Ruining the English Language (Again!)

In every language we've ever known, there are speakers invested in various theories of the existential threats to its 'preservation.' Sam Biddle uncorks a cranky classic of the type at Gizmodo today, training his anxiety on the hashtag (or pound sign, #) as it's used on Twitter, Facebook, and increasingly elsewhere.  How do you know when you're reading a bit of language ideology?  You'll find these arguments:

  1. It's usually young people who are at fault.
  2. Some prior--usually highly logical or efficient--use of a form is being undermined:  "It's not doing what it's meant to" and  "it's misused"
  3. Whatever the form is, it's redundant and unnecessary.  "Why didn't they just express the things they hashtagged?"
  4. It is lowbrow and uncreative and stupid:   "it's dragging our tongues down"  and "we're all a bit dumber and a lot more confused."
  5. The form is not even language.  It's paralanguage.   It's a mere emoticon.  (Or is it a "verbal crutch?")

At the end of a piece like this, you're usually at a loss to explain just how "the English language" is worse off because of this little stylistic blip in its history, but you're pretty sure the author's right.  On closer inspection, you can observe that the author has usually deployed the form without difficulty in communicating information about it.  (See his #FML sign-off, an effective ironic instance of the form.)  Anyway, these are always entertaining to read, whatever language or linguistic genre they're concerned with, but you'll generally save yourself a great deal of heartache if you decline to treat them as personal style guides or ammunition for the reprimand of others.


What’s in a Name-Drop?

"Name-dropping" is a meta-linguistic term describing an instance of the use of a name--usually for an individual person, though occasionally a place or thing--in which that use is thought to be discontinuous with some desirable norm of name-use in communication.  That discontinuity is rationalized by an observer, typically, as the speaker's desire to align him or herself with the name and some set of attributes associated with it.  Roughly speaking, a "name-drop" occurs when the connotation of a name is foregrounded over its denotation.  But, while the term "name-drop" describes a bit of language use, it is also a language ideology and deserves some unpacking of its own. [Note that, by "language ideology," I don't mean to imply an idea that is incorrect or misguided.  I just mean that it is an idea about language that has a social circulation we can track over time and space.]

In this post, blogger and social media personality Geoff Livingston promises to "deconstruct" name-dropping, and, in so doing, provides a nice bit of data on how this native linguistic ideology appears in the wild.  Let's take it paragraph by paragraph:

Tell me someone on the social web who doesn’t name drop. The whole currency of the social web lies in referencing and mentioning people by name. Name dropping builds perceived value and equity. It’s at the heart of today’s influence measures right or wrong (see write up of Klout), and drives “weblebrity.” So we should look at it.

Is simply associating yourself with someone — even if it’s a fly by — an accurate measure of ability? I think even posing this question is absurd, but it seems to be the way of things right now. People go to conferences, tag each other and check-in with posts, mention casual lunches, and even business deals. Some do it with sincerity (happy to see you!), and some do it in an effort to gain street cred. (I just checked in at Facebook HQ!).

Let's ignore for the sake of this post that all of human social life--thus, including 'the social web'--depends on our ability to use language to refer to and mention other people by name.  Livingston proceeds to lay out some of the cornerstones of this native theory of name-dropping. [all emphases mine]

  • "Name dropping builds perceived value and equity"
  • Is simply associating yourself with accurate measure of ability?

First, note the distinction between perceived and actual "value and equity." Next, the author imputes to some class of members of the social web the belief that name-dropping (i.e. simply associating yourself with someone) is an index of ability.   He couples this with his own commonplace appeal to a time in the past when 'things' were more authentic: It's "the way of things right now."  Livingston goes on to provide a model for two different ways a name can be used: It can be done either with 'sincerity' or 'in an effort to gain street cred.'  "Happy to see you!" is an example of sincerity, whereas checking in at Facebook HQ is considered an 'effort to gain street cred.'  (In the first example, I think we're supposed to assume that a Twitter handle is appended to the phrase.  In the latter, "Facebook HQ" is the name being 'dropped' here.)

