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Review of  Discourse and Digital Practices

Reviewer: Mariza Georgalou
Book Title: Discourse and Digital Practices
Book Author: Rodney H. Jones Alice Chik Christoph Hafner
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 26.5174

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Digital technologies afford miscellaneous ways for people to engage in new discourse activities and practices, ones which they have not engaged in before and which have not been possible before (Barton and Lee 2013). In this light, a volume that addresses discourse and digital practices is a highly welcome addition towards enhancing our knowledge of what people do with/through digital discourse and how discourse analysts approach digital texts.

“Discourse and digital practices: Doing discourse analysis in the digital age” is a collection of 14 studies, first presented at “The Fifth International Roundtable on Discourse Analysis: Discourse and Digital Practices” (23-25 May 2013, Hong Kong), with a two-pronged aim: i) to explore how discourse analysis enables us to understand contemporary digital practices, and ii) to determine how these practices challenge researchers to adjust traditional discourse analytic tools and advance new theories. Zeroing in on different types of digital media, examining different kinds of practices and integrating a wide array of frameworks and approaches, this volume presents a nice panorama of the current state of research.

In their introduction, which can function as an ideal point of departure for courses on digital discourse, Rodney H. Jones, Alice Chik and Christoph A. Hafner detail certain particularities of digitally mediated texts including texture, intertextuality, dialogicity, multimodality, contexts, affordances, interactional character, and the conveyance of ideologies.

The first study of the volume, “Discourse analysis of games”, by James Paul Gee, considers how games can have syntax, semantics and situated meanings determined by context and socio-cultural knowledge paving the way for the creation of a field of discourse analysis applied to video games. Taking the 2D indie puzzle platformer video game “Thomas was Alone” as a case in point, Gee evinces that when we play a video game, we are having interactive, responsive, turn-based conversations on the basis of the affordances at our disposal.

The next contribution, Rodney H. Jones’s “Discourse, cybernetics, and the entextualisation of the self”, analyses 25 of the most highly rated self-tracking apps available on Apple’s App Store, relying upon his own experience with these apps as well as those of other users’ as described in online reviews, blog posts and two focus group interviews. Through a combination of multimodal and mediated discourse analysis with insights from cybernetics, media theory, and autoethnography, Jones shows that the texts produced by self-tracking apps (in the form of analyses, exhortations, reminders and narratives) “process” their writers and readers in terms of resemiotisation, retemporalisation, and recontextualisation.

David Barton’s study, “Tagging on Flickr as a social practice”, sheds light on people’s purposes when tagging on Flickr within the framework of a social approach to language online, developed from literacy studies. Based on observations of 30 Flickr users’ photo pages along with online interviews with some of these users, Barton asserts that tags are not sheer metadata but can play an instrumental role in meaning-making, enabling users to express existing and/or new information, convey affective stances towards images, make “asides”, narrate stories, invent new concepts, and exhibit linguistic creativity.

In “Intertextuality and interdiscursivity in online reviews”, Camilla Vásquez focuses on data from user-generated online consumer reviews with particular reference to the websites TripAdvisor (hotels), Amazon (common consumer goods), Yelp (restaurants and services), Netflix (films) and Epicurious (recipes). Her analysis reveals that reviewers adopt a range of diverse forms of intertextuality and interdiscursivity to ground their opinions, align or disalign with the evaluations of other reviewers, lend authority to their claims, educate readers, express tastes and preferences, and forge a sense of virtual co-membership.

Phil Benson, in his study “YouTube as text: Spoken interaction analysis and digital discourse”, treats the uploading of a video on YouTube as an interactional turn, which starts a process of multimodal social interaction in which users “respond” to the “initiation” of the video via a variety of semiotic modes. His analysis of a series of YouTube videos entitled “Cantonese Word of the Week” provides compelling evidence for the usability and usefulness of the frameworks for analysing spoken interaction (Sinclair and Coulthard 1975; Stenström and Stenström 1994) in the context of multimedia digital discourse.

The next contribution, “Co-constructing identity in virtual worlds for children”, comes from Christoph A. Hafner, who employs positioning theory (Davies and Harré 1990) to investigate the virtual world of Moshi Monsters. His discussion is informed by observations of his two children while they were participating in Moshi Monsters as well as by stimulated recall sessions, where the children viewed videos of their online activity and then provided a guided account of it. Hafner concludes that identity in virtual worlds constitutes a jointly negotiated, interactive process between designer and user.

