Skip to content
March 9, 2013

the Digital Dualism debate

by Kim Witten

Maybe “duel” is more apt — a pun that I’m sure hasn’t escaped anyone involved I’m sure. Regardless, an intellectual battle has been going on for the last week or so (but really, for years and years) between two (and arguably more) camps of internet researchers. In the context of this, even the word “camp” is debatable.

“Digital Dualism” was a term coined by Nathan Jurgenson, in a post he made in February 2011 entitled “Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality.” I think he says it best, so I’ll direct quote his definition and stance on digital dualism here:

Digital dualists believe that the digital world is “virtual” and the physical world “real.” This bias motivates many of the critiques of sites like Facebook and the rest of the social web and I fundamentally think this digital dualism is a fallacy. Instead, I want to argue that the digital and physical are increasingly meshed, and want to call this opposite perspective that implodes atoms and bits rather than holding them conceptually separate augmented reality.

Jurgenson later elaborated on this with a proposed 4-part typology of digital dualism, as shown below:

Strong Digital Dualism: The digital and the physical are different realities, have different properties, and do not interact.

Mild Digital Dualism: The digital and physical are different realities, have different properties, and do interact.

Mild Augmented Reality: The digital and physical are part of one reality, have different properties, and interact.

Strong Augmented Reality: The digital and physical are part of one reality and have the same properties.

Various internet researchers have recently been actively engaged in making cases for or against different conceptions within the typology. There is too much going on at the moment to really delve deeply into all the arguments, but I’d like to share summaries and links of some of the more interesting (IMHO) posts I’ve found lately regarding this topic. To be perfectly clear going into this, Jurgenson is in the Mild Augmented Reality camp…but ymmv.

Kicking this linkfest off, one article I found particularly mind-blowing was Jenny Davis’ January 2013 post “Theorizing Embodiment.” She takes Jurgensons’ typology and maps it onto notions of materiality. This results in a new way to conceive of the original model, putting more focus on the physical and experiential aspects of digital dualism. Davis’ reformulation of the original model is copied below. Note that it contains a fifth, ideal and “empirically unreachable” category:

Pure Digital Dualism: This is an Ideal Type in which digital and physical are fully separate, share no properties, and do not interact

Mild Augmentated Reality: Highly digital or highly physical, with small amounts of digtal/physical interaction

Augmented Reality: Physical and digital are explicitly intertwined and mutually constitutive, but maintain unique properties

Strong Augmented Reality: Physical and digital, though maintaining separate properties, are deeply intertwined, mutually constitutive, and inseparable

Pure Integration: An Ideal Type in which the physical and digital are one in the same.

Davis then goes on to explain some manifestations of this (examples including disability narratives, biometric technology, the significance of avatars, and MMORPG playing) which range from disembodied states to hyper-embodied states, with each rooted in various conceptions of her material typology. It’s a short article, but a great read to really get one thinking!

In another recent article posted on Cyborgology, “On the Political Origins of Digital Dualism,” David Banks takes us back through time, exploring some of the conceptual groundwork that led us as a society toward these ways of looking at “real” vs. “virtual”. He starts with the more recent (and fundamentally problematic) view of technological determinism — the idea that technology shapes and influences our thoughts, actions, identities. This idea is annoying and pervasive, e.g., “the internet is ruining English”, “nobody talks to each other anymore because of Facebook”, and on and on. Banks cites evidence of technological determinism (and therefore digitual dualism, albeit not with the modern trappings) going all the way back to Plato’s Phaedrus and his concerns over the dangers of the written form. But not before mentions a bunch of delightful (i.e., amusing) concerns in the centuries since — public access to novels and plays poisoning the youth, the telephone as homewrecker, etc. He manages to follow the thread there and back again, including asides on Derrida, masturbation and the Kindle…you probably should just read it.

(Banks’ article links to an earlier piece he wrote, “Sherry Turkle’s Chronic Digital Dualism Problem” in which he highlights some basic problems with digital dualism (and technological determinism) and explains how “the augmented reality perspective demands that we look at root causes.” It’s another interesting read, so thought I’d give it a mention, too.)

