The citizen in the European GDPR: We’re all data subjects now

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Jan Blommaert

As of May 25, 2018, the new European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will be enforced. This new regulation took a long time to prepare and implement, for its scope is vast and its effects will be huge. Reading the voluminous documentation about the GDPR, especially when done with a moderate dose of critical discourse analysis, yields some puzzling and potentially disconcerting insights.

What is the GDPR about?

On the EU website dedicated to the GDPR, the aims of the regulation are described as follows: the GDPR “was designed to harmonize data privacy laws across Europe, to protect and empower all EU citizens data privacy and to reshape the way organizations across the region approach data privacy.” Even if the term “data privacy” is used as the element of coherence, we can anticipate something very complex here. We get a regulation that (a) creates legal uniformity regarding data privacy throughout the EU (and beyond); (b) in some way defines and delineates (and so presumably “empowers”) the data privacy rights of EU citizens, and (c) regulates and streamlines the ways in which data privacy is currently handled by “organizations”. The latter can be almost anything, from a boy scouts troupe to a multinational corporation, from a badminton club to a newspaper, from a university to a government department and internet provider. Knowing how the EU proceeds in its legislative work, one can only imagine the density of lobbying work that has preceded the GDPR, for almost anyone is affected by it.

Surely, data privacy is one of the most pressing concerns these days. The Cambridge Analytica-Facebook data leaks scandal is still being rolled out to the public, cybercrime (including identity theft, hacking and copyright violations) has become a top security priority, and all of us have had the pleasure of receiving emails from extraordinarily friendly people inviting us to re-activate our bank accounts or social security numbers by sending all our personal details over. So it is clear that something needed to be done about such new forms of risk in an online-offline world. And yes, in the GDPR there are long and carefully worded sections “empowering” citizens when it comes to data privacy.

But much more attention is given to the transactional aspects of personal data: the conditions and rights to acquire, store and use such data in commercial, security, research and other contexts. The GDPR codifies the age of the Internet of Things, of Big Data and of the many ways in which Big Data generates social, economic, cultural and political effects, most of them entirely new and, consequently, poorly regulated. The citizen’s rights to privacy are defined in a regulated world in which such data are traded, exchanged, merged, and analyzed by a tremendous range of other actors. And that is where things become intriguing.

From citizen to data subject

The text is what we would now call “posthuman”: human beings are not central in them. This becomes clear from the standard use of the term “data subject” in the GDPR rather than, for instance, “citizen”.  To understand the implications of that, we need to take one step back and consider the most fundamental definition in the GDPR, that of “personal data”. Personal data stands for “any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person (‘data subject’); an identifiable natural person is one who can be identified, directly or indirectly, in particular by reference to an identifier such as a name, an identification number, location data, an online identifier or to one or more factors specific to the physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural or social identity of that natural person”. 

The “identifiable natural person” is equated with “data subject”. This is not self-evident, but the reason lies in the small phrase “directly or indirectly” when it comes to being identified. Such innocuous-looking frases always look crucial to the critical discourse analyst, for they are deliberately vague while tremendously inclusive. They create an almost infinite scope for what counts as “identification” and, by extension, “identity”.

For here is the thing: one can be “identified” not just by anything directly leading to the “natural person” but even more by aggregations of indirect data gathered by others and within others’ range of legitimate agency through almost every instrument currently in place. The GPS data of your mobile phone, the algorithms of your social media profiles and your Amazon.com shopping routines, the IP address of your computer, records of medical check-ups and footage from surveillance cameras or drones placing you somewhere: all of these are “identifiers” that generate personal dataBut without the “natural person” as an active, intentional agent – it is not the “natural person” who creates and controls these traces of identity. We are in the world of “profiling” here and, indeed, I can be “implicit in the algorithm” and identified as a bundle of correlated features only indirectly suggesting particular actions – to which actions I can be held accountable nonetheless.

