Blogs & Twitter as a Linguistic Playground
When launching a blog or Twitter account, many writers include something akin to a linguistic mission statement, or a vision on the medium they start to use. In browsing these statements for earlier analyses (Rutten 2009), I observed that writer-bloggers tend to establish a link between the new medium and playful, nonsensical communication or imperfect language. This observation led me to formulate this study's first research hypothesis:
H1: Through both metalinguistic statements and pragmatic strategies, writers present language play and laconic, imperfect language as prototypical for new media.
How does H1 relate to the pragmatic and metalinguistic behavior of the authors in question? Do they indeed foreground imperfection and play – either through practice or via metalinguistic statements – as a sine qua non for new-media writing? In order to tackle these questions, I inventorized and mapped the (meta)linguistic strategies used by each writer. In the below overview, I provide both the authors' real names and (in brackets) their (micro)blogging nicknames.10 When speaking of “errors” or “mistakes,” I refer to deviations from “literary standard written Russian” – that is, the language traditionally found in Russophone prose fiction, scholarly publishing, and/or quality newspapers.
- 1.Countering stereotypes about youth and language degradation, the youngest writer-blogger in my selection – poet Vera Polozkova (mantrabox, formerly vero4ka) – does not affirm my hypothesis. When she started blogging at the age of 16, Polozkova refrained from metalinguistic reflections on the new medium. She did use it to post poetry and lyrical prose that display a low error tolerance: In her first 25 entries, I spotted a meagre total of five typos, four of which occurred in relatively lengthy entries (360–1894 signs) (this percentage is low as opposed to average blog error percentages (Tavosanis, 2006)).11
- 2.By contrast, Lebedev (tema), as we saw, does foreground his blog's playfulness and intellectual irrelevance in metastatements, by portraying it as a forum for “bullshit.”
- 3.In what is commonly (if erratically, see avva2004) treated as the first Russian-speaking blog post ever, Roman Leibov (r_l) – a cult name in Russian literary cyberspace – similarly brands his first blog entry a mere “writing test” and blogs a “funny thing.”12
- 4.Prose author Svetlana Martynchik (chingizid) – famous under her pen name Maks Frai – hails blogs in an interview for allowing her to write “all kinds of non-obligatory crudshit which no one needs” (Frai, 2003).
- 5.In a less positive vision, Aleksei Slapovskii (slapovsky) presents his blog as a medium for “trivialities,” which merely steals time from “real work”: literary writing.13
- 6.The renowned author Tat'iana Tolstaia (tanyant) – Artemii Lebedev's mother – presents her blog as a confined discursive space – one meant solely “for answers, contacts and other practical trifles” – where she will “write with mistakes” and “disobey any rule of grammar.” Paradoxically, in concrete blog posts Tolstaia reveals herself as a linguistically impeccable stylist rather than an error embracer (see Rutten 2009 for examples).14
- 7.By contrast, poet-cum-journalist-cum-designer Linor Goralik (snorapp) claims to “carefully edit” her posts,15 while permitting a markedly unedited style and ample typos in her actual entries. That Goralik welcomes rather than defies this stylistic imperfection suggest both a cheerful warning that a hastily written entry might contain mistakes, and her consistent refusal to edit typos pointed out by readers (for details, see Rutten 2009).
