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Review of  Searchable Talk

Reviewer: Andrew Jocuns
Book Title: Searchable Talk
Book Author: Michele Zappavigna
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Issue Number: 30.339

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The rise of digital literacies have afforded us with an array of new semiotic technologies many of which offer us new ways of entextualizing our interactions with the world. One such way is the hashtag which is the focus of Michele Zappavigna’s book Searchable Talk. The book contains 10 chapters in addition to a cast of characters and a glossary of hashtags. The book uses the Appraisal Framework (Martin & White 2007) to analyze hashtags about Donald Trump and the various ways that hashtags are a form of social media metadiscourse.


Chapter 1 Introduces the reader to the hashtag, a form of searchable talk which acts as metadata. As Zappavigna argues, this metadata function of the hashtag enables users to place values upon language such that hash-tagging is a form of folk taxonomy. After a discussion on the origins of the hashtag and its prefaced “#”, or pound symbol there is a discussion on research on hashtags in linguistics as well as methods and sampling. Another body of research mentioned here focuses upon hashtags and their role in conversation. For example the hashtag #orangecheeto is used in reference to Donald Trump, where it places a value upon the post in reference to Donald Trump, and is also folk taxonomic political discourse..

The role of the hashtag as a form of semiotic technology is the focus of Chapter 2. Semiotic technologies are technology that is created for the purpose of meaning-making and has meaning-making potential designed into is use through the manipulation of a variety of semiotic modes. Because the hashtag is often identified as a form of metadata, a discussion of the prefix “meta” and the word “metadata” are included here, followed by a definition of the Twitter hashtag and the history of the # symbol. The author then discusses two important affordances of the hashtag: discovery and navigation. The discover affordance is closely related to the hashtag’s role in performing searches of media that have used the tag; this searchability goes beyond specific platforms. The navigation affordance is how hashtags are linked to other posts that have used the tag. One of the primary functions of hashtags is their textual function which in the SFL framework relates to the hashtag’s presence in a communicative event. To that end Zappavigna notes that hashtags work at the level of metadiscourse in that at the level of search, the # symbol relates to other discourse about a topic that use the tag as metadata. The chapter also discusses how hashtags are a form of metadiscourse and importantly how the term is used differently here. With hashtags we are not just talking about discourse about discourse, or the range of discourse resources available during interaction; here hashtags work at the level of second order meanings, in part because of how they use the # linked to other tags as well as their presence with other hashtags. As an example if one uses the hashtag #AmericanDisaster the second order meanings concern the fact that discourse and metadiscourse that the user has entered may include different meanings than what the user has intended. When you do a search of hashtags you get all of the uses of it in a given timescale; as such you are observing metadiscourse of meanings which may not be related. This offers an interesting perspective on hashtags as a form of metadiscourse that has a lot of potential for research, discussion and analysis within discourse and social media. The chapter concludes with a discussion of ambient attention.

Chapter 3 draws the reader’s attention to Halliday’s concepts of linguistic metafunction and we learn that hashtags operate within both the interpersonal and ideational functions. Zappavigna argues that previous work on hashtags linguistically has tended to focus upon their categorizing function as participants, processes and circumstances. This categorization function has also been noted in relation to images. The analysis engages the notion of evaluation through the interpersonal metafunction. Interestingly hashtags have a social life outside of the internet. While certainly not a ubiquitous presence, graffiti, stickers, and advertisements beg of us to pick up our phones and discover the meaning of such tags. This interpersonal function of hashtags offline illustrates the complexity of this semiotic technology. Its possible to talk about hashtags during social interaction as spoken hashtags.

In Chapter 4 #whinylittlebitch: evaluative metacommentary, Zappavigna introduces the Appraisal Framework as a way to analyze the evaluative use of hashtags. The Appraisal Framework offers us three ways in which discourse appraises: affect, judgement and appreciation. Appraisal distinguishes between three systems of implied evaluation: provoke, flag and afford. A good example of this type of evaluation can be found in the use of sarcasm. “A hashtag may also disrupt the attitude presented, typically to invoke humor or sarcasm” (page 68). The chapter concludes with discussion of evaluative metacommentary.

Chapter 5 relates Bahktin’s concept of voice with intersubjectivity in hashtag use. Hashtags by their nature are polyvocal, a hashtag or hashtags applied to a post index a myriad of voices who are in some way related to it, which the author relates to the notion of context collapse to the degree the relations between a use of a hashtag may not be discernable from just one usage. As such when one uses a hashtag one may not know if the hashtag will be used in a similar manner in the future or has been so used in the past. The author then discusses how one might construct a system network of quoted voice and the various network relations that can be discerned (see page 80, Figure 5.2). A hashtag use is then “anchored” to the degree that a particular app or service makes certain communicative resources available to its users. This leads to a discussion of functions of different forms of reported speech and then a discussion of intersubjectivity. Projection is the resource that is most often initiated in intersubjectivity and includes three dimensions: level, mode and speech function. Hashtags are embedded with intersubjective experience to the degree that they include multiple individual perspectives or stances. These perspectives are shared between the user(s) and the social media network to which they are a part.

