The Corbyn spy hoax and the cycle of (fake) news


Jan Blommaert

In mid-February 2018, the British tabloid The Sun published an article in which Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was accused of having been involved in espionage activities in the 1980s. According to The Sun (and quickly endorsed by The Daily Mail), Czech archives and statements by a former Czech spy confirmed that Corbyn had repeatedly met Warsaw Pact intelligence agents and had been paid for his services. In a curious return to the days of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Sun claimed the existence of secret Stasi files, the contents of which might reveal numerous names of British traitors whose real identities, alas, “we will never know for sure”. But Corbyn? Yes, they were sure of him being a traitor to his country.

The allegations were swiftly turned into truth by hostile politicians and opinion makers. The Defence Secretary stated that Corbyn had betrayed his country, and another Cabinet member compared Corbyn to the Cold War cause célèbre Kim Philby – here is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy once again. In the overheated atmosphere of the Brexit debates in UK politics, heavy artillery is quickly and frequently used. Evidently, the issue went trending on social media and became headline news and a major commentary topic in all mass media as well.


The allegations, however, were quickly debunked. Corbyn himself swiftly dismissed them as “a ridiculous smear” and ridiculed the tablois for “going a bit James Bond,” probably as a sign of fear for the Labour leader whose popularity is on the rise. The real James Bonds – British intelligence officers – backed him up. There was no evidence of Corbyn performing espionage duties for the Czech secret services. On social media, hashtag activism started at once using #CorbynSmears as the thematic label for three large types of actions: direct discussion (as in Figure 1), boomerang statements pointing towards other fake news stories by these tabloids (as in Figure 2), and more broadly focused political essays on the role of media in society (as in Figure 3). A highly effective campaign was waged on social media this way, marginalizing the voices supporting the tabloids and their stories.

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Figure 1

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Figure 2

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Figure 3

Battle hashtags such as #CorbynSmears went trending as well, for several days, and while the tabloids made desperate attempts to raise the “free press” flag and extend their line of revelations, they lost the day. When the facts and the backgrounds are on your side, fact checking (or better: fact reconstruction) is a devastating weapon in social media discussions. The three genres of activity shown here shaped three interlocking frames of action: (a) demanding factual evidence for claims in direct one-on-one interaction; (b) background checks disputing the overall credibility of the tabloids, and (c) pointing to broader motives of political power and influence behind such forms of media reporting. Taken together and deployed en masse, they were highly effective in silencing the opponents in the online debates. The Corbyn supporters had shown themselves to be a formidable social media force on previous occasions; they did so once more in the spy hoax case.

The mass media (who a few days earlier carried the story as headline news) turned against the issue – now identified as fake news – with unusual vehemence. The Independent printed a razor-sharp sarcastic commentary piece including a summary of other outrageous tabloid hoaxes about Corbyn. And BBC Daily Politics anchor Andrew Neil mercilessly pummeled a Cabinet Minister on the question of whether or not Corbyn had betrayed his country, concluding “Surely the real scandal is not what Mr Corbyn has ..supposedly done but the outright lies and disinformation that you and fellow Tories are spreading – that’s the real scandal isn’t it?” The clip of this interview fragment went viral too, and in many ways functioned as a climax to the debate: if the BBC formulates the issue in such a categorical way – connecting “scandal”, “lies” and “Tories” in one sentence – then that’s it.

The cycle of fake news

The Corbyn spy hoax of course taps into the highly complex issue of fake news – perhaps the most important new theme in media culture nowadays, certainly after the exposure of the impact of media such as Breitbart News on the election victory of Donald Trump. And in connecion to this issue, the Corbyn spy hoax shows us a thing or two about what we can call the contemporary cycle of (fake) news. In a graphic form, this cycle can be represented as such (Figure 4).

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Figure 4

Three wheels are constantly turning in a validation debate, in which the tabloids and the social media do most of the work, while the mass media perform a relatively passive, responsive  but nevertheless decisive role. Debates about the validity of news items are hot and hectic in the first two media channels, and these validation debates are taken up by mass media at various stages of development. Thus, mass media very often make an item not just out of the “facts” of the case, but about the debates on the validity of these facts in other media channels.

What we observe here suggests a changed media environment in which it would be wrong to see social media as just echo chambers for what was produced in more traditional media channels. They now must be placed alongside those more traditional channels, as echo chambers, surely, but also in two other capacities: as critical producers of news in the strict sense of the term; and as the critical producers of the criteria for “real” and “fake” news. This latter capacity is what makes their position in this new media environment perhaps inevitably controversial, but nonetheless of extreme importance for understanding the present structure and dynamics of the public sphere and public opinion – a key concept for defining democracy.






Trump’s Tweetopoetics

Donald_Trump_2016_RNC_speech_(4)_(cropped) Tweets

Jan Blommaert

It has been remarked before: when Donald Trump gives a public speech, the units of his speeches are tweets – or at least: he produces chunks of performed rhetoric that can be effortlessly converted into the format of tweets. Thus we can squeeze an almost unaltered fragment from his speech for the H&K Equipment company in Pittsburgh PA (18 January 2018) into the Twitter box:

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But at the same time, this fragment of his speech draws from a tweet he posted the day before the speech:

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That is the point: Trump’s offline, live discourse has an almost natural spillover quality into his online discourse. Talk is tweet, and tweet is talk.

This, then, grants some of his tweets (the most appealing ones, perhaps) an orally-performable dimension. Put simply, some of his tweets appear as chunks of discourse that can be spoken by others. In fact, they contain lots of pointers as to exactly how they can be delivered in spoken speech. In other words, they are instructional, showing his followers how to speak like Trump. Let us consider an example.

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Trump posted this tweet on his official account on 18 January 2018, and it reflects on the same speech in Pittsburgh. The tweet, note, is not a fragment of the speech. In the tweet, we see how he uses upper case for specific words and phrases – a familiar feature for those acquainted with Trump’s tweeting habits. He also uses an exclamation mark at the end of the tweet – once again, a familiar feature. Both features of written discourse, of course, are metapragmatic instructions: they suggest not just content relevance, but they also suggest a way of pronouncing: louder, and with some emphasis.

But there are more metapragmatic pointers in this tweet, and here we need to turn to what is known as “ethnopoetics” – an analytical technique designed to bring out the implicit structure in spoken discourse. When we transcribe the tweet according to ethnopoetic conventions, we get this.

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We now see that the tweet is replete with different forms of rhyme: several kinds of connections tie parts of the text together into powerful features of performance.

  • The tweet opens with “America” (in upper case). This term is repeated twice: once halfway (“shape America’s destiny”), and once in the final (punch) line: “make America great again” (in upper case). America is a central motive.
  • The term “again” – the motive of revival, so powerful in Trump’s rhetoric – reoccurs in the opening phrase and the closing phrase, each time connected to “America”. America is new in this text.
  • The “once again” in the opening line prefigures the “make America great again” of the closing line. Opening and closing are rhetorically connected, they are each other’s echo – hence the highlighting. But the repetition in the closing line is enriched by what precedes – the opening line sets the stage, then comes an argument, after which the opening line is reformulated as the conclusion of the argument. The rhetorical circle is closed.
  • So how is this argument organized? In the opening line, “America” is equated with “nation” (also in upper case). What follows is a classical “triplet” – three repetitive lines – in which he qualifies this nation. He does so by “escalation” (again, a well-known rhetorical trick): “big-bigger-reaches for the stars”. “Reaching for the stars” is also semantically connected to “dreaming” in the previous line.
  • Next, this “nation” is projected onto the audience: “You” (in upper case) followed by “are the ones who”. The term “you (are the ones who)” is the central structuring device in the middle part of the text. Trump again uses a classical “triplet” here: he organizes “you” in three consecutive, repetitive and structurally similar statements. We get a triple rhyme through the repetition of “YOU are the ones who”.
  • You is twice associated with “America” (“America’s destiny” and “making America great again”), and once with “our” in the phrase “our prosperity”. You = us = America.
  • Of these three statements, the first two display sound rhyme (destiny, prosperity), while the third one brings the climax: the central slogan of Trump’s campaign and presidency (“make America great again”). Any doubt that this would be the climax is removed by the exclamation mark. So we get: you = us = America = Trump.

This is a pretty fine example of rhetorical craftsmanship, in which literally nothing is out of place. We get a nice piece of poetically structured – and thus affectively appealing – political discourse here. This degree of poetic structuring makes the text performable: the audience gets loads of cues as to how this text should be, and can be, spoken to others. It is also no longer just a one-liner: it is a far more complex argumentative bit of text, driven by strong and very well elaborated images of good-better-best in a new America under Trump. It’s the stuff of persuasive talk.

But we get all of it in a tweet: a typically written genre of online discourse appears to display dense characteristics of spoken discourse. There is just one thing that cannot be extracted from the online to the offline world of speech: the hashtag #MAGA is the unique Twitter-only feature of the tweet. The rest of the text is exportable.

This shows us how the online and the offline rhetorical world of Donald Trump are profoundly connected. We are witnessing a new format of public broadcasting here, of presidential spoken discourse. Not just for contemplation and admiration by his audience, but for active uptake and repeated offline performance. And not the broadcasting of lengthy stretches of text, but of texts that are formatted as tweets – for retweeting as well as for repeating as tweetable speech. Trump referred to Twitter as “his voice”. Through tweets such as these, he enables his followers to imagine his voice as actually heard, and even spoken collectively as a new nation.

We get a copybook example here of “vox populism”, the version of populism that is centered around manufactured representations of the “voice of the people”: first, I teach you how to talk like me, after which I can claim to talk like you, to represent your voice and turn it into a political, “democratic” program. And virality becomes a crucial infrastructure for such vox populism: look at the many thousands who retweet my words. Surely I must be a democratic politician. I must be the most democratic one ever.

(Thanks are due to Ico Maly and Rob Moore for inspiring comments)





Online with Garfinkel


Jan Blommaert

The Durkheim and the Internet project (DAI in what follows) being completed, I now move on towards a more radical exercise: using some of Harold Garfinkel’s central intuitions as a lead into forms of online analysis. This exercise, I should underscore, builds onto DAI and does not replace or qualify it – it extends it. For a summary of DAI, see Blommaert (2018).

This extension is warranted, I believe, because of one methodological outcome of the project: the “four lines of sociolinguistic methodology” that I designed as a way to investigate new forms of collectivities in online-offline contexts. Here they are:

  1. Patterns of communication necessarily involve meaningful social relationships as prerequisite, conduit and outcome;
  2. Such relationships will always, similarly, involve identities and categorizations, interactionally established;
  3. Thus, when observing patterns of communication, we are observing the very essence of sociation and “groupness” – regardless of how we call the “groups”.
  4. And specific patterns of interaction shape specific forms of “groups.

I added the following reflection to these four lines:

“Groups, then, are not collections of human beings but patterned sets of communicative behaviors and the relationships with which they are dialectically related. Whenever we see such ordered forms of communicative behavior, there is an assumption of active and evolving groupness – sociation – but the analytical issue is not the nature of the group (or the label we need to choose for it) but the specific social relationships observable through and in communication. All other aspects of sociation can be related to this. So if one needs the definition of a group: a group is a communicatively organized and ratified set of social relationships.”

This analytical point pushed me to a re-examination of Garfinkel’s work, notably Garfinkel (2002). I shall not follow Garfinkel in any canonical way, however. The nature of the exercise I undertake here would prevent it, and the fact that Garfinkel’s incredible methodological idiosyncrasy makes much of his book barely readable further supports that decision. Fortunately, Anne Rawls does a great service to Garfinkel in her introductory essay to the book (Rawls 2002 and other contextualizing essays, 1987, 1989). And finally, I reject several of Garfinkel’s assumptions and principles. But there remains much that can be profitably reformulated and redeployed as well. Let me summarize these reformulated elements.

Garfinkel’s intuitions

Let me start by listing what I see as productive fundamental intuitions in Garfinkel’s work. The connecctions with the “four lines” above should be clear at once.

