‘The Pleasures of an Alias on Social Media’ by Jan Blommaert

Ahead of the 6th International Conference on Multicultural Discourses later this year (which we are sponsoring), plenary speaker, Jan Blommaert, has written an inspiring piece initiating conversation around some of the themes of the conference. 

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 really be 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 alpha and omega of the bureaucratic system of governance: when a name could be conclusively stuck on 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 licence, 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 using your real name, hiding it from others or giving a false name when asked for it, is strongly associated with deviance, abnormality, transgression and 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 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.

You can read more about the themes of the conference in this post on our blog.

AAAL and TESOL in the Windy City

Last month I headed off to Chicago with Anna and Tommi for my first international trip with MM – a week of back to back conferences, starting with AAAL and ending with TESOL. After a nice, relaxing flight over, I arrived in Chicago ready to dive straight into the first day of AAAL the following morning.

On the walk to the conference hotel on the first morning, I truly understood how Chicago got its “Windy City” nickname. It was absolutely freezing! No matter which way you turned, hoping the next block would offer some shelter, the gusts coming off the lake seemed to find you. It was a relief to arrive and hunker down in basement where the exhibit hall was located.

Tommi, Anna and Flo at AAAL

After a fairly relaxed start, it was quite the baptism of fire when the first coffee break brought a flurry of people downstairs to the exhibit hall, and every subsequent break continued in the same vein, with all three of us scrabbling for pens, order forms and books at once. Still, it was great to see so much enthusiasm for our books and it was a really successful conference in terms of sales, with Jan Blommaert’s new book, Dialogues with Ethnography, and Translanguaging in Higher Education edited by Catherine M. Mazak and Kevin S. Carroll proving particularly popular.

Dinner with Wayne Wright

It was also a really good opportunity for me to finally meet so many of the people I’ve been emailing back and forth with over the past three and a half years, and put faces to names. We were even able to spend time with a couple of our authors after the conference over dinner and had lovely meals out with Wayne Wright, and Maggie Hawkins and her son, Sam. I particularly enjoyed sampling the culinary delights Chicago has to offer, including deep dish pizza, steak and the best Brussels sprouts I have ever encountered in my life!

With AAAL over and Anna on a flight back to the UK, Tommi and I headed straight off to the convention centre where this year’s TESOL was being held. It was a totally different experience for me, having never exhibited in a convention centre before, and I couldn’t believe the sheer scale of the place. After a quiet start, our stand got busier and busier, and by the time Tommi left for home on the penultimate day, I was rushed off my feet! Again, sales were good and it was particularly pleasing to take so many preorders of Shawna Shapiro, Raichle Farrelly and Mary Jane Curry’s forthcoming book, Educating Refugee-background Students, due out in May.

It being my first time in Chicago, I took the opportunity wherever possible to see some of the sights at the end of each day at the conference. I ventured off to Millennium Park to see the famous Bean sculpture there, visited the Art Institute (where the highlight, aside from the collections of famous paintings, were the incredible Thorne Miniature Rooms) and waited in what felt like the world’s longest queue to go up the Willis Tower and try out “The Ledge”, a glass balcony that extends four feet outside the 103rd floor!

Flo

 

Communication in the Multilingual City – the TLANG conference

While my colleagues were gallivanting off to AAAL and TESOL in Chicago, or holding the fort in the office, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the TLANG conference at the University of Birmingham at the end of March. TLANG is a big AHRC funded project that aims to understand how people communicate multilingually across diverse languages and cultures and the conference was the final event, bringing together work focused on the theme of communication in the city.

Betsy Rymes' keynote speech
Betsy Rymes’ keynote speech

The conference offered a wealth of papers, colloquia and some excellent keynotes, by Betsy Rymes, Annalies Kusters, Tong-King Lee, Ana Deumert and Jan Blommaert (whose work was presented by Massimiliano Spotti). Betsy Rymes opened the conference and spoke on the topic of citizen linguistics, the work language users do to make sense of their surroundings, and illustrated her keynote with local examples, asking for example what a Brummie is and how they speak, as well as a discussion of the ghost emoji, which has always been a mystery to me!

