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.

References

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Auer, Peter & Aldo DiLuzio (eds.) (1992) The Contextualization of Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

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Blommaert, Jan (2005) Discourse: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, Jan (2015a) Chronotopes, scales and complexity in the study of language in society. Annual Review of Anthropology 44: 105-116

Blommaert, Jan (2015b) Pierre Bourdieu: Perspectives on language in society. In Jan-Ola Östman & Jef Verschueren (eds.) Handbook of Pragmatics (2015): 1-16. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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From actions to groups and back: collective action in hashtag activism

ScreenHunter_1131 Mar. 27 16.22

Plenary lecture, conference Communication in the Multilingual City, Birmingham, 28-29 March 2018.

Jan Blommaert

In today’s multilingual city, a lot of communication is done in online environments. In fact, even in places that do not, perhaps, see themselves as multilingual, it is online communication that makes them multilingual (as much of the work on rural provinces in The Netherlands performed by my good Tilburg colleague Jos Swanenberg has demonstrated). The argument is not new, I know, and it has been reiterated at this conference as well. But let me nonetheless repeat it, for it underlies what follows: contemporary sociolinguistic environments are defined by the online-offline nexus, and this propels us towards two analytical directions: complexity and multimodality. I shall engage with both in this talk.

My engagement with these phenomena has pushed me, of late, to reflect on a very broad social-theoretical topic. That topic is: “what are groups”? Who actually lives in these multilingual cities?, and how do people whose social lives are continually dispersed over offline and online context arrive at forms of collective action?

Note that the question “what are groups” has been a recurrent one in social thought throughout the past century and a half. It always accompanies major technological and infrastructural transformations of societies: the breakthrough and spread of printed newspapers, the telegraph, cinema, telephone, television kept Weber, Durkheim and Simmel busy, as well as the Frankfurt School, Dewey, Lippman and later Giddens, Habermas, Bourdieu and Castells. New technologies each time called into question the very nature of what it meant to be social. That is: what it meant to form communities and collective action, using instruments not previously available. The question “what are groups” is, thus, inevitable when we consider the online-offline nexus that characterizes our societies at present.

In addressing the question, I take my cues from Garfinkel and other Symbolic Interactionists (including the Goodwins, I must underscore), for reasons that will be made clear in due course. Let me say at this point that contemporary social and sociolinguistic complexity creates a serious degree of unpredictability, in that we cannot presuppose, let alone take for granted, much of what mainstream social theory has offered us to conceptualize communities, identities and social life. What Garfinkel offers is a rigorous, even radical, action-focused perspective on society, in which groups are seen as EFFECTS of specific forms of social interactions.

EFFECTS, not GIVENS that determine and define the interactions. I underscore this for it isn’t what we normally do: we tend to take groups and group identities as pre-given when we consider interaction, and then observe what such groups and identities “do” in interaction. For Garfinkel this is not an option. He argues that social collectives are the product of collective social action – which is always interaction of course. And when is such action collective? When the activities deployed by participants are RECOGNIZABLE to others in terms of available cultural material. It is as soon as we recognize someone else’s actions as meaningful in terms of available (and thus recognizable) resources for meaning, that we engage in collective social action, display and enact the formats we know as characterizing the specific social relationships possibly at play, and operate as a group.

In the online space, we have no access to the embodied cues that offer us pointers to the interloctors’ identities in offline talk, but we can still observe social interaction and the ways in which it points us to groups. Groups cannot be an a priori, but they can be an a posteriori of analysis.

Methodologically, this is how I reformulate Garfinkel’s focus on action. I use a very simple, four-line set of principles. ONE: whenever we see forms of communication we can safely assume that they involve meaningful social relationships as prerequisite, conduit and outcome. TWO, such relationships will involve modes of identity categorization. THREE, observing modes of interaction, thus, brings us at the very hard of what it is to be social. And FOUR, we must be specific and avoid quick generalizations, for differences in action will lead to different outcomes.

In what follows, I will take these simple principles to a typical online phenomenon: memic hasthtag activism. Memic hashtag activism has become, rather quickly in fact, a major new format of political activism, certainly where Twitter is concerned. And even if it is by definition an online form of action mobilizing the now-typical online multimodal resources for interaction, there are clear offline effects too.

The particular case I have chosen here is Dutch, and it revolves around the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, mister Halbe Zijlstra. Let us quickly provide some general informative points.

Zijlstra was until very recently a rising star in Dutch politics, climbing fast through the ranks of the ruling liberal party VVD due to a very close relationship with Prime Minister Rutte. When the most recent Dutch government was formed, Zijlstra got the plum job of Minister of Foreign Affairs. So far so good.

