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Review of  Antagonism on Youtube

Reviewer: Lori Gilbert
Book Title: Antagonism on Youtube
Book Author: Stephen Pihlaja
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 26.3013

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Antagonism on YouTube: Metaphor in Online Discourse”, by Stephen Pihlaja, is a monograph focussing on metaphors within an instance of religious-based ‘drama’, or antagonistic debate, on YouTube. The book is an addition to the Bloomsbury Discourse Series edited by Ken Hyland, and joins other notable recent works in the series, which consider online discourse such as online consumer reviews (Vásquez, 2014), text messaging (Tagg, 2012), and Twitter (Zappavigna, 2012). Pihlaja’s book complements these works through a metaphor-focussed discourse analytic investigation of YouTube, which takes a micro focus on one particular drama ‘event’. Where many studies consider only comment responses to various online communication genres, this book considers both comments and videos, thus covering relatively new ground in discourse analysis of YouTube.

The book is comprised of 6 chapters. Chapter 1 is the introduction, and contains a contextualization of the study as a contribution to ‘web 2.0’ research. Chapter 2 provides a narrative account of the data analysed within the book, followed by an overview of data collection methods and a methodological introduction to the approach used in this study, as well as an introduction to ethical considerations. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 each present a framework and application of different layers of analysis (metaphor analysis, categorization analysis, and positioning analysis, respectively). Chapter 6 is a summary, and brings together the empirical findings in relation to the theoretical issues raised throughout the book.

Chapter 1 considers the notion of communities in YouTube, in relation to previous research on computer-moderated communication (CMC). The study is framed with a focus on impoliteness, online community theory (Herring, 2004), and communities of practice (Wenger, 1998).

Chapter 2 begins with a reflexive account of the author’s developing interest in atheist and Christian YouTube communities between the period of 2006 and 2010. Pihlaja continues with a background of events leading to the particular drama ‘event’ analysed within the book, referred to by the author as the ‘human garbage’ drama. In brief, this drama was instigated by Yokeup, a Christian ‘vlogger’ (video blogger) who uploaded a series of videos on YouTube referring to specific people and groups of people as ‘human garbage’, a metaphor he defends as an interpretation of a biblical passage. The drama unfolds as comment responders and other vloggers respond to Yokeup either in support or criticism of the use of this term.

Following this contextual background, Pihlaja details his data collection methods and a general procedural account of the identification, categorization, and description of instances of impoliteness. The author’s initial analysis consists of a ‘macro-level’ analysis of 20 videos and responses, which is then narrowed down to 3 ‘exchanges’ (videos plus comment responses) for micro-level discourse analysis. These three exchanges represent different configurations of interaction, between Christians and atheists; atheists and atheists; and Christians and Christians.

Finally, the chapter concludes with an introduction of the three discourse analytic frameworks used within the study, which are discussed at length and applied in the following chapters.

In Chapter 3, the author applies the first of three layers of analysis, metaphor-led discourse analysis, in his investigation of drama in YouTube. The chapter sections include a theoretical literature review, methodology, analysis, discussion, and conclusion. The chapter can thus be read as a stand-alone study focussing specifically on the metaphor discourse analysis of YouTube discourse.

Pihlaja employs a discourse dynamics approach (Cameron and Maslen, 2010; Cameron et al., 2009), in order to focus on the development of drama through the interactive development of metaphors over time.

Through application of this framework, the author shows how the drama in the dataset develops from a Bible parable (the vine and the branches, John 15) to the metaphor of ‘human garbage’, as introduced by Yokeup, the drama’s central figure. This drama continues as the primary instigator subverts negative responses from Christians by claiming that the term was not his own creation or interpretation, meanwhile subverting negative responses from non-Christians by adopting a role of piety as the willing target of non-Christian ‘hate’. Further interaction between members of the community results in the interpretation and development of this metaphor via the Christian belief in ‘literal’ readings of the Bible, which results in drama surrounding the concept of ‘burning’ as a ‘divine’ punishment for non-believers. Meanwhile, non-Christian participants in the drama, who do not tend to recognise ‘burning’ as a punishment inflicted by God, develop alternative metaphorical stories of the ‘human garbage’ metaphor as a reference to Holocaust imagery, and subsequently consider whether Yokeup is a ‘psychopath’ who would not deserve to be saved in a hypothetical Titanic situation.

