Najma Al Zidjaly

Najma Al Zidjaly on Digital Culture in 2018 and 2019

Interview
The Editors
26/12/2018

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 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 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 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 Najma Al Zidjaly to reflect on the impact of digital culture on her field. Najma al Zidjaly is a writer and associate professor of linguistics and intercultural communication in the English department of the College of Arts & Social Sciences, Sultan Qaboos University.

 

When did you notice that digitalization was substantially reshaping your research field?

I was lucky that in 2018 I worked on several collaborative research projects with established academics from Europe and the United States. The projects covered three different, but interconnected, fields: linguistics, disability studies, and new media studies (researching social media from a sociological, not a linguistic, perspective). The interactions foregrounded the discrepancies between the traditional publishing culture and the newly emergent digital publishing culture (where academic journals have Twitter accounts and article publishing has become swift and accessible). The scale of the discrepancies however differed.  

The discrepancy to me was more evident in linguistics, but not so much in disability studies where I often publish too and sociological journals specialized in social media research (e.g. New Media & Society). In contrast to the majority of sociolinguistic journals, the disability studies journals I dealt with and New Media & Society are active on Twitter, publish quickly and are available online (with some high impact journals presented as free of charge [e.g. Disability Studies Quarterly]).

 

The digital turn has turned many social groups and academics into activists. This will shape academia as we know it much more than what academics think is possible or needed. 

The Journal of Pragmatics and Discourse & Society have fast publication records; however, I came to know that key sociolinguistic journals in 2018 were unable to balance between receiving a high amount of articles and a low number of reviewers, leading to backlogs. This problem resulted in palpable impatience among academics, including myself, who were torn between publishing in less impactful journals or as working papers while awaiting “proper” publication.

Therefore, 2018 was tense as it led to my realization that while the world has become digital, sociolinguistics has remained non-digital. At some point I thought of facetiously suggesting the creation of robot academic reviewers to quicken the process of publishing. Then there was the request of grant providers in Europe for academic research to be published in open (and free) access journals which has affected a couple of collaborative projects I was involved in (and not in a good way). 

The up-side of all the struggles I witnessed was that 2018 was marked by a burst of excitement and diversity of publications especially on social media, and from non-Western perspectives; in addition, an awareness of the need for the publishing culture, not just sociolinguistics, to be reshaped emerged. Academia.com, ResearchGate, and Babylon (Tilburg Papers in Cultural Studies) have become popular as key academic research engines. For the first time, we had direct access to the minds and papers of many a great sociolinguist. Therefore, 2018 (and Tilburg especially) was the year of digital revolutionary concepts that shaped academia for me. 

 

How pervasive is digital culture?

I think this question needs to be reframed to: What are the effects of the pervasiveness of digital colure? The reason is that digital culture has been pervasive for sometime now. What researchers keep missing is the effects of such pervasiveness on people’s lives and academic research. This requires us to go beyond simply blurring the lines between online actions and offline realities into creating a new vision of society where everything is merged, especially in non-Western cultures.

In the Arabian Gulf, for instance, people and phones have long become Goffmanian with whereby mobile phones have developed into an extension of the Arabian human body and have become an essential part of all dyadic and multiparty interactions.

In fact, as I have previously written, people in Oman walk with their phones on their palms facing them, creating new types of behavior in public and private spaces. In other words, digital cultures are so pervasive that the term needs to be replaced because it is not like there is a digital culture and there is a non-digital culture. It is culture (beliefs and practices) that has been transformed. The concept of culture and social interactions therefore need to be redefined.

 

Can you give a concrete example of the impact of digital culture on your research domain? 

I come from a culture where people don’t have a voice (the Arabic culture), especially the women and those who are different than the collective majority. Therefore, I have always been intrigued by the concept of agency which has had a murky history as argued by Rom Harré (1990). From the onset of the technological turn in the 1990s, and as a postgraduate student of Ron Scollon at Georgetown University in Washington DC, I was divinely guided to examine how Arabs have creatively and agentively adapted technology to manage cultural, religious and political concerns.

Given that Arabs (especially women in the understudied Arabian Gulf) seemingly lack agency, their actions have provided the best contexts to examine agency. Creativity thrives when it is challenged. My focus thus has never been on digital technology per se, as I have always theorized technology (Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp) as cultural tools following the tenants of mediated discourse analysis (Ron Scollon 2001).

My prediction for 2019 therefore is that tensions between traditional and digital technologies in the context of academia will be resolved. We will have no choice but to address them as academics, publishers and university administrators.  

Rather, my aim has been to foreground Arabs’ creative actions. This led me in 2018 to examine a forbidden digital community on Twitter, formed by a group of Arabs who call themselves Ex-Muslims. Documenting their actions, forbidden by law, as Muslims are not allowed to leave Islam or question authoritative religious texts, has alerted me to the risks involved in examining political but also religious activism. I documented these risks in an upcoming paper. 