Now, Halbe Zijlstra had for years been telling a story. The story was that, in a pre-political capacity, he was present at a party at Vladimir Putin’s datcha, where he overheard Putin saying that Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet stations should become part of a future Greater Russia. He had heard Putin saying something that could, in other words, be an indication of Russian imperialist ambitions.

In February 2018, while Zijlstra was preparing to meet his Russian counterpart Lavrov, a newspaper reported that all of this was a lie. Now, you must know that the relations between The Netherlands and Russia are delicate due to the incident with a Malaysian airliner shot down in 2014 over the Russian-occupied part of Ukraine, killing 193 Dutch nationals. Zijlstra’s talks with Lavrov were announced to be tough, and just as that was about to happen, Halbe Zijlstra’s credibility got shot to pieces.

There were two problems. ONE, it was shown that Zijlstra was never present at that party. A top executive of oil company Shell was there, and Zijlstra had heard the account second hand, from him. The SECOND problem, however, was that this Shell guy came out saying that Putin had actually argued something else: Ukraine, Georgia and so on were past of Greater Russia’s past, not its future. Halbe Zijlstra, in short, had been caught “pants down”, lying quite nastily about the people he now had to do business with.

Social media went bananas, and on Twitter a meme-storm started, which lasted for 24 hours and operated under the hashtag #HalbeWasErbij – in English “Halbe was there”. A hashtag, by the way, is a framing device that ties large numbers of individual messages thematically, pragmatically and metapragmatically together within a common broad indexical vector. And in this function, it is of course an online innovation.

Let’s now have a look at the meme-storm.

5

Obviously, Halbe’s claim that he WAS THERE with Putin became a meme theme. Hilarious parodies of this theme, preposterously suggesting intimacy between both, started circulating. Zijlstra was with Putin on a trip into the woods.

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His photo dominates the Kremlin.

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And Putin supports Zijlstra in the Dutch Parliament.

Those are straightforward memes, even to some extent logical and expected permutations of Zijlstra’s claims. But “Halbe Was There” can of course be made more productive as a motif. And this is what happens in meme-storms: the productivity of the theme is exploited, leading to ever more absurd extensions of “Halbe Was There”.

8

Halbe was there when Napoleon marched his victorious troops through Europe.

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He was in Dallas in 1963

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He was there when Martin Luther King had his dream.

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There cannot be any doubt that Halbe was one of the Beatles.

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Whenever history was made, Halbe was there. So when Charles and Diana got married, guess who stood next to them.

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And since this guy is now the biggest maker of history, he too must be connected to Halbe.

The meme-storm went on, relentlessly, for hours on end. And in this new information economy of ours, new and old media do not operate in entirely separate spaces but are profoundly networked. So what is “trending” on Twitter tends to become headline news in the traditional mass media too.

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Such a scale jump from small levels of new media circulation to larger mass media ones generates a tremendous impact. Soon, the Dutch national broadcasting system made an item of the #HalbeWasErbij phenomenon, substantially adding to the public pressure on Zijlstra by complementing more strictly political arguments against him with ludic ones ridiculing him, entirely undercutting his credibility and, consequently, his political reliability.

15

And so, by the time Halbe Zijlstra was forced to resignation about a day after the start of the meme-storm, this was world news. Memic hasthtag activism is effective because of the impact it has on mass media.

This impact has not necessarily to do with the masses carrying so-called “public opinion”. I mentioned “trending” here. Now, usually when we say “trending” we imply “viral”. And “viral”, in turn, is somehow strongly associated with large numbers. (Think of Trumps tweets which get hundreds of thousands of “likes” and retweets.)

16

In this case, however, “viral” is in actual fact “LOW VIRALITY”. Consider the images on this slide. On the left, we see the most popular meme of the entire meme-storm. Yes, it received almost 900 retweets, but compared to the heavy artillery of, for instance, Trump, Taylor Swift, or your average Premier League star, this is peanuts. The virality in the #HalbeWasErbij in effect amounted to a handful to a few dozen of retweets. That’s strange, isn’t it?

17

Unless we consider the kind of community behind it. This community is, whenever we count heads, small. But it is relentless and profoundly committed to what it practices. The memes were used as instruments in dialogue, in the form of ludic replies to wordy statements as well as to other memes – causing genre shifts in Twitter threads from one type of debate format into another one. And above all, what we saw was unending creativity, with continuous transformations of memes in a kind of saturation bombardment on the topic of Zijlstra’s politically consequential lies.

