How to make sense of communication and interaction in a pandemic

Since mid February 2020, when I first heard that the coronavirus pandemic had started to hit Northern Italy (where my parents are based) and was heading for to the UK (where I am based), I have perceived a sense of urgency in trying to make sense of the implications of this crisis for our social lives. I was struggling, constantly asking myself how a social semiotician like me could ever be of any use, in the midst of a global emergency where keeping people alive was the priority. I did not have it fully clear at that time, but I somehow felt that the effects of the pandemic on communication and social interaction were significant and important to understand. 

While my private interactions and the posts on my social media feeds from people based in different countries started to look strikingly similar in terms of both themes and issues of contestation, I felt the need to record, trace and reflect on what I was observing and experiencing. I started to take notes of my perceptions, behaviours and interactions with others, to screenshot social media posts, and bookmark articles that I was coming across. 

Frustratingly, this whole process was extremely chaotic and limited – what I was capturing, through my personal window on the situation, was partial and very fragmented, and while the situation was changing rapidly, I was struggling to keep track of it all and felt I needed to network with others to construct a wider picture.

At the same time, I was also noticing that, like me, everybody else was constantly observing, reflecting, trying to make sense of – and commenting on the situation. Observations, self-reflections, and commentaries were not only about the virus, but also – and often – about behaviours – ways of conducting oneself and interacting with others, both online and offline. They were, in sum, about sign- and meaning-making practices. This, I thought, is something that social semioticians like me can help to make sense of.

My observations, notes and reflections in the first couple of months since mid- February 2020 pointed to a changing semiotic regime, as the combinatory possibilities between media, meaning-making resources, places, times and roles of everyday activities were being reshuffled (Adami, 2020). Everybody was sensing it, and everybody’s insights and perspectives were extremely useful to help construct a wider picture. So, with other colleagues worldwide, we came up with a Manifesto that reworked these coordinates of a changing semiotic regime into four main factors and four key dimensions of change, together with a call for everybody to contribute (Adami et al., 2020).

The coordinates of a changing semiotic regime

The observations, notes and reflections I made in the first couple of months since mid- February 2020 led me to identify the coordinates of a changing semiotic regime (Adami, 2020), which in July, with other colleagues worldwide, I reworked as four main factors and four key dimensions of change (Adami et al., 2020).

Here are the four interrelated factors that make the changes in communication and social interaction unprecedented:

  1. The human body as the centre of danger, with the need to keep bodies apart to keep them safe: Given that bodies are humans’ primary medium for interacting with the world and others, policies to keep bodies apart radically affect our social practices.
  2. The available communication infrastructure to keep people connected (and productive): Compensating for the separation of bodies, the digital re-mediation of all kinds of social activities online has also radically affected how we do things, while online communication systems have enabled instant and distant information sharing and discussion.
  3. The character of the changes: Abrupt – as the immediate danger has imposed urgency; pervasive – as changes affect very basic movements and actions (i.e., the ‘how to do things’) in all domains and spheres of social life, both in our physical environments, because of the separation of bodies, and online for the digital remediation of activities to keep societies functioning; global – as changes have affected everybody to a certain extent, and our communication system has made us perceive it even more so; and totalizing – as for months this has been the sole or main concern in all forms of communication.
  4. A re-disciplining process – because of all the above, habituated practices and behaviours are no longer safe or viable; people have had to reconsider, replan and recreate ways in which they conduct activities, interact with others and manage space. We have been re-disciplining ourselves, unlearning automated movements, actions and practices while co-constructing new, safe and viable ones. The abrupt and pervasive re-disciplining process is energy consuming and stressful, but carries with it a heightened awareness. What was habituated and familiar before can no longer take place, while new practices are emerging, and being attempted in the making. As these have not been naturalized yet, a heightened awareness of our actions offers a unique opportunity for reflection and self-reflection – hence the need and urgency for making the best of the distributed knowledge networks that are being developed to understand the ongoing changes, before new practices are habituated and the potential for self-reflection is heavily diminished.

Driven by those interrelated factors, four key dimensions of communication and interaction are undergoing changes:

