Philip Seargeant

Philip Seargeant on Digital Culture in 2018 and 2019

The Editors

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 Philip Seargeant to reflect on the impact of digital culture on his field. Philip Seargeant is Lecturer in Applied Linguistics in the Centre for Language and Communication, The Open University. He is the author of Exploring world Englishes: language in action and The Idea of English in Japan: Ideology and the evolution of a global language.

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

For me, the shift towards focusing on digital culture happened as much by accident as anything else. For some time I’d been looking at the use of English around the world, and particularly the way that English-related resources were drawn on by speakers of other languages, often mixed in or mixed up with their first language in various creative ways.

Fundamental to an exploration of how and why this happened were processes of globalization, so this had been a primary focus. This then led to looking at the language practices of groups of friends who’d grown up in the same community but were now living in different places around the world. Their correspondence took place via social media – and so, as part of the investigation into their use of English language-related resources it also became necessary to look at the influence that the communications media they used was having on their language practices: this media being instant messaging and social network sites.

This was at the beginning of the 2010s. And while globalization remained an important overarching context for the research I was doing, so too, increasingly, did social media. From this, I then started looking specifically at the ways in which social media were affecting patterns of communication, before then broadening out again to look at political communication and the influence digital technologies were having on this.

How pervasive is digital culture? 

We’ve reached a stage now where digital culture is so pervasive that there’s often very little analytic use in making hard distinctions between the online and offline worlds. Scholarship around digital communications seems to have gone from a techno-utopianism in the very early days, through a sceptical techlash to, hopefully, a period where we’re able to take a holistic view of how people communicate in the world today, which is increasingly a mix of digital and non-digital means.

Social media has transformed the way that politics is conducted these days, making political communication more dispersed, political opinion more fragmented, and political debate more fractious.

For example, research into the spread and influence of misinformation in contemporary society needs to focus partly on the affordances and economic and political governance of digital communications companies. But it also needs to consider other aspects of the way people and communities relate to each other which are not necessarily influenced by the role of digital technology in society. Given that digital technology will become ever more integrated into all aspects of our life (with the increasing use of ‘everyware’ etc), we’re going to need to take increasingly nuanced positions on concepts such as the ‘offline’ and ‘online’ and the relationship between the two.

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

Much of my research over the last year or two has concentrated on the relationship between digital culture and politics. Most recently I’ve been looking at storytelling in politics. I’ve been looking at both the structure of political stories and the way they’re ‘narrated’. It’s this latter aspect of my focus where digital culture has the most obvious impact.

Social media – both by itself, and in its relationship with traditional media – has transformed the way that politics is conducted these days, making political communication more dispersed, political opinion more fragmented, and political debate more fractious. Where a political narrative in the past might have been circulated by a handful of actors (the communications departments of political parties, newspaper and television commentators, etc.), it will now be the product of a myriad of different groups and individuals spreading, enhancing, and critiquing it as it is distributed far and wide across the internet and beyond.

This has led to the modern ‘fake news’ phenomenon (and accompanying panic), and has arguably played a significant role in the upsurge in populism (the straightforward us-versus-them narrative that underpins populism being ideally suited to the adversarial nature of a medium such as Twitter). 

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

One of the biggest challenges of the rise in importance of digital culture on the research environment relates to the speed at which things change, and the implications this has both for the practice and, particularly, the dissemination of research. With respect to the latter point, the traditional timescales for processing and publishing findings are woefully inadequate for ensuring that knowledge is able to keep up with the phenomena that are shaping our society.

The standard 8000 word paper, for example, which then wends its way through the review and publishing process for 18 or 24 months will more often than not be dated, if not irrelevant, by the time it gets published if dealing with some of the more fast-changing aspect of modern digital culture. In terms of the research process itself, it’s increasingly likely that interdisciplinary approaches are going to be needed to fully grapple with the effects that digital culture is having on the world.

Finding ways to deal with these challenges is likely to be one of the most pressing issues for scholarship on digital culture in 2019.