When your field goes online

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When your field goes online:

Ethnographic fieldwork in the online-offline nexus

Jan Blommaert & Dong Jie

(Draft postscript to Ethnographic Fieldwork: A Beginner’s Guide. Second and enlarged edition. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, in press)

When we wrote the first edition of Ethnographic Fieldwork in 2008-2010, social life was still very much seen as an offline affair. People used to refer to the digital world as the virtual one, implying that it was in some way not part of the real world. As for new media, Facebook was an infant and the iPhone was a toddler when we wrote the book, and social media activities were widely seen as a relatively irrelevant add-on of ‘real’ (read: offline) social life.

The online-offline nexus

A decade later, this can obviously no longer be maintained. The online world is now fully integrated with the offline one, in the sense that very few of our ordinary, everyday activities proceed without being in some way affected by online infrastructures; and very many of such activities can only proceed due to the existence of such online dimensions of life. From making photographs with our smartphones to checking the weather app, the traffic app, or our daily fitness routine app, and from online shopping, travel booking, banking and reading to quick searches (aptly called, in many places, “Googling”), to TV-on-demand binging, vloggers and influencers, livestreamed events and commercial as well as political campaigns waged on social media – our social, cultural, economic and political lives have changed dramatically. The widespread use of social media has transformed the media and popular culture landscapes globally and has shifted the boundaries between the private and the public spheres. And each action we perform online, however minute, generates data that are aggregated into new systems of surveillance and control and affect our lives in mostly invisible ways. Note that while such developments are spread unevenly across the globe, there are few places in the world where they are not experienced to some degree.

These phenomena are by now well documented, so we don’t think that a full survey of them is warranted here. The fundamental fact we have to take on board is: we live our lives largely in an online-offline nexus, in which both dimensions are equally vital and indispensable. Yet, when it comes to social theory and method, we still very much continue to approach these lives from within frameworks developed to describe and analyze an offline world – and ethnography is no exception to this (Kaur-Gill & Dutta 2017; Blommaert 2018; Varis & Hou 2019). This is not unusual: theory is always slow to catch up with changing realities, and theories that incorporate change as a fundamental given are few and far between. The same goes for method: scholars are usually reluctant to surrender tools of investigation of which they believe that they worked adequately in the past.

When it comes to ethnographic fieldwork, however, we cannot avoid issues of theoretical and methodical adequacy, for a very simple reason: in the online-offline nexus, the field where we do our fieldwork has gone online, and we need to follow that route if we wish to adequately address what it is we observe and analyze.

In what follows, we will offer three reflections on this new field and show how they complicate matters for ethnographers (and others). To be sure, things were complicated enough in an offline field; when we incorporate the online field, however, several new things require focused attention. We need to add some question marks to three seemingly unproblematic things: what do we see? Who is there? And where are we in an online-offline fieldwork site.

What do we see? The compelling bubble

The first complication is caused by what is known as the ‘bubble effect’: whenever we go online, we find ourselves in a space the structure and composition of which has been configured algorithmically, on the basis of data profiles for specific users, machines and software tools. And this is an absolute given: there is no actual PC or smartphone in the world that offers its user an unrestricted view of the online world. Not to put too fine a point of it: whenever you go online on any device, anywhere and anytime, you will encounter bias, and there is simply no neutral and unbiased position of observation possible in the online world. This is worth remembering: using the PC of, say, your local public library to do online research doesn’t remove the bubble effect. It merely (largely) removes your own particular bubble effect, the one affecting actions on your usual devices due to your particular history of use of these devices; but it replaces it with the bubble of the other specific computer, network and community of users who worked on it before you logged on.

Now, we did spent quite a good amount of time in the previous chapters explaining that bias is a normal and altogether not too problematic feature of any ethnographic fieldwork, and that the response to it must be awareness of bias. Remember: ethnographic knowledge is inter-subjective knowledge, co-constructed by all participants in the event. Seen from that perspective, the bubble effects are mere extensions of the inevitable bias inscribed in our fieldwork practices. But let’s remove the word ‘mere’ from the previous sentence, for the extension we see is an extension in another direction – a shift, in other words. And the shift has to do with the meaning of inter-subjective in what preceded. When you interact with an online device, you’re not interacting with a particular person whose subjectivity (and, of course, bias) can be to some extent explained and understood in terms of one’s social, cultural, personal backgrounds – the ‘context’ as we know it from the literature. You’re interacting with a machine that incorporates and creates contexts that require very different modes of interpretation.

In a moment, we shall be more specific – and constructive – about this problem of online contexts. But for the moment, let’s take this on board: going online takes your field in a direction which is not in any way a direct reflection of the offline contexts you, as an ethnographic fieldworker, got accustomed to through intense interactions with the people you work with; it sends you into a different sociocultural realm and confronts you with modes of bias that are sometimes impossible to understand, let alone anticipate or predict in research. The social facts we can observe online are mediated and curated by technologies in complex synergies with their users. Overlooking this point (and it is compelling) can cause you some trouble in making sense of what goes on in the lives of the people you work with in fieldwork.

But there is more.

Who is there?

In the tradition of social research, one thing used to be quite straightforward: the identity of the people one did research with or about – the ‘population’ in one’s research. People’s identities were known, and researchers could believe that they knew them well. So well, in fact, that we could anonymize them in our research outcomes, and that we felt compelled to do so because our research had actually revealed so much about them that they could be construed as identifiable individuals. Anthropological ‘informants’ were only useful, so to speak, when a measure of intimacy had been established between the anthropologist and the ‘informant’ allowing more than mere superficial knowledge to be exchanged.

This knowledge of the population was grounded, as Michel Foucault (2008) described, in some of the great structures of modernity: nation-state bureaucracy and its elaborate inventories of people residing on the state’s territory. From birth certificates through school reports, hospital records, police files and intelligence reports, passports, tax returns, occupational, demographic and income data and the cyclical census: one of the purposes (indeed, needs) of the modern state was comprehensive knowledge of its population. An elaborate bureaucratic infrastructure served that purpose and statistics emerged as the science that could answer questions evolving from all that. As the name itself reveals, statistics was the science of the state. And statistics came up with methodologically refined tools such as the sample to turn knowledge of the population into measurable, user-friendly units with almost infinite opportunities for application.

All of this was achieved in an offline world; the present online-offline nexus offers some serious problems. The first one is infrastructural. Whereas states used to be unchallenged when it came to gathering and elaborating knowledge at a very high scale-level – that of the entire population, this monopoly has vanished. The state now competes with (and often relies upon) private corporate actors when it comes to such high-scale level knowledge. It is the likes of Google, Microsoft, Huawei, Facebook, Weibo who are the great data collectors and analysts presently: companies who collaborate with the state but who are formally independent from it, and who have the capacity to independently develop (as well as own and sell for profit) big data handling and machine learning tools and products. Knowledge of populations nowadays is distributed over more actors, many of which fall outside the raison d’état which Foucault saw as the engine behind modern population studies.

Such private actors can and do impose rules of their own – the scale level we used to define as ‘public’ is now governed by a range of different and sometimes conflicting modes of governance. And such new modes of governance deeply affect this self-evident part of social studies: knowledge about who is involved in social action.

As all of us know, the online world is populated by people operating through an alias. Trolls and members of obscure debating groups in the darker corners of the Web instantly come to mind; we also know that some online platforms are very vulnerable to interventions by automated bots and hired clickfarm operators sending out updates and responding to them; but in many cases there are also strong social and political incentives to remain anonymous when engaging in online activities. One’s employer may not be amused when an employee regularly posts social media updates criticizing the company or articulating views that can be perceived as damaging to the company’s interests; security forces may be alerted by strong political criticism voiced by people online; or one’s spouse would not appreciate one’s active presence on dating sites. In online environments where people are aware of surveillance and censorship, one’s mere presence on a forum can be experienced as risky, and participants will adjust their behavior accordingly – primarily by hiding identity features that might lead to easy identification (cf. Du 2016). The effect is: billions of online ‘profiles’ about whom interlocutors cannot assume any identity feature with any degree of certainty: the exciting 24-year old woman with whom one flirts on a dating site might actually be a 55-year old, married and quite boring man. And the revolutionary activist who eagerly invites and endorses your politically inflammatory updates might actually be a state security agent.

At the frontstage of the online world, identity uncertainty rules. The real identities of online actors are, as a rule, only known backstage by institutional actors: by internet and platform providers, the authorities and the security services. But hackers prove on a daily basis that even that level of certainty about who is online is not entirely bulletproof.

As said before, the online world provides entirely new contexts for all of us. The effects for fieldwork are momentous. While, in offline fieldwork, you can ask friends and neighbors, or colleagues and bystanders for information about particular individuals, your opportunities for doing so in online research are extremely limited – you can never be sure that the neighbor you invite to offer background information about someone is not, in effect, a neighbor at all. So as a rule, you can only observe what you see people do in online fieldwork sites. Getting feedback about who did what, however, is terribly difficult and – to add to the mess – not very reliable. For the online sources you’d approach for such feedback are almost by definition as elusive as the target of your inquiry with them. The fieldworker, consequently, is often reduced to the role of witness rather than that of investigator, and left with very few tools for upgrading one’s role from witness to investigator. So take this as a given: in online fieldwork it is immensely difficult to establish the intimate knowledge one can construct about offline respondents.

But there is more, and we need to return to the bubble effects we discussed earlier. Recall what we said there: the bubble shapes a context for social action on the basis of ‘profiles’ created by data aggregations. So here is yet another level of backstage identity construction: one not directly performed by ourselves but imposed on us by machines and influencing what we can do and effectively do online. Obviously, this also affects what a fieldworker can observe online.

Let us make this a bit clearer. The bubble brings people into your orbit whose profiles have been constructed by algorithms. These people are, also in official parlance, ‘data subjects’ constructed out of hypothetically common features based on aggregations of users’ data. As we said before, the criteria by means of which people are connected to aggregations of data are very difficult to get access to – it is safe to assume that we cannot know the grounds on which algorithms judge that certain people are similar to us, share interests, behavioral or character traits sensed to be compatible with ours, and could be brought into some kind of community alongside us. We can provide educated guesses, no more. But since bubble effects are inevitable, the upshot of all of this is that we observe very peculiar, curated social facts, full of uncertainties about who is involved in their performance. And note that the uncertainty about who is there in your online fieldwork site is individual as well as collective; it applies to the actual interlocutors whose online actions you observe, as well as to the communities that fill the bubble in which you roam.

Imagine now that you’d wish to run a survey online, using a platform such as Twitter. How will you construct a reliable sample in which sociological diacritics such as gender, age, location, education background and religion are adequately spread – when none of this can be established with certainty? How can you reach ‘everyone’ whenever you attempt to speak about a population – when you are mindful of the bubble effect? How can you even identify individual actors when the same person can have eight different Twitter accounts? And how can you be sure that ‘@EddieJones1991’ is not the 28-year old Welsh accountant he claims to be, living in Liverpool with his wife and two young kids and enthusiastically endorsing the Tories, but in fact an automated bot or a clickfarm account operated from Bangalore, India?

All of these issues about who is who online dislodge the certainties used as baseline assumptions in more than a century of social research, and they render forms of research still hanging on to such assumptions very doubtful indeed. In a moment, we shall offer some hope for ethnographically inclined researchers. But first we need to address a third major complication of the online-offline nexus.

Where are we? Invisible lines

Let us briefly recapitulate. We have seen that the online-offline nexus seriously complicates two things we used to consider rather unproblematic in offline fieldwork: what we (can) observe, and who is involved in what we observe. The bubble effect and the uncertainty about participants in social action online render both highly problematic now, and they must serve as a critical check on the kinds of claims we believe we can make in our research. There is a third obvious dimension of social action which is profoundly distorted by the online-offline nexus: the site where we perform our research.

