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Exploring Exploring Digital Communication

Language in Action

Routledge Introductions to Applied Linguistics is a series of introductory level textbooks covering the core topics in Applied Linguistics, primarily designed for those beginning postgraduate studies, or taking an introductory MA course, as well as advanced undergraduates. Titles in the series are also ideal for language professionals returning to academic study.

The books take an innovative 'practice to theory' approach, with a 'back-to-front' structure. This leads the reader from real-world problems and issues, through a discussion of intervention and how to engage with these concerns, before finally relating these practical issues to theoretical foundations.

Exploring Digital Communication aims to discuss real world issues pertaining to digital communication, and to explore how linguistic research addresses these challenges. The text is divided into three sections (Problems and practices; Interventions; and Theory), each of which is further divided into two subsections which reflect linguistic issues relating to digital communication.

The author seeks to demystify any perceived divide between online and offline communication, arguing that issues raised in relation to digital communication throw light on language use and practices in general, and thus linguistic interventions in this area have implications not only for users of digital communication but for linguists’ general understanding of language and society.

Including relevant research examples, tasks and a glossary, this textbook is an invaluable resource for postgraduate and upper undergraduate students taking New Media or Communication Studies modules within Applied Linguistics and English Language courses.

About the Author

Caroline Tagg is lecturer in the Department of English Language and Applied Linguistics, University of Birmingham. Her publications include The Language of Social Media: identity and community on the internet (edited with Philip Seargeant, 2014) and The Discourse of Text Messaging (2012).

Book Information

Complimentary Exam Copy

Exploring  Cover


Essential Reading for Exploring Digital Communication

Crystal, D. (2008) Txtng: the gr8 db8. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Crystal, D. (2011) Internet Linguistics. London: Routledge.
Baron, N. (2008) Always On: language in an online and mobile world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Barton, D. and C. Lee (2013) Language Online: investigating digital texts and practices. Abingdon: Routledge.
Boardman, N. (2004) The Language of Websites. London: Routledge.
Cougnon, L.-A. and C. Farion, eds. (2014) SMS Communication. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Danet, B. and S.C. Herring (2007) The Multilingual Internet: language, culture and communication online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dudeney, G., N. Hockly and M. Pegrum (2013) Digital Literacies: research and resources in language teaching. Harlow: Pearson.
Gee, J. and E.R. Hayes (2011) Language and Learning in the Digital Age. Abingdon: Routledge.
Gillen, J. (2014) Digital Literacies. Abingdon: Routledge.
Gruffydd Jones, E.H. and E. Uribe-Jongbloed, eds. (2013) Social Media and Minority Languages: convergence and the creative industries. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Herring, S.C., D. Stein and T. Virtanen, eds. (2013) Pragmatics of Computer-Mediated Communication. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
Jones, R. and C.A. Hafner (2012) Understanding Digital Literacies: a practical introduction. London: Routledge.
Mandiberg, M., ed. (2012) The Social Media Reader. New York and London: New York University Press.
Merchant, G., J. Gillen, J. Marsh and J. Davies, eds. (2013) Virtual Literacies: interactive spaces for children and young people. Abingdon: Routledge.
Miller, D. and J. Sinanan (2014) Webcam. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Myers, G. (2010) The Discourse of Blogs and Wikis. London: Continuum.
Page, R. (2012) Stories and Social Media: identities and interaction. London: Routledge.
Page, R., D. Barton, J. Unger and M. Zappavigna (2014) Researching Language and Social Media: a student guide. Abingdon: Routledge.
Seargeant, P. and C. Tagg, eds. (2014) The Language of Social Media: identity and community online. London: Palgrave.
Tagg, C. (2012) The Discourse of Text Messaging. London: Continuum.
Tagg, C. (2015) Exploring Digital Communication. Abingdon: Routledge.
Thurlow, C., L.B. Lengel and A. Tomic (2004) Computer-Mediated Communication: social interaction and the internet. London: Sage.
Thurlow, C. and K. Mroczek, eds. (2012) Digital Discourse: language in the New Media. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wood, C., N. Kemp and B. Plester (2013) Text Messaging and Literacy: the evidence. Abingdon: Routledge.
Zappavigna, M. (2012) The Discourse of Twitter and Social Media. London: Continuum.


