Genre, the organization of knowledge and everyday life
Introduction. From the point of view of genre theory, this paper explains how the organization of knowledge can be understood as an articulation of everyday communication with and in digital media. I argue that, with genre, a theoretical frame can be offered to cast the organization of knowledge as a communicative activity in everyday life.
Method. This is a text-based argument which pulls together different sources for developing and discussing the contention.
Analysis. I will start out with some brief reflections on digital media and communicative interaction. From there I will look into some steps already made toward understanding knowledge organization as an everyday activity, before providing some examples of how the organization of knowledge in digital media can be understood as genre-based communication in everyday life.
Results. Due to the saturation of digital media in everyday life, genre theory can be used as a way of understanding the organization of knowledge as a communicative activity.
Conclusions. This paper concludes with a brief discussion of where the developed argument leads knowledge organization research for the future. It suggests the kinds of questions, critiques and analyses now necessary as consequences of the proposed argument. It is concluded that genre provides one means of understanding the organization of knowledge as a communicative activity in digital media.
If we look around at our everyday lives, we can observe that activities of knowledge organization abound. In mundane vocabulary however, and due to the omnipresence of various forms of networked, social or mobile media (i.e., digital media) and their affordances, these activities have particular names and are referred to as structuring, ordering, arranging, tagging, friending, following, listing, liking, or searching. People are carrying out or being shaped by these activities which constitute communication via digital media, partly due to digital media’s ‘integral’ database form (Manovich, 2001) or, more precisely, due to their frequent appearance as structured collections of items, their absorption of ‘old’ media, and their permeation in our everyday lives. With digital media, multiple forms of media, including radio, television, traditional print press, and social media appear on a single platform. This means that news, entertainment, leisure, or other issues of public and private interest can now be approached, or in some cases have to be approached, by interacting with structured collections of items. With activities of ordering and structuring now a part of everyday life, it seems like digital media’s modes of providing access to, storing, and organizing knowledge and information as forms of communication have resulted in the organization of knowledge becoming a social reality. In this way, the organization of knowledge can be understood as a particular communicative practice in digital media and as an everyday social and cultural practice; that is, as a person’s everyday experience with activities of ordering and structuring.
Due to the omnipresence of digital media and their particular modes of communication, this paper suggests that the organization of knowledge is a part of people’s everyday communicative activity. Genre theory represents one way of addressing this situation. Genre is a particular way of seeing and understanding regularized communicative activities performed by people, and of understanding how people make sense of communicative activities in daily interactions. For this reason, I will be arguing that genre can be used as a theoretical framework to position the organization of knowledge as a communicative activity in everyday life. The remainder of the paper will discuss this argument. I will start out with some brief reflections on digital media and communicative interaction. From there I will be looking at some steps that have already been taken toward understanding knowledge organization as an everyday activity, before providing some examples of how we can understand the organization of knowledge in digital media from the point of view of genre. A concluding discussion will recommend future knowledge organization research and offer pertinent questions, critiques and analyses based on the argument proposed here.
