Sunday, December 29, 2013

The discourse of online reviews

Reputation and ranking through comment and consumer review are a ubiquitous feature of new media. Reviewing involves online performances of identity and taste that are highly influential in the consumer-led participatory culture of late modernity. Based on an analysis of a corpus of 1000 such texts, Camilla Vasquez's book 'The Discourse of Online Consumer Reviews', due to be published by Bloomsbury later this year, explores the linguistic features of this new online genre. Using an eclectic range of approaches, the discourse of these (often humorous) reviews is given a detailed treatment. In a compelling exploration of stance-taking Vasquez shows how the quest for the perfect product inflects the comments of these self-appointed reviewers. As she observes in the conclusion to the second chapter 'on our quest to have a "mind-blowing" dining experience, or with our hopes of finding the "perfect" diaper bag - we will continue to consume.' We see how reviewers work hard to position themselves on the expertise continuum, often evoking professional knowledge or the views of others to bolster their credentials - and, of course, all this is indexed in their written comments. Advice, warning and product endorsement all feature here as review-writers gain reader involvement and encourage interaction. Vasquez majors on reviews of specific items such as multi speed blenders, diaper bags and yoga mats, throwing in more general ones such as hotel reviews from TripAdvisor, movie reviews from NetFlix, and recipes from Epicurious for good measure. A highlight, for me, was the mushroom tortellini debate on the recipe site - witty, yet spirited - and this is lovingly analysed for the play of voices in the extended online interaction! Through their evaluations and short narratives these reviewers create a shifting online community of consumer advice, and Vasquez shows how they deploy discursive resources to achieve this. All this makes goes to make this book an essential for anyone who is interested in online discourse.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Political speeches, presentations, ritual invocations, announcements, radio broadcast and so on are closed one-to-many forms of communication in which interaction is constrained through the ways in which the speaker occupies a position of power in relation to the audience. Often enough, although not exclusively, their textual power is achieved through appropriation of the linguistic structures of writing and in fact part of the process of their production may involve the use of scripts, notes, prompts, the inclusion of quotation from written sources, or the memorisation of sacred texts. Casual conversation,with its diversions, its vagueness, hesitation and the prevailing condition of incompleteness is tinctured by provisionality and is in contrast more open, more democratic and more context-dependent. These contrasts, however, are extremes on a continuum and perhaps, because of this, the in-between ground is as interesting as the extremes. We often use the context dependent/independent continuum as a way of differentiating between texts, but really we have to accept that text must always have a context. Perhaps it's more a case of foreground and background. In much of the casual traffic of texts it almost seems as if the text (by which I mean, in this case, the linguistic element) is an elaborating detail that surrounds the action. When we're fixing something perhaps, we are involved in action and that's foregrounded. The linguistic detail attaches to that. In other instances - reading a novel or writing a paper, it seems that we work the other way round. The linguistic content is central and reference moves both within the text as well as to the world, real or imagined, that is outside it. It can be no different with digital text, except that it may be the case that there is more possibility for extra-linguistic material to become part of the situation. Perhaps, by moving away from a text-centric way of looking at things we are simply becoming more interested in action, activity and relationship, and maybe they are the underplayed dimensions of communication.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The text vanishes

I found this year's LRA conference provided a rich fare. Some familiar things were being re-stated, some key work felt yet further developed and some radically new ideas seemed to be emerging. Cathy commented that the text itself received relatively little attention, and it does seem that with a growing interest in mobilties, and embodiment and affect, new constellations of sociotechnical and sociomaterial engagements are coming to the fore. Any signs of the text have now become ghostlike. Especially since now they have become open, provisional and often multi-authored, and in some senses ephemeral. Karen Wohlwend said something like 'I don't really like to talk about texts anymore, it seems that the kids are producing contexts.' I liked this, and although you could see in her work, and in that of many others, things that looked like texts - texts that formed and reformed - they were marginal things, like pencil shavings to the real sharpening of meaning that was occurring. The frozen fixed texts we used to pour over, the multimodal designs we read into them now seem to move backstage, as we watch gesture, movement and the claiming or enacting of meaning making spaces through mobility and countermobility. But what if the researcher's gaze is actually produced as much by data capture tools as it is by new representational practices and related theoretical advances? Does the availability of head-cams, spy-pens and flip cameras simply frame the segments of reality that we study in a different way? Perhaps though, we are learning more about the contexts that we always knew were there. Perhaps we have started to neglect text, or maybe it is slowly erasing itself as a fixed thing, a thing of privileged interest. When early emergent writing was a hot topic, we ran those paper-based artefacts under the photocopier and poured over the products while they were still warm. The contexts we tended to capture back then, if we had the time, the resource, and the inclination were more about talk, the stretches of verbal interaction that we caught on dictaphone tapes and then lovingly transcribed. As different then as new literacies might be, so are the possibilities for data collection. If we remain true to our reflexive project we are duty bound to think about what is newly acknowledged as well as what is omitted, erased or remains hidden, and how this influences the construction of knowledge. Did the play of power and the enactment of inequality, for example, just slip from our gaze or, if we are attentive, are those same forces simply seen in new ways and understood afresh?