Therefore, ethnographically examining Arabs actions online for over a decade has affected the types of research I conduct and the kind of academic I want to be, and in turn I hope it will impact the next wave of sociolinguistic Internet studies. My only presentation at GURT 2019 on Arabs religious actions on Twitter was followed by requests to halt my research out of fear that I might be perceived by the authorities as condoning such rebellious actions (this was the position of my American and European academic colleagues and friends).

The Arab academics who attended my talk requested me to stop researching the community out of cultural concerns (i.e. I should not air our Arab dirty laundry for everyone to see). Therefore, the digital culture has brought up many concerns that need to be carefully examined (ideologies, ethics, methodologies, and risks). My next papers will paint me more of an activist not just an academic as the digital turn has turned many social groups and academics into activists. This will shape academia as we know it much more than what academics think is possible or needed. 

 

What was the most remarkable change in 2018 regarding digital culture and your research?

The palpable impatience I witnessed among researchers to get their stuff out there immediately and the refusal of traditional sociolinguistic journals to bend the rules. Also, I found having direct access to Jan Blommaert’s mind through online publications refreshing. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to find a Pdf version of Jan Blommaert’s 2018 book on Durkheim and the Internet just a few months after publication by Bloomsbury (But I still bought two hard copies as the book was not overpriced and I love books).

Having immediate access to the minds of great scholars is great but non-established academics could not get away with it. In 2017, I refused to publish a version of a paper I wrote on memes in Oman on Tilburg Papers in Cultural Studies. For 2019, I decided to publish two papers, not just one. Somethings definitely have changed. I still do have papers that will not see the day of light until proper publication in traditional journals. But some articles (for better or for worse) I decided could not wait.  

 

What do you expect will change in 2019 regarding the impact of digital culture on your research?

I believe that in addition to continue revisiting sociolinguistic theory and method, as pioneered by the visionary Jan Blommaert, 2019 will be marked by revisiting (and re-envisioning) our academic roles and the publishing culture. 

As aforementioned, sociolinguists, myself included, have started exhibiting signs of impatience over the rigid rules and the lengthy publication timelines of current top linguistic journals; the impatience is caused by a plethora of factors, mainly that acceleration (in production and access) is the marker of the digital age. Therefore, notwithstanding quality (established by peer reviews, which depend on the availability of academics and editors to handle large amounts of research production), academic articles and books can no longer take two to three years to be published, as articles can get outdated fast.

The alternative is to publish papers as working versions on a plethora of online platforms; however, that is also not ideal as this might lead to a loss of quality as non-tenured researchers especially benefit from peer reviewing. Books published by Oxford University Press are not the same as self-published books, and nor should they be.

The publishing culture therefore will need to update its rules, timelines, and practices so as to reflect the characteristics of the digital age. Otherwise, academics will suffer, and by academics here I am not talking about leading sociolinguists, but the rest of us who are trying to make their mark. That is why I believe this fight between traditional and digital age publishing will be taken up by sociolinguists in 2019. 

In addition to revisiting and updating the publishing culture, the academic culture needs to change. As European universities are moving towards open access, and making articles available to the public, academics (my self included) wonder about their promotions as my university for instance still only acknowledges traditional high impact journals.

Many new journals and open access journals do not make the cut. In 2018, two edited volumes I was part of ended up being published by open access and new publishing houses instead of the Journal of Pragmatics and OUP as originally planned. The European editors chose open access and quick publication over high impact journals and established publishing houses. The great news is that my papers will be out soon; the bad news is that to get promoted I needed these articles in high impact journals and to be published by established publishing houses. 

Related to this topic is the need of academics to update themselves and acquire new research skills (i.e. what it means to be an academic will be revisited in 2019). Perched atop our ivory towers no longer works. But in order to make our research accessible and relevant, academics will have to be retrained on how to do research in the digital age. The research methods of the past no longer work; also, there exists a plethora of programs to capture new types of data previously inaccessible; these need to be made available. Therefore, new research method workshops will become popular in 2019. Further, more academics in 2019 will have online presence (e.g. more academics will have to become public figures by having Twitter accounts, and so forth). This has already become the norm in other fields of research. In 2019, linguists will catch up. 

Finally, I believe 2019 will be marked by an insurgence of (activism) research from understudied cultures and by non-Western researchers. The world is undergoing a shift; the coming research will reflect those shifts and what they mean to academia and the world in general. My only fear (and disappointment) as an Arab female sociolinguist is that while academia, and methods of linguistic research, are changing, Arab scholars are still stuck in past research methods of the 1980s (especially questionnaires). There is so much going on with Arabs and technology but the research output by Arabs is limited and outdated in method and theory. My hope is that that this will change in 2019. 

My prediction for 2019 therefore is that tensions between traditional and digital technologies in the context of academia will be resolved. We will have no choice but to address them as academics, publishers and university administrators.