And the latter point is very interesting, for what characterizes memic hashtag activism is that it occurs not necessarily on the basis of a pre-existing community of experienced activists, but in an ephemeral, open, “light” community tied together by a set of formatted practices. I mean by that: the idea is to make more memes and new ones, and anyone joining the community is welcome as long as he or she steps into this format.

It’s an easy and cheap format in addition. The skills needed are widely available – you just need inspiration and some photoshopping technique, and you will have the time of your life. And for those who lack the photoshopping skills, other members step in. At one point during the afternoon, someone tweeted this image:

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This is a photoshopped section of this picture, where we see Halbe Zijlstra athletically jumping over a fence.

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And the photoshopped section is offered, in a sort of ludic instruction mode, as raw material to people lacking some necessary skills but desiring to enter into the #HalbeWasErbij meming activities.

Now, this actual, slightly awkward pose of Zijlstra’s became the most popular one in the meme-storm.

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Dallas, 1963

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Normandy 1944

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Berlin 1989: Halbe Was There, each and every time, in this photoshopped capacity.

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He was even there when Leonardo painted La Gioconda. And of course, Halbe was on the pitch when Holland had its finest moment:

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When they won the European Cup in 1988: Yes sir, Halbe Was There.

We can conclude now.

It is through paying attention to what people DO that we can get to what and who they ARE – this is what Garfinkel and his associates emphasized.

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We have seen how the hashtag #HalbeWasErbij connected a very large set of transformed, morphed, memes in what Anselm Strauss famously called “the continual permutation of action”. This continual permutation is the core of interaction here: we see on this slide how three different memes refer to the same moment in history, a World Cup game between Spain and Holland, which Holland won. Those involved in the meming activities interact through small but profoundly creative and ludic transformations of particular signs, all of them connected and all of them separate. Those involved in it are form a loose, rhizomatic community without fixed boundaries, but with – surprisingly perhaps – a pretty robust structure revolving around shared expectations, shared cultural material and shared norms of engagement. It’s all about learning, showing, trying, sharing, and having politically informed good laughs. And it proceeds within the constraints of what Twitter affords (the so-called platform affordances) as well as within the boundaries of what is recognizable in terms of the formats of action.

This explains the “low virality” issue: not MEMES go viral, but MEMING as an activity goes viral and shapes a viral community (another term for “rhizomatic”, perhaps). We can say here that “virality” is not a quantitative matter, but a qualitative one that has to do with the intensity of interaction within particular formats of social action. This interaction, we have seen, is characterized by tremendous variability, yet it is tied together by a hashtag, which gives it a specific INDEXICAL VECTOR: any and all individual tokens of the hashtag point towards the same thematic complex, connect a community in the activity, and shape networks of communicability to other actors in the field of the shaping of public opinion. The national broadcasting system in The Netherlands, let alone Reuters, has a much wider audience than the individual hashtag activists. But the latter’s relentlessness and intensity became the stuff of higher-scale political expression by so-called “influencers” and mass media.

This evidently complicates our understanding of “public opinion”. We see that small and “light” but nonetheless structured communities can, through networked upscaling effects, become tremendously influential in the public sphere. Those involved in various forms of local urban activism are doubtlessly already familiar with such unexpected high-scale effects of small-scale action. Such effects shape forces of collective meaning-making and understanding in our societies, in ways that we still largely need to find out. But while doing so I would propose to start from action, not from groups. Because as I hope to have demonstrated here, the effects of the actions cannot be predicted from the features of pre-existing groups, however we wish to imagine them.

by-nc

 

 

 

Chronotopes, synchronization and formats

harold_garfinkel

Jan Blommaert

Commentary, AAAL 2018, panel “Chronotopes and Chronotopic Relations” (convenors: Anna De Fina & Sabina Perrino).

  • Anna De Fina, Guiseppe Paternostro & Marcello Amoruso, “Odysseus the traveler: appropriation of a chronotope in a community of practice”
  • Zane Goebel & Howard Manns, “Chronotopic Relations and Scalar Shifters”
  • Farzad Karimzad, “Metapragmatics of Normalcy: Mobility, Context, and Language Choice”
  • Sabina Perrino & Gregory Kohler, “Chronotopic Identities in Northern Italian Executives’ Narratives”
  • Paul Prior, “Becoming a biologist: A lifespan case study of chronotopic lamination, disciplinarity and semiosis”
  • Kristina Wirtz, “Mourning as political action: Chronotopes of encounter with the dead”

All of us, at some point in our training, must have been told that sociolinguistics is the study of who can say what to whom, when, where, how and why. For decades, this set of variables was loosely categorized under the label of ‘context’ in actual research, usually as part of a synchronic and local (i.e. situated) descriptive analysis of bits of real-live language-in-situ.