  1. Garfinkel focuses on social order as a locally accomplished social fact. In this, he is entirely empirical, in the sense that he rejects any conceptual a prioris and prioritizes the actual, observable social actions as a site of “structure” and “theory”. That naturally implies that Garfinkel rejects the old binaries of “micro vs macro” or “structure vs agency”, as well as an ethos of scientific practice in which conceptual and theoretical “implementation” is sought.
  2. Rather than to take (predefined and “known”) individuals and groups as a starting point in his analysis, he takes situated actions as the point of departure; the people acting within such situations are merely the “local staff, its local production cohort” (Garfinkel 2002: 247). And in line with G.H. Mead, action is interaction.
  3. Actions can be shown to have “autochthonous order properties”, i.e. “empirically observable properties of the congregational work of producing social facts” (id. 245). Rawls (ibid, FN) further clarifies: “Congregational refers not only to to the idea that these social facts are made collaboratively by a group, but that the population cohort has its cohort or congregation by virtue of being engaged in doing just this thing”.
  4. In other words: groups are made by the actions they are involved in, and Garfinkel emphasizes “situations that provide for the appearances of individuals” (Rawls 2002: 46).
  5. Such involvement is predicated on the recognizability of actions and their properties of order. Social actions occur as formats, the characteristic features of which are recognizable to others and, thus, intelligible as action x, y or z. Garfinkel’s example of a queue (2002, chapter 8) is telling: it is the queue itself that organizes the behavior of people as a queue. The queue has a set of “properties of order without which the phenomenon ceases to be recognizable as what it is” (Rawls 2002: 45).
  6. This aspect of formatting is reflexive: there is no “external” or explicitly stated rule for action, but its execution “must work and be seen to work by others” (Rawls 2002: 41). Thus, rules become reflexively apparent after their implementation in social action. It’s when a queue has been formed that people can tell you that there is a queue, and that it starts thère, not here. Social actions “have a [normative] coherence when one is finished with them that they did not have at the outset” (ibid).
  7. Recognizability and reflexivity as features of social action involve and presuppose at least two things: (a) that no social action is “individual” in any sense of the term but always interactional; (2) that the formats of social action need to be learned, acquired.

It is clear that Grafinkel attributes a sui generis character to situated social action and its forms of order: its characteristics cannot be reduced to individuals’ intentions and interests, nor to external (“institutional”) constraints. In fact, the sui generis character of situated social action is an echo of Durkheim’s qualification of “social facts” as having a sui generis quality – the very foundation of Durkheim’s sociology. And just like Durkheim’s statement, Garfinkel’s is easily (and widely) misconstrued. So we must be precise here. The sui generis character of situated social action involves – contra methodological individualism – that individual social beings are constrained in their choices of action; people rather “enter into” the ordeliness of situated social action, as soon as such an order is recognizable, and attribute intelligibility to their own actions in that way. Their actions become meaningful to others by entering into the orderly procedures that make such actions recognizable as specific actions.

Garfinkel joins Goffman here, and Rawls attributes the same sui generis character to Goffman’s notion of interaction order: “the interacion order has an existence independent of either structures or individuals” (Rawls 1987: 139). This point, too, has often been overlooked, and Goffman’s concept of self, consequently, has often been misrepresented as strategically performed identity, central to his social theory. In actual fact, Goffman’s self is “a dramaturgical effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented” (Goffman 1959: 253, in Rawls 1987: 139; italics added). So it is not just “performed” but interactionally ratified – morally sanctioned – by others: “both in its capacity as performer and performed, the self ultimately depends upon interaction” (ibid.). Such interactions require a scene – an orderly and recognizable situation that makes the dramaturgical effect (the particular, enacted and ratified self) an intelligible outcome of social action. In Rawls’ (ibid) terms:

“The self is therefore not the ontological starting point for a theory of social order. For Goffman it is an end product, the existence of which depends upon a presentation order which is the primary constraint of situations of co-presence”.

This presentation order is replete with reciprocally exchanged moral expectations – “involvement obligations” – providing a degree of security in social encounters (cf. Rawls 1987: 140). There is slightly more space for empathy and anxiety in Goffman’s view of order than there is in Garfinkel’s, and Goffman’s “ground rules of interaction” are moral ones (id.: 142). Goffman’s insistence on the ritual character of interaction (often seen as an insistence on communicative routine) is in actual fact an insistence on the maintenance of a moral order in social action. And this is done in view of the interaction order itself (sui generis), “and not directed toward the reproduction of social structure at all” (id. 145).

Rawls here brings Goffman and Garfinkel together once again: both rejected “micro vs macro” and “agency vs structure” distinctions, since for both, whatever we understand by “structure” should be empirically observable in the orderly features of actual, situated social action; the former actually coincides and identifies with the latter. And in both, the self is an outcome, a product, an effect of the orderliness of situated social action – which, consequently, should be attended to in full detail. In most work, situated social action would be seen as a building block or a reflection of “larger” social-structural phenomena (power, class, gender, race, etc.). What we have here is a radical refusal to treat situated social action as “just” the small stuff that relates to bigger stuff. Instead, we get a view in which the big things are right there, in and through situated social action – which is, consequently, a big thing. Social order in any form is interactional.


Garfinkel’s radicalism is certainly appealing because it refutes most of mainstream social theory, with a particular vehemence reserved for deductive theory-internal analysis, concepts-as-realities and simplistic interpretations of “micro vs macro” and “agency vs structure”. Aspects of this refutation are compelling and inescapable, while others are potentially fertile as a heuristic, and still others are probably nonsense. Thus, I will adopt the elements I sketched above and add two important qualifications to them.

  1. I maintain the theoretical framework designed in DAI, with its emphasis on complexity, mobility, scalarity and polycentricity. The “social order” and its “autochthonous order properties” that Garfinkel was after (and Goffman’s “interacion order” and its “involvement obligations”) are, consequently, made more precise and accurate when we see them as ordered indexicalities occurring in social arenas that are by definition polynomic, dynamic and flexible.
  2. Garfinkel’s view of situated social action as necessarily recognizable presupposes a mutually assumed sharedness of expectations (which he confirms), and of resources. The latter remains unaddressed, while it is precisely the sociolinguistic dimension of DAI. While situated social action may be a form of order sui generis, the stuff that enters into such actions isn’t: it is conditioned historically and assumes its concrete shape in interactions in the form of entextualizations, the nature and valuations of which need to be learned and acquired. So here is the second qualification to Garfinkel’s intuitions: we need to add to them an awareness of the concrete historical conditions enabling certain forms of action to assume certain kinds of order not others. This, I underscore, does not mean that we need to revert to an older vocabulary of institutionalization, routinization or even “macro” or “structural” aspects of action. What we need to do is to see situated social action as historically conditioned (and we can take some cues here from Bourdieu, for instance). This, I believe, is crucial if one wishes to maintain the claim about the sui generis character of the orderliness of such situated social action.

The historical conditions for action include infrastructural conditions as well. I underscore this because we intend to go online with Garfinkel – entering into a world not just of queues in front of the Starbucks counter at LAX, but of virality, memes and social media profiles. And a world not just of presenting and presented selves but of selfies – new technologically mediated modes of self-presentation for which Garfinkel, Goffman and others provides necessary, but insufficient, analytical frames. Such infrastructures have changed the “order” of social actions, and we must take them on board.


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

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

Goffman, Erving (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday Anchor.

Rawls, Anne Warfield (1987) The Interaction order sui generis: Goffman’s contribution to social theory. Sociological Theory 5/2: 136-149.

—– (1989) Simmel, Parsons and the interaction order. Sociological Theory 7/1: 124-129.

—– (2002) Editor’s introduction. In Garfinkel (2002): 1-64.




Online-offline modes of identity and community: Elliot Rodger’s twisted world of masculine victimhood.


Jan Blommaert

(with ICD 2017)[1]


  1. Introduction

Online environments have become an integrated part of social reality ; as a new, huge and deeply fragmented infrastructure for social interaction and knowledge circulation, they add substantially to the complexity of social processes, notably those related to identity work and group formation.[2] We see, on the one hand, the emergence of online communities of unprecedented size – think of the population using Facebook, or of the huge numbers of players on some Massively Multiplayer Online Games. All of these have long been provoking questions about identity and social impact, often tending towards views of  the destabilization of identity and of social cohesion (cf. e.g.  De Meo et al 2014 ; Lee & Hoadley 2007). On the other hand we have the online emergence of strongly identity-emphasizing and highly cohesive “translocal micro-populations” (Maly & Varis 2015), and practices of online meaning making, control and circulation that betray the presence of at least widely shared systems of normative consensus and conviviality (Varis & Blommaert 2015; Tagg et al 2017; LaViolette 2017). Given the scope and scale of the online world, it is clear that we have barely started to scratch the surface, and in this paper I cannot claim to do more than that.

In what follows, I will venture into the less commonly visited fringes of the Web 2.0, in a space called the “Manosphere” (Nagle 2017). The Manosphere is a complex of (mostly US-based) websites and for a dedicated to what can alternatively be called “toxic masculinity” or “masculine victimhood”: men gather to exchange experiences and views on the oppressive role and position of women in their worlds, and often do so by means of ostensibly misogynist, sexist, (often) racist and (sometimes) violent discourse. The intriguing point is that the Manosphere, as an online zone of social activity, appears to be relatively isolated and enclosed. Large numbers of men are active on these online spaces, but there is no offline equivalent to it: no ‘regular’ mass movement of angry men organizing big marches, petitions and other forms of offline political campaigning. The Manosphere population is very much a group operating in the shadows of the Web (see Schoonen et al 2017; Smits et al 2017; Dijsselbloem et al 2017; Vivenzi et al 2017; Peeters et al 2017; Beekmans et al 2017).

There are moments, though, of public visibility, and I shall start from one such moment. In May 2014, a young man from California, Elliot Rodger, killed six people and injured fourteen others (before taking his own life) around the UCSB campus at Isla Vista, in what looked like one  of many college shooting incidents (Langman 2016a).  Rodger, the son of a Hollywood filmmaker, sent out a long manifesto by email just before his killing spree, entitled “My Twisted Life: The Story of Elliot Rodger” (see Kling 2017),[3] as well as several YouTube clips recorded prior to his actions.[4] Since Elliot mentioned Manosphere sites in the text, the manifesto offers us an opportunity to look closer into the ways in which such online infrastructures provide affordances for constructing an – admittedly eccentric – logic of action, strengthening Rodger’s sense of victimhood and providing rationalizations for the murders he committed during what he called his “Day of Retribution”. More in general, this exercise may lead us to a more precise understanding of the role played by popular online culture infrastructures in the construction of contemporary “outsider” identity templates, individual as well as collective ones (cf. Becker 1963; also Foucault 2003).

Drawing from Rodger’s manifesto, I shall first sketch the universe of communication in which he lived, focusing on how his online activities interacted with offline forms of interaction. This will offer us a tentative view of Rodger’s “culture”, characterized by a strong affinity with masculine victimhood and violence, which he shared with parts of the Manosphere. The latter operates, along with several other popular-cultural elements, as a learning environment in and through which, through “ludic” but quite serious practices, a logic of action is constructed.

  1. Elliot Rodger’s twisted world of communication

Herbert Blumer summarized one of the central insights in the tradition of Symbolic Interactionism as follows:

(…) social interaction is a process that forms human conduct instead of being merely a means or a setting for the expression or release of human conduct. (Blumer 1969: 8)

With this in mind, let us have a look at how Rodger’s manifesto informs us about the kinds of social interactions he maintained.

