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 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. 

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



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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Jan Blommaert 


Anachronistic thinking

A crisis such as the one that rocks the EU at present is in essence a process of ultra-rapid social change, in which the disruptive effects of the crisis are being turned into alternative, non-mainstream patterns of social behavior and social structuring. And part of what we see as the crisis, is the application of anachronistic frames of thought to such new social structures. Responses to forms of social behavior inspired by the need to escape the crisis, so become part of that crisis – they add a layer of ideological crisis to the economic, social and political crisis we can witness. Aspects of behavior are included in definitions of what goes wrong in our societies, they are seen as problematic; while for those who developed them, they are effective solutions to critical problems in life.

Two tendencies can be singled out as examples of anachronistic thinking. One: the increasing pressure to continue seeking solutions within the mainstream – people need to adjust and adapt to standard trajectories sketched, a while ago, as the ideal trajectory for European societies out of the crisis and towards prosperity. Two: the increasing use of state violence as the main tool to control non-mainstream behaviors.

The second aspect does not demand much explanation here. The “unrest” (in itself an anachronism) spotted by authorities in the EU is answered by the deployment of riot police forces and by the rise of a huge network of electronic and technological surveillance online and offline. This line of response is old, and it goes back to the perpetual tension between “the street and the seat”: the necessity in institutional democracies to seek solutions to any social issue through traditional parliamentary policy-developing work, continuously challenged by organized or grassroots mobilization outside of the institutional channels. Taking to the street is as old as democracy itself; violent responses to it by the authorities as well. The more unrest we currently witness – millions of Europeans demonstrate on an almost daily basis in the EU – the more spectacular the responses of the institutionalized democracies become. They now face a “danger” not hitherto experienced: invisible “mobs” active on the Internet and capable of causing major harm to the online branches of institutionalized democracies. Wikileaks is the most outspoken example of this form of activism in recent years, but in a more general sense, the growth and development of effective and large online networks of activists, and the widespread usage of electronic media in public debate all across the EU, are causes for concern for the security branches of EU governments.

The first aspect is more interesting, so let us spend some more attention to it.

The pressure of the mainstream

The EU has defined itself in a series of Treaties as potentially the most prosperous society on earth. These definitions are drawn within a broadly capitalist frame – prosperity will be generated by private property and free-market processes – and critically include an emphasis on knowledge. Europe, says the Lisbon Treaty, is on its way to become the core of a global knowledge economy driven by a large workforce prepared for this knowledge economy by exceptionally high levels of education. The older Bologna strategy, tailored to shape a unified market of higher education, is a key building block for this strategy, and the EU wishes to see terrific increases in higher education enrollment in the near future.

Young Europeans, thus, are offered a kind of “standard trajectory” based on progression through levels of institutionalized, formal education, the finality of which is insertion into a private-industry workforce producing innovative knowledge products. This trajectory, one can say, is that of the “winners”; while other, deviant trajectories are those of “losers”. Or, in an even more oppressive sense, the standard trajectory is that of “normality” within the EU social imagination, while others are “abnormal”. This trajectory is enforceable: the availability of “white collar jobs” is said to be increasingly clustered within this knowledge economy, while jobs outside of it are projected to be precarious and lowly salaried. Jobs, furthermore, no longer organically lead to “careers”. The labor market doctrine of “Flexicurity” projects a future of labor frequently interrupted, in response to conjunctural shifts, by periods of being laid off, being re-trained and re-inserted in segments of the labor market then in expansion. “Careers” become fully subject to flexible responses to the law of supply and demand.

Connected to this focus on knowledge economy labor markets and careers, the EU assumes a status-quo in terms of social structure. A large and highly educated middle class will dominate the institutional democracies of the EU. They will be affluent and display the patterns of consumption that have turned the EU into the most dynamic consumer economy on earth. The working-class is supposed to shrink and diminish in terms of political influence, since traditional industrial production will gradually give way to the smart economy envisaged by the EU.

This, then, is the mainstream which is offered to young Europeans. The road to “normalcy” as a young European is: to pursue the highest possible levels of education, to deploy the skills thus accumulated into high-profit private knowledge industries, to flexibly respond to economic shifts, and to continue consuming in the ways deemed appropriate for an affluent middle-class. All of this is politically surrounded by the institutions of classical democracy: elected representative parliaments and nation-state governments responding (flexibly, again) to a higher scale-level of governance, the EU; which in turn flexibly responds to the tactics of a global private business scale.

The problem

This, however, does not work. Or at least, this mainstream ideal appears to be extraordinarily vulnerable to convulsions in the global business cycles, resulting in a situation, such as the one now experienced, in which extraordinary high numbers of young people become and remain unemployed, incapable of turning their exceptional skills into progress on the standard mainstream trajectory, entering (perhaps for an indefinite period) the “precariat”. And “switching off”, so to speak.

Since 2008, the EU has seen an explosion of new social, cultural and political movements, tied together by accusations of the system not living up to its promises and by a rejection of systemic features of the standard trajectory just sketched. I emphasize the term “systemic”: protest is not, or surely not only, about surface features of the system – the distinction, let us say, between a conservative or a left-wing government in the capital. The rejection is fundamental and targets the key features of the social, economic and political mission statement designed by the EU through its most recent Treaties. The system of parliamentary representative democracy, in control of the public sphere and civil society, is challenged by the construction of local or transnational forms of deliberative and self-governing communities (challenging, one can observe, the scalar order of the system, in which decisions are distributed over the different layers of institutionalized politics), and by invading the public sphere by means of several new forms of message-making and communication.

