We need to change, but don’t know why


Jan Blommaert 

Students of the University of Amsterdam have occupied a number of university buildings, protesting against the lack of democratic transparency of their university’s decision-making practices. Inevitably, this local issue broadened into a larger issue of vision – the vision on academic training and research articulated for some years now by the Dutch government. And an even broader issue can be pasted onto that: the vision articulated by the EU regarding these matters, developed over the past decade and easily summarized in a number of key terms. Universities are suppliers of finished products for a labor market defined almost exclusively by private enterprise interests; research likewise needs to be immediately economically profitable – it needs to lead and contribute to “economic growth”, and note that “growth”, too, is defined almost exclusively in terms of private enterprise interests. As for science itself, it needs to be “value free” and “objective” as a practice, and “valorized” afterwards in terms of economic parameters – “value” becomes sales, the amount of money that can be made through a scientific product which, in itself, is not value-laden.

This definition of vision has, over the years, led to shifts in baseline funding structure for universities, to a logic of profitability at the level of university policy and management, and to so-called “hard choices” between disciplines and programs that were judged to be useful in light of this vision, and those that were useless. The latter, by and large, include the Humanities – it is not greatly pleasurable to be a professional philosopher at Dutch universities these days – and students are encouraged by means of “price setting” tactics (fee structure and student loans) to choose useful programs.

The vision is fundamentally anti-scientific, as it tends to exclude or marginalize exactly those forms of scientific activity that cause growth, if you wish, in science: explorative and speculative research, theory formation and hypothesis building. It replaces them by an ethos that stresses what is already known as the “safe” basis of academic training, rather than the limits of what is known and the principles of how to transcend them. The contemporary equivalent of Albert Einstein – a speculative and hypothesis-forming scientist not doing much useful stuff – would have a hard time finding an academic job these days. Output measuring systems, “valorization” appraisal and external funding targets, annual evaluation cycles, competitive assessment between peers – the organisational effects of this vision on academic practice – would prevent swift career mobility if he/she were appointed at all.

Critical response to these developments has been rife: the past years have seen a flurry of opinion articles in newspapers, public debates and grassroots activism combating this shift in vision both in individual universities, faculties and departments and in broader public fora. Often, such responses were quickly dismissed as reactionary – academics complaining about these changes simply opposed change in itself, it was claimed, they preferred the comfort of status quo (not questioning, of course, how comfortable the present status quo actually would be). Discussions on fundamental assumptions – the presuppositions used in debate – are thus evaded. There is hardly any substantial discussion in which the actual academic “producers” are involved; consequently there is hardly any debate on the particular nature of academic products and the specific conditions of production they demand. Generic management technique is enough, it seems.

Let us for a moment accept the vision and its assumptions. Debate on them has proven futile, as we have seen. Let us for a moment accept that academia needs to change into a better performing system of production, guided by management technique and defined by criteria of immediate economic usefulness; still one question needs to be answered.

Change defines a trajectory between two points: an anterior “inferior” stage and a posterior “improved” stage. Official documents never cease repeating this: universities need to “improve”, they need to become “more” of X and cease to be Y and Z, they need to “do better” and “score higher” on criteria set by management. Fine, but what exactly are the anterior and posterior states? Simply put: what is “wrong” and “inferior” about the present state of universities, and what would be the “ideal” and “improved” state we need to move towards? In business terms: what is the “target” of change?

To be more precise: if universities today host good numbers of “eminent” and highly performing scientists (and precisely those are often put in charge of the brainstorming for change), what is it that makes their past performance insufficient now? If their work belonged to an “inferior” culture of academic work, in which ways was it wrong? What is it in the present criteria for academic excellence that warrants redefinition? And in view of what? For this is never addressed: what is “good science” in this new vision? What are the criteria for excellence of the future world of science?

Current answers to this are recognized to be grotesquely unsatisfactory, even by those who define them. Increased numbers of articles in so-called “top” journals, and victories in battles over competitive funding (often overly narrowly defined in terms of funding sources) are offered as “objective” criteria for measuring quality – while Diederik Stapel “objectively” proved them false. So they are offered without much conviction, by lack of better stuff, even if almost everyone realizes that they have passed their sell-by date. And as for the “rankings” of individual universities in several international lists: even hard-nosed academic managers only mention them with sarcasm. Intellectually, no other criteria are offered.

So, please, let us have this intellectual debate and talk about academic relevance in terms of contents; let us stop hiding behind the curtains of so-called “measurable” quality and discuss the science that society really needs in the future. I say “society”, because private enterprise is just one of the stakeholders in this development – universities in the EU are currently overwhelmingly funded by society at large, not by private enterprise, so ownership entitlements are an issue here as well. Let us talk about what this society needs as “surplus value” generated by science. In doing this, we may rediscover that science has a value different from the sales figures it might yield, a value lodged in the work of science itself, not in its managerial and marketing handling and packaging.

What exactly are we currently doing wrong? And what exactly should we do better, in which specific ways? These are justified questions which even neoliberal policymakers and academic managers cannot dodge, lest they alienate the people who have to actually perform the change in their daily practices. Any decent manager will agree that a workforce lacking ownership of transforming processes will also lack the necessary motivation and direction for effective change. And that such directionless change is a recipe, not for improvement but for disaster.


“Culture” and superdiversity


Jan Blommaert 

(Commentary, Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 2015)

“Difference in Diversity” presents us with an engaging reflection on the contemporary state of “culture” and its discourses; it offers stimulating ways out – the recognition of difference within diversity itself is a case in point – while also illustrating some of the perennial problems of such reflections. The key problem is the presumed stability of the notion of “culture” itself, its reification both as a discursive identifier (a widely used word, simply put) and as an empirical analytical category enabling subcategories such as those prefixed with “multi”, “inter” or “trans”. In my commentary, I will focus on this problem and review some aspects of it.

