Crispin Thurlow Discusses Digital Communication

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    • 00:04

      CRISPIN THURLOW: Yeah.So digital communication, massive topic,impossible thing to define in some ways.So the question, what is digital communication,makes me shudder a little bit.I think for me, what makes it complicatedis that increasingly the boundary between the digitaland the communicative is a spurious division.

    • 00:24

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: It's hard sometimes to know where the digital beginsand ends these days, in particular.And I think it's often just a convenient label for usto sort of gather together a number of peopleand other interdisciplinary perspectivesaround thinking about the interfacebetween human interaction, human communication,and technologies, broadly defined.

    • 00:44

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: For me, in particular, I position myselfas someone interested in digital discourse.And in particular, I'm interested in languageand the way that our uses and deployments of languagethrough and in the context of new technologies, new media,the way that language is changing,the way that we use language to accomplish some of the thingsthat we want to do.

    • 01:04

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And so digital discourses, as a lot of peoplecall it, computer-mediated discourseor computer-mediated communication, for me,is very much where I'm interested in locatingmy own work.So that at least narrows the field a little bitinto something more manageable.I think also, for me, I'm equally interested,when I think about what I call digital discourse,I'm interested in not just what people are doing,in terms of communication with technologies and by meansof technologies.

    • 01:32

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: I'm equally interested in the waythat we, as societies, talk about language changeor new media and new communication technologiesand what people think is happening, what peopleare frightened of, what people are concerned about.And so digital discourse allows meto think about the practices of languagein new technologies, new communication technologies,but also the ways that we make sense and meaning of someof these changes as well.

    • 01:58

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: So computer-mediated communicationis one of those funny slight anachronisms.Everything's moved on so much from the early '90s, mid 1990s,when very much what we were interested inwas thinking about how people were communicatingby means of computers.I think we can still keep using this term.I think it has some sort of purchasefor us because it's, again, a label of convenience,like digital communication, that allows us just to--I mean most labels, most fields are justconvenient codes for sort of gathering around a,more or less, focused set of ideas.

    • 02:31

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And I think computer-mediated communication, for most of us,even though we know we're not just talking aboutthe internet,--We're not just talking about computers.We're talking about mobile telephony.We're talking about social media.--it's a way for us to keep using wordsand label that sort of have currencyand connect us to scholars, who'vebeen working in these areas for 20 years.

    • 02:52

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: But I think we know, more often than not,when we talk about computer-mediatedcommunication, what we are talking aboutis much broader and much more diverse and all-encompassingthan perhaps it once was.I think what's important to think about now--I was thinking about this the other day.--that computer-mediated communicationused to be much more easily pinpointedin a specific technology or in a specific place in people'slives.

    • 03:17

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And I think that's what's expanded beyond recognition.And nowadays, this is why I thinkit's hard to distinguish between where the digital beginsand ends because our lives are saturatedby the technologically-mediated.And much of what we might have before thought aboutas being distinct from the technologically-mediated,it's all blurred.

    • 03:41

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: What really got me interested 15, 20 years agowas that my early research was interestedin adolescent communication.In the mid 1990s, in Britain in particular,there was a rising public debate around young peopleand their terrible or nonexistent communicationskills.And this was a concern for educators,for policymakers, government.

    • 04:04

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And business was all over this, constantlytrying to whip up a frenzy around the needto improve young people's communication skills.And you can imagine that a core part of that, at the same time,was the rising use of technologies,like text messaging.And then, caught up in these big public debatesaround young people's communication practices,was a blame game around technology,in particular, and saying this iswhy they're destroying the English language.

    • 04:32

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: This is why kids don't even know how to speak properly anymore.They don't know how to spell.They don't know how to use grammar.And I think, for me, this became caught up in part of my concernaround trying to understand what was trueand what was not true about some of this public anxietyand public discourse about young people, new technology,and language.

    • 04:52

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: You have a kind of triple whammy therewith people are always concerned about young people.People are always concerned about new technologies.And people are always concerned about language.Language is always changing.People are anxious about trying to protecttheir ways of speaking.So around this time, you end up withthis extraordinary triple whammy,moral panic about language, young people,and new technologies.

    • 05:15

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And so my early interest was very much justtrying to look at what was actually happening in somethinglike text messaging or emailing and trying to show that perhapsit wasn't quite as simple as everybody thought it was,perhaps not as bad as everybody thought it was,but that at least we should actually look at whatyoung people are actually doing.And from there, it just grew into a broader interestin computer-mediated communicationgenerally, and then a much more sustained interestover these last 15 years in thinking about languageand what is actually changing.