For evident reasons, the site of fieldwork used to be perhaps its least problematic aspect. As outlined in the previous chapters, we used to choose a place for our research based on prior knowledge and a round of thorough preparatory study. Next, we would pack our gear and head off to that place. Yes, we emphasized, the actual meaning of that place would change during fieldwork as a result of accumulated knowledge – the school we chose as our site would gradually transform into a more complex habitat for those involved in the activities in that school, including the fieldworker. But in many ways, our choice of fieldwork site would define and constrict our assumptions about participants and the actions they engage in. We knew that, to stick to the example of a school, some transcontextual analysis was required, for many of the actions performed locally (and offline) by teachers, pupils and other local stakeholders would be inflected by things such as education policy, management principles and other forms of external pressure and influence. In the online-offline nexus, however, the meaning of ‘transcontextual’ has changed quite profoundly.

Two dimensions of this change need to be identified. In both instances, the guiding question is: how can we understand what goes on in our chosen fieldwork site?

The first dimension has to do with the nature of the activities we observe locally. Let us start with an anecdote. A little while ago, one of us was required to check attendances at the start of a class. The usual signup form started moving slowly through the lecture theater, and after a few minutes, suddenly two students came hurrying into the hall – alerted by their colleagues’ hastily written smartphone messages telling them that their presence was mandatory. A local action – taking attendances – was ‘exported’, so to speak, to different places elsewhere by means of online connections, and resulted in a reconfiguration of the local activity – two students joining the class.

This anecdote shows us that in the online-offline nexus, there are invisible lines connecting offline spaces with translocal ones; and that local activities are almost invariably influenced and shaped by translocal ones. Converted into the vocabulary we used above, we see how offline activities are almost invariably influenced and shaped by online ones. Such influences can be material, as in our anecdote in which a material space as well as its population get reconfigured due to online signals given by students. But even more frequent are immaterial effects of online activities on offline ones: knowledge effects, as when we cook a curry after having read several online recipes and watched some YouTube tutorials, or as when our car’s GPS system directs us to take another route due to dense traffic on the normal one. The internet is primarily a learning environment from which we extract (and on which we upload) tons of bits of information, instructions and normative judgments about how certain things should best be done (Blommaert & Varis 2015). In a formal sense also, the online world is a learning environment. Try to imagine studying without access to online resources these days, from online downloadable research publications over Wikipedia to simple Google searches – the contemporary world of learning is an online-offline one.

These learning environments have immediate effects on locally performed actions, as we have seen in the anecdote above. And these effects are inflected by the features we discussed earlier; bubble effects and algorithmically configured profiles creating peculiar forms of ‘truth’ and norms within often elusive online communities and with immediate feedback effects. To illustrate the latter: if you want to cook a Thai dish and choose, out of dozens of options, an online recipe using dried red chili rather than fresh one, this preference will be recorded in your algorithm and have an effect on your bubble. Later searches might show you more recipes using dried chili and let you interact with people who show the same preferences (unless the algorithm decides you’ve made the wrong choice and will try to rectify you in the future). In that sense, online knowledge effects may be qualitatively different from the more traditional ones. Yes, reading a book or having a conversation in a pub may have similar effects on what we think and do, but such effects were usually slower and perhaps less pervasive than the ones we currently notice in the online-offline nexus.

This is the first dimension we had to address: online resources infusing local actions and changing them due to immediate translocal involvement. The second dimension extends this somewhat and raises the question: who is involved in local actions – who belongs to the ‘personnel’ of things we observe in online life. And here, too, an anecdote can be useful as a point of departure.

Oud-Berchem is an inner-city working class and immigrant district in Antwerp, Belgium. One of the remarkable features of the neighborhood is the density of new evangelical churches, usually of the charismatic branch of protestant Christianity and run by pastors from Africa, Asia and Latin America (see Blommaert 2013). The churches are what is known as ‘storefront churches’, renting relatively cheap vacant commercial premises in an old shopping street and usually displaying a health and safety permit for 49 people. Local congregations can be slightly larger though, but some of the churches also cater for smaller congregations. Churches often change premises, denominations and constituencies – a reflex of the rapidly shifting demographics of the neighborhood.

One of the most recent arrivals in this religious industry in Oud-Berchem is a church run by a Nigerian pastor. Let us nickname the church the ‘True Religion Church of Christ’. The church rented what is probably the grottiest location in the neighborhood: a former interior decoration shop closed down a handful of years back, quite badly affected by years of vacancy and exposure to the elements. The church has a permit for 49 attendants, and this is about the size of the congregation attending Saturday and Sunday services there. It’s a small, hardly remarkable and even less prestigious enterprise.

Our initial research on the neighborhood and its churches was based on traditional – read: offline – ethnographic linguistic landscape analysis. From that perspective, indeed, the True Religion Church of Christ is a small local phenomenon, eclipsed by other churches with more attractive premises and a larger congregation. At a given moment, however, we started paying more attention to an often overlooked feature of the linguistic landscape: website addresses and social media signs of the ‘Follow us on Facebook’ type (Blommaert & Maly 2019). When we followed such pointers for the True Religion Church of Christ, we bumped into a few surprises. Its pastor turns out to be a modest global celebrity in the domain of charismatic protestant religion. He runs a YouTube channel with over 125,000 subscribers; the main feature video there is one in which the pastor brings a dead boy back to life during a service in Nigeria, attended by many hundreds of faithful. This video was watched over 85,000 times. The pastor also runs a website in which he announces services all over the world – North America, Europe and Africa – and through which items and services can be booked and ordered using standard e-payment methods such as Paypal.

Suddenly, the grotty premises in which the local congregation gathers on Saturdays and Sundays appear in a different light: as a mere node in a global network of religious activities connected by advanced online infrastructures. This global network is big and prestigious, and stands in sharp contrast to the smallness and shabbiness of what goes on in Oud-Berchem. Many more people, places and resources are involved in what goes on in Oud-Berchem than those that can be locally observed. And we can reasonably assume that what goes on locally in the True Religion Church of Christ derives a lot of its meaning and impact from the translocal, prestigious and well-resourced network in which it is one local node and to which it is permanently connected by online infrastructures. In fact, what happens locally is probably possible only because of the existence of this larger network and its online resources. And so, when we observe the local activities of the church’s congregation, we need to be aware of the fact we see just a very small part of the total social fact we need to understand, and which we can engage with by following the pointers that take us online.

So here are the two dimensions we needed to bring up: the fact that offline practices are almost invariably influenced, formatted and enabled by online ones; and the fact that locally performed social actions can involve far more people than those actually present locally – the effective personnel of lots of current social actions can only be gauged by connecting the offline local phenomena with the online translocal ones. Our field has effectively become an online-offline field; doing fieldwork requires presence in and attention to both, and the blissful simplicity of ‘the local’ has been traded for a far more complex reality of connected fieldwork sites. The notion of ‘participant observation’ needs to be literally in the online-offline nexus: ethnographers are participating in exactly the same contextualized processes they are studying, and there is no privileged vantage point that gives us and edge over other, ‘ordinary’ participants.

More complexity? More ethnography please!

All of this is bad news of course. In the online-offline nexus, we are forced to surrender some of the things we long thought were relatively simply: the things our field had to offer in the way of observable facts and information, the people with whom we engaged in fieldwork, and the actual sites of fieldwork. In other words: we need to reconsider the what, how and where of fieldwork. The online-offline nexus, we can see, is quite a bit more complex than the good old traditional offline fieldwork arena.

The bad news, however, is mainly for those branches of science that rely heavily on the assumptions we questioned above. And there are several reasons why ethnography, while needing to be cautious and more than just aware of these changes, is best equipped to deal with them. In chapter 2, we explained that ethnography is a scholarly approach which, in contrast to many other approaches, does not attempt to simplify and reduce complexity; it takes complexity as a point of departure and tries to provide a full and detailed account of it. Ethnography is not about removing the chaotic nature of social practices performed in real, concrete contexts – it is about making sense of that chaos. The fact that the chaos appears to become denser in the online-offline nexus should not deter us: it’s still just chaos, and we must make sense of it.

And we have inroads into it. Even if the what, who and where of fieldwork are getting more complicated, there are things we can reliably observe. We can still observe what people do, the social actions they perform. In fact – and we emphasized that as well in the opening chapters of the book – ethnography is focused on making sense of social action, of concrete social action performed in concrete contexts, and it belongs to that broad tradition in social research captured under the umbrella of the ‘action perspective’ (cf. Blumer 1969; Goodwin & Goodwin 1992; Strauss 1993; Rawls 2002). So we can observe people watching online stuff, doing online searches, asking and responding to questions, telling stories, making an argument, insulting or responding to insults, expressing joy, appreciation and gratefulness, grief, anger, uneasiness, concern, irony and humor, thanking others; we can observe them liking, sharing and reposting, commenting and endorsing or distancing themselves; we can observe them incorporating online material produced by others in their own online interventions; we can see them logging on and logging off; subscribing to channels and profiles and blocking or ignoring others. And we can observe the (largely visual, literate) resources they deploy in doing all that: different forms of language, jargon and slang, different forms of writing, emojis, memes, GIFs, selfies, profile and banner images, video chats and livestreams on a variety of apps – name it. All of this, we know, is done in interaction with others, frontstage as well as backstage – one is never alone on the Web – and mediated by the specifics of the online contexts we laid out above.

That’s a lot. In fact, it’s exactly the stuff needed for ethnographic work, as we explained in chapter 2 of the book. And it is by looking at the intricate interplay between actions and resources that we are able – in ethnographic analysis – to see how people navigate the contextual opacity and the identity uncertainties that characterize online interactions and make sense of that chaotic reality (cf. Szabla & Blommaert 2017), how they engage in the learning processes for which the online world offers such infinite opportunities, and construct identities and communities within their bubbles, and often beyond them (Varis & Blommaert 2015; Prochazka & Blommaert 2019).

So it is not because we cannot observe everything in online contexts that we can observe nothing. We cannot observe the algorithms and surveillance systems that create bubbles and profiles, true. But we can observe the ways in which people engage with them and operate within their confines – how they adjust their social conduct to the complex and largely invisible contexts within which they interact with others. This is an eminently adequate ethnographic object of inquiry.

But we need to address it carefully. Whenever the phrase ‘participant observation’ was used in discussions of fieldwork, the focus used to be on ‘observation’, and it carried the suggestion that, while participating in social processes, ethnographers did something special and did that from a privileged position – they ‘observed’. We believe that fieldwork in the online-offline nexus shifts that focus towards ‘participant’, and that we must forget the possibility of a privileged position of observation. Whatever we observe is observed as a participant in a new field in which breaking out of the contexts of ordinary participation is near-impossible, for important aspects of such contexts are impossible to inspect – the backstage aspects we discussed above. Perhaps this was never possible, even in traditional offline fieldwork, and perhaps it was just (in Johannes Fabian’s (1983) famous view) the conventional arrogance of academia that created the claim towards privileged knowledge positions. In that case, the online-offline nexus confronts us with an unpleasant truth – one which renders our work more complex but equally more interesting.

 

References

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

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

Blommaert, Jan & Ico Maly (2019) Invisible lines in the online-offline linguistic landscape. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 223. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/research/institutes-and-research-groups/babylon/tpcs

Blommaert, Jan & Piia Varis (2015) Enoughness, accent and light communities: Essays on contemporary identities. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies paper 139. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/research/institutes-and-research-groups/babylon/tpcs

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

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

Fabian, Johannes (1983) Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.

Foucault, Michel (2008) Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the College de France 1977-1978. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Goodwin, Charles & Marjorie Harness Goodwin (1992) Context, activity and participation. In Peter Auer & Aldo DiLuzio (eds.) The Contextualization of Language: 77-99. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Kaur-Gill, Satveer & Mohan Dutta (2017) Digital ethnography. In Christine Davis & Robert Potter (eds.) The International Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods: 1-11. New York: Wiley.

