Lectio Praecursoria: On ‘being’ Online – Insights on Contemporary Articulations of the Relational Self

Academic Endeavours, Blogs, Digital culture, Dissertation, Education, identity, Media, Research, YouTube

On being Online: Insights on Contemporary Articulations of the Relational Self

Lectio Praecursoria, the opening speech, presented at the public defence of Anu Harju on 16th June, 2017, at the Aalto University School of Business. Professor Fuat Firat acted as the honorary Opponent.

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Photo: Anne Kankaanranta

 

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Honoured chairperson, honoured opponent, ladies and gentlemen.

Four days ago, a major event in Finnish political life took place as the Finnish coalition government was faced with dissolution. This was the result of the election of a new party leader for the True Finns party. Although dissolution was later avoided, social media erupted in seconds. Camps were put up. In no time at all, we could witness the formation of us and them as groups sharing ideological and emotional congruence emerged. On a global scale, the same thing happened with Brexit, and when Donald Trump was elected the president of United States.

Social media are emotional media. As concerned citizens rushed to social media to voice their opinions of the recent political event, they were soon faced with the fervour of their opponents. Twitter seemed divided, and Facebook was filled with political commentary and speculation. Even the main newspapers were circulating people’s reactions on Twitter as news, as has become the new norm in broadcasting. As users of media, we were soon immersed in the commentary regardless of our own participation.

Yet, politics is not the only arena to elicit emotional reaction on social media, but increasingly, popular culture and entertainment serve as a site of belonging. Popular culture provides a shared social imaginary, and is able to offer the cohesive glue somewhat lost in the fragmented, globalised world. Six years ago, similar mediated, polarized waves of emotion swept the Internet when Steve Jobs died. Since then, we have witnessed collective commemoration online with the passing of the likes of David Bowie, Robin Williams and Michael Jackson, to mention but a few. Public, collective mourning on social media is a relatively new practice that brings people together in a mediated manner.

Celebrity culture is not only linked to media’s power in producing the celebrity, it is also tightly linked to consumer culture.

Celebrity culture has become extremely pervasive in our culture. As a cultural product, the celebrity is accessible to everyone. Communities of different kind are typically created on the basis of popular culture: this is because through participating in global trends, events, and phenomena we feel we belong to the world, that we are active participants rather than mere spectators.

Celebrity culture is not only linked to media’s power in producing the celebrity, it is also tightly linked to consumer culture. Good taste, for one, is embodied in the celebrity. While the celebrity teaches us how to consume and how to be, they also represent a body and a self that is managed, fashioned and controlled. A person equipped with the capacity to respond to various demands resonating with the ideals of any given time is also able to accumulate considerable symbolic power. It is in this way that the ideal self, the normative notion of the preferred way of being, is also produced.

Now, with the march of digital media, the reverse is also true: we can all become a celebrity. It is common practice to emulate the normative good taste. Popular culture is at the forefront of fashion, for example, and more and more, ordinary people take to blogging about fashion, but also the everyday. These so-called fashionistas often reflect the celebrity style, sometimes in hopes of social and cultural mobility. Some even become a celebrity in their own right.

We take photos and selfies and post them online, on blogs, in Snapchat, on Instagram. We make public comments on Twitter without the knowledge of our reader-base, and engage in conversations with people we are likely never to meet. We construct what Benedict Anderson calls ‘imagined communities’, groups of people who image they form a collective with something in common. Online, we tend to seek similar others.

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My doctoral dissertation is positioned at the intersection of media anthropology and Internet studies. Instead of focussing on technology alone or even primarily, it is the social and cultural life in the current digital context that forms the focus of inquiry in these fields. My dissertation is a multi-disciplinary study, and I also draw on sociology of consumption and cultural studies. This allows me to include the wider, global currents in the examination of the more local articulations of identity as these emerge in the relational flow of the Internet.