Let’s be clear, just because you see someone associated with another via a tag or a reference, doesn’t mean there’s a relationship. Nor does it mean that the person who does it should receive credibility. Just because a post is retweeted 20 times doesn’t mean it’s been read or that the ideas are valid (I can back this with data).

When I was on a vacation a year and a half ago, a Twitter follower spotted me at JFK airport between legs of a flight. A brief, pleasant interchange occurred. The tweet was up in five minutes. My wife was mortified!

Again, Livingston attributes a set of beliefs about the associative power of names to some class of web users (which includes "you," by the way!), namely that if someone uses a name, he or she has absorbed some of that name's positive attributes, one of which might be 'credibility.'   He then relates an instance in which an over-eager, and hence presumably insincere, fan tweeted about an interaction with the author.  Though he doesn't make it explicit, I believe we are to conclude that a "brief, pleasant interchange" was not a sufficiently intimate acquaintance to warrant the use of the author's name and thus constituted a wife-mortifying 'name-drop.'

Anyone who has attended SxSW knows this event takes name dropping to epic proportions. I personally dread seeing my name come across the Twitter stream. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a real famous person like Mark Zuckerberg at such an event. Really, SxSW embodies all that is wrong with the social web culture, from frat boy parties to vanity contests for the most name drops. At the same time, it is such a powerful networking opportunity, one would be a fool not to go and talk to people in person.

Here the name-drop is a mark of 'vanity' but a necessary hazard for those who are doing the more substantive work, one would guess, of "networking."

To me there’s no way to resolve the name dropping issue. It’s so hardwired into everything we do online. Perhaps, in parallel to old school name dropping, to not ever tag anyone would simply mean to live in an online hermitage.

At the same time, I think personally we should devalue name references as a valid measure of influence and stance. At the minimum, I hope after reading this post we’ll take conference tweets and casual mentions with a lot less excitement. And casually mention people with a lot less frequency.

A user of the social web can be forgiven for being confused by these proscriptions.  How is one to know what constitutes a 'casual' rather than a substantive mention?  That's another way of asking, "What is the point of such an ideology?"  One plausible interpretation is that high-status individuals in a given sphere--those who independently control and can wield the other extra-linguistic (or at least extra-interactional) indices of that status--circulate an ideology like this to induce anxiety among lower status individuals.  That anxiety helps to preserve their status because when you already independently exhibit the ideologically specified status markers, you can go ahead and safely assert your sincerity, intimacy, and a studied disinterest in all matters of street cred. These are the classic mechanisms of class- and status-maintenance in our culture now, in our past, and in every culture I've ever experienced or seen described.

Livingston adds, in a clever postscript, a nod to the tensions this ideology creates:

P.S. To be clear, the JFK incident was a rare one. When I walk around in my home town of Alexandria, Virgina — a very blue blooded city — I am sure almost no one wonders who that nerdherder living on the wrong side of the tracks is. They are much more interested to see if the Ragin’ Cajun is in town for a real celebrity citing.

Name-dropping Alexandria and the nom de comedie of James Carville!  The reference to the latter, in the context of this bit of humility (viz. 'nerdherder'), as a 'real' celebrity actually imposes on us a re-reading of the JFK incident that wasn't apparent to me in the first pass.   It was not merely an infelicitous Twitter mention by a passing acquaintance but an instance in which the author was treated as a celebrity, however wrongly the conventions of modesty require him to protest.  James Carville, we have to assume, is out there, somewhere, squirming.


Meformers or Mesearchers? On Finding Self-Centeredness in Social Media

The Miami Herald, this week, resurrected the preliminary report on a study of Twitter produced by some communications researchers at Rutgers back in September: "Is it Really About Me? Message Content in Social Awareness Streams." In short, their answer was yes, for 80% of Twitter users, it's really all about "me." And, with a clever bit of coinage, dubbed these individual vessels of self-absortion "Meformers." In many ways, this finding is hardly surprising. It is a veritable old chestnut that social media are mostly comprised of the self-centered and self-interested chatter of a new generation of narcissists. But, when a bit of research so profoundly confirms a popularly held ideology, it's almost always worth taking a closer look. I'm not prepared to dispute that stereotype, but this sloppy bit of research hardly confirms it. Let's look at where it breaks down, both theoretically and methodologically: (*)

