(Russian) Writer-Bloggers: Digital Perfection and the Aesthetics of Imperfection

Authors


  • Accepted by previous editor Maria Bakardjieva

Abstract

This article explores readings of (micro)blogging services as outlets for playful, “imperfect” language. Adopting a transcultural approach, it examines a blog category that has attracted scarce academic attention to date: the creative worker's blog. Through a qualitative analysis of metalinguistic statements by 14 Russian writer-bloggers, the author tests 2 interdependent hypotheses: (H1) through metalinguistic statements and pragmatic strategies, writers present language play and “imperfect” language as prototypical for new media; and (H2) If H1 is correct, the writer-blogger's preference for “imperfect” language caters into a broader cultural-philosophical anxiety – one of foregrounding imperfection as an aesthetic counterresponse to digital perfection.

Introduction

On June 14, 2009, Artemii Lebedev – one of Russia's 10 most widely-read bloggers1 – opened a Twitter account. His first two posts read: 1. “Twitter is shit. I am not going to use it.” and 2. “In Twitter, nobody plays the Twitter game, which forces you to answer the question ‘what are you doing’? as the format of an entry. I am scratching my foot.” From that day onwards, Lebedev has regularly added tweets telling readers which foot or toe he is scratching.2 A similar view on (micro)blogging services – as a linguistic playground or mere game – resonates in Lebedev's first blog post, in which he claims to start a weblog merely to pen down “all the bullshit” that occurs to him.3

This article maps readings of (micro)blogging services as outlets for “irrelevant” linguistic play or “imperfect” language in blogs by a particular type of host: the writer. Although (micro)blogs by popular and/or professional writers are highly influential in terms of cultural capital, they have attracted scarce attention in existing blog research. Especially undertheorized are Russian writers' blogs. In Russia, several writers host blogs that attract up to tens of thousands of daily readers, and that rank among the country's best-read weblogs. Yet they have rarely to never been subjected to systematic scholarly investigation.

The following sections map this theoretical paucity, and the need for a more fleshed-out theorization of (Russian) writer's blogs, in more detail. Next I outline the transcultural methodology that I propose for studying writer's blogs. These theoretical considerations are followed by my actual case study: a qualitative analysis of metalinguistic statements by 14 influential Russian writer-bloggers. In scrutinizing their work, I test two interdependent research hypotheses:

H1: Through both metalinguistic statements and pragmatic strategies, writers present language play and laconic, “imperfect” language as prototypical for new media.

H2: If H1 is correct, writers' foregrounding of playful or “imperfect” language specifically in new media caters into a broader cultural-philosophical anxiety, of embracing imperfection as an aesthetic counterresponse to digital perfection.

In both hypotheses, “imperfection” is used in the emic sense, as a term that relates to the analysis of a cultural phenomenon from the perspective of the participants of the culture at stake; in this case, of both the blogs' authors and their – mostly educated, native Russian – readers. ‘Imperfect’ best covers the attitude to deviations from standard language in the semiotic space in which these writers and readers move: a post-Soviet culture that subverts, but is at the same time shaped by, Soviet Russia's highly normative language culture (Lunde & Paulsen 2009).

In testing the two hypotheses, I warrant special attention to a paradigm that is formative to the writer-bloggers' linguistic self-fashioning: that of foregrounding authenticity as a key demand in today's (cultural) economy. I conclude my analysis by outlining directions for further explorations of creative worker's blogs.

Theoretical Background

Defining the Creative Worker's Blog

In the past decade, scholars have put considerable effort into theoretically defining and classifying (micro-)blogs (see Walker Rettberg 2008 and Murthy 2013 for two influential examples). They provide analytical tools for a mind-bogglingly wide variety of (micro)blog categories and usages, from political blogs to teen blogs and from civic journalism to commercial practices.

