The Numerical Individual and The Construction of the Self outside Everyday Life

Ana Maria Munteanu - Aida Todi

The production of virtual space is achieved by operations analogous to the real life production. The construction of the virtual space as home is achieved by valorizing the self through continuously reinvented signs in order to support an enhanced display and perception of singularity. Virtual interactions similar to Dionysian rites generate a meaning shared by the participants to the “experiences outside the real life” which may repair the negative impact of the real on the self image. In the virtual environment individuals compress and redefine social distances by avoiding group restraints. Networking modifies “by design” the relations (concatenation) between the micro-social networks and the macro-social levels diminishing the influence of the language as value-oriented pattern in the cultural identification and self-construction processes.

Ana Maria Munteanu is Doctor in the Sociology of Communication (University of Bucharest); Associate Professor at the Faculty of Letters (department of Journalism), Ovidius University Constanta, Romania. Her research concerns the language of the media and the effects of communication systems on social practice.

Contact mail: ana_petra(at)yahoo.com

Aida Todi is Doctor in Letters (University of Bucharest); Associate Professor at the Faculty of Letters, Ovidius University Constanta, Romania. Studies on the impact that changes in real situations and virtual interactions have on the language system.

Contact mail: aidatodi(at)yahoo.com

Construction of self - Cultural framework - Digital identity - Language pattern - Linguistic distortion - Liminality - Online community - Ritual environment - Social networking - Virtual concatenation

Communication - Language sciences

Social networking platforms and the reinvention of everyday life
Reinventing the self outside everyday life constraints and patterns of behaviour
The numerical image and the linguistic pattern in virtual conconcatenation
Language as value-oriented behaviour in the cyberspace
Language and culture from the perspective of the “everyday life” category on sites outside the country

Social networking platforms and the reinvention of everyday life

In post communist countries the media coverage of changing processes has frequently been reduced to “the theatrical production of the truth behind the disease [1]”: corruption, mentalities, political, administrative inefficiency, etc., and this dramatization of politics has emphasized the difficulties encountered by the European project (a complex idea correlated with legal instruments and structural adjustments) competing against the conflicts of interests of the media corporations, thus the positive effects of the EU integration have passed unnoticed, being obscured by media sensationalism by conflicts and scandals, simulacra of a real public debate area.

In this context of crisis, the youth have been massively drawn towards the Internet, a real – imaginary in-between space, where the constraints of the everyday life, the disintegration of the authority or the gap between words and realities are suspended. The voice of young people from former communist countries made a distinct mark among critical opinions on globalization in the context of a broader debate led by Anthony Giddens at BBC Reith lectures following issues like democratization, family, tradition, environment [2]. Their position was in favor of globalization driven by the opportunity to get out of isolation or crisis, to be connected with others, to travel, study, work, etc. This motivation and the massive migration flow that followed and still continues explain the boom of Internet used primarily with the purpose of socializing and of knowing other people and, after the year 2000, for communicating with family members or close friends. The growth rate was of one million users each year, users aged between 18 and 34 being the most active category [3]. Another indicator concerning this dynamics is blogging, a “creation of space” through online communication. At the end of 2006, PricewaterhouseCoopers [4] registered 26.458 active sites compared to 18.158 in January 2006. It seems that virtual space is the most dynamic part of Romanian society, created through “embeddedness [5]” and “virtual orientation”, so we ask ourselves whether we have at our disposal the adequate research tools in order to understand the manner in which the social identity is constructed throughout these virtual interactions ? In what way are language/thinking/interaction/identification correlated, transferred and eventually transformed in the context of the social networking sites ? To what extent is the concept of numerical individual relevant for this issue ?

These networks generated by an increased offer to connect and to be connected represent a new form of “weak communication society”, a community by design, generated by the interactions that relocate the individuals as players in several networks, forging new environments, de(re)contextualising, relocating, freeing oneself of group as well as set identity constraints.