  1. Mediation: With bodies needing to be kept apart, the metaphor of the bubble has migrated from online environments to interactions in the physical world, and screens have become our windows on the world and to others. Limitation of physical mobility has been compensated by remediating all sorts of activities online, in all spheres of life. This has contributed to heightening the inequalities and dynamics of social exclusion produced by the so-called digital divide. It has also produced a considerable digital learning curve—an explosion of creativity in formulating practices to compensate for the absence of embodied co-presence, as well as a potential transnational widening of people’s activities (through participation in online events based somewhere else). Other effects include an increased calendarization and datafication of social life, risks for privacy, and potentially diminished chances for social serendipity.
  2. Channels of perceptions: With touch and close proximity no longer safe outside the houses and not afforded online, the auditory and visual channels of perception have taken on a predominant role in communication and interaction with others. The ruling out of close bodily co-presence, both in physical interaction and online, has potentially significant – and still not fully known – perceptive, cognitive and affective consequences for everybody, and particularly for those social groups, individuals and roles that rely more on close proximity and/or touch. It also carries with it heightened challenges for people with sensory impairments. 
  3. Semiotic resources and meaning-making practices: Changes in mediation and in viable channels of perception have impacted on the semiotic resources used to make meaning – the dominant ones now being those relying on auditory and visual channels. Online remediation and physical distance between bodies, together with the wearing of masks, have an impact on the use of gaze, gesture, and body proxemics, as well as on speech, challenged while wearing masks and strictly regulated in multiparty interactions online, so that new strategies need to be adopted. Touching or coming close to others are potentially resignified (from communicating closeness to potential signs of threat), while new online practices are emerging as a larger number of people participate and new types of activities are digitally re-mediated. We have been undergoing a ‘reshuffling of associations between signifiers and signifieds, while points of references between old social practices and emerging safer ones are collapsing, and there is a potential constant reassessment and reshuffling of the identities people intentionally “give” and the ones they “give off” (Goffman 1959)’ (Adami et al. 2020: 9).
  4. Interaction order: The spheres and domains of private and public have undergone a stark separation in our physical environments – with a marked threshold between home and public space, the crossing of which requires us to re-discipline ourselves, from basic movements and actions to all kinds of habituated practices. At the same time private and public have invaded each other through what is shown on our screens, with all kinds of activities taking place online from home. This has, at the same time, produced a confusion or reshuffling of former markers of formality and informality.

As we have been undergoing an at least momentary collapse of semiotic regimes (that is, established patterns of association between forms and meanings), and we have all been going about interpreting and co-constructing new practices, we find ourselves at a key moment to observe these dynamics and assess what is gained and what is lost (Kress, 2005), and to predict the implications for our future social lives. 

The question for me then has been how to do so, given that (1) while the changes are global, they are taking place in an extremely socially-diverse and unequal world, and that (2) there is an urgency of capturing sensations, reflections, fears and experiences before practices are naturalized and while there is still time to voice concerns about and impact the direction of change. The phenomenon is simply too broad, too diverse and multifaceted, and too fleeting and changing to use the traditional methods of data collection and analysis that I, as a social semiotic discourse and interactional analyst, am familiar with. 

PanMeMic: Towards public, live and conversational collective semiotic research beyond academia

The urgency to make sense, combined with the awareness that my experience is partial, and that there is a general tendency to observe and reflect on changes, has led me to contact 30 colleagues worldwide to set up PanMeMic(Pandemic Meaning Making of Interaction and Communication). We launched the project in mid May 2020 as a transnational collective research experience/experiment. It uses the affordances of social media to involve both academics and non-academics in reflections and conversations with everybody interested in how the pandemic is changing the ways in which we communicate and interact with others. 

PanMeMic is a tansmedia space spanning a website and several social media accounts (including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WeChat, WeiBo, and YouTube). Although still in its infancy at the time of writing, PanMeMic intends to initiate an innovative research approach and set of methods, inspired by citizen science, that can complement existing approaches and methods in (social) semiotics, multimodal studies and interactional sociolinguistics. It does so by involving both academics and non-academics in public, open and live forms of reflection and discussion, to understand changes in communication and social interaction, how they affect different persons, as well as the fears and problems people are facing, and the resources they put in place, together with the possibilities for impacting these changes. 

The methodological innovation draws on (1) the Socratic tradition, in pursuing understanding through public and live conversations, which can now be traceable by using the affordances of social media, and on (2) citizen science (www.citizenscience.org/, for reviews Kullenberg and Kasperowski 2016; Lewenstein 2016), involving non-academics in the co-construction of knowledge (for participatory research in the humanities and social sciences, see Facer and Pahl, 2017; for disability studies see Watson et. al. 2012; for a crowdsourced research project on the pandemic in anthropology see https://anthrocovid.com/; for citizen sociolinguistics, see Rymes and Leone 2014; Rymes 2020; Svendsen 2018). 

In only two months (18 May – 17 July 2020), the PanMeMic website has published 12 articles, attracting 4,536 unique visitors (for a total of 7,907 visits) and 42 comments; the social media accounts have engaged over 1,300 people; the PanMeMic Facebook group reached 746 members, with 242 posts, 731 comments and 3,384 reactions. The table below shows the range of topics discussed, derived through a preliminary thematic analysis of the posts in the Facebook group (achieved by assigning only one theme to each post, without considering the comments).