Existing (micro)blogging theory tends to ignore one perennial blogging category, however – a category that is as diverse as it is relevant to our understanding of CMC language. This is the category of what I call the creative worker's blog. Without envisioning a monolithic generic type – as Susan Herring and others argue, the blog format's “hybrid nature … means that it can express a wide range of genres” simultaneously (Herring et al., 2005, p. 162) – I do see creative workers' blogs as a specific cluster within the blogosphere as a whole (for a graphic representation of creative workers' and writers' blogs' position within the overall blogosphere, see table 1 in the appendix). A creative worker's blog can combine features of, say, a diary-style and filter blog (see Walker Rettberg, 2008, p. 9–17), but it is invariably launched by one specific type of host: a professional producer of creativity, who devotes substantial attention to creative production within his/her blog postings. Professional designers post pictures of and/or musings on recent work4; musicians and composers share insights into their work process and audiofragments5; visual artists alternate (reproductions of) new work with essayistic musings on art6; literary authors publish new poetry, prose, or semiliterary text passages,7 and so on.

In defining these varying professional groups as creative workers, I understand creativity as Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defines the term – as a product of “the interaction of a system composed of three elements: a culture that contains symbolic rules, a person who brings novelty into the symbolic domain, and a field of experts who recognize and validate the innovation” (1996, p. 6). The analysis below frames the creative professional as precisely such a professional cultural innovator, but it introduces an important amendment to Csíkszentmihályi's concept. I imagine the creative professional as a person who operates within multiple rather than one single (nationally, religiously, economically defined) culture(s), as Csíkszentmihályi's definition suggests. Likewise, I envision the symbolic rules that creative professionals reshape, and the experts who legitimize their attempts at renewal, as institutions that cannot be pinned down to one cultural system. Rather do they function both within and across various (ethnic, national, social) borders. I explain my interest in this transcultural dimension in more detail below.

Creative workers' blogs deserve substantially more scholarly attention than they generated so far. They help us grasp the novel modes of artistic expression and production that online media spawn and that, in turn, impact on these media. What is more, they shed new light on a function that several studies consider dominant for blogging per se (Nardi et al. 2004; Lenhart & Fox 2006): that of creative expression. More than most other blog types, the creative worker's blog exploits this function on a professional level.

Creative workers' blogs are especially relevant in a discussion of post-Soviet public discourse: if Russia's intellectual elite is currently struggling to “remain relevant after communism” (Wachtel 2006), it has not entirely lost its traditional position as a national conscience. In the words of cultural historian Rosalind Marsh,

[i] t is still important for historians of contemporary Russia to take account of cultural developments and public debates among the intelligentsia, since many Russian intellectuals … are prominent public figures, and their ideas have exerted considerable influence on the political leaders and the population at large. (Marsh 2007, p. 17)8

As Russian creative culture is today produced to a high degree in digital realms (Gorny 2009b), the creative worker's blog forms an influential space in post-Soviet Russia.

But (micro)blogs hosted by creative professionals matter outside Russia, too – if only because they generate such substantial public resonance. By May 2014 the writer Paolo Coelho's Twitter account, to mention one influential example, had attracted 9.2 million followers, many of whom actively commented on the author's tweets (see footnote 7).

Defining the Writer-Blogger

This article homes in on a subcategory of the creative worker's blog: (micro)blogs hosted by writers. Just as other creative-worker blogs, this category is largely absent from (micro)blogging scholarship (for a paper-length exception, see Conkan, 2011). Experts do address “fictional blogs” (Thomas, 2006) and “literary blogs” or “litblogs” (Gomez, 2005), but their analyses target either amateur fiction-writing or literature-devoted sites launched by enthusiastic readers. Scholars reflect abundantly on the impact of new media on literary practices (see ELMCIP, 2010, for one influential example), but they address digital poetics, prose, or online storytelling rather than writers' “e-self-fashioning” through self-publication tools. Conversely, those studies that outline the dynamics of online self-fashioning – whether it be in terms of lifelogging, personal information management, self-documentation, or “me-forming beaviour” (among others, see Van Dijck 2004; Kitzmann 2004) – target other social and/or professional groups than that of the creative professional.

