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Review of  Exploring Digital Communication


Reviewer: Zsuzsanna Zsubrinszky
Book Title: Exploring Digital Communication
Book Author: Caroline Tagg
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
General Linguistics
Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 27.365

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Review:
Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry

SUMMARY

Edited by Caroline Tagg, the volume discusses real-world issues pertaining to digital communication, and explores how linguistic research addresses these challenges. With relevant research examples, tasks and a glossary taken from diverse forms of digital media, the author aims to demystify any perceived divide between online and offline communication. The volume is composed of three sections (A, B and C), entitled ‘Problems and Practices’, ‘Interventions’, and ‘Theory’, and each section is further divided into two parts; the book contains 21 chapters in total. The issues raised in relation to digital communication throw light on language use and practices in general; therefore, it is an invaluable resource not only for users of digital communication but for linguists, as well as for under- and postgraduate students taking Language and New Media, and Language and Communication Studies modules within Applied Linguistics.

Section A, ‘Problems and Practices’, includes the implications of digital media for language and literacy and its effects on how we portray ourselves, manage our privacy and connect with others. In Part I, ‘Digital language and literacy’, the focus of concern is language itself, including the effect of digital communications on spelling and grammar, its impact on reading practices, and on the way in which people write. Also, the author looks at fears about the dominance of English on the web, which reflects and perpetuates wider power relations. Chapter 1, ‘Is digital communication ruining language?’ is concerned with the effects of digital communication on language use, which are based on misconceptions, such as the wider use of unconventional forms, fixed and prescribed codes, and the existence of competition between digitalese and ‘proper’ forms. In Chapter 2, ‘Has the web changed how we read?’, the author deals with the potential significance of textisms in digital communication. She argues that while print reading involves extensive, linear reading, online reading with the use of hypertext has entirely replaced printed books. At the same time, Tagg claims that both forms will continue to exist side-by-side, and consequently, digital reading may force us to re-evaluate the practices and theories associated with print literacy. Chapter 3, ‘Is the web devaluing what it means to be an author?’ represents changing ideas about authorship moving us away from the lonely genius writer to the collaborative, community-based writer. The author believes that these changes blur the line between writers and readers as they both contribute to the writing process. Chapter 4, ‘Does the internet further the global dominance of English?’, focuses on the online presence of minority languages, how technological factors affect language choice online, to what extent political and economic factors determine the position of these minority languages and finally, what opportunities these languages will have in shaping culturally authentic internet media in the future.

In Section A, Part II, ‘Social issues and social media’, the author looks at online identity, which poses the two seemingly contradictory problems of anonymity and exhibitionism, as well as online privacy and cyberbullying. Chapter 5, entitled ‘From anonymity to self-promotion: are we ever ourselves on social media?’ deals with the popular concerns arising from people’s abilities to hide or distort their identities online. This affordance may be taken up for various reasons, ranging from criminal and immoral actions to people’s attempts to promote the unrealistically sunny side of their lives on social network sites (e.g. the rise of selfies). Chapter 6, ‘What are the implications of social media for privacy?’ begins with Zuckerberg’s (2010) claim that social norms regarding openness and sharing have changed considerably throughout the 21st century and the young are no longer able to make reasoned decisions about what can be made public and what should be kept private. This concern is further elaborated by the author’s providing suggestions and strategies regarding how privacy issues should be managed in Chapter 7, ‘Is social media making us less social offline?’ In summarizing the apparent pervasiveness of aggressive behaviour online, in Chapter 8, ‘What can be done about trolls and online bullying?’, Tagg makes a distinction between flaming (‘aggressive or hostile communication occurring via computer-mediated channels’), trolling (‘someone who deliberately disrupts online forums to get pleasure at the participants’ expense’), and cyberbullying (‘ when the aggressor repeatedly targets one person’). The preferred solutions to these incidents may involve technological adaptations and attempts to educate parents and young people.

Section B ‘Interventions’, demonstrates the ways in which applied linguists have sought to understand through empirical investigation what people are actually doing when they communicate digitally. Part I, ‘Digital language and literacy’ uses literacy in a rather narrow sense to refer to the ability to spell and to manage other basic writing skills. Chapter 9, ‘Why digital communication may be good for literacy’, shows us positive correlations between digitalese and literacy skills by challenging the assumption that digital communication is necessarily having a negative impact on literacy. Moreover, spelling variants are considered as meaning-making resources, although they occur much less frequently than currently supposed. Chapter 10, ‘Exploring digital literacies‘, looks at the attempts made by applied linguists to understand the specifics of particular genres of online texts, and how they need to be read. Blogs, for instance, illustrate how online texts provide us with a different kind of reading experience from what we are familiar with offline. Chapter 11, ‘Using the web as a space for writing’, presents two online writing spaces – Wikipedia and fan fiction – and how their different social purposes, norms regulations and technological affordances shape and are shaped by users’ language practices. Wikipedia appears to be an example of effective collaboration, which is managed by a dedicated community of editors; meanwhile, fan fiction brings globally dispersed fans of particular works together to entertain themselves through their own stories. Chapter 12, ‘Using more than one language online’, looks into the way internet users switch between different languages and shows that arguments about the online dominance of English are in fact more complex than they might initially appear. Linguistic description of actual practices and visual graphic resources reveal how people mix languages in various, intricate ways that defy easy categorisation into one or another language.