Prochazka, Ondrej & Jan Blommaert (2019) Ergoic framing in New Right online groups: Q, the MAGA kid, and the Deep State Theory. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies paper 224. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/research/institutes-and-research-groups/babylon/tpcs

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

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

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

Szabla, Malgorzata & Jan Blommaert (2017) Does context really collapse in social media interaction? Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies paper 201. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/research/institutes-and-research-groups/babylon/tpcs

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

Varis, Piia & Mingyi Hou (2019) Digital approaches in linguistic ethnography. In Karin Tusting (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Linguistic Ethnography. Abingdon: Routledge (in press).

 

 

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Ergoic framing in New Right online groups: Q, the MAGA kid, and the Deep State theory

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Ondřej Procházka & Jan Blommaert

(working draft)

1. Introduction

Conspiracy theories have had a long life in social research (e.g. Hofstadter 1967), and they have more recently become conspicuous as a topic of research on online social and political action.[1] The relationship between the online world and conspiracy theories is often described as synergetic:

Conspiracy theories, defined as allegations that powerful people or organizations are plotting together in secret to achieve sinister ends through deception of the public (…), have long been an important element of popular discourse. With the advent of the Internet, they have become more visible than ever. (Wood & Douglas 2013)

The Internet is also seen as influential: it is the place where conspiracy theories emerge and grow, before being moved into mainstream media:

However, as the Internet developed into a major form of communication, its function as a medium for the spread of conspiracy theories began to exhibit some important characteristics. Most obviously, ideas that in the past would only have reached the small audiences of conspiracy publications and late night talk radio now could potentially reach many more. Less obviously, it became clear that once fringe ideas appeared on the Net, they could eventually migrate into mainstream media (Barkun 2016: 3).

Conspiracy theories themselves are often left undefined, and remain caught in moralizing – usually dismissive – but analytically superficial discourse:

In Conspiracy Theories and the Internet – Controlled Demolition and Arrested Development (Clarke, 2007) he argues that many contemporary conspiracy theories suffer from vagueness. Looking at the development of conspiracy theories on the Internet, he argues that such theories have fared badly, since it does not take long for them to be analysed and subsequently shown to rely upon shaky or shakily interpreted evidence. As such, conspiracy theories online are now phrased in vague and less precise ways in order to avoid being easily falsified” (Dentith 2014:162)

In what follows, we into to engage with conspiracy theories in a way that does justice to their complexity as a social fact in the online-offline nexus characterizing contemporary social life (cf. Blommaert 2018). Examining a recent case of online group activism, we will focus on (a) how a particular form of reasoning is consistently developed and maintained, a form we shall call Ergoic (after Latin ergo, “therefore”), and (b) how such a form of reasoning generates and sustains a particular type of community, which we call a knowledge activism community; (c) we shall do this from a specific angle, which is action-centered rather than content- or identity-centered.

The latter point demands some clarification. The specific case we shall examine in this paper instantiates a central analytical problem of online research: that of people performing social actions online anonymously, under an alias or using avatars. This simple and widespread given has momentous consequences for analytical approaches of online social action: we cannot reliably assume participants’ identities and use them as a priori categorizations in the analysis (cf. Blommaert, Lu & Li 2019). We cannot, for example, use particular demographic and sociological diacritics – gender, age, even nationality or place of residence – in the analysis, since none of these data are available to the analyst, except when advanced software tools and analytics can be deployed. What we do have, however, are data documenting specific social actions – online interactions in which specific normative codes evolve and circulate; in which particular epistemic, affective and ideological stances are being semiotized by means of specific resources; and in which we see, through all of this, the emerging communities whose collective work (or, in Garfinkel’s 2002 terms, “congregational work”) generates sometimes considerable social effects. The communities are generated by the actions they are involved in, which is why we privilege these actions as the objects of inquiry. We shall see how this action-centered approach enables us to be very precise in the identification of the communities: specific forms of action generate specific forms of community.

We shall examine a particular conspiracy-theoretical event in which an online New Right activist community called Q used the mainstream media reports of an incident involving a white student (the “MAGA kid”) and an elderly Native American man to produce elaborate reframings of what happened, using “ergoic” arguments grounded in a conspiracy theory which we shall call the “deep state theory”. In the next section, we shall briefly introduce the incident; the subsequent sections will discuss, the nature of the congregational work performed within the Q community and the structures of the ergoicargumentative work they display in their online actions. In our conclusions, we shall return to the main themes of this paper and connect them to some major issues in research on online communities such as Q.

2. Q and the MAGA kid incident

In January 2019, two marches clashed on the Mall in Washington DC: the pro-life March for Life and the Indigenous Peoples’ March. While the first one could be roughly described as politically conservative, the second could be said to be politically liberal within the US political universe. One incident from the meeting of both marches went viral as a short video clip on social media: an encounter between a young white Catholic high school student called Nick Sandmann, wearing the iconic “MAGA hat” (the emblem of Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign), and an Omaha elder called Nathan Phillips.

The clip itself circulated in a variety of versions and these versions became a topic of heated controversy. Initially, the dominant reading of the clip opposed a dignified Native American elder and a “smirking” white chauvinist kid. The “smirk” was read as an expression of disrespect, racism and white supremacy, thus strengthening the theme of the Indigenous Peoples’ March.  The fact that Nathan Phillips was also said to be a Vietnam veteran highlighted the inappropriateness of his attitude: veterans command respect, period. Memes were made in which this reading was codified (see Figure 1), and mainstream media broadcasted the story in these terms.

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Nick Sandmann’s MAGA hat (by means of which he is identified in Figure 1) evidently laid a strong indexical link between Sandmann, the incident and Donald Trump, and in online discussions this connection was elaborated (see Figure 2).

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A New Right forum (or hivemind) called Q also immediately picked up the incident, and in the remainder of this section their reactions and reframing attempts will be central.

Q is an online activist collective in which a particular vocabulary is being used, including one for identifying the hierarchical levels of members and the specific activities they undertake, as well as the themes they mobilize around and the opponents they choose to fight. Q operates at different levels, with ingroup core actions confined to the relatively marginal user-generated imageboard platform 8Chan, while actions reaching out to a broader network of (potential) followers being performed on Facebook. More specifically, Q is believed to be a high-ranking individual or a small group of individuals operating in Trump’s administration with Q clearance, a level at which top secret and restricted data can be accessed. Based on their insider knowledge, Q post semi-coded messages (“crumbs”) on 8chan, which are compiled and discussed by their followers (Anons), who organize themselves in what they call ‘Great Awakening’: “an organic information and truth-seeking campaign, the goal of which is to help President Trump peacefully Make America Great Again, and by extension to make the world a better, safer place for all to live in peace” (Anons 2018: 1)[1]. This involves identifying and exposing both domestic and foreign enemies of Trump with a particular focus on what they have done (false flags operations, corruption, misdirection, cover ups, mind control etc.) what they do and will probably do with regard to current and past events.

Q’s first wave of Facebook responses consisted of rejections of mainstream media’s version of the events, swiftly followed by avalanches of messages offering the truth about what happened (cf. Figure 3).

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In the days and weeks following the incident, ‘evidence’ was accumulated showing that Nathan Phillips was not a Vietnam veteran, that he had participated in several other public protests and activists’ meetings, that he could be identified as affiliated to organizations run by George Soros, and so on. The initially dominant frame was effectively turned upside down. Now, images of the incident should be read as involving an innocent, ordinary white kid being the victim of aggression by a professional activist claiming fake credentials. And from there onwards, the small incident became understood as a mere illustration of the big problem providing the raison d’être for Q: systematic anti-Trump machinations planned and performed in the US and elsewhere. The way the incident was cast in mainstream media, so argued Q members, was just another “hate hoax” – the fake news often qualified as “an enemy of the people” by Donald Trump.

The lines of action performed by Q in the wake of the MAGA kid incident have been sketched. We will proceed to deepen it, focusing on an examination of the particular ergoic knowledge regime developed and articulated within Q.

3. Ergoic reasoning: the Deep State theory and the MAGA kid incident

In order to understand what follows, we need to return to an old ethnomethodological principle: that people are reasonable whenever they try to make sense of social life, and that “reasonable” should not be confused with rational as conventionally used. Being “rational”, conventionally used, stands for the strictly regimented, detached, facts-only and evidence-based epistemic modality that characterizes, in the Enlightenment tradition, scientific reasoning and other modes of fact-based knowledge work such as journalism and forensic-legal inquiry.

Being “reasonable”, in contrast, consists of the construction of plausible explanatory formats in which details of everyday life can be related to some “theory” as proof of that theory (hence ergo, since the detail is explicable because of the theory). The theory – similar to what Goffman (1974) described as an overarching “frame” organizing experience – consists of general propositions of “how the world is” and how, consequently, everyday events can be made sense of as “logically” explicable with reference to the general propositions. The conventional understanding of being rational, then, is just one specific (and specialized) mode of being reasonable (Garfinkel 1967).

We can take this one step further. One can be “reasonable” precisely by disqualifying rationality in its conventional sense. The propositions of “how the world is” have the status of truth, and when this truth is contradicted by “hard facts” (of science, journalism or the law), such facts can be dismissed as fallacies or lies. And what we seen in conspiracy theories is exactly that: an antirational mode of arriving at reasonable explanations grounded in ergoic relations between specific events and a general theory or masterframe of “how the world is”. The latter has the status of truth, and – here comes the conspiracy – this truth is typically hidden by powerful opponents and demands to be revealed through the actions of the conspiracy theorists.

The masterframe within which Q performs its actions can be sketched as follows; we shall use the Q jargon discussed earlier.

  1. Q explicitly claims to work for Donald Trump. In that sense, it can be set apart from most other conspiracy theorists, who identify with the margins and pose as powerless voices. In the case of Q, there is an explicit alignment with the President of the US. The president, however, is described as locked into battle with what Q calls the “Cabal”. The Cabal are an alliance of several actors also qualified (by Trump) as “the swamp”: the real powers that control the US and the world. Q explicitly inscribes its actions in Trump’s plan to “drain the swamp”. Q members join Trump’s battle as “patriots”, self-qualifying as “We the People” (with its intertextual resonances firmly rooted in the foundational texts of US democracy). And they undertake “research” – knowledge practices aimed at publicly revealing a truth deliberately hidden by the Cabal.
  2. The Cabal is – in practice – organized around four major actors. The first is Hilary Clinton, Trump’s opponent during the 2016 presidential elections and seen as guilty of a protracted conspiracy to weaken the position of Donald Trump and, thus, to undemocratically regain the power that she was democratically denied in 2016. Clinton is described as an active opponent who, through the machinery of her Clinton Foundation and related charities and NGOs, as well as through her connections with the DC elites, sets up an unending sequence of attacks on Donald Trump. Trump systematically used the epithet of “crooked” for Hilary Clinton.
  3. A second major Cabal actor is Barack Obama. Obama, in Q discourse, represents the “deep state”; in that sense he is rather a passive opponent whose harmful influence is felt through the actions of state agencies such as the CIA, the FBI and the Supreme Court, all of which have been organized by Obama in such a way that they serve the interests of the Cabal.
  4. The third major actor in the Cabal is billionaire entrepreneur George Soros. Q describes Soros as a “puppet master” who actively finances and implements the plans and schemes of the Cabal, usually through the NGOs and networks he runs. Soros is also a “globalist”, whose activities have a scope far beyond the US. Which is why Trump needs to develop a new international policy and new international partnerships.
  5. Finally, there are MSM, the mainstream media, seen as the public outlets of the Cabal and therefore the main direct opponents of Q’s fact-checking and debunking online actions. The media, so it is argued, are the tools of propaganda and disinformation of the American public, happily transforming meticulously crafted anti-Trump hoaxes into major news stories.

We can call this the “deep state theory”, and summarize it schematically as follows:

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This deep state theory provides the dominant ergoic logic for all of Q’s actions. Whenever a case is opened by Q, the direction in which ‘research’ is taken is scripted in the terms of this masterframe. The first step, therefore, is the instant assumption that mainstream news is fake, after which the detailed fact checking must reveal the direct or indirect involvement of the various actors in the Cabal.