This did not do justice to the handful of scholars who saw context (and situation) as a dynamic, scaled and practice-based evolving feature of meaning-making – think of Gumperz, Hymes, the Goodwins and Cicourel. But this snapshot view of context took some time to be replaced by a laminated and complex one. Language ideologies made us realize that the formal structures of language-in-situ were always pervaded by informal, implicit ones providing layers of historicity to moments of communication, and turning Gumperz’s notion of contextualization into what Silverstein called an ‘indexical metric’ not just organizing talk, but dynamically and dialogically organizing (‘constructing’ in the sense of social constructivism) the situation (i.e. the context) and the participants’ roles and identities as well, in a world of indeterminacy and mobility of people, the resources they could draw on, and the situations they could become involved in.

I see chronotopes and scales as potentially useful instruments for adding accuracy to this laminated and complex understanding of the old sociolinguistic question. Of fundamental importance to Bakhtin’s notion of chronotope, in my view, is the social-historical dimension of social action he inscribes into it – an effect of his dialogue with Marxism, and something that underlies almost any other of his key concepts (think of heteroglossia). Utterances always ‘come from somewhere’, they draw on histories of use and abuse in a way that marks them (indexically) as potentially configuring chronotopes, activating them as represented, embodied and inscribed meaning potential, and enabling heteroglossic ‘lamination’, as Paul Prior beautifully illustrates in his paper.

Prior also gestures towards one of the Catch-22’s of Bakhtin’s social-historical approach in his paper: reading texts as embodying history and historically configured social positions always risks a certain degree of determinism – something we see, for instance, in Bourdieu’s La Misère du Monde. The stories that make up and define a life can, certainly for a discourse analyst, historian or biographer but also for a judge in a criminal court and an immigration officer, be given a dimension of linear continuity, consistency, coherence and ‘logic’, if you wish, absent from the experiential world of the narrator whose accounting practices travel through (as Prior points out) multiple semiotic remediations, including rescaling work – from stories to lives, from moment to history, from individuals to communities.

I found the presence of coherence, continuity and consistency both as a chronotope in its own right, and as a cross-chronotopic connection, strikingly present in the papers of this panel. And before I move into a closer discussion of this issue, let me just point out one thing. It would be quite stimulating, I suppose, to reread for instance Goebel & Manns’ paper using a vocabulary drawn from sentence- and text-grammatical or -pragmatic work on coherence and cohesion (one could try Halliday & Hasan). Such work, needless to repeat, is having a revival of sorts currently due to the automated use of big data corpora. This rereading exercise should show us the different games we are playing. While big data analysts robustly stick to language as a linguistic system, Goebel & Manns (and the others in this panel) approach it as a sociolinguistic system. In so doing, we have taken fundamentally different epistemological and ontological positions. Chronotopes and scales can only occur in a sociolinguistic paradigm, not a linguistic one. And it is good to remind ourselves that this is the universe we are operating in.

But this was a mere footnote situating what we discuss here in a larger frame of intellectual development. I now return to the point about consistency, coherence, continuity.

The idea of consistency, coherence and continuity is of course most clearly present in the papers of Wirtz, Perrino & Kohler and Prior. Wirtz’s description of rituals of commemoration all include – even literally, as in Raul Castro’s speech about his brother’s speech – cross-chronotopic continuity as a trope. The dead can be made present by invoking their ‘legacy’ as part of contemporary lived history. Not just the dead can be present, but the DNA of a metaphysical Italian society can be turned into the currency of today’s identity work, as Perrino & Kohler’s case showed. In both papers, we see how such invocations of continuity, coherence and consistency have powerful political effects: both manage to carve out, isolate and appropriate specific layers and chunks of history presented as theirs and unique to them, and in that sense as a denial or reversal of the hegemonic histories imposed on them.

Consistency, coherence and continuity are the stuff of a chronotope here, while of course in so doing several chronotopes are diachronically (and/or metaphysically) connected as one. Grandfather’s pioneering efforts of the 1920s are inseparable from those of the present leader of the family enterprise in Italy, just like Fidel’s speeches from the late 1950s are elementary ingredients of today’s political soundtrack for all Cubans. Of course, invoking the 1920s and 1950s involves chronotopic displacement – an imagination of a past and of dead people – but such chronotopes are, one could say, synchronized as a new one, valid for the present. I called this phenomenon ‘layered simultaneity’ a while ago.