An aspect of this problem touches my own position as a scholar and a commentator here. Assuming “culture” as a classifier is also part of a discourse regime, giving voice to, or taking it away from, people speaking out on the topic. I find much argumentation on postcolonial views highly problematic when it presumes, without much substantive proof, that certain academic discourses are “clearly” locked into one or another culture – that of the Euro-American global Northwest, that of the South, or more specifically that of an Anglosaxon “tradition”, an “Indian” one or a “Latin American” one. It is problematic because it includes an implicit judgment of the legitimacy of voice: a scholar from the global Northwest is not well placed to speak about globalization, for instance, since his/her own location in the process of globalization is supposed to prevent fundamental understanding of those equally locked into other positions in that process.

People holding such views must have missed some quite central features of globalization itself: the emergence, over centuries, of intense patterns of interaction and profound mutual influencing across local and regional boundaries, creating diverse cultural and social features sharing a number of fundamental assumptions and characteristics. Thus, in spite of severe differences and inequalities within the system (which I myself have attempted to document quite extensively: Blommaert 2008, 2010; also Velghe 2014), the world has become literate over the preceding century or so, and digitally literate over the past two decades. “Cultures” (to continue the register for the time being) have now all adopted scripts and forms of literate transmission as part of their fabric; the ways in which such scripts are deployed and distributed within actual societies can differ substantially; the fact that such scripts – invariably – create communicative and therefore sociopolitical and cultural scale-levels previously inaccessible to members remains and demands adjustments in our thinking about (a) the autonomy of such “cultures”, because scripts cause scale-jumps, i.e. “transcultural” interactions and influencing; and (b) the historicity of their present structure in view of the effects of literacy – many “cultures” currently employed as labels, notably national-cultural labels such as “Indian” or “American”, could only become what they are because of state-enforced literacy regimes and the scale-sensitive patterns of cultural influencing that come with them.

The fact is that as soon as one places “cultures” under the microscope of critical analysis, we begin to see phenomena far removed from the standard imaginations of “culture”. We notice, for instance, that contemporary intellectual communities (such as the ones involved in this very discussion) are characterized by another “culture” than, for instance, nation-state bureaucrats, trade unions or local football teams. Their culture is global, porous, highly volatile and dynamic, and intensely reflexive – postcolonialism, feminism, queerism and so forth would never have been possible without such features. I have, as an Africanist scholar, naturally exercised myself in postcolonial self-critique; the outcome is that I am far more optimistic about “transcultural” dialogue and openness than many others, and that this optimism cannot be fed back to my own, presumed comfortable position in the global Northwest. Any degree of epistemological and methodological reflection should teach us that even simple dialogue should be impossible without at least a degree of sharedness in assumptions, codes for meaningful communication, awareness of common purpose and objectives, and so forth – “culture”, in short.

This brings me to another aspect: “culture” itself. I have just defined it in communicative terms, much in the way the symbolic interactionists taught us (e.g. Becker 1963; Goffman 1963): culture is that which creates meaning in social contacts. As soon as people achieve a level of understanding, they share something – even for a very brief moment, as when we ask directions in a foreign place by means of heavily articulated body language and facial expressions. And this means that, during that brief moment, a “culture” has emerged enabling its “members” to engage in social interaction of some sort. This culture, no less, organizes the mutual roles, positions and identities of the participants – it involves a particular social order that needs to be followed in order to render individual interactions at least potentially successful. There is, thus, no reason to dismiss such temporary and apparently superficial forms of “culture” as irrelevant for the discussion: it is precisely such ephemeral phenomena that might demonstrate what culture is in its most elementary form – the capacity to enter into an ordered play of social conduct seen as jointly meaningful by those involved in it.

Much of my own current work addresses what is called “superdiversity”: the extraordinary complexity of contemporary social configurations due to post-Cold War migration patterns and the digital revolution (Vertovec 2007; see Blommaert & Rampton 2011; Blommaert 2013, 2014). This recognition of – precisely – “difference in diversity” pushes us towards a far more modest stance on defining what is “culture” and what is not, since everything is “multi-“, “inter-“ and “transcultural”, if you wish. The minimalist symbolic-interactional definition I gave above is what works empirically: rather than solid and robust “groupness” – the stuff of our traditional imagination of “culture” – we see minimal conviviality and temporary cohesiveness (Varis & Blommaert 2014). Remember that Erving Goffman defined “encounters” as focused activities that involve a degree of sociality which Goffman did not accept as a feature of social “groups” (Goffman 1961). While I hate to disagree with someone such as Goffman, what we now see is a world of “encounters” – focused social activities as described earlier – which do generate “groups”, but groups that no longer fit the Durkheimian-Parsonsian image of groups that has dominated sociology and anthropology for a century and that underlies our traditional view of “culture”. Contemporary “cultures” are best seen as characteristics of social “niches”, arenas we pass through on an everyday basis, and in which we have to deploy specific cultural resources in order to be “normal”, “integrated” and so forth (cf. Agha 2007). Any living individual would be expected to have access to a terrific multitude of such “niches”, and would therefore be tremendously “multicultural” (or, if you insist, “superdiverse”). Naturally, in such a condition the classical notion of “cultural” becomes meaningless.

If, as scholars engaged in a global dialogue on the character of globalization, we wish to do our work well, I suggest we look for those avenues of thought that enable us to create a maximum of meaning, and a maximum of “voice” – the capacity to make ourselves and our interlocutors understood on their own terms. Traditional concepts of “culture”, I fear, have passed their sell-by date in that respect; perhaps a radically empirical stance offers superior possibilities for at least agreeing on the ontology of what we are observing: humans in their actual social environments. I encourage my readers never to give up the search for such avenues.


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

Becker, Howard (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Free Press

Blommaert, Jan (2008) Grassroots Literacy: Writing, Identity and Voice in central Africa. London: Routledge

Blommaert, Jan (2010) The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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

Blommaert, Jan (2014) Lingua franca onset in a superdiverse neighborhood: Oecumenical Dutch in Antwerp. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 112.