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Tenth anniversary

The act of writing has held my interest for a long time. It's partly because of its openness: the fact that possibility exists. There may be an idea that you hadn't quite thought through yet, but somehow it can come out in the process of writing. Writing, it seems, is a tool for thinking. Perhaps that's simply because writing is an imagined conversation with another and the presence of that imagined reader confers upon it a dialogic character. That conversation, it seems, is very attractive - almost to the point of addiction. Despite that, I completely forgot the tenth anniversary of this blog (here's my first post), but what surprises me when I look back is that even then I was preoccupied with trying to make sense of writing. A lot has happened in the intervening time, but that fascination certainly hasn't dimmed. Blogging for me now is about condensing my reflections into something that's about the size of an average paragraph and then finding a still or moving image that can sit alongside it. The post may be more or less complete in its own right, or it may simply be work in progress. But always it's what Rosenblatt describes as a transactional process: '....always an event in time, occurring at a particular moment in the writer's biography, in particular circumstances, and under particular external and internal pressures. In short, the writer is always transacting with a personal, social and cultural environment.' (1989:163). And in posting on the blog, at times it forms the basis of something I'll write more about, extend in some way, but more often than not it's just a sketch, complete in itself. The piece of writing that I started the first blog with actually turned into a book chapter entitled 'Barbie meets Bob the Builder at the Workstation', but many subsequent posts have been of the moment, a passing observation or a whimsical thought. Nevertheless they all form an important expression of writing as exploration, as a transactional process.

Monday, December 02, 2013

The grassy knoll

Visiting Dallas 50 years after the Kennedy assassination could be a significant experience. After all, the shooting was a defining moment in contemporary life, wasn't it? But today looking down on that rather familiar-looking stretch of road, standing on the grassy knoll, gazing up at the box-like structure of the book depository, up to the sixth floor, it all seems rather flat and clean. Sterile, you might say. The memorial fountains are bathed in full sunshine. The sky is a deep blue. It's so neat and clean it's hyper-real. Museum staff are on the streets selling facsimiles of the Dallas newspaper of 22/11/63, but those events have already been swallowed up by history, they are long gone. So, how is it that we can best relate to recent historical events? The most familiar way, I suppose, is to think about what we were doing on that particular day. That helps to pinpoint it, to remember, to tie it to our experience in order to make it more real. In this case I can remember it well. We had been walking in Bradgate Park. It was a cold day, and my father had the gas fire on full when he tuned in the radio for the six o'clock news. That was how he kept up, it was like a religious ritual - listening to the BBC on the wireless (and that's what he called it, the wireless). He was shocked by the headlines, nodding his head saying 'Crikey',or something like that. But my mother's reaction made a much stronger impact on me, because when she came in the room, the rest of the news was playing. Aldous Huxley had died, and that upset her more, and I think she made the mistake of saying so. My father ridiculed her, as he often did. But Huxley was one of her literary heroes, and there was no denying that. Huxley was a towering figure, in more ways than one, and his death was inevitably rather overshadowed by Kennedy's, which is a shame. But they weren't the only newsworthy deaths that day. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia books, which I had read, and loved, also died that day. And in my still impressionable young mind, I understood my mother's viewpoint completely. Narnia was brilliant; Kennedy was just someone on the news. I'd never been to Dallas, but I had been to Narnia. That was a strange day then: Huxley first, then about 10 minutes later Lewis, followed an hour later by Kennedy. Each died in a very different way, each left a distinctive legacy. I'd very much like to return to Narnia in the same way that I first did, slipping between the fur coats into that snowy landscape, but the warm Texas sunshine seems to place it far out of reach. In some ways it's all in the past.