    • 05:44

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: What is changing because of technology?And a lot of the time it's about saying, you know,it's changing, but not in the ways that you think it'schanging.And things that you think are neware perhaps not as new as you perhaps think they are.One of the things I've been interested in doingin my own work is tracking media ties, news discoursearound new technologies, around the waythat young people use language.

    • 06:09

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And one thing that I think is always very striking to me,and that is consistently a problem,is that young people don't get a sayin any of this for the most part.It's very seldom that you come across a newsreport about some aspect to do with young peopleand their uses of technology that actually inviteyoung people to articulate and to talk about whatit is that they're actually doing.And I think that young people, at least the older young peopleI talk to in my classes, are oftenquite mystified and appalled at the waysthat they seem to be get represented.

    • 06:39

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: So I think what you find often is news reports thatare very invested in telling a kind of dramatic story about,this is what's happening to language.And it's kind of often a very revolutionary discoursearound dramatic change.Whereas, in fact, what often you need to be able to dois situate these changes in the constant evolution of languageand sort of start to put things into perspective that wayand say, look, it's always been changing.

    • 07:03

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: Yes, this may be happening quite quicklyor this is in ways that we're not familiar with.But this is the nature of language.So that's part of the kind of criticism or critiquethat I want to level.The other thing that I think is consistentlythe case in popular discussions about technologyis that we've allowed ourselves to be quite convinced that thisis a distinctively youth phenomenon, when, in fact, weknow that it's not.

    • 07:26

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: We know that technology now is somethingthat we're, all of us, using.But the news media, television, newspapers, you read this,and you wouldn't actually know thatvery often because it's consistently representedas some sort of freakish, shocking thingthat young people do.So one of the particular examples that I can think ofis the constant fetishizing of LOL and abbreviations,acronyms, contractions, letter-number homophones,which have an ancient history in the rebusand all sorts of other longstanding traditionsof language play.

    • 08:01

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: We've always, as societies, played with language.And a lot of the things that are held upin popular discussion as quintessential examplesof the terrible things that people are doing noware not particularly new.They may be concentrated.They may be just something we think aboutbecause we read about it all the time.But it often is not what is actuallyhappening in new technologies.

    • 08:25

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: Most striking about working in digital communicationand in sort of exploring language and new mediahas been how much of the work of young, junior scholarshas actually been incredibly influential.And I think partly because it's such a rapidly changing,quickly evolving field, academia sometimesstruggles to keep up with this and to stay abreastbecause our own processes are quite slow.

    • 08:47

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: It takes time to fund a project, to get a project going.It takes even longer to get anything into print and outthere in the world.And so in many ways, it's junior scholars, not necessarilyyounger, but just newer scholars,partly because it's their life experiencethat they want to sort of engage with, partly because they justhave an energy and an attention to what's happening around themvery quickly, who've been playing an important rolein driving this field.

    • 09:13

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: So this is an interesting area of work I think.With no disrespect to some of the older established scholars,who have made huge contributions,I think what's been interesting is how I'm constantly turningto the work of doctoral students.In fact, my own work, early on, wasshaped quite importantly by one of my undergraduate studentsgetting involved with a project that she was interested inand that we managed to collaborate on.

    • 09:36

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And I find myself increasingly and consistentlyworking with my own students because, as my hair gets grayerand thinner, I'm having to turn to others who actually havetheir fingers on the pulse in more interesting ways.So I think that's one reason why new mediaresearch and digital communicationopens up and includes a far more diverse range of scholars.

    • 10:02

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: I think if I have to sort of pointto key thinkers and key scholars,I'm more inclined to want to think about domainsof work that have been very important to me,so scholars working in sociolinguistics, for example,in applied linguistics, in linguistic anthropology.And particularly for some of the work that Ido around broader public discourses about new media,I'm very indebted often to the work of critical discourseanalysts, who are interested in questions of inclusionand exclusion, access and nonaccess, visibilityand invisibility, for example.

    • 10:39

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: So I think I feel safer talking about those fields thathave been very influential to me and my workas a digital discourse analyst.I think, by the same token, what'sbeen interesting, new media research challenges not justthese relationships of power and authority in academia.I think it has really shifted the wayswe do our publishing and our writing.

    • 11:01

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: I mean, in order just to be able to keep up,we've had to find quicker ways to get material and ideas out.And I also think that it means that the field is drivenin many ways by edited volumes, not sort of just huge tomeacademic books, partly because just that's not fast enough.You need to be able to get ideas out.

