March 2011
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Paul Kei Matsuda, Arizona State University, USA

Recent years have seen an increasing awareness of the role of identity in education and communication. Although a traditional conception of identity may evoke a static, individualistic, and essentialized notion of self, a growing number of language teachers today share the assumption that identity is dynamic, social, and multiple. Not only is identity relevant to knowing, learning, and writing, but it is inevitable and even inseparable. It is also intricately related to learners’ investment in learning the target language, as Norton and Gao (2008) put it:

If learners “invest” in the target language, they do so with the understanding that they will acquire a wider range of symbolic and material resources, which will in turn increase the value of their cultural capital. . . . An investment in the target language is in fact an investment in the learner’s own identity. (p. 110)

One of the concepts that has been important in discussing the role of identity in writing is voice. Although voice has been defined in various ways, recent sociocultural conceptions of voice have focused on how it is constructed, perceived, and negotiated in the context of social interaction. In my own work, I have defined voice as “the amalgamative effect of the use of discursive and non-discursive features that language users choose, deliberately or otherwise, from socially available yet ever-changing repertoires” (Matsuda, 2001, p. 40). More simply, voice can be understood as “the quality that makes impersonation or ‘mimicking’ possible” (p. 40).

In order to construct one’s own voice or mimic someone else’s voice, it is not necessary to capture everything about the person—or a category of people, such as politicians, scientists, and TESOLers. Instead, voice is constructed through a systematic and consistent use of characteristic features that distinguish or identify the individual or group in relation to other individuals and groups. Comedians use this principle all the time when they perform impressions of celebrities. They choose a combination of several linguistic and paralinguistic as well as visual features effectively to create the “voice” of the person they are mimicking.

The sociocultural definition of voice differs from a more traditional, individualistic view in that it recognizes not only the cognitive decision-making process but also the dynamic social process through which the overall effects are achieved. In other words, voice is constructed through the negotiation of the writer’s self-image, a textual manifestation of that image, and the reader’s interpretations of the image.

It also recognizes that voice is inevitable. The question is not whether students have their own voice or not—they do. What is important for students and teachers is to understand what discursive and nondiscursive resources are available to writers in any given context, and how they can use those resources to construct their identity through the texts they produce. It is also important to understand how readers may respond to various discursive and nondiscursive features in forming their own understanding of who the writer is in relation to the subject of communication. Accomplished writers understand, if only intuitively, what resources are available to them and can construct their discursive identity in ways that are consistent with perceptions of the intended readers.

Understanding the process of negotiating voice is important not just in personal or expressive writing, where the writer’s individual voice plays an obvious role, but also in academic, professional, and civic writing. Even though some people might despise the frequent use of nominalization in academic discourse, deviating from the conventional usage can position the writer as an outsider to academic discourse, thus diminishing the writer’s credibility.

An aspect of my definition of voice that is particularly important for online discourse is the integration of nondiscursive features. Nondiscursive features such as the formatting of journal manuscripts can play an important role in shaping manuscript reviewers’ impression of the authors’ level of experience as researchers (Matsuda & Tardy, 2007; Tardy & Matsuda, 2009). The importance of integrating discursive and nondiscursive features is more readily apparent in the context of digital writing, which allows writers to play with a wider variety of symbolic and material resources. In other words, digital writing allows more flexibility in constructing and negotiating the writer’s identity. At the same time, the greater degree of freedom also requires writers to make many complex decisions.

Take, for example, a Facebook page. Facebook, unlike MySpace, does not allow users to choose their own color schemes, typeface, font size, or the layout of textual and visual elements. Yet, within the design constraints, users construct their voice by combining various discursive and nondiscursive options that are available to them. Though the profile information can provide only some basic facts about the writer, the profile photo can speak volumes about the writer’s personality, interests, and social affiliations. (I wish I could show you the images!) The number of “friends” and the kind of friends whose photos are randomly displayed on the screen also make a statement about the person’s social relations and group membership. The status update is particularly important in identity construction: The writer’s choice of the topic, sentence length and complexity, the attitude toward the subject, the frequency of postings—they all contribute to the overall image of the writer.

Negotiating identity in digital contexts is not easier or simpler than writing in academic contexts, but students seem to develop their discursive resources quickly and effortlessly. Why is it, then, that students who flourish in this complex writing environment struggle with their identity construction when it comes to academic writing? One possible explanation is that students often see online writing and academic writing as completely different situations. They may not even consider digital writing as writing—they are trying to interact with others, rather than produce sentences that conform to certain expectations. Research on learning transfer suggests that, when tasks are perceived as different, learning transfer is impeded (James, 2008). That is, students do not carry over the resources and skills they have acquired through digital writing to academic writing possibly because they see these tasks as completely different from one another.

The perception of disparity between digital and academic writing is constantly being reinforced in public discourse as well as in the classroom. The tendency in the public discourse to stigmatize digital discourse as ungrammatical and socially unacceptable is exacerbating this tendency. In the classroom, we often try to facilitate learning by simplifying the tasks and by focusing on the elemental structures of discourse. In the process, however, we may be stripping writing of the rich context of interaction, taking away all the social cues and discursive resources that can help students figure out the purpose of writing and develop a rich array of discursive and nondiscursive resources.

Before I conclude, here is a caveat: Digital writing has much to contribute to academic writing, but it would be a mistake to assume that it has to. Digital writing should not be judged in comparison to more traditional forms of writing—just as traditional academic writing cannot be dismissed as outdated. The value of digital writing should also not be determined based on its utility in facilitating academic writing. It is important to understand and practice digital writing in its own right.

With that caveat in mind, digital writing may be able to contribute to the development of academic writing by helping students develop a broader repertoire of discursive and nondiscursive resources as well as strategies for negotiating their use. Digital writing can also help students become more aware of the complexity of decisions involved in written communication. If nothing else, examining digital writing can help writing teachers reflect on the complexity of writing for a real audience, which is often forgotten in academic writing instruction that focuses so much on efficiency at the expense of the complexity and richness of writing.


James, M. (2008). Transfer of second language writing skills: The influence of perceptions of task similarity/difference. Written Communication, 25, 76-103.

Matsuda, P. K. (2001). Voice and Japanese written discourse: Implications for second language writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 10, 35-53.

Matsuda, P. K., & Tardy, C. M. (2007). Voice in academic writing: The rhetorical construction of author identity in blind manuscript review. English for Specific Purposes, 26, 235-249.

Norton, B., & Gao, Y. (2008). Identity, investment, and Chinese learners of English. Journal of Asian Pacific Communication, 18(1), 109–120.

Tardy, C., & Matsuda, P. K. (2009). The construction of author voice by editorial board members. Written Communication, 26(1), 32-52.

Paul Kei Matsuda,, is associate professor of English at Arizona State University, USA, where he works closely with doctoral and master’s students in applied linguistics, linguistics, rhetoric and composition, and TESOL. Founding chair of the Symposium on Second Language Writing and editor of the Parlor Press Series on Second Language Writing, Paul has published widely on second language writing and digital discourse, among other topics.

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