Place hacking

Like many cities that prospered in late Victorian times, the centre of Nottingham still has those imposing multi-storey buildings or chambers that served as the office blocks of that era. In my youth, these were the premises of solicitors, surveyors, small businesses and suppliers, and they were often half hidden behind anonymous-looking doors set in between the shops, banks and department stores of the city centre, accessed through a labyrinth of winding corridors and dim stairwells. They were, in some way at least, the private areas of that urban environment. And in my teen years, when the city seemed like a playground, my friend and I filled many an exciting afternoon exploring these spaces. Sneaking down passageways, tip-toeing up linoleum-covered stairs, opening creaking unlabelled doors, the unexpected and unannounced thrilled us in the very moment, at every turn. We would never wittingly take the same route twice.  Our exploits were halfway between playful investigation and trespass. One moment blundering into a typing pool, a reception desk, the back room of a shop, an office workers' tea station, a stationery cupboard; another stumbling into a jumble of brooms, mops, cans of cleaning fluid and tin buckets.These spaces weren't exactly private, but neither were they public. What's more we had no good reason for being there in the first place. Part of the fun lay in that. We might get caught, or challenged (and sometimes we were - and that, of course, was half the fun), but at the same time we would be rewarded by a different view of the city, some novel connection, some unexpected learning, spilling out onto a different street. But after all where were we in this city in our youth? Too young for pubs, sometimes too noisy, too raucous for the caf├ęs and tea shops, and still unqualified and woefully ill-equipped for the world of work. Nothing bad came of it. And it gave us the taste of freedom, as we worked our way between and outside the lines of what was expected; it filled time that was otherwise unaccounted for, school having become too tedious, too regimented, altogether too much. That youthful diversion now has a name: it's called urban exploration. In fact, it was reading about urban exploration (or place hacking), in Bradley Garrett's  excellent ethnography 'Explore Everything', that brought all this back to me. In a strange sort of way it offered me an intelligent rationale for something that had seemed like a half-forgotten, and somewhat quirky adolescent pursuit. At that time, I am sure that we didn't know quite what we were doing or why we were doing it, we certainly didn't discuss it, we just did it. It was fun. Yet we were 'reclaiming the city', blissfully unaware of Debord, or the situationists, or any guiding theory or politic, for that matter. If it was covered in the underground press of the time, I certainly missed it and so did my friend. And so all this makes me think how we may often do quite reasonable, intelligent things without exactly knowing why - at least at the time. Either that or we have an astonishing capacity to make sense out of the most random of things, thereby dignifying our seemingly unending acts of human foolishness. But once something like this is given a name, explored in a thoughtful way, it seems to articulate the motive - or at least part of the motive that propelled it in the first place. That journey of reading and recalling urban exploring reminded me of how my longstanding interest in visiting and sometimes photographing ignored, dilapidated and abandoned buildings took on new meaning when I read about the ideas of 'ruin porn' and bunkerology, how my regular and random zigzag walks around Sheffield looked and felt different when they were rethought as psychogeography. Now, or so it seems, I know why it interested me in the first place. Did a name, a theory, bestow new meaning upon it? Or was the meaning there, already awaiting its later discovery - in some way immanent? Did the incoherent blind interest simply gain respectability through a post-hoc rationalisation? Or more likely, or at least more attractively to me as an academic, did the act of reflection, in a dialogic relationship with others who have done and thought about similar things, help in bringing into being new experiences, and new perspectives on old experiences? A new way of looking. And does all this - this process of re-thinking, help us in imagining possible future actions, experiences, diversions or misdemeanours? I don't know, but either way one thing is certain, I will continue to explore, in my own way, buoyed up by what I have read, what I have talked about and what I have thought. Perhaps, just perhaps, that constitutes an invitation, too. After all, those old Victorian buildings are still there somewhere, as are both our current and our remembered experiences and actions!