Some people say social media is killing our language. Their arguments are innumerable, but they mostly cite the excessive usage of undecipherable initialisms, incorrect abbreviations, and cutesy emoticons. Others believe (a much smaller population, to be sure) that social media is not ruining language, but rather simply changing the ways in which we use language to express ourselves. And, to be clear, it really shouldn’t be compared to other forms of written language because it’s not actually written. What are these unfathomable arguments? And what does it have to do with marketers? Let’s tackle the obvious question first.
Is Texting Killing Language?
A TED talk by linguist John McWhorter covered the language of texting, but it applies to social media, too, as the abbreviations, emoticons, and idioms bleed into social media messages. This usage in social is natural but can also be explained by our increase in mobile usage of social media apps (91 percent of mobile Internet access is for social activities versus 79 percent on desktops, according to Microsoft Tag). McWhorter states that texting isn’t really written language, but rather a form of spoken language. Spoken language is looser, telegraphic, and less reflective than written language. He calls it “fingered speech.”
McWhorter’s presentation cites the familiar love-hate relationship that people have with the usage of “LOL.” Rather than meaning “laugh out loud,” LOL is now a marker for empathy and accommodation. It’s what linguists call a “pragmatic particle,” a word or phrase that is not connected semantically to the context of the sentence, but rather indicates the speaker’s attitude. Other, more familiar pragmatic particles are “uh,” “um,” “like,” and “you know.”
This new LOL usage can be seen across social networks, as seen in the examples below. Nothing in either tweet warrants a guffaw, especially in the second example. The users are simply adding a pause and expressing their empathy, respectively.
LOL’s change from initialism to pragmatic particle shows the evolutionary nature of language, and the conversational nature of texting and social media. If you choose to deny either of these realities, you will be doing your brand, and worse, your customers a disservice by not adapting to their changing language, which is a major factor of self-concept across all cultures and ethnicities.
The Period Gets Pissed
Another new language phenomenon is occurring with the ever-so discreet usage of the period. Rather than just signifying the end of a thought or replacing missing letters, the period is now showing anger and aggression, according to an article in The New Republic. When you end a sentence with a period, you may be indicating that you are not happy with the context of the sentence you just ended, whether you realize this or not.
There could be many explanations for this change. Maybe it’s that most punctuation has been replaced by line breaks on social sites. Or maybe it’s what I call the best-worst-ever phenomenon (e.g., “Worst. Breakfast. Ever.” Or “Best. Party. In. History.”) in which each word is separated by a period to indicate the lofty magnitude of the statement. Or it could be related to character limits on Twitter, which make punctuation dispensable. It’s likely a combination of these reasons, in addition to McWhorter’s theory that people are using social media as if they are speaking. Speakers do not usually end a sentence so abruptly that it would warrant a period.
!?… (No, That’s Not a New Band Name or Profanity Bleep)
Other punctuation mark usage is changing, too. Take the exclamation point. It no longer just shows excitement, but is used to indicate that the person really meant what they typed.
Question marks, too, have changed. A question mark no longer merely shows inquisition, but is now often used to indicate self-deprecation or to soften too assertive or self-serving messages (e.g., “He’s really into me?”).
And who could forget the ubiquitous ellipsis? Once used to indicate an omission of a word or sentence, or indicate a long pause or unfinished thought, ellipses now help to keep a conversation open and light, and solicit the other person to respond, as noted in a recent Slate article.
What Does This Mean for Marketers?
Let’s get to the crux of the issue — what does this mean for your social media and marketing efforts? How can you leverage this knowledge of the changing language without making your brand sound like a prepubescent student in need of a proper grammar lesson?
You may not actually have to use these punctuation and language nuances on your social media channels. Several things should go into your consideration when determining how you want to structure your language strategy:
- Who is your target audience and what are their demographics? If your audience is 55+ males, you don’t want to use smiley faces and numerous exclamations marks. But if you are trying to reach teenage girls, these may indeed be part of your messages. You want to match the user’s language as much as possible.
- Are you a B2B or B2C brand? B2B brands tend to be more formal in their language usage, as they are trying to maintain a certain perception and status while communicating with other professionals. B2C brands have more opportunities to be informal and playful as they interact with people of various professions and groups.
- What is your brand voice and tone? Your brand likely already has voice and tone guidelines, but you may need to modify for social media to account for these more colloquial conversations.
- What social channels are you using? If you’re on Twitter, you may have to use these new usages simply to fit character limits. If you’re using LinkedIn, you likely want a more professional and proper language.
Understanding these nuances can help you better understand your audience so that you can build meaningful relationships with them (this works for understanding children, too!). Knowing that periods can indicate aggression can help you interpret a Facebook comment, and allow you to respond appropriately. Understanding that a simple “LOL” response from a follower does not necessary mean that they are amused, but rather they are sympathizing with the sentiment, thus causing you to change your reply.
Being aware of these change language usages can also help you better understand social media performance and refine practices. For example, if all of your Facebook posts lack engagement, and you have been adding short sentences that end in a period, your fans may think that your messages are overly harsh or aggressive. Post some messages without periods to see if the engagement rate increases. That’s the great thing about social media — you have the flexibility to test and quickly receive feedback.
Evolution of Social Media Language
How will social media continue to change our language? According to The New York Times, we will begin communicating via images only, without including text. This is already happening to a large extent, and makes sense based on the popularity of Instagram, Vine, Tumblr, and other image-heavy social channels. Images succinctly deliver a message or express the person’s mood. This will continue to grow with the adoption of Google Glass and advancement of other technologies.
Now, if only the interrobang would catch on more. It’s such a good punctuation mark, expressing excitement and disbelief in one symbol. Brilliant!