    • 11:22

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: You need to be able to put these interdisciplinary conversationstogether quite quickly to be able to stay current.So I think that's also been an interesting thing to observe.So if I'm thinking about what's changed,and I'm thinking specifically in the--Broadly around digital communication,computer-mediated communication--but specifically in terms of digital discourseand the study of language and other sort of communicationresources, I think what's been really interesting is partlywatching academics try to keep up with all of thisbecause it's quick.

    • 11:52

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And I think it's shifted academic practicein some nice ways.I do think one of the biggest developmentshas been an increasing attention to the context of use,trying to shift our temptation to fetishize the technologiesand to make our studies all about the technology, whichI think is what makes it quite challenging.

    • 12:14

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: If you had to keep rewriting fields every timea new technology came in, you'd never go anywhere.But I think what people have beentrying to do is to think more carefully about technologiesas being embedded and situated in people's livesand to think about the simple factthat technologies are not all the sameand the technologies are not all being used in the same wayby all the people, and that what we need to be thinkinga bit more carefully about is the waythat particular technologies or particular practicesaround technologies are being used in very specific waysby specific communities of people,whether it's young people, minoritized, marginalizedcommunities, diasporic communities.

    • 12:55

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: I mean, all of these things are much more particularand much harder to be sweeping and generalized about.And I think the field, broadly speaking,has done a much better job trying to attend to that,to stop being obsessed with the technology,stop having to sort of reinvent the wheel every timea new technology emerges, and actually try to sort of keepa better track of the way the technologies emerge outof other technologies, and how they emergein very particular ways in particular contexts,in specific communities, for example.

    • 13:33

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: I think another thing that, for me,is very important as a shift--And it's not like we have this all sorted out at the moment.--but I do think that scholars in new media studiesare doing a better job and tryingto do a better job of making our research much more globallyrelevant.And I think this is really, really important.

    • 13:53

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: For a long, long time, and still, research on new mediais very Euro-American-centric and very drivenby the English language.And for me, as a new media scholar interested in language,this has been really quite a challengeto make sure that we're constantly being reminded ofand reminding people that it's not just an English languagephenomenon, that there are many languages coming togetherin the internet and that we have so much moreto learn from people, in terms of where these technologies arebeing taken up around the world.

    • 14:26

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: So one of the things that I think is really importantis that we have been gradually doing a better job, slowlybut gradually doing a much better job of making surethat when we write about what's happening with new technologiesthat we're writing about it from a muchbroader, international, global perspective.There are still huge amounts that we don't know,huge amounts of work that we could be doing around Africaand parts of the world where technologyis having vast transformative impact.

    • 14:56

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And yet, when you come to a conference,you very seldom hear it from scholarship.And it has a lot to do, I think, with the political economyof academia.It's where the privileged voices are often English speakingvoices, certainly, voices from Europe and North America.And I think we are trying to do a better job of making surethat other voices are heard.

    • 15:18

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And when I say, making sure other voices are heard,I think it's important that we're not just thinkingof the Arab Spring and the kind of frenzy and slightlyself-referential frenzy that was made around the Arab Springand the use of technology there because I think that was muchmore about us telling our own story about how fantastictechnology is, and look what we've done to bring--Look what we've brought to the world,as we've brought them tweeting.

    • 15:39

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And I think that's not perhaps the most useful wayof including stories about new technologies,new medias in people's lives.So I think we have a long way to go.But I think that is something that Ithink is a development in the field.When I'm thinking about new mediaresearch and digital communicationand digital discourse, in particular,one of the games I like to play with myselfis distinguishing between real research and wheel research.

    • 16:05

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: I think one of my challenges has beenthat there's so much reinventing of the wheel a lot of the time.And this has been very much, I think,a product of our fetishizing of specific technologiesover the cultural context of their uses.So I think, for example, what we'vebegun to do is recognize that every time a new technologycomes along we don't have to go back to basics.We don't have to be thinking about redefiningthe entire field of discourse analysisor just doing the same thing that we've always been doing,but somehow we now have to write thisall again because it's Twitter or it's Facebook or email.

    • 16:38

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: What I think is really nice though,about this shift toward and attentiontoward cultural context and particular uses of technologyis that it's obliged us to look at communities that we may nothave looked at before because we can't make sweeping assumptionsabout, this is the meaning of this technology,these are the uses of the technologiesfor all people across all spaces.

    • 16:59

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: So what I find quite exciting is the factthat with this growing attention to moresituated, ethnographic and embedded accountsof new technology mean that we are graduallystarting to hear stories of where the technologies that wethought we knew, in America, in Britain, or in other placesin Europe are actually very, very differentand being taken up.