Digital media and new forms of communicative interaction
In his book The Language of Media, Lev Manovich (2001) argued the database to be a new cultural form. With this, Manovich called attention towards understanding forms of knowledge organization as expressive and material forms of culture. He contended that people approach cultural artifacts by means of searching a structured collection of items as opposed to encountering culture through a narrative. While Manovich’s argument may seem somewhat problematic or too binary, he nevertheless introduced a notion of computer and digital media as forms of culture that enter our everyday lives by means of games, interfaces, search engines, and databases. Today, we are saturated daily by social, networked, or mobile media. Fundamentally, we may say that digital media are the foundations of all of these (Finnemann, 2011; 2014); as such, it is digital media and their characteristics (or affordances) that shape and inform, but do not determine, everyday forms of communication (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, blogs, search engines, Wikipedia, digital archives). Attached to these forms of media and their corresponding forms of communicative actions are verbs such as to tag, to share, to like, to search, to tweet, to list, or to friend. These actions are different than listening, reading or watching — actions typically ascribed to ‘traditional’ mass media like radio, television, or newspapers. ‘New’ media are media in a slightly different sense than mass media. What we expect from mass media is the provision of news and entertainment and we do not necessarily expect them to be structured collections of items providing access to recorded information. But, because digital media invites storing, linking, and searching, we expect a search function implying some sort of underlying structured collection of links or digital materials. For instance, with Twitter or Facebook we expect to be able to perform the activities of tagging, following, or linking, whereas without a search function, other media, such as search engines, do not have a purpose at all. Even though these forms of digital media also provide news and entertainment, they provide users with the opportunity to search, archive, or list; their point of difference could be what Egan and Shera (1952) once called receptor-initiated communication, which they opposed to mass communication, commonly understood as sender-initiated or one-to-many communication. Yet, the distinction between receptor-initiated communication and mass communication can be problematic. Since users are afforded the possibility to initiate communication with e.g. search engines or through Facebook this form of communication is no more receptor-initiated than a reader reading a book. But users’ communicative actions with search engines are not to read, watch, or listen but to search and navigate a database and a list of search results. Of course, as long as search engines rely on written language as the dominant mode of communicative interaction, searching is also a form of reading and writing. But new media, such as search engines and social networking sites, introduce new modes of communicative interaction because engagement with them is of a different nature than previous forms of communicative interaction with media. They are different forms of media with a different set of affordances; as such they call for, or imply, different forms of action on the part of their audience. Because of the omnipresence of these new media in our everyday lives, the forms of communicative interaction they bring about become routinized or typified everyday activities which can begin to be understood by means of genre.
Understanding communicative interaction: genre and the everyday
Naturally, we are witnessing digital media genres as continuations of print (e.g., the recipe or the syllabus genre) because of the relatively stable social practices which have been developed around them; however we are also facing new genres, such as searching and tagging. In addition, new genres do not follow squarely from new means of communication, as one genre can appear in various mediums that have emerged in different historical epochs (e.g., a meeting agenda can be sent out by email or on paper). New genres emerge in response to particular social needs, such as when communication situations arise which demand new ways of appropriate response (Yates, 1989). New communication situations are not necessarily a logical consequence of new means of communication. If new means of communication ‘cause’ a new genre, it is because people and their particular discourse methods in everyday life are beginning to appropriate that particular means of communication in realizing a typified, or routinized, social activity. Through this, a fairly stable social practice involving a particular means of communication might ripen and a new genre emerge. For instance, Facebook, as a means of communication, is now part of many people’s typical way of connecting with family, friends, and the public sphere. The way people connect is by tagging, uploading, friending, listing, commenting, liking, or linking — the everyday genres of Facebook so to speak.
Genre is one means of understanding communicative interaction and how this interaction is embedded in larger systems of activity; it provides the means for people to make sense of their everyday communications. As its point of departure, genre theory takes the genres we use in everyday life. Expanding her notion of genre beyond the traditional rhetorical genres (deliberative, forensic, and epideictic), Miller (1984, p. 155) called attention to the experienced rhetoric of everyday life in order to “take seriously the rhetoric in which we are immersed and the situations in which we find ourselves” and, accordingly, to take into account de facto genres: “…the types we have names for in everyday language” because they “tell us something theoretically important about discourse”. Later, genre scholar Amy Devitt (2004) suggested a similar view of genre as “…the types of rhetorical actions that people perform in their everyday life interactions with their worlds” (p. 2), arguing that it should be understood with reference to “…the people who participate in genres and make the forms meaningful” (p. 3). She maintained that the study of genre “…is studying how people use language to make their way in the world” and that the point of interest is “...everyday genres as named by their everyday users” (Devitt, 2004, p. 9). Thomas Luckmann (1992; 1995; 2009) has further underscored the connection between communicative genres and the everyday by stressing that, as solutions to communicative problems, genres are embedded in larger communicative projects as well as in social institutions. From this it is clear that genre can be seen as embedded in human social activities and as providing examples of how to act within, and make sense of, social institutions.