- 8.Poet Andrei Sen Sen'kov (sensensen) displays a high typo tolerance, too: This reader spotted 23 typos and punctuation errors solely in the posts of his blog's first 2 weeks. However, Sen Sen'kov differentiates between strictly literary (a poem) and more practical (an announcement or comment) sections within his blog. In the latter, he permits conspicuous punctuation errors and typos without adjusting them afterwards; in the former, he eagerly corrects a typo that a reader singles out.16
- 9.Writer Dmitrii Bavil'skii (paslen) praises the blog in an early post for its priority of “the human” above “the formal,” and compares it to the genre of “comedia dell'arte,” “which does not have characters. Only masks.”17
- 10.Dmitrii Galkovskii (galkovsky) similarly envisions bloggers' identities as “mere carnival masks, which hardly oblige anyone to do anything”; that, he adds, “is how it will always be on the web.”18
- 11.In our interview, the poet Dmitrii Vodennikov (vodennikov) explained to me that when blogging, he wears a “mask,” albeit a very personal one. He claimed to sometimes prefer “erratic words”: To him, his “constant typos” merely reinforce his blog's “authenticity.”19
- 12.Writer-cum-performer Evgenii Grishkovets (e-grishkovets; blog deleted 2011) repeatedly underlined that to him, blogging differed greatly from serious writing. Rather than for literary expression, he claimed to use it strictly for “communication” with readers.20 For Grishkovets, the communication tool neared oral genres: in an interview he not only asserted that he failed to understand the Internet, but also that he could not type. He always dictated his entries to others, who then posted them for him (Grishkovets 2009).
The citations above all exemplify metadiscourse about blogging, but in the past 2 years, Russian writers have actively started tweeting, too. In Twitter, they similarly explain their activities in terms of trivial or clumsy play, albeit less persistently than when blogging. This difference is not fortuitous. First of all, Twitter appeared in 2006, when social media were less of a new frontier than when blogging was introduced, some seven years earlier. Many writers use it as a complementary medium next to existing social media – by implication, in Twitter they do not feel the same urge to explain their choice for a new (self-)publication medium. Secondly, Twitter's technological preconditions are less conducive to metadiscursive discussion than those of blog services: The service permits entries of up to 140 characters only, and it does not unite reactions to a tweet in one comment thread.
These limitations notwithstanding, the selection below illustrates that writers' tweets do tell us something about their (meta)linguistic stance to online writing.
- 13.Lebedev's (temalebedev) toe-scratch tweets, his anti-Twitter statements, and his definition of Twitter writing as a “game” again testify to a view of (micro)blogs as a forum for nonsensical or merely playful writing.
- 14.The same is true for Leibov's (r_l) first tweets, which offer ironic comments on the uselessness of, and “lack of positive content” in, microblogging. “[I]s this meant to enrich mobile-phone operators or what?” Leibov asks, quasi-astonished, in one post.21
- 15.The poet Stanislav L'vovskii (Halfofthesky) also presents Twitter – and particularly his own tweets – as irrelevant, when he explains that “[i]t's not like I planned to write much here, or like I would know what [to write].” L'vovskii does tweet frequently though, adding mostly everyday observations (“I liked film X or Y,” “the cat returned”), partly in Russian, partly in somewhat infelicitous English. The poet himself reflects on this happy-go-lucky, graphomania-style writing mode when he tweets: “Russian Twitter should be 200-limited, not 140. … we ALWAYS have something to say, no matter what.”22
- 16.Writer-cum-journalist Sergei Kuznetsov (skuzn) trivializes his tweets by stressing the opposite: the fact that he rarely adds any. Asking rhetorically why his audience increases, he muses: “[W]hat do they expect from me when I hardly write anything here?”23
- 17.Goralik (snorapp) casually presents herself, in English, as “Writer and stuff.” Starting each post with “I see:,” she frames her tweets as visual observations – observations that boast a nonedited writing style akin to that of her blog. Exemplary is a tweet on a “singr [sic], … asksksing [sic] [a question to] a client, wishing to oder [sic]” a song.24
- 18.Vodennikov (vodennikov) places his tweets in absurd spheres by introducing himself with: “hello, my name is twitter vodennikov, and I suffer from grandioso-mania. How about you?” In a later post, he confesses to envying Goralik for having “invented such a comfortable Twitter format”; himself he contrasts to tweeting colleague as an “idiot.” 25
Testing H1: Writer-bloggers present language play and imperfect language as prototypical for new media
Although the types of metastatements and pragmatic strategies in this set of examples differ greatly, a substantial majority confirms hypothesis 1. In 17 out of 18 cases, the vision on (micro)blogging that emerges from the writer-bloggers' (meta)linguistic behavior revolves around one shared idea: the new medium stimulates the use of a language to which the categories of play, nonsense, and linguistic imperfection are perennial. Not coincidentally do the (meta)linguistic practices of the 14 writer-bloggers – including those of perfectionalist Polozkova – all recycle one or more of the traditional characteristics of play as outlined in Johan Huizinga's classic study of “the play element” Homo Ludens (1955). Table 2 in the appendix of this article juxtaposes
- four key features of play according to Huizinga;
- four features of blogging as envisioned by the 14 writer-bloggers;
- those examples from the list above that illustrate the features in column (ii).