I’ve realized now that this post is going to be much, much bigger than I’d originally anticipated. It’s incredibly late here, and I’m staving off a mild headache. So I think what I’ll do is make this post be a Part One of [number to be determined after sleep and coffee]. So therefore, a Part One that really is a backgrounder of terms and perspectives, which is necessary I suppose (and can standalone, yes? Yes.). Part Two will get into the current debate.

Until the next post, I wanted to add one more article on Digital Dualism. I liked this recent piece “Welcome to the Grid: How Living on the Internet Changes Everything” by Christopher Hutton. While I have some minor quibbles with some of the framings, I thought his summary and quote of Jurgenson was very nice. What made me feel that this article was particularly necessary to include here were his thoughts on communities. Very often in this debate the focus is on individuals, or on society as a whole, but community exists in between and is integral to both. Also, online communities tend to be marginalized or invalidated through digital dualist creeds and it’s really unfortunate, taking a swipe at both the micro (individuals) and the macro (societies) at once. I think that Hutton gets at this simply, personally, and effectively.

That’s all for tonight, folks. Tomorrow, all the digital dualist feels and more…

March 6, 2013

Languages MeFites Know

by Kim Witten

It is shameful how long it’s been since I’ve updated this site, but to rush to my own defense it’s been a ridiculously busy time. I’m teaching, presenting, job-hunting, moving, writing my PhD and all manner of other things. I hope to get back on this posting, as I have lots of exciting MeFi-related things to catch up on and share.

This last week I’ve been refining my data from the two MetaFilter surveys. In March 2010, 2,521 participants submitted surveys about their pronunciation of MeFi & MeFite. In August 2012, 1,957 participants submitted surveys (in a new and improved version!). 769 MeFites took both surveys, leaving 3,709 unique MetaFilter users taking either survey – that’s still well over 10% of the active MetaFilter user base. It’s very exciting…to me it’s akin to walking into a town and getting 1/10th of the living population there to contribute to the ethnography. Like, totes amazeballs, IYKWIM.

One thing that has intrigued me is the amount of other language experience MeFites have. I do not yet know how these results compare to other internet communities, or different geographic populations across the globe, but I can say that in and of itself these data are quite fascinating. We are a linguistically diverse bunch!

I’ll be making some charts soon (need more time…where does it all go??) but for now, here are some neat lists.

This  first is a list of the native languages of MeFites from the 2012 survey, ordered by most common. Again, the total number of surveys in 2012 was 1,957. However, only 1,904 MeFites actually answered the native language question…so this list includes only them. Also, some MeFites were a bit vague about their description of their native language, and eleven of them stated that they are native bi- or tri-lingual speakers, so the total count will be a bit off from 1,904).

6% of MeFites surveyed in 2012 stated that they are native speakers of a language other than English (including native speakers of English + other language(s)). Here are the languages (roughly 35 different languages) and counts:

MeFites’ Native Languages:
English 1804
Dutch 17
French 11
German 9
Spanish (Unspecified Variety) 8
Danish 6
Finnish 6
Russian 6

5 or fewer native speakers (alpha-order):
Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese, Catalan, Chinese (Mandarin), Chinese (Unspecified Variety), Estonian, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Kannada, Korean, Lithuanian, Luxembourgish, Malayalam, Norwegian, Persian (Dari), Polish, Portuguese, Serbian, South Asian Lang (Unspecified Variety), Spanish (Latin American), Swedish, Taiwanese, Tamil, Telugu, Turkish, Urdu

This second list is similar in calculation and format, but consists of the languages MeFites from the 2012 survey state that they are fluent in, or have advanced experience with. There may be some overlap with the numbers from the first list (as there should be, in a sense). 85% of MeFites ignored this question or did not have fluent/advanced language experience, leaving 15% of those surveyed who state that they do. Here is a list of languages (and counts) that these MeFites state they have fluent or advanced knowledge of (roughly 47 different languages):

MeFites’ Language Experience (Fluent or Advanced)
French 151
Spanish 100
German 48
Japanese 22
Italian 19
English 14
Latin 13
Chinese (Mandarin) 12
Dutch 11
Portuguese 11
Russian 11
Swedish 7

