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Review of  City Branding and New Media


Reviewer: Tim Jewell
Book Title: City Branding and New Media
Book Author: Maria Cristina Paganoni
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Sociolinguistics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 27.364

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Review:
Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry

SUMMARY

City Branding and New Media: Linguistic Perspectives, Discursive Strategies and Multimodality by Maria Cristina Paganoni focuses on the relatively untrodden scholarly path of the linguistic and discursive components of city branding, an application to the contemporary urban space of the concept of place branding, which Paganoni defines as “…a process and practice by which places acquire a new or improved identity by adding measurable economic, social, and cultural value to their name” (2).

At the center of Paganoni’s argument is the notion that the contemporary city encompasses the expression of every form of representation, be it artistic, professional, political, or corporate; the “urban background” exists to urban residents and prospective users of city resources not only as a living space but also a networking space through which cities fashion their identities from both internal communication (“addressed to citizens, local entrepreneurs, and students”) and external communication (“addressed to potential residents, tourists, investors and international talent”) (3).

Paganoni proposes that cities can now most effectively utilize these communication strategies through the implementation of “…sophisticated [tools] of contemporary web governance in the hands of public administration” (4). As inter-urban competition for city visibility and central networking capacity gradually steps into the global (rather than local, regional, or even national) marketplace, cities, which are “increasingly dependent on digital information exchange” (6), must design their online communication using linguistic strategies within the “multimodal genre” (8) in order to provide a discursive space for public interface with urban identity while also accentuating the discussion of nebulous notions of heritage, cultural identity, and (often) sustainability using narratives with specific linguistic intent that often belies a foundation in the semiotics of corporate communication and marketing.

Paganoni structures her argument within the book into a general introduction and five thematic parts (each occupying a chapter):

Introduction: City Branding and New Media: Linguistic Discursive and Semiotic Aspects, a general discussion of city branding in the context of online public discourse and the linguistic, discursive, and semiotic strategies upon which such discourse is assembled, especially in relation to conventionalization of “citizen-centric digital genres” (1):

1) City Websites as a Multimodal Genre, a discussion and analysis of the significance of city websites in facilitating public involvement in the development of a city brand, using the Manchester City Council website as its central case study and employing tenets from Bateman’s Genre and Multimodality model (Bateman 2008) to identify “overcoded…repetitive and predictable [features]” (19) evident in city website layouts and text for the purpose of facilitating user accessibility on both a rhetorical and navigational level.

2) E-Governance on the Web: Linguistic and Discursive Strategies, an analysis of the linguistic evidence from the websites of the nine largest British cities (excluding London: Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Sheffield, Bradford, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Manchester, and Bristol, and also including Belfast and Cardiff for a “balanced representation of the different geopolitical realities within the same nation” (43)), suggesting that digital communication can enhance “social cohesion and inclusion” (38) through Information and Communication Technology (ICT) such as Facebook and Twitter but can also exclude those who have an “…unequal mastery of ICT skills” (40) as well as “gloss over the hardships of urban existence” (58).

3) Branding Heritage, Digital Genres, Transmedia Storytelling, an investigation into the discourse about “heritage” within the online city branding genre, closely attending to the heritage-oriented narratives of place and the “rhetorical strategies used on…heritage websites…[that hybridise] promotional intents, identity projects and public objectives with the interaction of…values that clearly [emerge] in the linguistic codification of heritage” (76), as specific cities and locations within cities are injected with sometimes artificially encoded cultural meaning

4) Expos and the Rhetoric of Sustainability, a discussion of the rhetoric and linguistic strategies used in the online branding and public (digital) discourse in relation to the Shanghai World Expo 2010 and the Expo Milano 2015 (which, at the time of the book’s publication, had not yet occurred) to call attention to the perceived progress that each expo represents and the ostensibly sustainable practices utilized by each expo during the construction, promotional, and operational processes of each expo, with attention paid primarily to the “preponderance of marketing over civic, ecological and humanitarian interests…[and] boundary-crossing appropriation…of linguistic and discoursal resources by text types endowed with a different rationale” (134).