Reinventing the self outside everyday life constraints and patterns of behaviour

Richard Schechner considers that “the transformation of a space into home implies a dramatization of the self – by cultural delimitations and marks – which create visibility and make identifications possible. The building of the immaterial space follows the same procedures applied for the real space, and the state of being in the process of creating a new immaterial space has a deep psychosocial meaning, the virtual space modifying the social distances between individuals [6]”. The virtual has a series of distinctive features which underlie cognitive operations and identifications :

~ it is not limited to the purely informational aspect formulated within the scientific concept of reality, but “it psychologically and psychosocially involves the user in play-frames ;
~ the virtual space “is a collective mental arena, a place that the participants share with other minds [7];

~ online communities are based on interactive rites characterized by simplicity (the users couldn’t participate in the virtual game if they were not provided with an informal, familiar meeting environment) ;
~ the Internet is considered a ritual environment whose purpose is to reinforce the belief system within which the human interaction and shared participation experiences outside the daily life may create an organizing meaning and sense ;
~ the liminal stage consists in the separation of the rite subjects from the rest of the society, not as physical separation, but as mental isolation in the day to day life, in environments, products, institutionalisations and context, enlarging the personal autonomy and space of development.

The numerical image and the linguistic pattern in virtual concatenation

According with Merriam-Webster Dictionary concatenation means: a series of interconnected or interdependent things or events, series of links united, order of things depending on each other as if linked together.

If values are shared and stable meanings, and cultures – links of meanings integrating societies as stated Clifford Geertz in The interpretation of cultures, then the combinatory game of meanings whereby the virtual identifications are carried out depart from the operation model of social identity in its dependence on the cultural history as institutional frame “taken for granted” by individuals and reflect linked associations (concatenation) with place (territory, and proximity) and past mediated by language and culture.

In a virtual context, the normative character becomes invisible, being included in the service provided by the website administrator, the outlining of a strategy depending upon the communicative level. The fluidity of the virtual interaction field generates behaviours different from those defining the image of a problematic state. It interferes with the technological beliefs (decentralization, transgression of limitations), it shifts the interest from values and contents to the interactive game where the individual delivers himself at the shelter of his masks.

The form of a social communication network is rhizomatic, it does not depend on the negotiated recognitions of the self – others, and, furthermore, it manifests itself as a dramatization of an ambiguous “self-referential and fictitious self [8]”.

The denotation of meaning by rational and moral calculations and choices is replaced by interplay and empathy which transcend the borderline between acceptability, mutual acknowledgement and discovery of a largely imagined interlocutor, impacting on the consistency of communication. It’s precisely these transformations that R. Rorty avoids when he states that speaking of cognition, rationality, morality etc. means reference to a “linguistic construction” and the social mechanisms whereby it is validated in a certain culture and period of time [9]. The contingency of language proposed by Rorty [10] strongly rejects the idea of a truth established within language, beyond the perceptible experience, in other words he rejects the power of ontological foundation of a language which leads to “different perspectives on politics, morals or philosophy”. According to Davidson, the way in which language works has nothing to do with the way in which cognition works [11].

“Insofar as a person seeks solidarity, he or she does not question the relation between the practices of the chosen community and something outside this community. Insofar as he or she seeks objectivity, he or she distances himself/herself from the persons around, since he/she apprehends himself/herself not as a member of an imaginary group, but through a relation connecting him/her to something that may be described without reference to a particular human being [12]”.

In this respect, the numerical image is a convenient description of the consumer’s identity similar to the identity card attesting the citizenship and position in a system built on sociological categories (age, sex, residence, etc.), but not in order to control his movement in a strictly delimited space (in the 18th century when the need to control the movement of the population appears), nowadays freed from the negative connotations of the borderline, but for various commercial uses of information which, although apparently protected by the right to confidentiality guaranteed by website administrators, raises a number of issues (technical, legal, protection, privacy, security, organisations).