In Prior’s analysis of Nora’s becoming a biologist, we see the layering in such simultaneity. Sequencing work needs to be done in which episodes are connected. Formulated differently, we see elaborate accounting practices stretching from the present towards the past, semiotically remediating stuff that can – only from the present – be seen as a prefiguration of what followed. A ‘logic of action’ (to borrow Bourdieu’s words for a moment) that is produced and articulated in the present but is in effect timeless: a chronotope of tradition, authenticity or (as Karimzad writes) ‘normalcy’ appears here as a cross-chronotopic synchronized bricolage of signs all made to point in a general direction: the present, me/us, and the future of me/us. The indexical vectors of diffuse chronotopic fragments have been discursively reoriented towards meaningfulness in a here-and-now.

I would think that any moment of synchronization involves such indexical vector reorientations, and I will try to elaborate that a bit in what follows. But before I can do that, I need to make another small side-step.

I used the term ‘accounting practices’ just now, and I used it in as ‘making meaningful in the here-and-now of social action’, much in the sense of Garfinkel. I should mention two things now that have kept me busy lately in my own rethinking of chronotopes and scales: (1) an action-theoretical perspective, and (2) continuous moralization.

To start with the first: a quite radical action-theoretical perspective appears inescapable, I believe, if we wish to avoid the degree of determinism mentioned earlier when we mentioned Bakhtin’s sociohistorical view of chronotope. There is much in the moment-to-moment evolving of social action that defies a prioris about identity, community and action itself, and the Goodwins reminded us two decades ago that “there are great analytical gains to be made by looking very closely at how particular activities are organized”. They themselves were inspired by Garfinkel’s radically action-centered approach in which (following George Herbert Mead and in line with e.g. Strauss and Goffman) whatever we consider to be identity in interaction cannot be formulated in terms of stuff that is already there – resources, social categories, opportunities and constraints on action – but needs to be seen as concrete, actual social effects of such situated interactions. I believe this is a sound principle, but it needs to be handled with care.

The reason for that is my second concern: moralization. We see that such effects are invariably constructed and construed interactionally by invocations of available and accessible moral criteria, projected onto equally available and accessible behavioral scripts. So, one could say that there are a priori’s (and in fact, this was a bone of contention between e.g. Cicourel and conversation analysts in the Schegloffian school), but at the same time only as a latent, potential and unequally distributed interpretive resource, which needs to be dialogically co-constructed in social action. So: it’s a priori and not a priori; a resource but also an action; a given and a created thing. Karimzad’s paper captures this excellently by using the term ‘chronotopization’, referring to the way in which people do not just ‘step into’ existing chronotopes but build them anew while drawing on existing, intertextual and pretextual moral indexical arrangements. Identity judgments are – here, I borrow older pragmatic terminology once again – judgments of appropriateness, of things that fit a script and are seen as enabling the social enactment of such scripts. And appropriateness is a moral judgment with its feet firmly planted into social history (variously labeled as ‘tradition’, ‘customs’ or – Karimzad – ‘normalcy’). Such patterns of chronotopization, thus, involve what Perrino & Kohler call ‘solidification’: chronotopically organized social action needs to be ratified in order to be made consequential, and this is done on the basis of ‘solid’ invokable intertexts and pretexts.

While I apologize to my audience for the overly technical tone of my comments at this point, I shall continue along this line for a brief moment. For now, I need to fold my two concerns together and apply them to what has been presented in this panel.

The solid invokable intertexts and pretexts are, I would suggest, indexical vectors: general indexical valuations attached to sets of indexicals, turning them into positive, negative or anything in-between evaluative pointers. This is the mechanism of what Bakhtin called ‘evaluative response’, and it brings us, I believe, to the heart of what Garfinkel saw as the essence of social order: recognizability.

There is a long tradition, of course, of using recognizability as linguistic identifiability (‘I recognize your words as English’; ‘this is [recognizable as] 11th century Swahili’); I suggest we see it as a primarily moral concept capturing (1) the relative stability of judgments about social and cultural appropriateness, combined with and in spite of (2) the tremendous variability in which such appropriateness can be actually encoded semiotically. In an older (Whorfian) jargon, it’s about stability of functions and diversity of linguistic structures, but (as Hymes told us) this form of relativity is bidirectional. We are talking here about specific sets of sociolinguistic resources tying (dialogically) the practice of communicative action to moral judgments, creating what Garfinkel called ‘autochtonous order properties’ of behavioral scripts or ‘formats’ – where ‘order’ is a moral notion.  In a very vulgar rewording, we’re talking about the moral economy of communicative practice.

When I now turn to the papers in this panel, I begin to see examples of this almost everywhere, most emphatically in the papers by De Fina, Paternostro & Amoruso; by Goebel & Manns and by Karimzad.