Born in 1991, Elliot Rodger was 22 when he took his own life and that of six others; he was a digital native, and he had a long history of mental disorder (Langman 2016b).[5] His parents and acquaintances described him as extremely withdrawn, and Rodger himself in his manifesto frequently described his “social anxiety” – an incapacity to adequately communicate in collective face-to-face situations, which he invariably experienced as extraordinarily stressful. Here is an example:

The class I started was a political science class. I figured I would gain some useful knowledge by taking it, though I disliked the teacher because he had the tendency to randomly call on me to answer questions. I was still terrified of speaking in front of the class, even if it was for one sentence. My social anxiety has always made my life so difficult, and no one ever understood it. I hated how everyone else seemed to have no anxiety at all. I was like a cripple compared to them. Their lives must be so much easier. Thankfully, there were no couples in this class, but I still had to see them when I walked through the school. The only thing I could do was keep my head down and pretend they didn’t exist. I still cried on the drive home every day.

This communicative disability leads to isolation, and this isolation quickly assumes a very specific shape. As an adolescent, Rodger develops a strong heterosexual desire, but girls do not appear to be attracted to him. Consequently, his problem of loneliness shifts towards something more specific and acute: a problem of involuntary celibacy which he experiences as torture. Since the girls he fancies do connect with young men (in Santa Barbara, especially men described by Rodger as “hunky”), couples become his object of resentment, and  a sense of injustice is piled onto that of unhappiness:

As I spent a lot of time contemplating, I realized that my life was repeating itself in a vicious circle of torment and injustice. Each new semester of college yielded the same lonely celibate life, devoid of girls or any social interaction. It was as if there was a curse of misfortune placed upon me.

This injustice is acute, since Rodger imagines himself as superior to most other men of his age; he describes himself as “a perfect gentleman”, as good-looking, smart and generally attractive – which renders the fact that other men are more successful with girls outrageous:

How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half white myself. I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more. I tried not to believe his foul words, but they were already said, and it was hard to erase from my mind. If this is actually true, if this ugly black filth was able to have sex with a blonde white girl at the age of thirteen while I’ve had to suffer virginity all my life, then this just proves how ridiculous the female gender is. They would give themselves to this filthy scum, but they reject ME? The injustice!

Rodger attempts to turn this outrageous state of affairs around by material improvements: fashionable and top-of-the range clothing, a BMW car (a present from his worried mother), and dreams of wealth. In order to realize the latter, he spends large sums playing on the Lottery:

This must be it! I was destined to be the winner of the highest lottery jackpot in existence. I knew right then and there that this jackpot was meant for me. Who else deserved such a victory? I had been through so much rejection, suffering, and injustice in my life, and this was to be my salvation. With my whole body filled with feverish hope, I spent $700 dollars on lottery tickets for this drawing. As I spent this money, I imagined all the amazing sex I would have with a beautiful model girlfriend I would have once I become a man of wealth.

When these desperate attempts to acquire a fortune fail, fantasies of violent retribution emerge, always triggered by seeing young couples who “steal” his happiness and are, in that sense, “criminals” who deserve to be severely punished:

I wanted to do horrible things to that couple. I wanted to inflict pain on all young couples. It was around this point in my life that I realized I was capable of doing such things. I would happily do such things. I was capable of killing them, and I wanted to. I wanted to kill them slowly, to strip the skins off their flesh. They deserve it. The males deserve it for taking the females away from me, and the females deserve it for choosing those males instead of me.

And a detailed script is constructed for the Day of Retribution:

After I have killed all of the sorority girls at the Alpha Phi House, I will quickly get into the SUV before the police arrive, assuming they would arrive within 3 minutes. I will then make my way to Del Playa, splattering as many of my enemies as I can with the SUV, and shooting anyone I don’t splatter. I can only imagine how sweet it will be to ram the SUV into all of those groups of popular young people who I’ve always witnessed walking right in the middle of the road as if they are better than everyone else. When they are writhing in pain, their bodies broken and dying after I splatter them, they will fully realize their crimes.

What is striking in Rodger’s manifesto is the paucity of offline, ‘normal’ communication he describes. As we have seen, he suffers from communicative anxiety whenever he is facing a group of interlocutors; but even one-on-one communication situations are often described as unsuccessful or unsatisfactory. But as mentioned earlier, he is a digital native, and frequent reference is made to online interactions in his manifesto. From early on, for instance, he is a dedicated player of the MMOG World of Warcraft (WoW), and playing that game provides him a (delicate and fragile) sense of community:

Upon setting up my new laptop, I immediately installed all of my WoW disks. I logged onto my account and took a look at all of my characters that I hadn’t touched for a year and a half. Right when I logged onto my main character, I was contacted by James, and he invited me to join an online group with him, Steve, and Mark. They all gave me a warm welcome back.

Changes in the nature of the WoW player community, however, make him decide to quit that game: too many “normal” people had joined WoW.

The game got bigger with every new expansion that was released, and as it got bigger, it brought in a vast amount of new players. I noticed that more and more “normal” people who had active and pleasurable social lives were starting to play the game, as the new changes catered to such a crowd. WoW no longer became a sanctuary where I could hide from the evils of the world, because the evils of the world had now followed me there. I saw people bragging online about their sexual experiences with girls… and they used the term “virgin” as an insult to people who were more immersed in the game than them. The insult stung, because it was true. Us virgins did tend to get more immersed in such things, because our real lives were lacking.

Other interactions with friends also proceed online, or are predicated upon prior online interactions:

During one of my frequent visits home in late Spring, I reunited with my old friends Philip and Addison. I hadn’t seen them since the night I emotionally cried in front of them at the Getty museum in the beginning of 2012. This reunion was sparked by the political and philosophic conversations I had been having with Addison over Facebook.

And Facebook also enables Rodger to keep tabs on his offline relations:

In November, my brief friendship with Andy, Stan, and their group faded away. I often saw on Facebook that they did things together without even inviting me, which is the same thing I’ve had to experience with other groups of friends that I’ve had in the past. I was always an outcast, even among people I knew. I grew tired of their lack of consideration for me, so I stopped calling them. They weren’t even popular anyway, and I wasn’t benefitting at all from their friendship. I still continued to meet with Andy at restaurants on occasion, however.

And then, of course, there is the Manosphere. Engaging with websites such as “” (“Pick Up Artists hate”, taken down and renamed “Sluthate” after the Isla Vista killings) reassures Rodger that he isn’t the only one suffering from the cruelty of women:

The Spring of 2013 was also the time when I came across the website It is a forum full of men who are starved of sex, just like me. Many of them have their own theories of what women are attracted to, and many of them share my hatred of women, though unlike me they would be too cowardly to act on it. Reading the posts on that website only confirmed many of the theories I had about how wicked and degenerate women really are. Most of the people on that website have extremely stupid opinions that I found very frustrating, but I found a few to be quite insightful.

The website PUAHate is very depressing. It shows just how bleak and cruel the world is due of the evilness of women. I tried to show it to my parents, to give them some sort dose of reality as to why I am so miserable. They never understood why I am so miserable. They have always had the delusion that everything is going well for me, especially my father. When I sent the link of to my parents, none of them even bothered to look at the posts on there.

Observe how Rodger describes the website as a place where a theory or worldview is constructed – an epistemic  move towards generalization, from the particular and idiosyncratic to the systemic and common. And note that he considers this an important factor of understanding, valuable enough to be communicated to his parents. He had discovered a space where his own feelings, outlook and experiences were normal, even normative. And he wanted to communicate this to those who, in his eyes, systematically misunderstood him and defined him as an outsider. It is telling that, in the entire manifesto, the above fragment is the only one in which he attempts to share a resource for understanding his predicaments, with people from whom he genuinely expects support and sympathy.

  1. Sources and templates: the cultural material

Given what we have seen so far, it is safe to say that Rodger saw websites such as as formative learning environments, places where he learned how to see his individual predicament fitted into a larger system, and where he learned how to respond to this systemic injustice (cf. Schoonen et al 2017). But apart from Manosphere sites and the World of Warcraft game he was passionate about, Rodger mentions several other sources of inspiration: he was quite deeply involved in particular forms of popular culture.

Remember that Rodger grew up in the Hollywood movie milieu; in his manifesto, he suggests that stars such as George Lucas were (at least) family acquaintances, and he proudly describes attending several red carpet premières of Hollywood blockbusters. His father was involved as a second unit director in the production of the 2012 hit movie The Hunger Games.[6] This genre of violent dystopian fantasy (to which WOW can also be added) clearly belonged to his range of strong interests, and he got addicted to A Game of Thrones as soon as he read it:

For the rest of the summer, I took it easy and played WoW with James, Steve, and Mark; just like old times. I also started reading a new book series called A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin. This medieval fantasy series was spectacular. The first book of the series was A Game of Thrones, and once I read the first chapter I just couldn’t put it down. It was like nothing I had ever read before, with a huge array of complex characters, a few of whom I could relate to. I found out that it was going to be adapted into an HBO television series, and I became very excited for that.

Delving into fantasy stories like WoW and Game of Thrones didn’t make me forget about all of my troubles in life, but they did give me a temporary and relieving sense of escape, which I need from time to time. Life would be impossible to handle without those temporary respites.

We can sense the powerful appeal of imagined universes characterized by violence, sex, ruthlessness and brutality in Rodger’s words here. Popular culture products such as these provided him with templates by means of which he could organize his experiences and conduct. The latter is made explicit by Rodger with respect to yet another source : a movie called Alpha Dog.[7]

The Santa Barbara plan was formed on that night, but its roots stretch all the way back to when I just turned eighteen. It was all because I watched that movie Alpha Dog. The movie had a profound effect on me, because it depicted lots of good looking young people enjoying pleasurable sex lives. I thought about it for many months afterward, and I constantly read about the story online. I found out that it took place in Santa Barbara, which prompted me to read about college life in Santa Barbara. I found out about Isla Vista, the small town adjacent to UCSB where all of the college students live and have parties. When I found out about all this, I had the desperate hope that if I moved to that town I would be able to live that life too. That was the life I wanted. A life of pleasure and sex.

In other words: the entire scenario of his Day of Retribution is modeled on a template Rodger largely derived from a violent movie. Popular culture proves to be a learning environment in the most immediate sense here.[8]

Of course, Rodger’s manifesto isn’t a log of his online activities and popular culture interests. The few items he explicitly mentions can be assumed to have particular importance in his constructed world, but there must be far more. There is, for instance, the powerful effect of the dramatic shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, perpetrated by teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, which led not only to widespread outrage (voiced, among others, in Michael Moore’s award-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine),[9] but also to a video game called Super Columbine Massacre RPG (based on original surveillance camera images of the shootings),[10] and a number of copycat incidents in which perpetrators declared to be (or were later proven to have been) inspired by Harris and Klebold’s example. The Columbine massacre remains perhaps the most dramatic of the American school shootings, also because of its knock-on effects in other, similar incidents. It became, in effect, a template for similar actions.[11]

One such post-Columbine action, bearing striking similarities with that of Elliot Rodger, was the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. On April 16 of that year, a student called Seung Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people. Interestingly, he, too, had posted videos prior to his actions, and he, too, left a manifesto: a collage of texts and images, articulating a sense of victimhood and a desire for (violent) retribution bearing striking similarities to that of Rodger. Consider the following fragment from Seung Hui Cho’s text:[12]

By destroying we create. We create the feelings in you of what it is like to be the victim, what it is like to be fucked and destroyed. Because of your annihilations, we create and raise new breeds of Children who will show you fuckers what you have done to us. Like Easter, it will be a day of rebirth. It will be a start of a revolution of the Children that you fucked. You have never felt a single ounce of pain your whole life, thus, by destroying you, by giving you pain, we attempt to show you responsibilities and meanings of other people’s lives.

Cho, like Rodger, expresses profound pain and bitterness over what he must have experienced as a life destroyed by the agency of others – who, because of that, deserved to die. Cho calls himself a victim, and Rodger concludes his manifesto with exactly the same qualifications:

All I ever wanted was to love women, and in turn to be loved by them back. Their behavior towards me has only earned my hatred, and rightfully so! I am the true victim in all of this. I am the good guy. Humanity struck at me first by condemning me to experience so much suffering. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t want this. I didn’t start this war… I wasn’t the one who struck first… But I will finish it by striking back. I will punish everyone. And it will be beautiful. Finally, at long last, I can show the world my true worth.