Chapter 6 focuses upon the notion of coupling which involves the construction of meaning across a range of semiotic devices. Coupling is a relationship of meaning that includes “with” where a variable a comes with variable b (page 105). Coupling works along a cline of instantiation where instantiation refers to all of the possible meanings that can be activated in a text. Drawing on work on logocentric relations, three types of time-based relationships are discussed: sequencing (relation to other features in a text), coupling (the implementation of a with relationship), and non-linear coupling (where couplings are clustered and reconfigured). The #MAGA (make America great again) hashtag is analyzed in terms of its coupling features, and yin-yang diagrams are used to represent different coupling arrangements. For example, a feature of #MAGA is that it is considered a bonding icon which unites people who have a particular political identity. Recoupling is introduced to draw attention to how hashtags can be transformed within texts for example the #realnews and #fakenews hashtags are shown to have such reconfigured meanings. For example, Twitter users responding to @realDonaldTrump emphasizing what is #realnews and that @realDonaldTrump refers to #fakenews. These responses recouple how @realDonaldTrump used the hashtags #realnews and #fakenews. Hashtags as forms of discourse are shown to be surrounded by coupling practices and such couplings are shared as well as rejected.

Chapter 7 focuses upon ambient affiliation which refers to the alignments that social media users share even though they have not interacted directly on-line. Noting how many studies of hashtags have tended to focus on community in terms of an ideational core, the author argues that the social semiotic approach taken here, “offers a way of understanding affiliation in terms of the values that are at stake rather than simply the field of experience” (p. 122). Ideation-attitude couplings warrant some sort of response: couplings are just couplings; the users of social media do things with them. Such hashtag couplings can be rejected or supported at the most simplistic level, but can also be finessed, promoted or convoked at a more refined level. Dialogic affiliation refers to how affiliation emerges during dialogue, i.e. conversation or actual social interaction, whereby communing, laughing or condemning are the affiliation strategies employed. These strategies are shown to be relevant in terms of hashtags. One of the more interesting sections in this chapter has to do with convoking couplings in hashtags that bring together whole communities. Hashtags such as #maga and #trumptrain are analyzed to show the power of how couplings can raise community support. The latter part of the chapter examines how hashtag couplings can be used in three processes: convoking (mustering community support around a hashtag, #TrumpTrain), finessing (positioning a coupling in relation to other potential couplings #NotMyPresident), and promoting (emphasizing a coupling #EVIL).

Censure and ridicule of the quoted voice in hashtags are the focus of Chapter 8 which also specifically focuses upon the hashtag #AlternativeFacts which emerged after Kelly Conway’s now famous phrase “our secretary gave alternative facts to that.” The author then discusses the need for added censure and ridicule to the Appraisal Framework’s affiliation network. Censure involves critiquing a position whereas ridicule includes a sense of mockery of the critique. Censure involves an inverted coupling where the attitude is reversed or reframed and is more direct and explicit in its textual framing than ridicule. Also there can be double inversion where the hashtag is inverted in manner that creates a play frame in order to create humor. Bonding by censure and bonding by ridicule are two topics that close out the chapter.

Chapter 9 analyzes intermodal coupling as well as hashtag memes. The chapter begins with a review of recent literature on image tagging analyses which have focused upon certain or specific hashtags that can act as a metacomment as well as an apparent ironic marker. The chapter then goes on to discuss intermodal coupling between images and text concerning a number of hashtags relating to Trump including: #tinytrump, #iforonewelcome, #tinyhands to name a few. Zappavigna also discusses internet memes, or folk classifications of on-line texts or images that enable users on-line to share, mimic, modify and perform social actions using these memes. I was interested to learn that the term meme was coined in Dawkins’ book the Selfish Gene to refer to how cultural units operate in a similar manner to genes. Memes then for Dawkins move across human populations through mimicry. However, Zappavigna is quick to point out that when introduce social semiotics into the mix and the process of semiosis, it is difficult to reduce something as semiotically complex as a meme to just mimicry. Hashtag memes then are memes which are broadly connected to hashtags. The discussion here also examines phrasal memes and image macros, both of which have degrees of intermodal coupling. Intermodal coupling is a concept that has been used to explore how different semiotic modes are used to design multimodal texts. Hashtags applied to images also afford interpersonal functions and meanings. Such intermodal couplings also have an ideational function in that they create a shared meaning space between seemingly logical relations. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the intermodal couplings that emerge in the #tinytrump meme.

Chapter 10 is a short summary of the findings of the text focusing how hashtags are a form of searchable talk and how the Appraisal Framework can be used to analyze the interpersonal and ideational functions of their use.


The audience for this book are graduate students and professional linguists who are grounded in systemic functional linguistics (SFL) with an interest in how SFL and the Appraisal Framework can be used to analyze social media. This work fits in nicely with recent studies of language on-line, digital literacy, language use in social media, and digital discourse. The book presents an excellent case for using the Appraisal Framework to analyze interaction in social media; however there are a few issues that should be mentioned. As someone who is not familiar with the Appraisal Framework, I found the analysis to be very jargon filled at times, and wished that the author would have provided a glossary not just of hashtags used in the text, but also of Appraisal Framework terminology. The analysis of intermodal coupling with images could have used more analysis of the images themselves; the focus of the majority of the analysis of hashtags focused upon text, and I would have liked to have seen a stronger analysis of image text relations. Despite these criticisms I see a lot of potential for future research analyzing hashtags used on and off line, in fact reading this book has led me to conduct some of my own research on hashtags. Zappavigna’s discussion of hashtags as a form of meta-discourse that goes beyond known meanings of metadiscourse, I found particularly inspiring.


Dawkins, R. (2016). The Selfish Gene: 40th Anniversary Edition (4 edition). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Martin, J., & White, P. R. R. (2007). The Language of Evaluation: Appraisal in English. New York: Springer.
Andrew Jocuns holds a PhD in sociolinguistics from Georgetown University and presently holds a lecturer position in the Linguistics program at Thammasat University in Thailand. His research interests include: Indonesia, multimodal discourse analysis, music and discourse, Thai English, World Englishes, and Tourism Discourse in Thailand.

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