I know I’ve been posting a lot lately about the Internet and digital literacy, but this time, it’s based off on one of the more recent Idea Channel videos:
To summarize, many online “speech communities” from specific groups and interfaces have their own linguistic patterns, expressions, and focuses. In the language of the video, they have “dialects,” just as different geographic regions have different wording, slang, and linguistic personalities.
For example, as the video shows, the /b/ forum on 4Chan feels and sounds coarse, chaotic, and (to some) unfriendly. Or Tumblr tends to use many .gifs based off of the .gif-friendly interface.
As I think of these topics, I often turn to the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and his conception of the “public sphere.” While the details often differ depending on the theorist or the argument, the public sphere is essentially a space where people from different backgrounds can meet and discuss topics in a united context. Imagine a park, bringing together a web of people, or a coffee shop, open constantly to the public.
For Habermas, one of the key principles of the public sphere is its “universal access.” Here, many others attack him, as access to the public sphere often requires certain things, like a reliance on shared symbols and rules, a level of education, and material access. Many also critique his assertion that this public sphere must be rational, a carryover from the historic genealogy that Habermas uses. Action- and meaning-defining discourse may be happening, they arguem even if it is not “rational.”
Thus, while the Internet may seem like a “public sphere” of sorts, it clearly isn’t because it lacks this universal access. You need a connection, something many people do not have, and the Internet lacks the order and unity that a public sphere seems to imply. Its borders and spaces have no geographic limitations. Some exist beyond the realm of legislation. Professional or educational websites coexist with amateur, joking, obscene, pornographic, criminal, and chaotic spaces. Many different languages and symbols collide, and many users don’t “discourse,” but troll or produce random content, like “YouTube poop.”
My vocabulary is deliberately spacial and organic here. Like our living spaces, the Internet is a lived-in space, changed by those who live in it. Or, to go back to language, the Internet is always in a constant dialogue with itself, as the theorist Mikhail Bakhtin might have seen it. It builds meanings, connotations, and references constantly through the shared use of its symbols and spaces. Memes change. Expressions change. Words emerge, like “smol” or “lol.” The Internet and digital technology, in Bakhtin’s language, is the new novel, alive and changing.
To show what I mean, let me analyze a “space.” Here, the Mashable homepage. Mashable is a fairly typical multimedia news and entertainment site. We see that newsy characteristic the moment we enter and read some headlines, a link of sorts to newspapers. As I look at it now, the headlines are mainly about the Ferguson unrest. For example, “Last Night in Ferguson.” But for the most part, the alphabetic headlines are minimized and the pictures are the true “headlines”: big, glossy, provocative, and everywhere. Take this one from the above headline:
We know this differs from a deep, wordy argument. Instead, we want fast, eye-catching images, but they must still be meaningful and powerful–no gifs or cartoons here. They are professional and serious. Vivid and high resolution.
We also see some categories up top: “The New Stuff,” “The Next Big Thing,” and “What’s Hot.” They are present-focused, begging for relevance, insisting on their value through their immediacy and popularity.
Scattered within this tapestry of text and word, one sees advertisements: flashy images with moving words and small video-like pleas for attention that often draw from the cookies of our past browsing. With these ads, we can tell this is a commercial space, like walking into a store. We are not in nature or a public museum. And my Mashable differs from your Mashable, unless you like tea.
Then, the kinetics of the space itself. You scroll down in a fluid motion, allowing the tapestry to wash together, unlike a book where you must turn a page. This further connects everything and lacks a mechanical pause, speeding consumption.
Next the colors: neutral white background, black font, blue borders, and a few bright accents. The blue and white feels familiar, recalling Facebook and Twitter. It is something we recognize, a social media aesthetic that contrasts with other places, like 4Chan or Tumblr. Black font on white backgrounds remains one of the easiest to read combinations, again speeding consumption, and the simplicity only highlights the pictures more.
Then, the social elements. Line graphs represent traffic in real time, again insisting on popularity and relevance. And the site further enmeshes itself in the social sphere of the Internet with icons to connect with other social media, like Twitter, to share content, tallying these shares before the content quickly changes. In the words of Henry Jenkins et al in Spreadable Media, this is a “spreadable” site, encouraging users to share articles, advertising and distributing. In a sense, the pictures are part of this work too, catching the eyes of a user from their Facebook feed or Twitter.
To me, these rhetorical moves reflect a language of sorts that we read as we enter a site. It also reflects a purpose and an ethos, one built on popularity and sharability, of fast consumption and virality, of eye-catching and meme-spreading hyperlinks. For example, the /b/ forum of 4Chan is not nearly so welcoming or professional, and has ample obscene and chaotic content uploaded by users, contrasting it with Mashable’s friendly, professional look.
As I come back to again and again at the conclusions of these sorts of posts, I think these skills matter and that these subjects warrant attention. In particular, I’m curious to know how they will grow and change. Will we see more policing and trafficking? Different architecture of the interfaces? New symbols? Maybe nothing will happen and my preoccupation is unfounded. But I still find it fascinating. And perhaps more pointedly, what are these spaces doing to us as users, people, students, workers and citizens?