translinguistics: Negotiating Innovation & Ordinariness”

(eds. Jerry Won Lee & Sender Dovchin)

Jan Blommaert

1.Translingualism in the online-offline nexus

Three substantive claims underlie the argument in this paper.[1]One: in considering contemporary forms of translingualism one can neither avoid online sites of scripted interaction as loci of research, nor the online-offline nexus as an area of phenomenal innovation. Two: approaching such online forms of translingual interaction can benefit substantially from a radically action-centered approach, rather than from an approach privileging participants and their identity features, or privileging the linguistic/semiotic resources deployed in translingual events. And three: addressing online forms of translingual interaction from this perspective can reveal core features of contemporary social life and serve as a sound basis for constructing innovative social theory.

Of the three claims, the first one is by now widely shared (see e.g. Li Wei & Zhu Hua, this volume). There is an increasing awareness amongst students of language in society that the online social world has by now become an integrated part of the sociolinguistic economies of societies worldwide, and that the zone in which we situate our investigations should now best be defined as the online-offline nexus, with phenomena from the online world interacting with those of the offline world and vice versa. There are the specific rescaling and chronotopic features of online communication, where interaction is, as a rule not an exception, no longer tied to physical co-presence and effectively shared timespace; and where interactions as a rule not an exception include translocal and transtemporal rhizomatic uptake (cf. Tagg, Seargeant & Brown 2017; boyd 2014). And there are the outspokenly multimodal default characteristics of online communication. Taken together, it is evident that online communication must be the locus of intense translingualism. My first claim gestures towards the theme of this collection: the online-offline nexus must turn translingualism into the rule, the normal, ordinary and unremarkable sociolinguistic state of affairs.

The two other claims might demand somewhat more attention. The second claim – an action-centered perspective on online interaction – is grounded in (but transcends) a serious methodological problem complicating research: the indeterminacy of participant identities online. Given the widespread use of aliases and avatars on, for instance, social media platforms, nothing can be taken for granted regarding who exactly is involved in interactions. Whether we are interacting with a man or woman, a young or an old person, a local or nonlocal one, someone communicating in his/her ‘native’ or ‘first’ language: none of this can be conclusively established. This straightforward feature of online interactions destabilizes much of what we grew accustomed to in social studies, including sociolinguistic research. It makes us aware that our sociological imagination strongly hinged on the self-evident transparency of who people are, the communities they are members of, the languages that characterize them ethnolinguistically and sociolinguistically. The sociological sample – one of these key inventions of 20th century social science – cannot be reliably drawn from online data.

Thus we find ourselves in a research situation in which little can be said a priori about participants and resources involved in social action. The action itself, however, can be observed and examined, and my second claim is to put the analysis of actions central in online-offline nexus research as a firm empirical basis for theory construction (cf. Szabla & Blommaert 2018). My third claim tags onto that: it is by looking at actions, and at how such actions effectively produce participants and resources, that we can get a glimpse of elementary patterns of social behavior through interaction – an opportunity for retheorizing our field. The target of this paper is to empirically demonstrate that.

I shall do so by looking at a common feature of online interaction: the use of hashtags, in this case on Twitter. The point I am seeking to make is that hashtags, as an entirely new feature in interaction interfering with established ones into a translingual whole, can be shown to be subject to rather clear and strict functions and norms of deployment. In Garfinkel’s (2002) terms, they can be shown to involve formatted actions with a high degree of normative recognizability, turning them into transparent framing devices in Twitter interactions.

2. Hashtags and translingualism

If we see translingualism (pace the editors of this collection) as the fluid movement between and across languages or – more broadly – semiotic systems, hashtags definitely can serve as prime instances of translingualism. As a feature of social media scripted discourse, the construction “# + word(s)” is a 21st century innovation. Surely the sign “#” itself was used before the advent of social media: it was, for instance, a symbol on dial phones and was widely used elsewhere as a graphic symbol indicating numbers or, in old-school proofreading practices, indicating a blank space to be inserted in the text. But as we shall see, the social media use of hashtags cannot be seen as an extension of those previous forms of usage. When social media emerged, the hashtag was a free-floating resource that could be functionally redetermined and redeployed in a renewed sociolinguistic system. The fact that the symbol was not tied to a particular language or graphic system such as English or Cyrillic script made it, like the “@” sign, a polyvalent and user-friendly resource, capable of becoming part of global social media discursive repertoires – a process I called ‘supervernacularization’, (Blommaert 2012).[2] This means that such symbols can be incorporated – by translanguaging actions – in a nearly unlimited range of language-specific expressions while retaining similar or identical functions.