Few readers of the appendix will fail to see that, by reverting to (metastatements about) linguistic play, Lebedev and colleagues tune into what scholars have defined as a general preference for playful modes in digital media. As early as 2001, Brenda Danet observed that computers were increasingly seen “as an arena for play, social experience and dramatic interaction” (2001, p. 5). Although a recent analysis suggests otherwise (Vandergriff, 2009), to date most CMC experts observe a link between digital media and linguistic or semiotic play in particular (for an overview, see Danet & Herring, 2007, pp. 12–13).
Testing H2: The writer-blogger's linguistic self-fashioning caters into a broader cultural-philosophical anxiety, of embracing imperfection as an aesthetic counterresponse to digital perfection.
What interests me is not this identification of online writing with playfulness in itself. As stated, this trend has been amply documented in the past years; and more than the writer-bloggers' preoccupation with play, I am interested in their insistence on a related concept: that of (a playful, quasi-amateurist) imperfection.
The authors' blog and Twitter citations demonstrate that faulty writing – “bullshit,” a sloppy punctuation, awkward English, noncorrected typos – is virtually the norm for most writer-bloggers. Whether they actually employ imperfect or incorrect language is another question: Goralik and others avidly permit deviations from standard, but a writer like Tolstaia “hypes the typo” without making any linguistic errors in her actual posts. Both instances interest me here: Exemplifying the performative and metalinguistic aspect of the same aesthetic strategy, they function as two sides of the same coin.
A transcultural prism is a sine qua non for a proper theoretical understanding of this aesthetic strategy, which is informed by an inextricably interlaced set of locally, nationally, and transnationally territorialized cultural thickenings. Examples of nationally defined “thickenings” or semiotic frames include a trend that literary historians Irina Kaspe and Varvara Smurova discern specifically among Russian bloggers. In a survey of (professional writers' and other) Russian blogs, Kaspe and Smurova conclude that all are marked by what they call “near-literariness” (okololiteraturnost'): the tendency to serve as a “safety zone” where literature is not “the centre of attention,” and authors abide by “the laws of the amateur literary community” (Kaspe & Smurova 2002). This trend is likely to be affected by another development confined to a nationally defined space: the linguistic liberalization and norm-breaking tendencies that mark post-Soviet Russian language culture (Lunde & Roesen, 2006).
Other nationally informed inspirations for the writer-bloggers' insistence on imperfection might include what Evgenii Gorny has summarized as a preference for “emotions, mockery and highly informal speech” in Russian blogs in response to the “seriousness” of public discussion (Gorny, 2009a, p. 10). They might also encompass so-called stiob aesthetics – a playful parodistic rhetoric mode that has boomed in non-official late-Soviet and post-Soviet culture (Yurchak, 2006). In the writers' meta-comments it is hard to miss a preoccupation with parodistic stiob overtones, or to overlook their informal, “near-literary” rather than formalized style – and this analysis would be incomplete without a reference to these singularly Russian trends.