Blommaert, Jan & Ben Rampton (2011) Language and superdiversity. Diversities 13/2: 1-22.

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

Goffman, Erving (1963) Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings. New York: Free Press

Varis, Piia & Jan Blommaert (2014) Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes, and new social structures. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 108.

Velghe, Fie (2014) ‘This is Almost like Writing’: Mobile Phones, Learning and Literacy in a South African Township. PhD dissertation, Tilburg: Tilburg University.

Vertovec, Steven (2007) Super-diversity and its implications. Ethnic and Racial Studies 30/6: 1024-1054.

Citizenship, language and superdiversity: towards complexity


Jan Blommaert 

(Journal of Language, Identity and Education, Forum on ‘citizenship’ (Vaidehi Ramanathan, ed.) 2013.)

The issue

There is a dramatic need to unthink and rethink some of the most basic concepts in social science – notions such as community, identity, and indeed citizenship. The reason for this is that since the early 1990s, some fundamental changes have taken place in the ways in which all of these notions take shape in real life. Vertovec (2007, 2010) has described these changes as a transition from ‘diversity’ to ‘superdiversity’, a diversification of diversity due to changes in the migration patterns worldwide. People from more places now migrate to more places, causing unprecedented forms of social and cultural diversity especially in the large urban centers of the world (for an early appraisal, see Cohen 1995, 507ff). Adding to this complexity, the emergence and global spread of the Internet and other forms of mobile communication technologies – synchronous with the new forms of migration – have created a ‘network society’ (Castells 1996) in which people live and act in relation to long-distance, ‘virtual’ peers in sometimes enormous online communities. Taken together, these two forces have re-shaped social life around the world, and the most sensitive index of these transformations is the emergence and development of new forms of human communication – the social transformations go hand in hand with sociolinguistic transformations yielding degrees of complexity hard to imagine previously, and prompting an escalation of new terminology to describe them: languaging, polylanguaging, transidiomatic practices, metrolingualism, supervernacularization and so forth (for a survey see Blommaert & Rampton 2011).

The problem is one of imagination: how do we imagine these new forms of complexity? Static, horizontal-distributional and synchronic images and metaphors fail to do justice to the phenomena we encounter, because dynamic and historical processes are observed, most often featuring ‘vertical’ patterns of stratification and restratification. Linguistic resources enter a specific environment, acquire an indexical value relative to existing norms within that environment, thus shape new norms, and so acquire a potential to perpetually reshuffle the linguistic-symbolic hierarchies. Social lives are thus organized not in relation to one single complex of norms but in relation to many competing and/or complementary ones – a feature of sociolinguistic superdiversity we call polycentricity (Blommaert 2010: 39ff); individual repertoires bear the traces of such perpetual reshufflings of norms in a polycentric environment (Blommaert & Backus 2012), and complex forms of identity work can draw on the resources that orient towards the multiple sets of norms present in someone’s ‘communicative competence’ (cf. Rampton 2006; Jorgensen et al 2011). The latter notion must now be understood as the capacity to acquire multiple normative orientations and shift from one set of norms (those of the classroom, for instance) into another (say, those of Facebook) and back (the classroom), then forth to yet another one (age and gender group norms, say) and back again. The resources deployed in these moves are each time specific and specialized: we call them ‘registers’ (Agha 2007). We select from our repertoires the registers that are functionally adequate within the specific niches in which we intend to deploy them. This is why I speak in a different way to my mother than to my wife or to my colleagues, and this explains why these various modes of communication are not interchangeable. If I would speak to my mother the way I would speak to my colleagues, or vice versa, chances are that I will be perceived as socially awkward by all.

The key terms in what I just said define the lines of inquiry into such processes: resources, norms in relation to other norms, identities anchored into such sets of norms, and rapid shifts to-and-fro between normative orientations within a polycentric environment. Understood throughout this is the fact that such complex communicative and identity work comes with entitlements and constraints – people, thus, perform such complex work because it comes with a price and this price is different for each of the social niches between which people move.

Citizenship and dis-citizenship

If we imagine a social world in the terms sketched above, several well-established notions invite revision. To start with, a notion such as ‘integration’ used in relation to immigrants can be redirected from its usual monofocal bias – integration in the ‘majority’ social system, integration into ‘our’ culture and values, and so forth – into a more nuanced, plural and surely more accurate direction. ‘Being integrated’, we can see, means being capable of making oneself understood in a wide variety of social environments.

These environments include not just the ‘dominant’ culture but also various ‘sub’-cultures. Immigrants need to ‘integrate’ in the many niches that compose their actual social environment, and they have to acquire the resources to do so – they have to ‘enregister’ the resources adequate for the various specific niches (Agha 2007; Moller & Jorgensen 2012). These niches are of course not just those of their ‘host societies’, but also those of émigré communities in a diaspora, of their ‘home’ cultures, of gender, age, social class, profession, workplace, religion, consumption, hobby, media etc. niches. It is not sufficient to be ‘well integrated’ in the administrative culture of the ‘host society’, for instance, because this kind of integration does not necessarily appear useful when the results of one’s child need to be discussed with a school teacher, or even when performing mundane tasks such as shopping. One set of resources – always specific and specialized – does never suffice for the totality of social life; no single set of resources has the generative potential to cover all aspects of social life in which ‘integration’ is mandatory, desired or useful.

Thus, learning ‘a language’ is never enough. Immigrants are increasingly subjected to pressures to acquire the standard varieties of the national languages of their host societies, and this pressure is driven by a monofocal and generative view of ‘standard’ as the unique instrument for integration. However, acquiring that standard language in practice means acquiring one specific and specialized register, suggested to be universally deployable in all and any social environment.

