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.