The point to all this is that Rodger, in premeditating, preparing and executing his shooting, could draw on abundantly available cultural material for concrete and specific templates structuring his act. There is, as it were, a carefully elaborated aesthetics to the actions – see his “it will be beautiful” above. And in elaborating this aesthetics, Rodger draws on examples and models derived from earlier similar incidents as well as from the online and popular culture sources he intensely engaged with. All of this sources provide “logical” modes of action, patterns of argumentation and rationalizations that Rodger could invoke in designing his own actions.

  1. The aftermath: becoming cultural material

Elliot Rodger, as a digital native, not only consumed online popular culture, but as we have seen, he also created some. His manifesto was electronically circulated hours before his fatal drive into Isla Vista, and I already mentioned that he had uploaded several videos on YouTube as well. Both the manifesto and the videos are remarkable: the text is exceedingly well written and structured, and the videos appear to be well-rehearsed staged performances. Undoubtedly, Rodger’s exposure to the Hollywood professional in-crowd was formative.

Evidently, the Isla Vista shooting was headline news in the US, and several major TV networks controversially broadcasted fragments from Rodger’s YouTube videos, bringing material from the extreme fringes of the Web into mass circulation, and thus creating the raw materials for what we know as “memes” – a new and complex online popular culture genre in which (static or moving) image and message are blended in highly productive and diverse ways, often for no other apparent purpose than conveying “cool” conviviality in online communities (cf. Blommaert 2015; Varis & Blommaert 2015). A particular line from Rodger’s “Day of Retribution” video became emblematic in such memes: “I am the perfect gentleman”. Figure 1 illustrates this.



Figure 1: Elliot Rodger “Gentleman” meme. Source:  (20 November 2017)

Other memes poked fun of Rodger’s materialism and naiveté in dating girls,[13] and still others simply copied elements from Rodger’s manifesto and circulated it as a serious, instructional message, as in Figure 2.



Figure 2: Elliot Rodger text-quote meme. Source:

(22 November 2017)

There is nothing exceptional to all this: memes can find their sources in nearly all and any event or aspect of life, so choosing a high-profile and heavily publicized incident as the object of memes is self-evident. The point is, however, that Rodger was directly influenced by specific sources and operated within existing templates when he committed his acts; but that he also became a format after the act. He and his killings became cultural material either providing legitimacy or rejecting his logic of action. In the present economies of knowledge and information, online infrastructures provide a colossal discursive overlay upon the more conventional news reporting.

Naturally, there was no shortage of uptake of the Isla Vista killings in the Manosphere, and this uptake was ambivalent. In discussions on Manosphere platforms, men condemned Rodger for being a “loser” while others praised him as a hero, as in Figure 3.


Figure 3: screenshot of Manosphere discussion on Elliot Rodger. Source:  (20 November 2017)

The interesting thing, however, is how the figure of Elliot Rodger became entirely absorbed in the ideological structures of the Manosphere. One of these structures is sketched by Angela Nagle as follows:

“One of the dominant and consistent preoccupations running through the forum culture of the Manosphere is the idea of beta and alpha males. They discuss how women prefer alpha males and either cynically use or completely ignore beta males, by which they mean low-ranking males in the stark and vicious social hierarchy through which they interpret all human interaction.” (Nagle 2017: 89)

The Manosphere itself is split between alpha- and beta-male camps, and beta-males are usually encouraged either to turn themselves into alpha-males, or altogether reject (and possibly destroy) that world of male-female relationships (cf. Schoonen et al 2017; Vivenzi et al. 2017). The beta males, obviously, are the victims of a world in which women choose alpha males, and the label is shorthand for an entire system of rationalizations of unhappiness, involuntary celibacy, loneliness and revenge.

If we now return to Rodger’s manifesto using Nagle’s description of alpha and beta males, it is overly clear that Rodger self-identified as a beta male, a victim of a society in which women – way too independent and manipulating as they were, in his view – consistently ignored him in favor of more brutal, muscular and rugged types of (alpha) men. The latter, whom Rodger saw as stupid and naïve because they walked into the traps set out for them by women, also became his enemies, and eventually his victims during his Day of retribution. This act of uncompromising beta-masculine ideological rectitude turned Rodger into some kind of icon of the beta male camp, as we can see in Figure 4:


Figure 4: Elliot Rodger the beta male meme. Source:  (20 November 2017)

And within the Manosphere, he became a template of such till-death-do-us-part rectitude, important enough to have his acronym “ER” included in the glossary of Sluthate (the renamed successor of[14] Rodger’s figure indexes a radical, even extremist position which can be copied (as a template) by others. Smits et al (2017), for instance, describe the interactions of a man nicknamed “About2GoER” on Sluthate. The name signals intimate identification with “ER” (Elliot Rodger), and suggests a similar path of future action to that taken by “ER” (“about to go”). About2GoER “states that he rather wants to be with ‘slayers that are funny’ than ‘faggots that want the world to feel sorry for him’” (Smits et al. 2017) and is aggressive and extravagantly offensive, even by the quite impressive standards of Sluthate.

To sum up and conclude the analysis of the Elliot Rodger case: we have seen how his actions were “formatted”, so to speak, on the basis of sources and templates he had learned and developed in the online-offline world of the Manosphere, games and other forms of popular culture; and we have seen how his line of action, in turn, became part of the cultural material informing and providing action templates for others. Such templates provide a logic of action in which experiences, knowledge, feelings and aspirations are brought in line, so to speak, in a way that plausibly motivates specific lines of action. In the case of Rodger, the templates he had learned and developed converted loneliness and unhappiness into a strong and ideologically structured sense of victimhood – an identity of “victim”- which in turn, logically, motivated the extremely violent, destructive revenge on those whom he considered to be the perpetrators of the “crimes” that made him lonely and unhappy. We see here, in many ways, a classic instance of what Raymond Williams (1977) famously called “structures of feeling”: seemingly incoherent reactions and responses to experienced social realities that gradually become “structured” by ideological framings provided by similar feelings articulated by others. In the process, we witness the emerging of individual and collective identity categories (“victims”, “beta males”) and commonly ratified (“normal”) lines of action, which can now be ideologically rationalized as “the truth”. Rodger, in short, operated within the “culture” of the beta males – a culture of victimhood and resentment – and he took this cultural logic to its limits.

  1. Conclusion: the ludic formatting of online-offline social life

I now must take one step back, away from the concrete (and admittedly harrowing) case of Elliot Rodger, and explain how “outsiders” such as Rodger can inform us on more widespread social phenomena and processes. And we need to recall Blumer’s thesis, quoted earlier: what I have surveyed in the case of Rodger are, in essence, forms and patterns of social interaction forming human conduct, not just reflecting or expressing it. If we add George Herbert Mead’s view to this, such forms of interaction also form (not just reflect or express) who we are – our “minds”:

“We must regard mind, then, as arising and developing within the social process, within the empirical matrix of social interactions.” (Mead: 1934: 133)

In a slightly overstated rephrasing of Mead’s point, we could say that who and what people are is a residue of the totality of social interactions they engaged in over their lives, and specific aspects of who and what people are will be the residue of specific kinds of social interaction. Analytically, then, the crux of the matter is to understand the precise nature of these interactions. And this is where we need to engage with the peculiarities of the new online-offline communicative worlds we presently inhabit.[15]

We know a few things already – though not many. Identity work has acquired an outspoken level of fragmentation and mobility, something that can be imagined as “chronotopic”, in which different resources and normative behavior templates (“microhegemonies”) need to be deployed in specific TimeSpace configurations (cf Blommaert & Varis 2015). The elaborate identity repertoires needed for adequate levels of integration in this ever-expanding field of identity work requires permanent learning and re-learning work, and most online environments can be empirically described as “communities of knowledge”: chronotopes in which specific identity resources can be formed, learned and policed (cf. Blommaert 2018, chapter 4).

We also know that such communities – even if they operate as real communities, including forms of leadership and authority, normative behavioral scripts and levels of integration – are open, undemanding and flexible when it comes to membership, and that older conceptions of what it means to be a member impede a precise understanding of the actual forms of attachment developing between individuals and groups. The Manosphere is a case in point: even if men can be regular visitors and contributors to Manosphere forums, and attach great importance to interactions on these forums (as did, apparently, Elliot Rodger), the community does not have the robust and perennial structure of, say, a trade union or a sports team. As Smits et al (2017) showed, outspoken dissidence and even hostility are (even if grudgingly) tolerated, and as Vivenzi et al (2017) demonstrated, people can enter and leave as they wish.

So how do we imagine the specific forms of social interaction within such “light” communities of knowledge? Let us turn to a, perhaps, unexpected and counterintuitive (and rarely visited) corner of social thought.

In his classic Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga emphasized what he saw as an important counterpoint to Weber’s rationalization drive in Modernity: the playful character of many social, cultural and political practices. In our tendency to organize societies along rational management patterns, Huizinga insisted, we risked losing sight of the fact that much of what people do is governed by an irrational logic, a ludic pattern of action. Even more, much of what we see as the rational organization of societies is grounded, in fact, in play (Huizinga 2014: 5).

Huizinga (2014: 7-14) lists several features of “play”. I shall select a number of them.

  • (i) Play is significant: it is a site of meaning-making in which “something is at play”;
  • (ii) it is, at the same time a voluntary activity often experienced as a site of personal freedom;
  • (iii) it is relatively unregulated and unconstrained by established rules and forms of control (distinguishing “play” from a “game” such as chess or poker);
  • (iv) it is an authentic activity in which we observe the unconstrained “playing out” of the self; it outside the range of what is commonly seen as “useful” or “effective” (it is done “just for fun”);
  • (v) it is enclosed in the sense that it often requires a particular spatiotemporal organization different from that of other activities; and finally,
  • (vi) given all the previous characteristics, it is also a serious activity demanding focus, intensity and skill, and it has an inevitable aspect of learning to it.

Two remarks are in order. One, with respect to the characteristic of authenticity (iv above), it must be underscored that it is perfectly normal to play someone else while expressing some essential “self”. In fact, forms of play in which roles are assumed by players, masks or other garments are worn or names are being changed for the duration of the event are found everywhere. In the online world it suffices to think of highly developed communities such as those of cosplay and gaming to see the point; but think also of the widespread use of aliases or nicknames on social media platforms. Just as we can distinguish a Foucaultian “care of the self” in various forms of play, we see a “care of the selfie” in online play as well (cf Li & Blommaert 2017). In Rodger’s case, we saw plenty of such impersonations, and we saw plenty of hard work invested in the “care of the selfie”: the elaborate aesthetics of his manifesto and his videos, for instance.

Two, with respect to (v) above – Huizinga’s requirement of spatiotemporal “isolation” for play – we can emphasize the chronotopic nature of ludic practices. Play is often reserved for, and reliant upon, restricted and elaborately organized TimeSpace configurations. Think of a “play room”, “playground” or “play corner”, of “holiday” and “leisure” as segmented TimeSpace configurations reserved for ludic activities, but also of current expressions such as “quality time” or “me time” (a segment of time spent on ludic, non-work activities). Observe, by the way, the strong moral ring of such terms: they refer to things we absolutely need and value highly; denial of such things is often perceived as unacceptable. In online activities, the TimeSpace configuration is present as well, and relatively undemanding in addition: we need an individual and an online device, and little more is required. Which is why “spending time behind your computer” is often perceived as “asocial” or “individualistic”: we perceive an individual alone with his/her device, who is deeply involved, of course, with a community not sharing the physical TimeSpace but very much present and active in the “virtual” one. In Rodger’s case, we saw how the perception of offline social awkwardness bypassed his intense engagement with online and popular culture communities “below the radar”, including those of the Manosphere. And we saw the pervasive effect of these forms of separated, enclosed forms of involvement on his “mind” (to use the Meadian term here).