While the use of hashtags has by now become a standard feature of several social media applications (think of Facebook and Instagram) its usage is most strongly embedded in Twitter. Hashtags there tie together and construct topical units: within the strict confines of message length on Twitter, Hashtags enable users to connect their individual tweets to large thematically linked bodies of tweets. In that sense – but I shall qualify this in a moment – their function, broadly taken, is contextualization: individual tweets can be offered to audiences as understandable within the topical universe specified by the hashtag. Thus, the “#MeToo” hashtag (one of the most trending hashtags since the 2017 Harvey Weinstein scandal) ties together millions of individual tweets, produced in a variety of languages around the world, within the topical universe of gender-related sexual misconduct and abuse. As a consequence, within Twitter analytics, hashtags are used to define what is “trending” or “viral”, and other forms of big data mining on social media likewise use hashtags as analytical tools for modeling topics and tracking participant engagement and involvement (e.g. Wang et al. 2016; Blaszka 2012).

There is some work on what is called hashtag activism (e.g. Tremayne 2014; Bonilla & Rosa 2015; Jackson 2016; Mendes, Ringrose & Keller 2018) but qualitative sociolinguistic or discourse-analytic work focused on hashtags remains quite rare (but see e.g. Zappavigna 2012).In a recent study, De Cock & Pedraza (2018) show how the hashtag “#jesuis + X” (as in “#jesuisCharlie”) functionally shifts from expressing solidarity with the victims of the terror attack on the Charlie Hebdo editorial offices in Paris, 2015, to expressing cynicism and critique about hypocrisy when such forms of solidarity are being withheld from the victims of similar attacks elsewhere (as in “#jesuisIstanbul, anyone?”), or jocular and nonsensical uses as in “#jesuisCafard” (“I am a hangover”). Observe that the corpus used in De Cock & Pedraza’s study was multilingual, and that the “French” origins of “#jesuis + X” did not impede fluency of usage across language boundaries – the hashtag operates translingually.

We can draw a simple but fundamental insight from De Cock & Pedraza’s study: the functions of hashtags are unstable, changeable and dynamically productive. The same hashtag can be functionally reordered and redeployed whenever the topical field of the hashtag changes (or can be seen to be changing). In the analysis of De Cock & Pedraza, “#jesuis + X” shifts from an emblematic sign of (emotional and political) alignment to one of disalignment and even distancing. This shift in function instantiates mature enregisterment in that it offers different but related interactional stances to users; the hashtag “#jesuis + X” has become a lexicalized but elastic signifier enabling and marking a variety of forms of footing within a connected thematic domain (cf; Agha 2005). It is, to adopt Goffman’s (1975) terms now, a framing device, enregistered as such within a globally circulating and, of course, translingual, social media supervernacular. De Cock & Pedraza call the functions they described for the #jesuis + X hashtag “pragmatic”. As framing devices, however, hashtags are metapragmatic as well, they are interactionally established elements of voicing (Agha 2005). And the latter takes us to the core of my argument.

Functions of hashtags are interactionally established and should not be seen as simply the activation of latent and stable meaning potential. Seen from an action perspective, the different forms of footing enabled by a hashtag such as “#jesuis + X” represent different forms of communicative action within what Goffman called a “realm” – a “meaningful universe sustained by the activity” (1975: 46). At first glance, the difference between this formulation and the prior ones centering on contextualization, (dis)alignment and enregisterment seems minimal; in actual fact, the shift is quite substantial. We now move away from an analytical perspective focused on participants and resources (as in De Cock & Pedraza’s analysis) to one in which concrete actions are central and seen as the points from which both the participants’ roles and the values of the resources used in interaction emerge (cf. also Cicourel 1973; Garfinkel 2002; Goodwin & Goodwin 1992, 2004; Szabla & Blommaert 2018). Enregisterment, from this action perspective, does not only stand for the formation of registers-as-resources but also as the emerging of formats for communicative action, in which such formats also include the ratification of participants and the concrete mode of effective deployment of semiotic resources. Formats are framed patterns of social action, and I believe I stay very close to what Goffman suggested when I define framing as exactly that: the ordering of interactional conduct in ways that valuate both the roles of participants and the actual resources deployed in interaction between them.

