Be different (with taste): Affordances, practices and agency in the shaping of style and aesthetics

Elisabetta Adami, University of Leeds

Social media platforms, enabling personal pages/sites creation, content sharing and interaction among users, have made public self-expression and representation through multimodal text production a matter of everyday communication. Website and blog providers, such as WordPress or Blogger, make available a wide range of customisable templates for creating one’s own blog or website without the user’s need of programming skills and knowledge. More recent forms of social media platforms, like Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and YouTube, provide a pre-set semiotic space where users, through their profiles, can upload and share content and interact with others, in the form of written texts, images, videos and links.

As users of these environments, we can produce texts and interact with others – and design our online persona – through a wide range of modes. Whereas earlier the multimodal production of texts was generally confined to professional elites, such as graphic designers, these (corporate-based) environments – themselves hinging on multimodal platforms designed by IT ‘experts’ – have now enabled ‘everyday’ sign- makers to create, share and make publicly available their own produced multimodal texts to an unprecedented extent. As a consequence, a wide array of new text-making, sign-making and interactional practices are taking place in these environments.

With an unprecedented number of ‘lay’ sign-makers having available an unprecedented range of semiotic resources for text-making, there derives – arguably – an unprecedented diversity in sign-making practices, in styles and in aesthetics, responding to and shaping an unprecedented differentiation in tastes, in Bourdieu’s (1979/1986) sense.
However, given that sign-making is produced through choice, that is, selection from the resources made available by the media platform, and that the way their affordances are designed is never neutral, questions arise as to the real nature of the diversity of sign-making practices – and to the social forces that drive sign-makers’ preferred selections of resources, in terms of styles and taste. In other terms, is this diversity in sign-making truly diverse in taste and aesthetics? Or is it rather a matter of variation within a generally more unified and unifying mainstream taste and aesthetics?

To try to answer this question, a social semiotic multimodal analysis needs to consider the social affordances (i.e. what is socially promoted/praised and discouraged/stigmatised), along with the technological/material aspects of a media platform and how these frame text-production and interaction. To do so, it can be useful to compare sign-making practices and affordances online and offline. Tracing analogies and differences between online and offline environments allows to trace broader social variables from more specific technological and material affordances.

The paper will discuss agency in sign-making practices, in relation to social and material affordances, by comparing the findings of two studies, one on sign-making practices online, in a UK food blog and one on sign-making practices offline, in a UK urban market.
By considering how these practices are changing in both spaces (throughout a 2-year observation period for the food blog; throughout a 1-year observation period in the market), the paper will offer some reflections on the role of wider social trends and pressures onto sign-maker’s shaping of their aesthetics in both offline and online environments.

Trying to go beyond the widespread discourse on the specificity/uniqueness of sign-making practices in social media environments, the presentation will open to reflections on style, aesthetics and taste in relation to the very old discussion on the interrelation between structure, social practices and individual agencies, yet newly shaped in today’s social semiotic landscape.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1979/1986) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London: Routledge