This, then, is the current institutionalized sociolinguistic face of citizenship in a growing number of countries; evidently it is inadequate (see e.g. Spotti 2011). Superdiverse social environments are intensely polycentric and, thus, put high demands on register development for those who live and act in them. The traditional notion of ‘citizenship’ (always related to institutionalized trajectories of ‘integration’) suggests that integration into one aspect of social life – the administrative and public culture of the nation-state acting as ‘host’ to the immigrant – is sufficient for the immigrant to lead a successful life.

This is sociolinguistically ludicrous, and it also runs counter to what is in actual fact expected and/or demanded from immigrants. We expect them not just to pass the mandatory language test administered by the administration in charge of immigration; we also expect them to be fluent in the register of education, of labor, of gender, age and so forth – we expect them to be ‘fully’ integrated in every niche we detect in society. Failing that, immigrants will perpetually be regarded as ‘dis-citizens’, even sometimes anti-citizens as in the case of more radical Muslims in various countries of the West. In placing such demands, we usually overlook the complexities specific to immigrant social life – the fact that apart from ‘our’ culture and values, immigrants also have to orient towards niches of ‘their own’ culture present in diaspora contexts. Forms of Muslim identity articulation – take the hijab as an intensely debated example – can simultaneously be understood as ‘not integrated’ into the ‘dominant values’ of the host society and as ‘fully integrated’ into the religious culture of the diaspora, or even into a global aesthetics of femininity among a particular female peer community (see Blommaert & Varis 2012). The simultaneity of contrasting interpretations here is an effect of the polycentric environment in which (in this case) young Muslim women in the West currently live; their practices, consequently point towards very different orders of indexicality at the same time. The conflicts, thus, are intrinsic to the increasing complexity of contemporary social systems.

If we understand citizenship as a particular degree of ‘integration’, thus, we must realize that superdiversity has created unprecedented levels of polycentricity in social systems, causing the kinds of contrasting and conflicting understandings described above. Some signs, consequently, will inevitably be seen as signs of citizenship as well as dis-citizenship, and it is likely that the political dynamics of citizenship in superdiverse societies will hinge on the degrees to which people – experts, legislators, opinion makers – are capable of imagining the levels of complexity that characterize the real social environments in which people ‘integrate’. The capacity to replace the simple imagery of structuralism by an imagery of complexity and change will decide the debates on citizenship in the future.


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

Blommaert, Jan (2010) The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Blommaert, Jan & Ad Backus (2012) Superdiverse repertoires and the individual. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 24.

Blommaert, Jan & Ben Rampton (2011) Language and superdiversity. Diversities 13/2: 1-22.

Blommaert, Jan & Piia Varis (2012) How to how to: The prescriptive micropolitics of Hijabista. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 30.

Blommaert, Jan, Ben Rampton & Massimiliano Spotti (eds.) (2011) Language and Superdiversity. Special issue, Diversities 13/2: 1-83

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

Cohen, Robin (ed.) (1995) The Cambridge Survey of World Migration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jorgensen, Normann, Martha Karrebaek, Lian Madsen & Janus Moller (2011) Polylanguaging in superdiversity. Diversities 13/2: 22-37

Moller, Janus & Jens Normann Jorgensen (2012) Enregisterment among adolescents in superdiverse Copenhagen. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 28.

Rampton, Ben (2006) Language in late Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Spotti, Massimiliano (2011) Ideologies of success for superdiverse citizens: The Dutch testing regime for integration and the online private sector. Diversities 13/2: 38-52.

Vertovec, Steven 2007. Super-diversity and its implications. Ethnic and Racial Studies 30/6: 1024-1054.

Vertovec, Steven 2010. Towards post-multiculturalism? Changing communities, contexts and conditions of diversity. International Social Science Journal 199: 83-95.

Seminar on Howard Becker’s “Outsiders”.


Jan Blommaert

Howard Becker’s classic study “Outsiders” (1963) demonstrated that there is, in actual fact, no “mainstream” – just sets of separate and connected “niches” with their own knowledge and normative system, in power relationships with others. In this seminar I discuss the symbolic-interactional background of Becker’s work, review its main theses, and point towards contemporaries such as E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Michel Foucault and others who contributed to the “de-mainstream-ization” of social thought in the 1960-1970s.

Listen to the seminar on this topic (10 February 2015, Tilburg University):

A free pdf of the book “Outsiders” can be downloaded from:



The Power of Free: In search of democratic academic publishing strategies


Jan Blommaert

In this polemical essay, I intend to engage with the current system of academic publishing, in light of the debates about possible Open Access publishing strategies. I write my remarks from my own position in the field: as an Arts scholar (a linguistic anthropologist to be precise), tenured at a European University (Tilburg University, to be precise), with a degree of seniority in my field and with a reasonably full publishing track record. It is my view that the debate on Open Access, which currently opposed in a rather random way a “Gold” versus a “Green” strategy, should consider some fundamental issues related to the economic dimension of academic publishing, of the motives and rationale for publishing as an academic, and on available alternatives. Lacking such reflections, the debate risks becoming a reiteration of stereotypes and “inevitabilities” and may lead not to improvement but to a “race to the bottom”.

The structure of the field of publishing

Academic journals are good because of the material published in them. This material has been developed by researchers in their capacities of authors, editors and reviewers. The quality, reputation and impact of journals are therefore not achievements of the journals and their publishers: they are overwhelmingly achieved by the academic community that furnishes top-quality materials to them. After all, it’s not journals that are cited but articles. And note that the production chain of articles is equally almost entirely done by unpaid academic actors: from the author who provides the “raw material”, over the editors and reviewers who improve them, to the authors again who do the proofreading (and increasingly, the marketing). As to the publishers: their actual labor investment and impact on the production process are shrinking rapidly, as electronic submission and processing gateways, outsourced copy-editing and marketing are becoming industry standards. The real effort of publishers, and their only important contribution in the production chain, is marketing and distribution: publishers bring the journals to the readership. But the point here is that the “value” of journals, largely residing in their reputation and impact figures, is almost exclusively ensured by the unpaid raw-to-finished materials they publish. This value – it is easy to overlook that – therefore also depends on the availability of unpaid raw-to-finished materials and on the willingness of those who produce them to pass them on to publishers for publication. Journals would cease to exist when authors decide not to submit their material to them anymore under the conditions offered to them.