In the paper by De Fina, Paternostro & Amoruso, the Odyssey is used as the input for creating ‘order’, if you wish, in the narratives of young refugees in Italy. The key phrase here, expressed by one of the subjects, is ‘practically everybody knows it’. By using this widely known (and thus recognizable) frame into the moments of narrative production, these moments get ‘autochtonous order properties’, they are ‘formatted’; more precisely they are given clear indexical vectors organizing the valuations in the narratives. It is no surprise that one of the subjects identifies the warm and hospitable Nausicaa as a ‘good’ figure in the story, and identifies with her. Like Fidel Castro for contemporary Cubans and the Italian DNA for contemporary fashion entrepreneurs, cross-chronotopic synchronization is enabled here and it involves an indexical vector reorientation of almost everything, in ‘figures’ of good, bad, and anything-in-between. The power of the paper by Anna and her colleagues lies in the demonstration of how exactly such a cross-chronotopic synchronization can trigger substantial pedagogical, therapeutic and healing effects. We already saw that it provokes or enables political effects too, and taken together, what we see is that such forms of synchronization – remoralization, so to speak – could prove to be massively important for our understanding of social life.

Like Karimzad, Goebel & Manns emphasize the emerging and contingent nature of chronotopes – ‘chronotopes are always under construction’ – and perhaps more so than in other papers, we can observe the step-by-step construction work of synchronized cross-chronotope constructures in Goebel & Manns’ paper. There is no hocus-pocus to chronotopic solidification, no mental map suddenly unfolding: it is hard interactional work to be performed by participants in social actions. Which is why it is often strongly ritualized, as in Wirtz’s examples: yes, the dead can be present perpetually in someone’s life, but their actual co-presence in social events requires a ritualized platform and ritually ratified participants.

It is significant, in Goebel & Manns’ paper, that metapragmatic commentary on language choice is a locus of scale-shifting. We can reformulate this slightly: it is a locus of the renegotiation of indexical vectors attached to specific sociolinguistic resources in such a way that they enable specific chronotopic work to be done. In Karimzad’s examples, I also noted how language shifts accompany topical moves: a densely moralized person, moment or account is surrounded by careful metapragmatic work, organizing the moral universe in which this specific piece of information needs to be set. In Perrino & Kohler’s examples, I observed the ethnopoetic patterning – repetitions, parallelisms – surrounding the cross-scale moves and the foregrounding of core motifs such as tradition and authenticity. And briefly returning to another topic: a closer look at the examples presented in the papers would, I anticipate, show that the crucial actions in the search for continuity, coherence and consistency would all be marked by significant discursive-formal and narrative-structural features. If we need examples of the moral economy of communicative practices and the specific moral load interactionally attached to specific sociolinguistic resources, look no further: the papers from this panel are replete with them.

What these papers jointly demonstrate, I believe, is the power of profound ethnographic and case-based analysis of ‘big’ issues. Chronotopes and chronotopic relations are big issues connecting situated moments of interaction to the very large patterns of social order. I already mentioned the way in which an obsolete notion of coherence and cohesion currently regains momentum due to the deployment of hi-tech onto colossal textual corpora. I have heard people in that field predict that they will soon make predictions – predictions about human social behavior, interactionally established social order, and of course human nature. My confidence about predictions of predictions is generally speaking quite low; I tend to attach more value to a mode of analysis in which one assumes that – to paraphrase Cicourel – people make sense of society by making sense of situations. A mode of analysis, in other words, in which we assume that the big things can be found in a much more accurate way in very small things. The papers in this panel demonstrate the lasting value of this approach.

And so I can conclude. I believe that I have tried to formulate two substantive points in these comments. One was about chronotope as a primarily moral notion; the other was about chronotopic relations as forms of synchronization, where the latter was understood as revolving around indexical vector reorientation towards ‘formats’. None of what I formulated here was formulated before I saw the papers of this panel. I am deeply grateful to the presenters and the convenors for offering me the thing that makes every academic happy: an opportunity to think new things.

Big questions, and my answers

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Jan Blommaert

Ari Sherris (Texas A&M University) submitted a series of questions to a number of colleagues, to be answered in brief statements. Here are my replies.

  1. How would you introduce your current thinking/theoretical stance?

In a few words: encompassing, exploratory and radical. I embarked some years ago on the project of critically evaluating and, whenever required, reformulating (or formulating, if you wish) social theory for a society in which social lives now continually cross from online into offline spaces and back. This new online infrastructure, in my view, is a fundamental shift in the basic “operating system” of society, comparable to the mass circulation of printed book and newspapers, of the telegraph and telephone, of radio, cinema and TV, and of computers. There are entirely new ways in which people engage and interact with knowledge, artifacts, timespace, groups and ultimately with themselves – all of which demand new forms of social imagination, I base the exploratory theorizing on recent insights into sociolinguistics (very broadly taken here), using (and radically implementing) the assumption that every form of social action is a form of interaction, and that insights into forms of interaction can provide us with a reliable foundation for social theory.

