Meaningful Play 2012

I got home from Meaningful Play 2012 two and a half weeks ago, and it’s taken me this long to parse the experience I had at that conference. This was not the first time that I’ve gone to a non-linguistics conference (I went to the Popular Culture Association conference in 2008), but it was definitely the most… meaningful. (See what I did there?)

The experience of working with Travis Ross, the co-author of the paper we presented, has been enlightening the whole way. Travis comes from a very different academic background than I do, and finding a meeting point in between our disciplines to do our work has been enjoyable (if intellectually rigorous… keeping up with his analyses is a mental workout for me!). In all, I think we had a very good presentation, even if the video recording of it turned out kind of terrible. We got a lot of awesome comments and questions. And our collaboration isn’t even over yet — there’s still a paper to write!

Meeting everybody at the conference… where do I even start? I met so many people from so many different disciplines that, looking back on it, I almost can’t believe it. I met programmers and computer scientists and digital artists and board game designers and law students and health specialists. I got my picture taken being silly. I played so many games. I have never played so many games in three days as I did at this conference — every time some new presenter talked about a game, if I could, I loaded it on my laptop and played through it. It was not just for play, but to understand.

I feel like the conference schooled me. This is what people love so much about conferences! Not that I didn’t enjoy my time at NWAV or GURT (very cool linguistics conferences with amazing people), but to sit at a round table playing Layoff and analyzing game mechanics and social messages with a group of interdisciplinary scholars? This is my bag, man.

And so now, post-conference, is the time of catching up with those I met at the conference and sifting through my notes. Oh, and maybe looking up a few job opportunities too.

InfoSocial 2012

First thing’s first — wow! What an experience at InfoSocial 2012, a graduate student conference hosted by the Media, Technology, and Society program and Northwestern University. Even though I missed the first part of the conference due to travel delays, I feel like I learned so much by listening to papers and projects from all the interdisciplinary scholars at this conference. From a historical view of the erasure of GeoCities to parent-child usage of Facebook to an analysis of social factors in usage of the Wii Fit system, and even our poster on authorship and attribution in retweeting, it was a whirlwind of different approaches and methods. The students who put on the conference did a wonderful job of feeding us and arranging the whole event, and everybody was remarkably friendly. 

I think the highlight for me, personally, was the chance to play with Omnipedia. Omnipedia is a tool that searches Wikipedia in all languages based around a search term, and shows keywords and concepts related to that search term. The cool thing is that it shows you concepts that appear in each language, including those that only appear in one particular language, and those that happen in language clusters. It also translates this for you! For example, we searched for “beauty”, and the concept “facial symmetry” appeared only in the English version and not in any other languages. For the search term “conspiracy theory”, the keyword “Microsoft Windows” appears in the Hebrew version of Wikipedia. We had a lot of fun putting in the names of our hometowns, famous people in the field, and other culture-based words like “masculinity”. Omnipedia seems like a really fascinating tool for doing analyses, and makes the language barrier much less of an issue. I can’t wait to see what comes out of this tool at the Collablab at Northwestern. 

tip for conference-goers

Here’s a tip for folks going to conferences — wear something distinctive. So many people at conferences wear typical neutral colors, trying not to offend; however, it’s a lot easier for someone to remember you (and point you out to others) if you’re wearing a yellow shirt, or a fancy patterned scarf.

off to Portland

Tomorrow it’s off to Portland, Oregon, for the Linguistic Society of America’s “Sociolinguistic Archival Preparation” workshop. Two days of protocols and proposals and IRB and permission and demographics and variables, yay!

I’m excited, and hope to bring you a review of the workshop later this week.

Also important is the fact that I’m adding a new state onto my “Places Visited” list; which is always nice. One of my resolutions for the New Year is to add three states onto my list, and Oregon will be one of them.  Here’s my map so far:

There are a few states I could technically add to this map, but I don’t actually REMEMBER being there. Notably, this would be the entire extreme Northeast of the US, from a trip that my parents and I took to Maine when I was about 3 years old that I do not recall at all (although there are many pictures of this!).

Very different presentations.

The fall semester took me to many amazing places and gave me the the opportunity to give two public talks.

In mid-November, I was at LPTS (Linguistic and Psycholinguistic approaches to Text Structuring) in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. I was a presenter in the “pop culture” session along with Maicol Formentelli and  Yukiko Nishimura. I’ve been reading Nishimura’s work for a long time, and it was a pleasure to meet her and interact with her – we bonded during the conference because we were the two people who were farthest from our homes. At my talk, I used Prezi, and was the only person to present using something other than PowerPoint. The presentation style impressed more people than my talk did, I think — I had to spend a LOT of time giving background on online gaming and the setup of the game, because I realized that the majority of the scholars I was talking to were not at all familiar with online gaming. However, several people were interested in the particular concept I was talking about, even if not necessarily the medium, so I had many very interesting discussions about broader applicability.