5 or fewer experienced speakers (alpha-order):
Afrikaans, Arabic, Armenian, Bahasa Malaysia, Bengali, Catalan, Chinese (Cantonese), Chinese (Unspecified), Croatian, Czech, Danish, Estonian, Farsi, French (Canadian), Gaelic, Greek, Greek (Ancient), Hebrew, Hindi, Hokkien, Hungarian, Indonesian, Irish Gaelic, Kiswahili, Malay, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese (Brazilian), Programming Language, Romanian, Serbian, Sign Language (American), Sign Language (British), Slovene, South Asian Language (Unspecified Variety), Swahili, Tagalog, Ukrainian, Urdu, Welsh


Thinking about this all…I’m impressed with the amount of native Dutch speakers on MetaFilter. Also, that the number of French-speaking MeFites is double that of Spanish-speaking, and triple that of German-speaking. Interesting. Looking at the other ends of these lists…some rarer languages represented, how cool!

More observations later…I must go view some flats now and finish up a job application.

January 10, 2013

Free access to Names – Extended to February 15th

by Kim Witten

Maney publishing has announced that Names is the January journal of the month. Until February 15th, you can enjoy free access to Names: A Journal of Onomastics. Check out the December issue, all about names and the internet, where my article about the negotiation of “MeFi” appears. Enjoy!

October 28, 2012

“nsfw” vs. “trigger”

by Kim Witten

A fellow MeFite tweeted the following earlier today:

“When did trigger warning/alert become nearly as common as NSFW?”

This got me thinking, so I dug into the MetaFilter Corpus and pulled out the raw counts and parts per million (PPM) for both of these words, as found on “the Blue”, and sorted by year. Here are the results:

I didn’t do a chart by word rank, but I should’ve (it’s a bit labor intensive with my current setup).

The word frequency gives you a sense of how much these words were actually used (number of instances), whereas the PPM tells you more about how those words measure up to the rest of the corpus for that year.

“nsfw” (meaning “not suitable for work”, as a warning to other readers when clicking on links) was coined sometime during 2001, but didn’t hit MeFi consciousness until sometime during 2003 (where we see a big jump, from less than 100 instances to just over 300). It spiked again in 2006-2007 and then has seemed to found it’s place with a PPM somewhere between 20-35 million.

“trigger”, already having another sense from the one we are interested in (specifically, “trigger” as a type of warning to other MeFites that the content may be disturbing for PTSD or other trauma survivors) was found in the corpus from the very start*. “trigger” sees a spike in 2005, and then again in 2009. However, it’s remained relatively stable as compared the rest of the corpus (maintaining a PPM value between 13-17). This suggests to me that “trigger” is noticeable to others perhaps not because of its frequency, but rather it’s saliency as a new form with a somewhat contentious use and meaning on MetaFilter.

I do find it interesting that in 2010, both wordforms are relatively equally frequent in count and PPM. I’d want to look into this further and see just how similar they are to each other in these respects. The word rank would be very useful here as well. As would 2011 data. Perhaps I’ll ask around and see if that’s been generated yet.

All of this is not very rigorous…I’m just throwing some quick charts up here, describing what I see, and giving some sparse thought on it. If I had more time, I’d love to delve into the qualitative data and see how these words are actually used in context. And run some stats. But for now, it’s getting late and I had very little sleep last night (went on a roller derby zombie recruitment raid in York, as you do).

Any thoughts y’all have on this would be cool. I’d love to hear ’em.

*The 1999 results for “trigger” were set to zero for that year, as the corpus was very small and therefore the PPM results unreliable. I really should have just left that year out, but I wanted to be thorough.

October 14, 2012

Go forth and people the planet Suck!

by Kim Witten

Speculative Grammarian is the premier scholarly journal featuring research in the neglected field of satirical linguistics.

SpecGram has had a long, rich, and varied history, including notable classics such as Lingua Pranca and Syntactic Structures.

SpecGram has also brought us the tree diagram of love and other poetic observations involving linguistic pain and discovery. In addition, SpecGram has been home to many scientific breakthroughs.

But if this is all a bit much, they tone it done a notch with collected wisdom, Indo-European crosswords, classifieds, and book reviews.

Be sure to check out their current issue, featuring Obama’s denial, re: Romney’s accusation of his plan to eliminate verbs from the English language.