If we now take Huizinga’s characteristics and apply them to the “light” forms of membership in online communities, we see a potential for application – perhaps not to all forms of online membership but to many of them. We can see how attachment to online groups is not (in a great many instances) conditioned by permanent, heavily ordered, policed and “total” involvement – one does not have to become an expert in, say, advanced Barbecue techniques just by visiting Barbecue-focused websites or forums, and one does not have to participate in all events on a cosplay forum in order to be a “member”. One can also enter and participate on such online platforms without subscribing to the full range of norms, expectations and cultural premises prevailing there, and one can articulate one’s participation in terms of very different intentions and desired outcomes than the next person. An online gaming forum is not a school, even if we find organized and tightly observed learning practices on the online gaming forum too. It turns the gaming forum into a ludic learning environment in which different forms of knowledge practice are invited, allowed and ratified. Such practices – precisely – are “light” ones too – think of “phatic” expressions of attachments such as the retweet on Twitter and the “likes” on Facebook: knowledge practices not necessarily experienced as such, and rather more frequently seen as “just for fun”. And capable, in that sense, of generating “structures of feeling” shared among participants in the community.

But do note Huizinga’s final characteristic: ludic practice is serious practice. The relatively “light”, mobile and flexible features of online communities do not prevent intense and profoundly focused forms of attachment. The experience of freedom and authenticity, and the absence of obvious “normal” forms of usefulness and efficiency might, on the contrary, precisely contribute to the sometimes phenomenal investments made by members in their attachments to such groups. There is a degree of intimacy evolving from ludic practices (including the “phatic” ones just mentioned): people make friends while playing, because play enables them to show their “authentic” self, to show the “truth” about themselves.[16] Here, once more, are the “structures of feeling”: something is genuinely shared and constructed through such ludic forms of practice, and this sharedness is experienced as important and formative.

It is formative of strong normative templates, as we have seen in the case of Rodger. What he learned and developed in his online-offline enclosed communities of knowledge was a strongly normative (“normal”) sense of being and of action – a logic of action, as I called it earlier, or a “culture”. Rodger derived from his engagement in those communities an absolute certainty about his identity as a victim of a world that conspired to steal away his (sexually focused) happiness, and enough of a commitment to take this logic of action to its very end. And in so doing, he, in turn, contributed templates of thought, action and identity to other members of that community – his use of available formats contributed to a further solidification of these formats.

This is quite something in the way of social effect. Extreme cases of “outsiders” such as Elliot Rodger should alert us to the powerful “cultural” effects of the new online-offline worlds we inhabit, and for which, presently, we only have diminutive terms: “virtual” or “light” communities engaging in “playful” forms of attachment. The very lightness of these terms must encourage us to critically re-examine them, time and time again.


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[1] ICD 2017 is shorthand for the 2017 class in my “Individuals and Collectives in the Digital Age” course at Tilburg University, with whom I explored the issues documented in this text. I am deeply grateful to all of them: Marissa Backx, Ruben Bastiaanse, Inge Beekmans, Norman Cai, Ashna Coster, Dennis de Clerck, Gabriela De la Vega, Jan Dijsselbloem, Lennart Driessen, Hannah Fransen, Boudewijn Henskens, Daria Kholod, Thi Phuong Anh Nguyen, Dianne Parlevliet, Saskia Peters, Jonathan Raa, William Schaffels, Agotha Schnell, Maud Schoonen, Laura Smits, Eva Stein Veeneman, Anne-Marie Sweep, Madelinde van der Jagt, Meauraine van Gorp, Megan van Meer, Laura Vivenzi, Natalia Wijayanti , Noura Yacoubi, Zhifang Yu, Linming Zheng.

[2] This is the point of departure of Blommaert (2018), and this paper is part of the larger Durkheim and the Internet project. Evidently, the observation is not new, and I let myself be profoundly inspired by, among others, early visionary texts such as those of Castells (1996) and Appadurai (1996).

[3] The manifesto is an unnumbered 141-page document; in what follows, consequently, I cannot provide page number for the fragments I shall use. The full text is available in original form on As we shall see further below, writing a manifesto is in itself part of a format for such forms of crime. Probably the most famous instance of the format was the 1515-page long 2083: A European declaration of Independence by Norwegian mass-murdered Anders Breivik, 2011. See

[4] Several of these clips can still be viewed on YouTube. His “Day of Retribution” clip can be viewed (with parental guidance) here: See also Rodger’s profile on Criminal Minds Wiki:

[5] See this excellent article for a detailed account of Elliot Rodger’s life:



[8] Langman’s (2016a) review of half a century of college shootings in the US shows a dramatic increase of such incidents since the turn of the century, an era coinciding with the generalized introduction of the Internet as a household commodity. Harris and Klebold, we can note, were both active on online platforms in the peripheries of the Web. We cannot make categorical statements here, of course, but the Elliot Rodger case shows a direct influence of these new popular-cultural infrastructures on the formatting of his killing spree.



[11] See Langman (2009; 2016c) for an analysis of Eric Harris’ motives and personality; Langman’s remarkable website contains original documents related to school shooters including Harris and Klebold, and it is helpful to look at the similarities across cases after the Columbine incident. A full analysis of these documents is beyond the scope of this paper. For a sober analysis of public multi-victim shootings in the Us, one can consult the FBI report examining incidents between 2003 and 2013: file:///C:/Users/c/Downloads/(U)_ActiveShooter021317_17B_WEB.PDF

[12] See On Criminal Minds Wiki, a clear parallel is drawn between Cho’s and Rodger’s shooting formats:

[13] See for an example

[14] See

[15] What follows is based on Blommaert (2017).

[16] This explains the very widespread genre of “confession” on social media. Confession, as Foucault (2003) observed, is a veridictional genre, a genre of truth-speaking in which an uninhibited self communicates fundamental truths to other uninhibited selves. Elliot Rodger’s manifesto and videos are, evidently, veridictional genres. And the density of “confessions” on the Manosphere is documented in Vivenzi et al (2017) and Beekmans et al (2017).

The care of the selfie

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The Care of the Selfie

Ludic chronotopes of baifumei in online China

Li Kunming & Jan Blommaert

Introduction: from the self to the selfie

In online-offline societies, both zones of social life offer specific affordances, some of which are compatible or complementary, and some of which are overlapping and conflictual.[1]Theorizing this new kind of social system is a task that still awaits the full efforts of a large scholarly community; consequently, much of the theory currently used for addressing new social phenomena draws on mainstream views designed to cope with pre-Internet societies (but see Castells, 1996; Appadurai, 1996; van Dijck, 2013; Blommaert, 2017b). In what follows, we intend to document the ways in which online infrastructures in China offer affordances for chronotopic identity work not otherwise available in offline contexts. More specifically, we shall describe the practices of young Chinese women designing and marketing imageries of feminine beauty and attractiveness on social media. While describing these phenomena, we also intend to sketch a conceptual framework for addressing such forms of online practice. The latter, we believe, is necessary, for online social practices display features that may be similar to more common offline forms of social conduct, but may still deviate in crucial ways.

It is due to such deviations that online infrastructures offer specific, complementary affordances to users, and these affordances need to be described by means of a conceptual vocabulary that does not reduce online forms of social action to their offline near-equivalents. The key issue in what follows is that of identity, broadly taken. There has been, and still is, a strong tendency, both in expert and lay discourse, to describe online identity work as “virtual” (with connotations of “fake”) and as opposed to offline “real” identity work (see e.g.,Indalecia, 2010; also Adrian, 2008). The point we must take on board right from the start is that identity work in online context is as “real” as the work we observe in offline contexts, and that we need to be far more precise and specific in describing the peculiarities of online identity work. We can follow the tradition of Mead (1934) here, who emphasized that every social context demands specific forms of organization of the self, and add the fundamental insight of Erving Goffman (1959) that any form of identity is an outcome of “dramaturgical” performance work and is thus, in a sense, “ludic” (Blommaert, 2017a). Thus, what we encounter in the Chinese online contexts we will examine is as “real” a performance as any other, and we should focus on the specific nature of that kind of performance and the conditions under which it can happen.

These conditions are, as we know, determined by the technology that defines the online world. Conditions for online social interaction do not include the physical co-presence in a closed and synchronized TimeSpace arrangement characterizing, for instance, ordinary offline conversations. In that sense, these conditions exclude direct physical (tactile) contact between interlocutors, as well as the mutual monitoring access to the interlocutors’ bodies – that crucial reservoir of knowledge of the self and the other in interaction, on which Goffman focused so much of his attention.[2] In return, technologically mediated interactions such as the kinds we shall discuss offer a number of very different affordances. The specific set of affordances we shall discuss here revolve around the design and construction of an artefactualized, technologically mediated representation of the self. As a shorthand for these affordances, and paraphrasing Foucault (1986), we shall use “the care of the selfie”: an elaborate complex of “ludic” practices aimed at constructing and performing a specifically online (and more specifically small-screen) “image of personality” in which usually three different elements have to be carefully created and maintained:[3]

  • an avatar: an online name often containing significant clues as to the particular image of personality offered in interaction;
  • carefully doctored pictures or video-streamed images of the selfie;
  • specific online interactional scripts to be observed in contacts with audiences.

We shall see that when such rules are observed, a specific chronotopic environment emerges within which highly sophisticated forms of identity work can be interactionally performed, in ways that have no equivalent in the Chinese offline social spheres. Let us now turn to the case itself.

Becoming baifumei by refusing it

The term baifumei has over the past number of years developed from online slang to a very widespread term in Chinese popular and media culture, pointing towards a particular “type” of Chinese woman (Li, Spotti & Kroon, 2014). The compound baifumei (白富美) was coined by internet users out of three Chinese lexemes, namely bai白, fu富and mei美. Each of these three constituent lexemes has a range of related meanings and discursive figures, grounded in Chinese tradition (as shown in Table 1). When used to describe people, especially women, bai primarily refers to the whiteness of one’s skin; fu to a great amount of wealth in one’s possession; and mei to an attractive appearance.

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Thus, baifumei identifies a woman who is attractive in a highly specific way (the white skin is critical) and who is, in addition, financially well-off. The connection between beauty and wealth brings a degree of moral ambivalence to the label due to the suggestion of prostitution or related forms of conversion of female attractiveness into money.  In addition, the label is easily associated with an extravagant, luxurious and mercenary lifestyle. The caricature in Figure 1 features a stereotypical baifumei: a beautiful woman with a slim figure, fair skin, well-developed breasts and an elaborate hairstyle, obsessive about her looks and indulging in shopping sprees, buying piles of handbags of the big brands.

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Figure 1: A caricature of a baifumei girl (source:, last access in January 2014)

This potentially threatening ambivalence notwithstanding, baifumei has been adopted by large numbers of Chinese women as a model of self-presentation in online contexts. It has become, in other words, a model for the care of the selfie, approximations of which may result in “authentic” baifumei membership. This authenticity needs to be designed (in the sense of Kress, 2010) by drawing on the available resources, perceived as contributing to that kind of authenticity, and in very precise and particular ways specific to the online contexts in which it must be performed.[1] According to Blommaert and Varis (2011, p. 144), identity practices are “discursive orientations towards sets of features that are (or can be) seen as emblematic”. In this sense, to be considered as an authentic baifumei, one has to comply with the semiotic array of features and discursive practices that leads to “enough” baifumei identity features – not too little and not too much. To get close to such level of enoughness and with that of authenticity, one needs to have a good control on the dose of “enoughness” that ought to be perpetually adjusted, reinvented and amended (Blommaert & Varis, 2011). And women aspiring to the baifumei label use specific online contexts for testing, developing and improving their identity performances.

One such online context, and a quite popular one, is the “Baifumei Bar” forum on the online platform Baidu Tieba (see Li, Spotti & Kroon, 2014; Li, 2018). On this “Baifumei Bar” forum, baifumei authenticity needs to be played out visibly and is constantly subject to its audience’s (both male and female) interactional assessment of the performed “selfie”. The selfie, as we have seen, consists of a stage name, a doctored visual image, and carefully scripted interactional behavior. The latter is achieved by balancing two major categories of discursive moves: “affiliating acts” and “distancing acts”. The performance of baifumei often begins with a distancing act and a self-denial as a baifumei person. However, underneath this initial distancing move and others that may follow, affiliating acts are implicitly articulated. A concrete example will show this.