EVALUATION

Paganoni’s work is unparalleled in its attention to the linguistic and discursive details present in the design of content and user experience found on websites that are, according to Paganoni, singular in their fluid usability and nuanced employment of linguistic tactics that ostensibly promote citizen agency in the development of public policy, public health, and other services relevant to residents (or visitors) of each city whose online presence Paganoni investigates. Most impressive is her case study of the Manchester City Council (MCC) website (manchester.gov.uk), which, at the time of this review’s composition, is yet identical to the screenshot included in Paganoni’s work (23).

Furthermore, Paganoni’s trenchant exploration of the repetitive phrasal and structural linguistic elements present in the MCC website seems broadly applicable not only to British city websites but also to the emerging online presence of other cities deeply entrenched within the conversion of the public sphere from physical to digital environs, such as, for example the website for the city of Los Angeles, California, which, although not particularly identical to the MCC website in general artistic design, mirrors the MCC website’s use of, among many other things, monochromatic iconography, digital affordances such as rectangular fields containing contents/links with which the user interacts, and the city name/logo/coat of arms at the top of the page as well as “short noun phrases…imperative sentences…[and] positive images of the public realm [including] new facilities, heritage and sunshine” (25). Paganoni also deftly discusses the presence of “exclusive first-person deixis (we, us, ourselves, our, ours)”, which, as Paganoni argues, empowers local administration to make decisions on behalf of the community (27).

Paganoni also notes the ubiquity of “perceivable tension between public and expert language…in the adoption of the ample generic repertoire borrowed from corporate communication” (28), thus not empowering the urban public, as is the alleged purpose of such language, but rather subtly imbuing the city government with primary agency in conducting urban policy-making and, in general, global business without the direct interference of citizens, who are primed to trust both the physical and digital city government in fleshing out urban identity in the global city branding process. Paganoni adroitly expands this notion of visible (but illusory) citizen involvement in the city branding process by illustrating that, in the case of many city websites with strong interconnections to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, “citizens’ feedback does not go much beyond very basic contact or is made public insofar as it is positive” and that “public consultations…tend to be disciplined into rigidly structured online forms…a trivialization of citizens’ voices and the shrinking of a meaningful public sphere” (56). Though her maintenance of an objective tone lends credibility to her argument, Paganoni also appears to warn readers of the lack of agency that digital and social media outlets afford to urban citizens in favor of the E-governance monopoly bestowed upon city governments who brand their urban environments with digital content built upon “hybridised public discourse…[in which] ‘certain words become unspeakable whereas others are repeated endlessly’ (McGuigan, 2010, p. 121)” (58). According to Paganoni, language itself erases the complexity of public policy and discourse in favor of a corporate vernacular that scrubs a city’s image clean of negative imagery and of any evidence of a “[deepening] gulf between the powerful and the powerless” (59), and awareness of these linguistic/discursive practices will allow greater citizen agency in keeping city governments accountable, transparent, and collaborative in their city branding strategies as globalization and digital public interaction become the norm of the contemporary city’s identity in the twenty-first century.

Paganoni also thrives in her discussion of the Shanghai and Milan expos, investigating the weaving of the “journey” metaphor into promotional material about the expos while commenting on the persistent use of this narrative to draw public attention away from issues of engineering and urban geography, noting in a particularly compelling statement that the Milan expo “…adopted a minimal visual regime that managed to evoke an imaginary but persuasive politico-emotive geography consisting in an egalitarian utopian anthropic landscape of the near future that will hopefully regenerate Milan’s periphery” (121).

