Alexandra Georgakopoulou on digital culture in 2018 & 2019
Digitalization and digital culture are not only reshaping the world we live in, they also reshape social sciences and the humanities in particular. Diggit Magazine was curious about the impact of digital culture on academia. Now, at the end of the year, we at Diggit Magazine thought that we could use the traditional end-of-year question-format as a pretext to seduce researchers from all over the world and from many different sub-disciplines to reflect on this impact, and to look back and forward.
Instead of the traditional end-of-year questions, we thus asked them about the impact of digital culture on their research practice and their field of research in general. And we of course also asked them what they expect to happen in 2019. The traditional end-of-year questions, but reinvented from an academic, and more specifically, a digital culture studies perspective.
In this interview, we ask Alexandra Georgakopoulou to reflect on the impact of digital culture on her field. Alexandra Georgakopoulou is professor of discourse analysis & sociolinguistics at King's College London. She is the author of Small Stories, Interaction and Identities and (co-)authored many textbooks on Discourse analysis and narrative analysis.
When did you notice that digitalization was substantially reshaping your research field?
In the case of my own research, what I noted around 2010 was the resonance and relevance of small stories research, a paradigm for the analysis of identities in everyday life stories that I had developed since the beginning of this century, for the study of communication on digital media. The rationale for developing small stories research had been that, unless narrative studies rethink and even dispense with some of their traditional tenets, they could not engage productively with a range of narrative activities, commonly occurring in everyday conversational contexts, that had not been sufficiently studied nor had their importance for the interlocutors’ identity work been recognized. These mainly involved stories that presented fragmentation and open-endedness of tellings, exceeding the confines of a single speech event and resisting a neat categorization of beginning-middle-end. They were invariably heavily co-constructed, rendering the sole teller’s story ownership problematic.
Small stories research thus made a case for including in conventional narrative analysis: ‘a gamut of under-represented and ‘a-typical’ narrative activities, such as tellings of ongoing events, future or hypothetical events, shared (known) events, but also allusions to tellings, deferrals of tellings, and refusals to tell’ (Georgakopoulou 2006: 130). ‘Small’ was therefore employed as a metaphor for neglected, disenfranchised communication activities in the minutiae of ordinary life. It encapsulated the fleetingness of stories in interactional moments, their embeddedness into local contexts, their ability to condense and invoke, in a heavily referential way, previous interactions and stories as well as the analyst’s attentiveness to the emergence of plots in and through the microcosm of everyday life experience.
This move toward story-features is in urgent need of a critical interrogation.
In my subsequent ethnographic tracking of breaking news as a specific communicative practice of small storying in face-to-face conversations, I noted its pervasiveness in conversations which presented integration of new technologies (e.g. mobile phones) and its genealogical mutation on the then emerging and now ‘big’ social media platforms, i.e. Facebook (e.g. statuses as narrative stancetaking, breaking news of ‘happening now’ announcements), YouTube (e.g. video titles), Twitter. I went on to argue that small stories research as a paradigm had prefigured the current situation when social media affordances have made small stories, as described above, much more widely available and visible in public arenas of communication through circulation.
The growing discourse and sociolinguistic work on stories on social media by other scholars has largely confirmed the validity of this view and, in turn, the usefulness of the model for describing and analysing narrative activities on digital media. Small stories research, having developed tools for examining fragmented, transposable, multi-authored, and intertextually linked stories, has thus been well-placed to provide a sound methodological basis for exploring stories on social media, in particular for interrogating what is distinctive about them but also how they draw on and remediate other forms and practices of storytelling.
Small stories research is also serving as a critical micro-perspective on social media engagements, helping answer questions about the politics of social media and their implications for the ways in which we present ourselves and our lives.
How pervasive is digital culture?
I do not find a quantifying view of the influence and presence of culture a particularly productive way of thinking about social media. I have always viewed social media engagements as deeply embedded into people’s everyday lives and practices, interwoven into their habitus and therefore too difficult, if not methodologically problematic, to tease their influence out.
Certainly with the ubiquity of media convergence, cross-syndication, communication ‘on the go’ with smart phones, that has been happening for a few years now and is being constantly intensified, it makes no sense whatsoever to talk about the online and the offline as separate and separable realities and experiences.
Can you give a concrete example of the impact of digital culture on your research domain?
As I stated above, digital media culture and communication have been instrumental in foregrounding the need for the conventional idiom of narrative (discourse) analysis, largely informed by research-generated interviews, with a focus on the biographical ‘whats’ of people’s lives, to change. The multi-semioticity, multi-authoring, wide distribution, unforeseeability of ‘audiences’, the potential for amplification and scaleability of discourse activities, including stories, as well as the unprecedented availability of ‘technologies of the self’ to ordinary users, have radically re-defined the environments and field of possibilities for self-presentation and relationality modalities.
The definitive and irrevocable rupture in platform trust, with e.g. the Cambridge Analytica scandal, is to my mind the most important shift in the networked audiences’ connection with social media in 2018.