We shall look at the profile of a woman called *fang[2]; in September 2014,Li (2018) noticed her top-ranked post in the baifumei bar, with 6578 replies up to the time of this contribution.[3]The post was headlined as follows:

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As we can see, *fang straightforwardly denies being a baifumei, explaining she is just a selfie lover. Let us now take a look at these selfies. The headline is followed by the three pictures included in Figure 2:[1]

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Figure 2: Three photos posted by *fang (source:白富美, last access on 10 August, 2015)

The choice and the visual architecture of the pictures are deliberate. Picture A in Figure 2 reproduces a screenshot of *fang’s iPhone lock screen, backgrounded by a close-up photo of her. Compared with the selfie in a dim-lit bedroom in photo B, *fang’s skin tone in A is much paler. While different from the half-length portrait in A, *fang in B displays her sartorial skills: a red blouse, patterned shorts, a bracelet and red high-heel shoes. C is a photo taken in a BMW car, a stereotypical emblem of wealth, not just in China. Observe that the driver in photo C is a man: *fang’s boyfriend and the owner of the car, as later confessed by *fang. The photos are designed in a well-ordered sequence from A to C, in which the attributes of being bai (fair-skinned), fu (wealthy) and mei (beautiful) are highlighted one after another. This clue unveils *fang’s “backstage preparation” (in Goffman’s words) towards baifumei authentication. Observe also how the self-disqualification of baifumei in her opening line is instantly contradicted by the “grammar of visual design” in the three photos (Kress & van Leeuwen,2001).

On the second étage of her post,[1] *fang wrote the following:

ScreenHunter_742 Nov. 22 10.46

With a departure from the baifumei-affiliating act in Figure 2, *fang here disclaims her intention of wanting-to-be-baifumei: her updates should be merely seen as a realistic documentary of her daily life. She suggests challengers to save their malicious remarks and leave her profile space. This, if interpreted in Goffman’s terms, is an example of dramaturgical circumspection, in which a prior warning serves as a defensive measure and a safeguard. In the above two examples, *fang’s stance toward baifumei develops from the initial pronounced ‘distancing’ to a covert graphical ‘affiliating’ and then to the ‘distancing’ again. The orderly and multimodal stance pattern can be understood as the “line”, as used by Goffman (1967), to address the pattern of verbal and nonverbal acts that a person takes in a communicative event. The line is dynamic and, as in *fang’s case, is maneuvered constantly and strategically for appropriate impression management.

After the opening, we have seen in Example 2, the post thread continued and got both positive and negative comments. *fang often dismissed compliments and found a way out of the less commonplace challenges. On the 97th étage, a man (called Male A here) interacted with *fang as follows:

ScreenHunter_743 Nov. 22 10.46

In this example, by using the online register term “逆袭 (ni xi)”[1], Male A shows his aspiration to conquer a baifumei girlfriend or marry a baifumei girl. This obviously refers to *fang, and we can see that Male A identified *fang as a baifumei, in spite of her systematic disclaimers. *fang replies with a sweating-face emoticon which allows her to avoid a direct positioning: *fang could either feel overwhelmed or embarrassed by Male A’s words. Then Male A repeats his request and gets refused. The refusal is a reply made to Male A’s befriending (or marriage) request but does not directly rebuts his allusion to *fang’s baifumei identity. We see the play of affiliating and distancing acts at work here: disguised as a refusal, *fang tacitly got confirmed as a baifumei girl.

Then on the 348th étage, the following communication happened between *fang and another man (called Male B here):

ScreenHunter_744 Nov. 22 10.47

On this étage, *fang identifies with Male B as a diaosi (屌丝, literally “penis hair” and figuratively “loser”),[1] distancing herself from the covert baifumei identity established on the 97th étage. However, *fang’s self-identification with diaosi fluctuates. In one of her posts, she once became outraged at a boy who had described her to as a diaosi. Hence, *fang’s self-identification with diaosi here is, to a large extent, a tactic aimed to establish a rapport with Male B.It is a form of self-belittling in Goffman’s terms, in which one’s own positive qualities are deliberately underplayed: “if a person knows that his modesty will be answered by others’ praise of him, he can fish for compliments” (Goffman, 1967, p. 24).

Seen from the above examples, *fang’s “line” is changeable and context-adaptive, from the initial distancing in the headline to the affiliating in her photo arrangement, and then distancing once more, with another affiliating act following. However, the line*fang takes is not in any way a consecutive distancing-affiliating sequence. What emerges prominently and importantly from the data is that *fang never makes her affiliating acts obvious, overt and pronounced. By contrast, she shows her distancing in a clear and assertive way. Although *fang did sometimes face questions about her true motives from critical participants, her dramaturgical circumspections and performed modesty won her a widely ratified baifumei identity, as attributed by men. It is an interactional achievement, resulting from highly skilled and flexible, “ludic” performance practices.

The ludic economy of baifumei

The practices performed by *fang are entirely conditioned by the technological environment in which she performs them: an online forum explicitly designed for and devoted to baifumei identity work. They are, in that environment, entirely “normal” – an expected behavioral script that demands careful performance, and in which participants draw on available cultural and technological resources for adequate outcomes. Such practices are, consequently, chronotopic in the full sense of the term (Blommaert & Varis, 2015; Blommaert & De Fina, 2016). The chronotope, however, is not a closed TimeSpace constellation: it draws on cultural materials that have their origins in older traditions and organize conduct in a variety of social spheres.

The careful play of distancing and affiliating acts performed by *fang is a case in point.Modesty is highly valued as a traditional virtue of China. “Virtue” is called mei de (美德lit. beautiful moral) in Chinese. With the same ‘mei(美) (beautiful) as in ‘baifumei’ (白富), mei de indexes the general beauty of a person. Chinese people are, in many contexts, expected to understate their personal accomplishments rather than speak highly of their own merits. So, a woman’s modesty, if recognized, will be related to the Chinese virtue and add weight to the “enoughness” of the baifumei identity.

A very similar interplay between cultural tradition and new online technological affordances can be observed in the second case we examine here: the performance of baifumei on Zhibo (直播, literally “online live-streaming”). By June 2016, there were about 325 million livestreaming users in China, accounting for nearly a half of the Chinese total netizen’s population (CNNIC, 2016). Across about 200 livestreaming platforms (iiMedia Research, 2016), there are 4 million participants (both hosts and watchers) simultaneously present in about 3000 livestreaming rooms at peak times. And one extraordinarily popular form of live-streaming involves baifumei women performing forms of online flirting and intimacy with male audiences, who, in return, donate “gifts”. In contrast with the static images and texts we observed on Baifumei Bar, we are facing moving real-time images and interactions here.

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Figure 3: User interfaces of Yizhibo, Yingke and Momo (source:;;, last access on 14 December, 2016)

Such performances occur within a technologically circumscribed arena, enabling certain forms of interaction while constraining or excluding others. Almost all major internet companies in China have launched such livestreaming services, and the actual shapes of the interfaces are quite similar. Yizhibo (一直播), Yingke (映客) and Momo (陌陌), three of the most influential livestreaming platforms in China, look alike in their user interface layouts. More specifically, all of them have the status zone (marked as No. 1 in Figure 3) at the top, hostesses’ performing zone at the center (No. 2), the threading of viewers’ messages at the left lower part (No. 4) and the viewers’ operation zone at the bottom (No. 5). The homogeneous interface designs and livestreaming technological frameworks have resulted in severe competition between different livestreaming service providers in China. The success of each depends much on how many excellent hosts they can manage to attract. One such highly successful host, active on Yizhibo, is called Dongbei Wuxue.

Dongbei Wuxue (东北污雪) is a top-ranking “talkshow” hostess on Yizhibo. As mentioned earlier, the avatar or screen name used in selfie performances is of importance, so let us first examine the name. Dongbei (东北, literally “north east”) explicitly refers to a regional background, widely seen as “peripheral” in China, and incidentally also showing the largest number of female live-stream hostesses.Wu (污), a Chinese adjective which literally means “polluted” and “dirty” is put in juxtaposition with xue(雪), the “snow”, which is generally considered to be pure (as it is white) in Chinese culture. As a screen name, DongbeiWuxue’soffers layers of inferential meaning and suggests a sense of cynicism and dark humor, matched by DongbeiWuxue’s dramatic, stylized and entertaining speech style. These characteristics prove to be effective. At the time of data collection on 11 December 2016, Dongbei Wuxue had already harvested 79,000 followers and earned 37,059,600 credits on Yizhibo, which amounts to 370,596 RMB (approximately 47,269 Euros) through 53 broadcasts within 46 days.[1]DongbeiWuxue’s income is about 54 times the average national income per capita. She is a highly successful baifumei entrepreneur who employs several assistants in her business.

As we have seen, the interface of Yizhibo is characterized by a multimodal design, which is meant to be interactive and spontaneously responsive to ongoing communications during livestreaming. The essential structure is: a female hostess interacts with an online (male) audience, members of which can send messages and offer “gifts” to the hostess, all of which is publicly visible. These gifts are shown as symbols on the screen but, converted by the platform, represent real money income for the hostesses. First let us have a close look at the interface design of Yizhibo as shown in Figure 4.

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Figure 4: The Yizhibo livestreaming interface design for Dongbei Wuxue (source: Yizhibo iOS application, last access on 9 January, 2017)

We now begin to understand the features of the specific chronotope of livestreaming female-male interactions. With all those multimodal elements in motion and interaction with each other, the message flow in the livestreaming is dialogical and responsive to ongoing communications. When new messages pop up, previous messages will immediately move up on the user interface and recede out of the audience’s vision. Given that online livestreaming rooms are often crowded with viewers, new messages from viewers constantly appear, move up and then disappear – all at great speed. But the relative prominence of particular audience members (within the parameters of the system) is made visible. As shown in Figures 3 and 4, the Top Five spenders among the viewers are listed on the top right on the users’ interface, and their prominence is immediately visible to all viewers. The system also includes interactional asymmetry: Dongbei Wuxue as the hostess runs a continuous livestreamed performance in front of an audience, members of which can only communicate with her through text messages and gifting. The audience has no acoustic or visible-tangible presence. Given this exposure discrepancy, apart from text messages, gifting is an important tool for an audience to interact with Dongbei Wuxue.

Gifts occupy a large and central space in the interface design, the very epicenter of the stage, as with the glittering diamond in Figure 4. Gifts are further technologically glorified by triggering an array of enlivening animate effects. And gift senders, especially those sending expensive items, are greatly appreciated by Dongbei Wuxue and more likely to be directly addressed in friendly and intimate ways. Each time after receiving the gift of “love”, which costs 10 RMB (approximately 1 euro), Dongbei Wuxue immediately shows her “love” by air kissing and playing a piece of love music that has been popularized by Feicheng Wurao (非诚勿扰, “If you are the one”), a famous Chinese dating program hosted by Hunan Satellite TV. Figure 5 features Dongbei Wuxue expressing her gratitude for a gift through air kisses while depicting the heart-shaped gesture for “I love you (我爱你)”. This immediate expression of appreciation is orchestrated to a large number of viewers, amplifying the importance of generous gifts and the prominence of those who offer them.

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Figure 5: Dongbei Wuxue’s gestural response to a “love” gift (source: Yizhibo iOS application, retrieved on 9th January 2017)

The gesturing and facial expressions of joy and gratitude are evident. But as we have seen, the system also allows the hostess to directly talk to her audience, while audience members can only respond through text messages. Discursively, such moments of affection are expressed as follows:ScreenHunter_745 Nov. 22 10.48


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As soon as *Re sends in his gifts, Dongbei Wuxue’s attention focuses on him, while interaction with other participants is not entirely interrupted. *Re, however, gets treated to repeated and emphatic verbal and nonverbal expressions of love and intimacy. Such moments of direct address in interaction shape the kind of ludic “imagined togetherness” (Mortensen, 2017) which is a key feature of online flirting, and which is much coveted by male audience members. All of this evolves in the highly specific contours of the online livestreaming chronotope, in which such ludic roles, relationships and practices can be enacted as features of “normal” interactional conduct.