The goal is thus to increase our understanding of the complexity of being in our digitally enhanced world, and to shed some light on alternative ways of being.

These fields of research share a continued interest in issues concerning identity. Yet, despite the common interest, each operates within the bounds of their own field: this dissertation addresses the relative lack of dialogue between these divergent fields, and offers a multi-disciplinary take on self-construction at the intersection of digital media and consumption.

The aim of the dissertation is to provide insights into how we are positioned in a matrix of varying, even conflicting relational forces: these economic, cultural and social forces position us as more or less included or excluded subjects. The goal is thus to increase our understanding of the complexity of being in our digitally enhanced world, and to shed some light on alternative ways of being.

As relational beings, we exist in a network of relations that make up different social spaces.

I adopt a relational approach rooted in social constructionism, and developed by Kenneth Gergen, to examine the interconnectedness of social, cultural and economic forces that position us. The relational view of being sees the self as a dialectic, social construct that is in constant flux: this is because the relations we are embedded in are also constantly shifting. As relational beings, we exist in a network of relations that make up different social spaces.

This dissertation is an examination of digital culture. I treat the online as embedded in the offline, and see online practices as being informed by those offline. The relational self is fluid, contextual, and emergent: for this reason the binary distinction between online and offline modes of being is not necessary in the relational framework, as the self is always emergent in the relational flow. Thus, it is not meaningful in the context of this study to think in terms of separate entities occupying the physical, offline realm and, conversely, the digital online realm – instead, we can think of being in our digital time in terms of the different manifestations of the self that populate different social and relational spaces.

In order to anchor the relational being into the contemporary globalised context, I also draw on the notion of the social imaginary. The social imaginary organizes the everyday, and makes practices possible by providing a framework that allows us to make sense of the said practices. Imaginaries are involved in how we imagine our lives and our social existence, the norms that guide or constrain us, as well as the rules and regulations we uphold by practicing them.

While imaginaries construct a horizon of conceivable action, it is important to notice the normative dimension of popular imaginaries.

The ability to imagine is a fundamental human capacity. While imaginaries construct a horizon of conceivable action, and can thus be seen as enabling frameworks we draw on in our everyday, it is important to notice the normative dimension of popular imaginaries. For example, how we imagine the good life, or the way we should be, is largely influenced by the imaginaries we draw on. Thus, popular imaginaries do not simply provide input for liberating and emancipatory alternatives, but they are also implicated in constraining how we imagine. Imaginaries can also limit the range of alternatives we are able to imagine. For example, the plus-sized bloggers, examined in this dissertation, resist normative femininity; yet, they nevertheless operate within the feminine imaginary that dictates how women should be, and what they should look like.

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I approach the question of the relational self by looking into the consumption practices of digital media users, and how these relate to self-construction in the wider framework of our culture. Consumption spans the more traditional consumer goods, such as fashion and technology, to include consumption of the symbolic. The social spaces I have examined revolve around fashion and fandom, both cultural practices tightly linked to media and popular culture. The empirical material was collected from social media sites that include plus-sized fashion blogs and YouTube memorial videos for the late Steve Jobs.

While I also employ digital ethnography, which translates into spending time in various social media sites in order to gain more detailed knowledge of the community in question, I consider digital ethnography more as an outlook than a specific method. The empirical material was analysed in discourse analytic tradition, combining Critical Discourse Analysis and Appraisal Theory.

In order to examine the conditions under which the contemporary self is constructed, I employ the notion of celebrity. These forces include the market with its inherent market ideology, cultural and social forces, intertwined with media logics of visibility and the prevalent practices of consumer society whereby commodities are used to express identity. In the context of the empirical studies, on one side of the celebrity phenomena we have Steve Jobs, and on the other side the plus-sized fashion bloggers, micro-celebrities in their own blogosphere.

**

In the process of becoming, we are faced with relational tension and conflict. Negotiating these tensions requires the capacity and ability to respond to the input: we may accept the relational input, or we may reject it.