Are such data still “personal”? Can they be reasonably used as “identifiers” not just of people but of their individual character, behavior and actual (intentional) actions? In a 2015 interview, European Data Protection Supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli was clear: no. Butarelli saw a post-personal (or posthuman, as I called it) future ahead: “the concept of ‘personal data protection’ will disappear in the near future, as will the concept of ‘personal data’. We will all be easier to predict and identify even without data about our individual identities, it will be easier to reuse the information and group it together with other information and interpret it accordingly”. He went on: “The concept of ‘data-subject’ and therefore of the individual will in all likelihood disappear too, as we will be grouped together according to segments of information (…) The difference between ‘personal’ and ‘non-personal’ will then be blurred”. We are, in the most literal sense of the term, the profiles constructed of us by Big Data. And since, in the views of the European Data Protection Supervisor, we are facing the end of the individual, one should wonder what’s left of privacy?

Who owns “me”?

Most of the identifiers discussed in the GDPR are not created by the “natural persons” they index, I said. I must add: many of them are not even owned by these “natural persons.” We return to the core purpose of the GDPR here: it should enable and regulate the trading, exchange, storage and use of data about “natural persons” but by other commercial and noncommercial actors. Yes of course, the GDPR now stipulates that when personal data leading to an identifiable “natural person” are being used, these persons have to be informed and consent must be asked and obtained. The latter, however, is far from an absolute rule in the GDPR. There are several exceptions and there is a gigantic loophole under the label of “anonymized data” – the thing Butarelli alluded to when he spoke of people being grouped according to “segments of information” rather than anything properly “personal”. This, in actual fact, is what the term “data subjects” actually means: people grouped and identified as “type” or “category” X, Y, Z on the basis of Big Data aggregations, of specific combinations of data leading to specific profiles for people. Such constructions can sometimes lead to “individual identities”, as Butarelli said. But they need not.

The thing is that even if data are not properly “personal”, in the end they still are about, and from, “natural persons”, no matter what the degree of privacy protection is. After all, the entire thing revolves around identifiability, and even if the data gathered on me are used in “non-personal” ways, what is being done with such data can still have an impact on me. So there is a very wide space left for constructions of “me”, for which I can be held accountable in variable ways, but which have not been made by me, nor are they owned by me – profiles of me are creations and commodities made by others about me, and what the GDPR does well and in detail is to organize a firm legal footing for trading and exchanging such items in a Big Data market. Data subjects, in the sense just described, are the product in that market; if the specific data subject is me, I am a product, not an actor in the deal. Not much citizen empowerment can be observed in the process.

The clever play of words in EU texts such as the GDPR has, on many previous occasions, had the tactical advantage of silencing or delaying public debate. Public declarations on the GDPR will continue to foreground the phrase in which EU citizens are said to be empowered with respect to data privacy. A careful reading of this text, however, raises several large and pretty fundamental questions left unaddressed by the decision makers – and for that, too, precedents are plenty in the history of EU decision making.

For more information on GDPR, see here.

 

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Did anything happen in May 68?

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Jan Blommaert

Half a century ago, a wave of revolt hit countries as far apart as Japan and Czechoslovakia, Germany and the US, Mexico and France. Certainly due to its high profile around the Parisian Quartier Latin, where students confronted the regime of the legendary General De Gaulle during riots in May and June of that year, the events were nicknamed “May 68”.  And under that name, the events became the object of heated controversy. The 50th anniversary of May 68 will be no exception to that.

Nothing has happened

As we know, May 68 in France ended when De Gaulle rallied his supporters and won the elections of June 1968 by a landslide. And it was the great French conservative thinker Raymond Aron who proclaimed shortly after the end of the revolt that rien ne s’est passé – nothing really happened in May 68. The order of De Gaulle’s republic had been restored, after all, and the bourgeoisie as well as the police state that were the joint targets of the revolt were still firmly in power.

While this version of the events became mainstream, another one was addded to this. May 68, claimed the likes of Bernard-Henri Lévy, was a moral and culturalcrisis, a vague counterculture with unspecified values, nothing more. It was a revolt against the cultural patriarchism, the traditional (masculine) structures of authority and the puritan morality of a conservative society, and it was above all a movement of individual empowerment and liberation. Young kids just wanted to be free, free to listen to rock music, grow their hair and wear blue jeans, make love not war, and tell their fathers to mind their own business.

This, in the eyes of more radically conservative thinkers, had led to a moral anarchy, a radical relativism of identities, values and norms and an over-the-top rejection of what was stable, good and true. May 68 has since become a bête noire for the New Right, and for half a century now it has been consistently blamed for almost everything that went wrong in Western societies since the 1960s: immigration and multiculturalism, feminism, sexual promiscuity, the liberal use of drugs, the normalization of homosexuality, the attacks on what is seen as robust masculinity – in short, May 68 destroyed all that was normal in societies such as ours. But other than that, nothing had really happened. Nothing politically at least.