Paganoni’s weaknesses lie, perhaps ironically, in her choice of subject matter and evidence, as the sources of her greatest argumentative strengths (city websites, are ephemeral and might prove to not reflect lasting linguistic/discursive trends but rather digital trends of the current era that do not truly illustrate the perceptions of the citizenry involved in such public discourse. Paganoni refers almost exclusively to language used by websites and promotional material but rarely cites the input of an actual citizen involved in public discourse beyond requests for government services, most notably in a Manchester citizen’s request for small business commercial property rates (51). Paganoni’s argument rests significantly upon the linguistic erasure of the public voice, and yet, Paganoni commits this same fallacy by failing to weave the voices of citizens into her deeply theoretical argument, which draws most of its strength from linguistic/discursive theories that are not tested against the public voice whose decreasing relevance Paganoni supposedly fears. Paganoni’s work would indeed benefit from a augmented focus in her methodologies on individual/collective citizen voices. Paganoni could employ a focus group presented with website content modified to variably use exclusive ingroup (we, us, ours) and outgroup (they, them, theirs) language to measure individual/group willingness to interface with city government in relation to the agency and values implicitly presented to citizens by linguistic strategies present in website/digital text. This approach is known as social identity framing (Seyranian & Bligh 2008) and emphasizes the effect of language used by a leader or leadership group on its constituency’s willingness to embrace change. This approach could lend greater insight into the relationship between the digital linguistic/discursive tactics used by city governments and the willingness of citizens in the urban environment to interact with their governments through language and digital media, as the choice of using ingroup language as opposed to outgroup language can have a real influence on public interaction and perception of city branding efficacy.

Furthermore, a deep analysis of the user experience that can arise from website layouts based on their formats and affordances is a slippery methodological practice, as “front-end” (or user-accessible) website design often changes drastically in its own approaches and methodologies, and companies that supply such services can also rise and fall rapidly with the presence (or lack) of the capital necessary to support website development. As this reviewer searched within the English Heritage website for substantiation of Paganoni’s claims about its format and language, two notable changes had occurred, First, English Heritage, the society whose website (http://www.english-heritage.org.uk) Paganoni mentions as a destination for many “heritage tourists” (72), has split into two discrete organizations, indicated by an unavoidable pop-up window that states the following: “English Heritage has now separated into two organisations. If you are looking for information on listing, planning, grants or heritage research and advice, please visit Historic England.” Historic England, whose website (https://historicengland.org.uk) only vaguely resembles that of English Heritage, can likely now be analyzed within the framework of Paganoni’s multimodal approach, but first, an investigation into the changes made within the English Heritage website would be necessary to account for the linguistic/discursive practices now extant within both websites. However, though the linguistic content of the Historic England website may mirror that of the English heritage website (which itself may not have changed substantially upon the split into two organizations), the design of the Historic England website must also be taken into account when analyzing its discursive practices in relation to its format, and such an undertaking could likely be repeated ad nauseam for each design and textual element modified within either website (and which would be necessary for any website/collection of websites to which Paganoni’s methodologies are applied in order to maintain the accuracy of any linguistic theories/statements extracted from website content).

Paganoni’s work is laudable for its scope and rigorous application of numerous theoretical paradigms to the relatively uncharted regions of online/digital linguistic analysis, but her claims may only prove fleeting as digital linguistic practices change over time and the voices of citizens who participate in online discourse with city websites are augmented by their inclusion in academic analyses, which, as mentioned above, must include the input of the public voice as substantiation of otherwise sweeping claims about the linguistic empowerment of city governance in simultaneity with the erasure of the citizen as a member of the city branding discourse. Somewhat absurdly, Paganoni’s work silences the voices of citizens with their exclusion from the analysis as she argues against their exclusion from agency in the branding of the contemporary global city. Furthermore, a companion to this work that focuses exclusively on the role of the citizen and his/her linguistic practices in relation to the development of heritage and local identity in the 21st-century urban environment would greatly supplement the relevance of this work to further discussions about the citizen’s place in the global city branding marketplace.

REFERENCES

City of Los Angeles, California, http://www.lacity.org

McGuigan, Jim (2010). Cultural Analysis. London: Sage Publications.

Seyranian, Viviane & Bligh, Michelle (2008). Presidential Charismatic Leadership: Exploring
the rhetoric of social change. The Leadership Quarterly, 19, 54-76.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Tim Jewell is a Linguistics researcher at California State University, Fullerton. His current work focuses on Germanic language change and contact between English and Danish, and he aspires to develop new typological and sociolinguistic frameworks for understanding the emergence of multiethnic, multilingual language varieties around the world.

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