The findings suggest there is an aspirational self constructed in the social imaginary, reflecting the value system of our society. The aspirational self is conflict-ridden where the two ideals of ‘being yourself’, on the one hand, and ‘improving yourself’, on the other, are juxtaposed. Both empirical cases illustrate this point: the plus-sized fashion bloggers, as much as Steve Jobs and his fans alike, all strive towards this kind of being. However, the process of becoming by way of improvement and control masquerades as ‘being yourself’.

Becoming the preferred self with value and symbolic power in our society requires a lot of work on the self.

Let’s return to Twitter for a while and the topical events. Twitter tells me that the Internet Company Yahoo is set to be sold. The outgoing CEO, Marissa Mayer, was hailed the company’s saviour when hired five years ago. Similar to Steve Jobs, and indeed the plus-sized bloggers, Marissa Mayer epitomises and embodies the ‘aspirational self’. A quick look around various social media tells me that Marissa Mayer participates in beneficiary runs, is healthy, slim and active, and inspires her staff as evidenced by the photo gallery online. She has had a phenomenal career for a female CEO of her age, and she has also managed to have a baby – something the media portrays as proof that women can have it all.

In Marissa Mayer, the ideal self is materialised. While her story is represented as one of success, an encouraging example to all women, it also shows the mechanisms of control present in the workings of the ‘aspirational self’.

Rather than being a simple matter of ‘being yourself’ or ‘realising your true potential’, becoming the preferred self with value and symbolic power in our society requires a lot of work on the self. In this process, the self becomes a commodity.

**

Entangled with media logics, such commodified self is digitally enhanced, publicly shared and re-shared, and collectively evaluated. With this dissertation, I have showed some of the complexities of today’s digitalised and commodified world, and what the increasing complexity might mean for the self. However, the study also finds ample evidence of the presence of resistance to hegemonic ways of being and doing, and the construction of alternative ways of imagining that is necessary for change. Perhaps with more people participating in the production of alternative meanings, change is possible.

This brings me to my last point. The relational approach to self adopted in this dissertation underlines the co-constitution of being, of the self, at the intersection of various technologies and relations. More importantly, however, it draws our attention to co-action and the potential of relational transformation for a more inclusive future.

 

Link to the published doctoral dissertation at Aalto University e-thesis here.

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Pictured here with the honorary Opponent, Professor Fuat Firat, from University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

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On gender, size and consumption

Digital culture, Gender, identity, Media, Research

Routledge recently (Dec 2016) published a book on gender in the field of consumption and marketing, edited by Z. Arsel, K. Eräranta and J. Moisander. The edited volume, Gendering Theory in Marketing and Consumer Research, brings together social sciences and consumer studies to examine gendered practices of consumer behaviour and marketplace activities, as well as the gendered nature of the current marketplace. The research featured in the book, originally published as a special issue on gender in the Journal of Marketing Management, draws on various theoretical approaches to gender from intersectional, material-discursive to practice-oriented theories to explore gender as a lived experience and a socially controlled performance in the realm of consumption.

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Chapter three, Fashionably voluptuous: normative femininity and resistant performative tactics in fatshion blogs, features an empirical study on gender, size and identity in the context of plus-sized fashion blogging, co-authored by Annamari Huovinen and myself; you can read a short synopsis of the article on the Journal of Marketing Management blog.

Our article deals with issues of gender normativity, size and identity, and consumer resistance of marginalised consumers. The empirical material illustrates how normative understandings of gender identity work in complex ways in marginalized consumers’ identity construction, particularly as enabling resistance: while normativity is regularly considered to be constraining regarding identity performance, we show how normativity can also offer resources for resistance by providing an interpretative framework open to subversive performative acts.

 

However, such self-disciplining can be seen as part of a wider trend in the contemporary society where individuals are expected not only to manage their self and their body (e.g. the quantified self movement), but also, in the process, to attach exchange value to the managed self in the market where it is not okay “to come as you are” and where the self that is continuously undergoing improvement is a hotter commodity than a self that is ‘stagnant’.