May 68 was a decade long

Well, I’m not so sure about that, because in such acccounts of what happened in May 68 only a fraction of the events is discussed. A decade of worldwide turmoil – the 1960s – is reduced to a couple of weeks in which students (and only students) threw bricks at the police and painted funny slogans on the walls of their university halls. Why they did that, and why in so many places and in this way, is conveniently deleted from the narrative. So let us look at some elements that surrounded May 68. We shall see that it was actually a decade long.

The students did not just paint funny slogans on walls; they openly, loudly and relentlessly criticized the system of power characterizing their societies: the power incorporated by De Gaulle in France, Johnson and Nixon in the US and the Communist Party in Prague. In all of these cases, the power regime was connected – openly, loudly and relentlessly – with the Cold War which had led to increasing militarization and more agressive policing, with millions of young men drafted into national military service on their respective sides of the Cold War divide, and with powerfully developed surveillance and repression resources aimed at (even moderate) public dissidence. In the West and elsewhere, the Vietnam war became the iconic object of protest; but it wasn’t the only issue.

Vietnam became iconic because it was part of the huge wave of decolonization that characterized the 1960s, and because it showed how decolonization had been swept up in the power play of the Cold War. The 1960s started with Fidel Castro proclaiming the end of US imperialism in Cuba, soon followed by the failed US-backed invasion attempt at the Bay of Pigs, and by the Cuban Missile Crisis that rendered the possibility of a nuclear apocalyps part palpable everywhere. The colonial empires were rapidly replaced by independent states, the leaders of which often proved reluctant to enter into neocolonial relations with their former rulers. Mao Zedong theorized the “Third World” as a catchword to define the refusal of newly independent states to choose sides in the Cold War; the US intervention in Vietnam, as well as several other interventions against the rulers of the newly independent states, proved that the the Cold War protagonists didn’t like such forms of non-alignment. This kind of intervention was called imperialism by the May 68 activists, and they rejected it. In their eyes, alternative (read: socialist) roads to development and sovereignty should be, at least, allowed.

They also rejected it because the Cold War overseas imperialism was mirrored by what they identified as the return of “fascism” at home. The Cold War imposed anticommunism as a state doctrine in all NATO member states, and this had concrete consequences. It meant, for instance, that after the post-War “denazification” purges, military and security staff recruitment in countries such as Germany and France now displayed a preference for people with strong right-wing sympathies (including actual ex-nazis and collaborators) over people favoring socialism or communism. Maurice Papon, the powerful police prefect of Paris in the first half of the 1960s, was such a former collaborator, but it took until 1981 before he was convicted for direct involvement in the death of Jewish subjects under the Vichy regime.

With chiefs such as Papon, the police assumed the shape of a military and intelligence outfit outspokenly aimed at crushing any form of action that could be seen as pro-Soviet, however far-fetched. In other countries, similar processes occurred, and the targets of heavy-handed police interventions often included trade unions and striking workers, suspected of (directly or indirectly) assisting the socialist cause and destabilizing society. In the UK, an Emergency Powers Act was introduced in 1964; in Germany, similar laws were voted in 1968 to quell the widespread political and labor protests. The general current was to increase the power of the forces of order while reducing the civil rights of citizens (certainly when they were organized), and to increase the use of police violence in cases of unrest. The 1960s ended with TV-footage of Chicago police forces brutally beating young demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and with National Guardsmen shooting at students on the campus of Kent State University, Ohio, killing four.

TV-footage in that decade also included the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Patrice Lumumba, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the shooting of student leader Rüdi Dutschke in Germany and of two miners during a strike in Belgium, the self-immolation of Czech student Jan Palach and several Vietnamese Buddhist monks, and endless reports on bombings by American B52s in North Vietnam. The entire decade was one of unrest, large-scale dissidence and extreme violence. May 1968 was one moment in which much of this crystallized into a remarkable form of protest and rebellion, characterized by alliances between students and workers, men and women, urban and rural activists, black and white ones, intellectuals, artists, journalists, workers and lay people.