3. #justsaying as action: basics

I will illustrate this by means of examples of the interactional deployment of the hashtag #justsaying. This hashtag – manifestly English in origin – is widely used on Twitter (also in variants such as #JustSayin, #justsayingg), also in non-English messages.[3] And contrary to most other hashtags, it is not a topical marker but an explicitly metapragmatic one. The expression “just saying”, in offline vernacular interaction, often indexes consistency in viewpoint and factual certainty in the face of counterargument (Craig & Sanusi 2000). Let us take a look at what can be done with it on Twitter, and concentrate on the types of action it can contribute to. In what follows, I shall use examples of #justsaying deployed in Dutch-language tweets from Belgium and The Netherlands, followed by approximate English translations. Note that there is no Dutch equivalent to #justsaying used on Twitter: it is a fully enregistered element in “Dutch” Twitter discourse.

I must first identify some basic actions performed and performable by means of #justsaying.

3.1. Standalone act

A first observation is that #justsaying is very often used for a standalone communicative act: a tweet which is not part of a Twitter “thread” (a series of interactionally connected tweets) but which appears as an individual statement, as in example 1.


Example 1: After weeks of only pictures about the heat, all media are now swamped with pictures and videos with rain, thunder and lightning. #justsaying

Those are standalone communicative acts, but evidently they are not without contextualization cues. In this tweet from early August 2018, the timing is the cue, as the author refers to the end of the heat wave that swept over Western Europe in that period. Contextualization can also take a more explicit shape, as when authors use topical hashtags tying their standalone statement into larger thematic lines (example 2).


Example 2: suggestion for #fgov … reinstate national service to enable our children to defend themselves against the aggressive #islam in our #europe. Matter of time before our #democracy has to be defended #manumilitari[4] #justsaying

In example 2, we saw that the standalone statement has an indirectly called-out and identified addressee, the Belgian Government, hashtagged as #fgov. Specific addressees can of course be directly called out through the use of the standard symbol “@”, and tweets by default have the author’s followers as audiences. Thus, a standalone communicative act does not equal a decontextualized act nor an act that doesn’t invite uptake from addressees. On social media, standalone communicative acts are interactional by definition, for the congregation of one’s Twitter followers (or a section thereof) will see the tweet on their timelines anyway, and they respond by means of “likes”, “retweets” or “comments”, as we can see in examples 1 and 2. I shall return to this point of addressee responses in greater detail below and underscore its importance.

The main point here is: such standalone tweets are, thus, framed in Goffman’s sense. They engage with existing “realms” and select participants. And what they do within such meaningful units and in relation to ratified participants is to signal a particular footing: a detached and self-initiated, sometimes implicitly offensive statement not directly prompted by the statements of others and often proposed as the start of a series of responsive acts by addressees. They trigger and flag from within a recognizable universe of meaningful acts (the registers we use on Twitter and the communities we use them with) a specific format of action involving particular forms of “congregational work”, the work we do in order to make sense of social actions and establish them as social facts (Garfinkel 2002: 245). We can paraphrase the format as:

“here I am with my opinion, which I state in a sober and detached way unprompted by others, and which I offer to you for interactional uptake”.

Let me stress this point once more: standalone acts such as those are not isolated or non-interactional, they are fully social acts performed in a collective of participants who know how to make sense of #justsaying action formats and their concrete contextualized instances. They merely initiate such action formats and, in that sense, provide an initial definition of their main ordering parameters.

3.2. Sidetracking and reframing

When #justsaying is interactionally deployed in a thread, we see partly different things. What remains stable is the sober and detached footing we encountered in the standalone instances. But very different formats of action are triggered and flagged by it. And before we engage with these formats of action, I must return to a particularly important feature of the examples that will follow: the duality of addressees. In a thread, an author responds directly to previous tweets and to those identifiable participants involved in those previous tweets. But the individual response tweet also attracts responses from other addressees: the likes and (sometimes) retweets and comments from participants not directly operating within that specific thread. Consider example 3.


