The May Author of the Month is Caroline Tagg, whose Exploring Digital Communication came out earlier this year! Caroline Tagg is lecturer in the Department of English Language and Applied Linguistics, University of Birmingham. Her publications include The Politics of English: Conflict, Competition, Co-existence (edited with Ann Hewings, 2012) and The Discourse of Text Messaging (Continuum, 2012).
In a new interview, the author discussed her reasons for writing Exploring Digital Communication, the future of instruction surrounding digital communication in universities, and more.
Why did you decide to write Exploring Digital Communication?
I wanted to write a book like this for a couple of reasons. In part, I was curious myself to explore the extent to which real concerns can be addressed through academic linguistics research. For example, there is a lot of research on identity online, but I was not sure how much it could be related to general concerns about anonymity, deception, egoism and so on. I think in most cases - as with the case of identity - the research shows us that the situation is always more complex than we tend to assume. So, assuming that we perform identities online, as we do in other contexts, we can see that people sometimes re-enact existing social roles (such as gender), but that they can also challenge these roles and at times foreground aspects of their identities in ways which might not be possible offline. Anonymity is rarely complete, deception not always intended negatively, and egoism is commonly rather an act of trying to belong. The research also shows us that in most cases digital communications are not radically different from other communications; we simply have different resources with which to do things and different kinds of spaces to do them in. So, it's a complex, muddled picture which doesn't always answer questions but I hope gets people thinking about their own experiences.
At the same time, I'm keen to experiment with different ways of presenting research and talking about ideas. The innovative format of this book appealed to me and it seemed to suit the topic matter. By this I mean the way that the book starts with the real world - with problems and practices - and then looks at the research and THEN at the theory. By starting with the real world I was then forced to identify literature that could be used to address the real-world problems and, in turn, the theories that explain or contextualise the relevant empirical studies. In each case, I was seeking to show the relevance of the research to the real world. Not all research is immediately relevant to what we do, and it's important to have 'blue-sky', innovative thinking carried out for the sake of furthering knowledge. At the same time, the point of 'applied linguistics' research is to understand better how people are using language and why, and through that to effect change, however gradual or small-scale that may be.
What’s a common misconception about this topic that you’d like to clear up?
One common misconception related to language, and of particular relevance to a book on digital communications, is that of language decline. Oddly, we tend to see society as getting worse - educational standards are falling, the streets aren't as safe as they used to be, children get less exercise, communities are breaking down, and young people don't speak properly. With all of these issues, we tend to posit a Golden Age, which usually corresponds to our childhoods. Of course, in actual fact (and as we all know) in many ways our societies today are safer and our children better educated than they ever were; things go up and down but there's little evidence to suggest a decline. The same is true of language. People have been bemoaning the state of the English language for centuries. For example, in 1712, writer Jonathan Swift criticised the language used at the time and he placed the Golden Age of English at the start of the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1550s). I think the belief in language decline allows us all too readily to see the latest change - that brought about by digital technology - as detrimental. For the moment, it may be better not to speak of language change in this case, but language diversity - for most people, going online involves learning new genres and new forms of communication, which they still use alongside older forms. This may change, of course! But language change is natural, inevitable and always ongoing. Scary, too, because we don't always feel in control, and I hope this book helps by making some sense of it.
What do you think is the future role of digital communication in linguistic instruction at a university level?
When I teach young students today, I find myself talking about the internet as if it were somewhat newer than it now is. I ask students to compare how they behave online and offline, and even to reflect on changes that have occurred to communication since the pre-internet age. This all implies that digital communications are somehow special and different, and that it makes sense to understand them in relation to other forms of communication - as slower than face-to-face conversations, as a written form of telephone conversation, as shorter and requiring of less effort than letters. What I forget with this approach is that the internet is increasingly normal. I think this has to be reflected in how digital communication is talked about and taught at university. So, for example, I would expect to see issues currently associated with the internet being included in general theories of communication, and I think you see this already with the use of concepts like 'mediated communication' and 'convergence'. I would also expect to see a diversification of the field of 'new media' into the many hundreds of issues, methods and sites that term covers. In short, what makes digital communications so interesting will gradually cease to be a matter of the digital (the novelty of the technology) and start to be a matter of communication (what people achieve and how through various technologies). Of course, an alternative answer would be - who knows? How we communicate digitally is changing so fast, it's probably impossible to know what will seem important in the future!
What’s the one thing you hope readers take away from your book?
See my answer to the question on why I wrote this book! The one thing readers should take from my book is not a concrete idea or a fact - but the understanding that our journeys through life are incredibly diverse, intricate and unpredictable and that there is never one 'answer'. How we communicate online is no exception! Hopefully this book will enable readers to explore in an informed way their own answers to the questions that digital communications raises for them.
Click here to find out more about Exploring Digital Communication.
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