However, the same discussion would suffer considerably were it to explain the writer-blogger's preoccupation with imperfection exclusively in nationally grounded terms. Even the set of “Russian” influences enumerated above is less unambiguously nationally defined than might appear at first glance. The “near-literary” blog authors surveyed by Kaspe & Smurova, the informal bloggers discussed by Gorny, the countercultural figures scrutinized by Yurchak: The majority of these informants live in Russia's major urban hubs, Moscow and St. Petersburg. In other words, the borders of these cultural thickenings can be territorialized locally – as a phenomenon restricted to urban environments – no less than nationally. To make matters yet more complex, their borders can be defined on a transnational level, too. In a copublication with Dominic Boyer, the same Yurchak who portrayed stiob aesthetics as a late-Soviet trend later pondered its “uncanny kinship” with parodistic discourse in the U.S. today (Boyer & Yurchak, 2010, p. 180).
In short, rather than unequivocally “national” trends, the outlined cultural thickenings coincide partly with national, partly with regional – and partly with transnational borders. The transnational level is relevant, too, for a range of other social trends that inform our writer-bloggers' preference for the imperfect. These include the tradition of ideologizing nonstandard speech – that is, investing it with language ideology in order to turn it into a “resource… for the discursive construction of social and cultural identities” (Androutsopoulos 2010, p. 174). Jannis Androutsopoulos has described how language ideologies are used to exclude or ‘other’ nonnative Germans (ibid.); but in our case, it is the writers themselves who divert from official language culture by playfully denouncing language norms. That specifically orthography can be instrumental in consolidating such a norm-deviating social or ideological role, has been demonstrated by Mark Sebba (2007) in his influential study of spelling and society.
The writers' distancing from official linguistic norms can also be explained by other globally observed phenomena – that of using “deterritorialized” forms of language in our increasingly mobile and globalized world (Blommaert, 2010), for instance, or of “language crossing” – that is, “the use of language varieties associated with social or ethnic groups that the speaker does not normally ‘belong’ to” (Rampton, 1995, p. 14). A writer-blogger like Tolstaia borrows her online linguistic motto from a subculture – that of tech-savvy youngsters who are indifferent to correct spelling – with which professional authors are not commonly associated.
Alongs ide these tendencies, there is another transcultural trend without which the citations gathered here would be unthinkable, and which has my special interest here. This is a trend that I define as the aesthetics of imperfection. With this term I refer to a tendency, in digitized creative spheres, of defying professionalism and perfectionism. On an aesthetic level, rather than embracing the perfection that technological devices offer, today professional creatives move away from it. Starting from approximately the early 1990s, they foreground imperfection – either via concrete creative strategies or in metacomments – as an aesthetic warrant of artistic sincerity or authenticity in a digital age.
The following examples illustrate that this “aesthetics of imperfection” in no way overlaps with the borders of one specific creative discipline or nation-state:
- Within language culture, a conscious, playful flouting of orthographic perfection has been documented in many CMC languages, including Swedish, German, French, and Chinese (Hård af Segerstad, 2005; Durscheid, 2000; Anis, 2007; Zhao, 2002). Orthographic imperfection is vital to Russian padonki slang – an online jargon which protests against the “soulless” flawlessness offered by digital spellcheckers with deliberate misspellings. In a more institutionalized context, the English-language manual Wired Style advises against linguistic correctness specifically in digital writing: the authors implore readers to “[t]hink blunt bursts” and to “[a]ppreciate unruliness” (Hale & Scanlon 1996).
- The imperfect reigns in creative projects in which linguistic and visual arts conflate: an intentionally faulty WordPerfect version, which lets users choose between typing and handwriting or clean and coffee-smudged text versions (Takahashi & Pollard, 2007), for instance; or a webstore of quasi-handwritten fonts, presented as “experiments in deliberate imperfection, designed to counteract the clinical … nature of digital typography” (Earls, 2001).
- Designers and architects use consciously uncouth forms. An influential Dutch critic observes in contemporary design a “trend in imperfection” that responds “to the all-pervading perfectionist technology of our time that has been pushing human deficiencies still further into the background” (Ramakers, 2002). A webshop promotes Maarten Baas's shakily-looking Clay chairs (2006) as furniture that reveals “the designer's ‘hand’” which, in new design, is often “concealed through the use of a computer” (Moss, 2006).