  1. Your current take on meaning/meaning-making?

Meaning in its traditional (linguistic) sense is one of the many effects of social (inter)action, and quite often a nonlinear one (an outcome that cannot be predicted from initial conditions). I have replaced “meaning” almost entirely by “effect”, and I attempt to examine specific kinds of effects emerging from specific kinds of (online-offline) actions. Meaning-as-effect is grounded in (some degree of) recognizability, and this recognizability is usually not a feature of the resources we use alone, but more of the practices we deploy them in. Which is why “yes” can mean “no” and “darling” can sound like a threat depending on what happens in the interaction in which these words are being used.

  1. How do humans communicate?

Hymes gave us the answer long time ago: “use all there is to be used”. There is hardly a limit to the resources that can be turned into signs, and the range of resources thus made useful is continuously changing. This could suggest infinite creativity. I must qualify that: there is infinite creativity within sets of very strict constraints. There is the constraint of accessibility/availability of resources – not everyone has access to possibly the “best” resources for specific forms of communication – and there is the constraint of communicability, i.e. interactionally established recognizability of signs as valid, or, if you wish, the inevitable genre-requirement of any form of communication. The latter involves uptake, and here is the most crucial constraint: we need others for us to be communicating beings.

  1. Your current take on language?

Since a lot of what I presently do is reformulating established concepts, the question is hard to answer with any conventional reference to what “language” means. I can only say what it stands for in my current thinking. It stands for just one of the many resources that can be deployed in social interaction. And of all these resources, it is the most overrated one. It is overrated because popular beliefs equate “communication” and “language”, and so attribute way too much weight to the role of language (as “correct” mapping of form over denotational content) in meaning-making. Which is why, for instance, we keep bumping into the idea that multilingualism might be detrimental to social cohesion because people “can’t communicate unless they share a language”. People have to share a mutually ratified set of communicative resources, and if no such resources are readily available, they will construct them ad hoc. How to change these views? By explaining (over and over again) to the people around you how they effectively communicate, here and now.

  1. What value do you place on culture in your thinking?

We’re having the same problem here as with “language” above: what does “culture” actually mean in this question? In my current thinking, “culture” in any traditional understanding of it has very little place. It can be used to describe the specific sets of microhegemonies valid and operating within a community of people engaging in specific forms of social action. “Culture”, there, would just be shorthand for the stuff that makes such forms of action mutually and collectively understandable.

  1. Your current take on power?

Every bit of online-offline research I have done or have been confronted with lately confirms the Foucaultian vision of power as normative and moralized, infinitely fractal, reflexive, and visible only after having executed it. Foucault spoke of the care of the self, the fact that we subject ourselves to elaborate procedures of normative control and micro-regimentation. In the online world, this has now been complemented with the care of the selfie: infinitely detailed normative complexes (microhegemonies) are made available for the regimenting of almost every aspect of online self-presentation. Let it be said in this context that power, thus understood, is dialogical and operates, notably, through ratification by others.

  1. What is the relationship of individual agency and society?

Individual agency is an “accent”, a small inflection, of largely formatted moralized behavioral templates. I combine several sources here: Foucault (the individual as an effect, an artifact of power), Mead (individuals as the residue of the totality of social interactions they were involved in) and Garfinkel (individuals as concretely configured outcomes of social action). The fact that agency is “accent” implies that its range is small, but not that it is unimportant. In actual fact, we engage with others largely through formats, but the actual ways in which we engage with actual individuals is a factor of their specific “accents” (which is why we like certain colleagues and dislike some others, while most of our lives are shared with them, engaging in pretty well formatted actions).

  1. How might your thinking be used by teachers?

Much of what I now express as theory is actual common sense. In talking to teachers and other people who might benefit from these efforts, I often try to “peel off” the layers of language-ideological beliefs, trying to get to a pretty simple bottom-line understanding of communicative practices online and offline, for which a handful of structuring terms and arguments can then be offered in reconstructing a more accurate understanding of what “language” (the term they mostly use) actually is.

  1. What are the most crucial issues to be investigated today?

Inequality. By analytically expanding the range of communicative resources we intend to investigate, we necessarily find more objects of potential and effective inequality beyond “language” in the sense used, e.g., in sociolinguistic work on minority languages. Think, for instance, of all that is required to successfully launch an online petition for the removal of a corrupt bureaucrat in the South of China: such a complex online action is only “simple” and “easy” for those who have full access to the totality of the resources required for it – including knowledge and experience. This is one of the reasons why I tend to attach great importance to online-offline sites as informal learning environments, where such resources are being made available, distributed, learned and practiced.