In essence, the masterframe pictures an all-powerful, totalitarian state undemocratically controlled by the Cabal and shaped so as to serve their interests. The term “deep state” stands for exactly this: a state the organization and functioning of which have been profoundly adapted to serve particular elite interests rather than those of the masses (“We, the People”). The all-powerful nature of that state is reflected, according to Q members, in the level of meticulous planning of hoaxes and the never-ending, massive supply of such hoaxes, suggesting top-level organization, phenomenal resources and investments made available, and the mobilization of the “best and brightest” in the efforts of the Cabal. There are obvious pointers towards George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, where Newspeak took the place of today’s “fake news” and where Big Brother sees all, knows all, and shapes a reality which is, in actual fact, a totalized lie intended to safeguard the power of the state from any unwanted form of interference. In the “MAGA kid” incident, the reference to Orwell is explicit in this meme:

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Entering into greater detail, we see how the elements of the deep state theory serve, ergoically, as directives for practices of “research”. These practices are diverse and range from the constructions of “true” memes as didactic tools, over more elaborate explanatory practices in which features of evidence are being discussed, disassembled and reconstructed, and interactionally constructed modes of learning, mutual ratification and correction.

3.1. Data

The data were gathered from a Q-based Facebook group QAnon Follow The White Rabbit, which had roughly 37,000 members at the time of the incident. We joined the group several months (October 2018) prior to the incident to conduct a systematic ethnographic observation without active participation (commenting, liking or sharing). There are four main reasons why we selected this group in particular: i) the group is highly active (usually dozens of posts per day) and with a relatively high level of engagement from its members, ii) the group is sufficiently representative of the Q phenomenon in view of its gatekeeping mechanisms – it is a closed group (access is granted upon answering relating to Trump in which the applicant must show alignment with the Q masterframe), iii) the group shows little or no signs of content filtering or censoring activities and the vast majority of posted content is Q related; iv) the group has enabled a search function that helps us to laser in on its reception of the MAGA kid incident as it unfolds in a number of contexts which we will describe below.

We shall limit our analysis to QAnon’s reception and re/de-construction Nathan Phillips’ media image based on the memes and comments as reactions to posts containing links to various media informing of the MAGA kid incident that had posted in the group between January 20 and 25.  The data were collected in March 2019 after the activity pertaining the incident had ceased. To gain a better understanding of the networked chronotopic conditions in which our data emerge, we cross-checked and consulted our data with other Q-based platforms and websites, including q-research section on 8chan, Q-related data aggregators (e.g. qmap.pub/info) and other Q-related groups and pages on Facebook.

3.2 Analysis

We will focus on the following aspects of QAnon’s knowledge activism in debunking of the (mainstream) media image of Nathan Phillips: 1) exposing his true military credentials and 2) dispelling his authority as a native elder, which provides basis for 3) revealing his ties to the Deep State, and finally 4) his complicity in more grand conspiracy theories connected with the Cabal, namely its crusade against Christianity. But let us not forget that our analysis is not aimed to (dis)prove conspiracy theories propagated by QAnon. Our goal is ethnomethodoloical: we look at how the members of the QAnon make sense of the MAGA kid incident though interaction; or more precisely, how their interactional engagement marks a congregational work producing conspiracies as social facts and conspiracism as a default mode of reasoning. On that note, we begin with a brief outline of the most circulated memes illustrating the masterframe with regard to each line of debunking, and then we proceed to the discussion of the comments along the line in question.

Nathan Phillips is not a Vietnam veteran

Phillips’ military credentials were immediately questioned and invalidated in the wake of media’s reporting on the MAGA hat incident and subsequent interviews in which Phillips mentioned his military background and alleged service in Vietnam. QAnon’s ‘research’ (comparing Phillips’ earlier media appearances and other available information about him) shows discrepancies in his claims as well as questionable sincerity in his performance, which subsequently serve as ergoic arguments in undermining his account. The discrepancies are also documented in a number of memes circulating in the group.

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Fig. 6 features Phillips’ discharge papers (released under the Freedom of Information Act) indicating a number of AWOLs (absent without official leave) and no evidence of his Vietnam service. Its explanatory caption indicates that while his military service is honorable (even for QAnons), his personal integrity is not; and therefore, he cannot be trusted. This creates an aura of unbiased and rigorous ‘research’ or ‘fact-checking’ in addition to constructing a sense of epistemic superiority (having access to classified or hard-to-get information) on the basis of which QAnon makes its ‘evidence’ more compelling.

Other memes point to discrepancies in Phillips’ account (fig 6.) or mock Phillips by putting him on par with another “fakes” gaining a status of a meme (fig. 8). These memetic figures include a NBC anchor Brian William (on the right) falsely claiming to be a wartime correspondent in Iraq and a survivor of Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, David Hogg (on the left), who is believed to be a crisis actor.[1]Memes propagated by Qanons inform and are informed by the masterframe of “how the world is”– the event was staged, orchestrated or simply ‘fake’. This is also reflected in the vocabulary resonating with the imperative to expose the role of Nathan Phillips played in the event.

(1) NATHAN PHILLIPS FAKETRIOT.. “‘LOWLIFE”‘

(2) The old bloke is a FAKE – PAID ACTOR !!!!!!!

(3) He is a paid protester.

(4)    Nathan Phillips is a fake and a plant. He was never in the service. Says he was a veteran. The Indians don’t like him, He gives them a bad name. He is a professional victim and a POS!

(4.1)Lets not forget stolen valor. Having never served as a “recon ranger” (no such job exists in the Marines) and never served in vietnam (As he professed to CNN)

Commenters frame Phillips along the same lines of ingenuity: as a fake patriot ‘FAKETRIOT’, paid actor and protester, an activist, a plant (i.e. a planted undercover agent)and a professional victim. Full or partial capitalization and overpunctuation frequently mark the urgency and insistence of highlighting the superiority of the epistemic regime pertaining to the Q masterframe.

The last two comments show how ‘evidence’ can be further specified and elaborated by QAnons. While (4) outlines the baseline ‘facts’ about Phillips, (4.1) answers by a more nuanced expository account of the claims Phillips “professed to CNN” (see the full transcript in Sidner 2019). In this vein, Phillips is not just a mere ‘fake’ – he is charged with ‘stolen valor’ (lying about military service), which is arguably a higher offense earning him more deplorable status of a ‘LOWLIFE’ and ‘POS’ (piece of shit). Apart from his military records, his self-reference ‘recon ranger’ (presumably part of special operation forces generally known as Army Rangers) is what gives him away, as it, according to 4.1, does not correspond with the Army register (nor with his expertise as refrigeration mechanic, fig. 5). We thus see that QAnon brings together people with different levels of knowledge and expertise from a wide array of domains which they utilize in concordance in their pursuit of ‘the truth’.

When the discrepancies became evident to general publics, CNN amended their report with the following note attached to the end of the transcript: “Correction: After this interview was conducted, Phillips told CNN he was Vietnam-era veteran. He did serve in the military during the Vietnam War, but according to his service records, he was not deployed to Vietnam” (Sidner 2019, n.pag). Commenters expressed both surprise and pride in furthering their endeavor in enacting the ‘Great Awakening’:

(5)    I can’t believe that CNN have started telling the truth..

(6)    Good news of the day – It’s getting harder and harder for the MSM [mainstream media] to dupe us anymore. It’s almost like a majority of us are waking up!

We now turn to another mode of ergoic reasoning related to identity work. In the next section we will see how the Q masterframe drives the scrutinizing and meticulous invalidation of another aspect of Phillips’ media image – his respectable rank among Native Americans.

Nathan Phillips is not a true representative of Native Americans

According to the research conducted by QAnons and testimonies of its members who identify as Native American, the Native American community is presented as ambivalent toward Nathan Phillips at best. Another series of memes and comment testimonies question the sincerity and authenticity in Phillips’ behavior. Instead of promoting Native American traditions and culture, Phillips’ presence in mainstream media reporting on the MAGA kid as well a past incidents shows ‘evidence’ that it has been in fact an intentional provocation falling in line with his previous public stunts that expose his true nature of an agent provocateur with a political agenda.

 

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In this vein, fig. 9 captures and comments on Phillips’ earlier media presence tailored in a coherent frame that de-constructs his image as a respectable elder of the Omaha tribe, and re-constructs it as a provocateur political activist with ulterior motives. This includes, apart from the MAGA kid incident, a 2015 interview with Phillips following a similar confrontation with white students from the Eastern Michigan University (EMU) allegedly dressed as Indians in which Phillips claims that the students had approached him and eventually launched racist remarks on his address. Similarly to the MAGA kid incident, Phillips seeks moral vindication in the interview: “Whoever would sit judgement [sic] on them [the students], the university the law, society, that is their job” (Spencer 2015: n. pag.). The final fragment at the bottom of fig. 9 shows Phillips posing for a photograph in 2018 while being situated in the context of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests[1]. Being equipped with an eagle staff and jacket with Indian tribal patterns, Phillips’ posture with his head not facing the camera, dark glasses and folded hands emanate a conceited look of a poseur or a model, and do not add up with the supposed protests that ought to have been going on. The composition of the photo thus does not speak of authenticity – it is taken as yet another piece of ‘evidence’ of the spuriousness behind his victim image presented by the mainstream media. Once again, Phillips’ identity performance is mocked through semiotic work superimposing his head into another memetic format ‘the most interesting man in the world’ (fig. 10) that is supposed to convey an avuncular life advice from a refined gentleman. In the same vein, Phillips gives advice on how to exploit a disadvantaged racial background to your benefit by playing a victim. Finally fig. 11 shows that screenshot Tweets can also operate as memes, which, in this case, questions Phillips’ representativeness of the Native American community by its own members.

Commenters attach great importance to Phillips’ representativeness of the Omaha tribe as well as Native Americans in general. We can notice processes of ratification in the comment section when it comes to extending the blame to the entire tribe, in which Phillips is taken as an elder.

(7)    If he’s their elder what does that say about them?

(7.1)    [referring to5]Don’t lump them all together. There are many elders in tribes. Elders mean older people .His tribe is probably embarrassed by him. Most Natives are good kind people. And will admit when someone is wrong.

Interestingly, Phillips is immediately reproached as an isolated individual whose actions do not represent the views or position of his tribe. On the contrary, the leading and authoritative connotations behind his rank of an elder are invalidated (“Elders mean older people”) and severed from his identity (“His tribe is probably embarrassed by him”) in addition to being attributed several qualities incompatible with an imagined ‘Native’ (Phillips is evil, unkind and intentional liar). Other commenters anticipate similar lumping statements and preemptively intervene with an apology.

(8)    I am Native and this guy has done nothing good for native people.
I am assuming that because of his actions there is big money involved.
I will Apologize for his actions
But with this I am putting this out here too.
We do all really need to learn to get along or the groups
wanting to keep everyone fighting so we can’t gang up on them

By identifying himself as a ‘Native’, he presents an insider view on Phillips, confirming that his interests align with the Cabal (i.e. ‘big money’) rather than with the Native Americans. What can be also noted is the imperative for maintaining social cohesion of QAnons in the face of provocateurs like Phillips and “the groups wanting to keep everyone fighting” and limiting the QAnons’ options to “gang up on them”. This brings us to the collective enemy, the Deep State.

Nathan Phillips is an agent of the Deep State

Having outlined some of the aspects behind QAnons’ ‘evidence’ debunking Phillips’ mainstream media image, it is no surprise that the inconsistencies and discrepancies in his statements and inauthenticity of his self-presentations are associated with the conspiratory scheming and machinations of the Deep State.