Discourse, Context & Media
New Media & Society


features and potential functionalities which users perceive a technology to have. These perceptions then shape how people utilise the technology and for what purposes. Affordances are shaped by people’s past experience with technology as well as their social assumptions and beliefs.

ambient affiliation
a term used by Zappavigna (2011, 2012, 2014) to refer to the way in which Twitter users can affiliate on a transient basis around a hashtag topic and thus around the assumptions and values associated with it.

see digital

a loosely affiliated group of hacktivists – people who use the internet for political activities (the term is a portmanteau of hacking and activist) – which formed on the anonymous imageboard 4chan in the early twenty-first century. Perhaps best known for the Guy Fawkes masks worn by members at public events and demonstrations.

a model for understanding how writers and speakers align themselves with other people, things and ideas and express evaluative stances, developed by Martin and White (2005) within a systemic functional linguistics approach.

‘application software’ or computer program installed on the operating system of computers and smartphones or in a web browser (web app) to carry out a specific function. Popular communication apps include WhatsApp (USA) and WeChat (China). Apps can be free or incur a purchase fee.

the ‘American Standard Code for Information Interchange’, a system for encoding characters based on the English language and the basis for most character-encoding schemes, including Unicode.

typically used to refer to online communication that does not take place in real time (in contrast to speech and to synchronous online interactions like chat) and where responses may be delayed. Such sites include bulletin boards, email and the comment function on websites.

the process of positioning oneself in interaction in a way that convinces others that your projected persona is at any one time a true and coherent reflection of your identity. Also an ideal or principle which guides our evaluation of ourselves and of others.

websites which comprise regular entries or posts displayed in reverse chronological order, so that the most recent post appears at the top – used to provide links to interesting or relevant websites but now tend more to function for personal or political opinion.

used by linguists to refer to the way in which speakers and writers can draw on a range of sources in constructing their spoken styles and written texts, recombining available resources to create something new. See Hebdige (1984).

see code-switching

moving between more than one language within a conversation or other text. Often distinguished from code-mixing on the grounds that code-switches have immediate communicative functions, while code-mixes involve more indiscriminate, unmotivated switches creating a mixed discourse with its own communicative impact.

colloquial contractions
reduced or contracted written forms which reflect informal or regional pronunciation as well as suggesting emotions of anger or affection.

community of interest
a community of interest forms when users come together around a shared interest. Such communities are usually characterised by a weak affiliation between members who identify with the topic of interest rather than with other users and are not generally motivated by a common goal (Henri and Pudelko, 2003).

community of practice
used by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) to refer to groups of people who affiliate around a shared profession or craft, and thus engage in common practices and language uses.

context collapse
initially coined by Michael Wesch (2009) to explain the difficulties of self-presentation people experience as they make YouTube videos, given the vast, diverse potential audience they face. Also applied to ‘semi-public’ social network sites by social researchers such as danah boyd to capture the way in which status updaters must simultaneously address people they know from different offline contexts.

contextualisation cue
introduced by John Gumperz (e.g. 1982) to describe the use of linguistic or other features by users to make relevant particular contextual features. For example, the switch from English to a local language in a Facebook post might signal a change in the level of privacy assumed.

a generic term used to describe the ways in which various distinctions are being eroded by developments in digital media, ranging from the embedding of different voices and elements from different sources on the same webpage, through the bringing together of different media onto one device, such as the smartphone, to the levelling effect of digital technology on commercial and professional producers and everyday users (see convergence culture).

convergence culture
used by Henry Jenkins (2006) to refer to the way in which contemporary media productions and ordinary users alike draw on (and move between) a variety of media platforms in creating and accessing content. One illustration of this is transmedia storytelling, by which a story (such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Doctor Who) is told and accessed in various ways: television, websites, online forums, video games, comic books and so on. This example also highlights the role that ordinary users play in creating content, so that commercial and professional organisations now occupy the same spaces and engage in similar activities as grassroots organisations and users.

a digitally stored collection of texts, which are selected according to external criteria (such as text type) and which are accessed non-linearly; that is, linguists search for key terms which are displayed in short extracts of texts or concordances; or they generate word frequency lists. Language corpora are exploited by linguists for language description and other research purposes.