- Contemporary craft and fashion favor quasi-awkwardly designed objects. The compilers of By Hand – a recent publication on handcrafted art and design featuring work from across the globe – observe an “emergence of handmade … practices [which expose] the processes of fabrication as gestures of sincerity” in reaction to “the omnipresence of technology” (Hung & Magliaro 2010, pp. 11–12).
- In cinema, imperfection is today an aesthetic asset. Films such as the Danish Dogme series fit into a trend in film to celebrate, in the words of film historian Nicholas Rombes, “deliberate imperfections” – that is, “shaky camera work and other elements that remind viewers that human beings made [them]” (Rombes 2008, cover text).
- Lomography, a recent trend in photography, favors a consciously casual analogue look through hit-or-miss snapshots and blurring. As one afficionado formulates it, lomography aims “to escape the curse of digital perfection” (Appleyard 2010).
- In music, deliberate distortions – think CD skipping or hardware noise – shaped the electronic genre of “glitch.” American composer Kim Cascone relates glitch to an “aesthetics of failure” in late 20th-century art – one “revealing digital tools to be only as perfect … as the humans who build them” (Cascone, 2000, p. 13). In rock and pop, the advent of CDs and such digital tools as AutoTune already fueled visions of imperfection as warrant for authentic music from the late 1980s onwards. One – markedly nationalistic – example of such a vision is a 1988 interview with Russian musician Sergey Kuryokhin, who opposed the rigorous “technological advancement” of contemporary Western music to the “pathological sincerity” of lo-fi Russian pop (Kuryokhin, 1988).
- And finally, imperfection is presented as an answer to digital faultlessness in visual arts. Today artists fetishize, again, glitches – digital images resulting from errors – (Moradi et al., 2007; Menkman, 2011). Media expert Marie-Laure Ryan (2010) discerns in new media art an emphasis on “dysfunctionality” – one that foregrounds “the codes and processes … that regulate our social and mental life”.
Historically, the preoccupation with imperfection that permeates these examples as a continuo basso is far from unprecedented. However, pertinent to my argument here is not their link with history, but rather with the Russian writer-bloggers with whom we started. It does not take an especially astute eye to see how their stance to blog writing relates to these cross-disciplinary examples. Like their colleagues in other creative fields, writer-bloggers promote the playfully imperfect into a warrant for artistic authenticity in the hyperpolished world of new technologies. Not coincidentally does Vodennikov claim that typos enhance his blog's authenticity; and not fortuitously does journalist Marina Mitrenina discern a “priority of sincerity over grammatical correctness” in online Russian writing (Mitrenina, 2003).
This infatuation with sincerity and authenticity does not come out of the blue. As James Gilmore and Joseph Pine convincingly argue, today's economy is primarily an experience economy – one in which such traditional consumer sensibilities as availability, cost, and quality no longer dominate. Instead, “[t]oday's consumers seek the authentic where and when they buy” (Gilmore and Pine, 2007, cover text) – in other words, our age's central consumer sensibility is that of authenticity. Among other factors, the emergence of new technologies triggers this longing for authenticity: Where automated systems take over, consumers increasingly embrace “authentic,” human interaction (Ibid., p. 14–16).
If Gilmore and Pine work with hardcore commercial samples, their ideas are equally useful for analyses of cultural production and consumption. These analyses divulge one important authenticity-management device that Gilmore and Pine overlook. If, as they argue, producers today reach consumers primarily by satisfying authenticity demands, these producers can do so only via concrete aesthetic devices: By making a product look or feel authentic. One major device to lend products an authentic aura is the device of imperfection.
In searching for the right tone when adapting to digital writing services, Russian writers – just like their colleagues in other countries and different disciplines – employ precisely this device. Of secondary importance is the question whether they do so on a performative level (by using imprecise language) or on a metadiscursive plane (by claiming to do so). What matters here is that all the writers under discussion share a predisposition towards imperfection in an age of digital perfection – one that is helpful in consolidating their socioeconomic status as creative producers.