This study does target specifically that latter category. It focuses on the virtual self-fashioning of what I call the “writer-blogger.” This term can refer to two varieties of blog hosts:

  1. professional writers and poets who live off literary and/or creative writing, and
  2. intellectuals whose (digital) writings enjoy a high symbolic status in professional literary-intellectual circles and/or occur as leading names in the field in Russian quality media.

Emblematic for the second category is the author with whom this article opened, designer-cum-businessman Artemii Lebedev. Although Lebedev neither publishes literary texts nor poses as a trained writer, his blog posts are obligatory mind food for a substantial part of the Russian creative elite, including literary authors and critics.

The case study below monitors (meta)linguistic behavior in a selection of eighteen (micro)blog accounts hosted by 14 influential Russian writer-bloggers, each of whom launched a weblog between 2001 and 2009. Apart from Lebedev (b. 1975), the selection includes Dmitrii Bavil'skii (b. 1969), Dmitrii Galkovskii (b. 1960), Linor Goralik (b. 1975), Evgenii Grishkovets (b. 1967), Sergei Kuznetsov (b. 1966), Stanislav L'vovskii (b. 1972), Roman Leibov (b. 1963), Svetlana Martynchik (b. 1965), Vera Polozkova (b. 1986), Andrei Sen-Sen'kov (b. 1968), Aleksei Slapovskii (b. 1957), Tat'iana Tolstaia (b. 1951), and Dmitrii Vodennikov (b. 1968). In the case study that follows, I briefly position each of these names within the overall landscape of post-Soviet literature.

Methodology

The Transcultural Approach

The next pages follow not “the writer-blogger” per se, but a group of Russian writer-bloggers. In doing so, they move away from a long-reigning anglocentric tradition in CMC scholarship. Today, this tradition has been undermined by repeated pleas to take CMC studies beyond anglophone paradigms and to heighten their sensitivity towards ethnographic variation (among others, see Danet & Herring 2007; Androutsopoulos 2008). Nevertheless, when speaking of ‘the blog’ or ‘the web,’ many experts continue to limit themselves to English-speaking sources without specifying that linguistic demarcation.

Scholars of Russophone CMC have fallen prey to a diametrically opposing, but no less problematic habit: They so eagerly frame their sources as culturally specific that they only marginally contextualize them globally (for influential examples, see Schmidt et al. 2006; Lunde & Paulsen 2009; Mechkovskaia 2009). Russia-oriented CMC research thus epitomizes another criticism for which media studies are berated: that of neatly framing empirical material within the borders of one nation-state – and thus “remain[ing] a largely nationally bound and inward-looking area of academic inquiry” (Thussu 2009, p. 1).

The case study below shuns both approaches: that of the deterritorialized gaze no less than that of the nation-bound prism. Taking my methodological cues from CMC and discourse studies and from theories of (cyber)play (especially Huizinga 1955; Danet 2001; Danet & Herring 2007; Ryan 2010; Van Dijk 2010), I employ in a CMC analysis what Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp (2009) label a transcultural approach to media cultures.

As a cultural credo, transculturation has in the past years been ubiquitous. Launched in 1940 by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, the concept has today landed at the heart of globalization and digitization discourses. By 2012, it has become impossible to keep track of the myriad emerging transcultural-studies seminars, centers, and journals.

Despite this cultural and academic institutionalization, CMC scholars rarely revert to transculturation theories to explain the object of their research. Couldry and Hepp plead for changing this situation. They criticize existing comparative media research for taking the nation-state as its principal unit of comparison. Instead they propagate “a more complex horizon for carrying out media research” – one that recognizes that media cultures are “not ‘placed’ at a defined locality but are articulated through ‘disembedded’ communicative processes, while still being related to … localities within or beyond particular national or regional boundaries” (Couldry and Hepp 2009, p. 32). Rather than nation-states, Hepp and Couldry use the concept of “cultural thickenings” or “amalgamations” – “translocal processes of the articulation of meaning” – as a unit of comparison (Ibid.). Without excluding the state as a comparative unit (cultural thickenings can perfectly overlap with national boundaries), they thus provide a geographically layered framework for comparative media research.