Such is the baseline economic relationship in which academics and publishers find themselves. Journal publishers depend on authors, editors and reviewers, and in a free market of ideas and knowledge circulation, this fundamental relationship should at all times prevail. The fact is, however, that government regulations have maneuvered publishers into a monopoly position: formal and informal criteria for academic funding and career development almost everywhere include intensive publishing in a restricted list of journals, overwhelmingly commercially published. This top-down criterion has created a monopoly for publishers, and thus reversed the baseline economic relationship between authors and publishers, turning it into a relationship of unilateral dependence – the field has become heteronomic, to use Bourdieu’s terms. Academics are now forced to publish in a limited set of outlets, and their unpaid materials now also remain unrewarded: journals are sure of an almost unlimited supply of cheap materials produced by a labor force that has no bargaining position whatsoever.

This monopoly position has made academic publishing an extraordinarily lucrative business. To give one example: Reed Elsevier STM reported a 39% profit margin in 2013 – an astronomical margin trumping that of the large majority of industries worldwide. This bonanza explains the tremendous tendency towards concentration in the academic publishing market, as well as the rapid proliferation of new journals in many fields of science. Journals, it seems, are no-risk ventures driven by an extraordinary return on investment and with no countervailing forces in the market. Pricing policies, consequently, are exorbitant: downloading a PDF of an individual article can cost 30-50 Euro apiece, a price that often equals that of an expensive book.

This is where Open Access enters the scene. Open Access publishing has in itself now become an additional criterion for academic publishing, as governments as well as funding bodies increasingly argue that publicly funded science should be accessible to all. When the Open Access requirement met the monopoly structure of the academic publishing industry, one of the most absurd phenomena occurred: authors having to pay journals to publish their own article in an Open Access formula. Whoever wants to see his/her paper made available freely in an Open Access platform by Elsevier, Wiley, Kluwer has to pay the equivalent of about 200-300 downloads – fees rising into the thousands of Euros per article.

So authors are facing a choice of sorts: either they publish under “normal” conditions, which means that their article will cost up to 50 Euros per individual download by an interested reader, or they go for Open Access and foot a bill running into the thousands of Euros per article. Recall – it was mentioned earlier – that this choice is increasingly made by governments and funding bodies: authors simply have to go for the expensive Open Access strategy (aptly called “Gold Open Access”) if they want to have their work recognized and rewarded by those who fund their efforts. For the point is worth underscoring: academics have no choice in this series of transactions. The Open Access requirement is effectively enforced along with that earlier requirement of publishing in a restricted list of commercially published journals, through the accounting and evaluation culture that determines academics’ career trajectories. Together, both forces lead to one single outcome: no choice whatsoever for academics – unless they consider some of the points to be discussed further.

This is probably one of the most extreme forms of legally sanctioned labor exploitation imaginable. Authors invest sometimes hundreds or thousands of hours in the creation of an intellectual product that is written up in an article; this article is offered free of charge to publishers, who package it, so to speak, into a marketable commodity. The marketing of this commodity, however, now has to be paid for by those who already offered the raw-to-finished materials that make up the commodity. Or to put it differently: in order to get our articles published we have to sign contracts in which publishers appropriate the copyrights to our works, usually without restrictions and qualifications; if we wish to have our intellectual products to be actually and effectively distributed and read, we have to pay copyright fees for our own material. We have to buy back that which we were unconditionally demanded to hand over free of charge to publishers. And while our copyrights had no value whatsoever in the first stage of production – they were handed over without compensation when we offered our article for publication – these same copyrights suddenly become extraordinarily expensive for those who got nothing in return when they transferred them to the publisher. It is absurdly unfair.

Academics, we can see, have to pay whatever profits can be earned by publishers – here is the no-risk enterprise in its most extreme shape.

It is frankly stunning to see that governments, funding bodies and universities are willing (and even advocate) to enter into such a form of daylight robbery. Imagine a university with 1000 academics, each writing four articles per year, for each of which 4000 Euros need to be paid as Gold Open Access publishing fee: 16 million Euros per year would have to be spent (from precarious budgets) on having articles marketed by an industry which, recall, reaps the amazing amounts of profit noted above. This industry is simply subsidized, usually (in the EU) through taxpayers’ money, and its labor force – academics – find themselves in a situation of extreme exploitation, of forced labor, if you wish. To the extent that the current system of academic publishing is supposed to be “industrial” (many observers qualify it as such), it lacks some fundamental features of a healthy competitive and sustainable industry.

Sustainability issues

It is amazing to see that Gold Open Access is often presented as the most “sustainable” strategy of Open Access publishing. An industrial model based on such radical forms of exploitation can hardly qualify for any level of sustainability, because it introduces a heteronomic actor in the academic field: money. Readers who cannot pay the 30 Euros per download in a non-Open Access model will not read the articles; part of the market, thus, is lost. And authors who cannot afford the thousands of Euros required for Gold Open Access publishing will equally drop out of the market. (Note that junior researchers are the ones most sensitive to the “publish or perish” pressures; it is their budgets and opportunities we should be concerned with in the first place, certainly in an academic labor market which becomes increasingly selective and competitive). Publishers appear happy to operate within a market that has these structural limitations of access; evidently, academics have no interest whatsoever in accepting such limitations. In terms of sustainability, the fact that the present system of money-for-publication imposes a de facto discriminatory restriction on who can write and who can read academic texts is a critical issue. Young, aspiring academics in every part of the world ought to have access to channels of publication as producers and consumers, regardless of the level of investment they can bring to this. If money excludes potentially brilliant academics from full participation in the academic world, we’re back in the days of the gentleman-scientist.