Commencing from the same theoretical premises with Hafner, Alice Chik, in her paper “Recreational language learning and digital practices: Positioning and repositioning”, takes a 4-week autoethnographic approach to examine the positioning of language learners in the language learning social network sites (LLSNSs) of Duolingo and Busuu. What she observes is that learners are positioned, both textually and multimodally, by the websites to accept certain conceptualisations of foreign language learning. She also points to the fact that LLSNSs adopt discursive practices of infantilising learners (e.g. via cartoonish background colours and figures) as a display of power relations.

In “Investigating digital sex-talk practices: A reflection on corpus-assisted discourse analysis”, Brian King deals with the practice of “sex talk” in gay chat rooms synthesising tools from corpus linguistics and discourse analysis with insights from researcher observation. After working with data from 1,332 participants, emanating from the Queer Chatroom Corpus that he has compiled, King finds that these chat rooms are mainly places to socialise rather than places to participate in cyber-sex.

The paper “Apps, adults and young children: Researching digital literacy practices in context” by Guy Merchant reports on the use of iPad apps to access interactive stories in early education centres in England, anchoring his research in the literature on gesture, touch and pointing, and haptics. The main thrust of Merchant’s argument is that portable screens and apps contribute significantly to the everyday experience and popular culture of toddlers and young children, to the same degree as book sharing, television and related media play. Hence, they should be seen as key ingredients of educational provision both at home and in early year settings.

In a similar vein, Victoria Carrington, in “‘It’s changed my life’: iPhone as technological artifact”, is interested in the interaction of a female adolescent with her iPhone in the construction of everyday life. According to Carrington’s sociomaterial analysis, an interesting synergy between new literacy studies, the philosophy of technology, and object ethnography, the iPhone (by means of its apps, the texts produced within it, and the ways in which it comes through in the owner’s discourse) facilitates various forms of communication, displays of identity, information gathering and sharing, and socialising.

In “Digital [email protected] space: Flows of language online and offline”, Carmen Lee is concerned with how “internet-specific” language is reconstructed and recontextualised in offline physical spaces. Her dataset consists of photographs of public spaces in Hong Kong where internet-specific language is evident, field notes about the location of the text, and interviews with passers-by. Situating her discussion within the paradigms of linguistic landscape research, geosemiotics (Scollon and Scollon 2003), literacy studies and ethnography, Lee cogently argues that the presence of internet language in offline spaces not only indicates public awareness of netspeak features but also contributes to the enregisterment of internet language.

Jackie Marsh, in “The discourse of celebrity in the fanvid ecology of Club Penguin machinima”, explores the social practices embedded in the production and consumption of machinima (a portmanteau of “machine” and “cinema” which refers to films made by fans in virtual worlds and computer games using screen capture and editing software), which are created by children and young people who participate in the virtual world Club Penguin. To do so, she coalesces Foucaultian discourse analysis with an ethnographic approach that involved interviews with two key participants and observation of their YouTube channels and Twitter streams. As she demonstrates, in these online worlds, discourses of recognition, status and competition create celebrity-fan relationships that replicate those met outside the peer-to-peer network.

The volume ends with two penetrating critiques on discourses about digital practices where both authors engage with the theoretical concerns and empirical calls voiced within critical discourse analysis. Ilana Snyder, in her contribution “Discourse of ‘curation’ in digital times”, examines the discourses and practices associated with curation in texts gleaned from the realms of digital marketing, online communication, education online, and digital literacy studies. In the context of digital technologies, Snyder notices that curation comprises the processes of creating, editing, aggregating, organising, culling, interpreting, producing, testing new attitudes, rethinking and pushing boundaries. As she aptly points out, curation is a social practice and as such “it is always ideological, always rhetorical and often political” (p. 209).

Lastly, Neil Selwyn’s study, “The discursive construction of education in the digital age”, clusters discourses of digital education into two categories: 1) discourses of digital re-schooling (according to which digital technology breaks down barriers between and within institutions, facilitates new ways of participating and interacting, and allows participants to “bring in” their new vernacular practices); and 2) discourses of digital de-schooling (according to which digital technology completely usurps the educational institution placing emphasis on the idea of “do-it-ourselves”). He concludes that both these sets of discourses dictate the necessity for educational change.


This is an intellectually fascinating volume essential for advanced students and researchers within the areas of discourse analysis, literacy and multimodality studies. It will also be of interest to those working with digital media in the fields of education, media and communication studies, and cultural studies. Previous training in discourse studies and familiarity with the mechanics of digital communication are seen as a prerequisite for readers.