    • 17:22

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And technologies are being taken upin ways that are, in some ways, much more simple,but have far reaching and radical impacts.And I think of work that I've seen of people working outin small communities outside of Cape Town,where these are cellphone technology, mobile telephonypractices that are far removed from the smartphonetechnologies that we're used to and that we sort of takefor granted.

    • 17:45

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And we write about as if this is a sortof a universal truth for everyone.Small communities, outside of Cape Town,where all they have is very simple flip cellphones, wherethe texting is very, very basic, and it'svery much a kind of way of communicating short messagingservicing that is one that we thinkis now sort of a thing of the past.

    • 18:06

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: But these are still very, very current.People are using these because the text messaging serviceis incredibly affordable comparedwith actually making a call.And so we're being returned to someof the ways of thinking about the kinds of impactsthese technologies have on people's lives waybeyond the very privileged, affluent spacesof our own universe.

    • 18:26

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And I find this really inspiring and invigorating.And I think this is also happening outsideof those very high profile, spectacular spaces, wherewe like to talk about things, like the ArabSpring with the excitement around the Twitter revolutionand the Facebook revolution, which are grosslyoverblown anyway and fairly self-referential,but actually stepping beyond thatand listening to stories where technologies are hugelytransformative of people's lives in much more mundane,simple ways.

    • 18:57

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: So if I have to think about new directions in the fieldwhen it comes to digital discourse,I think I probably could identify four areas of work,areas of activity that are, for me, where the work isat the moment, where the research is happeningin interesting places.And for me, these come under four broad titles.Metalanguage is, for me and for scholars in sociolinguisticsin particular, about exploring languageabout language and the ways that wetalk about language change in society.

    • 19:28

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: You could also think about this as being labeledlanguage ideology, where we talk, as a society,about the changes that are happening.And I think this continues to be a really important areaof work, where we want to be addressing not just what'sactually happening with language,but we want to keep track of the social meaningsof these practices and the way that we, as societies, talkabout these changes.

    • 19:49

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: So that's one area that I think is quite important.Another area that I borrow a term, metrolingualism,to think about the sort of contemporary waysthat people are using language and languages and dialectsand other ways of speaking in very hybrid, code-switched,mixed, mashed-up ways in new technology spaces.

    • 20:10

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And this is very interesting to a number of scholarsin digital discourse, particularly in contextwhere we're talking about multilingual technologyusers, where people are switchinginto and out of their own languages,borrowing snippets of other languages.And for me, this is a really interesting area of work.It's not where I work.But I think it's one that's really essential at the moment.

    • 20:32

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: Another area of work that I think is quite importantis tracking multimodality.And I think for us, as language scholars,we've been increasingly recognizing that we cannotpossibly, even in an otherwise very text-based,still quite text-based domain of communicative life,which is digital technologies and digital media,we cannot simply be analyzing language in and of itselfand in exclusion of all of the other ways of communicating.

    • 20:59

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And I think, increasingly, as our technologies change,we have to engage the full multicommunication, multimodalnature of these, so that we want to be able to think about,how is language interacting with video, with visual images?How is typography doing so much of the communicative work?And it's what we might describe as the difference between usinglanguage and designing language.

    • 21:20

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And the look of language is oftenas important as what the words areand what we're actually trying to say.So for me, the fourth and one importantarea of research in digital discourse studies,people who are interested in language, but also languageand communication broadly, is whatI would call the technologization of languageand communication, where we find language and communicationbeing used not simply as ways of communicating per say,but as resources for organizing people, for managing people,for trying to control people in ways that persuade them to buythings or to vote in particular ways,and to do what corporations, politicians, and others wouldwant us to do.

    • 22:03

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And one of the most common examplesof this in digital discourse studieshas been around call centers, for example, looking at the waythat language is commodified as a resource for marketingand selling stuff.Not so much, even though it looks like it's conversation,it's actually not what we would recognizeas everyday conversation.And by the same token, I'm interested in the waysthat new media and digital spaces,like Wikipedia and Facebook, are constantlyseeking to have themselves translated and persuading usthat this is done as part of a reaching outto the many peoples of the world, bringing people accessto knowledge, connecting people into huge global networks,when, in fact, what it's doing a lot of the timeis using translation as a resource for making money,for making profit.

    • 22:48

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And it's not so much about connecting the global village,as it is actually about extendingthe global reach of these vast corporations, perhaps not somuch Wikipedia, but Facebook, in particular,which is a profit-driven model.As a professor of communication and language,one of my favorite moments at the beginning of any course,particularly introductory courses to media communicationgenerally, is to be able to put my hand on my heartand say to students that I think that they are probably studyingthe most important subject that anybody could be studyingat the beginning of the 21st century.

