GURT2011 Review – Crispin Thurlow’s Plenary

I’m continuing my series of reviews of the plenaries at Georgetown University’s Round Table with Crispin Thurlow’s plenary. In my own academic experience, I have only recently read Dr. Thurlow’s work, and wish I had come across it much earlier. He co-authored a textbook on Computer-Mediated Communication in 2004 which is still very useful to the field today.

In his plenary, he started off by asking “Why would I want to follow my milk on Twitter?” It’s a good question — why is everything on Twitter or Facebook these days? When you buy milk at a grocery store, you want to consume the product, not be its friend. From here, Dr. Thurlow discussed the ways that social media set us up by promising interaction, but really have underlying agendas.

It was useful to me to start thinking of interaction this way. He used the example of FourSquare — I’m sure you’ve seen it on your Facebook pages if you don’t use it yourself. This app on a mobile phone allows users to “check in” at different places and posts the results to Facebook or Twitter. The idea, theoretically, is that your friends will know where you are and follow you there for meet-ups. Really, though, behind FourSquare is a commercial aspect — you check in at a certain place and get a deal! Groupon and LivingSocial, the coupon websites, do the same things while advertising themselves as lists of fun things to do and ways to get involved with your friends.

I found Dr. Thurlow’s discussion on celebrity rhetoric to be interesting too. He asked us — why do we care what Ashton Kutcher had for breakfast? It’s another commerce trick — if Ashton Kutcher likes it, then you must like it; if Ashton Kutcher buys it, then you buy it. Institutions and commercial entities are desperately trying to figure out how to harness this marketing power present on social networking sites.

Dr. Thurlow used the term “pseudo-sociality” to refer to these kinds of phenomenon — they seem to be social behaviors, but they really have some other underlying aim to them, whether it’s selling something or promoting a celebrity self online. We tend to get caught up in the newness of media, interested in the shiny things — what we really need to do, Dr. Thurlow said in an echo of Susan Herring’s plenary, is root our analyses and observations in the ancient histories and connect behaviors back to our past instead of assuming everything is “brand new”.

His talk inspired a lot of thought, for me, especially along the lines of critically thinking about how to classify and analyze linguistic behaviors online.


4 thoughts on “GURT2011 Review – Crispin Thurlow’s Plenary

  1. Daniel says:

    Is there anything different about following a local business on Twitter? In this case, yeah, they’re trying to get me to buy something, but they’re also real people that I’ve actually met and will likely meet again. I also have a real-life friend who sells a lot on Etsy, and publicizes it on Twitter – what’s that? “Commercial relationship” and “social relationship” can be blurry categories, and this is reflected online as well.

    • parnopaeus says:

      It is an interesting question — I think there can be a lot of overlap. What’s the real reason for interaction with a friend who sells on Etsy — is it “hey you’re my friend, so you’ll buy my stuff”?

      I find this in some of the blogs I read — I like the people who write them and want to hear what they have to say, but I also know that anytime I follow a link from their blog, they’re trying to get me to buy something so they’ll make commission. And anytime I even view their entries, I’m generating advertising revenue for them.

      • Daniel says:

        Your description sounds more cynical and commercial than what I’ve experienced. My friend, I like to think, is primarily my friend. I want to know what she’s up to, and that includes her craft projects, which happen to be for sale. And my favorite food truck owner is mainly trying to move product, but I imagine his job is more rewarding with human interaction, and Twitter brings loyal repeat customers.

        I don’t think we need to decide whether the commercial or the social is the “real” reason – they’re equally real, if not equally salient in any given relationship, and can easily coexist.

      • parnopaeus says:

        I tend to view interaction the same way, personally — the commercial-cynic hat doesn’t match my experience either, even if many analysts view it that way. I think your point that commerce is more rewarding with human interaction is the crux of that. While I see the logic in saying “he’s just being pleasant in interaction because he wants more business”, I also see that as a byproduct of “doing business is better with pleasant interaction”.

        I do think that idea breaks down in interactions with larger entities where there isn’t always a “real person” behind the Twitter account. In my experience, that’s a corporation being stylized as an individual in social interaction in order to push the product or service. So is there something about “localness” which changes our perception of the interaction? (Especially in cases where you haven’t met the owner or whoever is running the social media account.)

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