Creative Commons Licence
a software licence which gives producers some flexibility in how they would like their creations to be used (for example, producers can choose to allow users to use their work only if it is attributed and/or only for non-commercial purposes).

the repeated online targeting of a particular institution or individual in a hostile, aggressive or unwanted way which is intended to cause harm or upset.

the terms analogue and digital refer to different ways of storing, transmitting and processing data. Most electronic gadgets are now driven by digital technology: watches, cameras and washing machines as well as computers and mobile phones. In this book, digital communication is used to describe the interactions people have with each other through the internet or similar networks, such as those used by mobile phones.

digital divide
used to refer to the increasing gulf between those with internet access and digital literacies, and those without. Although it has been criticised as overly simplistic, the term serves as a useful reminder that not everyone has access to the internet, and that those without access do not have the same opportunities to obtain information or to stay connected.

digital literacy
coined by Paul Gilster in 1997 to refer to the skills and knowledge required to participate online (to read texts, contribute to them and to interact with other users). Digital literacy is generally broken down into a range of different areas, including language-related skills and knowledge, familiarity with the technology and critical skills. For this reason, some researchers pluralise the term. Digital literacies incorporate the skills needed to read and write printed texts, as well as requiring some new skills, such as that of remixing or conducting and filtering online searches.

used in this book to refer to the language of text messaging and other forms of digital communication which is characterised by spelling variants or respelt forms. It is a version of the more commonly used textese which draws attention to the use of variant spelling in domains other than SMS text messaging.

the increasing use of photos and videos online means that digital communication is not ‘disembodied’ in the sense that it was in the 1990s, when interaction was almost solely text-based. However, in contrast to face-to-face conversations, digital technology allows for text to be consumed in contexts which are removed (spatially and temporally) from the (offline) contexts in which they are produced (see Scollon and Scollon, 2002).

internet drama connotes exaggerated or attention-grabbing performances that are played out in front of an audience on social media. According to Marwick and boyd (2011), internet drama is used by teenagers to capture ‘a host of activities and practices ranging from gossip, flirting, arguing and joking to more serious issues of jealousy, ostracization, and name-calling’.

social or linguistic practices, features or phenomena which are not prescribed or brought to a particular interaction from elsewhere by the participant, but which emerge in the course of the immediate interactions. Respellings in text messages are thought to be emergent to some extent, in that they are often created spontaneously and picked up on by interlocutors; however, popular respellings are also circulated online and in media discourses, and become a part of people’s repertoires that way.

a representation of a face with various expressions, formed using punctuation marks and used in digital communication to indicate the tone in which a message should be read. There are two styles of emoticon: western emoticons tend to be read sideways and focus on the mouth to express emotion, while Japanese style emoticons are positioned upright and emotion is found in the eyes.

eye dialect
variation in spelling which involves a word being respelt according to the default (most typical) spelling of the constituent sounds as pronounced in the local standard. For example, in British English, an eye dialect spelling of what is {lthan}wot{gthan}. Eye dialect tends to suggest (or index) a lack of education or refinedness.

fan fiction
stories which draw on the plot, characters and scenarios of existing fiction, written by fans of the original fiction. Fan fiction writing pre-dates the internet, but the internet has allowed writers to come more easily together and to publish their stories online.

hostile, obscene or aggressive behaviour occurring online (see O’Sullivan and Flanagin, 2003; Thurlow et al., 2004).

taxonomies created by users in the process of tagging photos and posts and in this way organising web content.

a portmanteau of Facebook and rape used by young people to refer to the act of hacking into someone else’s Facebook account and posting obscene or untrue posts. These acts can be viewed negatively or positively by the people involved.

used in linguistics to refer to socially recognised text types characterised by shared contextual features external to the text, particularly common purposes. Typical genres include recipes, business letters, lectures and emails.

a complex interplay of technological, social, economic and political processes which are serving to interconnect the world. Language both facilitates globalisation (such as when English or Arabic are used as lingua franca languages) and is shaped by it (such as when new regional or global forms of English emerge).

GNU (General Public Licence)
a very widely used software licence which grants people the right to freely use, modify and add to a piece of software and derived works.

the hashtag (#) was adopted by Twitter users to indicate the topic of their Tweet, as in #worldcup2014. By searching for a hashtag string, users can generate all the Tweets posted on the same topic.

a homepage is now usually the main page of a website, which automatically loads when you type in a web address. In the 1990s and early 2000s, personal homepages also meant something different; the term referred to personal websites run by individual users and can be seen to some extent as a precursor of the personal blog.

words that share the same written form (they are spelt the same) but are pronounced differently. Examples in English include close (meaning ‘shut’ and ‘near’) and bear (meaning ‘carry’ and the animal). In digital communications, homographs are unlikely to cause confusion because users can determine the word that is meant from the context; however, in multilingual messages it may be difficult to assign words that are written the same across languages to a particular language without using pronunciation as a clue.

words or other linguistic items that sound the same but differ in meaning and in spelling, such as rows and rose in English.

electronic links between webpages or elements within a webpage (such as an image) which are usually highlighted in blue and underlined, either in a menu at the side of a webpage or as part of the running text.

text that is structured by hyperlinks and which forms the underlying infrastructure of the world wide web.

the way in which language use points to features of the social context. Linguistic features become associated (through repeated use) with particular social groups and are thus made available to the same processes of evaluation which are targeted towards the particular individuals or communities involved. Hence, a linguistic feature such as h-dropping can come to suggest (to index) such social characteristics as level of education and social class.

information overload
the problem perceived to be caused by too much information being available to or pushed upon individuals in contemporary society, accessed through the internet as well as the television, radio and print texts.

a global system or network of connected computers. The term is often used in social and linguistic research to refer generally to virtual space.