Language as value-oriented behaviour in the cyberspace

The numerical image underlies the operation of re-semantization of the valuables – merchandize, services, the image of politicians and stars, names of authors, artwork albums, etc. The numerical image feeds the prototypical categorizations and participates automatically in selections of information and images (as well as of compatible partners) available to the user, and the time spent on the Internet tends to reduce the importance of the social environment, to blur the cultural particularities and differentiation, with the advantage of operability and the obvious disadvantage that anything that is not valued and present in the virtual does not become a valuable object. It gives rise to a duality of the real individual, and the construction of the self-image, of the identity, is freed from the conventions and constraints of the real world with the result that anything that does not serve this freedom of exposure of the self is cast into the shadow or becomes obsolete. The memory, the institutions, the connections from the real world are undervalued or absent in the virtual socialization. The systems capitalizing time and historicity are vulnerable, as demonstrated by the language uses on the Internet. To a certain extent, the language system and the linguistic norm take on the linguistic distortions, by various means, being able to counter-balance up to a certain point the deviations from the norm which have lately proliferated both in the press and on the Internet. Thus, by the normative works issued [13], the Romanian Academy regulates the correct use in all the linguistic fields: phonetics, orthography, grammar, vocabulary. It is important to mention also articles by Romanian linguists and certain scholars in the cultural magazines, especially (România literara, Luceafarul, Convorbiri literare, Dilema, 22), taking a stand on various aspects of present language uses (the modernization of the Romanian language, preserving, nonetheless, the national specificity, in the context where globalisation seems to be the common desideratum of the European nations ; moderate and adequate acceptance of the Anglicisms, following a strict selection ; the issue of the Romanian linguistic communities living inside or outside the Romanian territory ; the impact of Internet on language) [14]. The concessions made by the latest edition of the DOOM (DOOM 2) to the speakers’ use are noteworthy, as, on the other hand, it accepts a very high number of Anglicisms, whose necessity for Romanian language is at least questionable, and, on the other hand, it allows forms in free variation for certain verbs and nouns ; the same for the stress patterns of certain words.

An interesting fact is that, in certain cases, even the Internet users tend to censure, on the blogs and forums of various online publications, incorrect or deviant linguistic forms, making interesting comments on certain articles on various topics. In a previous paper, we showed that the language employed by Internet users to sanction language mistakes, most frequently by irony or apostrophe, occasionally with xenophobic touches, varies a lot, depending on various linguistic and extra linguistics factors : the type of mistakes condemned – for example, we find a certain tolerance towards exceptional mistakes, but minimal tolerance for the use of certain neologisms without full grasp of its meaning or useless neologisms for which there exists an equivalent Romanian term ; the user’s level of cultural and civil education ; their studies or competence in the field – it appears that, in general, those with solid knowledge express themselves in a more elegant manner, being mainly preoccupied with providing logical arguments, occasionally with scientific references, in support of a certain point of view, while others exhibit a rather emotional behaviour, sometimes going beyond the limits of civility implied by this type of communication ; some use their theoretical knowledge, while many rely on linguistic intuition. The online journalists, who frequently show little preoccupation for the linguistic quality of the articles posted, are involuntarily supplying the readers with many occasions to criticise. Even those who take a stand, by censing certain linguistic deviations, sometimes make mistakes themselves (some of them do not follow the new orthographical rules with â and sunt or the rules of the new DOOM ; others use, instead of diacritics – which sometimes are not properly displayed on the internet, tz for t and sh – for s; others unwarily use Anglicisms, although, for some of them, there is a manifest ironical intent behind their use) [15].

The linguistic opinions on the discussion forums of various online publications should represent for the journalists and for the management of the publications concerned (taken, of course, with a grain of salt at times), a warning signal.

Globalisation submits the cultural environment produced by “the content oriented communities [16]” to a permanent pressure, but what is irreversibly changed is not only culture, but the very society which may no longer be imaginarily restored except in a dislocated, non-geographical virtual shape, with a distinct and replicable informal, counter-culture or subculture pattern in spite of individual or real social status. Thus, individuals gradually free themselves from the normative character of language, creating interplay connotative units-buzzwords, maps, passwords, for short-time uses as part of in the virtual interaction designed process. Unlike virtual networks, culture and the linguistic pattern, are “located”, centred in the social representation as long-term institutions with modern intercultural ties and influences. The individual designed as player can relocate himself by virtue of the numerical image (a virtual identity card). Reinventing the identity through interactive games as logic of catenation, means being able to play or to be equally phantasmal or pragmatic. This mutation from the fixed to the shifting identity is a result of some changing processes including mental block and mistrust of the membership, society as a “tool of survival” (Y.Friedman, 1980) [17]. Since dysfunctionalities are not the mere passing result of political change, but also the cumulative effect of two-way interferences, the virtual gradually becomes a niche of development while the entire edifice of the real life barely sustains the survival of its heritage. This statement remains valid even in the process of differentiation of communicative platforms as virtual "meeting places" for Romanians at home and in the fluid Diaspora created by the European market. The drive force behind this online social networking is the communication interfaces set up by entrepreneurs grouped in associations and companies [18].

