Friday, October 08, 2010

Social Media and Language

The growth of the use of social media has changed the way some people speak and write. In some cases, new words have been entirely invented to reflect the use of a particular service, like Twitter. When I post to Twitter, I am "tweeting" and my post is a "tweet." Facebooking can refer to anything from updating one's status to adding friends.

Which leads to the next category of existing words that have been changed in meaning or usage. "Friend" can now be used as a verb ("I friended so-and-so on Facebook"). "Followers" may not mean there are creepy people following us around, but how many people are reading our tweets and blog posts.

Then there are abbreviations to add the illusion of laughter like the ubiquitous "LOL" and "ROTFL" (and countless variations) in addition to emoticons that are constructed by punctuation in the shape of a smiling or frowning face (again, with many variations to account for facial hair, glasses, and other emotions).

While some perhaps shudder at these inventions, one should not label such changes as disintegration necessarily. Change can be just that - reflections of the times. As society changes, so does its language. We don't speak Victorian English anymore, and there are numerous words that have changed meanings or connotations over time. For example, although it is technically correct, few people still use the term "gay" to mean "happy."

However, where there needs to be concern is related to the actual time and place of usage. It is appropriate to use these words when discussing and using social media (or other electronic forms of communication like texting and e-mail). If someone actually starts referring to making friends in real life as "friending" people, maybe he or she isn't really spending enough time away from the computer. As well, when people start saying things like "LOL" and "smiley face" during in-person (or telephone) speech, then there is potentially a problem when someone cannot express him or herself properly without the use of such enhancements.

Which begs the question of whether this is just laziness on the speaker's part or representative of an erosion of language. As someone with a wide social network both online and offline, I don't think such situations as described in the above paragraph are widespread yet. Verbal skills already vary from person to person based on culture (is English their first language?), level of education, and cognitive ability (which includes everything from general intelligence to whether or not a person has a developmental disability or brain damage).

How someone uses the language of social media will depend on how much time a person spends with social media and how important social media is to that person. Someone who is only a casual user of social media will of course not be speaking of tweets and friending the way someone who uses it for hours every day will. Also, younger people growing up in a culture of social media, who have not known a world without it (or at least were too young to remember) could potentially be more likely to do the verbal LOL-ing.

Another consideration apart from speech is written language. So far, I have not seen too many smilies or LOLs work their way into newspapers or magazines. I also don't think many teachers or professors would accept such things in a term paper. Unless, of course, the paper is about social media. :-) (Sorry, I could not resist.)

Still, we likely won't know how social media ultimately affects language on a long-term basis because it is so relatively new. Like MySpace (which is now mostly used by bands), Twitter and Facebook may eventually go out of vogue to be replaced by other services with their own vocabularies. In the meantime, I don't think the English language is suffering too much.


Leo Campos Aldunez said...

Nice piece Paula, thanks :) LCA

Nico said...

Great post, Paula. And it stands to be seen how social media will really shape language, but I agree with most of the points you brought up.

Before I read it, I would have said that I'm definitely in the camp that hasn't really adapted my speech/prose as a result of my social media usage. Unfortunately, that's just not true. I regularly use the word friend, as a verb.

I abhor text message speak, and actually used to work with a girl who used the word "LOL". Unreal, and probably the first time I truly felt disconnected from someone who technically belonged to the same generation as me.

I'm also not a fan of emoticons, they seem childish, but I do recognize their value on a platform like twitter where brevity is golden.

I do enjoy that aspect of twitter, that it has forced me to become more succinct.