Internet Protocol (IP) address
a number assigned to networked devices which includes information about where the address was assigned and thus points to the likely geographical location of the user.

Internet Relay Chat (IRC)
an early popular form of online communication, involving group discussions in forums.

‘in real life’, a term used in chatrooms and by gamers and Second Lifers (users of the virtual world, Second Life) to refer to their offline contexts.

linguistic ethnography
a methodological approach to linguistic study which builds on traditional ethnography methods and foregrounds the role that language plays in people’s social activities. Ethnography involves researchers immersing themselves in their participants’ lives, drawing on methods such as observation, recordings, diaries and interviews. Many of these methods can be transferred to digital communications, with researchers participating or lurking in online forums and other internet communities, although this can raise ethical issues and problems such as defining the boundaries of the site under investigation. See Androutsopoulos (2008) for his version of discourse-centred online ethnography.

popularly defined as the ability to read and write, the term literacy is used more widely in applied linguistics to refer to a range of skills and cultural awareness needed to be literate in a particular society. See digital literacy.

location-based social network site
a kind of social network site with GPS-based affordances which enable users to exploit their current physical location to, for example, tell other users where they are, locate nearby users, and check in to restaurants and bars.

an early internet phenomenon, featuring images of cats with grammatically incorrect captions usually purporting to come from the featured cat, such as ‘I can has cheezburger?’ http://icanhas.cheezburger.com/lolcats

videos created through combining two different, often incongruous or contrasting, sources for humorous or ironic effect. For example, Dubisar and Palmeri (2010) discuss how professional and amateur composers expressed their political allegiances or views in the 2008 US presidential election through mashed videos, including one transforming Barak Obama’s ‘Yes we can’ slogan into a catchy hip-hop song and one depicting his Republican opponent John McCain singing an old rap song.

used in this book to refer to online platforms or channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Skype and Snapchat.

in Davison’s (2012, p. 122) words, ‘a piece of culture, typically a joke, which gains influence through online transmission’. Memes often take the form of an image and caption, which occur in modified iterations. One classic is the fail meme (Zappavigna, 2012) where the word ‘Fail’ is placed over the image of an unsuccessful or unintended incident.

the act of sharing short messages through online media such as Twitter or Tumblr. The word derives from blogging because of the shared focus on disseminating news and opinion, but microbloggers face a restricted character allowance.

minority languages
languages spoken by a minority of speakers within a particular territory.

or semiotic mode, can be described as a system for making meaning or a way of representing a message. Modes include image, colour, sound, typography and format as well as language. Many texts combine various modes and can be said to display multimodality.

the use of more than one mode of communication to convey meaning in a text.

networked multilingualism
used by Androutsopoulos (forthcoming) to explain the features that characterise multilingual practices in digital communication.

networked resources
defined by Jannis Androutsopoulos (forthcoming) as ‘all the semiotic resources the global computer network has to offer’, the term draws attention to the ease with which such resources can be accessed and appropriated into a text.

node-oriented network
used by Tagg and Seargeant (2014) to describe the kind of affiliations seen on social network sites which are based on mutual friendships. Interactions on social network sites may also be characterised by node-orientation, in the sense that commenters on a status update tend to direct their comments directly back to the status updater (the node) without necessarily engaging the other participants.

as Sebba (2007) explains, orthography differs from spelling in that it refers to the principles of a language’s writing system which determine which spellings are possible. So, English orthography allows {lthan}gh{gthan} to occur together to convey the sound /g/, which occurs in the spelling of ghost but not in the spelling of goat.