So: sustainable? A robber economy rather, in which phenomenal profits can be made for a short time, at a price not borne by those who make the profits. The number of candidate-robbers in this highly lucrative business is rising exponentially: not a day passes without receiving emails announcing a new Open Access journal and inviting contributions to it, sometimes accompanied by that most basic of marketplace tactics: offering a discount or a free first ride. Such journals sometimes bear the most ludicrous disciplinary pointers (“Open Journal of Applied Sciences”, “Journal of Science and Humanities”) and appear to be in it for one reason: money. They promise exactly the things that junior academics desperate to see their papers published need: an ultra-fast turnover of papers in an outlet that claims to operate through the usual peer-review procedures, announces some level of indexing in standard registers of science and other academic databases, possesses an ISSN number and sends PDF offprints – all to be paid for with hard cash.

The presence of such maverick journals should warn and alert us: something is very wrong in the field of academic publishing, and Gold Open Access appears to seriously jeopardize quality standards in academic publishing. This, too, can hardly be seen as an index of sustainability. But there is a more fundamental argument.

Let us remember the role of publishers in the production cycle of academic publications. It is actually very restricted: publishers take care of marketing, circulation and distribution. And in order for these services to be Open Access, publishers now ask us to buy back the copyrights which we transmitted to them as the payment for – exactly – marketing, circulation and distribution. There was a time, of course, that publishers owned the exclusive channels for such jobs: printing infrastructure and pre-financing capital sufficient to cover the production and distribution costs of large quantities of books and journals. These times, naturally, have gone, and I shall return in greater detail below to this matter. But the present Gold Open Access model still presupposes this old economy of resources in the fields of printing, marketing, circulation and distribution of academic work. We are supposed to find ourselves, as academics, still in an entirely powerless position vis-à-vis publishers when it comes to publishing and circulating our works. We are supposed not to be aware of the fact that the Web 2.0 has drastically changed this situation, and to accept that none of us would be able to adequately judge the scope of academic publics and the ways to approach them with published work. It is this suggestion that enables the publishers to charge us for the copyrights to our own work as a condition for actually circulating them. And it is the same suggestion that is the engine behind the Gold-rush described earlier, with an avalanche of new and unreliable Open Access journals now competing for our despair to get published.

The fact is – and I shall elaborate that below in some detail – that none of this is true. We do possess adequate instruments and means to challenge the monopoly publishers still claim in that field. In fact, the monopoly held by publishers nowadays has nothing to do anymore with the production cycle of their products; it is purely an effect, described earlier, of top-down enforcement by academic authorities and funding bodies. For every aspect of the production chain, individual academics possess sufficient and adequate alternatives to the means offered to them by publishers. We can be our own publishers, perhaps more effective ones and surely much cheaper ones than the current commercial publishers – the only thing needed is a change in institutional rules and criteria for “what counts” as publications.

Smart people in the publishing world do realize that such a change might very well be not too far off. We can see it in the rising rates charged for Gold Open Access publishing – a rise not explicable by higher costs of production for publishers and neither by dwindling profit ratios. The former are aggressively pushed down continually, with less and less real and expensive hands on the job; the latter, as we have seen earlier, are actually quite astonishingly handsome. The rising costs charged to authors is best explained as an effect of a behind-the-scene awareness that this market will reach its limits somehow, perhaps soon, and that the current relative market advantage needs to be maximally exploited – grab it while it lasts, a rather classic feature of a robber economy. It is, in short, an expression of the unsustainable nature of this system. Those who realize this have good reasons for it, and to these we can now turn.

Alternatives: Three truisms

To recap the points relevant for what follows: I have argued that the actual contribution of publishers in the production chain of academic publications is restricted to marketing, circulation and distribution; in return for these services publishers unilaterally and unconditionally appropriate our copyrights, and if we wish the circulation of our publications to be democratic, we have to buy back the rights to our own work; I added that this mechanism rests on two things: (a) an illusion about publishers’ monopoly position in these fields, and (b) institutional pressure on academics to submit to this system of exploitation; even in the face of a heteronomic restriction on the academic market of knowledge and ideas (the money factor excluding both authors and readers), and even in the face of potentially astronomical costs for academic institutions – money that could be much better spent.

In what follows, I shall elaborate the first of these factors: the illusion of a monopoly for commercial publishers in the field of marketing, circulation and distribution of academic publications. I hope that the arguments elaborating that first point might be helpful in changing the second factor. And I will have to state three truisms.