The second was my guest talk at Hunter College in New York City at the beginning of December. It was the first time that I got the pleasure of presenting to an audience the entire scope of my World of Warcraft ethnography project. I couldn’t present everything, but I got the chance to do a big overview, which was an exciting thing for me. I got the chance to use Prezi for this too, which amazed a lot of the younger folks present, and gave me the opportunity to create what I think is one of my best-looking Prezis yet. At this talk, I think the medium was more interesting to the audience than the particular topics, which is entirely different than my talk at LPTS.

Both presentations gave me the opportunity to present different aspects of my work — the details of the phenomena I study as well as the general behaviors of the community in the ethnography — which really helped me figure out the Big Picture of what I’m working on. This is the benefit of doing presentations, I think, instead of working on your own; engaging with an audience, no matter the size or composition, provides interesting new viewpoints and can help the presenter create a narrative about their own work. Sometimes I get lost in what I’m doing, and having outside eyes helps me structure my work and the way to show it to others.

GURT2011 Review: Jannis Androutsopoulos’s Plenary

Since I came down with The Sinus Infection To End All Sinus Infections shortly before this talk and spent most of the time with my head buried in a tissue, I’ve asked my colleague Fawn Draucker to write up the talk for me. She particularly enjoyed Jannis’s talk since it hit on many of her research interests, and so she’s the perfect person to recap this fascinating plenary.


As someone that is interested in both dialect variation and analysis of computer mediated discourse (CMD), Jannis Androutsopoulos’s talk at GURT 2011 was of particular interest to me. Focusing on the “participatory spectacle”, i.e. the meeting between the semiotic artifact and an audience response to said artifact, Androutsopoulos navigates the history of discourse theory to analyze the ways that we construct localness in a global context and how the cycle of “produsage” (producing content that others consume and then turn into new content of their own) is reflected in constructions of linguistic identity.

His approach to the participatory spectacle as a site of analysis was three-fold, focusing on the dimensions of production, display, and responses. First, someone must produce an idea or assertion of linguistic localness – to understand the participatory spectacle, we must look at who is producing this content, the identities they are ascribing themselves, and what they are looking to do with the content. Are the speakers claiming to be experts on the subject of linguistic localness? Are they calling on a particular identity, such as “young and hip”, and what are they using that identity to accomplish? Is the content they are producing simply promoting awareness of dialect features, or are they using the features to sell a product or encourage grassroots activism of some sort?

While many studies have focused on the production of content, the most interesting aspects of Androutsopoulos’s research come from the next two dimensions of the participatory spectacle: display and responses. This is where Androutsopoulos argues that we turn from “discourse as language” to “discourse as a construction of social reality”. Using YouTube as a prime example, he shows that how and where the producer chooses to display the content also adds to the construction of identity that is at work in the language. Local content could get lost on YouTube, a global host environment, but the poster can help others find the content by their choices in how the video is tagged, its availability, and how it can be searched. The display dimension allows the producer to make direct assertions about the identity they wish to assume (e.g. tagging a video with “Berlinerisch” to assert a claim to the Berlin dialect) and to have some control over who comes across the content, by making choices with local or global search terms.

Finally, in the response dimensions, consumers of the content get involved, reaffirming or denying the claims to identity that the producers have made for the linguistic content. Consumers can choose which videos to pass on, circulating videos that they find to be particularly attractive and not circulating others that they don’t find to be as representative of the identity they wish to construct. Consumers on the web are not relegated to passive reception of content, as they might be, for example, when watching a television show. Looking back to the idea of “produsage”, consumption on the web allows users to respond directly on the YouTube website or to link the content in a new blog post, a tweet with their own comment attached, etc. It is here that Androutsopoulos argues that we find a plurality of identities attached to linguistic localness, with many users able to negotiate and perform this identity in a participatory medium.

Androutsopoulos concludes by pointing out both similarities and differences with previous discourse and variation work. First, the participatory nature of the web requires that we, as researchers, look at the pluralization of dialect performances and not see localness as a single, static identity. He argues that this is not a new concept, but simply something that we need to be particularly aware of – while we might be focusing on old discourses and constructions of identity, we need to keep in mind the new resources that the web provides. He warns that this will lead to methodological challenges and encourages researchers to consider methods that allow for the unpacking of such dense semiotic textures. Finally, he argues that a Discourse approach to CMD implies less of a focus on the communication technologies and more on the ways people draw on these technologies to participate in discourses by means of language and literacy practices.

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.