the term performance has been extended within language-related research (and others) from its conventional meaning of theatrical display to refer to the ways in which people routinely enact various identities in their everyday interactions. A distinction can still be made in this research between the use of ‘performance’ to refer to something that is said for effect and held up for evaluation by others, and performance as referring to practices enacted every time individuals engage in interaction with others (Swann, 2006, pp. 21–2, for example, compares joke-telling – where jokes are prefaced by ‘performance markers’ and thus made to stand out from the general conversation – with conversational joking which is embedded within the wider talk). The latter focus is adopted by sociolinguistics looking at speaking style (stylistic choices involving dialect, slang and register that speakers make in their routine conversations). The term ‘performance’ is useful in highlighting the fact that speakers (and writers) have agency in foregrounding aspects of their identity and choosing how to present themselves in different contexts.

the act of sending messages to large numbers of users which purport to be from a legitimate user or corporation in order to trick users into clicking on a link or entering sensitive personal details which can then be used by the phishers to gain access to bank accounts and so on.

photo-sharing sites
sites whose main purpose is to facilitate the uploading and online sharing of photos, such as Flickr and Instagram. Users can usually tag their photos, enabling other users to find them, and to make personal links with other users.

used by Daniel Miller (Madianou and Miller, 2012) to refer to the contemporary ‘mediascape’ (that is, the range of media that are now widely available, generally at no extra cost). Looking at people’s use of online media must now involve consideration of the choices people make between different media; and, where these decisions are not made on the basis of access or cost, their choices must be seen as open to social and moral evaluation.

the ways in which individuals align themselves with various discourses or values in interaction, as well as with (or in opposition to) their interlocutor. Thus, interactional roles and evaluative stances are not seen as fixed or predetermined but as constructed (or co-constructed) and reconstructed throughout an interaction.

social activities which tend to be culturally contingent and embedded in a particular context. Researchers adopting a practices approach to language look less at finished texts as a unit of analysis and rather towards how, why, where and when people produce such texts; that is, they prioritise process over product. As Lillis (2013, p. 78) points out, in practice this requires an empirical methodology that focuses on exploring the context in which people speak and write and which explores their own understanding of what they are doing; and a focus on issues of power, agency and cultural norms.

in social research, privacy is not seen as an absolute condition but a social construct that is negotiated and contested. Privacy involves managing access to the self, and balancing personal disclosure with the ability to withhold sensitive information.

reading strategies
purposeful actions taken by readers to help them construct meaning as they interact with a text. Presupposes a view of reading as an active process of co-construction between reader, writer and text.

the process of removing a text from one context and embedding it in a new context. This happens most obviously with, for example, reported speech, where an utterance is freed from its original context and often held up for evaluation and negotiation in a new context.

the result of re-engineering or otherwise changing a work to create a new artefact.

the full range of language resources available to either a community or an individual, and from which they can select according to their social purpose and context. Given increasing mobility and the recognition that many people belong to multiple social groups (and will thus have access to resources from various contexts and communities), the notion of the individual repertoire may be more useful in capturing social reality than that of the community repertoire (Blommaert and Backus, 2011).

in sociolinguistics, used to refer to the communication features and strategies available to a community or individual. Resources can be linguistic and paralinguistic, including gestures in speech and punctuation in writing. These resources can be said to make up a community or individual repertoire.

a word that is spelt in a non-standard way in order to convey social meaning. Used by Sebba (2007) to avoid the evaluative connotations of words like misspelling. Respellings are not motivated by ignorance and are not mistakes. Instead, they carry meaning because they depart from the legitimised norm in principled ways.

(or bots) are programs which automatically upload posts onto social media sites, usually to spam or phish other users.

the practice by which languages traditionally written in another script are transliterated into the Roman (or Latin) script. The transliteration is usually either phonetic (Roman characters are chosen because their typical pronunciation resembles that of the sound being conveyed), or orthographic (in the sense that the Roman character visually resembles its counterpart in the other script).

scambaiters aim to engage an online scammer for as long as possible in order to waste their time and resources, and often to get as much information from them as possible to pass on to the authorities.

short for self-portrait, a selfie is usually taken using a mobile phone and is thus characterised by an outstretched arm (holding the phone) and an awkward angle. The popularity of the practice and the term has recently inspired the coining of otherie, meaning a photo of somebody other than yourself.

mobile phones with wireless internet access and web-browsing functionalities, which also support apps and have a touch screen.