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Before we address more general connections with the Deep State drawn in the fig 12, let us first discuss another frequent type of memes (fig. 13 and 14) associating Phillips with a current prominent representative of the Deep State – Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic Senator, 2020 preliminary presidential candidate and a staunch supporter of Hillary Clinton. Warren has been consistently mocked by Trump and his supporters as ‘Pocahontas’ (or ‘Liawatha’[1] and the like) due to her purported Native American heritage she claimed after releasing results of her DNA test. Similarly to Phillips, she has been caught in a controversy, whereby their actions are perceived as political stunts and repudiated by the representatives of the Native American community. It comes as no surprise that when Warren praised Phillips’ endurance over “hateful taunts” on her Twitter account (Warren 2019), the compromised credibility she had accrued in the QAnon discourses was immediately transferred onto Phillips via memes as useful instrument.

Both memes possess captions drawing connection to the usual suspect of the Deep State (i.e. Soros, fig. 13) or evoking a sense of fulfilled anticipation, empowering and reinforcing the Q masterframe (fig. 14).

On a more general level, connections between Phillips’ Native Youth Alliance[2] and the Deep State are more didactically outlined in a diagram on fig. 12, which marks another line of ‘evidence’ that invalidates the institutional legitimacy of the organization that Phillips openly represents and promotes. This is done in a typical fashion – by following the financial trail or the ubiquitous question ‘cui bono?’ (who benefits?) which becomes pressing after Phillips’ purported identity virtues (a respectable elder with a noble cause) and credentials (Vietnam veteran) are dismantled. Exposing Phillips as “fake” is not enough – the ‘reason’, ‘motivation’ or generally ‘the truth’ behind his spuriousness must be explained. It is thus no surprise that QAnons’ research discovers financing by the crown members of the Deep State (i.e. Soros and his Open Society in conjunction with other compromised foundations marked by red squares), indicating their vested interest which will be discussed in the following subsection. The need for rendering the event meaningful for the QAnon community is explicitly articulated in the caption “now it makes sense” (top left) – the meme then provides a direct visualization of the conspiratorial masterframe applied in the particular chronotopic configuration of the MAGA kid incident.

More specifically, making sense is here guided by a number of visual devices, namely red arrows, boxes and careful distribution of additional semiotic fragments (list of donors/supporters, logos, portraits, headlines and sub-headlines presumably from a website of or related to Native Youth Alliance) in a circular composition – a frequent visual trope in conspiratorial discourses drawing ties between different individual and organizations (Byford 2011: 74). The geometrical shape often evokes order and coherence to otherwise seemingly random patchwork of ‘evidence’. As far as the comments are concerned, commenters seem to be readily accepting the ties between the Deep State and Nathan Phillips.

(9)        ANOTHER LIB ACTOR BEING PUT IN HIS PLACE!!!

(10)     Soros paid puppet

(11)     And finally, the TRUTH !!! A Soros paid instigator.

(12)     Chief smoking crack is a scum bag bought paid for by Democrats
Video clearly shows him walking to confront kid.
Kid did nothing wrong.
And once again CNN and the corrupt media spin it off against the kids
Promoting false propaganda
Again Media is AMERICAS ENEMY
CNN THE MOST TRUSTED IN FAKE NEWS

The associations between Phillips with the Deep State point to its multi-layered and vague structure of that Popper describes as “a kind of group-personality” operating as “conspiring agents, just as if they were individual men” (Popper 1972: 125). In this regard, Phillips falls in line with the usual suspects of the Deep State: liberals (9), Soros (10 and 11), democrats (12), and of course the mainstream media (most notably CNN, 10). The act of exposing Phillip’s true motivation often sparks a conspiratorial jouissance– satisfaction in furthering QAnons’ agenda (9) and a fulfilling sense of closure (11), but also a call for more elaborate explanation (12) re-energizing the purpose and validity of QAnon’s enterprise. On that last note, 12 attempts to extract a ‘take-home’ message situating the MAGA kid incident into a larger perspective. The decisiveness in Phillips movement towards the group of students have been interpreted as a sign of premeditation rather than coincidence (because he was paid to do so), which the mainstream media attempt to “spin” in promoting their own “propaganda” and the agenda behind it reaching and affecting the whole of ‘AMERICA’.

Consequently, there is a larger agenda to be discovered or exposed through the prism of everyday public events and encounters. Note that the perceived relationship between Phillips and the Deep State is of subordinate nature; Phillips is a mere instrument – a “puppet”, “actor”, “instigator” (provocateur) in a more grand scheme of things. This brings us to the overarching narrative in the Q masterframe– its millennial alignment with Christian morality and values against which the Deep State conspires.

Nathan Phillips provoked the standoff in a conspiracy against Christianity

To understand QAnon’s preoccupation with Phillips’ complicity in a conspiracy against Christianity, we have to reiterate that the whole incident took place in a clash between a catholic high school students participating in a March for life and Indigenous’ peoples March led by Phillips. Having revealed the true intent in Phillips’ engagement in the Indigenous’ peoples March, the conflict is quickly translated into a millennial fight between good (catholic MAGA hat kids) and evil (Phillips as an agent of the Deep State). Here we shall limit ourselves to the most prominent line of interpretation – staging the incident as a bid of the Deep State to incite anti-Catholic sentiments in order to weaken Trump’s sway over the Supreme Court of the United States.

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Nearly three months before the MAGA kid incident, an associate judge of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG), had suffered a multiple rib fracture demanding surgery and considerable medical care, and vanished from both public and professional life to recover from the incident. This led QAnons and other germane groups to believe that she is in fact dead, and negotiations are taking place regarding her replacement. Memes in this respect point to an elaborate scheme (fig. 15) to thwart or delay the nomination of Amy Coney Barret – Trump’s potential Supreme Court candidate and an openly faithful Catholic. Remembering that the ultimate goal of the QAnon community is the “Great Awakening”, the memes in this regard also aim for a general galvanization of the QAnon to wake people up in the course of fighting the ‘evil’ (fig. 14). The incentive resonates strongly in the comment sections.

(13)This tells me that he is being paid to slury the media message about Catholics. Yep. Getting ready for [RBG]

(14)This is to get people riled up and anti catholic for the next Supreme court nominee once they announce Ginsberg is dead

(14.1)  That is exactly the reason they are doing all of this. It is planned and paid for folks. Wake Up. The replacement for Ginsberg is going to be a Catholic female. They are trying to get the public up in arms about Catholics! It is called brainwashing the sheep!

(14.2)  yes, I believe that is a piece of the puzzle

As previously noted, Qanons are convinced that RBG is dead or her death will be announced in a near future (indicated in the QAnon code by a kill box [name] surrounding a given target, as used by 13). Once again we see a call for unity against the divisive subterfuge and scheming of the Deep State “to get people riled up and anti catholic” (14). Looking at some of the reactions to 14, commentators do not perceive the incident as isolated; it is “a piece of the puzzle” (14.2) or a larger effort in “brainwashing the sheep” (14.1). A frequent attempt to realize or uncover the bigger picture consists of drawing parallels among similar events in order to ergoically infer the mechanisms or strategies deployed by the Deep State.

(13) The Democrat Party Their sycophants Of The Main Stream Media And the Holly’s Wood elites, have become toxic… they have no respect for Christians or Catholicism …they have escalated the false narrative about the incident instigated by Nathan Phillips, to the same level as “Obama and Hands Up Don’t Shoot”…this fake news has been used by the Democrats and their sycophants of the MSM to sow Racial and Religious Division among Americans…

(14)OK, this POS is obviously paid off to attack all things Catholicism..Hmmmm…I wonder why??? Nothing to do with RBG and the new projected SCOTUS [Supreme Court of the United States] judge right? They are not even clever.. Their playbook is simple. You are a racist, sexist with masculine toxicity, homophobic committing face crimes while smirking. Don’t worry, I see some of my liberal friends starting to question and see the light. The BS is so thick right now that you would have to be mentally compromised or a victim of mind control to buy what the media is selling. Its bombastic and even more sophomoric than before. Doesn’t seem possible but it happens.

In this regard, 13 draws parallel to the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown who had been allegedly killed by a police officer while surrendering. The event gave way to ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ – slogan/gesture gaining media traction and quickly spilling into protests and activist moments (e.g. Black Lives Matter) against police violence. In the wake of the event, then-president Obama responded with sympathy for Brown and called the Americans to remember him through “reflection and understanding” (Obama 2014: n. pag.; cf. fig. 14) – a move which is now perceived as part of preparing fertile ground for contemporary division along the racial and religious lines, especially in the light of the controversy[1] that surrounded the shooting soon afterwards.

On the other hand, 14 tailors an ergoic frame laced with irony in a series of rhetorical questions, pointing to a ready-made scenario presumed to be enacted by the Deep State on similar occasions. The obviousness (“you would have to be mentally compromised or a victim of mind control to buy what the media is selling”) behind perceived behavioral order attributed to the Deep State seems to be the driving force reifying not only the Q masterframe, but also their knowledge activism gradually leading to fruition (“Don’t worry, I see some of my liberal friends starting to question and see the light”). Although the notion of the Deep State is rarely explicitly mentioned, it functions as a codification of discursive properties or chronotopic conditions that organize and ratify meaning-making processes related to mediated events, whereby ‘the truth’ can be discerned as a historical contingency in which its individual parts (Obama as its architect, democrats – including Clinton and Warren – as the enactors, the mainstream media as its instruments, Hollywood’s elites as its promoters, and Soros as the financial engine) work in conjunction to manipulate the public against Trump.

To summarize, we see knowledge activism of the QAnon community as not just  exposing or spreading ‘the truth’  in ‘Great Awakening’, but rather as an effort to instill a specific ergoic mode of reasoning to be applied in everyday life (alternatively described as ‘metapolitics’ (Maly 2018), ‘conspiracism’ (Barkun 2016; Byford 2011) or ‘paranoia’ (Hofstadter 1967)). The recipients or target audience are not categorized in terms of specific social or identity diacritics, and even the ideological opponents are not excluded – simply everyone ”see the light”. QAnon’s knowledge activism strives to reach beyond echo chambers of the Q related groups and platforms – it is to be enacted both online and offline, but with a constant recursion to the source of Q and QAnons. In this sense, knowledge activism constitutes the main organizing principle of the Qanon community, it secures its social cohesion in the face of a great internal diversity as well as dispersed and disembodied character of social media giving rise to temporal and loosely connected light forms of sociality in the online-offline nexus (Blommaert and Varis 2015; van Dijck, Poell and de Waal 2019).

4. Conclusions

The different actions documented in the preceding section are all guided by the “truth” inscribed in the deep state theory; details of the event can be ergoically connected, through “research” by Q members, to features of the theory – which is thereby continually confirmed and reiterated as the truth about “how the world is”. The actions we observed are all oriented towards knowledge, and Q can, as a community, be described as profoundly involved in knowledge activism. This knowledge activism is “reasonable” while it is profoundly antirational: it operates according to a compelling logic, the validity of which resides in the quality of the theory. When the quality of the theory remains unexamined and unquestioned, it is very hard to dislodge the specific ergoic arguments produced in the process. Conspiracy theories, we can see, are powerful argumentative tools.

It is through attention to concrete actions performed by members that we get a glimpse of the structure of an otherwise elusive community such as Q and of the ordered, patterned character of their actions. We are not observing an accidental congregation of people misled by first impressions and fake facts: we see a regimented community collectively performing a set of well-defined and ‘specialized’, genred actions, in a way that combines a light organizational structure with massive algorithmically mediated message circulation and considerable impact on public opinion, by systematically (and reasonably) dislodging and reframing what is widely accepted as the truth. This is serious business, and it is hardcore contemporary politics.

Acknowledgment

Research for this paper was supported by the ESF project “International Mobility of Researchers at Charles University” (No.: CZ.02.2.69/0.0/0.0/16_027/0008495). We gratefully acknowledge the stimulating input of Piia Varis. 

References

Anons (2018).Q: The Basics An Introduction to Q and the Great Awakening. 8chan 24/03/2019https://media.8ch.net/file_store/df825ce8cc8efe7b90579de958a15d47e4e8033e0cee38ae872d7682b6387e5a.pdf

Barkun, Michael (2016). Conspiracy Theories as Stigmatized Knowledge. Diogenes 2016, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1177/0392192116669288

Bengal, Rebecca (2018) Return to Standing Rock. Vogue 18/04/2018 https://www.vogue.com/projects/13542941/return-to-standing-rock/

Blommaert, Jan &PiiaVaris (2015) Enoughness, accent and light communities:Essays on contemporary identities. Tilburg Papers of Culture Studies, Paper 139: 1-72.

