Towards a ‘third wave’ of digital discourse studies: audience practices on Twitter
Research on computer-mediated communication can be thought of in terms of ‘waves’, i.e. research approaches defined by distinct sets of questions, assumptions, and methods. In the last 20 years, this research moved from a ‘first wave’, which foregrounded media-related constraints of language use on the internet, to a ‘second wave’, which rejected technologically determined and homogenizing views and focused instead on sociolinguistic variation and diversity (Androutsopoulos 2006). Some ten years later, a ‘third wave’, a new leitmotif for digital language and discourse analysis seems topical. Internet access has now become the default case for most (though not all) people, in Europe and elsewhere. The former perception of ‘the net’ and ‘real life’ as unconnected, even opposed spheres of social action has become obsolete, ‘always on’ (Baron 2008) now being the norm. Social media enable discourse practices that bring together individuals and organisations, communities and social institutions. Producing digital content and participating in digital discourse is accessible to (almost) everyone, while issues of control over digital data are more controversial than ever.
In this lecture I sketch out my current understanding of such ‘third wave’ research. I argue that in a world where digitally-mediated communication has become the backbone of everyday life, we lack understanding of how speakers communicate, how discourses evolve, how signs circulate across media types, user networks, and interconnected sites of practice. The research focus therefore shifts to language practices in a trans-media, trans-contextual perspective. Linguistic and media choices are understood as mutually contextualizing, language ideologies are examined in close relation to media ideologies (Gershon 2010). At the level of method, this research will face the task of balancing ‘big’ and ‘small’ data, bringing the close scrutiny of situated language practices into conversation with new opportunities of digital data collection and analysis.
As a case in point, the example of audience practices on Twitter is offered. Twitter enables the hashtag-based formation of ad-hoc publics (Bruns and Burgess 2011) for media events. Based on findings from a case study (Androutsopoulos and Weidenhöffer 2015), the language practices of the Twitter audience to a popular German crime series, Tatort, are examined. Taking into account earlier studies of face-to-face audience talk during media reception, the analysis works out different types of audience tweets depending on their writers’ orientation to the on-going show and their settings of co-present viewing. Evidence for intermedia circulation of audience tweets is also examined. The findings suggest that tweeting extends and complements practices of co-present audience engagement.
Jannis Androutsopoulos is Professor of German and Media Linguistics at the University of Hamburg, Germany. His research interests include media sociolinguistics, digital language practices, multilingualism and language ideologies. His recent publications include Mediatization and sociolinguistic change (editor, 2014) and Digital language practices in superdiversity (co-editor, Special Issue of Discourse Context & Media, 2014).