Branding this study an analysis of “(Russian) Writer-Bloggers” – with the national classification in brackets – is my way of framing it as a transcultural CMC analysis. As I demonstrate below, a reading of Russian writers' blogs and tweets through a transcultural prism avoids the territorialized approach that would imply labeling my research an exploration of “Russian writer-bloggers.” It also evades the one-dimensionally internationalist perspective that would legitimize the omission of national denominators from the article title altogether. Instead, this analysis unravels the interaction between locally and globally informed “cultural thickenings” in terms of subtle interrelations, parallels, and overlaps, rather than as binary national-international oppositions.

These transcultural interrelations are especially relevant to an investigation of creative professionals: The cultural horizon of this social group principally sits uneasily with strictly nationally or locally defined boundaries. If we zoom in on one particular writer, we see just how layered and mutually interdependent the possible territorial frames for one individual creative worker can be. Linor Goralik – one of the authors whose blogs I monitored – is a Moscow-based Jewish writer-cum-journalist-cum-designer, who trained as a programmer and spent lengthy periods in Ukraine and Israel. This means that, for an analysis of Goralik's linguistic e-self-fashioning, relevant cultural thickenings may or may not include, to varying extents and in complex interweavings, the shared traditions and beliefs of:

  • the international Jewish community;
  • an equally cross-national in-crowd of web pioneers;
  • an urban creative elite (whose outlines differ little between, say, Moscow and London);
  • but also the nationally defined societies of post-WWII Ukraine;
  • (the immigrant community in) 1990s Israel;
  • and post-Soviet Russia.

All these different, and mutually interlinking, territorial and temporal layers impact on Goralik's creative agenda. An analysis of that agenda hardly benefits from confining itself to one specific layer – that of Goralik's “Russian,” “IT-based,” or “urban” roots, for instance. Neither does any analysis of creative workers' blogs – or, for that matter, of CMC at large – benefit from focusing solely on one spatial frame. Both warrant discussions that reckon with the various interacting territorial and temporal spheres across which its “performers” move. The analysis below aims at a maximal awareness of this transcultural variation.

Research Design

For this study, I monitored the early entries plus comments (approximately those of the first half-year in which each blogger was active) and some occasional later comments (up to summer 2010) from 18 selected blog and Twitter accounts by the fourteen Russian writer-bloggers mentioned. The blogs are all hosted by LiveJournal, which consistently ranks as Russia's most popular blogging service (Kovalev 2011).

In addition, I collected metalinguistic statements from public interviews with the same authors. Having been trained as a literary historian and not as an ethnographer, I opted for this text-based approach rather than conducting personal interviews with writers. I do include statements from a conversation that I had with Dmitrii Vodennikov, in which the poet happened to bring up the subject of linguistic imperfection himself.9

In order to test my two hypotheses, I measured both against these metalinguistic metastatements, as well as against the authors' language behavior – that is, their pragmatic linguistic strategies. I looked at the latter especially in those blogs whose authors rarely embarked on metalinguistic reflection, by counting the numbers of linguistic errors in (a minimum of 25) early entries, and testing these against existing research on erratic language and editing behavior in the blogosphere (Tavosanis 2006). I also observed how the authors responded to readers' comments on language mistakes or typos.

In the analysis below, I test hypothesis 1 with an inventarization of the 14 writer-bloggers' linguistic strategies that harks back to Huizinga's classic theory of play. Hypothesis 2 I verify in a section that explores the philosophical anxieties and cultural logic underpinning these strategies. As the section on hypothesis 2 illustrates, this logic can neither be defined on a national nor on a disciplinary level: It permeates all – Russian and non-Russian, locally and globally practised – creative disciplines that rely on digital technologies.

