Series title: Studies in Variation, Contacts and Change in English
Volume 15 – Texts and Discourses of New Media
URL: http://www.helsinki.fi/varieng/series/volumes/15/
Publication date: 2014

Introduction

Sirpa Leppänen and Jukka Tyrkkö

The term new media started gaining currency in the 1980s when a variety of digital means of communication began to emerge from the computer labs of universities and make their way to mainstream consciousness.

Figure 1. Google Ngram trendline for “new media”.

As a concept defined through antithesis, new media is almost inevitably understood against the backdrop of “old” media: hand-written letters and pamphlets, books, newspapers, even traditional broadcast media. Although this binary opposition is undoubtedly an exaggeration, given that the more traditional, paper-based media are still very much around, it does suggest a cultural shift where pre-digital communication is perceived to be old-fashioned, slow and limited in communicative scope. Out with the old, in with the new. However, just as the differences between old and new media are often more a question of technological execution than of fundamental conceptual differences, the borderline between old and new media is no longer that clear-cut. Many traditional, print-based media (e.g. books, newspapers, magazines, journals) can and do now have complimentary new media existences as well, possibly with additional functions such as audience commentary and interactive content thrown in. Furthermore, many, initially text-based new media themselves (blogging or chat, for example) have evolved into more multi-modal and multi-functional media and, paradoxically, sometimes led the authors to heights of success in old media, as illustrated by the publishing successes of fan fiction authors like E. L. James and Anna Todd. Thus, it could be argued that between purely text-based and digital media, there is, in fact, a continuum consisting of different combinations of aspects of old and new media.

Nevertheless, there is no denying the fact that a definitive sea-change has taken place and that wholly going back to the world before the Internet would be unthinkable to most of us today. Over the necessarily brief but intense history of scholarship into new media one of the key questions repeatedly raised has been the extent of creativity within digital technologies and the discourses emerging from their use. Generally, the novelty of the media and their emergent discourses and practices has given rise to arguments both for and against the importance of research. On the one hand, there are those (mostly non-natives of, or late-comers to the digital world) who see the novelty of new media as posing a tremendous positive challenge to researchers, envisioning new media as a kind of terra incognita which needs to be carefully explored and mapped. On the other hand, there are those (digi-native expert users of the media) who view the novelty of new media as a negative challenge. To them, the rapid development of technologies, interfaces, discourses and practices means that research can only hope to yield findings that are by necessity dated and lagging behind. To us, a stance somewhere between these extremes would perhaps be the most realistic one: a stance that considers the ‘newness’ primarily as an empirical question. As demonstrated by the careful analyses in this special issue, there is, indeed, much in new media that is genuinely new, but there is also a great deal that is quite familiar, dating to the pre-internet times. Whether linguistically, discoursally, generically, functionally or culturally, what the authors see in new media is a bricolage of features, old and new, conventional and transgressive, tradition-based and tradition-renewing.

The bewildering pace of development of new media and its varied and shifting discourses also poses a practical and methodological dilemma to researchers. In what ways should we collect and analyze material with which to can build up our expertise of and sensitivity to the particularities and generalities of new media discourse? The changes taking place in new media have been and continue to be so rapid that phenomena rarely stay the same for the time it takes to study them. New platforms of social media emerge and die in less than ten years, reaching zeniths of hundreds of millions of users only to disappear into oblivion as soon as the next trend presents itself; an Internet meme can reach millions of users within hours of its creation; discussion forums containing contributions from hundreds of community members accumulated over several years can disappear overnight without an explanation. In such changing terrain it thus becomes difficult for scholars to do what is natural and customary in their line of work: to study a phenomenon carefully before engaging it in analysis, let alone publishing observations based on those analysis. Again, as witnessed by the work showcased in this special issue, the best policy seems to be no more, no less than scholarly commitment and devotion. The successful study of the rapidly changing new media phenomena needs to rely on thorough involvement in and in-depth knowledge of the social, cultural and societal practices behind and in the media practices under investigation, challenging the scholar to become a participant-observer, an enthusiastic ethnographer, a member of the community and a detached student at the same time.

The articles in this collection all engage empirically with different facets of the diversity and change of new media. In doing this, they also highlight three central characteristics of new media discourse: collaboration, non-standardness and multimodality.

Collaboration

New media facilitates collaboration on a scale previously unseen in the history of writing. Digital media not only makes it possible to correspond over long distances without effort or delay, but more importantly the ease with which such communication is now possible makes it a game-changer. In new media, communal virtual spaces are the natural sites of being, and collaborative participation is quickly becoming the self-evident option when it comes to new projects and endeavours. As argued by Tapscott and Williams in Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (2006), values such as peering, sharing and acting globally are becoming the standard operating procedure in both new media and the cultures and economics that arise from it.