October 1, 2012

Sociophonetic Variation in an Internet Place Name

by Kim Witten

My first journal article is now published in the Names: a Journal of Onomastics (Maney Publishing link) special issue on Names, Naming and the Internet.


This study provides one of the first published accounts of sociophonetic variation in which the speech community under investigation exists online and text-based communication is the dominant mode of interaction. The abbreviated name of the Internet community weblog — MeFi, from — has at least eight recognized pronunciation variants. Quantitative analysis of surveys from over 2000 MetaFilter members reveals statistically significant variation in the distribution of members’ preferred pronunciations for MeFi across four English-speaking countries. These results reflect dialectal and socio-cultural differences in naming preferences in spite of the fact that the speech channel is limited or non-primary.

Here is the link to the content of Volume 60, Number 4, December 2012; my article is here. The post-print of the article can be viewed by clicking here (automatic PDF download). Please note that the post-print is the version that has been accepted by the journal, prior to Maney’s copyediting, typesetting and proofing process; there will be differences between this PDF and the final published version. If you have Institutional access to Names, please view that version.

I hope you enjoy reading this. Please don’t hesitate to send me some feedback. Thanks!

Preferred citation: Witten, K., 2012. Sociophonetic Variation in an Internet Place Name. Names: A Journal of Onomastics, 60(4), pp.220–230.
Some terms and conditions for online journals from Maney Publishing.
September 25, 2012

Chugging and crunching the chars, chais & chi-squares

by Kim Witten

With AVML being a success and accomplishment, and Portugal vacation sadly in the recent past, I’ve finally forced myself to turn to data crunching my way through this endless flood (York is turning into a giant waterhole). It was slow going at first, but in the last few hours I’ve really made some progress.

After weeks of tinkering with Google Refine, I finally have the data in an analyzable state. In the database to boot! I started playing around with the variables and ran a few chi-squares. The results are encouraging! Not only are there significant changes between the 2010 and 2012 surveys, but there are some consistencies (that are also significant) as well. I even found a few things that I hadn’t checked on the 2010 data, which I will go back and do.

Gender is still insignificant; age most certainly is not. Geographies have shifted. Heat maps are needed (and thanks to AVML and some helpful MeFites, I know where to start). Also interesting is the relationship between strength of what I call “MeFi conviction” and pronunciation outcomes. Basically, MeFites who feel very strongly about their chosen pronunciation tend to fall more strongly into a few popular pronunciation groups; MeFites who don’t care or are unsure are pretty much all over the place. This may seem obvious or uninteresting, but it is actually quite relevant to the process of enregisterment in that emerging standards and awareness of those standards are aligned with people’s attitudes and investment in their own pronunciation choices.

That’s all I’ll say for now. There’s loads more, but I’m tired, it’s late and I need to have a real think about things. But later.

I’ll probably work on this again a little bit more tomorrow. Then I’m switching gears to work on updating and submitting my paper about dogwhistles to a journal. I want to make some changes, then include data from next week’s presidential debate. Keep your ears open for those pitches, people!

Friday kicks off a MetaFilter meetup weekend with trips to the Superhuman exhibit at the Wellcome Collection, a night of Turkish BBQ and jazz music, a Saturday at the Science Museum, a trip to what I hear is passable Mexican food at Taqueria afterwards, and finally a pub crawl in Clerkenwell. Then I shall spend Sunday at the International Tattoo Convention, adding to what has so far been a 50+-hour investment. Good times.

August 29, 2012

Some results from the MeFi Pronunciation Surveys

by Kim Witten

I summarized some of the early findings from the MeFi pronunciation surveys in this MetaTalk comment. Here they are, repasted below.