The case study

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

  1. four key features of play according to Huizinga;
  2. four features of blogging as envisioned by the 14 writer-bloggers;
  3. 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.

Conclusion

The analysis above supports both this study's first and its second hypothesis. Thirteen out of fourteen writer-bloggers indeed envisioned language play and “imperfect” language as prototypical for digital media (H1). Their vision fits into a broader, cross-disciplinary, and transcultural trend to respond to digital perfection with aesthetic imperfection (H2).

That both hypotheses can be affirmed is relevant not merely to the student of post-Soviet culture; it refines current thinking on language, creativity, and media in general. When introducing the creative worker's blog as a (micro)blogging variety that deserves more indepth study, I argued that it teaches us much about the ways in which new media and creative expression/production reshape one another. The eagerness with which the writers under discussion reflect on or use imperfect, nonsensical online language proves that point. If existing studies of online language have convincingly highlighted the online predilection for playful, norm-deviating language (Danet 2001; Danet & Herring 2007; Anis 2007; Lunde & Paulsen 2009), they mostly demonstrated its presence on a performative level. A study of the same phenomenon among writer-bloggers demonstrates how professional users of creative language articulate it through explicit “metatalk” and conscious linguistic strategies. In addition, the analysis above sharpens our knowledge of the cultural logic that underpins the writer-bloggers' stance to language. This is the persistent foregrounding of “the imperfect” as a warrant for artistic authenticity in a digitized age and an experience economy.

Further Research: Limitations & Recommendations

This article indicates in which directions a transcultural take on individual creative workers' blogs might move – but it does not provide an actual analysis of the impact of one writer-blogger's linguo-cultural horizon on her/his linguistic behavior. This is merely one limitation of my small-scale analysis. For a more thorough testing of the same hypotheses, it might be fruitful, for one, to substantially expand the selection and to monitor writer-bloggers' metalinguistic statements with quantitative research tools (those proposed in Rogers 2010, for instance). It might be helpful, too, to trace the diachronic development of “imperfection aesthetics” (how did creatives approach the nexus between digital perfection and aesthetic imperfection in the 1990s as opposed to today?). Finally, the current analysis might benefit from a juxtaposition to (meta)linguistic strategies used in other types of blogs, to test if the hypothesis “it is the writer who most sumptuously reflects on the digital aesthetics of imperfection” is substantiated by a broader empirical data set.

Most importantly, perhaps, CMC studies would benefit from a more systematic analysis not only of creative workers' blogs, but from an examination of digital discourse by creative workers in general – in other social media, such as Facebook, for instance, where artists, writers, and musicians host accounts that can attract millions of followers; or in Wikipedia, where creatives actively construct and adjust personal Wikis. If creative professionals indeed act as innovators of cultural symbolic domains, then a full-fledged CMC theory is unthinkable without knowledge of their digital discursive whereabouts.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Ingunn Lunde, Martin Paulsen, and Aleksandr Berdicevskis for helpful feedback on earlier versions of this article. I also thank the two anonymous external reviewers who enriched my analysis with numerous helpful suggestions. Needless to add, responsibility for any remaining mistakes is mine alone.

Notes

  1. 1

    According to the top-blogger list of Russia's leading ranking service, http://yandex.blogs.ru, on 8/3/2011.

  2. 2

    http://www.twitter.com/temalebedev (8/3/2011).

  3. 3

    http://tema.livejournal.com/2006/12/22/ (8/3/2011).

  4. 4

    See http://www.ionoi.it/ (6/4/11) (Italian designer Fabio Novembre's blog).

  5. 5

    See, for instance, the Twitter accounts of Dutch and Japanese composers Michel van der Aa (http://twitter.com/#!/vanderaanet) and Ryuichi Sakamoto (http://twitter.com/#!/ryuichisakamoto) (6/4/11).