The articles in this section examine the collaborative side of new media. From discussion forums that give voice to hundreds of participants to commercial and non-profit websites that rely on user-generated content, new media is changing the way in which texts and discourses operate and also how they are analysed. The plurivocal nature of these new forms of media challenges methods that give precedence to a single voice and requires new approaches sensitive to the reality that the textual entity is a collaborative one in which untold numbers of participants, often but not always anynomous, interact and co-author an ever-changing dynamic space. These communities, virtual only in the most superficial sense, welcome participants regardless of where they live, what their social class is and which language they happened to learn first.

Samu Kytölä’s study provides an in-depth look at the discourses of polylingual discussion forums. Taking two Finnish football forums as his case studies, Kytölä gives a sophisticated analysis of how such online spaces operate in terms of socio-psychological frames and how these frames in turn manifest as concrete discursive devices such as signatures. According to Kytölä, the well-established notion that English is often given a privileged role as a universally accessible framing language regardless of more localised language-use within the discursive space can be reinterpreted in specific multilingual contexts where languages other than English can serve a similar function as a result of context-dependent reasons. The author’s innovative approach leads the reader through a fascinating analysis of the many self-promoting and performative practices in use on discussion forums.

Daniela Landert turns to user-generated content on commercial online news sites and asks the question to what extent the traditional boundaries between journalists and readers are becoming blurred as readers turn into users who not only consume but also produce content themselves. One of the areas where this shifting or blurring of boundaries is most evident is in the personalising of news stories, where such user-generated content has the effect of giving new weight to readers’ experiences being newsworthy in themselves. Examining five British online news sites in detail, Landert shows how each makes slightly different use of the new interactive devices available, but how the overall direction of change is toward more user-generated content especially in the case of breaking news. Thus, the article shows, how the new media practices manage to destabilize and redefine the forms and agendas of more traditional media.

Anni Sairio’s article explores communal norms at play in user-submitted book reviews on amazon.com. Focusing on a single book review and the responses it has attracted from members of the virtual community, Sairio argues that the book review format is understood and employed in a variety of different and at times conflicting ways on the same online platform. The review Sairio uses was written by a poster with no previous postings on the amazon.com site, a fact that plays a pivotal role in the argument that ensues as some members of the community cast doubt on the legitimacy of the new poster for not knowing the unwritten discursive standards while others welcome the new poster and show gratitude for the review. In this way, in the same way as Landert’s article, Sairio’s analysis highlights how in emergent new media genres participants tend to orient to a range of normativities, none of which may have unequivocal authority over the others.

Wikipedia is one of the most widely read sites on the Internet and, arguably, the world’s largest freely available repository of knowledge. Turo Hiltunen’s study gets at the heart of the collaborative nature of Wikipedia and asks whether the thousands of amateur contributors to the online encyclopedia show preference for British or American spelling and grammar. The corpus linguistic analysis shows that linguistic preferences follow the topic of the article, that is, that articles on British topics favour British spelling and grammars and vice versa. As Hiltunen notes, what makes this discovery particularly noteworthy is that every single Wikipedia article is typically the product of a communal editing process and that the stylistic consistency observed is thus testament to the fact that the contributing editors follow Wikipedia’s editorial guidelines surprisingly diligently.

Non-standard language and new types of text

One of the defining aspects of digital communication is the speed with which large amounts of data can be transmitted and disseminated across the globe. One of the consequences of cheap and omnipresent access to digital means of communication is that the formerly mono-directional nature of mass communication, from broadcasting conglomerates to national audiences and from large publishers to their readerships, is becoming bi-directional. This leads, in theory at least and often in practice, to a new-found democratization of knowledge, where anyone with access to the Internet has the potential of reaching millions of readers through blogs, discussion forums and social media platforms. These new voices, heard throughout the world often unedited and unrevised, challenge existing and established standards of language use. Likewise, new text type emerge which make a break from established norms, embracing new communicative dynamics and contexts in ways that transform the very core ideals of their textual ancestors. The articles in this section tackle three examples of non-standard language use and born-digital text types.

Kathleen Harris and Turo Hiltunen open this section with an analysis of misspelled words in Youtube comments. Noting the controversy surrounding the effect of the Internet on language standards, the authors set off to examine quantitatively the proportional differences in the use of the contracted form you’re and its common misspelling your on two online video websites, Youtube and 9GAG. The crucial difference between the two is that the former allows anonymous comments while the latter does not, and, as Harris and Hiltunen demonstrate, this appears to make a significant and very meaningful difference with anonymous comments being more prone to non-standard usage.

Helena Halmari’s article explores practices of code-switching in the email messages of bi-lingual Finnish-American youth. The data is examined against spoken code-switching data collected earlier from the same informants which allows for contrastive analysis of spoken and written modes of communication. The analysis shows that individual variation is considerable and that, even when bilingual speakers have a shared sociolinguistic history, settings and norms, the microlevel aspects of idiolect and individual identity, rarely in focus in research on bilingual communication, are, in fact, significant factors explaining different codeswitching behaviour.