In Section B, Part II, ‘Social issues and social media’, highlights the importance of traditional social roles online. In Chapter 13, ‘Performing identity online‘, the author explores the findings of empirical language-related research into the ways in which offline identities and relationships are reconstructed in online situations. While offline identities continue to be held up as ‘authentic’, communicative demands peculiar to online contexts allow people to alter their presentations of identity through acts of expression to sound more convincing. In Chapter 14, ‘Audience design on social media’, Tagg presents the way people manage their privacy through language choices ranging from vague expressions to multilingual code-switching. She reveals how users of social media adopt often complex strategies to signal what is private and what is public, by explicitly or implicitly targeting or excluding particular individuals. Chapter 15, ‘Constructing virtual communities’, defines the types of virtual communities, which are mainly based on shared interests (e.g., support groups or task-based groups) or social variables (e.g., hashtag communities or node-oriented networks). The author also highlights the key role that language plays as users establish and maintain relationships with each other. Chapter 16, ‘The linguistics of online aggression’, emphasizes the importance of linguistic research, which can be useful not only in detailing the role played by language as part of any online aggressive encounter, but in revealing the way in which aggression is constructed, negotiated and challenged through language. Also, it is argued that aggression differs between contexts and can only be explored by looking at how participants respond to potential aggressors.

Section C, ‘Theories’, refers to applied linguistics theories which are in the process of transforming how we conceptualize language itself and thus how different languages, speakers and practices are evaluated. Part I, ‘Digital language and literacy’ justifies the findings of applied linguistics by focusing on multiliteracies, translanguaging, and heteroglossia. Chapter 17, ‘Multiliteracies’ focuses on the way in which linguists since the 1970s have conceptualised ‘literacy’. It is argued that ‘literacy’ is not a mechanical process of decoding and encoding but is a wider social practice deeply embedded in particular roles within a literate society. In many respects, digital literacy practices extend rather than break with existing practices but, at the same time, the internet is blurring the line between traditionally private and public spaces, reaching a wider audience, making a greater impact and taking on an enhanced social value. Chapter 18, ‘Translanguaging via a superdiverse internet’, describes a multilingual practice or process known as ‘translanguaging’ by which users draw on any and all of the languages in their repertoires, without necessarily making conscious distinctions between them. In this way, the internet has played a crucial role in fostering and extending superdiverse contexts (e.g., Varis and Wang, 2011) by providing spaces which transcend geographical boundaries and distances and in which people can come together around shared interests. Chapter 19, ‘Heteroglossia’, allows digital researchers to investigate hybridity in all its forms and in particular to consider the political and ideological functions, motivations and tensions that lie behind online diversity. Despite attempts to operationalise the term for the analysis of specific texts, heteroglossia is likely to remain a somewhat fluid analytical concept, lacking the precision of the categories it displaces: code-switching, multimodality and language variation.

In Section C, Part II, ‘Social issues and social media’, the reconceptualization of language in social media takes place, where it is viewed as a process rather than a product. Chapter 20, ‘Identities in interaction’, is structured around the five principles of social and linguistic accounts of identity: emergence, positionality, indexicality, relationality and partialness (Bucholtz and Hall, 2005). The author argues that while the circumstances may be novel and thus attention grabbing, the process of identity construction is not; therefore, online actors should reconfigure their offline identities to perform themselves in a new way online. And finally, Chapter 21, ‘Sociolinguistic communities’ outlines the profound changes in the development of the concept of ‘community’, given the quickening pace of globalisation, the shake-up of traditional structures and sources of authority, the greater possibility for mobility, and people’s increasing ability to use digital communications to establish networks beyond their immediate vicinity. Tagg notes that online communities do not form in isolation from the offline world but are shaped by offline social trends and practices.

EVALUATION

This book is a welcome contribution to the growing literature on language use and digital practices. The author questions to what extent internet-mediated communications differ from other interactions, why we should focus on a range of problems associated with the internet, and finally how language can help tackle these complex issues. Caroline Tagg also engages with important social perspectives, ranging from privacy, to isolation and to the increasingly blurred boundaries between online and offline communication. However, she does not claim to offer solutions to problems perceived to be caused by digital technology and nor will she necessarily calm all readers’ worries. What the author aims to do is provide insights from applied linguistics that enable readers to make informed judgements about the digital communication practices in which they and those around them are engaging.

The major strength of this book lies in the practical tasks and questions making the reader reflect on the issues dealt with in each chapter (e.g., How many languages you use online, how and why; or Find an example of online aggression and analyse it in terms of linguistic resources or the victims’ response), as well as the extremely useful glossary at the end of the book.

The book takes an innovative ‘practice to theory’ approach, with a back-to-front structure, which leads the reader from real-world problems, through a discussion of intervention to theoretical foundations. However, what made me as a reader a bit confused about the book is the structure itself. Although the author’s aim is to follow the ethos of the Routledge Applied Linguistics series, starting with the Problems and practices, then Interventions and Theories, it is rather difficult for the reader to orient himself/herself within these three major parts as they all have the same sub-chapter titles (i.e., Digital language and literacy and Social issues and social media). Since language and social issues in many cases overlap (e.g., in the Theory part), perhaps it would have been better to leave these headings out entirely as the chapter titles show whether they are about linguistic or social issues.

Overall, this volume is an invaluable source of digital communication issues, which will certainly be of interest to scholars and students of communication and language studies.

REFERENCES

Bucholtz, M. & Hall, K. (2005). ‘Identity and interaction: a sociocultural linguistic approach’, Discourse Studies 7/4-5, 585-614.

Varis, P. & Wang, X. (2011). ‘Superdiversity on the internet: A Case from China’, Diversities 13/2, 71-83.

Zuckerberg, M. (2010). ‘Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: TechCrunch interview at the Crunchies’. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoWKGBloMsU. Accessed: 4 January 2014.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Zsuzsanna Zsubrinszky is Associate Professor in the English Department at Budapest Business School, College of International Management and Business. Her research interests include discourse analysis, intercultural communication and English for Specific Purposes. She has published on business communication, intercultural communication and politeness issues in business emails.

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