Language and culture from the perspective of the “everyday life” category on sites outside the country

As baggage that connects to the predecessors’ and successors’ horizons, but also to the multiple horizons of the consociates through shared culture [19], the language practices of migrants activate the cognitive dimension of interactions within the virtual community, also by modelling which serves as an example offered to the others - among which that of a good speaker, someone concerned with the accuracy and expressiveness of language use, a condition for confirmation of the cultural membership system and a condition of being "inside", while being physically "outside" Romania. The linguistic environment and expressiveness explicitly or implicitly acquire in this situation a patrimonial value and this value extends to language uses in characteristic work and career situations, symbolically coating the indexical world of success and contingencies, despite the physical distance and splitting representation between "there and here", all under the label of "outside Romania". But precisely because it betrays the crisis of that "home" in the real space, cultural identity marks become clearer in the virtual space, the uses of linguistic material in self-narratives reflect the adequacy of the paradigm of the intangible patrimony introduced by Christian Wulf [20]. Everyday life lived outside the country is submitted to a psychological reading following a pattern and set up in an exemplary story. Individuals build their community in the virtual environment by narrating themselves, a value self-oriented towards confirmation, an orientation which motivates the search for a familiar environment, the online language community. The cultural framework reinforces the accessing motivations as a significant tendency to translate and recode the "real" from the categories of daily interaction to the mediated ones, the vehicle being the meaning shared by fellow countrymen. The linguistic material sent and received in de-located multi-centred communication, is processed cognitively, language being more than a mediation- interposition tool, i.e. a connector (bridge) for independent individuals and networks. Facilitating cognitive and relational nucleations of the web of life and linking type among various referents of the same type of personal journey, the world of words becomes a "social place" of transformation and interpersonal convertibility of adjustment and cross-cultural contact experiences, negotiation of identity and difference, as micro-social functions in the process of social structuring. At the micro level – of cultural expression and self-image – the online environment portals provides through the portals of Romanians – especially those in the European area – attractive new cognitive resources (stock of knowledge) of mother tongue communication, enriching the language as social capital (in the sense of Putnam [21]) shared by users as members of the online community. Online mediation - the level of the emerging community expressing itself in the horizon of the language created by the predecessors - within certain limits, typifies alternatives to confusion and identity crises that can affect, to a larger or smaller extent, the destiny of Romanian language in the construction of everyday experiences. Speaking the mother tongue in the language frame of the virtual community becomes the "norm" of access and valued expression of personal experiences and equally of recognition by fellow countrymen (back of recognition), an implicit mutual component of socialization. The semiotic mapping - the level of culture - redistributes, "rearranges" the cognitive elements by production and reading of personal narratives, selected and presented as they express exemplary (vicarious) experiences and routes. This level – the culture of existential changing and the crisis that accompanies it reflects the social and national identity crisis as liminality (in the sense of social crisis, especially in the van Gennep-Turner model [22]), a passage rite practiced in interpersonal communication in the online space - from the lack of horizon of the life "back home" to regaining the self in a new career, job, etc. in Western countries. The crisis moments succeed one another in stories, they create a common pattern with a symbolic function as well, as personal narratives become an (interpersonal) cultural resource. The cognitive content intersubjectively mobilized provides the tools to reason and overcome the existential crisis by following the example of those who have succeeded and by the resources of direct interactions and those mediated in the community of fellow countrymen [23]. In this way the online platform takes part in a socio-dynamics richer in information and knowledge, promoted by individuals and culturally connected networks, correct and expressive use of the language being a condition of membership of the online community.