SMS text messaging
the sending of short, typed messages, usually between mobile phones, over the number of messages included in their monthly contract. On contemporary smartphones, SMS text messaging sits alongside other web-based messaging services, such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.

social capital
is defined by Ellison et al. (2011, p. 873) in their study of Facebook as, ‘the benefits individuals derive from their social relationships and interactions: resources such as emotional support, exposure to diverse ideas, and access to redundant information’. Can be traced back to work by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1986).

social media
a term used broadly by many researchers to refer to all digital media which facilitate interaction, ranging from instant messaging channels to the comment function on websites.

social network sites
sites such as Facebook whose main purpose is to establish and maintain links between users based on social and friendship ties. According to boyd and Ellison (2008), social network sites are characterised by three main features: a member profile; a network of links with other members; and the ability to view and search those links. The use of network rather than networking is deliberate, as it reflects the fact that the networks usually comprise people a user already knows, rather than involving the formation of new links.

the act of automatically sending an online message randomly to a large number of users with the view of trying to sell them something.

status update
a short and generally untargeted announcement posted on Facebook in response to a set, site-generated question prompt (‘What’s on your mind?’ at the time of writing). A user’s status updates appear in their Friends’ News Feeds and other users can comment on them or ‘Like’ them (click on a button that then indicates that the user likes the update). Comments appear below a status update, resembling a thread of written conversation. ‘Likes’ are counted and this is noted below the update.

traditionally used in linguistics to refer to spoken interactions that take place in real time, and often applied in studies of new media to refer to the fast-paced interactions that typically take place through instant messaging and online, to distinguish them from more asynchronous forms of online communication. As Garcia and Jacob (1999) point out, the term is somewhat misleading, given that online posts (however quickly exchanged) are produced out of sight of the receiver, who must wait until the composer hits send. Thus the production circumstances are very different to speech. Garcia and Jacob suggest the alternative term quasi-synchronous.

Systemic functional linguistics
a linguistics approach which regards language as a ‘system of meanings’ (Halliday, 1985, p. xiv) and posits users as making choices from the available meanings. Systemic functionalists hold that language emerged from the human need to make meaning and is thus driven by various functions or metafunctions: the ideational (the expression of experience and ideas), interpersonal (the mediation of human relationships), and textual (the organisation of language into a coherent whole).

technological determinism
the assumption that our behaviour is controlled or ‘determined’ by technology, a view which ignores human agency in shaping how the technology is developed and what it is used for.

technologisation of practice
a term used by Rodney Jones (2002) to refer to the way in which a technology becomes associated with a particular way of doing something, so that it becomes difficult to imagine using the technology for another purpose, or using a different technology for the same purpose. The shift from paper and printed texts to the internet may be a good example of this, as many people feel that reading online can offer only an inferior experience to that of a book – probably in part because the connection between reading and paper is so entrenched.

in linguistics, a text is a unit of analysis, hierarchically placed above the word and sentence, and defined not only by form but by meaning and context. For example, a conversation would be considered a text, defined by structural features such as opening and closing sequences and synchronous turn-taking, as well as contextual features such as the relationship between participants, their purpose in interacting, and the level of formality. David Crystal (2011) argues that texts are harder to delineate online, because of hypertext and the shifting nature of online texts.

commonly used in the academic literature to refer to spelling variants or respellings which have been seen to occur in SMS text messaging and other forms of digital communication.

a particular kind of anti-social behaviour online, which involves a troller trying to disrupt an online discussion by posting aggressive, provocative or unwelcome messages (known as trolls). Trollers are not always overt about their intentions, but often attempt to deceive other users into believing they are sincere (that they are naive, don’t know the local norms, or that they genuinely hold the controversial or unpopular views they espouse).

features of a printed or online text relevant to its style and appearance, such as punctuation, colour, font type and size, and layout.

a widely used industry standard for encoding text maintained by the Unicode Consortium, developed in the 1980s and 1990s to enable multilingual computer processing by unifying the various encodings for different scripts.

Urban Dictionary
an online slang dictionary, compiled by users. Various definitions are listed under each entry, and ranked according to user ratings. See: www.urbandictionary.com.

an internet discussion system, organised into newsgroups, established in 1980 and popular in the 1980s and 1990s (used, for example, by Tim Berners-Lee to introduce the world wide web). It is still in use, although user numbers have dramatically declined. Spam and online porn might be said to have originated with Usenet, and to have contributed to its decline.

vernacular spectacles
used by Androutsopoulos (2010) to describe the activities that surround the embedding of a video on a media-sharing site like YouTube. The action of uploading the video and subsequently discussing it in comments is vernacular in the sense of being local and at grassroots level, standing outside the commercial or professional media world.

walled gardens
closed platforms which limit information and applications to those available internally. They are often depicted as attempts by internet site developers to manipulate and control users’ experience of the wider web by limiting their access and functionalities. Apple, for example, limits users to their products and services or to approved external apps.

online communication via a video camera, such as that embedded in voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) technologies such as Skype.

an online site which allows users to add, modify or delete content and thus to collaboratively create a document. The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia is probably the best-known example of a wiki.

world wide web (www)
a network of interlinking websites or webpages (documents containing information) which are carried on the internet and accessed either through search engines such as Google, or by navigating from one webpage to the next via hyperlinks.