The latter includes a broad range of internet-based “citizen journalism” news media (known earlier on, as “micromedia”), network-organizing social media activities often leading to “offline” effects (such as flashmobs) and characterized by the unpredictable “virality” of certain messages, exchanges of hacking skills targeted at “democratizing” the knowledge of the state(s) and emancipating those who might be victims of such knowledge. Wilileaks and Anonymous, thus, have been responsible for some of the most high-profile forms of activism in recent years: the leaking of millions of classified documents shedding light on the “dark forces” of market capitalism and established politics; and the successful blockading and sabotaging of crucial electronic tools of governance. All of this is achieved “off the streets”, is therefore hard to imagine as a form of social activism, and leads to increased encroachments by governments into the free world of the internet.

And there is more. In several parts of the EU, young people increasingly appear to refuse to embark on the standard trajectory of knowledge-economy middle class careers. They leave schools and refuse higher degree training, and rather opt for lives in alternative economic, social and political environments. They start small shops, grow and produce alternative products – organic food, hemp, home-made clothes and appliances – and choose to live in alternative social units deviating fundamentally from the traditional family-based units. Squatter communities all over the EU now form a huge population, and people organize sharing-based and crowd-sourced economic forms of survival, withdrawing from consumer capitalism. Crowdfunding is a popular strategy for financing new forms of entrepreneurship, avoiding the standard templates of commercial banking. This is no longer “marginal”.

Most of these alternative forms of social organization are seen by the authorities as “problems”, as forms of “rebellion” and “dissent” – and thus illegitimate, perhaps inspired by anti-systemic political ideologies such as anarchism, and potentially endangering the stability of the current status-quo. They are therefore targeted as potentially dangerous by security forces, and the rise of such new communities is a general cause of concern for powerful observers such as the IMF, who see this development as a form of social instability.


Such interpretations of what is different as potentially threatening have a very old pedigree in Europe, of course. (E.P Thomson noted decades ago that stability, like revolution, has its own system of terror.) As soon as alternative forms of life leave the fringes of statistics and demography, and become massively visible, “rebellion” may be replaced as a label by “revolution”, and a crackdown is to be expected.

These interpretations, however, can also be seen as persistent anachronisms that fail to capture the positive and problem-solving potential of such phenomena and developments. In other words: what is currently seen as a “problem” might only be a problem for those who try to impose a specific hegemony; for those who reject that hegemony, it may effectively be a solution.

Squatters solve a critical problem for themselves: homelessness or the exploitative aspects of a housing market driven by speculative capitalist forces, increasingly unaffordable in times of recession. Organic small-scale farmers solve their problem of unemployment and lack of income; citizen journalists solve a problem of disinformation and manipulation by the large commercial or state-owned mass media; crowdfunding solves a problem of lack of solvency or creditworthiness as a customer in commercial banking, and so forth.

Interestingly, almost all of these alternative forms of social, economic and political organization emphasize a democratic idealism, again solving a problem of lack of legitimacy, voice and impact in the established institutional systems of democracy. While such developments, therefore, have an anti-systemic dimension – of rejection and withdrawal from the mainstream – they also have a constructive and positive dimension reflecting a genuine concern about the quality of life in the social, economic and political mainstream. If this mainstream has just unemployment, mystification or exploitation to offer, a better life can be built outside of it.

And further

These non-mainstream alternative contain possibly highly relevant ideas, methods and reflections, and do not necessarily represent a failure of “integration” in an institutionally scripted mainstream, but a constructive critique of the assumption of “integration” itself. If young and potentially highly “useful” people switch off and abandon the trajectory towards mainstream integration, they do not choose the void as an alternative: they design and develop another trajectory which reflects their present concerns, needs and ideals. Thus, the political distinction is not between the mainstream and chaos – it is between different mainstreams, all of them seen and argued for as fulfilling, worth pursuing, and legitimate.

An investigation of such different mainstreams, the trajectories of access they require, the resources they reflect, gather and deploy, and the meaning they have for the people involved, may provide possible solutions for several key systemic problems presently experienced socially, economically and politically, and it is good to realize that these key systemic problems are real and are often the trigger for young people to switch off and “reset” their lives. In other words, the very fact of switching off, of people abandoning the (single institutionalized) “mainstream”, is an indication not just of the possibility of anti-hegemonic alternatives but proof of their existence and practicability. It is not as if alternatives have to be invented: millions of people already live in them. And rather than perceiving such people as “losers” who consciously opted for a life in the margins, we can see such margins as “centers” in their own right, as alternative “mainstreams” in which people spend considerable efforts and deploy considerable amounts of competence and skills so as to make them worth living, and equivalent – if not superior – to what the institutionalized standard trajectory has to offer them in the way of a life and a future.

A crisis such as the one that has marked the past decade will not be solved by means of anachronisms. Solving it sustainably – the opposite of patching up what is there – requires explorations of all and any counter-hegemonic ideas that point towards systemic alternatives. This work, Ibelieve, is to the benefit of all, even if it might aggravate and unnerve some.