  6. 6

    See, for example, the Twitter account Yoko Ono (http://twitter.com/#!/yokoono) (6/4/11).

  7. 7

    See the Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg's blog (http://www.arnongrunberg.com/blog) (6/4/11) or Spanish author Paulo Coelho's Twitter account (http://twitter.com/#!/paulocoelho) (6/4/11).

  8. 8

    Marsh's term ‘intelligentsia’ relates directly, although not unproblematically, to that of the creative worker.

  9. 9

    Personal communication; transcript available upon request at ellen.rutten@uva.nl.

  10. 10

    For the full blog and Twitter addresses it suffices to enter the respective nicknames in URL bar, followed by .livejournal.com; or to add the author's Twitter nicknames to the link www.twitter.com/.

  11. 11

    http://mantrabox.livejournal.com/1848.html, http://mantrabox.livejournal.com/2869.html, http://mantrabox.livejournal.com/3326.html, and http://mantrabox.livejournal.com/7667.html (30/11/2011).

  12. 12

    http://r-l.livejournal.com/2001/02/01/ (6/4/2011).

  13. 13

    http://slapovsky.livejournal.com/2006/10/15/ and http://slapovsky.livejournal.com/2007/01/17/ (both 6/4/2011).

  14. 14

    http://tanyant.livejournal.com/2007/12/15/ (6/4/2011).

  15. 15

    http://snorapp.livejournal.com/45497.html (6/4/2011).

  16. 16

    http://sensensen.livejournal.com/3637.html (1/12/2011).

  17. 17

    http://paslen.livejournal.com/2001/07/23/ and http://paslen.livejournal.com/2001/07/25/ (both 6/4/11).

  18. 18

    http://galkovsky.livejournal.com/10385.html#cutid1 (6/4/11).

  19. 19

    See footnote 8.

  20. 20

    http://grishkovets.com/press/release_188.html (6/4/2011).

  21. 21

    http://twitter.com/com/r_l on October 19, 2007, May 15, 2009, and May 18, 2009 (all 6/4/11).

  22. 22

    http://twitter.com/Halfofthesky on May 16, 2009 and August 14, 2009 (all 6/4/11).

  23. 23

    http://twitter.com/#!/skuzn, on November 7, 2009 (6/4/11).

  24. 24

    http://twitter.com/snorapp, on June 26, 2009 (6/4/11).

  25. 25

    http://twitter.com/vodennikov, on May 15, 2009, and May 19, 2009 (6/4/11).

Appendix

Table A1. Typology of the position of writers' blogs within the blogosphereThumbnail image of
Table A2. Juxtaposition of key features of play and of blogging.
i. Key features of play (Huizinga 1955)ii. Key features of blogging (writer-bloggers)iii. Sample citations
  1. a

    If referring to the commercial gain that blogs can generate, Leibov places himself and other users in direct opposition to its hosters.

1. its status as “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’.”1. writer-bloggers present blogging/tweeting as non-serious and opposed to their ordinary activities.

* “I have decided to write down all the bullshit [that happens to me] for posterity. … I will write it down in my blog.” (Lebedev)

* “Let's try this [blogging] in Russian… funny thing.” (Leibov)

* In blogs one writes “all kinds of non-obligatory crudshit which no one needs” (Frai)

* Blogs are a medium for “trivialities, which keep one from living and working” (Slapovskii)

* Blogs facilitate “communication with people” rather than highbrow literary production (Grishkovets)

  

* “Twitter is shit.”; “the Twitter game … forces you to answer the question ‘what are you doing’? as the format of an entry. I am scratching my foot.” (Lebedev)

* “[i]t's not like I planned to write much here, or like I would know what”; “Russian Twitter should be 200-limited, not 140. … we ALWAYS have something to say, no matter what” (L'vovskii)

* “[W]hat do [readers] expect from me when I hardly write anything here?” (Kuznetsov)

* “hello, my name is twitter vodennikov, and I suffer from grandioso-mania. How about you?” (Vodennikov)

2. its role of an “activity connected with no material interest.”