First a brief recap:

The researchers describe Twitter as a subset of "Social Awareness Streams," characterized by the following three traits:

1. They are public
2. They are brief
3. They appear in a "highly connected social space, where most of the information consumption is enabled and driven by articulated online contact networks"

The analysis relies on a prior content analysis (Java et al) that hypothesized three "distinct user activities" (emphasis mine)

1. Information Seeking
2. Information Sharing
3. Social Activity

It pains me to do so, but let's ignore for the moment the problem of identifying as distinct activities "being social" and seeking or sharing information other than to say that, under any close examination, the distinction breaks down beyond utility. There is a grand (and misguided) tradition in the study of language of assuming uni-functionality in communicative practices, so these researchers are in good company. Nevertheless, there are five major problems with the research that fatally undermine the researchers' conclusions:

1. The data are not an accurate representation of the uses to which individuals put Twitter. Vast swaths of users and uses are excluded from consideration by design.

The researchers downloaded about 125 thousand user ids from Twitter's public timeline (which, I understand is itself a random sampling of Twitter users.) Then they made some deep cuts, including "active participants", those who had at least 10 friends, 10 followers and had posted 10 messages and excluding "organizations, marketers or those who 'have something to sell.'" Each of an unspecified sub-sample of the 125k users was carefully examined to identify 'personal use.' It is unclear from this preliminary report how many users were identified in this intermediate sampling of the 125k, but 911 qualifying users were identified from which 350 were randomly selected. The entire public api-limited twit streams of each of these users was downloaded, and ten messages were 'randomly' chosen for each user, but only non-reply messages were included (emphasis mine). According to the example for the category type Anecdote (others), 'mentions' were included. Since the data tweets were plucked randomly from context, it appears the researchers used a simple syntactic sort to exclude replies but include mentions. In other words, if the tweet started with an @, it was treated as a reply. Otherwise it was a mention. (I've written a little about the syntax of replies and mentions here, if you're curious.) They indicate that 13 users had fewer than 10 qualifying tweets in the downloaded corpus. The result was 3379 qualifying messages. (I contacted the researchers about the odd discrepancy here. Under ideal conditions, you'd have 3500 qualifying tweets. But the corpus falls short by 121 tweets. If each of these users had only one excluded tweet, the difference would be 117 tweets. In response to a query, the researchers indicated that there were other reasons that individual tweets were excluded, including due to 'language' . We can only hope that the final report spells out the details of the data set in more detail. So, so far, in an analysis of how individuals use Twitter, streams that appear to be selling something, and organizations, are excluded in principle as are individual tweets that, by a syntactic test, are judged 'replies.' It is certainly odd to set out to describe how people use Twitter by excluding, in principle, so much of the information seeking and sharing as well as social activity.

2. The range of content categories--they identify nine distinct categories--is unmotivated other than by the consensus of the coders/researchers.

Meformer Message Categories

Why are there nine categories? No reason in particular. In an initial sort, the researchers came up with seven categories, and when they sent the data to coders, they got some feedback that led them to expand it to nine. But on examination, these categories are a bit hard to describe as bounded, especially absent any context. And since eight of the nine categories appear to contribute to the 80% "meformer" number, the methodology seems skewed towards that result.

3. The data evidence a high degree of ambiguity, even so.

Tweets were scored by two coders each in order to sort them into these nine categories. According to the authors, "[o]ver-coding was not a problem as messages had 1.3 categories assigned on average." Really? Some quick math: 3379 messages x 1.3 categories per message = 4392.7. That means about 1013 messages--nearly one in three--were assigned to different categories by the two coders who looked at them because, presumably, they had either multiple kinds of content or were otherwise ambiguous. That's a bit of a problem for your sorting system!