Everyone saw May 68

The 1960s ended also with another piece of historic TV-footage, seen across the world: the landing on the moon. And here is one dimension we should not overlook: the 1960s were the decade of television, of a new global mass media culture. And this, too, had an impact. TV-sets became a normal item in the homes of middle class and working class people alike all over the West, and with literacy levels rising, newspapers and magazines thrived. Jointly, the expansion of the new mass media created a globalized scale of image and content distribution which conclusively transformed the culture of the 20th century. Nothing remained outside the scope of the media now, even if it came from the exotic peripheries or from otherwise obscure corners of the world.

In the 1960s, not just the Beatles became global icons. Mao, Castro, Che, Nehru, Nasser, the Shah and the Negus, Nkrumah, Boumedienne and Kenyatta also rose to stardom. So did the North Vietnamese warriors Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong and General Giap, and so did the Czech anti-Soviet activists Jan Palach and Alexander Dubchek; so too did Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Among the most iconic images of the decade is that of the black US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists in antiracist protest during the medals ceremony at the Mexico 68 Olympic Games. In the small Belgian village where I spent my childhood, my primary school teacher pinned the photo, cut from the local newspaper, on the wall of our classroom; it was there for months.

Vietnam and the Cold War imperialism it bespoke became a worldwide focus of protest and mass mobilization not just because the Cold War affected (and infected) large parts of the world. It became iconic because these parts of the world were now effectively connected by streams of media information and imageries. Vietnam was the first truly global mediatized war, which is why it became the object of effectively globalized protest and resistance and why such protest assumed similar shapes in very different places. Vietnam was the moment when the Cold War became a globalized object of reflection, analysis and popular imagination, affecting global as well as local issues. “Vietnam is in our factories” was a popular slogan among the French workers during the enormous strike that accompanied the student protests in May 68.

May 68, consequently, was a global mediatized event as well – perhaps the very first globally shown instance of popular mass protest in the West, and like Vietnam, a moment in which previously separate dots were connected. The protests were not parochial; people openly, loudly and relentlessly proclaimed international solidarity with oppressed people everywhere, in the factories as well as in the ex-colonies and in the jungles of Vietnam, with women, immigrants and the victims of institutional racism in South Africa and the US. Intellectually, the events accelerated the recognition of voices “from below” or “from the margins” (advocated by Sartre, but also by historians such as E.P Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Carlo Ginzburg and sociologists such as Howard Becker). It also provoked a new critical study of power – with Foucault as its main architect – and it kickstarted the study of globalization processes (think of Immanuel Wallerstein) and worldwide structural inequalities (André Gunder Frank, for instance). It also laid the foundations for the international peace movement, the movement against nuclear weapons and movements for sustainable development and environmental awareness. In many ways, the world as we presently know it was shaped in the late 1960s. The effect of May 68 was massive, and it was above anything else, political.

Everything happened in May 68

The world as we presently know it is of course largely neoliberal and conservative. And this, too, can be partly attributed to May 68. I already mentioned the conservative backlash against the events of 1968 – the reduction of the events to a moral and cultural crisis, a loss of traditional values, a counterculture and so forth. But there is a more complex part to that story, which I can only briefly sketch here.

The focus on Vietnam in May 68, and the intellectual work that surrounded and followed it, marked the end of classical imperialism as a viable doctrine. It was effectively destroyed by the challenge of tiers-mondist (“Third-World-ist”) worldwide solidarity, framed initially by Mao Zedong’s theory of Third World non-alignment. But this challenge, in turn, caused old-style imperialism to be transformed into an amalgamation of neoliberalism and ethnocentrism. Both took another decade to enter into full force, and the end of the Cold War turned them into the cornerstones of a new world order.

Through neoliberalism, the neocolonial ties between the First and the Third Worlds could be rationalized, depoliticized and made “objective” in the form of purely economic, financial and monetary transactional relationships. At the same time, domestic social unrest could be equally turned anodyne, by reducing the political reading of class antagonisms to a depoliticized reading of balance sheets, efficiency and human resources management. The politics of inequality was converted into the economics of equal opportunities and free enterprise.