All contributions confirm the significance, robustness, plasticity and malleability of the discourse analysis paradigm with reference to contemporary digital environments. Following very different strands within the paradigm, the authors succeed brilliantly in analysing a broad spectrum of interesting topics and multimodal examples tackling at the same time useful concepts such as “packaging” and “flow” (Gee), “servomechanism” (Jones), “deepened subjectivity” (Ramsay 2003 in King), “polymedia” (Madianou and Miller 2013 in Carrington), and “enregisterment” (Agha 2003 in Lee). What is more, nearly every author provides their own conceptualisation of the term “affordance” hinging on the enabling/constraining configurations of the digital media under discussion.

One major strength of this volume is the practical advice given to discourse analysts who (wish to) conduct research on digital media. Barton underscores that online life is essentially social; hence the role of other people, both online and offline, has major implications for the analysis. Vásquez proposes a sustained period of participant observation of the site/community together with interviews with contributors and readers so as to acquire additional insider information and approach the given topic more holistically without overlooking vital details. Hafner, on the other hand, gives handy tips on how to prompt participants for comments without embedding assumptions about their activity. In addition, King, Lee and Merchant touch on the role of digital technology not just as an object of research but also as a research tool. King provides a lucid account of ethics and digital research emphasising that “[t]o treat digital data as inherently public and freely available, and to gather data with impunity, is to risk ‘poisoning the well’ for future researchers” (p. 134).

Another laudable feature of the book is its orientation towards taking a critical approach to digital discourse. Jones cautions researchers that they should not hallow digital services and apps as these are mainly driven by the commercial and ideological agendas of internet companies and advertisers. On the same wavelength, Hafner calls for the critical evaluation of consumerism discourses represented in some texts within virtual worlds. From an educational perspective, Selwyn suggests moving “beyond the celebratory nature of much scholarly work on digital media” (p. 239) and endeavouring to demonstrate the connection between different types of dominance and inequality inherent in digital education. The authors also recommend circumspection in claiming generalisability or representativeness of any findings. The global potential of digital media and mobile devices does not necessarily entail that they have global reach. Merchant sees iPads as “placed resources” (Prinsloo 2005) with their use always being infused with “the local as instantiated in routines, relationships and day-to-day operations, as well as by the beliefs, understandings and experiences of participants” (p. 147). Carrington, on the other hand, reminds us that the social advantages accruing from technology are distributed unevenly given that not all (young) people around the world are iPhone/smartphone owners.

With the exception of Barton and Lee, the discussions included in this volume revolve around Anglophone case studies. It would be nice to see examples from more languages as this would considerably increase the potency of discourse analysis tools in understanding digital practices. Moreover, the inclusion of (auto)ethnographies on devices that run operating systems other than iOS would constitute a valuable asset.

The volume displays a couple of bugs related to typos: “herteroglossic” (bottom of p. 6) instead of “heteroglossic” and an inconsistency between “complementarity” and “complimentarity” (top of p. 11).

In sum, the volume at hand is a substantial contribution to the burgeoning field of digital discourse analysis, which can intrigue and inspire further fruitful research.


Agha, A. (2003). The social life of cultural value. Language and Communication 23(3–4): 231–273.

Barton, D. and Lee, C. (2013). Language online: Investigating digital texts and practices. London: Routledge.

Davies, B. and Harré, R. (1990). Positioning: The discursive production of selves. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 20(1): 43–63.

Madianou, M. and Miller, D. (2013). Polymedia: Towards a new theory of digital media in interpersonal communication. International Journal of Cultural Studies 16(2): 169–187.

Prinsloo, M. (2005). The new literacies as placed resources. Perspectives in education 23(4): 87–98.

Ramsay, S. (2003). Toward an algorithmic criticism. Literary and Linguistic Computing 18(2): 167–174.

Scollon, R. and Scollon, S. W. (2003). Discourses in place: Language in the material world. London: Routledge.

Sinclair, J. M. and Coulthard, M. (1975). Towards an analysis of discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stenström, A. and Stenström, B. (1994). An introduction to spoken interaction. London: Longman.
Mariza Georgalou has recently been awarded a PhD from Lancaster University’s Department of Linguistics and English Language, UK. Her research focuses on social media discourse analysis. She has forthcoming research articles in the journals Discourse & Communication, Discourse, Context & Media, and Social Media & Society. See also

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