4. The examples presented, presumably, as "best cases" themselves fail.

Let's look at the examples provided in table 1 above. Under "Me now" one example is "tired and upset." There is no indexical marker by which to infer the subject of this tweet. Stripped out of context, it could be almost any of the categories listed above, including Information Sharing! Absent a grammatical subject, the only way to resolve the content of this tweet is by appeal to a stereotype of the tweeter, namely that he or she is self-absorbed by default. How about Statements and Random Thoughts? (Again, let's politely ignore that ALL of the above examples, and indeed all tweets qualify as "statements.") One example: "The sky is blue in the winter here." By any conventional understanding, that seems to be "Information Sharing." Sure, it may be relatively trivial or widely known information, but it's formulated as 'information.' An example of Anecdote (others)? "Most surprised dragging himself up pre 7am to ride his bike!" By the convention established in the Me now (ME) category, by default, the person "most surprised" here is the tweeter, so the anecdote is really about his or her surprise, not the other user's unusual fitness effort. Each of the examples given is pretty difficult to defend as occupying any single message category as described above. The coders are to be forgiven!

5. The narrow focus on individually coded tweets, while methodologically simpler, ignores the 'social' part of the medium (especially the exclusion of @replies) leading to an inherent bias towards individual report type tweets.

Why would you seek to exclude "replies" in a study of how people use Twitter? The answer becomes clear when we look at how the coding procedure was conducted so that it produced discrete content categories. In short, excluding replies makes it easier to code individual tweets, but the effect is in privileging just the kind of data whose numeracy you are actually trying to measure. When you eliminate the context in which tweets are embedded, it only becomes easier to sort those tweets if you appeal to conventional stereotypes for evaluating them. But to stipulate self-centeredness is not to discover it. If you set out to find self-centered individuals in the world of social media, you are likely to be successful!

In sum, this preliminary report's reenforcement of the ideology of self-centeredness in the content of social media is a precipitate not of the careful analysis of the data in social awareness streams but of the stipulations of a methodology and an idiosyncratic system of categorization. The selfishness of social media is an ideology stipulated by the methodology here, not actually discoverable in the data. Self-centeredness in social media, it appears, is less a product of 'meformers' than 'mesearchers.'

*(Note: I contacted the researchers personally to try and get a closer look at the data corpus, but because they are still at work on it, they were reluctant to share it. And, it should be noted further that this is a preliminary report, and the final report will reportedly spell out some of the ambiguities in the methods).


"Is it Really About Me?  Message Content in Social Awareness Streams"
Mor Naaman,  Jeffrey Boase, Chih-Hui Lai
Rutgers University, School of Communication and Information


The Syntactic Projection of Conversation-Sphere on Twitter

Of the platforms littering the Social Media landscape these days, Twitter is considered to be the most transparently analogous to real-time honest-to-god conversation.  (Don't know what Twitter is, how it works or why you should care?  David Pogue's column in the New York Times is as good a place to start as any.) A recent change to the filter settings governing how some users experience that conversation has generated a great deal of anguish among some of Twitter's most passionate adherents and thrown the analogy into relief.

Briefly, here's what happened. About 3% of Twitter's users (myself among them) opted into a setting that would allow them to see all of the Tweets generated by those they followed.  The default setting--kept by 97% of users, according to Twitter--allowed users to see only the Tweets that mentioned or replied to them and others they followed.  The change removed that option, effectively creating a syntactically-bound distinction between "replies" and "mentions."  By "syntactically-bound" I mean simply that Twitter recognizes any Tweet that starts with a Twitter handle (@onculture, for example) as a reply and only as a reply.  In order for it to be visible, a user most follow both the author and the target of the reply.  Here's an example:

I (@onculture) follow both @questlove and @mwesch but not @masteryoda (NOTE: these are not real Tweets)

@questlove: @mwesch Are you going to the Roots show tonight?
(Visible to me since I follow both author and target)

@questlove: @masteryoda I've got you on the list for the show tonight.
(Not visible to me since I don't follow the reply target)

@questlove: I'm looking forward to seeing @masteryoda at the show tonight
(Visible to me since I follow the author and @masteryoda is non-initial, or "mentioned")

Under the previous settings all of the above Tweets would have been visible to me since the only condition on their visibility was whether or not I was following @questlove.