Caroline Tagg’s blogpost in The Guardian's 'Mind your Language' blog, which highlights continuities between old and new technologies and tries to calm 'media panic' about the effect of social media on language: http://www.theguardian.com/media/mind-your-language/2014/nov/07/mind-your-language-textisms

Caroline Tagg’s podcast for the University of Birmingham's 'Predictor Podcasts', which covers the creativity evident in text messaging and the way in which we address audiences on Facebook: https://audioboom.com/boos/1428605-dr-caroline-tagg-predictor-podcast-ep49-the-language-of-text-messaging-and-social-networks

The Guardian internet timeline gives a good overview of the history of the internet: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/interactive/2009/oct/23/internet-arpanet

The History of the Internet Museum is a good site around which to browse if you are interested in the subject: http://www.computerhistory.org/internet_history/

Clips from the BBC's 'The Virtual Revolution' on topics including whether the internet is changing our relationships, the dominance of commerce on the web, the question as to who controls the internet and whether social media promotes freedom and democracy:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00n4j0r/clips

This collection of blog posts and press stories collected by social media researcher Erika Darics provide varied and interesting insights into language and social media: http://www.scoop.it/t/lingua-digitalis-or-how-to-do-things-with-keystrokes

Keep up with Professor Greg Myers' work into language and social media on his blog, including his work on how scientists use Twitter, with useful references: http://thelanguageofblogs.typepad.com/

The Edwardian postcard project gives a fascinating insight into a forgotten (yet once very popular) means of communication: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/projects/EVIIpc/

Keep up to date with the American radio show, On the Media: http://www.onthemedia.org/ (including short TLDR posts), which covers various topical stories connected to social and mass media. See also On the Media's TLDR blog: http://www.onthemedia.org/blogs/on-the-media/


Activity 1: Affordances

People make choices everyday regarding which online channel of communication is best suited to a particular purpose. I communicate with my sister through email, text message, WhatsApp (a free online messaging service accessed through smartphones), and video Skype. We use email for complex messages, because email affords longer posts and more functionalities (such as font). We use Whatsapp for chatting or for getting quick answers – the exception being when we are offline and we switch to text messaging. Skype affords video and synchronous interaction, so we use it less often, when we have time to engage.
Former Open University lecturer Julia Gillen discusses the ways in which a group of learners exploited online affordances in learning about archaeology (Gillen, 2011). The group chose to meet in a virtual world, ‘Teen Second Life’, because they recognised the affordances of virtual worlds in allowing them to immerse themselves in the pedagogical experience (Gillen, 2011, p. 193) and to reconstruct virtually events such as the building of Stonehenge (a prehistoric monument in south-west England). The best way to organise and keep a record of these events, however, was not within the virtual world itself, but on an events page in the accompanying wiki, as that afforded the collaborative authoring of a persistent, multimodal, searchable record (p. 195; p. 200); while the forum, which afforded public, linearly-organised, asynchronous interaction and was easily accessible from any computer, was used for the more detailed planning discussions around events (p. 200). When two participants secretly devised a simulated volcanic eruption in the virtual world, they did so via the private messaging function (Gillen, 2011, p. 202).
Think of a person or a group with whom you regularly interaction online. List the different channels of communication you use with them, and reflect on your criteria for deciding to use them.  What do you conclude about the different affordances of each, and why they were exploited?


Gillen, J. (2011) ‘Archaeology in a virtual world: Schome Park' in Jones, R.H. (ed) Discourse and Creativity. Harlow: Pearson, pp. 191-210.

This activity has no commentary.

Activity 2: Girl writes English essay in phone text shorthand

Read the newspaper article ‘Girl writes English essay in phone text shorthand’ and consider:

  1. What specific concerns are expressed in the article? Are they all concerns about language, do you think? What else are the educationalists worried about?
  2. Do you think the confusion between ‘their’ and ‘there’ is caused by texting?
  3. Why do you think this girl wrote her essay in shorthand?

This activity has no commentary.

Activity 3: Fan fiction – supporting or subverting gender stereotypes?

Read the following extract from a ‘Mary Sue’ story. This is the name given to stories in which the author appears as the heroine, usually in a romantic relationship with the lead character; in this case, Darien from the American show The Invisible Man.