Joe McVeigh’s looks at the differences and similarities between the languages of blogs and email marketing when both are written on the topic of labour and employment law in the United States. Starting with the premise that both bloggers and marketers wish to attract readers, McVeigh asks whether or not the two text types, both creations of the digital era, actually differ from each other given the shared topic. Using a corpus linguistic method focused on word class frequencies, the author shows that the two text types are indeed markedly different and that the hypothesis that marketing texts borrow heavily from other genres is not validated by the data under investigation.

Multimodality

Multimodality and the functions it serves in new media discourse is the third main theme discussed in the articles. The articles in this section demonstrate how multimodality is one of the most powerful features of new media, and how participants in new media activities are increasingly competent in and keen on creating, editing and disseminating non-textual content, using, often in quite innovative ways, a wide spectrum of modes and modalities, ranging from fonts and colours, to clipart and photographs, animations, audio clips and video files as resources for meaning making. Indeed, now that the modern smartphone gives anyone instant access to the means of creating high-definition photos and video recordings, content creation has become almost overnight something of an everyman’s game. Furthermore, the articles of this section all illustrate how multimodality is a key resource with which participants craft surprising, sometimes awe-inspiring complexity that lies beneath seemingly superficial and commonplace content and that can serve a variety of social, cultural and even political aims.

The first article in this section is by Johanna Green. A book historian and codicologist by training, Green takes a fresh new look at the paratextual and communicative nature of Twitter by juxtaposing the features of the new digital page with those of pages found in traditional books. Discussing the links between social media and the material object, two distinct but surprisingly interlinked media, Green notes that “it is only when we take a step back, that we can appreciate how the digital page, here twitter, is constructed, laid out by the writer, published by the medium and, ultimately, read by the audience”. Rather than being liberated of material and paratextual constraints, Green argues, the digital page simply reimagines them in new ways, with the text, pretext and epitext each finding new realisations that make use of the emerging technologies.

Establishing an online presence is an important part of publicity for any artist today. Henna Jousmäki’s article looks at the use of multimodality in online self-promotion using a particular (sub)cultural group – Finnish Christian metal music bands as her case studies. Within the context of changing, diversifying and transcultural discourses of contemporary religiousness, manifest and spreading in new media, too, Jousmäki discusses how the bands communicate their faith by reimagining and remodifying the traditional symbols of metal music and Christianity, and how, in turn, these symbols are used in a variety of virtual worlds online when promoting the bands’ music and image. The article also shows how the reception the complex multi-modality of Christian metal often remains ambivalent, involving multiple and even conflicting responses.

Saija Peuronen also looks at the relationship between self-promotion and multimodality online. Focusing on the opportunities provided by digital technology for creating mediated and mediatized content, Peuronen studies the role of online video in the creating and maintaining of the virtual community of Christian snowboarders. The author’s ethnographic approach takes the reader inside the small community in focus and provides a detailed analysis of the semiotic content in two online videos posted by the group. Her analysis shows that the construction of identities in the videos is layered and complex, and that digital media and self-recording have become naturalised in the informants’ lives to such an extent that everyday life is fast becoming blended with the mediated and staged performances.

Ari Häkkinen and Sirpa Leppänen turn to mashup videos on Youtube and explore their functions at the intersection between whimsical comedy and hard-hitting political satire. Mashup video is a sub-type of culture jamming, a critical practice involving the appropriation and reuse of culturally recognisable icons and products, particularly those that originate in mainstream media and corpora, consumerist culture. The authors focus on two videos portraying politicians from two very different cultures and examine how the combination of creative video editing and viral dissemination creates opportunities for conducting translocal meme warfare which, while mobilizing and appropriating very similar semiotic resources, make use of these for the purpose of engaging in political and activist debate in a particular and local setting.

Acknowledgements

For many unforeseen reasons, this volume has taken a particularly long time to finalise. We wish to thank all the authors for their patience and willingness to play the long game. Jukka would also like to thank the students of the courses “Computer-Mediated Communication” and “Language, Communication and Digital Culture” at the University of Tampere for interesting and often very entertaining discussions about all things new media and for some very thought-provoking essays. We are grateful to the Editorial Board of the eSeries for accepting the volume into the series and to Terttu Nevalainen, the Editor-in-Chief, and Tanja Säily, the Managing Editor, for showing enthusiasm for this volume and for providing material and intellectual support when necessary. We also want to thank Tuire Oittinen at the University of Jyväskylä for web editing several of the articles. Most especially, we are extremely grateful to our web editor Joe McVeigh who has expertly and tirelessly worked on the volume over the last couple of years.