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

Blommaert, Jan, Lu Ying & Li Kunming (2019) From the Self to the Selfie. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies paper 222. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/c7b3f715-f213-4198-b196-42594e426181_TPCS_222_Blommaert-Lu-Li.pdf

Byford, Jovan (2011) Conspiracy theories.A critical introduction.Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Clarke, Steve (2007). Conspiracy Theories and the Internet – Controlled Demolition and Arrested Development. Episteme 4(2), 167–180.

Dentith, Matthew (2014). The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dijck, José van, Thomas Poell, and Martijn de Waal 2018The platform society: public values in a connective world.New York: Oxford University Press.

Garfinkel, Harold (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall

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

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

Hofstadter, Richard (1967). Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. New
York: Vintage Books.

Maly, Ico (2018).The global New Right and the Flemish identitarian movement Schild&VriendenAcase study.Tilburg Papers of Culture Studies, Paper 220: 1-27.

Obama, Barack (2014) Statement by the President on the Passing of Michael Brown. The White House Office of the Press Secretary 12/08/2014 https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/08/12/statement-president-passing-michael-brown

Popper, Karel R. (1972) Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (4th Ed.). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Sidner, Sara (2019) NativeAmericanelder Nathan Phillips, in his ownwords. CNN 12/03/ 2019 https://edition.cnn.com/2019/01/21/us/nathan-phillips-maga-teens-interview/index.html

Spencer, Dave (2015) Native American claims racial harassment by EMU students dressed as Indians. Fox 2 Detroit 22/04/2015 http://www.fox2detroit.com/news/native-american-claims-racial-harassment-by-emu-students-dressed-as-indians

Varis, Piia (2018) Conspiracy theorizing online. Diggit Magazine 12/05/2018, https://www.diggitmagazine.com/articles/conspiracy-theorising-online

Warren, Elizabeth (2019) “Omaha elder and Vietnam War veteran Nathan Phillips endured hateful taunts with dignity and strength, then urged us all to do better.“ Twitter 19/1/2019 https://twitter.com/senwarren/status/1086824484278095872?lang=en

Wood, Michael J. & Karen M. Douglas (2013) ‘What about building 7?’A social psychological study of online discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories.Frontiers in Psychology, July 2013. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00409

Acknowledgment

We are deeply grateful to our colleague and friend PiiaVaris for inspiration and guidance in the field of conspiracy theories. Piia’s work (e.g. Varis 2018) sketched the direction and raised the issues we try to address in this paper.

From the Self to the Selfie

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Jan Blommaert, Lu Ying, Li Kunming

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

An action-centered perspective

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

Such online interaction, as we know,

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

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

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

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

A number of principles characterize this tradition.

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

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

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

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

Our analytic vignettes will provide arguments.

Becoming an expert user of memes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ScreenHunter_03 Feb. 19 14.28

Figure 1: “posh” Biaoqing

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

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

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

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

The care of the Selfie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

[1]Acknowledgments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is on message

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Jan Blommaert

(Also published on Diggit Magazine)

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

From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to AOC

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

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

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

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

screenhunter_1445 jan. 21 14.18

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

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

AOC is on message

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

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

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

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

screenhunter_1446 jan. 21 14.19

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

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

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

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Formatting online actions: #justsaying on Twitter

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

(eds. Jerry Won Lee & Sender Dovchin)

Jan Blommaert

1.Translingualism in the online-offline nexus

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

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

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

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

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

2. Hashtags and translingualism

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

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

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

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

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

3. #justsaying as action: basics

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

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

3.1. Standalone act

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

standalone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.2. Sidetracking and reframing

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

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

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

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

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Example 4:

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. #justsaying as complex reframing

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

BDW

Example 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

BDW 3

Example 6

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

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

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

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

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

echt finaal schema

Figure 1: complex reframing actions in examples 5-6

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

5. Hashtags and translingualism revisited

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

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

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

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

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

References

Agha, Asif (2005) Voice, footing, enregisterment. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15/1: 38-59.

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

Blaszka, Matthew, Lauren Burch, Evan Frederick, Galen Clavio & Patrick Walsh (2012) #Worldseries: An empirical examination of a Twitter hashtag during a major sporting event. International Journal of Sport Communication 5:4: 435-453.

Blommaert, Jan (2012)Supervernaculars and their dialects. Dutch Journal of Applied Linguistics 1/1: 1-14.

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

Bonilla, Yarimar & Jonathan Rosa (2015) #Ferguson: Digital protest, hashtag ethnographyand the racial politics of social media in the United States. American Ethnologist 42/1: 4-17.

boyd, dana (2014) It’s Complicated: The Social Life of Networked Teens. New Haven: Yale University Press

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

Craig, Robert & Alena Sanusi (2000) ‘I’m just saying…’: Discourse markers as standpoint continuity. Argumentation 14/4: 425-445.

De Cock, Barbara & Andrea Pizarro Pedraza (2018) From expressing solidarity to mocking on Twitter: Pragmatic functions of hashtags starting with #jesuis across languages. Language in Society: 47/2: 197-217.

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

Goffman, Erving (1975 [1974]) Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Goodwin, Charles & Marjorie Harness Goodwin (1992) Context, activity and participation. In Peter Auer & Aldo DiLuzio (eds.) The Contextualization of Language: 77-99. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Goodwin, Charles and Marjorie Harness Goodwin (2004), Participation. In Alessandro Duranti (ed.), A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, 222–44, Malden: Blackwell

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

Jackson, Sarah J. (2016) (Re)imagining intersectional democracy from black feminis to hashtag activism. Women’s Studies in Communication 39/4: 375-379.

Mendes, Kaitlinn, Jessica Ringrose & Jessalyn Keller (2018) . #MeToo and the promise and pitfalls of challenging rape culture through digital activism. European Journal of Women’s Studies 25/2:236-246.

Szabla, Malgorzata& Jan Blommaert (2018) Does context really collapse in social media interaction? Applied Linguistics Review(in press).

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

Tremayne, Mark (2014) Anatomy of protest in the digital era: A network analysis of Twitter and Occupy Wall Street. Social Movement Studies 13/1: 110-126.

Wang, Yuan, Jie Liu, Yalou Huang & Xia Feng (2016) Using hashtag graph-based topic model to connect semantically related words without co-occurrence in microblogs. IEEE Transactions on Knowledge and Data Engineering 28/7: 1919-1933.

Zappavigna, Michele (2012) Discourse of Twitter and social media: How we use language to create affiliation on the Web. London: Continuum.

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Context and its complications

chat-english-online

Jan Blommaert, Laura Smits, Noura Yacoubi

Draft chapter, Handbook of Discourse Studies (eds. A. De Fina & A. Georgakopoulou). London: Routledge 2019.

Abstract: The point of departure for this chapter is the contention that the online-offline communicative economy in which we now live compels us to rethink some of the core vocabulary and assumptions underlying our thinking about ‘context’ and ‘contextualization’ in discourse studies. We formulate a set of proposals grounded in the interactionist tradition and focused on (inter)action rather than on participants and communities. Next, we propose to see contextualization as a process that takes us from chronotopes over frames to formats of action, situationally deployed.

Introduction: Online-offline action

In his classic Cognitive Sociology, Aaron Cicourel made the following general observation:

The problem of meaning for the anthropologist-sociologist can be stated as how members of a society or culture acquire a sense of social structure to enable them to negotiate everyday activities. (Cicourel 1974: PAGE)

This statement can serve as an extraordinarily accurate description of what was later called and methodologically developed as “contextualization” (Gumperz 1982, 1992; also Auer & DiLuzio 1992; Duranti & Goodwin 1992). Yet two components of the statement demand closer attention: “social structure” and “everyday activities”, for since the beginning of the 21st century the realities of social structure and the range and modes of everyday activities have been profoundly affected by the generalized introduction of a layer of online social life, complicating the offline social world on which these earlier formulations of contextualization were based. In this chapter, we intend to sketch the complications emerging from discourse produced interactionally in such an online-offline environment now serving as the backdrop for what Ron Scollon (2001) called “the nexus of practice”.

We must pay closer attention to the aspects of contextualization that have changed, we said, but that does not mean that we must do so from within a methodological tabula rasa. We believe the effort can be profitably made by means of some central insights and principles from within the interactional tradition of discourse studies. In fact, all the scholars already mentioned here belonged to that stream of ethnographically grounded studies of actual situated discursive practice, which has been the richest source of fundamental reflections on the notion of context and its role in social interaction. It is from that source that we can draw the general principles directing our discussion:

  1. Context should not be seen as an abstract, stable or latent presence; it is a resource deployed in concrete socially situated meaning-making action: context is always contextualization.In that sense, it is highly unpredictable, evolving, dynamic and unstable. Also, while contexts operate at various scale-levels and structures a multitude of concrete interactions, the analytical point of departure is their situated effects on making sense. To quote Herbert Blumer in this respect: “People (…) do not act toward culture, social structure or the like, they act toward situations” (Blumer 1969: PAGE)
  2. Contextualization is the key to making sense, because it consists of interactionally constructed indexical connections between actual discursive features and relevant chunks of sociocultural knowledge (Silverstein 1992; Hymes 1996; Gumperz 2003; Agha 2007).
  3. Such indexically deployed and invoked knowledge is never neutral but always evaluative and in that sense moral, and by extension identity-related (e.g. Goodwin 2007). Making sense is a moral judgment grounded in socioculturally available normative-behavioral scripts situationally projected onto persons. Goffman (1974) called such moralized scripts “frames”; the ways we implement them have been variously called (with distinctions not overly relevant here) “indexical order” (Silverstein 2003) and “orders of indexicality” (Blommaert 2005). The concepts are joined by their emphasis on (Bakhtinian) evaluative uptake and on the dimension of social order as part of meaning-making practices – recall Cicourel’s statement quoted above.
  4. The contextual resources that people draw upon in interaction have to be recognizable, but not necessarily shared (Garfinkel 2002; also Blommaert & Rampton 2016: 28-31). Sharedness is evolving as the interaction proceeds but can also evolve as a shared sense of misunderstanding, i.e. a shared sense that very little of substance is shared in the interaction. What needs to be recognizable is the broad outline of a format of interaction, a general script for social action.

We can see that these principles favor action over content and participants, and situated and evolving effects over a priori categories (such as speech acts, conversational maxims, “meaning” and “understanding”). The reason for these preferences is that, due to the changes described above, very little can be taken for granted with respect to what is “ordinary” and “normal” in communication. To name just a few of the widely used assumptions that need to be qualified: the assumption that communication is self-evidently a human-to-human activity has been challenged by human-machine interactions, and has thus become a variable rather than a stable feature. This, of course, has numerous knock-on effects on widely used criteria in theories of meaning: intentionality, agency, (human) rationality. Even more widespread is the assumption that the most “normal” or primitive form of communication – in the sense of: the kind of communication on which we base our fundamental theoretical imagination – is unmediated, spoken dyadic face-to-face interaction in shared physical timespace and between persons sharing massive amounts of knowledge, experience and sociocultural norms within a sedentary community (an offline conversation between similar people, in short). The online world has critically destabilized that assumption by inserting scripted, multimodal, non-simultaneous, translocally mobile, multiparty and technologically heavily mediated forms of everyday communication into the communicative economies of very large numbers of people, not as peripheral modes of interaction but as important, inevitable ones. We now communicate intensely with interlocutors with whom we do not share much (not even acquaintance as a natural person and a human subject), across space and time, and through complex modes of non-acoustic semiotic work.