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Online with Garfinkel

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Jan Blommaert

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

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

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

I added the following reflection to these four lines:

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

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

Garfinkel’s intuitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qualifications

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The care of the selfie

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The Care of the Selfie

Ludic chronotopes of baifumei in online China

Li Kunming & Jan Blommaert

Introduction: from the self to the selfie

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming baifumei by refusing it

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

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

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Figure 1: A caricature of a baifumei girl (source: http://www.china.org.cn/china/2013-12/27/content_31022201.htm, last access in January 2014)

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

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

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

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

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Figure 2: Three photos posted by *fang (source: https://tieba.baidu.com/f?kw=白富美, last access on 10 August, 2015)

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

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

ScreenHunter_742 Nov. 22 10.46

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

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

ScreenHunter_743 Nov. 22 10.46

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

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

ScreenHunter_744 Nov. 22 10.47

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

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

The ludic economy of baifumei

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

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

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

ScreenHunter_732 Nov. 16 13.28

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

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

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

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

ScreenHunter_731 Nov. 16 13.03

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

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

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

ScreenHunter_747 Nov. 22 11.23

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

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

 

ScreenHunter_746 Nov. 22 10.49

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: ludic selfie chronotopes

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

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

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

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Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Does context really collapse in social media interaction?

Jan Blommaert & Gosia Szabla

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

Abstract

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

 

  1. Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be more precise:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. An interaction-centered alternative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Complex compound social action on SNS: A case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ScreenHunter_575 Jun. 01 11.33

Figure 1: actions in the event.

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

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

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

Translation: Fucking great journalist who makes spelling mistakes…

Date:  March 14 at 12:43pm  Likes: 26

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

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

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

Date: March 14 at 4:02pm   Likes: 2

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

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 6:36pm  Likes:  5

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

Translations: This is exactly what Holland makes of Poles

Date:  March 14 at 7:06pm  Likes:  2

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

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 1:53pm  Likes: 0

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

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 11:41pm  Likes:  3

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

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

Date:  March 15 at 6:04am  Likes:  1

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

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

Date:  March 15 at 9:12am  Likes:  3

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

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

3.2 The rules of a complex game

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

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

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

Platform affordances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Policing

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

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

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:02pm  Likes: 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 3:32pm  Likes:  0

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

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

Translation: Adek how you blurt out. Hehe

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

Date:  March 15 at 6:09am  Likes: 1

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

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

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

Date:  March 15 at 9:49pm  Likes: 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date:  March 15 at 10:38am  Likes:  3

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

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

Date:  March 16 at 7:14pm  Likes:  0

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

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

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

Date:  March 15 at 10:01pm  Likes: 0

2.54 Participant13 (F): Participant20 post Ali był edytowany

Translation: Participant20 the post by Ala was edited

Date:  March 16 at 8:43am  Likes:  0

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

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 12:49pm  Likes:  1

7.1 Ala (F): chetnie na priw

Translation: Willingly on priv

Date: March 14 at 12:49pm  Likes:  0

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

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

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

Date: March 19 at 10:25am  Likes: 0

76.4 Ala (F): Kto do mnie pisze dostaje

Translation: The ones who write to me get it.

Date: March 19 at 12:26pm  Likes: 0

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

3.3 Navigating multiple contexts

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

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

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

Fragment 2.26-2.36

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

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

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

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:35pm  Likes:  10

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:38pm  Likes:  2

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:41pm  Likes: 3

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:42pm  Likes:  0

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:43pm  Likes: 5

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:45pm  Likes:  0

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:46pm  Likes: 1

2.34 Participant13 (F): Participant15 Amen! Pozdrawiam 😉

Translation: Participant15 Amen! Greetings 😉

Date:  March 14 at 2:47pm  Likes:  1

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:47pm  Likes:  0

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

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

Date:  March 14 at 2:54pm  Likes:  1

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

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

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

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

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

ScreenHunter_610 Jun. 25 12.35

Figure 2: Four interlocking conversations.

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

Does context really collapse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes

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

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

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

[4] Initially, the conversation received 75 likes; on June 22, 2017 (date of data retrieval) there were 73 likes. 11 to the initial message, and 65 to the edited one. There were no new comments after March 19, 2016. The entire data set, in transcript, can be consulted on https://alternative-democracy-research.org/2017/06/26/data-set-context-collapse/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by-nc