 

Not only does blogging about plus-sized fashion and the everyday experiences as a plus-sized consumer allow the bloggers to actively contribute to the creation of alternative subject positions for themselves and thereby become empowered, but the collective and visible act of blogging also serves to widen the culturally predominant and traditionally constricting notion of femininity and thus promote size equality.

In addition, however, our findings show that resistant acts emerging from normative frameworks function rather like a double-edged sword: while increasing size awareness and promoting equality (in terms of ‘size neutrality’ or ‘fat acceptance’) and diversity, the performative acts of the plus-sized bloggers nevertheless draw heavily on mainstream representations of women as unflawed and stylish, beautifully packaged and pleasing to the eye, submissive and pleasing: that is, as controlled subjects who engage in self-management techniques and submit themselves (perhaps unwittingly) to a position where they become the object of somebody else’s gaze.

Such self-disciplining can be seen as part of a wider trend in the contemporary society where individuals are expected not only to manage their self and their body (e.g. the quantified self movement), but also, in the process, to attach exchange value to the managed self in the market where it is not okay “to come as you are” and where the self that is continuously undergoing improvement is a hotter commodity than a self that is ‘stagnant’. While this trend feeds dissatisfaction, fortunately counter-voices and counter-discourses are emerging, plus-sized fashion bloggers being one example of such counter-movement in the arena of consumption.

 

Keywords: gender, identity, size, consumption, consumer resistance

YouTube memorial videos and discursive (dis)alignment in the context of fandom

Digital culture, Fandom, Media, Research, YouTube

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One of my research interests concerns fan practices of mourning in digital contexts. I have examined memorial video tributes dedicated to Steve Jobs on YouTube, which is the topic of this blog post, but also other celebrity memorials on other channels. Last year I presented my work in progress on digital memorials as mediators of a lived life that deals with memorialising celebrities on Twitter; I looked at #RIP tweets that commemorate the deaths of actors Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and singer Whitney Houston. The memorial tweets paint a picture of relational rupture, and at the same time they (re)construct a lived life from the perspective of the mourner. Digital memorials are one way of maintaining a relational bond after and beyond physical death, but as a social practice, digital memorialising also connects the mourner to a wider network of mourners; communal support thus garnered has the potential to alleviate the sense of loss as well as any possible feelings of disenfranchisement.

In a similar fashion, the fans of the late Steve Jobs engage in a process of reconstruction  of a lived life as they discursively entwine Jobs’ life narrative into their own. Doing this, they also reconstruct their fandom to ensure continuity, and also rearticulate their fan identity. Fans, generally, form a deep and affective relational bond with the object of fandom, be this an actual or a fictional character. Thus, upon the death of such an object, the loss is often equally deeply felt, even if regularly pathologised as deviant in the context of normative grief, where deep emotions relative to loss are reserved to family members.

 

The fans resort to allusional rhetoric to identify as members of the community but also to stake out their fandom; they recycle meanings poached from Steve Jobs’ speeches and keynotes and recontextualise these in digital contexts.

 

Often linked with popular culture and entertainment, fandom, however, is not restricted to these realms. Steve Jobs enjoyed a celebrity status and had a large following that can be called a fan base. His fame was largely due to his charismatic presentation skills, but also due to his life story that depicts the American rags-to-riches tale. Fandom, contrary to popular belief, is not free from ideological underpinnings, and nowhere is this more clear that when the fandom and its ideological basis is questioned or attacked from the outside. In my paper, I examine, first, the discursive construction of fandom and the resulting sense of belonging, as well as the processes of affiliation at the site of digital memorial, and second, how attitudinal alignment functions both to constuct the in-group but also the out-group, with both of these positionings being embedded in the digital artefact, one explicitly, the other implicitly.