Our core vocabulary and assumptions derive from an implicit sociological imagination of which we assume that it reflects the true state of things. Changes in the state of things often take some time before they translate into an alternative sociological imagination (cf. Mills 1959; also Blommaert 2018a). In the meantime, however, they render some of our core vocabulary for talking about language, interaction and meaning-making less salient and applicable, and invite a focus on the phenomena we can identify as constants. The constant feature, we would argue, is social action – a synonym, as Anselm Strauss (1993) among others emphasized, for interaction. Even if we now communicate with machines, with unknown mass audiences (as in mass online gaming), by means of delayed, asynchronous messages scripted in new forms of graphic visualization and design – we are still performing interactions in attempts to make sense of our world. Taking social action, defined in this sense, as our ontological point of departure enables us to start describing and understanding old and new patterns of interaction, how they intersect and how they structure our social lives.

With these principles established, we shall now engage with four different sets of issues, all of them inspired by the changes we noted earlier: the transition from an offline world of communication to an online-offline one. Some of these issues are not new – they have been constant features of debates on context and contextualization – but demand a renewed engagement in view of changes in the world of communication. In reviewing them, we will make proposals for reimagining aspects of them and for adopting another vocabulary in our descriptions of them.

Beyond the macro and micro: recognizability and formatting

A persistent feature of discussions of context and its uses in scholarship is the use of the “micro-macro” dichotomy (occasionally turned into a triad by inserting “meso” in between). “Micro”-contexts would then be the factors affecting and informing local, situated events: the timespace frame, the participants, the immediately and directly relevant social roles, the topic, and so forth. “Macro”, in turn, would stand for the nonlocal, broader factors in which the event can be situated and by which it is indirectly affected: the wider historical, sociocultural and political parts of the picture making (at least part of) the event understandable (see the discussion in e.g. Goffman 1964; Silverstein 1992;Cicourel 1992; Duranti 1997; Blommaert 2015a).

While such distinctions might be discursively and heuristically helpful, they are methodologically unhelpful from the perspective we formulated above. They do point to a fundamental fact: the non-unified and complex nature of context – any context – but they do so in an inaccurate way. Certainly when we become aware of the ways in which they rest on a particular sociological imagination, and of the ways in which and structure an epistemological field. The sociological imagination on which the dichotomy between “micro” and “macro” rests is the one sketched earlier: a world in which we can separate and isolate specific aspects of social life as being the direct conditions for conduct – the local, sedentary, individual, variable and mundane aspects – while other aspects appear to only indirectly inflect such conditions for conduct, due to their remoteness and their stable, collective character. The first set of facts we could call “processual” factors, and they would always be unique, while they others would be “procedural”, and they would be general. The first set would index “community” – a specific small-scale group involved in shared practices, but diverse and changeable – while the latter would index “society” – the organized, stable, enduring, systemic large-scale group characterized by common institutional characteristics. Obviously, this imagination of the social world is far removed from what Castells (1996), in a visionary text, called the online-offline “network society” (cf. also Blommaert 2018a).

The dichotomy between “micro” and “macro” also structures an epistemological field in which “micro” would stand for the anecdotal, the concrete, the singular, the possible exception, the empirical and the “token”, while “macro” would point to the systemic, the abstract, the generalizable, the norm, the theoretical and the “type”. Thus, so-called “micro-sociologists” and ethnographers would be dismissed as scholars whose attention to the uniquely situated features of cases precludes any attempt towards valid generalization, because generalization can only be made at a “macro” level of analysis where analytical detail has to be surrendered to abstraction (see the discussions in e.g. Mills 1959, Blumer 1969, Giddens 1984).

From a viewpoint privileging social action, all of this is highly unproductive, and the acuteness of the problem was repeatedly emphasized by Pierre Bourdieu and others. Bourdieu – often seen as a “macro”-sociologist whose work speaks to society at large – would emphasize that concepts such as “habitus” (a general concept) could only emerge through ethnographic attention to actual situated practice, not by statistical surveys. It was by observing the struggles of Algerian farmers to come to terms with a new market economy that Bourdieu saw the actual working of capitalism as propelled into socioculturally inhabited modes of practice (Bourdieu 2000; cf Blommaert 2015b). The big things reside in the small things, and the most inconspicuous and uniquely situated social action is, in that sense, “systemic” and “typical”, as well as the source for theoretical generalization. Evidently, the same insight animated Goffman’s work on interactional ritual and frames (1967, 1974): even if all instances of human interaction are unique, they display general characteristics and patterns sufficient to lift them from “micro” to “macro” relevance (cf. also Rampton 2016).

This is the point where we can start formulating a proposal in line with the principles outlined above. And we can draw for inspiration on the authors just mentioned, as well as on Garfinkel’s (2002) uncompromising formulations of the issue. Garfinkel saw recognizability as the key to understanding the social nature of interaction, and as already mentioned above, recognizability should not be equated with sharedness of norms, assumptions and worldviews. It is a recognition of the joint potential for specific modes of action that gives such action the character of “congregational work”, he argued – work performed collectively because we are jointly involved in it. We enter jointly into an action of which we know very little outside its possible general features, and we jointly construct such actions as forms of social order. This order can be entirely ad hoc, temporary and ephemeral. But while it lasts, it is a firm order that generates roles and identities along with a range of moral codes controlling (mis)behavior.

It is this aspect of recognizability, generating congregational work and its social outcomes, that renders distinctions between the factors discriminating “micro” and “macro” aspects of the act meaningless. Since acts are social, they will draw on available and accessible social resources – from the different social positions from which we enter the action, the kinds of language and discourse we use, over the topic, to the actual things we say, hear, write or read (cf. also Briggs 2005). And even if we see that such resources are unevenly distributed, a degree of order will emerge from the action itself. The latter was exemplified in a magnificent study by Charles Goodwin (2004), in which a man who,following a stroke, had lost almost all of his linguistic capabilities was shown to engage in lengthy and complex interactions with his friends and relatives. Evidently, the absence of shared linguistic resources imposes constraints on what can happen in such forms of interaction – resources are crucial contexts for interaction (Blommaert 2005: 58-62); but when we intend to understand what is happening, recognizability is the key.

Recognizability, however, is not an empty and random container. We recognize particular social situations and their features as something specific – a quarrel, a lecture or a Facebook update – on the basis of perceived properties of the situation (what Garfinkel  called ”autochthonous order properties”, 2002: 245) associated with what Goffman called “frames”: the ways in which we organize our experience. Recognizing a situation means framing it along what we could call a general indexical vector, i.e. entering that situation as one that imposes and enables specific forms of interaction, one or different orders of indexicality. When we recognize something as a Facebook update, we recognize that it enables (among other actions) different forms of response, and that it imposes keyboard writing and a specific set of symbols (e.g. emoticons) as techniques for responding to it. When we recognize the particular update as an instance of trolling, we recognize it as enabling an unfriendly response, and so forth. This we can call, following Garfinkel, formatting: shaping the particular situated interaction in “typical” (i.e. generic, non-unique) ways and bringing the “sense of social structure” mentioned by Cicourel into the particular action we are engaged in with others.

A lot of what we do in the work of contextualization is moving from recognition through framing to formatting. We do so dialogically in congregational work with others, and we do so by drawing upon socioculturally marked – indexicalized – resources that acquire a general direction in such activities. This, we propose, is the cornerstone of the argument here. We can now proceed to elaborate it further.

Chronotopes, scales and synchronization

In every moment of interaction, contextualization draws upon specific and non-unified resources (cf. Cicourel 1967, 1974; Silverstein 1992). Both dimensions are crucial if we wish to avoid undue simplifications such as “the context for this utterance is X”. The contextual resources drawn upon in contextualizing concrete interactions are inevitably multiple and layered (cf. Blommaert 2005). But they are not infinite, and not without structure and pattern. If we draw upon Goffman’s frames, we see that social experience is organized into such structures and patterns, in which particular forms of interaction – with attributes to be discussed in a moment – are attached to specific social situations in forms comparable to what Bakhtin called “chronotopes”.

Bakhtin developed the notion of chronotope (literally “timespace”) as a way to describe the sociohistorical layering in novels, more precisely the ways in which invocations of particular sociohistorical frames structured “voices” in specific situations, infusing them with identity scripts, moral orientations, participation frameworks (Goodwin & Goodwin 1992), expected and unexpected normative modes of conduct and roles within the situation – in short, the full sociocultural value of otherwise random forms of action (see the discussion in Blommaert 2015a and Blommaert & De Fina 2016). Thus in a fairy tale, the Big Bad Wolf is exactly that: male, big and bad, a threat to the others, and someone to be defeated by the others. Chronotopes, seen from this rather orthodox Bakhtinian perspective, provide moralized behavioral scripts in specific social situations (we called them formats above), and the recognition of social situations as specific (e.g. as a formal meeting) will prompt such scripts: as soon as the chair announces the beginning of the meeting, we will all reorganize our conduct, assume a different set of body poses, discursive patterns and relations with the other participants (e.g. respecting the chair’s formal leadership and the differential allocation of speaking rights), and align with the congregational work performed by the others. As soon as the meeting is over, we can shift back into another register of conduct, and the opponent during the meeting can turn into an ally in the pub during the post-meeting drink. Chronotopes impose formats on those inhabiting them, and this means that from the potentially infinite aspects of context animating events, a specific subset will be invoked and deployed as the normative script for conduct within that chronotopic situation, as the specific bit of social order to be followed by all those involved. Violating or disrupting that order – Goffman called them frame breaking – comes with moral judgments: everyday notions such as inappropriateness, rudeness, insolence, being off-topic, or trolling come to mind (cf. Blommaert & De Fina 2016; see Tagg, Seargeant & Brown 2017 for social media examples).

Chronotopes are, we believe, a useful gloss to address the specific nature of context and contextualization, one that forces us to examine with utmost precision what is elsewhere simply called “the context” of actual interactions. The notion also offers us a view of context as active, something that structures action and makes it socially recognizable and, thence, socially valued. The demand for precision will almost inevitably lead to outcomes in which particular chronotopes are

  • composed of several different actions and types of actions, as when someone checks his/her email or takes orders for sandwiches during a formal meeting – where each of these will have to proceed along the specific formats for such actions. Goffman (1974: 561) clearly pointed to that (using the term “realm statuses” for what we call formats here), and see e.g. Goodwin (2013) for excellent discussions.
  • Connected to other chronotopes, as when the relations between participants in a formal meeting are affected by already existing interpersonal relationships specific to other areas of social life or when the history of a particular issue is invoked as a frame for discussing its present status, or even when quoted or indirect speech is introduced into interaction embedding one chronotope and its actual voices into another one (e.g. Voloshinov 1973; Goodwin 2003).

Both outcomes are particularly interesting, for they take us to the issue of the non-unified nature of context and bring issues of scale into view (cf. Blommaert 2015a). Scale can best be understood as reflections and expressions of how social beings experience dimensions of sociocultural reality as indexical vectors, as informing the general normative patterns that shape formats of action (cf. Das  2016; Carr & Lempert 2016). Scales, thus, are interpretive and normative-evaluative, suggesting distinctions between what is general and what is specific, what is important and what is not, what is widely known and what isn’t, what is valid and what is not, what can be widely communicated and what cannot, what can be widely recognized and understood and what cannot. There is nothing stable, absolute or a priori about scales – we can obliquely recall our discussion of the “micro-macro” distinction here – for what we see in actual discursive work are scalar effects. To give a simple example: when the history of a particular issue is invoked as a decisive argument in discussing its present status, then that history is presented as a way of upscaling the current issue to normative levels immune to contemporary petty or personal concerns (“We already discussed and decided this point in January, there is no point in returning to it now!”) Conversely, when someone raises a point which is not seen by others as belonging to the most general normative layer of what goes on, it can be downscaled (“This is a detail” or “This is just your personal opinion”). In their actual deployment, scalar effects are indexically ordered degrees of moralization in social actions.

