According to the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, the essence of social media is to recreate a “town square” environment in the digital world for people to engage in conversations similar to a traditional city center (Dwoskin, 2019). Thus, people can create a profile on social media that mirrors the reputation of a normal person in real life. Based on this, people can have different forms of communication that enable them to exchange information and ideas to communicate in a more expansively. In spite of this, the transmission of person-to-person communication from the traditional face-to-face context to the online environment has drastically modified communication and interaction. The purpose of this paper is to examine the relationship between social media communication and language use. The thesis of this research is to prove that language use has changed significantly to fit communication on social media.
In order to understand the way social media has changed the use of language, it is important to understand the impact of social media on communication in general. This involves studying what social media does to mainstream interactions and the parameters that shape social media interaction.
Some scholars posit that digital media resources like social media have changed the way people communicate and the way information is disseminated (Barasch & Berger, 2014; Preistman, 2014). This is premised on the fact that traditional communication was based on face-to-face interaction and this required non-verbal communication cues including bodily language, eye contact and other things that complemented communication between two people facing each other. Social media has removed communication from that physical context and the concept of place has been erased through the use of digital technologies. This has caused social media to seek new ways and methods of promoting engagement and communication through other methods that are friendly to the digital environment. This includes things like emojis and other icons that are transmitted to show mood and other non-verbal cues that are present in face-to-face communication.
Another angle through which social media has changed communication because of its features as a species of digital communication is in the way mass information is disseminated. In the past, traditional media houses undertook “broadcasting”. This meant that a few regulated organizations and often, authoritarian entities provided information to the masses through various mediums of mass communication like television and radio (Priestman, 2014). However, social media has come to change this trend into what has become known as “narrowcasting” (Barasch & Berger, 2014).
The traditional radio and broadcasting house were under some kind of license by the authority in charge of society (Priestman, 2014). This meant laws and ethics were issued to guide and limit the conduct of people who engaged in broadcasting. Thus, the language had to conform with the generally accepted trends and patterns. Everyone had to adhere to some kind of standard and the use of language had to be within the appropriate framework and context. Hence, every media outlet had an “editor” or “manager” who had the duty to ultimately ensure that content issued from their broadcasting entity met the necessary standards. This was the way broadcasting was done and it was undertaken to influence a large group of people through the use of authoritative language and generally accepted communication mechanisms.
Narrowcasting, on the other hand, became associated with social media because anyone could become a “broadcaster” after they set up a social media account. However, instead of influencing people from a particular regulated hub, the social media account holder could narrowcast. They prepared information for a small group of people who understood their language and the jargons accepted in the field. This was not the case in the past.
Narrowcasting is intensified in the social network system because it is very flexible to create communication lines that brought together a small group of people. Hence, an individual could easily set up a social media account and add people they went to the same university with or served in the same military with or belong to the same religious affiliation. Based on this, they could communicate easily and use language that every connected person understood and appreciated. This created many niches within which communication occurred and hence, caused language to evolve at an unusually fast pace than it was in the past.
Aside from this, specific languages and jargons also relate to social media use. Words like hashtag, sexting, and tweet were not used in the past. They were invented to complement the use of social media as a tool for communication. These things were not known in the 1990s. However, it is a common language. Then, some words had a different meaning, but have been converted into social media language – like “share”, “engagement” and others.
The continuous use of social media has also created slang that is used by young people. This includes the famous txt language which has evolved through texting in conjunction with social media use. Initials like SMH (shaking my head), BFF (best friend forever), BTW (by the way), BAE (before anyone else), ATM (at the moment), HBD (happy birthday) and others have been developed over the years since social media became common. The use of notations and shortcodes for communication were common. However, they took a completely different face after they were used significantly throughout social media. This has caused shorthand to become popular and since it is common amongst people of certain age groups like millennials, they are now becoming the standard form of communication that is used in these niches. This was mainly enhanced through social media. Thus, the concept of narrowcasting can be credited with creating small niches within which people could develop their shorthand and coded language to use it for online communication (Barasch & Berger, 2014).
In spite of this, it can be argued that dialects developed and evolved in traditional communication. Different groups of people had different forms of pronouncing words and saying things. For instance, American English evolved differently from Australian English. As such, slangs and sub-dialects also varies. In the same way, African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) differs from Jamaican Patois which also differs from West African Pidgin English because these groups of Africans that lived in different locations – The United States, the Caribbean, and mainland Africa respectively developed different dialects of English as they sought to communicate in English amongst themselves and among other English-speakers. The evolution of language follows the same pattern. What social media did differently is the fact that it created mechanisms through which written text could be changed significantly, based on new conventions that became necessary as a result of social media use and digital communication. Since social media removes geographical boundaries for communicators, its evolution is limited more by demographics rather than a common location. Thus, people of the same age for instance 18 to 20 will listen to a particular form of music and share its content and discussions on them. Through this, common words and symbolisms would develop. This explains why some words and ideas are shared amongst certain groups of people all over the world.