Example 3: (response to @X and @Y): I’m not saying that something is wrong with large farms. Just pointing out that 200 cows are peanuts compared to the numbers in Canada. No attack. No judgment. #JustSaying[5]

While the author directly responds to two other participants (@X and @Y), her tweet receives a retweet and two likes from different Twitter users. This is important, for we see two separate lines of congregational work here: one line performed between the author and her two called-out and identified interlocutors, the authors of previous tweets; another line performed between the author and addressees not involved in the thread but responding, very much in the way described for standalone acts, to the author’s specific tweet. Two frames co-occur here, and this is important for our understanding of what follows.

A format of action frequently triggered and flagged by #justsaying in Twitter threads is “sidetracking”, or more precisely, opening a second line of framing. The thematic universe of the thread is disrupted by the introduction of another one, initiated on the same detached and sober footing as the standalone cases I discussed above (example 4):


Example 4:

(participant 1) Can anyone ask @X whether she can unblock me?

(participant 2, responding to participant 1) Me too … I don’t think I ever reacted against her … strange bitch

(participant 3, responding to participants 1, 2) Calling women ‘bitch’ seems to me to be cause for blocking. #justsaying

(participant 2, responding to participant 3) strange madam ok then?

The topic launched by participant 1 is not uncommon among active Twitter users: a complaint about being blocked by someone, @X, articulated here as an appeal to others to help being unblocked by @X. The direct response to this comes from participant 2, who endorses what participant 1 says by expanding the case: he, too, was blocked by @X, apparently for no good reason. In this response, participant 2 uses the term ‘bitch’ (‘wijf’), and this leads to the #justsaying reframing action by participant 3. From the actual case proposed by participant 1 as the topic of the thread, participant 3 shifts to an entirely different one related to the use of derogatory and sexist terminology within the moral framework of ‘proper’ Twitter usage. The shift, thus, is more than just topical: it reorders the entire normative pattern of interaction. Participant 2 immediately responds defensively by offering an alternative, only slightly less derogatory term. A new frame has been introduced and a new format of action – from collaborative work on one topic to oppositional work on another – has been started.

In opening a second line of framing, the participation framework is also redefined. In example 4, participant 1 is sidelined as soon as the #justsaying remark is made, and the direct interaction in the thread is reordered: it becomes a direct engagement of participant 3 with participant 2, and what started as a one-to-all thread becomes a one-on-one thread. A new line of action is generated by the #justsaying statement.

4. #justsaying as complex reframing

We have come to understand some of the basic actions in which #justsaying is used. Now look at example 5, an interaction started by the Mayor of Antwerp (participant 1 in the transcript) tweeting from his holiday site in Poland about the Gay Pride held in his town that day.[6] His tweet is meant as a public, one-to-all statement, and it has the expected effects: it goes viral with hundreds of “likes” and a large number of retweets. Apart from these forms of response, the tweet also develops into a thread: the Mayor gets several “comments” from participants addressed by his tweet.


Example 5

(Participant 1) I’m still in Poland but I wish all the participants in Antwerp a great Pride. [icon]Being yourself safely and freely, that’s what matters today. [icon]

(participant 2) I find the cultural promotion of extra-natural behavior not suited for a conservative party.

I have nothing agains LGBTs, have something against their bashers, but also against publicity.

(participant 2) I grant everyone their freedom, but I find the promotion of counternatural acts entirely unacceptable.

(participant 3) Let’s also prohibit publicity for traveling by plane then. People flying is a counternatural thing as well. To give just 1 example. But I’ll happily provide more examples if you wish. #justsaying #WearWithPride #antwerppride #NarrowmindedPeople

The Mayor’s public salute to the Antwerp Pride is critically commented on in two turns by participant 2, someone who clearly aligns himself with the right-wing conservative forces opposing the Pride. Observe that participant 2 addresses the Mayor in his responses and stays within the frame of the initial activity, and that his comments receive a number of likes as well as comments. The #justsaying comment by participant 3 – someone who identifies strongly with the Antwerp Pride through the use of a sequence of hashtags – is of particular interest, for it opens a new line of framing and reorders the participation framework. The Mayor is eliminated as a relevant direct addressee and the frame he started is dismissed, as the #justsaying statement by participant 3 is targeting the anti-LGBT turns made by participant 2. Thus, and very much like what we encountered in example 4 above, participant 3 gets a reply from participant 2 after his #justsaying statement:


Example 6

(participant 2) There are less people throwing up when they see a plane, than people feeling sick when they see homosexual acts.