The political dimension of imperialism morphed into a heavily moralized ethnocentrism, in which “objective” racial, class and civilizational superiority was replaced by individualized, case-based judgments of moral compatibility. People in, say, Congo or Sierra Leone should no longer be seen as victims of extremely disadvantageous rates of exchange in the world markets and of exploitation by multinational corporations extracting surplus value without fair return. They were victims of corrupt leaders and warlords, and the latter – the Third World leaders – should “take responsibility” for their people’s well being. Worldwide solidarity was replaced by “we cannot solve all their problems”. And as for immigrants from such countries, they could always be accused of refusing to contribute to their country’s progress, and of not fitting in the codes of norms and values of their host societies. As Balibar and Wallerstein outlined in the early 1990s, class struggle and race theory had been replaced by softer, but equally effective discourses of cultural and moral compatibility. Similar discourses of moral and cultural compatibility can be (and are) deployed with respect to “domestic” issues of deviance and marginalization. “Hard” political analysis has been replaced by a rhetoric of blame, responsibility and character.

Raymond Aron was quite wrong in his appraisal of May 68. Those who now try to reduce its scope and impact to rock and roll, LSD, and flowers in one’s hair are quite wrong as well, as are those who rant against the “May 68 generation” as the architects of a society of hedonistic individualists devoid of any respect for values, traditions and norms. May 68 was above all else a political event in which a lot was reimagined and redefined. The worldwide protests laid bare some of the major fissures and contradictions of the post-war world; they shaped modes of globalized social, political and intellectual action that marked the end of that part of the 20th century and the beginning of the part that spilled over into the 21st century. May 68 was big, very big.

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The pleasures of an alias on social media.

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Jan Blommaert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Take care of your CV!!

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Jan Blommaert

On contemporary identity asset management

My university offers students a range of tools and tips for a particular genre of autobiography: the curriculum vitae or CV. The CV is considered of great importance in view of future careers, and in view of that, students are encouraged to start hoarding valuable CV elements, which then need to be handled very much in the ways asset managers handle real capital.

Surely, my university is not the odd one out. In fact, a brief search on the internet yields enormous numbers of CV-supporting resources, from standard CV templates and “best practice” examples  to “how to” sites and online courses or training packages suggesting ways to brush up, polish or customize the potentially less appealing aspects of your CV and turn you into the best product on the labor market.

The CV and who you really are

I often ask my students the following question. Imagine you fancy someone and want to date him or her; imagine you manage to get a date, and during that first encounter your interlocutor hands you his or her CV, saying: “it’s all in there”. Would you go on dating him or her? Would you accept a CV as an adequate way to really get to know that person? And if not, why not? Isn’t your CV supposed to be a truthful account of the curriculum of your vita? Or is the CV a lie?

Students usually dismiss the question with arguments such as “hey, I don’t want to employ that person, I want to date him or her”. And dating, naturally, demands an identity presentation which is very different from the one you would offer a potential employer. In dating, you want to meet the real person, while when you apply for a job, it’s about what you have to offer to do that job. A CV is a selection, let’s say, of one’s autobiography. A selection specifically tailored to the demands of an economic role. And sure, you should not lie in your CV. But no, you should equally not tell everything to your potential employer. With someone you date you equally should not lie, but there should be a measure of completeness in your identity presentation: you’re also not supposed to hold back things from each other.  In dating, you must see the entire person. This is common sense.

Or is it? There are studies pointing out that finding employment in a liberalized and flexible labor market involves vastly more than just displaying and accounting for “professional” qualifications, and that employers increasingly emphasize personality features as elements for employability: dynamism, natural leadership, optimism, energy, eagerness and determination. So there too, we see that withholding the entire person from the potential employer’s gaze can play against you. The potential employer, for instance, may find additional, contradictory or qualifying information on you through your social media accounts, and such information can jeopardize your career chances. So while the CV is, indeed, a selection of your autobiography, other parts of it also play a role. The division between a work-oriented identity presentation and one intended for personal relationships is no longer that clear cut.

Identity asset management

This is, in fact, stressed by my university’s career center.

“Your CV will not stand out if you did not undertake any extracurricular activities. Therefore you should start building up a good CV during your student days. The most useful strategy is to gear your extracurricular activities to the job you are envisaging after your graduation.”

Such extracurricular activities include serving on a student board, promoting student participation and taking extra courses. Elsewhere in my university, posters and flyers tell me that joining the student union on foreign trips is a “boost to your CV”, that spending a term in a foreign university equally provides extra CV dash, and that learning foreign languages is a highly valuable asset for your CV. Employers – so one suggests – will be able to read precisely these non-formal identity features off your CV when they see such extracurricular points there. That is when your CV will “stand out”.