Computer-mediated communication creates a unique set of interactions that are different from other forms of communication. This is usually done by modifying the context within which communication is done (Page, Barton, Unger, & Zappavigna, 2014). In this case, social media creates new contexts and parameters within which people interact and through this, language grows and dies – some things that are generally accepted die out and others are developed. Thus, digital culture is developed through the continuous use of social media as a means of communication. Social media has therefore created a process through which basic language use at the early stages of communication has evolved at a fast pace, based on the different needs and desires of people who want to communicate and share information that is emotional in outlook through social media (Page, Barton, Unger, & Zappavigna, 2014).
One approach used by Varis and Blommaert (2015) is to view the phatic forms of interaction by examining the impact of social media on “information” and “meaning”. These two components go through major changes and transformations where social media is concerned. This is because social media modifies the nature and transmission processes of information and how it is packaged and sent. Another element of language use that changes with social media is the “meaning” attributed to words and ideas (Varis & Blommaert, 2015). Two of the most vital elements that change with social media communication and language use are identified as:
- Memes and
Memes refer to signs that are shared over the internet and social media to express a specific emotion or thing. This usually involves a common image or something that people are familiar with and its use as a means of expressing a particular matter.
Virality refers to the fact that information over a given matter is shared quickly within a very short space of time. This is something that was unknown in the past and was limited only through the fact that communication had to be done through broadcasting and under the guidance of some authoritative broadcasting authority. However, things go viral because they become exciting and interesting to share. Since social media is opened to anyone and everyone, virality means that information can be shared without limitations and restrictions. In the past, the equivalent of a “viral” sharing of information was something authorized by the appropriate agency or entity. Social media converts that to an everyday matter and anyone and everyone can easily communicate and share information and videos that have become viral. This makes anyone and everyone a party to broadcasting through social media.
Thus, the loose structuring of social communication and level of engagement gives room for social media to influence language in various ways and forms. This creates a series of circumstances that allow language to be developed and enhanced within the context of meaning and effect and to this end, what is convenient is done at any point in time to ensure that people can communicate and interact in ways that are within their parameters and core pointers.
Leppanen et al (2014) explain the impact of social media on language in a structural, rather than functional matter. They go into the way social media affects and influences language and how this determines the way people communicate. They find three key pointers that explain the impact of social media or language.
First, they identify that individual, social and cultural groups now expand their scope and parameters through the power of social media (Leppanen, Kytola, Jousmaki, Peuronen, & Westinen, 2014). Hence, they can bring on different groups that are marginalized to safeguard their communication and promote their ideas and views. Thus, they identify the case of some languages that are at the level of extinction because speakers of those dialects are put under pressure to speak a more dominant language. However, the advent of social media allows the scope to be broader so that groups that were previously forced to speak their language in an informal context can now speak, interact and maintain the core philosophies and principles that define them.
Secondly, social media creates diverse formats of communication and this increases the scope of its use and thus creates many different formats of communication within its parameters. Therefore, people have different ways of sending their ideas and views across social media platforms. This includes videos, written formats and others that allow people to communicate across a vast scope of linguistic formats. This improves communication and provides many different frameworks for interactions.
Finally, social media allows for the creation of new identities and new personalities amongst different groups of people (Leppanen, Kytola, Jousmaki, Peuronen, & Westinen, 2014). Thus, people can create new personalities that can define them in ways that are different and distinct and promote better communication.
The findings indicate that language use and communication has changed significantly since the advent of social media. This is because social media leads to narrowcasting which causes people from ordinary backgrounds to become broadcasters in a manner that renders language used to be more flexible than ever in history. This has led to the quick evolution of language in many ways and forms. Past authoritarian structures and systems are crumbled and language can easily change to fit into new dimensions that help in the quick evolution of the way people talk and make meaning out of information. Furthermore, social media has caused past nonverbal communication to be replaced by digital properties like emojis and icons. New words have been created around social media including hashtag and tweets. It has also caused language to evolve around demographics, rather than location as it was in the past. Virality and the use of memes provide new avenues for people to communicate outside the past limits and restrictions of language development which was formerly based on some definite authority.