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. 


Crosby versus Crosbey: for anyone who thinks that spelling doesn’t matter…

I always find it mildly irritating that I get prompted by Facebook to Like the fan page for someone named “Sidney Crosbey”.

For those who aren’t aware, Sidney Crosby (note the spelling) is a star hockey player on my local team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. (It’s intriguing, and kind of amusing, that this page is listed under “local business” as well. He really is.)

What’s even more disturbing is that the number of people who Like the page keeps growing. Currently it stands at 134,892. However, if we look at the comments posted on the wall, most of them say things like the final comment on the screenshot above – that they Liked this page just to make fun of the creator for spelling the name wrong.

Some commenters express love for Crosby despite the misspelling of his name by the page creator, and there are inevitably a bunch of people who Like the page just to say that Crosby sucks (and/or Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals is superior).

This reveals the complicated nature of the Like button on Facebook. When you click “Like”, you aren’t necessarily saying that you actually like someone or something. Blogs and giveaway sites often request that you Like a sponsor on Facebook in order to qualify for a contest. Sometimes you Like something to get access to content, not because you necessarily like it. And sometimes, as evidenced above, you can Like something in order to express your dislike.

I find it extremely interesting that the incorrectly spelled “Sidney Crosbey” page has more than half as many Likes as the more-official Sidney Crosby page borrowed from Wikipedia. That means that a large population has Liked the page despite or because of the misspelling. Spelling has a dual role in situations like this – at once, it both calls attention to itself by being misspelled and delegitimizes itself by demonstrating what many see as a lack of competence.

Spelling does matter, it seems — the question is: how, exactly?

cross-linguistic netspeak

I’ve been taking some French lessons on Livemocha, in preparation for a possible trip to Belgium this fall. One of the neat things about Livemocha is the social networking feel, and the ability to chat with other users.

(Okay, admittedly, this has resulted in me getting awkwardly propositioned by a bunch of random lonely guys who seem to be on the site to “learn English”, but that is an entire post in itself.)

The interesting thing is that I interact with people who regularly use “netspeak” – shortenings, acronyms, emoticons, etc. – in French. For someone still flailing through Lesson 6 of French 101, struggling to remember the present tense conjugations, netspeak is a whole strange beast in itself.

Some of it – like mdr, mort de rire, or “dead from laughing” – makes a certain amount of sense and requires vocabulary knowledge. The cool part is the substitution of numbers for sounds – and this actually helps a little bit with pronunciation.

For example, in English we have the common construction l8r for “later”, where the 8 stands for the sound in the middle of the word. The one that I encountered most recently in my French conversations is b1sur – bien sûr – “of course”. I also see cb1, c’est bien.

I had a bit of L1 interference here, because whenever I see “1”, I think “one”, as in the construction ne1 (“anyone”). This led to me thinking, for a moment, that b1sur was a short form of bonsoir. -.- I thought I was so clever.

If you’re interested in more French short forms, I found a bunch of fun ones here.

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.

Murder Mystery on Twitter

We’ve seen Twitter haiku and short fiction, but last night user @AustinLugar on Twitter set up a murder mystery told entirely through tweets. You can read it here. It went live last night at 7PM EST, and I managed to catch the first part although I couldn’t stay around to see the conclusion.

I’ve seen a lot of buzz about this type of thing as a kind of “new fiction”, but it isn’t really. The murder mystery genre certainly isn’t anything new, and although it’s being adapted to a new medium, it bears many of the same qualities as, say, a radio program with many different voice actors.

When I look at things like this, that’s essentially what I see — an adaptation of an old form into something new. The ending was even a nice tip of the hat to the nature of the medium when the detective character said he was going to reveal the ending right there on Twitter because all of the suspects were following him anyway.

It’s gotten me to thinking about what genres can and cannot be adapted to a medium like Twitter. Some professional sports teams post what are essentially play-by-plays on their Twitter feeds, and there are even manuals out now for how to create Twitter novels. What about music? Could you adapt a musical composition to Twitter? Eric Whitacre created a virtual choir on YouTube, so what’s to stop someone from making a symphony in 140 characters or fewer?

conference sickness = fail

As I wrote about last week, last weekend I attended the Georgetown University Round Table conference. The conference had an excellent lineup of plenary speakers, and I will be writing a blog post about the plenaries a little bit later. I’m slow getting this out because I’ve been suffering from an awful sinus infection that attacked me during the conference.

I was actually in the middle of presenting some of my latest research work on multimodality in World of Warcraft when I felt it hit. A room full of people, video camera running… I think I covered pretty well. But right after, the tension headache came on, the throat constricted, the sinus pressure built up — it was like the infection was just laying in wait, anticipating my talk, waiting for the stress of giving a presentation to lift so that it could jump in and disturb the rest of my conference experience.

Even though I had to retire to the hotel room early every night because of feeling like death, and sedate myself using my colleague’s tension headache pills, I managed to take in all of the conference with only a few coughing fits. Getting sick at conferences really sucks, because you know that you want to take in everyone’s amazing research, but you also know that having someone in your audience coughing their brains out is totally awkward.

I did get to hear some of the founders of my field speak — Susan Herring, Crispin Thurlow, Jannis Androutsopoulos, and Naomi Baron — and even got the chance, for the first time, to hear a talk by one of the most well-known linguists, Deborah Tannen. I even got the chance to have a face-to-face chat with Naomi Baron, whose work was the first I ever read in the field of computer-mediated communication.

Anyway, once I’m a bit more lucid, I’ll make another update about the conference, but for now I’m going to continue my quest for a cough suppressant that actually works.