(participant 3) Because it suits them well. The reason ensures that a message can be shared. Now that is zum kotsen (sic). Tells a lot about people. But feel free to move to Russia if it annoys you that much.

A new format of action has been started: an escalating, one-on-one fight between both participants, on the issue of what constitutes or doesn’t constitute “counternatural” conduct.

But there is more. Do note the different lines of congregational work here: while participant 3 enters into an argument with participant 2, his #justsaying statement gets eight “likes” and a retweet from Twitter users not otherwise active in this thread. So, parallel to the one-on-one thread developing within a one-to-all interaction started by the Mayor, another one-to-all thread emerges, inviting very different forms of response.

We see the full complexity here of the actions involved in reframing, and we can represent them graphically (Figure 1). On Twitter, what we see is a thread opened by the Mayor’s one-to-all tweet which triggers collective as well as individual responses, all of it within the frame initiated by the tweet (Frame 1 in figure 1). The thread, therefore, is a unit of action, but a composite and unstable one.[7] Because the #justsaying comment by participant 3 shapes, within the thread, a different frame (Frame 2 in figure 1). In Frame 2, we also see collective as well as individual responses – we see the same genres of action, in other words – but they are performed in a frame shaped by the #justsaying statement by participant 3. This frame is only indirectly related to Frame 1, and it draws participant 2 – who reacted initially within Frame 1 to the Mayor’s tweet – into a different role and position, with a different interlocutor and with (partly) different audiences, on a different topic. The reframing of the actions means that they are thoroughly reformatted: while, formally, the participants in Frames 1 and 2 appear to do very similar things, the difference in frame turns their actions into very different kinds of normatively judged congregational work, creating different social facts.

echt finaal schema

Figure 1: complex reframing actions in examples 5-6

What we see in this examples is how the hashtag #justsaying appears to “open up” a seemingly unified and straightforward activity to different forms of social action invoking, and thus proleptically scripting, different modes of participation and different modes of uptake, appraisal and evaluation. It interjects, so to speak, entirely different formats of action into a Goffmanian “realm”, enabling the shaping of very different “meaningful universes sustained by the activity”. As a framing device, #justsaying is thus more than a pragmatic-and-metapragmatic tool. It is something that proleptically signals various allowable modes of conduct and various forms of ratified participation and congregational work in social activities that appear, from a distance, simple and unified.

5. Hashtags and translingualism revisited

The latter remark takes us to fundamental issues in methodology. Many years ago, Goodwin & Goodwin (1992: 96) told us that “there are great analytical gains to be made by looking very closely at how particular activities are organized”. They made that point in a paper that demonstrated that what is usually perceived as one activity – a “conversation”, for instance – actually contains and is constructed out of a dense and complex web of distinct smaller actions, all of which have important contextualizing dimensions and many of which reorder the patterns of roles and normative scripts assumed by the participants. About participants, the Goodwins (2004) later also observed that the frequent use of generalizing category labels such as “speaker” and “addressee” again obscure important differences and shifts in the actual actions performed by participants in social interaction. One is not always an “addressee” in the same way during a speech by a “speaker”, for instance: sometimes one is a distant addressee, at other moments an involved one; one’s response behavior can be cool and detached at times and deeply engaged and emotional at others, positively sanctioning specific parts of the talk and negatively sanctioning others. The appeal launched (and continuously reiterated) by the Goodwins was for precision in analyzing social action as a key methodological requirement for discourse analysis, something they shared with the likes of Garfinkel and Goffman, and something that motivated my efforts in this paper. I tried to demonstrate that the interactional deployment of the hashtag #justsaying involved multiple and complexly related forms of social action, including the profound reframing of activities in such ways that morphologically similar actions (e.g. “likes” or comments) are formatted differently – they are part of different modes of making sense of what goes on.

The complexity of such discursive work, performed by means of a hashtag productive across the boundaries of conventionally established languages, to me demonstrates advanced forms of enregisterment and, by extension, of communicative competence (cf Agha 2005, 2007). This implies – it always implies – advanced forms of socialization, for enregisterment rests on the indexical recognizability of specific semiotic forms within a community of users who have acquired sufficient knowledge of the normative codes that provide what Goffman called “a foundation for form” (1975: 41). Translated into the discourse of translingualism, the complexity of discursive work performed by means of #justsaying demonstrates how translingual forms of this type have acquired a “foundation”, in Goffman’s terms, and operate as enregistered, “normal” features of semiotic repertoires within a community of users. Such users are able to recognize #justsaying (even across language boundaries) as indexing a shift in interactional conduct, introducing a different frame and allowing different forms of footing in what might follow. Translingual practice of this kind is an established social fact.

