First came the smartphone. Then social media. Then LOLs and BTWs, #TBTs and #MCMs, likes and loves, gifs and emojis.
“Social media has definitely changed how we talk, and our language as a whole,” said Brandon Doyle, founder of Wallaroo Media and a BYU social media professor.
Doyle said hashtags play a large role in news and media consumption on social media.
“I think trending hashtags are huge both for our society and for our daily conversation,” Doyle said. “They let us all be a part of something together.”
BYU media effects professor Kevin John said hashtags allow online conversation to organize itself.
“It would be very easy to get lost in the millions of online comments made every day, and hashtags are just one way to easily flag your comment as belonging to one subgroup or another,” John said.
Recent BYU grad and current University of Illinois graduate student Diane Kay utilizes hashtags on Instagram to receive free merchandise by posting high quality photos of her one-year-old daughter using companies’ products. Companies favor social media customer promotions with high numbers of likes, so Kay uses hashtags to grow her following.
“I use hashtags that are popular and relevant to my post — mostly motherhood and baby-related hashtags — to get more traffic to my page,” Kay said. “At first, I was embarrassed to use all the hashtags because I didn’t want my followers to think I was desperate, but I decided it was worth it for free products.”
“I’m not sure that the changing language effects are positive, to be honest,” Doyle said. “With the introduction and mass adoption of social media, it seems as though people are less conversational in person, spend less time together and have a smaller vocabulary due to less book reading.”
John said digital communication tends to be more superficial than day-to-day conversations.
“It is easy to see that our typical exchanges via social media, comments on blogs or subreddits and chat room communication usually skews on the side of impersonal,” John said.
John said some studies have identified the younger generation’s constant use of social media leads them to be less comfortable with face-to-face conversations, less competent in social interactions and less inclined to form strong, close relationships.
“I think it is still too early to tell the long-term impact of social media on the way our society communicates, but early effects err from null to mildly harmful,” John said.
Doyle said there is potential to improve the recent downward communication trends smartphones present.
“I am intrigued by the long-term effects that podcasts and audiobooks can have on our culture,” Doyle said.
Kay said social media has positively impacted her interactions with acquaintances she does not see often.
“There are people who move away, or who I leave behind when I move away, that I would never communicate with if it weren’t for social media,” Kay said. “To me, a like or a comment is like a, ‘Hey, we’re still friends. I like you. Hope all is well.’”
John said there’s a positive side to smartphone communication, despite the introduction of conversation shortcuts and superficiality.
“I would argue they are evidence of the colorful side of culture that social media enhances,” John said.
John said smartphones have ascribed new meaning to typical terms.
“Naturally, terms like ‘tweet’ or ‘hashtag’ have gained prominence because of their central role in the basic functionality of social media, but social media also allows for slang such as ‘btw,’ ‘lol,’ and other things to enter the social vernacular,” John said.
Kay said sometimes she doesn’t use words at all when using her smartphone to communicate.
“There is a difference in the way I communicate with my smartphone,” Kay said. “I will often respond to messages with memes, gifs, or emojis — none of those include written language.”
Comparable past technology influences
John said comparable technologies in the past, including radio and television, have changed language in the past, enabling cultural influence to quickly spread across the country.
“Social media is no different, in that it enables a rapid spread of culture and messages,” John said. “In that sense, it has greater capacity to change how we communicate, because, arguably, people these days tend to use social media more than prior generations used television or radio. Increased use means greater potential to change behavior.”