Steps toward understanding the interplay between the organization of knowledge and everyday life
Means and modes of knowledge organization, such as databases, search engines (big or meta), and algorithms, are penetrating the fabric and vocabulary of everyday life. For example, in talking about databases, Dourish (2014, p. 1), argued that the “…very spread of digital forms means that we increasingly understand, talk about, think about, and describe the world as the sort of thing that can be encoded and represented in a database”. Music streaming services may serve as a case in point: they assemble a huge amount of music and present it as a structured collection to be searched, also attaching metadata and links to brief articles on artists or music genres. Digital services, such as music streaming, essentially make something available by means of a database. Concerning searching and search engines, Kallinikos, Aaltonen, and Marton (2010, p. 10) remarked that “Conducting a Web search is today a matter of simple routine, a condition that renders search engines increasingly part of the invisible equipment with which we encounter the everyday world”. Referring to searching as a ‘simple routine’ and search engines as ‘the invisible equipment’ we ‘encounter in the everyday world’ suggests just how deeply searching and search engines are embedded in everyday life as natural ingredients in daily social interactions. Concerning algorithms, Gillespie (2014, p. 167) noted that “…they play an increasingly important role in selecting what information is considered most relevant to us, a crucial feature of our participation in public life’’. Consequently, it seems that knowledge organization plays a role in everyday life on a scale it did not in the past; it has started to become part of our typified everyday experience. Stated differently, we, as members of the public, audiences, citizens, private persons, searchers, or users are confronted with structured collections of items in a more direct way than we may be used to because one means of communication employed by society’s social and cultural institutions is digital networked media and their affordances. There is a body of literature on knowledge organization suggesting similar observations and arguments about everyday routines and knowledge organization activities. Hendry and Carlyle (2006), for instance, proposed bibliography to be seen as a genre in new digital networks because the making of lists “…is a vibrant activity and a popular form of expression on the internet” and that “…the diversity of information artifacts whose primary purpose is to provide lists of links to electronic material is extraordinary”. They also stated that “…bibliography, in short, is a lost antecedent for many of the fashionable information genres that we see today on the web” (Hendry & Carlyle, 2006, pp. 1–2), acknowledging that a lot of activities on the Internet and digital media involve providing lists of links, thereby being a form of knowledge organization; bibliography is now a fashionable information genre. With this, the authors also highlight how forms of knowledge organization have become routinized with digital media. As for social media and knowledge organization, Mai (2011, pp. 114–115) argued that “Today, social media have facilitated the creation of order in the universe of knowledge that is organic and created by the people who are engaged with the information objects” and that “…the authority of folksonomies and systems comes from the users’ collective interpretations and meaning production”. By saying that the creation of order in the universe of knowledge is made by the people interacting with information objects and that those users’ collective interpretations and productions of meaning are shaping the authority of forms of knowledge organization such as folksonomies, Mai almost phenomenologically points to the role of users’ everyday experiences in creating forms of knowledge organization. In addition, Feinberg (2009; 2010; 2011a; 2011b; 2015) has, in several articles, argued for the importance of understanding the organization of knowledge as communication and as genre-based action. Recently, Andersen (2015) suggested, by means of an activity theory-based analysis, that the organization of knowledge should be understood as one genre among many that individuals may make use of in their everyday communication and searching activities. Although their arguments are expressed in different ways, all of these authors point to the need for the organization of knowledge to be understood as an activity carried out by people in everyday routines and as embedded in and implied by social and cultural contexts. I am going to connect these observations and arguments by carrying the above notion of genre into the discussion and by bringing in the phenomenological take on everyday life, communication and genre as put forward, in particular, by Thomas Luckmann (1992; 1995; 2009). In short, I will discuss the organization of knowledge as an everyday activity and as a communicative action or genre in everyday life.