  • First truism. The primary motive for academics when they write is to be read, to enter into a dialogue with specific groups of peers, to get feedback on the ideas and results they have communicated, and to do this democratically from within an idealistic understanding of the “market of knowledge”: science – as the Nobel Prize Committee reiterates each year – is to benefit mankind, all of it and always. Academics usually have no interest in making publishers rich (and evidently, they themselves become rich only in extremely exceptional cases by publishing hard). The connection between publishing and career development is experienced by huge (and growing) numbers of academics, very many of them among the younger and more junior ranks of faculty, as a suffocating pressure turning research into punishment rather than joy. And as a potential road towards irrelevance – publish many small scraps of material because you won’t have the time to work on something substantial – and corruption. Here speaks someone who works in the same institution as did the infamous Diederik Stapel, one of recent history’s most renowned cases of pervasive academic fraud. Stapel was a prolific academic author, publishing papers in Science and many other top journals and having, consequently, a stellar career until the exposure of his fraud in 2011. In his defense, Stapel emphasized the compelling nature of “doing” publications not for academic reasons but for career ones. So the primary motive for publishing needs to be kept in mind: we publish because of our shared need for dialogue and debate on research issues and outcomes, which is, and remains, the most potent form of quality control in science. And we resent any obstacle to such dialogue and debate.
  • Second truism. The Web 2.0 has turned all of us into low-cost knowledge producers and publishers. The minimal logistical ICT provisions present in many thousands of universities around the world enable every individual academic to do his/her own Open Access publishing – minimal wordprocessing, editing and web publishing skills are required for this, and such skills are now widely distributed among academics (few of us still have access to departmental typists anyway). And overhead costs are minimal – in fact, they largely overlap with the overhead costs of research itself, and there is no economic or logistic reason why the stage of publishing ought to be separated from the other stages of research and development. There is even less of an academic reason for this: doing one’s own publishing does not prejudge academic quality, while it enables speed and targeting in the circulation of research products. We can publish our products much faster, and direct them far more precisely to target audiences, than commercial publishers. This brings us to the third truism.
  • Third truism. Academics know their world, its structure, scope and modes of operation. They know their peers, they know the authoritative figures in their fields and they can distinguish between what is new, interesting and uninteresting in their domain of expertise. And they have a pretty accurate idea of the target audiences for their research output as well. Most of us, for instance, would understand that the “Open Journal of Applied Sciences”, apart from other questionable features, targets an audiences much to diffuse to be an effective forum of debate. Most of us, consequently, would avoid such outlets, go for much more specific ones, and “pitch” our publications towards the specific sub-audiences we intend to engage in a dialogue with. Academic markets, if they are not defined commercially, are small and democratic “niche” markets interested in “boutique” products and defined by elevated levels of expertise and affinity with topics, approaches and styles of work. Numbers for such audiences can vary significantly, from a handful of dozen to several thousands of scholars – but all of them matter, and no audience is a priori restricted by criteria other than intellectual ones. Whoever is interested can get in – that is the democratic aspect of academic markets. We should not forget that when we read academic papers, we read them because we are interested in or looking for specific forms of information, not generic ones; and that when we enter into an academic dialogue, we do this with specific colleagues, not “the world of applied sciences” or any other communicative fiction (which can of course be a commercial reality). This means that, if we publish ourselves, we would be perfectly capable ourselves to engage highly competent reviewers of work and also capable of directing our publications to the audiences that matter. In fact, no one would be better qualified to make such marketing, circulation and distribution decisions competently and effectively than an experienced scholar deeply involved in an academic field of expertise.

Those three truisms should just be kept in mind for they condition much of what I shall say in what follows. The upshot of these truisms is that academics are perfectly equipped to control the entire production cycle of their publications. It seems to me quite evident that any sustainable and healthy academic publishing strategy should take them as givens; denying or dismissing their relevance is done at one’s own peril. Note that the three truisms, and especially the second one, often lead to categorizations of “Green Open Access”: Open Access publishing done locally, outside the commercial publishers’ systems, with products stored in local repositories. Green Open Access is currently described as “less sustainable” than Gold Open Access. The reasons for that inferiority are rarely given and even less rarely offered for critical examination, and the first and third truism certainly conceal strong arguments in favor of a superior and more sustainable model of academic publishing. There is very little value and achievement in publishing papers that remain unread; such a waste, actually, defines unsustainability. Greater autonomy for academics in publishing, combined with a removal of the heteronomic barriers restricting access to publishing and reading in the present system, are better candidates as recipes for sustainability.

Alternatives: resources

The revolution brought by Web 2.0 to the academic trade has generated several resources that, certainly when taken together, offer individual academics as well as collectives of academics effective and powerful alternatives to the Gold Open Access strategy. I will not say anything new here: the literature on these topics is rapidly expanding. I shall briefly review some extraordinarily useful, easily accessible and user-friendly tools and resources.


No fiction author would ever sign the kinds of copyright agreements we are forced to sign as a precondition for publication of our work with commercial publishers. We usually hand over all rights, in any form and worldwide, to publishers. These publishers, in effect, often include a unilateral right not to publish work transferred to them – they thus own an effective censorship right on work developed by academics, with very little in the way of appeal possibilities for the author. Increasingly, they also impose a moratorium of re-use of published material in the author’s subsequent work (as when an article later becomes a chapter in a book), imposing, for instance, a two-year ban on such forms of re-use, and thus directly intervening in the planning and rhythm of academics’ scientific development. Whenever we sign such contracts, we sign an absurdity. The consequences of this absurdity are already known: it is because work published by a commercial publisher is no longer our property, that publishers can charge authors copyright fees for the circulation of their work in Gold Open Access models.

Copyrights protect us from piracy, from the unlawful appropriation of our work by others. The copyright contracts we now sign turn authors into potential pirates (even prime suspects of piracy) of their own work: another aspect of the absurd system described above. Something is very wrong here, too.

For several years, Creative Commons has been offering an alternative. Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the free and open circulation of knowledge and information, and it has developed several types of legally binding licenses that (a) establish and make legally enforceable the authorship and ownership of creative products, while (b) establishing clear conditions under which the products can be shared freely with others. Concretely: when one has written a text ready for circulation, a simple visit to the Creative Commons website enables one to acquire a type of license for that text, stating, for instance, that work can be shared if the author and original source are identified, if the shared part remains intact, and if the sharing is done outside of commercial channels. No money needs to change hands (including no fees for acquiring the license), while the authors of the text enjoy exactly the same legal protection as with any other form of copyright formula.

Several academic journals have started using Creative Commons as their copyrighting and licensing tool. Authors remain the owners of their work and cannot, consequently, incur fines for “piracy” of what they themselves thought out and developed. These journals, needless to say, do circulate well and articles from such journals do get read and cited.

There is, thus, a sustainable alternative for the absurd copyright arrangements currently offered to academics by commercial publishers. It does not rob them of their rights to use, circulate and distribute their own writings; it does not force potential readers to spend the price of a good book on downloading a PDF of an article, and it does not impose a massive cost on authors who wish to see their work published and on their institutional authorities who fund the research.