Annalies Kusters introduced the audience to her work on multimodal interactions and the use of gestures by signing and non-signing interlocutors in India. She showed us wonderful examples from her film ‘Ishaare: Gestures and signs in Mumbai’, in which we saw fluent deaf and deafblind signers negotiating the marketplace and interacting with non-signing stallholders. Her keynote was an especially engaging end to the day as it was impressively and seamlessly presented in both sign language and spoken English.

Ana Deumert's keynote speech
Ana Deumert’s keynote speech

The second day was opened by Tong-King Lee, who spoke of his own experiences with translanguaging and advanced the idea of translanguaging as an experiential phenomenon. I was interested in his example of how one might successfully communicate one’s order for Chinese tea in a Singapore coffee shop, by using the action of fishing to demonstrate the dunking of the teabag! In the following plenary, Ana Deumert took the audience away from her hopeful 2016 work and asked whether life is not always friendly and accepting, and questioned what the limits of conviviality are. She spoke about confrontation, violence, anger and the persistence and importance of identities, and accompanied her arguments with archival videos and photos, as well as a discussion of posts and comments on colonial nostalgia from social media and online communities.

My conference display
My conference display

When not in sessions, the coffee and lunch breaks were busy affairs, and I was kept on my toes at the stand as delegates snapped up our latest publications The Multilingual Citizen edited by Lisa Lim, Christopher Stroud and Lionel Wee and Dialogues of Ethnography by Jan Blommaert, as well as the books in our new Translation and Interpreting for Social Justice in a Globalised World series.

Laura

How Does Gender Shape Fieldwork Experiences?

We recently published Femininities in the Field edited by Brooke A. Porter and Heike A. Schänzel. In this post the editors explain why the book is necessary and what they hope will be achieved from its publication.

Gendered actions have been receiving quite a bit of press lately, and rightly so. While much of the press has been focused on power inequalities, some attention has been given towards gender equalities. With the academy far from being viewed as gender equal, our motivation for the book is to explore how femininities shape fieldwork experiences in the social sciences, specifically in tourism. Research in the field has long been considered as a masculine act in a masculine space, with the idea of the lone-researcher at the forefront tracing back to anthropological endeavours. For many researchers, this narrow construction can be intimidating. Yet, for any researcher in the field, we argue the undeniable influence, both positive and negative, of gender on fieldwork.

A main aim of this book is to describe gender as a variable worthy of attention, in the field, in the analysis, and in the reporting of any piece of research. Through fifteen self-reflexive analyses (including two by men), our contributors reflect on past fieldwork experiences through a gendered lens. Tourism research was the common thread for all contributors, but the experiences are diverse and without doubt, transdisciplinary. From tales from marine mammal research in the high seas to the party-filled streets of Mallorca, each contributor provides an explicit account of how gender affected their fieldwork. The diversity of the contributions became most apparent to us when it came time to choose a cover. We simply could not find an image that could effectively convey the book’s contents. After nearly twenty correspondences, we ditched the idea of an image and decided on a multifaceted illustration. The colourful graphics depict the diversities, and the expressions convey many of the heartfelt emotions revealed in the book.

This book is meant to be a tool for researchers at any stage in their career, for supervisors and mentors, and for committees involved in the fieldwork process. It is both a tool of reference and a path forward.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Ethnographic Fieldwork by Jan Blommaert and Dong Jie.

Jan Blommaert Reflects on his Reading of Classic Works about Ethnography

This month we published Dialogues with Ethnography: Notes on Classics, and How I Read Them by Jan Blommaert. Jan has made a short video introducing the book and its argument that ethnography must be viewed as a full theoretical system, and not just as a research method.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Jan’s 2013 book Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes.

6th International Conference on Multicultural Discourses

Next year, the 6th International Conference on Multicultural Discourses is due to take place. Multilingual Matters is sponsoring the conference, specifically in order to enable two early career researchers from developing countries to attend it. This post is written by Massimiliano Spotti, the Conference Host and Co-organizer.

In October 2018, the International Conference on Multicultural Discourses sets its foot in Europe for the first time. To be more precise at Babylon – Centre for the Study of Superdiversity, at Tilburg University. Together with Jan Blommaert (Director of Babylon) and Shi-xu, Founder of Cultural Discourse Studies (CDS) and founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Multicultural Discourses (JMD), I reflect on the developments of this field ten years down the line.

