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How social media affect the forms of our communication online is one of the main questions asked in a variety of disciplines and approaches. The initial analytical interest in isolating specific new media genres (e.g., email or blogs) and establishing how they remediate established genres – that is, how they draw on but also depart from traditional ones (such as letters or diaries) as they rework them into the forms and practices of the new media – gradually gave way to a realization that this type of relationship is difficult if not problematic to establish. Central to Ego Media’s work is the idea that new media developments need to be understood as an interaction between emergent forms and changing practices among users.


In this essay, we outline the three main gaps that we identified in prior research into forms and practices of life writing across digital media:

  • (life) stories as contextualized social practices
  • the social-interactional aspects of storytelling
  • the multiplicity of semiosis, especially in narrative and life-writing genres.

We show how we addressed these through adopting a historicized approach across varied time scales (including into the future) to forms and practices and the evolution of digital media and platforms, adopting concepts that challenge traditional approaches to, and the analysis and theorization of, narrative.

Forms, affordances, algorithms, and communicative practices

If we posit the influence of media on forms as linear, unidirectional, and time-bound, we run the risk of technological determinism and of overstressing novelty. This is at the expense of documenting the multiple and increasingly transmedia connections between forms, on the one hand, as multisemiotic choices, and social media, on the other, as diverse, multilayered, partly-designed-and-partly-constituted, and inhabited spaces. From an initial focus, then, especially in (socio)linguistics, on how forms of new media differed from their face-to-face counterparts, there has been a decisive shift toward contextual approaches. These recognize the need to investigate forms not on their own but as part of the assemblage of media affordances, algorithms, and communicative practices on different platforms.

Within this framework, a number of areas have emerged and rapidly become established, for instance, platform studies, critical data studies, and STS (science and technologies studies). These set out to show how the constantly evolving architecture of social media apps creates parameters and preferences for specific forms and practices of communication while constraining others as well as recasting social relations, e.g., friendship.1,2 There is useful conceptualization in these studies, especially in terms of the relational processes and self-presentation afforded by media. There is nonetheless little empirical research to show how the interplay between media affordances shape users’ actual choices of form and, in turn, how those may be conventionally associated with specific practices. In a similar vein, there is a level of abstraction in many of the cultural and media studies critical commentaries that does not easily allow us to see how sociocultural processes and relations are worked out at the more local level of communication choices (e.g., posting, commenting). At the same time, sociolinguistic and discourse analytic work has been slow in moving away from the logocentrism of its analysis and developing tools for examining the multimodal forms which characterize social media.

When it began, the Ego-Media project thus identified three main gaps in the research on these topics, at a time when studies on language and other semiotic forms in connection with social practices on social media were still scarce. The first gap was a relative lack of focus on (life) stories as contextualized social practices. Closely related to this was an even more striking lack of focus on the social-interactional aspects of storytelling, specifically on how modes of media-afforded participation may shape them. The second gap in research was the scarcity of historicized accounts of digitally mediated genres both at the level of forms and at the level of representations about them. The final gap was lack of attention to the multiplicity of semiosis, including artifacts, especially in narrative and life-writing genres.

We sought to address the above gaps in the following ways:

First, we have deployed a variety of material ranging from actual users’ data (e.g., selfies, videogames, vlogs) to more self-reflective exercises (e.g., our Mass Observation questionnaire featured in Self-Observation Online).

We have also tried to balance the futility of chasing after every novelty in the ever-changing digital landscape with velocity in teasing out and scrutinizing key changes in the affordances of particular apps, for example, by examining:

We have also employed a variety of methodological approaches well-suited to capturing facets of the assemblage of media affordances, communicative forms, and practices: e.g., thematic interview analysis, corpus-assisted critical discourse analysis, literary, geneaological approaches, digital ethnographic tracking, small stories analysis – see the Methodologies essay.

In the process, we have been able to contribute insights from our diverse case studies to growing lines of inquiry into the microanalysis on online forms, for instance online conversation analysis – Researching the Narrative Construction of Mommy Vlogger Influencers and Sharing-Life-in-the-Moment as Small Stories: Participation, Social Relations, and Subjectivity.

Research findings

One common thread in our studies has been the adoption of a historicized approach to forms and practices. The historicity (Time essay) of material can be understood at many analytical levels and in relation to different time scales: for instance, by situating emojis in their historical context and comparing them to eighteenth-century pictogram language and nineteenth-century rebus cards; by tracing forms of diary-keeping across the ages (Diaries 2.04); by looking at engagements with selfies (Showing the Moment); and with vlogs about motherhood (Researching the Narrative Construction of Mommy Vlogger Influencers) over time and as part of longer conversations that develop between posters and commenters, thus making up a tapestry of small stories about everyday mundane life, out of which some kind of continuity of self and a life story cumulatively emerges.

We also espoused a historical perspective on the evolution of digital media and platforms, based on the premise that the decisions of a whole network of actors (e.g., founders, product managers, designers, programmers, etc.) about the spatial architecture and the engineering of affordances on apps shape the forms of communication deployed and the practices associated with those forms. We showed this in relation to:

In three of our projects, the historical frame opened up to so as to tap into the futurology of technologies, with a focus on predictions of the 1920s and ’30s about technologies (To-Day and To-Morrow Online).

Similarly, in addition to shedding light on current forms of social media communication through examining users’ representations and perceptions of them (Self-Observation Online and The Use of Self-Tracking Technologies and Social Media in Self-Representation and Management of Health), we have interrogated how widely available, historically evolved views, definitions, and ideologies of conversations, talk, and stories have informed the media curation of them through specific features, e.g., chatbots (Chatbots) and Stories on Snapchat and Instagram (The Social Media Curation of Stories: Stories as a Feature on Snapchat and Instagram).