The reinvention of the self outside the everyday life is related to the development of online communities generating a spectacular multiplication of social networking platforms, blogs and online publications. These processes and issues appear as series oflinksunited, depending on each other as if linked together (embedded). The high rate of developing sites inside Romania reflects a need for communication and self-construction outside the real life marked by existential constraints and the crisis of the public and political discourse. The online communities outside Romania offer alternative stages to the reinvention of the self, especially in the European space. In an overview on the processes, both worlds are connected through the same linguistic frame which maintains the connection (concatenation) through language as a niche of identification, construction and access to valuated knowledge outside the everyday life, together with or despite emerging realities, political crisis, or constraints. The distortions of language in global communication according to different authors and our own research reflect frustrations against the “real” Romanian society in terms of gap between political promises, mass media agenda and subjective interpretation of the facts. It appears firstly as a significant correlation between the language behaviour and negative attitudes towards realities, motivating the creation of virtual niches-theatralized as home, and secondly, concerning language, as a concatenation of two different worlds connected through words and “cultural material”. This material is mostly represented by narratives of the self used for circulating knowledge and sharing it with the other members of an (online) language community. These aspects highlight new functions of the national language as institution – tool of survival and development in the virtual space maintaining the routes between “the worlds of the subject” and the “conscience paradigm” and the online communities with pragmatic aims of being in contact with others as tool of integration in an European space based on the “mutual understanding paradigm”. The role of language in the online socialization and integration is not yet sufficiently known. Our research hints at the importance of language as tool of integration throughout virtual networking under the pressure of global flows or social mobility and migration, both for the reinvention of the self as subject and member of an online community.

  1. [1] M. Foucault, Biopolitica si medicina sociala, Cluj, Idea Design & Print, 2003, p. 50.
  2. [2] Treated in his book Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping Our Lives, Anthony Giddens lectures are posted on http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/ reith1999/lecturer.shtml (accessed on january 2011).
  3. [3] According to data from Thinkdigital, an European network specialized in advertising, in Romania since 2008.
  4. [4] Apud MediaWebDesign, www.mediawebdesign.ro, data posted on the site in dec. 2006 accessed in December 2010.
  5. [5] The concept of “embeddenes” related to the “weak tie” where introduced in 1985 by Mark Granoveter in “Economic Action and Social Structure : The Problem of Embeddedness”, American Journal of Sociology, n° 9, p. 481- 510; a larger panorama on the New Economic Sociology in Swedberg, Richard (1997), “New Economic Sociology : What has Been Accomplished, What is Ahead ?”, Acta Sociologica, n° 40, p. 161-182, that may be associated with an anthropological perspective in R. Caston, (1998), Life in a Business-Oriented Society: A Sociological Perspective, Allyn & Bacon, Boston.
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  10. [10] D. Davidson, Truth and Meaning, quoted in R.Neculau, ibid., p. 111.
  11. [11] ibid., p. 111.
  12. [12] R. Rorty, in Neculau, ibid., p. 113.
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  15. [15] Ibid., Internetul si integrarea europeana. Forumurile de discutie ca spatiu virtual de exprimare a opiniilor privind problemele limbii române, in O. Ichim (ed.) Actele Simpozionului International Distorsionari în comunicarea lingvistica, literara si etnofolclorica româneasca si contextul european, Institutul de Filologie Româna “A. Phillipide” (25-27 Septembre 2008, Jassy), Jassy, Editura Alfa, 2009, p. 359-372.
  16. [16] N. Paskin states the dilemma of the DOI Initiative : “The digital technology community takes as its starting point all digital mechanisms, and views intellectual content mechanisms as a sub-set. In contrast, the intellectual content community takes as its starting point all creative works, and views digital mechanisms as a sub-set”. In principle has to accept that “While the digital world has necessarily worked with defined and well-structured concepts, the content world has not (until now) found it necessary to be so rigid : standard numbering (of books, serials, and recordings) and product bar codes have been useful but there is no widely accepted data model defining all creative and publishing acts” (N. Paskin, The Digital Object Identifier System: Digital Technology Meets Content Management, http://www.doi.org/sun_pap2.html, posted on august 1998, accessed on december 2009).
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  21. [21] The concept of social capital in R. Putnam, 2002, Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society (Edited by Robert D. Putnam), Oxford University Press.
  22. [22] “The rite of passage”, in A. van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, Pinguin, London 1977 ; V. W. Turner, The Ritual Process, Penguin, London ; V. Turner, 1982, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, PAJ Publications.
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