In introducing this conference and its landing in Europe, I think we should start from the body of scholarship that has characterized CDS’ very first days. The first goal of CDS was (and still is) to draw attention to the cultural nature of human discourse and communication. As one of the first issues of its Journal stated, the purpose was to consciously and critically consider issues of cultural diversity and Western-centrism across arenas such as politics, academia, education and public discourses. To be honest, what struck me the most when publishing there one of my first peer-reviewed articles on teachers teaching to migrants, was a permeating feeling of voicing the unheard, the left-out, those in short that were for one reason or another in a minority position.

Although chased by the continuous pressure of the increasingly complex nature exerted on human encounters and discourses by globalization in both society and academia, CDS has remained able to keep its word. It has set forth on exploring the implications of discrimination through power on policy and human interactions, becoming an outstanding outlet for both Western and non-Western scholars to fight back and either re-discover or aspire to and, through that, reclaim their voices and academic identities within an established research paradigm.

There is still much more to do though. The increased entanglement of discourses across the global North and the global South; the unexpected results of their (often) unplanned points of intersection; the new centers of coagulation that these processes of entanglement bring to bear; the production of culturally rooted discourses around them. These are all emergent phenomena and urgent attention is needed there.

Ultimately, this is what we hope to do in the 6th International Conference on Multicultural Discourses. That is to contend – once again – that culture is not just a different and thus innocent perspective in knowledge forming and value giving to people and their doings. Rather, our hope and wish for this conference is that it will allow us to unveil another layer of those historically evolving sets of discourses, rules and actions that put some people in power while others are marginalized.

You can find out more about the conference on its website here.

Engaging Superdiversity? Yes, Very Engaging.

This month we published Engaging Superdiversity edited by Karel Arnaut, Martha Sif Karrebæk, Massimiliano Spotti and Jan Blommaert. In this post, Jan explains more about the background to the book.

Engaging SuperdiversityAs all of us know, there is a tremendous pressure in the academic system at present to operate as an individual in a competitive ‘market’ of science focused on deliverables – or more precisely, a market of money for science and other more symbolic and status-related perks. All of these elements – individualism, competition and result-driven orientation – are fundamentally unscientific, and render our lives as science workers increasingly less interesting. Science is a collective endeavor characterised by solidarity and focused on processes of knowledge construction. Why else do we need references at the end of our publications, than to illustrate how we have learned from others in a perpetual process of critical and productive dialogue?

This critical reflex was the motive, almost a decade ago, for a small team of scholars to join forces in a consortium called InCoLaS (International Consortium on Language and Superdiversity) – a ‘dream team’ of people who decided to care and share, to explore domains only superficially touched by inquiry, mobilising each other’s resources in the process,  and to do all this without a pre-set target or road map. After all, exploration is not the same as driving in a limo on a highway with the GPS on: by definition, you don’t know where it will take you. There is no ‘draft proposal’; there are ideas.

This mode of collaboration turned out to be immensely ‘profitable’, to use the terms of the market. Several high-profile publications emerged, and our buzzword ‘superdiversity’ has become a modest celebrity in its own right, attracting what must be seen as the ultimate intellectual compliment: controversy. There are ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’, and both camps have had, over the past years, sometimes heated debates over the value of the word ‘superdiversity’.

We ourselves don’t really care about that word. Sometimes one needs a new word simply to examine the validity of the older ones – the word is then just a sort of stimulus to shed some of the attributes and frames inscribed in the older ones; and it is not the word that is central, but the ideas it points to and the data it can help explain. Whether research is convincing or not rarely depends on which words are used to write it down; usually it depends on the quality of analysis and argument.

Engaging Superdiversity offers another set of studies on language and superdiversity, drawn from one of the key features of our collective mode of work: team workshops in which we listen to and discuss the work of our team members – senior as well as more junior researchers – and insert their results in the collective explorative process described earlier. In these workshops, all of us are ‘free’ – free to come up with unfinished ideas, unsolved problems, struggles with complex data. The joint work of critical dialogue, usually, results in products that are, to say the least, engaging.

This collection of essays, more than any other publication so far, gives people a sense of the ambience in InCoLaS activities. It covers the terrains we find important – inequality, the online-offline nexus, power – and expands the theoretical and methodological framing of the process of exploration. There is a very large number of new things in this book (for the benefit of the “non-believers” who question what is so new about superdiversity), and some of the chapters will, I believe, have considerable impact in the field.