  • 2,521 MeFites took the March 2010 survey; 1,920+ took the August 2012 survey.
  • At least 47 different countries were represented in both surveys.
  • All MeFites of the 2010 survey were active users and that survey data represented 16% of the active MetaFilter userbase. It’s estimated that this 2012 survey represents at least 10% of the active userbase.
  • From the 2010 survey data, it seems that MetaFilter skews male (62%); 36% of the survey respondents were female. There were statistically significant differences in the male/female ratio between the US and the UK — the UK tended to skew more towards males (72%); 27% of the UK survey respondents were female.
  • Again from the 2010 survey data, the average age of MeFites was 33, with no statistically significant differences between Australia, Canada, UK and US.
  • The most preferred pronunciation was “me-fie”, followed by “meh-fee” and “meh-fie”, where “meh” is pronounced with a vowel similar to the one in “met” (not “may”). The remaining pronunciations, in order of their preference, were “may-fie”, “me-fee”, “may-fee”, “my-fie”.
  • The order of preferred pronunciations stay more or less the same (the last 3 switch around a little bit where there are low counts) but the amounts by which any one variant “wins” changes based on several factors, many of which are significant.
  • The “meh-fih” and “my-fie” pronunciations weren’t options on the 2010 survey; the “my-fie” pronunciation was calculated after the fact, based on discussions with individual MeFites and survey comments.
  • The 2012 survey should provide some reliable data on those options, since they were included on this survey. It would also appear (from a very cursory look) that those two options are fairly represented here, meaning that many MeFites chose either of those as their preferred pronunciation.
  • Looking at the 2012 data (briefly and before it’s been thoroughly cleaned up and normalized), it seems that there are some interesting shifts in distribution of preferences between US, UK, Canada, Australia and the other countries. While some geographic regions seem to have gotten more skewed towards a pronunciation, others have gotten more varied. It will be interesting to match this up with how strongly people feel about their pronunciation choice.

I’m trying to find a good way to share this (and other related) info to interested MeFites. I don’t know that another MeTa is appropriate and this seems a bit *too* meta (and unfinished) for Projects. I’m not sure if this is something that people other than me and a few other wordnerds have overwhelming interest in. Anybody have any thoughts?

August 27, 2012

Sociophonetic Variation in an Online Community of Practice

by Kim Witten

The last five days of my final MetaFilter data collection were extremely successful and I can breathe a huge sigh of relief. I have a beautiful, ginormous dataset to work with and a solid plan of what I’d like to do with it. But oh boy, I’ve got my work cut out for me.

Until then, I’d like to enjoy the good feeling of this accomplishment, and bask in the overwhelming support of MeFites and MetaFilter moderators. None of this can be done without them and I truly feel blessed to have such help and encouragement every step of the way. Mirroring many of the sentiments in the comments people left in their surveys, MetaFilter is a phenomenal community and truly the best of the web.

After 2+ years of needing to withhold MeFi pronunciation data, I’m finally ready to spill the beans! I’ve attached the full presentation I gave last year at Variation and Language Processing (VaLP 2011). This one covers a little bit of everything I’m working on…sociophonetic variation, enregisterment, corpus comparisons, and a mini-map of my database and the type of data that’s in it.

My first journal article comes out around November and I’m hoping to be able to share a pre-print or some data from it. I’m still working on how I can do that. The article delves into differences in the pronunciation of the first syllable of MeFi across native English speakers in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US. Stay tuned for that.

I’ve only briefly looked at the 2012 survey data so far. I can see some definite patterns going on and there are some rather drastic differences between the data here and the last survey. It’s super exciting and I’ll post a little bit more about that as I can.

For now, here’s a PDF of “Sociophonetic Variation in an Online Community of Practice”, presented at VaLP 2011 and containing some of the pronunciation and other results from the 2010 survey: Witten_MeFi_VaLP_2011-04-12_smll

Also, here’s a quick pronunciation guide for disambiguating IPA and the codes used in my research. NOTE: the numbers are NOT a preference ranking.

August 20, 2012

Advances in Visual Methods for Linguistics

by Kim Witten

I don’t know why I haven’t mentioned it here before, but my supervisors, other colleagues and I are putting together a conference taking place next month. Advances in Visual Methods for Linguistics (AVML) is a 3-day event with workshops, posters and exciting presentations grouped into six sessions ranging from mapping techniques to knowledge, corpora and interaction visualisations. Our conference website has all the info about our keynote speakers, conference programme, travel, accommodation and more.

We’d love to draw as much interest as possible, so if you know a fellow wordnerdy data-cruncher who would like to get in on the latest dataviz techniques, please pass along the info.

Click on the image to download a PDF of our conference poster:

Registration closes in ten days…sign up now or miss out on this datatastic event!