The chapter concludes with a discussion of how the empirical findings support a dynamic description of metaphor use, in that within actual discourse it is difficult to differentiate between various descriptions of metaphor (e.g., ‘systematic metaphor’, ‘parables’). Finally, Pihlaja relates the metaphor development to Foucault’s notion of control (1981), positive and negative face (Brown and Levinson, 1987), and evaluative language.

Chapter 4 comprises an application of membership categorization analysis (Sacks, 1995; Housley and Fitzgerald, 2002, 2009) to the dataset. As with Chapters 3 and 5, this chapter can be read as a stand-alone study. This layer of analysis focuses on the local use of categories within interactive discourse.

The chapter begins with a literature review of relevant approaches to membership categorization analysis. The study is located amongst studies considering categorization within context. The literature review is followed by a brief methodology section, while the bulk of the chapter is concerned with membership categories arising from the dataset.

The first instance of categorization involves the instigator of the drama being categorized by other users as a ‘psychopath’, or otherwise mentally unwell, due to his perceived lack of empathy, which escalates into some users suggesting he is capable of violence. The analysis moves on to focus on how both Christian and atheist interactants categorize individuals as ‘types of Christians’ that are, in almost all cases, separate from Christian denominational categories such as Evangelical, Baptist, etc. Instead, users are deemed by others to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Christians, depending on how the ‘Christian duties’ were performed. In this case, being a ‘good Christian’ entails the spreading of messages that result in being ‘hated by the world’ (Pihlaja, 2014: 102). Similarly, the category of ‘fluffy Christians’ is used as a negative evaluation by Christians who criticise other Christians for not following the Bible’s ‘instructions’ to not associate with non-Christians. Another criticism of Christians by Christians is made through the use of the category of ‘fake Christians’, where one interactant implies that others might not actually be ‘saved’ and thus only ‘claim’ to be Christian. The category of ‘perfect Christian’ is actually used pejoratively by an atheist commenter, who describes the actions of certain Christians as being so hateful that they perfectly demonstrate the dangers of religion.

This analysis highlights the complexity of this community, where users “interact with others who may regularly employ different categories or the same categories in different ways” (Pihlaja, 2014: 125), and these categories are given meaning depending on their context. The drama is developed through use of categories, which act as topics enabling users to disagree.

In Chapter 5, Pihlaja employs a positioning analysis in order to look beyond the relatively static understanding of social identity through ‘ingroups’ and ‘outgroups’. Rather, the author uses positioning theory (Harré et al., 2009; Jones, 2006) to investigate the emergent, dynamic, and context-dependent nature of social positioning.

As with Chapters 3 and 4, this chapter can be read as a stand-alone study. However, this third layer of analysis also, in effect, brings together findings from the previous two chapters focussing on metaphor, categorization, and impoliteness, as it deals with disagreement as well as how user positioning changes over time. While Chapter 4 deals with the ways that users categorize others, Chapter 5 complements this approach by considering how users position themselves.

Pihlaja’s analysis identifies users who position themselves in various ways. Some of the drama participants align themselves with God and the Bible in particular ways in order to position themselves as being more pious than others with different (or ‘incorrect’) interpretations of the Bible. In the case of the main instigator of the drama, Yokeup, he positions himself simultaneously as being at ‘war’ with unbelievers by calling them ‘human garbage’, but also attempts to position himself as a ‘loving preacher’ through a friendly, non-aggressive demeanor. He presents this condemnation as concern rather than disdain with framing statements such as “God bless you guys… enjoy your day… Jesus loves you… He has a great plan for your life” (Pihlaja, 2014: 141). The chapter also focuses on how community members position others as ‘bullies’, thus attempting to align atheist and Christian users against the individual who posted the ‘human garbage’ video.