Modes of circulation

Another set of readily available resources has to do with new modes of circulation. The traditional journal (and book) is increasingly complemented by what is now called Public Learning Platforms: online platforms on which various formats of academic communication can be offered, ranging from short announcements and squibs to full-blown papers, data sets and case files. Such platforms offer speed of publication – a few clicks is what it takes to get work published – and an entirely new scope of audiences, since such platforms are, as a rule, open and accessible to anyone who enters the internet. And platforms can vary in organization from a relatively straightforward blog to sophisticated multimedial, interactive and layered platforms.

Universities across the world increasingly encourage their staff to explore and exploit the possibilities and the innovative potential for science communication offered by such Public Learning Platforms. For junior researchers, the versatility of such platforms offers a low threshold to enter the world of publishing. They often find a very responsive and active readership there offering intense stages of critical discussion on the published work – a stark contrast to the deep silence often following publication in a listed journal.

Apart from Public learning Platforms, online journals also provide important innovative potential. Rather than the classic “volume-issue” formats, including the “special issue” one, journals such as Semiotic Review have adopted a “rolling” strategy, in which articles can be published when they have been approved, and in which editors (or invited editors) can group published papers into thematic sets replacing the old-school “special issues”, often after a specific thematic call for papers which remains open for several months. The organizational format here is utterly flexible and, again, offers the increasingly important speed of publication: no backlogs of approved but unpublished papers are accumulated, and publication time is no longer determined by the schedule of the printer.

Speaking for myself, for two years now we edit an online working papers series under Creative Commons licenses, called Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, accessible to all wishing to consult and download the papers. Papers come online less than a week after being received by the editors and get hundreds of views and downloads within weeks after publication. This format now attracts very senior academics as well as very junior ones, from affluent as well as poorly resourced universities, and reaches the specifically targeted audiences to which the authors “pitch” their work.

A third and important new resource – an offspring of the social media revolution – are the academic sharing platforms such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate. Such sharing tools are, in effect, perhaps the most “ecological” tool available at present: researchers can build their own communities (remember the specific and targeted audiences mentioned earlier), following or being followed by scholars around the world sharing similar interests and domains of expertise. There is a high level of interaction going on, and the number of paper downloads sometimes far exceeds the couple of hundreds anticipated by commercial publishers when they calculate their Gold Open Access publishing fees.

What these new modes of circulation have in common is:

  1. Autonomy: authors are very much in charge of what circulates and how it circulates;
  2. Speed of publication: no queues or backlogs;
  3. Precision in audience targeting, both wide in scope and specific in orientation – it is a peer-to-peer system;
  4. Intensity: circulation is intense with high numbers of readers and with high levels of debate and interaction;
  5. Low thresholds: authorship and readership are free and undiscriminating;
  6. Low cost: basic available office infrastructure and skills suffice.
  7. Format flexibility: online platforms usually do not use a world length, and one can embed video- and audio-clips, live links and other features not available in traditional journal formats.

We see a system of circulation here which is ecological, in the sense that it is entirely determined by the needs and resources within the academic community, and sustainable. No heavy capital investments are required, younger generations of scholars can enter the world of publishing without major obstacles, and the system is driven by the bottom-line motives of academic authors: to see their work being read, discussed, and taken up by peers. That the intensity of circulation may result in good citation index figures is a happy side-effect.

A personal publishing strategy

These resources are there, they are user-friendly and free of charge. They offer academics the effective possibility to break the unilateral dependence on commercial publishers; they offer their academic and governmental authorities the possibility to save many millions of Gold Open Access subsidies, and to invest these funds in – why not? – improving research conditions and creating sustainable academic jobs.

It would be foolish to dismiss these resources as marginal. They are not: they have rapidly acquired a crucial place in the economies of knowledge and information in which academics have their place. Creative Commons, for instance, now licenses many millions of knowledge products (200 million pictures on Tumblr alone), and the flexibility and dynamism of online journals and series attracts large number of academics for the reasons given earlier. It would be even more foolish to argue that academics should stay out of this brave new world of social-media-like platforms and modes of circulation: they have everything to win by engaging fully with it. The most precious prize to be won there is their autonomy as intellectuals – an old principle defining academics as a profession and something that has been the prime mover in scientific development.

The Web 2.0 environment, in actual fact, now invites, encourages and enables all of us to develop our own personal publishing strategies. Such strategies will, at least for the foreseeable future, continue to include “traditional” publishing – articles in journals, the occasional book – but can now be complemented by a layered and more versatile range of publishing modes, starting with, for instance, a Facebook page, leading to a blog where the “friends” ready to go beyond the “like” button can find longer arguments, and thence to one’s ResearchGate profile where the few truly committed ones can find scientific materials underpinning the “smaller” statements. Here, the academic has the opportunity to once and for all escape from the Ivory Tower of science-for-the-sake-of-science, and communicate with another set of specifically targeted audiences than the ones drawn from the academic community.

The future of publishing, thus, lies in the reconstruction of an autonomous academic who publishes bot “formally” – the traditional modes – and increasingly “informally” using the resources described here. Open Access would be a default mode here; the color of this Open Access is of little relevance, as long as the system improves the academic system of production in a sustainable and democratic way. We can all start doing this ourselves.


Background information

On Gold and Green Open Access:



Publishers’s policies: an example


University policies and effects:



Creative Commons:



Creative Commons 4.0 International.  http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ 

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

Piia Varis & Jan Blommaert

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.



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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going viral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The weird world of memes

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

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


Figure 2: British wartime propaganda poster.

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


Figure 3: Keep calm and call Batman


Figure 4: Keep calm and drink beer.

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

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

Figure 5: I can has cheezburger?


Figure 6: President and a possible voter having cheezburger

yes you can has cheeseburger

Figure 7: I has a dream.


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

keep calm arrow

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

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

1354329549_An arrow in the knee Some fresh oc_6ad7ab_2932806

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

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

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

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

Conviviality on demand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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