By Caroline Tagg, Open University, and Daria Jankowicz-Pytel, Birkbeck
On Friday 17th April, the BAAL ‘Language and New Media’ Special Interest Group held an event entitled: ‘Multimodality in social media and digital environments’. The event was run by Agnieszka Lyons (a former TLANG project member) and Colleen Cutter, at Queen Marys London. The event was attended by TLANG project members Caroline Tagg and Daria Pytel. Daria is working on video-recordings gathered during the sports phase of the TLANG project and wished to enrich her understanding of multimodal analysis, while Caroline is responsible for social media data collection and analysis across the project. Inspired by presentations at the event, we explain in this post how people draw on different digital media to make meaning just as they move between different languages in processes of ‘translanguaging’.
Our starting point in this blogpost is the argument that accounts of ‘translanguaging’ need to include people’s multimodal as well as multilingual resources. That is, not simply focusing on verbal interaction, but what else is ‘at play’ in an interaction.
The way in which people combine and move between different modes was evident throughout the talks. Talking about webcam-enabled interactions, Dorottya Cserző discussed the socially meaningful use of space while Helen Lee focused on gesture. Caroline showed how people express themselves on WhatsApp through creatively exploiting the potential for spelling variation and emoji.
Creative use of ‘letter flooding’ and basketball emoji in WhatsApp
Transmodal practices were also central to Erika Darics’s presentation on the need to raise awareness of the significance of paralinguistic cues in business communication (what does your colleague’s exclamation mark mean?), as well as to Rodney Jones’ discussion of the social practice of taking photos of your food (it’s not what or where you eat, but who sees your online post).
Taking pictures of food before eating is customary in Hong Kong
The argument that we need to consider ‘transmodal’ practices as akin to translanguaging have been made elsewhere; for example by Agnieszka Lyons drawing on TLANG data at the Language in the Media conference in Hamburg last September and a recent post on our blog by TLANG member Zhu Hua and artist Ella McCartney.
In this blogpost, however, we want to extend these observations further, to consider the extent to which self-expression and relationship building in contemporary societies also involve moving across different online media platforms, in processes of ‘transmedia meaning-making’.
What was evident from the event was the way in which an individual’s identity performances and relational work are not restricted to one media platform, but involve the meaningful selection of platforms, the combining of different media, and a great deal of movement between them. Anthropologist Daniel Miller argues that, when neither cost nor access are of concern, the media you choose is in itself meaningful and open to social evaluation (Madianou and Miller 2012; Miller 2016) – for example, the very decision to contact someone through Skype, as we saw in Cserző’s talk, may suggest a degree of personal intimacy not indexed by an email. And that may change – a few years ago you might have hesitated before ringing a work colleague’s mobile phone number, but now regularly text people for work reasons.
Users’ ability to judge the suitability of a media platform to accommodate their specific communicative needs within a framework of shared social conventions brings out the significant role of communicative competence in the process of transmedia meaning-making. In his talk, Rodney Jones explained the importance for young people in a new relationship of deleting the dating app Tinder at the right moment, showing that users’ communicative competence in knowing when to use a particular platform – and when not to – can also constitute a significant resource for interpersonal meaning-making.
The growing importance of media choice also resonates with James Lamb’s presentation on the need for multimodal assessment, for which the ability to select an appropriate technology to carry out a particular task would seem paramount. In short, choice of platform can say as much about audience, purpose and personal identity as a choice of language can.
Multiple languages, multiple platforms?
Importantly, people are not likely to choose one platform (just as many people are unlikely to choose or need to always speak the same language), but instead they draw on various platforms depending not only on their audience and their communicative purposes but also on their media ideologies (Gershon 2010): their perceptions as to what the platform is suitable for (not to mention the various spaces and channels within one platform). In her plenary talk, for example, Myrrh Domingo explained how young Filipino hip hop artists across London draw on the different collaboration, authoring and dissemination possibilities of platforms ranging from Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to Soundclick, Photoshop, Ulead, Cubase and FL Studio. Have you ever switched from text message to a voice call within a conversation, texted someone to tell them you’ve emailed them, or posted the same message on Facebook and Twitter? These are all examples of transmedia meaning-making.
Moving between digital devices
Meanwhile Elisabetta Adami referred to her recent work and described how she mapped the recontextualised posts of one blogger, whose story about her daughter getting her ears pierced was ‘cross-posted’ from her blog to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, the social and technical configurations of each platform enabling her to achieve something different across the sites. The identity performance of this blogger, like many others, is not tied to one platform and would not be fully retrievable from ‘a study of Facebook’ or ‘an analysis of Instagram’, just as an investigation of an multilingual person’s use of English would not paint a full picture of their communication practices.
Elisabetta Adami presents on ‘cross-posting’
These observations challenge the notion of the ‘platform’ as a valid unit of analysis or site of enquiry. We might more profitably start from the concepts of ‘transmedia meaning-making’, whereby people exploit and move between various platforms in order to make meaning; or of ‘digital heteroglossia’, where different platforms, like different languages, registers, styles and voices, allow speakers to communicate their social identities in particular ways whilst constraining them to particular meanings. Like linguistic signs, platforms are also ideological; they accrue their own social meanings and significance through usage, which in turn shape how any one individual is likely to choose to use them. You might prefer Twitter to Facebook because it’s more public, for example – even though it’s only ever people you know who reply to your Tweets.
As with linguistic heteroglossia, meaning emerges not only from the choice of platform but from the relationships and tensions between platforms – for example, as Miller (2016) points out, one of the reasons young people use Twitter is because it’s not Facebook (which is where their parents are); while one of the reasons citizen journalists turn to other platforms is the dominance of the mainstream news on YouTube (as Ruth Page pointed out in her talk on social media coverage of the Oscar Pistorius case). To the extent that social media platforms are socio-ideological constructs, we need to approach analysis of people’s online practices not in terms of its taking place on Facebook or through Snapchat, but in terms of how people draw on, exploit, avoid or subvert the practices, affordances and resources associated with such media in process of active transmedia meaning-making.
Gershon, I. (2010) The Breakup 2.0 Ithaca, N.Y,: Cornell University Press.
Madianou, M. and D. Miller (2012) Polymedia: towards a new theory of digital media in interpersonal communication. International Journal of Cultural Studies 16/2: 169-187.
Miller, D. (2016) Social Media in an English Village. London: UCL Press.