Sunday, May 10, 2020

Fish, floating signifiers and WhatsApp

Online multimodal communication seems to thrive when it's easy to use and experiment with. It's one of the more attractive features of WhatsApp as a platform. Still and moving images are easy to pull in, links work well, and voice messages provide a useful alternative to typing. And of course it's so handy just to click on to an audio or video call. Compared with old school synchronous chat, exchanges are more coherent. That's because the way in which you can quickly quote solves the problem of chaotic multi-threaded conversations. All in all there's plenty to research in WhatsApp chat and the smooth interplay of media makes it a gift for multimodal analysis. It may be a generational effect that I'm a bit slow on emojis, but I'm learning. Animated gifs on the other hand have tended to leave me totally bemused. Bemused until yesterday when my daughter just slipped one into the chat as naturally as you might raise an eyebrow in talking with a friend. And given that she's been studying this sort of thing I asked some basic questions and from her answers a whole new territory opened out. Searching gifs is a rudimentary affair and most of them could be described as floating signifiers in that they only become meaningful in their immediate context of use or within a particular speech community. Her partner's group of buddies use this fish one regularly in their banter - when someone has taken the bite. And it's therefore quite something looking back over a string of exchanges that effortlessly mix communicative resources - and all in the playful arena of casual everyday meaning making, the laboratory of human communication.