That's the change.  Twitter now uses the syntax of the Tweet as a model to project and then technologically restrict the conversation-sphere (or the intended audience) for that Tweet.  (This sender-receiver model of interaction is, not surprisingly, coincident with a traditional ideology about the nature and conduct of conversation, and indeed communication more broadly, stemming from the work of Ferdinand de Saussure and continuing through the linguistic anthropological subfield of "Conversation Analysis" today.)

Here are some thoughts on why the change might be so unsettling to opted-in users.

The filter is an over-extension of a pattern found in spoken and written language.  In conversation in English (and many other languages), the use of a proper name at the start of an utterance or sentence, followed by a brief pause, is a conventional method for establishing a face-to-face orientation with the targeted speaker in order to initiate or continue the interaction.  It establishes a communication channel.  In writing, it is often marked with an exclamation point or a comma.

Andrew! Are you going to the Roots show tonight?

Andrew, take me to the Roots show tonight.

The combination of the initial proper name and the question projects a model of the conversation sphere.  That sphere minimally includes the speaker and Andrew.

But, anyone co-present could overhear this utterance and learn at least three things:

(1) Something about the content (that there's a Roots show tonight, there's an entity called The Roots that puts on shows, etc.)

(2) something about the speaker (that he or she is a speaker of English, for example)

(3) something about the conversation sphere.  (that the speaker knows Andrew or wishes, at the very least, to entail a relationship with Andrew.)

In other words, anyone overhearing this utterance knows that an existing, or potentially existing, relationship is "in play."  And, in fact, it's the very possibility of the presence of an over hearer that best illimunates the over-projection of the conversation analogy in the filtering of replies.

And there's an additional problem, Twitter no longer distinguishes between a "use" and "mention" of @questlove in my hypothetical Tweets:

@questlove is appearing at Fluid tonight (mention)

@questlove are you appearing at Fluid tonight? (use)

Though only one of these two Tweets is, by grammatical convention, directed at @questlove, both are treated as "replies"  and filtered out of my stream for those who are not also following @questlove.  The old settings did not distinguish between these two utterances, thus the immediate conversation-sphere was projected grammatically and typographically, essentially as it is in conventional written and spoken English.  The change to the filter settings inaugurates a new Twitter 'grammar' that is in conflict with the grammar of spoken and written English.

So why does it matter?

The new system shifts the burden of managing a Tweet's circulation from the listener to the broadcaster.  

In the olden days of Twitter--last week--a conversation was, by default, a  performance for a larger audience.  A perfectly formed bon mot or lively and interesting joke could be delivered to a friend with the expectation that it would be overheard by others.  For one's followers, a tweet was not overtly marked with respect to whether it was expected to circulate beyond the immediate circle of the conversation.  Under the new filter, if you want a 'reply' to circulate reliably beyond its target, it must be converted to a 'mention' by means of any bit of prefixed text before the immediate target.   For example:

Hey @questlove where are you playing tonight?

This Tweet would be seen by all of my followers.  I half-heartedly suggested we might call this bit of prefixed text a "crashtag" because it would allow anyone to 'crash' the dinner party to which they had now been unceremoniously disinvited.

The introduction of obligatory marking to ensure circulation of ostensible "reply" tweets beyond their filtered targets makes new rhetorical resources and hence new identities available in Twitter.

If  "crashtagging" or whatever we end up calling it becomes commonplace, how will users come to see those who do it persistently?  Will the crashtagger be treated like the obnoxious boor who raises his voice in telling a story,  so as to be heard over the general din?  Or will she be recognized as a generous guru, making the extra effort to share her wisdom with anyone willing to listen?

Conversation is always partly and potentially a performance, with a radial indeterminacy limited only by the reach of the medium.  With the new settings,  Twitter has curtailed the virtually infinite reach of any given Tweet's conversation-sphere, and it has forced a broadcaster to overtly mark those bits of conversation which are meant to have reach and those which are not.

When grammars clash, as they do in code-switching environments everywhere around the globe, new creative resources emerge, but they come with new social perils, new kinds of socially locatable identies, as well.  The culture of Twitter is still relatively new, and the kinds of identities available to its users are still in flux. The  implications for how we marshal the indexical resources made available to us by these technologies in crafting or evading identity on the web may result in novel social changes we cannot anticipate but whose resonance may be felt far beyond the @.

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