With her slim figure, well-developed breasts and long hair, white-skinned Dongbei Wuxue embodies the baifumei model of feminine “selfie” beauty. She is often scantily clad and as a good jokes teller (more specifically, an excellent teller of risqué jokes), she is good at drawing male audience’s attention. Being energetic, optimistic and talkative, Dongbei Wuxue has excellent social skills to maintain a nice rapport with her audience, including shifts from collective audience address into one-on-one interactions addressing specific audience members in acts of “imagined closeness”. The “selfie” she presents online is a virtuoso one, drawing on a vast repertoire of identity features and characterized by superbly executed performances. An important part of this revolves around handling the gifts from her male audience members.

Different from traditional business and mercantile practices, economic transactions in livestreaming undergo a semiotic “romanticization” process, where the audience’s money spent in showrooms is sugar-coated by a dazzling array of virtual gifts, which serve as cultural proxies that navigate the ambivalences mentioned earlier and reduce the risk of moral condemnations and allegations of prostitution The semiotic representation of the gifts, in particular, avoids the connotation of “payment-for-sex” by calling – in a “ludic” way – on established Chinese traditions of courtesy and hospitality. In China, which is characterized by collectivism and Guanxi, gifting practices are widely seen at all walks of life (see Steidlmeier1999; Luo et al. 2012). Compared to the potentially high cost for offline safe intimacies, the gifting expenses for live-streamed intimacies can be quite low. Hence, emerging livestreaming platforms provide males more chances to communicate with and befriend those desirable hostesses, who are less accessible to most men in their offline lives. For someone like Dongbei Wuxue, the reference to traditional forms of gift-giving enables her to be (sometimes explicitly) erotically appealing to the men, while avoiding the social stigma (and legal sanctions) attached to prostitution. In addition, it enables her to earn an income many times larger than what ‘regular’ offline jobs would offer her.

All of this is made possible by an online technology and its semiotic and interactional affordances. In livestreaming some viewers are willing to pay very substantial sums to buy virtual gifts to please the hostesses they prefer (see Li & Wei, 2017). In return, hostesses conspicuously display their gratefulness for the viewers’ gifting and perform that appreciation to an extent that a big audience can well recognize and glorify the gift sender. All of this, however, stays in the online environment and does not migrate offline: the courtesy of the gift is responded to by means of a dramaturgy of online flirtation. The livestreaming hostesses usually respond more actively, elaborately and intimately to those big spenders, with directly addressed words, facial expressions, body postures and gestures. In other words, with a certain amount of payment in the form of gifting, a viewer can get involved in specific public but intimate genres of interaction, ranging from being mentioned by name to being air-kissed and offered a love confession. Interactional events such as these can only happen in the tightly circumscribed online TimeSpace configurations provided by the Internet applications; and when they happen, they happen according to the normative formats befitting this specific chronotope.

Conclusion: ludic selfie chronotopes

In his classic Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga (1950/2014) emphasized the playful character of many social, cultural and political practices. In our tendency to organize societies along rational management patterns, Huizinga insisted, we risked losing sight of the fact that much of what people do is governed by an irrational logic, a ludic pattern of action. Even more, much of what we see as the rational organization of societies is grounded, in fact, in play. Huizinga (1950/2014, chapter 1) listed several features of “play”. Play is significant, for instance: it is a site of meaning-making in which “something is at play”; it is at the same time relatively unregulated and unconstrained by established rules and forms of control; it is also an authentic activity in which we observe the unconstrained “playing out” of the self; it is an enclosed activity in the sense that it often requires a particular spatiotemporal organization different from that of other activities (a “playground”); and finally, it is also a serious activity demanding focus, intensity and skill (see Blommaert 2017b for a discussion).

We have examined “playgrounds” here – technologically mediated and configured enclosed TimeSpace configurations in which ludic activities revolving around authenticity can be played out. With respect to this authenticity, it must be underscored that it is perfectly normal to play someone else while expressing some essential “self”. In fact, forms of play in which roles are assumed by players, masks or other garments are worn or names are being changed for the duration of the event are found everywhere. In the online world, it suffices to think of highly developed communities such as those of cosplay and gaming to see the point; but think also of the widespread use of aliases or nicknames on social media platforms. Just as we can distinguish a Foucauldian “care of the self” in various forms of play, we see a “care of the selfie” in online play as well. This selfie, we hope to have illustrated, demands forms of knowledge and skill specific to the online chronotopes in which it is presented and performed. We have seen complexes of norms at play in our examples, in which older and established cultural material was blended with the particular affordances of online platforms in such a way that different forms of identity work and male-female relationships could be constructed and enacted in playful ways – by elaborate forms of graphic doctoring of images, delicate forms of interaction and joint choreographies of the body and the features of the online apps. These playful practices are, however, significant and serious, and certainly in our discussion of Dongbei Wuxue’s work, something “was at play” – there was a real, “hard” economic transaction buried within the ludic, frivolous and artful interactional work she performed for her audience, and this transaction takes place in a neoliberal competitive market arena. There is nothing “virtual” to the income she generates through her talk shows, even if the stuff she offers in the transaction is just a “selfie”, a semiotic, immaterial artifact that needs to be meticulously and carefully constructed and checked (as *fang showed us) in order to be ready for economic transaction.

Online identity work and processes of community formation remain poorly understood social facts, often suffering from reductionist interpretations grounded in a pre-Internet sociological imagination. We believe it is helpful to approach the complexities of such new social facts with the help of frameworks such as the one we have attempted to illustrate here. In the cases we have discussed here, we detect traces of significant socio-economic change. The women engaging with the ludic selfie chronotopes offered by Internet providers can enter a labor market and develop economic activities not legitimately accessible, or more strictly policed, in offline spheres of society. Of course, such new economic activities will always look insignificant when measured against the standards of the mammoth Chinese formal economy; at the same time, as we have mentioned earlier, they are not marginal and may constitute more than just symbolic opportunities for people often marginalized in the bigger socio-economic game. This in itself should suffice as a reason to explore phenomena such as these as integral parts of the development of new social systems.


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[1]This paper draws on cases analyzed in Li Kunming’s PhD dissertation (Li, 2018).We are grateful to Sjaak Kroon and Max Spotti for guidance and suggestions throughout the research project, and to Caixia Du, Hou Mingyi, Lu Ying and Ted Nieh for critical discussions on the issues presented in this paper.

[2]Goffman surely was not alone, and contemporary scholarship on social interaction emphasizes the intrinsic fusion of visual, tactile and verbal aspects in communication. See, e.g., Goodwin (2007) and Bezemer & Kress (2014).

[3] For alternative surveys of practices for online self-presentation, see, e.g., Adrian (2008) and boyd (2014).

[1]Kress’s notion of “design” refers to the strategic semiotic work performed by subjects in interaction with others, with particular goals in mind (Kress, 2010, pp. 26-27, italics in original):

“Design meets the interest of the rhetor (…) in full awareness of the communicational potentials of the resources which are available in the environment and needed for the implementation of the rhetor’s interest.”

[2]The Chinese character fang (芳), which etymologically refers to a specific kind of fragrant grasses in ancient China and metaphorically refers to a girl’s desirable appearance,is often used as a girl’s call name in China. In this sense, the screen name is part of the selfie *fang puts on stage.

[3]Data are retrieved at 23:29 on 28 September, 2014 (UTC+1:00, Amsterdam).

[1]Originally, the photos are in a vertical sequence.

[1]Étage or “floor” is often used in Tieba as a simulator to a construction in the offline world. The first post of a thread is called the First Etage and the rest in the same way in a chronological order. An étage can be maintained by others’ replying to it. Changing an étage in Tieba usually means an ending of the previous conversation turn and the beginning of a new one.

[1]The original Chinese term ni xi is a military jargon noun, which literally means “inverse attack”. It has been widely used on Chinese social media in its figurative sense to refer to one’s procurement of life-changing social upward mobility.

[1]The term diaosi is widely used to describe the large groups of people feeling excluded or marginalized in China’s booming socio-economic environment. For more discussion on diaosi, see Yang et al., (2014) and Du, (2016).

[1] Data are retrieved at 14:39:16 on 11 November 2016.



Ludic membership and orthopractic mobilization: On slacktivism and all that.


Jan Blommaert

This short research note is part of the Durkheim and the Internet project and attempts to theorize social phenomena emerging from the online-offline nexus. In what follows, I shall add to earlier steps in the project, specifically those related to “light” groups complementing, in socially relevant ways, the “thick” groups of an earlier Durkheimian-Parsonian sociological tradition (Blommaert 2017).

To recapitulate the earlier argument: in the online-offline nexus, we see a tremendous variety of new groups emerge, from social media networks (think of Facebook “friends”) to more specific topically formed groups (e.g. fandom, brand-focused, lifestyle or foodie communities) (e.g. Maly 2017). In addition, we see how ‘offline’ communities get solidified by means of an extensive online infrastructure, the most crucial function of which appears to revolve around the distribution of knowledge and the organizing of elaborate (even if “light”, i.e. not formalized nor institutionalized) learning practices (Maly & Varis 2015; Blommaert 2016). We observed that such “light” groups display “thick” characteristics: they can migrate offline and deploy powerful forms of activism there, in some instances bordering on what can be called “revolutionary” action (e.g. Costea 2017).

There is a literature that tends to be dismissive of such online-offline forms of activism, calling it, alternately, “clicktivism” or “slacktivism” and distinguishing it clearly from “real” sociopolitical mobilization and activism (e.g. Morozov 2011). I do not intend to frontally attack such dismissive statements; what I wish to do, though, is to offer suggestions for a more nuanced and accurate understanding of such forms of social practice – an attempt at reimagining “slacktivism” if you wish, by pointing to some of its crucial features and providing a theoretical vocabulary to describe and generalize them.

I believe there are two issues that demand attention here. One is the issue of group membership, the other of group mobilization. Both issues have been critical topics of social and political-theoretical debate throughout the twentieth century. In fact, they are key issues in revolutionary theory from Lenin to Gramsci, in democratic theory from Dewey to Habermas, as well as in cultural studies. I cannot go into these historical debates here and shall reserve them for future discussion. In what follows, I must confine myself to sketching the skeleton of a larger theoretical structure on what presently might constitute, in important ways, the morphology of “the public” or “the masses” as a sociologically relevant (and agentive) force.

Ludic forms of attachment

What do we know so far? We know that the online-offline nexus has resulted in the mushrooming of technologically mediated social groups of bewildering diversity and without precedent, best imagined (following Castells’ 1996 early characterization) as “networks” and enabling a vast array of new forms of identity performance and experience (boyd 2011). Identity work has acquired an outspoken level of fragmentation and mobility, something that can be imagined as “chronotopic”, in which different resources and normative behavior templates (“microhegemonies”) need to be deployed in specific TimeSpace configurations. The elaborate identity repertoires needed for adequate levels of integration in this ever-expanding field of identity work requires permanent learning and re-learning work, and most online environments can be empirically described as “communities of knowledge”: chronotopes in which specific identity resources can be formed, learned and policed.

We also know that such communities – even if they operate as real communities, including forms of leadership, normative behavioral scripts and levels of integration – are open, undemanding and flexible when it comes to membership, and that older conceptions of what it means to be a member impede a precise understanding of the actual forms of attachment developing between individuals and groups.

In his classic Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga emphasized what he saw as an important counterpoint to Weber’s rationalization drive in Modernity: the playful character of many social, cultural and political practices. In our tendency to organize societies along rational management patterns, Huizinga insisted, we risked losing sight of the fact that much of what people do is governed by an irrational logic, a ludic pattern of action. Even more, much of what we see as the rational organization of societies is grounded, in fact, in play (Huizinga 2014: 5).

