Orchard Hays Essay

Linguistic Strategies of Identity Formation through College Student Status Updates


The first and third most widely used social networking sites – Facebook and Twitter, respectively – have popularized themselves as platforms for micro-blogging. Although micro-blogging is a multimedia practice, written language remains the prominent means of personal expression in this format. Twitter from its outset posed the unrestrained question “What are you doing?” with the highly restrained character limit of 140. Facebook followed suit in 2008 by creating a news feed on users’ home pages that mimics Twitter’s interface with synchronous updates of statuses and other content. Facebook even went so far as to put the prompt of “What are you doing right now?” next to status update fields. In order to answer this question, practiced micro-bloggers are employing well-developed linguistic techniques that allow them to manage their online identities or “self-knowledge” in this limited but highly accessible format.

The core of this group – that is, the users who are most familiar and well practiced with social networking and micro-blogging technologies – are young adults, primarily college students. This year, the “college crowd” of 18-24 year olds make up the largest demographic of Facebook users at 40.8%, and young adults ages 18-34 make up 47% of Twitter’s users. In his article, “Analyzing Online Communication from a Social Network Point of View: Questions, Problems, Perspectives,” Alexander Bergs synthesizes studies regarding how network structures effect the development of linguistic behavior in the network. From Berg’s synthesis, it can be inferred that among college students on Facebook or even Twitter, the high transactional content, high frequency of updates and high degrees of reciprocity result in network norms. Among these norms is the language college students develop for use in status updates.

Before analyzing the language college students have developed for micro-blogging and how they use it to manage self-knowledge, it is important to understand the context of the communication format from which it grew. First, the anonymous activity that has pervaded the Internet for years is causing more and more users to identify themselves online and work to maintain their own identities. Facebook is the primary example of this phenomenon; instead of hiding behind a username and avatar, people are using their real names and faces as the cornerstones for conveying information about themselves to their online communities. Consequently, users feel a greater obligation to portray themselves in ways that correlate with what they desire for their self image. Second, users who blog with words instead of audio or video are significantly limited in terms of the information that they can convey, and character limitations underscore this notion. Third, micro-blogging has the effect of being “one-to-many.” Many describe tweeting or updating a Facebook status as text messaging everyone you know or who wants to know you without the expectancy of – but instead the opportunity for – replies. This sense of freedom is enhanced by micro-blogging’s boundlessness; essentially, micro-bloggers are able to give minute-by-minute accounts of your life from almost anywhere at any time.

To evaluate micro-blogging language, it is also important to consider the nature of the predominant micro-blogging demographic, young adult college students, in conjunction with the concept of non-anonymity on the Internet. In her research, “On Netspeak’s destruction of English: Locating language ideologies in online discourse,” Lauren Squires acknowledges the belief in a standard language ideology: that there is one proper version of English. She also notes that this belief causes judgments about the speaker regarding his or her levels of cognition, intelligence and education. Further, she acknowledges a stigma attached to the use of improper English or “Netspeak” online. The cultural concept of “Netspeak” is that it should stay on the Internet because it is “not real” language. College students and young adults, those who are educating themselves and beginning their ascension into higher education or the work force, are concerned with appearing intelligent and well educated. Therefore, they are less inclined to use highly improper English in association with their own names online for almost anyone to see.

Upon close examination of language use in Facebook status updates of several hundred college students over the past three years, there is a fairly wide spread of types of English use. While some subscribe to proper English use in all status updates, including correct punctuation, capitalization, spelling and grammar, most fall somewhere in between this and what one might call full “Netspeak”. Among college students’ Facebook statuses, it is rare to see instances of abbreviations other than “lol”. This runs contrary to Twitter, which employs stricter character limits, and to other forms of online synchronous communication, such as instant messaging. Because college students are (a) using their own names, (b) broadcasting their status to a broad network (unlike in a chat scenario), (c) trying to maintain a somewhat mature, educated and intelligent image and (d) not very limited in characters on Facebook, they are likely to use proper English, or at the very least something closely resembling it.

Dennis Baron, professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in an interview with Vincent Rossmeier said that his students say “[Netspeak is] very junior high school…Once you mature…you look down on that stuff.” However, he also said that “They’re well aware of the conventions, and they buy into them. In fact, it’s kind of hard to break them away from being conventional.” A linguistic convention that has remained steadfast among college students online is the improper use of capitalization. For instance, it is common for college students to refrain from using punctuation in their status updates or tweets unless they wish to emphasize a particular word, in which case they will put it in all caps. Also, it is common for college students to use excessive punctuation, such as multiple question marks for a particularly urgent question or multiple exclamation points for a particularly fervent exclamation. Though most refrain from such “extremes” as “2” to mean “to” or “r” to mean “are”, there are lingering Netspeak conventions among college students, even in micro-blogging scenarios.

Baron lends more insight into why these conventions linger and why they are important to managing identity online:

“…I think students as writers quickly learn what’s appropriate in what kind of context. And so they adapt their writing…writers learn what the audience expects, and they learn that for any successful communication there’s got to be an interchange between what the audience expects and giving them what you want to give them.”

College students, whose audience consists primarily of other college students, have certain expectations when it comes to language on the Internet, including on micro-blogging platforms. By using a language halfway between proper English and Netspeak, college students are best able to express themselves as educated and mature individuals while maintaining a sense of ease associated with Internet communication.

But because college students are posting updates under their own name, they still encounter issues of how to manage the presentation of their lives, personalities, thoughts and feelings. Written language, especially the clipped variety characteristic of micro-blogging, can be highly inefficient at conveying “tone” and other important features of communication. Many college students incorporate emoticons not only into their chats, but into their status updates in order to convey emotion that may be missing from the words alone. Indeed, “While offline networks are based on and influenced by a multitude of extra-linguistic factors, online network participants only know each other by what they actually say or don’t say” (Berg). So, many users – including college students – feel compelled to include emoticons in their statuses in order to more accurately portray the tone or emotion behind the update.

When updating their statuses on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, college students are likely to make linguistic choices that further their identities as educated web users. These choices involve minimal Netspeak in the form of acronyms and abbreviations in order to elevate the image of their intelligence and maturity, but regular use of exaggerated punctuation and targeted capitalization in order to abide by web conventions that will put their readers at ease. These linguistic choices are influenced by increased non-anonymity on micro-blogging sites as well as the broad range of users that status updates reach. Ultimately, “Judgments are…not (just) about language: language provides a means for schematic social evaluation in online interaction” (Squires 11).


Works Cited

Bergs, Alexander. “Analyzing Online Communication from a Social Network Point of View: Questions, Problems, Perspectives.” language@internet Volume 3 (2006). Web. 15 Oct. 2009.

Squires, Lauren. “On Netspeak’s destruction of English: Locating language ideologies in online discourse.” Internet Research 8.0: Let’s Play (2007). Web. 15 Oct. 2009.

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