In summary, the positioning analysis identifies dynamic and contextual positioning of members, who tend not to identify as members of a particular group, but to take particular positions toward conflict depending on the context (Pihlaja, 2014: 150).

Chapter 6 is a summary, and unifies findings in the previous chapters in order to argue that (at least in the case of this dataset) YouTube drama is complex, and it is not possible to identify a single cause or reason for the development of argument. This is in part due to users having different interpretations and levels of knowledge about each other and the history of the argument (Pihlaja, 2014: 153). Metaphor sharing and shifting is instrumental for users who position themselves in relation to others, and particularly for antagonising other users. By way of demonstrating this complexity, Pihlaja introduces a new aspect of YouTube drama – temporary harmony – by describing a number of instances where vloggers who had previously disagreed produce collaborative videos in order to, for example, help raise funds for a Hurricane Katrina charity.

Pihlaja’s conclusion applies the empirical findings of his study to engage with and support the conceptualisation of metaphor using discourse dynamics, arguing that “although different kinds of systematicity in metaphor use may be theoretically distinguishable, in real discourse, the distinctions are blurred” (2014: 154).

The author finds that one key feature of YouTube drama is that it often develops not only through reference to historical events within the drama, but also through the memory and reformulation of events that have occurred in videos and comments that were deleted by authors for various reasons. In this way, Pihlaja argues that YouTube drama is very similar to ‘offline’ drama, and that YouTube simply offers new technological affordances for drama.

Pihlaja engages with the notions of ‘face’ and ‘impoliteness’, but argues that the definitions of these concepts are insufficient when analysing complex drama. He thus finds Culpeper’s (2011) definition of ‘impoliteness’ to be more adequate as its focus is not so much on strategic face attacks as it is on the individual experiences of situated interaction. Pihlaja finds, for example, that when users attract negative comments from others, this could constitute ‘positive face’.

The summary also engages with inter-faith scholarship, consolidating the findings of the analytical layers to argue that the interactants’ use of the Bible to claim moral authority includes not only citations of the ‘word of God’, but also heavy use of metaphorical extensions of such, which effectively “attempted to effect change by representing their own desires as those of God – the ultimate authority” (Pihlaja, 2014: 154).


This book develops a cohesive argument for the description of the dataset as ‘drama’; the theme of metaphor development, over time and within context, is adhered to throughout the study. Each of the three layers of analysis complements and builds upon the others to contribute to a central argument about how metaphor is used to develop drama in YouTube. Meanwhile, each of the three chapters focussing on a specific analytical framework (Chapters 3, 4, and 5) can be read as a stand-alone study, which makes this book useful for scholars interested in metaphor in general as well as those interested in one of the specific frameworks used within the study.

Pihlaja’s research is innovative in that, while previous studies on YouTube discourse have focussed on interaction, Pihlaja argues that it is difficult to elicit and identify ‘typical behaviour’ and has thus taken a novel approach in analysing a group of YouTube participants over time, through a variety of interactions.

Pihlaja’s engaging writing style is characterised by clear and concise descriptions of both the discourse he analyses and the theoretical frameworks he uses and develops within his research. As such, this book is a valuable introduction to the discourse analysis of online data, as well as a useful tool for experienced discourse analysts who are keen to discover how communication continues to evolve within the ever-changing landscape of online environments.

Furthermore, this book would be especially useful for interfaith religious scholars focusing on atheist-Christian and Christian-Christian interaction. Pihlaja’s study makes an important contribution to the debate and conflict between atheist and Christian groups, convincingly arguing that “disagreement stemming from conflicting beliefs and expectations need not be limited to theological or philosophical arguments, but can also include disagreements about social interaction in particular communities” (Pihlaja, 2014: 148). Pihlaja’s empirical approach also enables a convincing argument that while theological disagreements between religious (and non-religious) groups identified within the dataset are not new, their contextualization and production through such social media as YouTube have resulted in new mechanisms for disagreement.