I joined the editorial team rather late in the game, and my gaze is thus, perhaps, a bit more that of a detached spectator than Karel’s, Martha’s and Max’s. So let me say this: When reviewing manuscripts for journals, book proposals, or even student’s essays, I always make a distinction between work that is good and work that is interesting. Most work I see is good, in the sense that there is nothing wrong with it, other than that I would never read it: it’s not interesting. Engaging Superdiversity is good and interesting – extraordinarily so – and I am proud to see it in print.

Jan Blommaert

Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic LandscapesFor more information about the book, please see our website. You might also be interested in Jan’s previous book Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes.

Are languages dying out or just becoming more diverse?

This week we published Linguistic Genocide or Superdiversity? edited by Reetta Toivanen and Janne Saarikivi. In this post, Janne discusses the question of whether languages are dying out or whether, in fact, the world is just becoming more linguistically diverse.

Linguistic Genocide or Superdiversity?Since the 1990s linguists and anthropologists have become increasingly aware of the fact that most of the world’s languages are under threat of extinction. The main threat for languages comes from the erosion of their traditional communities due to urbanisation and changing ways of life, as well as improved standards of education and new working environments.

Languages today are used for entirely different purposes than in primordial societies. In communities characterised by agriculture, fishing, hunting or gathering, all the members of a community typically worked the same way and inherited their social roles from their parents and family. Language was primarily used as a means of oral communication.

A postmodern society, by contrast, is dependent on an elaborate division of labour, and also on the different social identities of their members. The most important tools for this identity creation are reading, writing and studying, i.e. activities carried out within language. For an increasing number of people around the world, language is both the main working tool as well as the main outcome of their work.

Languages are often measured and compared by the number of their native speakers. But for some purposes a more adequate way to ascertain the size of languages would probably be to measure the number of different texts composed in a particular language. For instance, languages such as Icelandic or Estonian have far fewer native speakers than languages such as Kanuri (in Nigeria) or Uighur (in China) but since they are national languages of independent states, countless texts are produced in them every day by language specialists in schools, ministries and media. This language use is currently evolving into an endless stream of text in social media, where practically every speaker of the language community is also an author of new text. Meanwhile other languages with more speakers but fewer elaborate societal functions have little use outside oral intercourse.

The modern language situation has been characterised as a genocide of languages, because so many languages have disappeared, but it has also been called unprecedented plurilingualism, where languages are used in more diverse ways than ever. In a modernising society some minority languages disappear within a few generations, sometimes almost without a trace. But in many contexts they also change, become creolised to a mixed code that carries and creates new types of modern identities in urban and virtual environments. For some minority languages this means more variation than before instead of disappearing.

The new social situation with more interaction in global networks and new media accelerates the pace of language change and creates new pidgins, creoles, mixed and intertwined codes. The languages of east and west are used in the growing multicultural urban centres of Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas in countless new mixed genres, some of which are bound to a particular city, others to a particular music style and clothing, still others to particular professions and education.

Is the world of languages thus becoming more or less diverse? Is the new linguistic variation somehow different from the variation that has been described in dialectological and sociolinguistic investigations for decades? There are some grounds to suggest that this is indeed the case. The difference is not so much that languages interact on a global scale, but that much of this interaction takes place in a written medium and is affected by standards and ideologies learned through ever more common formal education. Much of what happens in language contact has been described many times in studies concerning dialects, but other things are new: the fact that language use is now work for many, or the fact that language choice is one of the primary ways to create modern identities.

But can the new linguistic variation compensate for the languages of the hunters, gatherers, fishermen and nomads, many of which are already gone forever? And will it be long-lasting?

It is still fair to say that much of the world’s linguistic diversity is under threat. But its disappearance might not just be voices vanishing to silence. More likely, it is going to be like a star shining brighter than ever just before it explodes into a vacuum.

Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic LandscapesFor more information about the book please see our website. If you found this interesting you might also enjoy Jan Blommaert’s book Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes.