The organization of knowledge as a communicative action and a genre in everyday life
Understanding the organization of knowledge as an everyday genre is to take seriously the situations people are in when they use forms of knowledge organization inscribed in digital media and the discourses which frame these situations. This reveals something theoretically important about everyday discursive interaction with digital media and their forms of knowledge organization. It tells us that digital media play rather different social and cultural roles than traditional mass media because our social and cultural institutions produce information through digital media and use digital media to communicate and structure information. This means that, in many cases, these institutions create digital material as structured collections of items to be searched in order to communicate with their audience. Thus, our everyday interactions with society’s social and cultural institutions are, to a very large extent, shaped by their digital presence. The names and everyday genres of these forms of communication are, among others, searching, arranging, friending, liking, sharing, archiving, ordering, tagging, and listing.
These names, and the activities they describe, highlight that they are meaningful activities for people. In a digital environment we cannot avoid doing these things if we want to be a part of and make sense of digital communication. Storing and categorizing information are not only activities whose purposes are determined primarily by their ability to support information retrieval — as is usual in information studies. They are activities involving forms of everyday routinized social actions; that is, they are genres. To google, to tag, or to like are not only verbs, they are genres in the sense that they are “…everyday genres as named by their everyday users” (Devitt, 2004, p. 3). We google, tag, or like on a daily basis because that is how we stay in touch with our everyday world. They are part of our everyday forms of communication. Furthermore, we can consider googling, tagging or liking as “…types of rhetorical actions that people perform in their everyday interactions with their worlds” (Devitt, 2004, p. 2) because they are part of our everyday strategic use of language molding and producing our everyday life. For instance, the hashtag #colis9 structures and archives the conversations about what is going on at the conference or what has a connection to the conference. As such, the hashtag not only classifies the conversation, it also stabilizes the conversation as to what and how much to tweet. Therefore, to tweet using particular hashtags can be considered a genre in digital communication. In a medium like Twitter, to organize conversations by means of tweets and hashtags is the way you communicate in Twitter. It is case of the organization of knowledge as a communicative genre in digital media. It is a way of databasing Twitter as the trending algorithms Twitter make use of picks up their data from the Twitter archive of trending Tweets and hashtags. It is also a way of considering how the database is a cultural form (Manovich, 2001).
In a number of papers, Luckmann (1992; 1995; 2009) has argued for an understanding of communicative genres as solutions to particular communicative problems, in particular communicative projects, and as such, as part of a given society’s social stock of knowledge. In our digital culture, society’s social stock of knowledge includes appropriate forms of communicative actions or genres, invoked so as to communicate and act in accordance with digital media forms such as search engines and social networking sites. To produce, use, and communicate by means of a digitally structured collection of items can be understood as a communicative project: “The communicative projects of the actors are projects that, by definition, employ the socially objectivated resources of language and other semiotic systems” (Luckmann, 2009, p. 269). These communicative projects may contain corresponding ready-made patterns with existing formal constraints; these are communicative genres (Luckmann, 2009, p. 273). Through this lens we can understand communicative actions like tagging and searching. Initiating a tag is to begin to typify what is going to be included, or not, under that particular tag; this constitutes a ready-made pattern, or in other words, a genre. We also know this from library catalogs. When a particular item is assigned a particular term, we have well-founded expectations of what can be found under that term in future actions, even though variations will occur across space and time (cf. Tennis, 2012). Likewise with searching:
When one interacts with others, the action project involves anticipations of the others’ typical courses of action and their underlying typical motivations. When the interaction begins, a person’s course of action is based on his original project, but it may have to adjust to the others’ actual performances if these differ from his original anticipations. (Luckmann, 2009, pp. 270–271).