But recall the compelling appeal by the Goodwins: we must be precise here. The rules for such translingual practices as were reported here are not generic, they are specific to concrete chronotopically configured situations of social media communication: interactions on Twitter. The community of users, likewise, is ratified as competent in the use of such forms of discursive practice only within that area of social life – the valuation of their competence cannot be generalized or extrapolated without elaborate empirical argument. And so the translingual practice I have described here is a niched social fact, part (but only part) of the communicative economies of large numbers of people occasionally entering that niche.

The niche is new: at the outset of this paper I insisted that the use of hashtags in the way described here is a 21st century innovation, an expansion and complication of existing communicative economies. Which is why I find it exceedingly interesting, for novelty means that people have to learn rules that are not explicitly codified yet; they have to actually engage in the practices and perform the congregational work required for an emerging code of adequate performance, in order to acquire a sense of what works and what doesn’t. They cannot draw on existing sets of norms of usage. My analysis of #justsaying has, I believe, shown that the use of hashtags cannot be seen as an extension and continuation of prior forms of usage of the symbol “#” – the symbol is used in ways that are specific to the social media niche that emerged in the last couple of decades, and the rules for its deployment are, thus, developed through congregational work performed by people who had no pre-existing script for its usage. As mentioned before, the value of semiotic resources (such as the hashtag) and the identities of its users (as competent members of a community of users) emerge out of the actions performed.

In that sense and from that methodological perspective, the use of hashtags directs our attention to fundamental aspects of the organization of social life, of meaning making, of interaction, and of language. There is room now for a theorization of translingualism in which, rather than to the creative bricolage of cross-linguistic resources, we focus on complex and niched social actions in which participants try to observe social structure through their involvement in situations requiring normatively ratified practice – I’m paraphrasing Cicourel (1973) here – in emerging and flexible communities populating these niches of the online-offline nexus.


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[1]I dedicate this paper to the memory of Charles Goodwin, a source of inspiration and an engaging interlocutor for several decades, who sadly passed away while I was developing the analysis reported here. This paper is part of a project I call “Online with Garfinkel”, in which I explore the potential of action-centered analyses of online-offline communication. A precursor of the project is Blommaert (2018). ACKNOWLEDGMENTS.

[2] The point that the widespread availability of online technologies has reshaped the sociolinguistic system is missed by some critics of notions such as translanguaging, who point to the prior existence of formally similar or identical forms of language and/or script to argue that there is nothing ‘new’ happening. In such critiques, Hymes’ (1996) important warning is disregarded: that the study of language is not merely a study of the linguistic system – the formal aspects of language, say – but also and even more importantly the study of the sociolinguistic system in which language forms are being distributed, functionally allocated and deployed in concrete social circumstances. The arrival of the internet has caused a worldwide change in the sociolinguistic system, provoking enormous amounts of sociolinguistically new phenomena. And even if such phenomena have linguistic precursors, they do not have any sociolinguistic ones. See Blommaert (2018) for a discussion.

[3] I collected a small corpus of #justsaying examples from my own Twitter account between March and August 2018 (N=186), and found the hashtag incorporated into English, Dutch, Danish, Spanish, Hindi, Bulgarian and Arabic tweets. Hashtags are also (and increasingly) used offline in marches and other forms of public demonstrations, and in advertisements.

[4] “fgov” is the Twitter name of the Belgian Federal Government; “manu military” means “by the use of military force”. The author of this tweet is a former MP for a Flemish extreme right-wing party.

[5] One can note the explicit description of the footing for #justsaying statements here: “No attack. No judgment. #JustSaying”.

[6]The Mayor is a controversial, very outspoken right-wing politician. The “victory” icon he posts at the end of his tweet is a campaign emblem of his party, and the phrase “being yourself safely” is a direct reference to the Mayor’s re-election program.

[7] In Szabla & Blommaert (2018) we analyzed a long discussion on Facebook and called the entire discussion (composed of the update, comments and subcomments) the “main action”. In a more traditional sociolinguistic vocabulary, one can also see the overall unit of action the “event”.