The material comprises user commentary over a memorial video tribute dedictaed to Steve Jobs, the commentary pictured below in a .txt format. Commentaries like this are rich sources of insight into particular fandom(s) and what constitutes them and how boundaries are drawn, but also into the ideological positioning and criticism that stems from what the fandom is taken to represent (this, naturally, depending on whether you are a fan or a non-fan). Thus, memorial sites serve as a battle ground where fan community boundaries as well as ideological conflicts are negotiated.

 

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The overt contestation present in the video commentary, where fans as in-group and non-fans as the out-group negotiate the worthiness and justification of the said fandom, serves to strenghten the alignment among the fans and help create the communal boundary. That is, disalignment with an out-group functions to align the fans more than the fan commentary as intra-group interaction. To identify as members of the community, but also to stake out their fandom, the fans frequently resort to allusional rhetoric; they recycle meanings poached from Steve Jobs’ speeches and keynotes and as these are recontextualised in new digital contexts, the life of Steve Jobs is, in the hands of his fans, also recontextualised and given new meanings that go beyond the original narrative (as narrated by Jobs himself, but also the media), reaching also beyond his physical death.

The fans write themselves into the narrative which constitutes the memorial, which in effect is a process of weaving the life of Steve Jobs into their own life narrative. As a discursive strategy, this serves to establish the continuation of the relational attachment with the fan object that is now physically lost, yet the significance of the relation contunues to be felt by the fans.

My paper, Imagined Community and Affective Alignment in Steve Jobs Memorial Tribute on YouTube, has now been published in an Equinox book titled Systemic Functional Linguistics in the Digital Age  –  check out Chapter four in the book if you are interested in a linguistic take on alignment and a systemic-functional linguistic analysis of affliation on YouTube in the context of fandom and digital mourning.

 

EGOS 2016 in Naples, Italy

Academic Endeavours, Conference, Digital culture, Media, Research

 

This summer’s first conference for me was EGOS 2016, European Group for Organizational Studies, held in Naples, Italy.

 

 

This year’s theme at EGOS was ‘Organizing in the Shadow of power’ and  we attended the sub-theme ‘Marxist Organization Studies: Institutional Forms of Power and their Legitimacy‘. My colleague and co-author, Dr. Ella Lillqvist and I presented our paper ‘Insights from Relevance Theory on the Marxist critique of social media‘. Mainly, we wanted to get insights on the applicabilitiy and suitability of Marxist concepts on the context of social media and digital labour. We did get useful feedback and our paper sparked a discussion of the use of Marxist concepts in new contexts, for example, social media, and how much and how far theory can be applied. It was also interesting to receive comments so different we have previously received from, for example, critical media scholars. In this paper, we are combining a cognitive-pragmatic perspective, Relevance Theory, with the Marxist critique of social media and digital labour, and aim to shed light on the discursive mechanisms at work in the Facebook communication aimed at the users by drawing on pragmatics and how utterances are interpreted in a given context. The paper is still in progress.

Naples was very hot, very hot indeed, and most of the time at the university we had no air conditioning, which made concentrating, or indeed any activity, very difficult. The temperature was mostly +35, but towards the end of the week it was +40 C.

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Conference dinner was held on the beach somewhere outside the city, and while the venue was great and the food nice, we had such trouble getting home and getting a taxi. The overall feeling we were left with from the conference was that everything was a little labourious and difficult, but with bigger conferences this is often the problem. You feel like you queue half the time and the days are long and packed (too) full of both academic and recreational activities.

 

As we had a few extra days over the weekend, we walked around Naples and visited St. Elmo’s Castle or, Castel Sant’Elmo, where you have a gorgeous view over Naples and over Vesuvius. You can also see the Island of Capri on the horizon. It is easily reachable by one of the many funiculars in Naples, but there is no shade whatsoever up there so we were really struggling with the heat. Perhaps best to visit outside the hot summer months…

Article in print feels like a materialisation of sweat, tears and great collaboration

Blogs, Digital culture, Gender, identity, Media, Research

There’s nothing quite like paper when it comes to the reading experience!