    • 23:21

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: Now we move solidly into the 21st century.And I think there are some really key economic reasons whythis is the case.We live in a world that is fully semioticized, where languageand communication are no longer just ways of expressingand relating with each other, where, in fact, theseare the ways that many of us actually earn our living.As our economies shift from manufacture-based economiesto service-based economy, the students that I teachare going out into the world where they will actuallysurvive and their living because they can communicate,because they understand how communication works.

    • 23:54

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And that's why I like to teach communicationbecause I can genuinely look them in the eyeand say, this is an incredibly important,if only for economic instrumental purposes,this is an incredibly important subject.OK.So nobody gets to use the phrase new mediawithout either literally doing a scare quotes around mediaand new, in fact, or doing some kind of major accounting of howyou mean new.

    • 24:21

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: I think one of the challenges is everything's new.I mean, constantly it's changing.And we know that new media isn't often very new.And especially when I'm in the classroom,working with students, who are constantly telling meabout even newer things than the ones I thought were new.I think this is one of the challenges, but actually,for me, one of the intellectual and academic challenges.And one of the things that we need to be constantly keepingan eye on is that we are able to askourselves, what is really new?

    • 24:48

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: What actually has emerged from practicesthat have longstanding traditions, in termsof communication practices and language practices?But what is new that also is about the technology?And what actually is new that is happening becauseof other phenomena, other variables that are notnecessarily to do with the technology at all?And I think this is one of the issueswith digital technologies and new media studiesis that we're constantly just assumingthat because it's connected to a specific, the latesttechnology, it has to all be new.

    • 25:18

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: When, in fact, of course, that's not the case.And I think that's one of the thingsthat I'm constantly asking my students to interrogateis any claim to newness.What is that about?And are we absolutely certain that what we're sayingis new really is new?So I think when we're thinking about what's new,we always need to be thinking about not just the technology,again, because that's actually notwhere the newness necessarily emerges.

    • 25:41

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: What we need to also be constantly doingis thinking about communication and social interaction, whichis really what people are doing when they're using technologiesmost of the time.It's actually not about the technology.As adults, I think we often like to tell a story that it'sall about the technology, just as we liketo tell a story about revolutionsin the Middle East being all about Twitter.

    • 26:01

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: I think actually what's happeningis much broader and deeply connected to our basic humanimpulse to want to communicate, to want to engage,to want to change systems.And the technology is often just one small part of that.And I think that's one of the waysthat we can try to sort of navigate the tricky claimsto newness a lot of the time is actually just makingsure that we constantly stay attuned to the reallyold stuff, the old communicative urges and impulsesand practices that we've known since the evolutionof humankind.

    • 26:34

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: So it's quite clear to me, when wethink about claims to global communicationand particularly around digital technologies,I think digital technologies get folded upinto some pretty excitable and exciting narrativesaround the democratizing potential, the liberatingpotential of these technologies.And one of the things that we hear all the timeis how technologies are bringing about the global village,connecting us all.

    • 26:59

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: And I think these kinds of crazy claims,as wonderful as they are, as romantically appealingas they are, often just overlook the simple fact that noteveryone is in the global village in the same way,not everyone has access to technologies in the same way.And so I think when we think about global perspectives,it is sometimes just about steppingbeyond the very parochial, highly privileged spacesof Europe and North America and other rich countries, whoare very much invested in telling storiesabout the successes of technologybecause we invented these technologiesbecause our economic well-being dependson the success of these technologies.

    • 27:38

      CRISPIN THURLOW [continued]: So there's a very invested, self-referential narrativethat emerges around technologies.And so I think if we really are to have a global mediastudies and a scholarship that engages the global,it's going to have to completely override some of that impulseto tell our own stories and to be reaching out and tellingstories about the ways people really are connectedthrough technologies in very different ways,in very different places, and not in waysthat are familiar to us at all.

Crispin Thurlow Discusses Digital Communication

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Abstract

In this interview with Crispin Thurlow, learn about digital communication. Explore the ways that text messaging, emails, and other forms of communication is changing language and how quickly the digital world is developing. Discover where new media research and developments are heading and the importance of global media studies. Digital communication is more then just the English language, but international.

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Crispin Thurlow Discusses Digital Communication

In this interview with Crispin Thurlow, learn about digital communication. Explore the ways that text messaging, emails, and other forms of communication is changing language and how quickly the digital world is developing. Discover where new media research and developments are heading and the importance of global media studies. Digital communication is more then just the English language, but international.

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