Our research has shed light on the ways in which visual affordances shape and are more or less strategically drawn upon by users to construct their stories and identities in interaction with other users. We show how selfies generate and become part of stories (Showing the Moment); how video content is remixed and edited to performative effect (Avatars, Alter Egos, and Ventriloquists’ Dummies: Voice and Vicariousness Online); how specific aspects of one’s daily reality are foregrounded ( Researching the Narrative Construction of Mommy Vlogger Influencers); and how the satirical creation of analogies between stories of current affairs and popular culture stories can fundamentally rework the plot of the former (Sharing the Moment Now as Breaking News). The evolution and increasing significance of visual, video, and live streaming facilities in the course of our project have allowed us to track and analyze the integration of physical and embodied aspects into the storying of the self online (The Use of Self-Tracking Technologies and Social Media in Self-Representation and Management of Health) as well as the significance of artifacts as social actors in communication (Imaginative Agency).

A major component of our work has been the focus on story-making, story-sharing, and lifelogging processes. We have documented systematic practices in how stories emerge collaboratively, are distributed across settings and across media, while invoking their physical locations, engender specific modes of participation (e.g., affective responses, alignments), and are adapted to (e.g., comply, resist, counteract) the quantification and metricization of the self. This systematicity in practices revealed the importance of the creation of norms and expectations about how to put forms to use and for which social actions. Such norms and expectations in turn valorize (in specific social networks) specific ways of “telling” stories. To describe and account for these practices, we felt that some of the mainstay vocabulary of (conventional) narrative analysis and life writing needed to be rethought and even dispensed with (our essay on Self). Certain concepts that you will find being used in our projects, e.g., narrative stancetaking, rescripting, small stories, showing the moment, poly-storying (Sharing-Life-in-the-Moment as Small Stories: Participation, Social Relations, and Subjectivity), and telling by doing ( Researching the Narrative Construction of Mommy Vlogger Influencers,The Networked Voice, Diaries 2.0,5 Self-Observation Online, and Imaginative Agency. Also, see Black Boxes6 on the King’s College, London website) are symptomatic of our attempt to escape the confines of a conceptual apparatus that is not easily transferrable or applicable to the realities of social media communication.

We did not need to look far to establish a range of forms employed creatively and performatively in our material: from “me selfies,” which were engaged with as performances of self and responded to with ritual appreciation by users (Showing the Moment), to polished posts on Instagram portraying ideal selves (The Use of Self-Tracking Technologies and Social Media in Self-Representation and Management of Health) and videogames (Videogames, Identity and Digital Subjectivity7 on the King’s College, London website). There is a long-standing emphasis in the study of new media forms on the proliferation of opportunities afforded to ordinary users for vernacular creativity,8 that in turn allows for experimentation with both language form and self-presentation.9 Some of our respondents in Self-Observation Online demonstrate lives lived imaginatively in this way on the internet, while also shedding new light on some of the problems. Against the background of a tendency toward celebratory accounts of performance on new media in previous studies, we explored creativity in form as well as engagement with creative forms as part of the assemblage of individual users’ voices, distributed agency and coauthoring as well as the apps’ own co-opting and commoditization of creativity, especially in relation to “good” storytelling. In doing so, we showed the limits of creativity and performance: from the cost to users of the pressure for performing optimized selves (The Use of Self-Tracking Technologies and Social Media in Self-Representation and Management of Health) to the appropriation and hijacking of personal stories in fake accounts ( Researching the Narrative Construction of Mommy Vlogger Influencers), the co-opting of play in the industry’s monetization and monitoring of videogames (Videogames, Identity and Digital Subjectivity10), and the amplification of certain accounts at the expense of others as a result of creative reworkings of current affairs stories (Sharing the Moment Now as Breaking News). In this way, we documented issues of entitlement (often media-engineered and policed) – of who gets to be creative online and how – as well as showing the destabilization of the “personal story,” the presentation of a supposedly autonomous ego.

Where to now?


  1. Taina Bucher, If...Then: Algorithmic Power and Politics, Oxford Studies in Digital Politics (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).
  2. José Van Dijck, The Culture of Connectivity : A Critical History of Social Media (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013),
  3. Rob Gallagher, “Exploring ‘ASMR’ Culture,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  4. Max Saunders et al., “Diaries 2.0,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  5. Ibid.
  6. Rebecca Roach, “Black Boxes,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  7. Rob Gallagher, “Videogames, Identity and Digital Subjectivity,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  8. Jean Burgess and Joshua Green, YouTube, 2nd ed (Cambridge: Polity, 2018).
  9. Y Nishimura, “Style, Creativity and Play,” in The Routledge Handbook of Language & Digital Communication (London: Routledge, 2015).
  10. Gallagher, “Videogames, Identity and Digital Subjectivity.”


  • Bucher, Taina. If...Then: Algorithmic Power and Politics. Oxford Studies in Digital Politics. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Burgess, Jean, and Joshua Green. YouTube. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity, 2018.
  • Gallagher, Rob. “Videogames, Identity and Digital Subjectivity.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Gallagher, Rob. “Exploring ‘ASMR’ Culture.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Nishimura, Y. “Style, Creativity and Play.” In The Routledge Handbook of Language & Digital Communication. London: Routledge, 2015.
  • Roach, Rebecca. “Black Boxes.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Saunders, Max, Clare Brant, Leone Ridsdale, and Alexandra Georgakopoulou. “Diaries 2.0.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Van Dijck, José. The Culture of Connectivity : A Critical History of Social Media. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.