Affective meaning-making: novel forms of community formation

Contemporary communication is performed at an increasingly fast pace. The emergence of political identities and communities on social media is dominated by affective reactions to current events – a tendency enabled by the prevalence of emotionally and visually oriented communication. Social movements from the Arab Spring to the Yellow Vests in France are perhaps the best examples of such novel forms of political identity formation.

Tweets and emotionally loaded images on social media can be enough for connecting masses. Image credit:
“Viva_La_Revolucion” by The Daring Librarian / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Communities stirred by emotion

These transformations in identity formation are closely connected to socio-technical affordances of social-media communication that allow for formation of publics on an unprecedented temporal, spatial, affective scale. These affordances render some patterns of behavior or use more handy and natural than others. The formation of networked publics on social media does not depend so much on a specific topic, issue, or belief. Rather, these publics are organized around shared emotions (affect) driving them to care about a certain issue.

In this process of formation, social, political, environmental, etc. topics are often simplified and the decision-making process becomes dependent on emotions and affect. The affective role is manifested in the anchoring of public topics to personal emotions, the creation and spread of hashtags, and tags that unify disparate phenomena under a single label. The collective is held together around connective action and the only political demand is change.

Mobilizing communities on social media

Mobile phones and other digital means of communication make it easy to record stirring events and share them with friends. If those friends then reshare the content with their friends, then we already have a case of mobilizing the community on our hands. Digital platforms, whether Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, provide various opportunities for connective action. Especially after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, researchers in political science have begun speaking of, for example, twiplomacy (Twitter diplomacy) as a novel type of political communication.

The temporary coming together of communities based on social media action (that is, connective action) has been interpreted in terms of the “hashtag public”, “ad hoc public”, “intimate public”, or “affective public”. In general, these publics are characterized by connective action – based on large-scale self-organized, personal content sharing, fluid and weak-tied networks – as opposed to collective action, which is defined by formal organizational control, stronger commitment, and collective identity framing.[1]

Forget the arguments: are you “for” or “against”?

The problem is that this new type of community formation results, firstly, in the instability and temporary nature of these groups, and secondly, in the reduction of complex socio-political issues to those providing a stark yes/no alternative. In this context, deliberation and solution through argumentation becomes increasingly difficult, being replaced by affective reactions being either “for” or “against”.

Affective publics leave distinct digital footprints (e.g., hashtags), which render their communication analyzable. However, how do we analyze affect and do the humanities possess the analytic tools to conceptualize the novel forms of identification in social media? Below we shall sketch a potential path for the usefulness of semiotics in researching affect.[2]

The photo of bloody Omran Daqneesh (from August 2016) became a symbol of civilian suffering in the city of Aleppo and was used as a propaganda image by both sides of the Syrian war.
Image credit:
“OMRAN.. The Face of Syria [EXPLORED]” Falcon EyE / CC BY-NC 2.0

Affect as the basic form of meaning

From the semiotic perspective, affect is an inseparable component of discourse and thus can be analyzed in and through meaning-making. This is not, however, the way in which affect has been traditionally conceptualized. Firstly, in psychology (e.g., the work of Silvan Tomkins) and neuroscience (e.g., Antonio Damasio), affect is understood as an elemental state generated by an encounter between two or more bodies. Secondly, in social theory, affect is seen as an intensive force that bodies exert upon one another, increasing or decreasing their capacity to act (e.g., Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari).

Both perspectives tend to separate affect from signification. Affect thus becomes something preceding discourse and meaning-making, something inaccessible and almost mystical in its elusiveness. Paradoxically, then, social analysis should assert, when analyzing affect, that it always lies just outside its reach – and thus affect potentially loses connection with the social world altogether.

From the semiotic point of view it is most fruitful to adopt the notion of affective semiosis (or meaning-making) as developed in semiotic cultural psychology by the latter’s most distinguished researcher, Jaan Valsiner. For Valsiner and cultural psychology, affect is not a simple function or reaction, but a basic form of meaning which has the potential to activate further interpretations.

As such, affective semiosis concerns the whole domain of human psychological life and social regulation of behavior. There is an affective component present in any rational discourse, any social norm or rule of behavior, any act of communication. In social media communication, however, we are witness to the increasing domination of the affective aspect over argumentative or deliberative.

The attention-grabbing economy

Social media engenders a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, there is an uncountable amount of opinion and spaces of deliberation, but on the other hand, their number is so high that it is likely that most of them will go unnoticed. The information overload has increased the relevance of focuses or filters of attention, which can be institutions, individual mediators (e.g., social media micro-celebrities), or algorithms (e.g., those that mark trending themes).

Visibility and virality are among the most desirable resources in social media, resources fought over by various interest groups. At the same time, of course, these resources are manipulable by the most powerful social media actors. Thus, directly linked to affect, we have the economy of attention-grabbing, which dictates, for example, that headlines be more negative and sensational than the article itself. It is not difficult to understand how attention-grabbing feeds into the domination of affective semiosis in social media.

People are more willing to share content which is perceived as novel, intriguing, and somewhat mysterious or obscure. The affective aspect is intensified by fake news, conspiracy theories, etc. Their intriguing and sensational nature enables them to enact the attention-grabbing effect and thus to increase traffic to certain sites by creating a certain agenda. It has been proposed that this is exactly the reason why Donald Trump’s campaign team and Kremlin’s troll network have spread anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.[3]

Affect-driven discourses that influence Estonia

Specific problems emerge in relation to Estonia as a digitally advanced society. The National Defense Development Plan of Estonia (2013-2022) emphasizes that one of the key priorities is to grow the academic expertise in the field of Estonian strategies of psychological defense and to raise awareness about information-related activities aimed at harming Estonia’s constitutional order and society. The mapping of various affect-driven discourses will help to clarify the basic semantic components of contemporary socio-cultural fears, hate speech, and conflict building.

Andreas Ventsel and Ott Puumeister are researchers at the University of Tartu Department of Semiotics.

[1] On the distinction between connective action and collective identity framing, see Bennett and Segerberg’s article, “The logic of connective action” (Information, Communication and Society, 15(5), 2012, pp. 739–768).

[2] This article is based on research developed in the Estonian Research Council project application PRG 663, “Affective meaning-making: novel forms of community formation in the face of environmental challenges” (2019).

[3]  P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018)

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