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Potential dangers inherent in the carnival of symbolic meanings

Group communication presents what is termed by Bakhtin as “the post-modernist carnival.” Rallying around the doctrine of “equality for all,” groups communication attempts to counter the mainstream culture, subvert the traditional order and create a collective carnival participated by the entire society. Group communication has many unparalleled advantages that are inaccessible to the traditional mass communication, creating the carnival of the new media by subverting the traditional authority. However, behind such a carnival, there exist great inherent dangers and new problems that could ensue therefrom.

Most prominent among those problems are the information overload and the information fragmentation. In the Age of Big Data, the volume of information grows exponentially, causing people to be diverted in their attention and have much of their time and energy wasted by large amounts of useless and ineffective information. Deprived of the professional and systematic mode of information production and information releasing of the mass media, the interactions between groups, created mostly by the bonds of personal interests and interpersonal connections, tend to reduce information to an isolated, discrete and fragmentary condition. The audience’s ability to focus their attention is curtailed as subversive languages are more likely to capture the public attention. The pursuit for sensational and fragmentary information tends to deprive people of their systematic logical thinking and inevitably undermine their ability to engage in independent and critical thinking.

In group communication, information can go viral. The new-fangled symbolic meaning contains a large amount of information that hinges on temporary and potential contexts, with the strong power of suddenly bursting into large-scale communication on a short-term basis. However, with changed circumstances, this temporarily transplanted meaning will fade out easily due to its weak ability to sustain itself. As a result, in group communication, the meaning needs to be continuously renewed and extended. This explains why online jokes are being perpetually invented, with new meanings injected into them, so that they can extend their vitality as symbols. This continuous process of extending and varying the meanings of symbols through collaging and parodying leads to a carnival-like communal participation to achieve the value of the symbols as “landscapes.” But the transmission of this kind cannot withstand the passage of time. As the heat of an issue dissipates, new hotspots of opinion would be fabricated to take its place.

Social media tend to manifest striking features of emotionalized expression. Group communication tends to bring about fundamental changes in the user’s understanding of meaning, switching from rational understanding to a sensory one, and from a sensory understanding to a highly emotional one, which can become an outlet of pent-up emotions. Emotions can be extremely contagious, and they can be employed, in such forms as light-hearted ridicule, humor, jokes, parody, satire and innuendo, to deconstruct the signified produced by the mass communication that pretends to be orthodox, positive, mainstream, authoritative, prevailing and dominant. Most of the online satirical jokes are aimed at subverting the symbolic meanings of the mainstream media, reflecting the audience’s need to seek their own way of releasing emotions and to have emotional exchanges.

When parody and satire become an increasingly prevalent trend, they can develop into a fashion or vogue, and this further contributes to the carnivalesque nature of the online information. The expression “My father is Li Gang” used to be an ironic attack on what is viewed as a whole generation of law-violating Chinese officialings (the children of government officials). When the netizens exercise their talents to create countless online satirical messages, in the form of poems, songs, jokes and stories, and when the audience read those messages in a tacit manner, then, what started as a subversive act has now turned into a car- nivalesque fun-poking and emotional identification. Few people are interested in the truthfulness of the event that triggered the online carnival, and few people are interested in the final outcome of the event. Virtually no groups of people have ever done any serious reflections on the event itself.

The real creativity of group communication lies in demolishing the symbolic isology of the mass communication. However, the establishment of the new meaning has to be based on the existing relationship of the signifier and the signified that has been partially deconstructed. Nevertheless, the existing isology continues to exert its impact. If we see the issue from a different perspective, we will discover that, just because of the strong power of the existing isology, its deconstruction becomes all the more sensational and subversive. On the other hand, in a situation in which the signifier is changed or the signified is superseded or there is a combination of both cases, the process of symbolic transmutation is characterized by a constant deviation from the existing meaning of isology and the generation of a new relationship of signification. However, as people get accustomed to this carnival of meaning subversion, they will find that new isolo- gies would be produced in the due course.

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