Guest lecturer Dr. Kate Scott from Kingston University talks about her research on the pragmatics of hashtags and Computer Mediated Discourse.(CMD)
What is Computer Mediated Discourse?
Deborah Cameron and Ivan Panovic (2014) note that it’s important not to overstate the differences between past forms of communication and modern communication methods. While people use text messages and email for short-term arrangements instead of snail mail, snail mail was not always sluggish: In London for example, about a century ago, the postal service offered several deliveries per day.
Marc Prensky (2001) suggests that people who are natives to digital technology communications, not only communicate differently but also think in a different way. Additionally, he conceives that digital communication changed the way digital natives write for academic and formal purposes. Naomi Baron (2008) links this to ‘linguistic whateverism’: people no longer pay attention to how they write grammar and punctuation be damned.
From a sociolinguistic perspective this is not possible because users have communication competence: they are able to use different styles of writing for different purposes. Sociolinguists see CMD not as a self-contained virtual world but rather not so different from every other discourse in which diverse set sets of communicative practice and speech acts take place.
With the advent of web 2.0, we have websites that allow users to generate and share content. The first wave of CMD saw David Crystal in the beginning of the 90s describing the language of the internet. For sociolinguists, however, the objective is not so much to categorize the type of language that emerges but rather to to understand the practices of its users. Features, such as hashtags, are now understood as a resource that users draw on as they participate in building and maintaining communities of practice online.
Examples of CMD research:
In his paper: The many faces of diabetes: A critical multimodal analysis of diabetes pages on FB, Daniel Hunt considers the recent growth in the use of social media. In early social scientific research it was thought that social networking sites provide more opportunities for health information and peer support. However, according to Hunt, rich companies, governments and charities monopolize the discursive space by appearing at the top of the search list, thus dominating online health discourse. His approach to examining CMD is through critical social semiotics: the rich potential of multimodal environments offer non-linguistic content that interacts and weaves with the textual: images, sounds, videos. These can convey meaning alone or interplay with written text. A fascinating area that Hunt includes, but does not develop fully are what he terms as trajectories (after Lemke, 2002, in his paper on hypermodality). These are what I call pathways: the way we click our way around a website, and how the different sites interrelate. An interesting example is from the research I am currently undertaking, exploring the semiotic and linguistic representation of animal welfare on Sainsbury’s website. Information on animal welfare is not, as you might expect, under said title. For example, pigs are under ‘organic’. Information is scattered via different, confusing links, which I argue reflects the continuous fragmentation that occurs within the meat industry enabling its production and consumption
Julia Davies (2011) explores how online texts impact on meaning, centering on blogs (yay, that’s us!) as exemplifying “social networking textual presentations of self and local communities within a global setting”. Situating her research in New Literacy Studies ,which regard literacy as a social practice (rather than simply a set of skills such as reading and writing), Davies describes the way “the internet allows people to develop new social practices and how it allows them to operate in new ways”. Davies argues that in order to take full account of ways which communication takes place online, it is necessary to look at the multimodality of online interaction in the sociocultural context: how participants in an online interaction develop jokes and other devices to create a new online locality. To look at a specific example of such devices, Dr Kate Scott tells us about her research into hashtags use on Twitter.
How did hashtags evolve to become procedural markers, guiding the inferential processes? Space pressure and limitation to 140 characters means there are no opportunities to provide background information to interpret the information and the reader has to infer and fill in the gaps. Relying largely on inference has consequences in terms of understanding the tone of the message. The more implicit the message is, the more trust is involved in decoding the meaning of the message. This informal conversational style is surprising considering the conversations on Twitter are viewed by millions of people who do not know each other. We might expect that this estrangement would render the tweets more impersonal as the audience is invisible. However, we find that the asynchronous aspect of Twitter means that tweets may be read under different contexts. This leads to a situation of a very informal conversational style with people you know very little. So how do Twitter users maintain understanding and avoid miscommunication?
Hashtags help to categorize messages. Interestingly, use of hashtags was developed by a user, not by Twitter itself.
Hashtags are also used as search tools to connect with other people who are interested in similar things as well as a tool for campaigning: #Hellomynsmeis, led by Dr. Kate Granger, has become the name of the entire campaign.
Another example of the application of hashtags as context setter is of Dr. Granger tweeting about lying in a hospital bed and hashtagging #vulnerability and #power balance. It was there to provide context to fully understand her communicated meaning.
Some parts of language encode how we should interpret the inferential pragmatic processes. For example, discourse markers: but, so, after all.
Kate is a vegetarian. So she doesn’t like meat
Kate is a vegetarian. After all she doesn’t like meat.
These words help guide the hearer towards an interpretation. Similarly, hashtags are guides to the inferential path: speech acts performed on a higher level explicate, conveying attitudes. Consider the following example without the hashtag. What is the context for this utterance? (scroll down to see the context)
I feel like I’m falling over on the inside
I feel like I’m falling over on the inside#winehangover
Do you use Twitter? Do you have examples of hashtags being used to provide context? Share by leaving a comment!
I would like to thank Prof. Alessia Cogo, Goldsmiths College, University of London for organising this insightful talk with Dr. Kate Scott.