Yesterday, I received my hard copy of the Journal of Marketing Management Special Issue on gender in marketing and consumer research, guest edited by Zeynep Arsel, Kirsi Eräranta and Johanna Moisander.

Journal of Marketing Management, Special Issue on gender in marketing theory

Journal of Marketing Management, Special Issue on gender in marketing theory

Our article 'Fashionably voluptuous: normative femininity and resistant performative tactics in fatshion blogs' in one of the Special Issue articles

Our article ‘Fashionably voluptuous: normative femininity and resistant performative tactics in fatshion blogs’ in one of the Special Issue articles

Our paper ‘Fashionably voluptuous: normative femininity and resistant performative tactice in fatshion blogs‘,written by my colleague Annamari Huovinen and myself, was published in this issue. This was a great and rewarding project, and our first collaboration in terms of academic research. It feels satisfying to see the words and sentiments in print that we worked so hard for. To feel the paper, to turn the pages, is such a different experience from staring at pixels which much of academic work amounts to nowadays.

In this article, we examine fatshion blogs (that is, ‘fat fashion’, or plus-size fashion blogs) as a site of subversive identity work, but also as an instance of consumer resistance. Fatshion blogging, with its image sharing, constitutes a performative act that draws on the normative notions of beauty, gender identity and femininity to contruct identities that seek to subvert the prevailing ideals while working to create a space for alternative female subjectivities. However, largely mediated by the media as much as the market, cultural ideals of what the female body ought to look like, the norms governing what is acceptable, sit tight and pervade even the most active resistance.

The fatshionista project is a complex and multi-layered endeavour that highlights the complicated and intertwined nature of identity at the intersection of social and cultural norms, consumer culture and the market. By actively promoting fat acceptance and rejecting social demands as these pertain to the ideal female body, the fatshionista project seeks to widen the subject positions available for women; however, the collective undertaking nevertheless (re)constructs and maintains some other forms of gender oppression by way of upholding certain norms governing the female body while resisting others. This highlights not only the difficulty of consumer resistance, but also the conflicted nature of identity performance under the influence of the market, the media and social and cultural expectations.

The article outlines two performative tactics employed by fatshionista bloggers as they construct and negotiate their identities online, one of which higlights diversity and difference relative to the mainstream representations, while the other underlines similarity by way of subverting the normalised mainstream fashion discourses.

My publications

Digital culture, Media, Research

Harju, A. A. (forthcoming) Imagined Community and Affective Alignment in Steve jobs Memorial Tributes on YouTube. In Gardner, S. & Alsop, S. (2016) Systemic Functional Linguistics in the Digital Age. London: Equinox.

Harju, A. A. & Huovinen, A. (2015) Fashionably Voluptuous: Normative femininity and resistant performative tactics in fatshion blogs. Journal of Marketing ManagementDOI 10.1080/0267257X.2015.1066837 Published online 24 Jul 2015

Döveling, K., Harju, A.A., & V. Shavit (2015) Researching Digital Memorial Culture and Death Online: Current Analysis and Future Perspectives. Medien & Altern 6/2015

Harju, A. (2015) Socially Shared Mourning: Construction and Consumption of Collective Memory. New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia. Vol 21, Issue 1-2, 123-145. DOI:10.1080/13614568.2014.983562 Published online 6 Dec 2014.

Harju, A.  & Moisander, J. (2014) Fans on the Threshold: Steve Jobs, the sacred in memorialisation and the hero within. In Campbell, N., Desmond, J., Fitchett, J., Kavanagh, D., McDonagh, P. O’Driscoll, A. & Prothero, A. (Eds.) (2014) Myth and the Market (pp. 51 – 64) University of Dublin. ISBN: 9781905254859