The presence of such non-unified (plural and scaled) contexts in concrete situations brings us to a third notion: synchronization (cf. Blommaert 2005: 131-137, 2018b). The scalar effects we just mentioned occur in real-time and on-the-spot moments of interaction, in a sort of evolving “synchrony” which hides layers of non-synchronous resources and folds them together into momentary and situated instances of making sense. We call this process synchronization because the highly diverse resources that are deployed as context are focused, so to speak, onto one single point in social action. In other branches of scholarship this process would be called “decision making”, with strong undertones of individual rational calibration. From an action-centered perspective, synchronization is a collaborative social act in which the format, not the rational calculation of its actors, is predominant (cf. Goodwin 2013).

Within such formats, synchronization ensures the degree of coherence we expect to find in interactions as an essential component in making sense of situations.

Formatting and nonlinear outcomes

Coherence, however, must not be imagined as a straight line from premises to conclusion. Neither can formats be imagined as closed boxes with extraordinarily transparent orders of indexicality, generally known to all participant. As said earlier, order is evolving and contingent upon the congregational work performed by participants. Recognizing a situation, we explained, proceeds through perceived order properties of such situations that can be framed into formats, then guiding the actions of participants. But outcomes cannot be linearly predicted from the starting conditions, because multiple forms of action can emerge within the same format, and be coherent to the participants. In other words, different kinds of actions can be ratified as properly within the format; formats allow nonlinear actions, and when it comes to normativity in connection to formats, we see a relatively open and relaxed form of normativity there.

This violates several older assumptions about communication. In speech act theory, J.L. Austin famously distinguished clear “felicity” conditions for smooth and “correct” interaction, while deviations of them (even a violation of one of them) would make the interaction “unhappy”, or “infelicitous”.  Equally famous are Grice’s (1975) “maxims” for conversation – conditions for maintaining a well-ordered mode of interaction with any other interlocutor. Both (and many others) grounded their theories into widely shared folk views of the strong normative order required for interaction. Another set of assumptions that is violated by the nonlinearity-within-the-format we mentioned is that underlying the kind of naïve survey methodology devastatingly criticized by Cicourel (1964) and others. In such survey enterprises, the stability of the format is used as an argument for the stability of its outcomes. Concretely, it is assumed that as long as we ask the same questions in the same format to large numbers of respondents, the answers will be commensurable because each respondent was addressed identically. Converted into the terms we are using here, stable formats will generate linear actions, since every action will be an identical response to an identical prompt. Cicourel’s penetrating critique targeted the impressive amount of ignorance about actual forms of communication buried inside this methodological assumption, leading to the incredible suggestion that hundreds of different people would all have identical understandings of a question (and its meanings for the analyst) and that the actual (and highly diverse) conditions of the question-and-answer events would not have any effects on the respondents.

The fallacies of such assumptions can be shown through the following example, involving the present authors. In late 2017 Jan Blommaert set up a small practical exercise in research interviewing for MA students including Laura Smits and Noura Yacoubi. The instructions were clear: pairs needed to be formed and the roles of interviewer versus interviewee needed to be assigned; the interview was to proceed in English and (unbeknownst to the interviewees), the interview had to contain some potentially frame-disturbing elements. One of these elements was the opening question: “who are you really?” The format, we can see, was entirely scripted and uniform for all the teams.

Laura and Noura were both interviewees and were interviewed by classmates with whom both had a history of friendly personal encounters and lengthy conversations – in Dutch. All of them – interviewers and interviewees – were also students in the same year of the same program track at Tilburg University. Thus we can suppose other elements of potential stability to be there: shared membership of a clearly defined community, a shared history of interaction making all participants familiar with each other’s speech habits and idiosyncrasies, and also enabling all to know quite well who the other “really” was. Laura and Noura, however, responded to this question in radically different ways. Let us look at the sequences following the question; in the transcript “I” stands for “interviewer” and “R” for “respondent”.

Laura’s answer

I:          SO Laura*, who are you REALLY?

R:        Who are I (am) really.. Eu::hm. What do you want to know of me. What is–what is really?

I:          TELL me something about yourself

R:        Okay. I’m Laura .. Laura Smits .. I a::m twenty-three years old .. eu::hm.. I study Global Communication here at Tilburg university I play volleyba::ll I have a little sister, I have a boyfriend, and I live in Tilburg eu::hm furthermore<1> I think<1> I am very happy at the mome::nt in the situation I live in .. eu::hm ja* enjoying life/ …

I:          Okay.

 

Noura’s answer

I:          Uhm .. who are you really?

R:        Who I am?

I:          Yes

R:        Well.. what do you mean? What do you want to know?//

I:          Yeahh who are you?//

R:        That is a.. difficult question [Laughing]/

I:          Why is it difficult?//

R:        Because you are asking *a lot* at the same time. Do you want to know my characteristics, my name, my birth, my hobbies, do you want to know my study?

I:         Tell me what *you think* who you really are//

R:        *Dude* [Laughing] well I am a… Dutch, well Moroccan-Dutch girl, born here, I’m uuhh 22 years old. Uuhm who I am? <2> Well I am a student that is part of my identity, I *feel* as a student, I am.. living the life of a student. Uhmm.. I am studying global communication/

I:         Ohh

R:        What a coincidence [Laughing]

I:         Me too [Laughing]

R:        Can you ask.. can you ask the question more specific?//

I:         Is this really who you really are?

R:        Well it’s uhm.. it is quite a lot who I am I mean.. also history comes into pla::y, also family comes into pla::y uuh who I am yeah I am a human being//

I:         Okay but/

R:        Punt

We see that Laura and Noura are both initially looking for the right frame, as both ask for clarification of their interviewers’ actions (“what do you want to know”?). Both, consequently, receive a reiteration of the question (part of the instructions given by Jan to the interviewers). But what follows are two entirely different courses of action. Laura instantly aligns with the perceived frame and gives what we could call a “profile answer” – the kind of clearly organized factual and affective information offered on social media profiles and in short introductory “pitches” to unknown people. She “neutralizes”, so to speak, the interviewer whom she considered to be a close friend, and addresses her in her role as an interviewer performing an unusual kind of interaction, which in the same move is “normalized”: this is an interview, it’s strange, but we’ll do it the way it should be done. The synchronization towards the format is complete in Laura’s case. Noura, by contrast, does not exit the interpersonal and intertextual frame, but engages in several turns of metapragmatic negotiation with the interviewer (also someone with whom she maintained a very friendly personal relationship), expressing discomfort and resistance to align with the format in utterances such as “dude” and “punt” (meaning “period”, “that’s it”). And while she does offer a kind of “profile answer” at some point, the answer is followed by a repeated request for clarification of what goes on. The chronotope of interpersonal friendship sits uncomfortably with that of the training interview, and synchronization is a process that demands quite a bit of construction work here. Note, however, that later in the interview Noura offers long and detailed autobiographical-narrative answers; the synchronization demands more work but happens eventually.

If Austin’s felicity conditions would be rigorously applied here, Noura’s initial response would perhaps be called “unhappy”, a “misfire”. Laura’s response would, from a similar perspective, be “correct” and “happy”, as it articulates the linear uptake of the interviewer’s action. From the viewpoint of making sense of the particular situation, however, Noura’s actions and those of Laura are equivalent and fit the format in spite of their substantial differences. What we can take from this is that uniformity in format does not guarantee uniformity in actions – a confirmation of Cicourel’s critique of assumptions to the contrary – and that diverse lines of action can occur within the same format, even if some actions are not linear responses to what preceded. Formats are not one-size-fits-all and linear–normative units.

Context collapse versus expansion

At this point, our action-centered proposal is complete: we see contextualization as the recognition of a situation through perceived order properties of such situations, that can be framed into formats, then guiding the actions of participants. We submit that it is applicable to interaction online and offline, since it avoids many of the core assumptions (and vocabulary) that are challenged by features of online interaction.

In studies of online interaction, “there are great analytical gains to be made by looking very closely at how particular activities are organized” (Goodwin & Goodwin 1992: 96). The advantages of that tactic can be illustrated by looking at an issue widely debated in the world of social media research: “context collapse”, i.e.

“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)

The theoretical and empirical validity of the concept of context collapse has been criticized by several discourse analysts (Georgakopoulou 2017a, 2017b; Tagg, Seargeant & Brown 2017; Szabla & Blommaert 2018). Indeed, online technology “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). But such complications cannot be solved by drawing on the sociological imagination we sketched earlier: that of “normal” dyadic face-to-face communication with well-known similar people in a tight community – which is what happens in the literature on context collapse. Such an anachronistic imagination spawns an abstract conceptualization of context as something which is only transparent when we situate humans in transparent situations in transparent communities, where “audiences” are known and trusted and people have full control over what they do in social action. When we move into the online world of online audiences and inconspicuous overhearers, of lurkers, aliases and bots, and of algorithms regulating the traffic and distribution of messages, such theoretical and analytic instruments obviously cease to be useful and have to be replaced by more flexible and precise ones.

In a case study of a long and highly complex discussion on a large Facebook group for Polish people living in The Netherlands, we used the action-centered perspective described here (Szabla & Blommaert 2018). At first glance, the case would be eminently qualified for context collapse: we had an enormous community of effective and potential participants, large enough to speak of a “networked audience” consisting of people who did not know each other. The lengthy nature of the online discussion may have disturbed our “metaphors of space and place” and the particular rudimentary platform affordances of Facebook may have complicated our expectations of coherence and sequentiality in dialogue, as responses to a prompt may not appear in adjacency but be separated by several intervening responses from others – a practical problem of synchronization, in fact. Facebook formats interactions in a curious way, and people may lose their bearings in such formats.

Our first empirical observation obviously complicated things further: the general activity of a “discussion” was, in actual fact, a mosaic of different actions, some linear and connected to the initial action (a request from a Polish-origin journalist for assistance in the making of a documentary on the labor conditions of Polish workers in The Netherlands) and many nonlinear, embedded and parallel to the initial action. People would indeed respond to the journalist’s request (and be redirected to the private messaging section of Facebook) but would also attack the orthographic errors in het Polish writing, discuss linguistic correctness in relation to Polish identity; they would accuse and scold each other on specific statements they had made, venture conspiracy theories about journalists and Polish émigrés, offer general observations about the work ethos of Polish and Dutch workers, and so forth. Each of these different lines of actions was normatively recognizable as a different chronotopic unit of participants, topics, orders of indexicality and moral codes, and was formatted accordingly.

The second observation, however, was that people found their way around this terrifically complex web of actions. The non-sequentiality of scripted Facebook interaction, the meandering of topics and participants and the generally confusing character of what went on did not appear as an obstacle for participants to participate in the specific parts of the event in which they got involved. We saw participation frameworks shift along with topic shifts, in such a way that just handfuls of people would be involved in an action, and know quite well who their actual addressees were and how they should proceed, and how they could migrate to another participation framework or exit the discussion when lines actions were closed. In other words: we saw plenty of congregational work shaping formats and subformats and connecting or disconnecting parts of the discussion from other parts. Participants made sense of the specific actions in which they were involved – they performed adequate contextualization work throughout, even if that included self- and other-correction and rectification, necessitated by the awkward Facebook discussion affordances. They recognized the specific situations, framed and formatted them into indexically ordered discursive actions. No contexts appeared to collapse; instead we saw an amazing density and intensity of contextualization work – context expansion, if you wish.

Conclusion

The example of context collapse versus context expansion brings us back to our point of departure: the need to rethink our commonly used notions of context and contextualization so as to make them useful and accurate for addressing a world of communication in which ordinary dyadic face-to-face conversation is no longer the Archimedian point and foundation for theory. Contemporary discourse analysts must be aware that the sociological imagination balancing on this Archimedian point is anachronistic, and that we cannot accurately address the phenomenology of contemporary communication without sacrificing that imagination. Doing that does not mean that we are left empty-handed to the task of analysis. We can fall back on reasonably robust tools and approaches that do not carry that bias of anachronism or can be refashioned so as to be free of it. In this chapter, we have made some proposals in that direction. Let they be a prompt for others to think along.

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The pleasures of an alias on social media.

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Jan Blommaert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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