  1. To what extent does this story replicate gender stereotypes?
  2. In what ways does it subvert the stereotypes? Do you agree with Leppänen (2007, p.164) that the girl is portrayed as ‘a more privileged character than the male protagonist’, and in what ways?

Darien put the phone down and looked at me with those brown eyes, full of emotion, I was caught lying.
Darien: Kevin called.
Mä: Darien, I …
Darien: Why did you lie to me?
Mä: I’m sorry! I couldn’t just say that I went to sleep in Finland and woke up in here! ‘cause that’s the truth, that you wouldn’t have believed.
Darien tried to interrupt but I didn’t let him.
Mä: Truth is that I’m Anna-Liisa Hokkanen, 15 years old, from Finland. There’s this show called The Invisible man and you are the star of it! You are my idol! And I know it sounds crazy, but I just wanted to feel you close to me. I just wanted to have one kiss, but no it’s imbossible [sic].
I ran into the rain, crying. I ran almost for half an hour before I stopped. I sat down on the wet ground and removed all the pictures. When I was taking a photo of myself as a miserable liar, Darien came there and kissed me. That photo got taken. I wake up by the sound of the alarm clock in my mobile phone. It is 7.00 on Monday morning. Was it a dream? I get up and go to my computer to have a look at the digital photos. There is this one photo. A photo about me and Darien, that kiss! It couldn’t have been a dream, there’s a photo about it!
(from Leppanen, S. (2007) ‘Youth language in media contexts: insights into the functions of English in Finland’ World Englishes. 26/2: 149-69, pp. 161-3)


This Mary Sue story is a ‘fairly stereotypical’ (Leppanen, 2007, p. 163) heterosexual romance story, in which the female protagonist is the passive recipient of the man’s attentions. At the same time, however, the typical storyline is subverted by the extra elements inserted into the story, chiefly the protagonist-narrator’s knowledge – she speaks Finnish as well as English; she is real and knows that the story’s hero is fictional. The girl’s Finnish background is also reflected in her comfortable and expert use of technology, which positions her as independent, modern, and empowered. So, while the stereotypical images are recycled, it is done so in a modified form that serves to critique the traditional stereotype.

Activity 4: Sad YouTube (http://sadyoutube.com/)

Before listening

YouTube is infamous for how aggressive its users can get when responding to videos, or other users, using the Comment function. Why do you think this might be? What has your experience of YouTube been?

While listening

Listen to the short radio podcast from TLDR, ‘Hunting for YouTube’s Saddest Comments’, in which film-maker and writer Mark Slutsky describes and explains his blog, Sad YouTube. On the blog, he posts ‘small, poignant’ stories that he’s found embedded in YouTube comments on pop song videos.

  1. Why does Mark save them, and do you empathise with his impulse?
  2. Why do you think people post these stories in the ‘bleakest corner’ of the internet, YouTube?
  3. Do you agree with the implication that Mark’s salvaging of YouTube comments is the equivalent of an archaeologist going through an earlier civilisation’s rubbish tip?

After listening

Look through Mark Slutsky’s blog (http://sadyoutube.com/) and find a story which you like (perhaps because it touches you personally). Post it on the forum, and explain why you like it.


Mark describes himself as ‘saving’ these stories before they disappear. YouTube comments, like many other internet channels, can be described as ephemeral, in the sense that they can be taken down at any time. The other reasons Mark gives for saving these stories are in fact very similar to the motivations he ascribes to the storytellers: impulsiveness and nostalgia. Mark imagines the storytellers listening to pop songs on YouTube when ‘all of a sudden an unexpected memory will just ambush them and the YouTube comment is just there for them’. That is, the Comment function offers them the immediate opportunity to let out their emotions. The other motivation here then is the emotion itself (in this case, nostalgic longing, or saudade in Portuguese) and the seemingly powerful need for self-expression. The final motivation is anonymity, and the point this raises is interesting. The YouTube stories seem to suggest that people want to voice their emotions and tell very personal stories but they want to do this behind the security of an online nick (nickname); they don’t necessarily want to do this in front of people who know who they are.
On the one hand, you might challenge the importance of these stories in the context of wider communicative practices. The storytellers constitute a tiny group of YouTube commenters who in turn constitute a small part of the world’s population – and they are read by a yet smaller number of people, if at all. On the other hand, these stories intuitively seem to say something about the human condition – the need to tell our stories and to be connected with others – and the fact that these stories are told in such an obscure and unread place only underlines this.