AdsFearsOnline gigs Smiles
Anti-COVID partiesFoodPaintingSnowmen
App visuals Gaze ParodySocialising
Arab response Gestures  Paths Software updates
ArchitectureGreetingsPlay Solidarity
Black lives matterGymsPolitical discourseSoundscape
Bodies in space HairstylesPolitical postersSpace
Borders Head protectionsPopulismSpiritual growth
BrandingHealth costsPPEsStores
Calls Hearing impairmentProducts and Services Street art
Campus lifeHome spacesProtestsSurgeons
Children’s languageHugs Public communicationTeaching
Children’s art craft InfographicsPublic policing behaviourTikTok 
ComicsKindness and surveillancePublic signsTouch  
Dance Language Public transportToys
Digital learningLonelinessQueueTravels
Drive-insMasks Rainbow TV shows
Eid’s cards MemesRave cultureUS
ElectionsMusicRedesign of places Videocalls
Emails Mutual aid groups ResearchVisual metaphors
Emojis NationalismRisksWaving
ExamsNeologismsRituals Working from home
ExhibitionsNew normalRomance  Workplaces 
Face coveringsObjectsSemiotic technologies Writing
FashionOffline-onlineSmell  
List of topics of the PanMeMic Facebook group posts – 18 May-17 July 2020

The sharing of observations and pictures, reflections on one’s own practices, requests for advice, and links to news items in the posts trigger comments from people based in other countries that often widen the perspective, ‘generating transnational exchanges that give a sense of the complex intertwining between sharedness and specificities of the global phenomenon for each given topic being discussed, thus enriching the individual’s positionality and understanding in a way that would not be possible otherwise.’ (Adami et al., 2020: 16).

This collective research experience is still in its infancy and has so far developed on an entirely voluntary and spontaneous basis. Next steps will involve developing methods to assess the knowledge produced as well as more structured forms of inquiry. Admittedly, at least at the moment, the design of these next steps raises more questions than it provides answers.

In the meantime, I have been learning a lot from the shared reflections and conversations taking place in this collective research space, in a way that I would hardly have otherwise. One key thing I have learned, well beyond the pandemic, is that we may need to (re-)ask ourselves what counts as semiotic research, how it is done, who has expertise for doing it, and what the boundaries are between data and anecdotal accounts when it comes to inherently human practices and experiences such as communication and interaction. Hopefully, by continuing these collective forms of discussion, we will be able to find answers that are suitable for these changing times.

This is necessarily a condensed report. For a more nuanced discussion, you can refer to my article published in the PanMeMic website (Adami, 2020), and the PanMeMic Manifesto, coauthored by members of PanMeMic on behalf of the whole founding team (Adami et al., 2020).

References

Adami, E. (2020, May 19). How, where and who will we meet and hug again? And why this matters. Understanding communication in a global pandemic and the future of social interaction – Towards a collective semiotics. PanMeMic. Retrieved 20 August 2020 from  https://panmemic.hypotheses.org/114

Adami, E., Al Zidjaly N., Canale G., Djonov E., Ghiasian M. S., Gualberto C., Karatza S., Lim F. V., Pedrazzini A., Pirini J., Wildfeuer J. & Zhang Y. (2020). PanMeMic Manifesto: Making meaning in the Covid-19 pandemic and the future of social interaction. Working Papers in Urban Language and Literacies no. 273. Retrieved 20 August 2020 from  https://f-origin.hypotheses.org/wp-content/blogs.dir/8699/files/2020/08/WP273_Adami_et_al_on_behalf_of_the_PanMe.pdf

Facer, K. & Pahl K., eds. (2017). Valuing interdisciplinary collaborative research: Beyond impact. Bristol: Bristol University Press.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. London: Penguin.

Kress, G. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge and learning. Computer Composition, 22, 4–22.

Kullenberg, C. & Kasperowski, D. (2016). What is citizen science? A scientometric meta-analysis. PLoS ONE 11: e0147152. 

Lewenstein, B. V. (2016). Editorial: Can we understand citizen science? [Special Issue on Citizen Science]. JCOM: Journal of Science Communication, 14, 1-5.

Rymes, B. & Leone, A. R. (2014). Citizen sociolinguistics: A new media methodology for understanding language and social life. Working Papers in Educational Linguistics, 29, 25–43.

Rymes, B. (2020). How we talk about language: Exploring citizen sociolinguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Svendsen, B. A. (2018). The dynamics of citizen sociolinguistics. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 22(2), 137–160.

Watson, N., Roulstone, A. & C. Thomas (Eds.) (2012). The Routledge handbook of disability studies. London: Routledge.

Published by elisabetta adami

Elisabetta Adami is Associate Professor in Multimodal Communication at the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds, UK. Her research specialises in social semiotic multimodal analysis. She is currently working on developing methods for the semiotic analysis of inter- cross- and trans-cultural communication, with a focus on issues of mediation and translation. Recent publications include journal articles, edited special issues and volumes on sign-making practices in place (on urban visual landscapes and superdiversity), in digital environments (on webdesign, interactivity, YouTube, mobile devices, and digital literacy) and in face-to-face interaction (in intercultural contexts and in deaf-hearing interactions). She is editor of Visual Communication, coordinates PanMeMic, and leads Multimodality@Leeds.

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