2. writers, if perfectly aware of the social capital of their online writing, define their posts and tweets as

a. unnecessary

b. opposed to commercial activities.

a. * “I have decided to write down all the bullshit [that happens to me] for posterity. … I will write it down in my blog.” (Lebedev)

* In blogs one writes “all kinds of non-obligatory crudshit which no one needs” (Frai)

* “Twitter is shit.”; “the Twitter game … forces you to answer the question ‘what are you doing’? as the format of an entry. I am scratching my foot.” (Lebedev)

* “[I]s this meant to enrich mobile-phone operators or what?” (Leibov)

* “[i]t's not like I planned to write much here, or like I would know what”; “Russian Twitter should be 200-limited, not 140. … we ALWAYS have something to say, no matter what” (L'vovskii)

* “hello, my name is twitter vodennikov, and I suffer from grandioso-mania. How about you?” (Vodennikov)

b. * Blogs are a medium for “trivialities, which keep one from living and working” (Slapovskii)

* “The majority of [Livejournal bloggers] are … mere carnival masks, which hardly oblige anyone to do anything” (Galkovskii)

* “[I]s this meant to enrich mobile-phone operators or what?” (Leibov)a

3. its functioning “within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules.”3. writers define (micro)blogs as a game, or either define or use it as a space where non-standard linguistic rules apply.

* When blogging, “I reserve the right to: − write with mistakes; − to disobey any rule of grammar if I feel like it; − to swear.” (Tolstaia)

* “let's … approach [the blog] as literture [sic – ER]. … I see, for one, many of my posts as texts. In other words, I edit them, try to obsprve [sic – ER] some internal rhythm, style, etc.”; “[this post] was written late at night, in great haste, without a strict editing process; please, do not kill me too much for minor sins of the site editors and me” (Goralik)

* 23 typos and punctuation errors in the posts of the blog's first 2 weeks (Sen Sen'kov)

* “Twitter is shit.”; “the Twitter game … forces you to answer the question ‘what are you doing’? as the format of an entry. I am scratching my foot.” (Lebedev)

* Tweets in beginner-level English (L'vovskii)

4. its proneness to “the formation of social groupings that tend to … stress the difference from the common world by disguise or other means.”

4. a. writers typify blogs and Twitter posts through

a. mask & commedia dell'arte metaphors;

b. (micro)blogging writers use nicks which differ strongly from their true names.

a. *A blog “allows one to structure variants of one's own image … As in commedia dell'arte, which does not have characters. only [sic – ER] masks” (Bavil'skii)

* “The majority of [Livejournal bloggers] are … mere carnival masks, which hardly oblige anyone to do anything” (Galkovskii)

* Vodennikov explained to me that when blogging, he wears a “mask” (Vodennikov)

b. mantrabox & vero4ka (Polozkova), tema (Lebedev), r_l (Leibov; both blog and Twitter nick), chingizid (Frai aka Martynchik), tanyant (Tolstaia), snorapp (Goralik; both blog and Twitter nick), sensensen (Sen Sen'kov), paslen (Bavil'skii), Halfofthesky (L'vovskii), skuzn (Kuznetsov)

Biography

  • Ellen Rutten is professor in Slavonic literatures at the University of Amsterdam and until 2013, she was Principal Investigator of the Bergen-based research project ‘Web Wars: Digital Diasporas and the Language of Memory in Russia and Ukraine’ (www.web-wars.org). She is founding editor of the pioneering journal in the field, Digital Icons: Studies in Russian, Eurasian & Central European New Media. Her publications include the monograph Unattainable Bride Russia (Northwestern UP, 2010), the edited volume (with Julie Fedor and Vera Zvereva) Memory, Conflict, and New Media (Routledge, 2013), and articles in the Slavonic and East European Review, kultura, and Osteuropa, among other venues. E-mail: contact@ellenrutten.nl

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