The logic behind all of this is an economic logic. It has been described by numerous scholars, including Michel Foucault, as a neoliberal logic in which individuals are strongly encouraged to “privatize” themselves, turn themselves into a micro-enterprise in a competitive market where one has to “stand out” in order to win. They must do so by means of a permanent autobiography, a continuously reorganized and enriched story about who they are. And they must do the latter by a form of hoarding – by accumulating and amalgamating separate items of identity, judged to be valuable in the terms of the market, and perpetually performing what can best be called identity asset management to it. The valuable identity items – identity assets – need to be accumulated, invested, maximized as to return-on-investment, traded and submitted to the value estimations of numerous others.

Take care of your CV

Foucault uses the term “veridiction” for such phenomena. We have strong beliefs that particular forms of identity presentation are “the truth” – which is why you cannot lie in your CV. Your identity assets, seen from that angle, are small chunks of “truth” about yourself. Yes, you did obtain an MA degree in 2016, and yes, you also did take Intermediate Italian evening classes in your graduation year. But, Foucault underscores, this “truth” is, in actual fact, a social truth, a truth fashioned according to the formats proposed by others. Yes, most of us have internalized the criteria of others, believing that they are our own (and, thus, absolute as a truth). But support infrastructures such as my university’s career center show that these criteria are very much out there, and that internalizing them requires a learning and socialization process.

Which is why your assets have to be managed. You have to constantly upgrade and rearrange them, expand and reconfigure them, withdraw them from low-yield investments and reinvest them in high-yield ones, so as to “stand out” whenever you have to stand out. Your identity is your real and lasting private assets fund, and you need to manage it well – carefully when needed, aggressively when possible. And you need to do this because the social criteria for identity asset value are unstable, fluctuating and volatile – like “the markets” in general – and your identity capital’s value depends on such fluctuating valuations.

Identity asset management is the format of truth

I now have to return to the dating-and-CV example above. Students made a distinction between the specific and selective character of the CV as a genre tailored for an economic context, and the completeness of the person we seek in dating. I gave one qualification already: also in the economic context we see the expectation of completeness when it comes to identity presentation. You need to be more than just labor force, you need to be the most interesting and fabulous person on earth in order to get the job we offer.

There is a second qualification as well. When we examine dating apps – and there are many of them, and tens of millions of people use them – we see how the logic of identity asset management is played out on these platforms as well. Profiles on dating sites are equally a highly selective and specific composition of identity assets, not made for the labor market but for the market of friendship, love and sex. And these identity assets are managed whenever anyone swipes the screen or adds a comment to someone else’s profile or messages.

As zones of social activity, dating and employment may have more in common than what common sense suggests. What we can see is that both are affected by the same economic logic of identity asset management, even if the particular “fund” of assets might be very different. In this online-offline world of ours, this form of identity presentation may have become a format of truth. Or at least, it may be well underway to becoming such a format.

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

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

Jan Blommaert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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His photo dominates the Kremlin.

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And Putin supports Zijlstra in the Dutch Parliament.

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

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

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He was in Dallas in 1963

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He was there when Martin Luther King had his dream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dallas, 1963

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Normandy 1944

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

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

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

We can conclude now.

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

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

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

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

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Citizen Sociolinguistics is not Folk Linguistics

Citizen Sociolinguistics

Over the last few years, since I’ve been writing about Citizen Sociolinguistics, several people have conflated it with a field called “Folk Linguistics.”  Now it is time to disambiguate those two.  Citizen Sociolinguistics is *very different* from Folk Linguistics.  Here is how:

First, review: What is Citizen Sociolinguistics?

Citizen Sociolinguistics is the work people do to make sense of everyday communication and share their sense-making with others.  Like any people inquiring into their world, Citizen Sociolinguists have certain research questions, methods for investigating those questions, an accumulation of findings, and typical ways of disseminating those findings.

What questions do Citizen Sociolinguists ask?

Screen Shot 2018-03-04 at 1.26.31 PMCitizen Sociolinguists’ questions are constantly changing. One day, an important question to a particular citizen sociolinguist might be, “What is Natty Light and who drinks it?”  Another day, or to someone else, an important question may be, “What is a fake news and who uses that expression?…

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