Huizinga (2014, chapter 1) lists several features of “play”. I shall select a number of them.

  1. Play is significant: it is a site of meaning-making in which “something is at play”;
  2. it is, at the same time a voluntary activity often experienced as a site of personal freedom;
  3. it is relatively unregulated and unconstrained by established rules and forms of control (distinguishing “play” from a “game” such as chess or poker);
  4. it is an authentic activity in which we observe the unconstrained “playing out” of the self; it outside the range of what is commonly seen as “useful” or “effective” (it is done “just for fun”);
  5. it is enclosed in the sense that it often requires a particular spatiotemporal organization different from that of other activities; and finally,
  6. given all the previous characteristics, it is also a serious activity demanding focus, intensity and skill, and it has an inevitable aspect of learning to it.

Two remarks are in order. One, with respect to the characteristic of authenticity ((4) above), it must be underscored that it is perfectly normal to play someone else while expressing some essential “self”. In fact, forms of play in which roles are assumed by players, masks or other garments are worn or names are being changed for the duration of the event are found everywhere. In the online world it suffices to think of highly developed communities such as those of cosplay and gaming to see the point; but think also of the widespread use of aliases or nicknames on social media platforms. Just as we can distinguish a Foucaultian “care of the self” in various forms of play, we see a “care of the selfie” in online play as well.

Two, with respect to (5) above – Huizinga’s requirement of spatiotemporal “isolation” for play – we can emphasize the chronotopic nature of ludic practices. Play is often reserved for, and reliant upon, restricted and elaborately organized TimeSpace configurations. Think of a “play room” or a “play corner”, of “holiday” and “leisure” as segmented TimeSpace configurations reserved for ludic activities, but also of current expressions such as “quality time” or “me time” (a segment of time spent on ludic, non-work activities). Observe, by the way, the strong moral ring of such terms: they refer to things we absolutely need and value highly; denial of such things is often perceived as unacceptable. In online activities, the TimeSpace configuration is present as well, and relatively undemanding in addition: we need an individual and an online device, and little more is required. Which is why “spending time behind your computer” is often perceived as “asocial” or “individualistic”: we perceive an individual alone with his/her device, who is deeply involved, of course, with a community not sharing the physical TimeSpace but very much present and active in the “virtual” one.

If we now take Huizinga’s characteristics and apply them to the “light” forms of membership in online communities, we see a potential for application – perhaps not to all forms of online membership but to many of them. We can see how attachment to online groups is not (in a great many instances) conditioned by permanent, heavily ordered, policed and “total” involvement – one does not have to become an expert in, say, advanced Barbecue techniques just by visiting Barbecue-focused websites or fora, and one does not have to participate in all events on a cosplay forum in order to be a “member”. One can also enter and participate on such online platforms without subscribing to the full range of norms, expectations and cultural premises prevailing there, and one can articulate one’s participation in terms of very different intentions and desired outcomes than the next person. An online gaming forum is not a school, even if we find organized and tightly observed learning practices on the online gaming forum too. It turns the gaming forum into a ludic learning environment in which different forms of knowledge practice are invited, allowed and ratified. Such practices – precisely – are “light” ones too – think of “phatic” expressions of attachments such as the retweet on Twitter and the “likes” on Facebook: knowledge practices not necessarily experienced as such, and rather more frequently seen as “just for fun”.

Note Huizinga’s final characteristic: ludic practice is serious practice. The relatively “light”, mobile and flexible features of online communities do not prevent intense and profoundly focused forms of attachment. The experience of freedom and authenticity, and the absence of obvious “normal” forms of usefulness and efficiency might, on the contrary, precisely contribute to the sometimes phenomenal investments made by members in their attachments to such groups. There is a degree of intimacy evolving from ludic practices (including the “phatic” ones just mentioned): people make friends while playing, because play enables them to show their “authentic” self.[1]This brings us to the next point.

Orthopractic mobilization

With the image of ludic membership, we may have somewhat softened the attribute of “slacktivism” attached to forms of online mobilization. We are not seeing “traditional” groups in action here, but a ludic form of group attachment in which intentions, functions and outcomes may differ greatly, in spite of joined (and strongly experienced) focus of attention and intense learning. It is the nature of such forms of membership that excludes, I believe, traditional notions of “hegemony” as the engine driving individuals to mass action. Such forms of hegemony presuppose levels of organization, leadership, and ultimately of rationality in planning and approach, none of which can be expected in ludic online communities of knowledge.

Yet, considering these moments where online activity went hand in hand with mass offline action – think of the Romanian “revolution” documented by Costea (2017), or of the millions of people taking to the streets in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris (carrying “je Suis Charlie” banners and badges), mass mobilization is not just possible, but possible on a rarely observed scale as well. Hashtag activism is not the Holy Grail of new politics, but it is not an impotent thing either.

In order to grasp its potency, we need to introduce two elements. One: structures of feeling. Rather than the full-blown ideologies, fully understood and shared by the masses in the Gramscian tradition, online-offline mass mobilization might rely on what Raymond Williams (1977) called “structures of feeling”: inchoate mass-shared understandings of a moral/aesthetic kind translated into political reactions. Online resources offer an incredible potential for the ultra-fast sharing of sentiments, instant reactions to events, images and symbols. Those reactions can suffice to bring people out in the street, certainly when they can be generalized to broad passe partout feelings of fear, injustice or fairness.

If we accept this first element, a second one is straightforward. I suggest that we see such forms of online-offline mass mobilization as moments of “orthopractic” mobilization. The term “orthopraxy” is here borrowed from James C. Scott (1990), and refers to a display of ideological agreement not necessarily accompanied by full ideological endorsement. By absence of a full-blown ideology in online mobilization, what appears to be shared is a “common sense” – a common reaction to events easily formatted into mass-shared templates of expression: the use of banners, symbols and slogans often backed up by hashtags (“Je Suis Charlie”), mass marches and rallies, silent wakes, flowers and candlelight displays, and so forth.

The formatted character of such moments of mass action makes them “orthopractic”: people perform the restricted sets of rituals articulating structures of feeling, the codes and templates of which are often produced and distributed online. It thus becomes a mass form of “quality time” – an enclosed moment of shared authenticity, recognizable play and moral valuations to which one attends intensely and with great doses of sincerity. And while the online actions usually largely survive the offline ones, the moments of offline mobilization are impressive as well as politically significant, the more since such moments of mobilization often have a grassroots, “from below”, spontaneous and therefore unexpected nature. The mass mobilization across the EU in the summer of 2015 in favor of a more generous approach towards refugees, for instance, caught the governments by surprise and led, in some instances, to a lasting and well organized transnational solidarity movement.

Reimagination once more

The online-offline nexus produces new forms of social relationships and practices, new forms of cultural performance, and new political formats of action as well. More traditional modes of political organization – political parties, trade unions and so forth – still exist, but their capacity for mass mobilization (based on fixed and permanent membership, full subscription to a program, recognition of leadership structures etc.) is a permanent source of concern for them, while it is still considered to be a major factor of political legitimacy (and thence, of power). Such traditional modes stand, thus, in an uneasy relationship with the new forms of mobilization discussed here. The masses still take to the street, and do so in huge numbers, but not necessarily as a response to the call from parties or unions.

In describing these different forms of group attachment and mobilization I had to draw on two terms carrying, in common parlance, rather negative connotations. The “ludic” is often seen in opposition to the “serious” business of sociopolitical organization and governance. And “orthopraxy” is often seen as a fake form of ideological alignment, a “pretending to” and “doing as if” one subscribes to a political program or ideology. The same goes for the term “light” in expressions such as “light groups”: it stands in opposition to, and is seen as inferior to, “thick” groups such as those defined by nationality, race, gender, class, religion or age.

It is difficult, for the moment, to change the terms. But it is possible to change their indexical vector from negative to, at least, neutral – descriptive. And to simply take the phenomena they cover seriously and responsibly, as social facts demanding analytical attention and comprehension. It is the task of perpetual reimagination of a reality which, damn it or bless it, refuses to sit still.


Blommaert, Jan (2016) ‘Meeting of Styles’ and the online infrastructures of graffiti. Applied Linguistics Review 7/2: 99-115

Blommaert, Jan (2017)Durkheim and the Internet: On Sociolinguistics and the Sociological Imagination. Working Papers in urban Language and Literacies, paper 204.

boyd, dana (2011), ‘White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook’, in Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White (eds), Race after the Internet, 203–22, New York: Routledge.

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

Costea, Anca (2017) The Online Resources of Contemporary Social Revolutions: The Case of the Romanian #Rezist Revolution. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 190.

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

Huizinga, Johan (2014 [1950]) Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. New York: Roy Publishers.

Maly, Ico (2017) Saabism and Saabists: A Digital Ethnographic Analysis of Saab Culture. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 188.

Maly, Ico and Piia Varis (2015) The 21st-century hipster: On micro-populations in times of superdiversity. European Journal of Cultural Studies 19/6: 1-17.

Morozov, Evgeny (2011) The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World. London: Penguin.

Scott, James C. (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Williams, Raymond (1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[1] This explains the very widespread genre of “confession” on social media. Confession, as Foucault (2003) observed, is a veridictional genre, a genre of truth-speaking in which an uninhibited self communicates fundamental truths to other uninhibited selves.


Does context really collapse in social media interaction?

Jan Blommaert & Gosia Szabla

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


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


  1. Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be more precise:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. An interaction-centered alternative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Complex compound social action on SNS: A case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ScreenHunter_575 Jun. 01 11.33

Figure 1: actions in the event.

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

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

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

Translation: Fucking great journalist who makes spelling mistakes…

Date:  March 14 at 12:43pm  Likes: 26

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

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

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

Date: March 14 at 4:02pm   Likes: 2

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

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 6:36pm  Likes:  5

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

Translations: This is exactly what Holland makes of Poles

Date:  March 14 at 7:06pm  Likes:  2

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

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 1:53pm  Likes: 0

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

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 11:41pm  Likes:  3

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

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

Date:  March 15 at 6:04am  Likes:  1

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

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

Date:  March 15 at 9:12am  Likes:  3

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

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

3.2 The rules of a complex game

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

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

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

Platform affordances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:02pm  Likes: 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 3:32pm  Likes:  0

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

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

Translation: Adek how you blurt out. Hehe

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

Date:  March 15 at 6:09am  Likes: 1

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

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

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

Date:  March 15 at 9:49pm  Likes: 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date:  March 15 at 10:38am  Likes:  3

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

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

Date:  March 16 at 7:14pm  Likes:  0

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

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

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

Date:  March 15 at 10:01pm  Likes: 0

2.54 Participant13 (F): Participant20 post Ali był edytowany

Translation: Participant20 the post by Ala was edited

Date:  March 16 at 8:43am  Likes:  0

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

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 12:49pm  Likes:  1

7.1 Ala (F): chetnie na priw

Translation: Willingly on priv

Date: March 14 at 12:49pm  Likes:  0

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

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

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

Date: March 19 at 10:25am  Likes: 0

76.4 Ala (F): Kto do mnie pisze dostaje

Translation: The ones who write to me get it.

Date: March 19 at 12:26pm  Likes: 0

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

3.3 Navigating multiple contexts

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

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

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

Fragment 2.26-2.36

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

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

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

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:35pm  Likes:  10

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:38pm  Likes:  2

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:41pm  Likes: 3

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:42pm  Likes:  0

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:43pm  Likes: 5

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:45pm  Likes:  0

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:46pm  Likes: 1

2.34 Participant13 (F): Participant15 Amen! Pozdrawiam 😉

Translation: Participant15 Amen! Greetings 😉

Date:  March 14 at 2:47pm  Likes:  1

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:47pm  Likes:  0

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:54pm  Likes:  1

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

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

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

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

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

ScreenHunter_610 Jun. 25 12.35

Figure 2: Four interlocking conversations.

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

Does context really collapse?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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