Embarking on a communicative action with a search engine (the other), we have an initial communicative project causing our interaction. We try to anticipate the search engine’s typical course of algorithmic action and its motivation. We adjust our course of action to the search engine because we know it performs in a typical way given typical parameters like particular keywords, strings of keywords or previous search history. For instance, we know that when typing in the search term ‘Adidas’, the top-hit will most likely be the Adidas company website and not articles or other websites about Adidas. If we wanted to use a search engine to find articles on the topic of Adidas, we would most likely use several search terms in combination. That is, we would adjust our search to the actual performance of the search engine. This kind of knowledge about the actual performance of a search engine shapes how we interact with it in the future; that is, genres “…function as models for the solution of specifically communicative problems” (Luckmann, 2009, p. 274). Our search engine activity becomes a genre-based activity.
So, what are the relationships between genres, everyday or social lives, and the organization of knowledge? The elementary function of genres, Luckmann (2009, p. 228) suggests, “…is to organize, routinize and render (more or less) obligatory the solutions to recurrent communicative problems”. In a modern everyday life in which communication with different forms of digital media can be treated as recurrent communicative problems, and with genre as the communicative solution to these, we can say that communicating through the genre of knowledge organization (that is, through ordering, structuring, categorizing, or searching) makes up a significant part of the repertoire of genre in our current form of society. The genre repertoire of a particular society at a particular point in time “…constitutes the ‘hard core’ of the communicative dimensions of social life” (Luckmann, 1992, p. 229). In our digital culture, one major part of these communicative dimensions of social life is being able to act and communicate by means of digital media and understanding the ‘logic’ of structured collections of items which penetrate and shape our everyday communicative interactions with society’s social and cultural institutions. Thus, the relationship between society and its social order, embodied in various genres as the organization of knowledge, is enforced by digital media because they invite particular types of communication, which to a very large extent involve activities of searching, archiving, ordering, categorizing, ordering, and so forth.
With genre we can get to understand how the organization of knowledge can be suggested as everyday communicative actions in digital media. While highly dependent on how we understand the activity of collecting and structuring information in various sorts of library, media or information systems, it is clear that we are surrounded by these activities. We may not all call them libraries or the like; instead, we may call them Facebook, Instagram, search engines, Twitter, Wikipedia, digital archives, data archives, and so on. In many cases, what we do with these forms of media is arranging, searching, listing, ordering, and categorizing different sorts of items. In other words, everyday interactions with systems or media of structuring and providing access to information seem to be flourishing. It seems like the organization of knowledge is inscribed in our everyday life as an everyday genre.
Casting knowledge organization within the framework of the argument presented here, and similar arguments presented elsewhere in the literature, we can begin to ask (more) questions about the organization of knowledge as an everyday activity inscribed in or implied by society’s overall communicative projects and society’s media matrix (Finnemann, 2011). The organization of knowledge is on the agenda more than ever. This is not, of course, because knowledge is messy and needs to be organized by professionals, but because certain practices and activities in our current digital media-saturated culture require ordering, structuring, or filtering. This raises questions about, for instance, what kinds of power structures activities like ordering and structuring help to sustain or naturalize. Also, what kinds of social and cultural practices do people try to make sense of and engage in when carrying out activities of ordering and structuring? By investigating these questions, and many more, we can begin to understand the organization of knowledge as infrastructural (Bowker, 2005) and as part of our personal lives (McKenzie, 2015) and to see our society and culture as databased (Bowker, 2014; Manovich, 2001; Poster, 1995) or as social action (Andersen, 2015). Whatever lens we choose the organization of knowledge — a classical research object in information studies — has moved beyond its traditional boundaries and understandings and placed itself at the center of our digital culture, proving its value as one way of thinking about how culture and society is digitally mediated. Thus, questions about the organization of knowledge must be of a different nature than hitherto. It seems that questions about, for instance, the improvement, construction, or evaluation of thesauri, classification, or indexing systems are suddenly not adequate; they do not tell us much about people’s everyday activities of ordering and structuring.
About the author
Jack Andersen , Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the Royal School of Library and Information Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He specializes in genre theory, media theory and the organization of knowledge and has written numerous articles, edited books and contributions to books on these matters. His recently edited volume Genre theory in information studies was published by Emerald Publishing in 2015.
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