In terms of the presentation of the analysis, there are a couple of issues. At times, the narrative ‘drama’ can be difficult to track, but this is perhaps unavoidable given the complexity of the dataset, which includes a large number of discourse participants and non-synchronous timelines. Nevertheless, it would have been useful if the author had developed a concise overview of the drama in another mode – perhaps within a table or timeline – to complement the extensive narrative description of events.

Additionally, the methodology sections of Chapters 3, 4, and 5 would perhaps be more useful to non-specialist scholars if they included specific examples of how the analytical framework was applied to the data.

There are also some notable limitations in terms of theoretical and methodological focus. For example, although the study is foregrounded in Chapter 1 by a potential consideration of the group of interactants as a ‘community’, or a ‘community of practice’, this research thread appears briefly and sporadically throughout the book in relation to other research focus points, and is never fully developed as a salient aspect of the discourse in its own right.

Furthermore, despite the author’s focus on YouTube as an online platform heavily featuring both plain-text comments and videos, this analysis includes relatively little multimodal focus. Chapters 3 and 4 only consider the transcription of video speech. The positioning analysis in Chapter 5 does consider images, but only briefly and without reference to an established framework for multimodal discourse analysis. The book itself is also mono-modal, as there are no images or screenshots included. While the author does concede that the multimodal aspects of the discourse are potentially rich sources of information about these interactions, he does not engage with them in his analysis because of time constraints. As such, there is scope for further development of this study, but the book in its current form is likely to be less relevant to multimodal scholars than to text-based discourse analysts.

In summary, the book is an engaging and well-executed qualitative study that advances the fields of CMC discourse analysis, metaphor analysis, and inter-faith scholarship. It introduces a number of convincing arguments regarding theoretical limitations of community, metaphor, and impoliteness theories, which are thus adapted by the author in this novel analysis of YouTube discourse.


Brown, P., and Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cameron, L., and Maslen, R. (2010). Metaphor Analysis: Research Practice in Applied Linguistics, Social Sciences and the Humanities. London: Equinox.

Cameron, L., Maslen, R., Maule, J., Stratton, P., and Stanlen, N. (2009). The discourse dynamics approach to metaphor and metaphor-led discourse analysis. Metaphor and Symbol, 24(2), 63-89.

Culpeper, J. (2011). Impoliteness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Foucault, M. (1981). The orders of discourse. In Robert Young (Ed.), Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader (pp. 48-78). London: Routledge.

Harré, R., Moghaddam, F.M., Cairnie, T.P., Rothbart, D., and Sabat, S.R. (2009). Recent advances in positioning theory. Theory and Pychology, 19(1), 5-31.

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Housley, W., and Fitzgerald, R. (2002). The reconsidered model of membership categorization analysis. Qualitative Research, 2(1), 59-83.

Housley, W., and Fitzgerald, R. (2009). Membership categorization, culture and norms in action. Discourse and Society, 20(3), 345-62.

Jones, R. L. (2006). ‘Older people’ talking as if they are not older people: Positioning theory as an explanation. Journal of Aging Studies, 20(1), 79-91.

Sacks, H. (1995). Lectures on Conversation. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Tagg, C. (2012). Discourse of Text Messaging: Analysis of SMS Communication. London: Continuum.

Vásquez, C. (2014). The discourse of online consumer reviews. London: Bloomsbury.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning as a social system. Systems Thinker, 9(5), 1-5.

Zappavigna, M. (2012). Discourse of Twitter and social media: How we use language to create affiliation on the web. London: Continuum.
Lori Gilbert is a PhD student at the University of East Anglia, UK. The title of her thesis is “‘Friends’, ‘fans’, and foes: Identity performances through responses to Facebook brand marketing”. It is a discourse analytical study, employing genre analysis, Appraisal analysis, and negotiation analysis in its focus on identity within the advertising-infiltrated social context of the Facebook newsfeed. She is interested in discourse analysis, Appraisal theory, Systemic Functional Linguistics, genre analysis, identity, CMC, and new media.

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