At the same time, they have placed unprecedented contraints and limitations on them, for example, regarding the pressures of staying relevant and popular, the ‘threat of invisibility’ in Bucher’s terms (2012), and, as I claim in my work, the pressures and normativities, of us living-and-telling, sharing our lives-in-the-moment (www.ego.media-org), taking some sort of perspective and stance on our experience as we are experiencing it, becoming narrators-recorders of our lives with little room for reflection, re-construction, revision and just taking a step back, unless we decide to do a social media detox!
These changes have destabilized concepts and concerns at the heart of narrative analysis that traditionally worked well for describing dyadic communication (e.g. interviewer-interviewee) or, if multi-party, still face-to-face, co-present storytelling occasions (e.g. chats with friends). These concepts and concerns include, amongst others: story ownership, memory, the role of the personal, processes of formation and transportability of collective stories, the definition of eventness and tellability.
More than that, the whole project of what is a story and who is a subject on social media –in language and discourse terms -, and of how subjectivity is defined need to be re-thought and re-configured not least through the prism of metricization (quantification) of storytelling activities and the network of socio-material (human and non-human) actors (including algorithms) that shape storytelling communication.
As I said above, my own work has been about extending, testing out empirically, enriching methodologically and further systematizing small stories research, as a paradigm well-suited to addressing these challenges.
What was the most remarkable change in 2018 regarding digital culture and your research?
The definitive and irrevocable rupture in platform trust, with e.g. the Cambridge Analytica scandal, is to my mind the most important shift in the networked audiences’ connection with social media in 2018. The current awareness and availability in the popular imaginary of the discourse of surveillance and monetization of our lives and data as well as of the increasing links of apps with advertising are very much in pace with my own current research priorities and in many ways ‘reassure’ me that I am on the right track.
In my latest work, I have turned my attention (only for a bit!) away from users’ actual communicative practices and toward the apps’ own engineering and design of stories as distinct features, often described by them as ‘curation’. Since Facebook launched ‘Memories’ and Snapchat ‘Stories’ (2014) as specific features, there has been what I call a story-designing spree, an intensification of the provision of facilities to users for going beyond the single feed and the single moment by creating ‘collections’ of moments and experiences and, on the face of it, some kind of continuity of self.
Twitter’s Moments (2016), Instagram’s Stories (2016), by general admission modelled on Snapchat’s Stories and, of course, Facebook’s Stories (2017), are cases in point. This move toward story-features is in urgent need of a critical interrogation. What definitions and views of stories underpin such story-features on apps? What facilities are on offer for posting stories, how are they being branded, and why? Who is positioned as an ideal story-creator and audience of those stories and why?
I have begun to address these issues with a focus on the designing of Instagram and Snapchat Stories as a distinct feature (in press). My corpus-assisted, critical discourse analysis of how Stories are launched by the apps and subsequently discussed and reviewed in online media has made apparent certain key-mismatches between the rhetoric of design and ‘curation’ employed by apps about stories and the actual affordances on offer for them.
As a teaser here, I will just mention briefly that stories were found to be built on the basis of the algorithmic logic of instant, live-sharing, despite setting out to go beyond the moment and to offer facilities for continuity of self. They also promoted visual representations and snapshots of sharing the moment as well as viewing audience engagement practices, despite evoking familiar tropes of textual and telling accounts of one’s life. The promise of user control and creativity was found to clash with the abundance of pre-selections, prior categorizations of experience, templates and menus with specific editing features. I argue that these mismatches are revealing of a re-designation of key-ingredients of stories, in particular time, memories and audience engagement.
What do you expect will change in 2019 regarding the impact of digital culture on your research?
I expect that the ubiquity and monopoly of ‘big’ platforms, in particular Facebook, will continue with an aggressive expansion of their portfolio to domains well beyond their original remit and what they have been known for. We will witness a stepping up on what is already in motion, i.e. a proliferation of live streaming features, news and dating facilities (Facebook), sports coverage (Twitter), etc., so that one single platform will increasingly serve as a super-hub, making cross-platforming more difficult and less desirable, as well as making alternatives and resistances to the big players less viable.
Judging by the history of the design of communication on apps, user resistances and counter-actings tend to be co-opted, as I have claimed has happened with Stories as a feature for example on Instagram, where they were launched to remedy the backlash of the narcissism and inauthenticity attached to the highly polished photos and selfies and to allow for ‘imperfect sharing’. This continued, seemingly unstoppable occupation of cultural prosumption space by Facebook in particular, in my view, has profound implications for what kinds of communication practices, modes of self-presentation and relations, have the potential to become much more widely available than others and for what will be increasingly silenced and de-valued.
So, my current work on apps’ designing stories as commoditized, consumable and branded activities, mainly targeting the millennials and the generation Z as primary users and creating more space for Influencers and businesses to promote themselves and their products through them, is expected to have critical relevance for 2019 (at least!) …