 

 

 

Multilingual Matters at the Sociolinguistics Symposium

Earlier this month Anna and I headed to Spain for the biennial Sociolinguistics Symposium which this year was hosted by the University of Murcia.  The last symposium was such a good conference (you can read about it in our blog post here) that this one had a lot to live up to, but it certainly delivered!

The gathering was very well attended and had a busy timetable of panels and sessions going on throughout the 4 days of the conference.  There were a high number of attendees from all over the world and we were pleased to sell books to delegates who had come from places as far flung as New Zealand, Cape Verde and Aruba!  It’s great to know that our books are reaching many corners of the earth and to meet the people working in such places.

Laura and Anna sporting conference caps and fans at the stand

The equation of Spain plus June certainly equals hot sunshine and we braved the soaring temperatures to set up our bookstand outside in the beautiful university courtyard.  We and the books survived the heat and were grateful to the conference organisers for thinking to include hats and fans in the conference bag! We thoroughly enjoyed tasting all the yummy refreshments provided during the breaks and sampling local tapas and drinks in the many squares of Murcia in the evening.

Book contributor and customer at the stand

The bestsellers at the stand included Jackie Jia Lou’s new monograph The Linguistic Landscape of Chinatown, the enduringly popular Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes by Jan Blommaert and Lid King and Lorna Carson’s new edited collection The Multilingual City.  As ever we enjoyed meeting lots and lots of our authors and contacts, including some whose first ever chapter we have just published.

One of the highlights of the conference was the dinner which was held in a typical Murcian restaurant in the heart of lemon and orange groves.  The local food and drink was delicious and the traditional Spanish dancing displays were great fun to watch.  The next Sociolinguistics Symposium is to be hosted by the University of Auckland in New Zealand and will be the first time that the conference will be held outside Europe.  Needless to say, we’re already looking forward to the next gathering in 2018!

Laura

TESOL, AAAL and AERA – spring conference round-up from MM

For the Multilingual Matters/Channel View team, April has been a busy month and there have been just 2 days when we’ve all been in the office together. Those blog readers who also follow our Facebook page will have seen photos from Sarah and Elinor’s trip to the London Book Fair and a selection from our US conference travels, an annual highlight on our travel calendar.

This year’s arrangements involved a lot of juggling and complicated logistics due to the clash of the annual AAAL and AERA conferences but thankfully both we and all our books and display materials made it to all intended destinations!  Mine and Tommi’s first destination was Baltimore, where the TESOL convention was being held.

Laura, Ron Darvin, Bonny Norton and Tommi

One of the highlights of our time in Baltimore was the lunch we hosted to celebrate our author, Bonny Norton, and Ron Darvin being co-awarded the 2016 TESOL Award for Distinguished Research.

For Tommi, it was then onwards to meet Anna in Orlando, where the two of them represented Multilingual Matters at AAAL.  As usual the conference was extremely busy for us and both new and older titles proved to be extremely popular at our stand. Of the older titles, Blommaert’s Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes proved to be enduringly popular and was the best-seller overall.  It was closely followed by the new titles Emotion and Discourse in L2 Narrative Research by Matthew T. Prior, Positive Psychology in SLA edited by Peter D. MacIntyre, Tammy Gregersen and Sarah Mercer and Literacy Theories for the Digital Age by Kathy A. Mills.

Meanwhile, I was at AERA in Washington, where Kathy A. Mills conducted a book signing at our stand for the book, which was by far the most popular title there. It was great to see readers meeting the author and having the opportunity to talk about the work with the author in person.

Laura Longworth at the Longworth House Office Building in Washington

After the conference I enjoyed a morning exploring Washington and found that there is a Longworth House Office there.  A rather surprised worker in the building kindly took a photo of me to mark the discovery!

Tommi then returned to Washington, where he and I had some meetings. A highlight was the visit to the CAL offices where we met with Terry Wiley and his colleagues to discuss the new book series we are working on together with CAL. The series is due to launch later this year when we expect to be publishing the first book, written by Sarah Shin. Watch this space for more information… While there we also enjoyed many conversations with members of the CAL community and finding out more about the work they do.

All in all, April was a very hectic month for us all and we’re still very busy catching up and of course publishing more books – 12 more to come over the next two months! Keep your eye on our blog, Facebook page and Twitter account for further details. Next stop for us on the conference trail will be the Sociolinguistics Symposium in Murcia. We hope to see you there!

Laura