20 April 2017

Media, language, and social relationships

In teaching anthropology, I always find students to be exceptionally interested on the days that we talk about media. Many of my students consider social media to be an important part of their lives and social interactions, from how they connect to others to how they spend their leisure time. And, in many ways this engagement has actually changed the ways through which students interact with us, as well as the language and forms of address we see in email communications.

To many of us who really care about writing well (and try to teach this skill and sensibility), these shifts are occasionally taken as doomsday signals of the downfall of the English language, or even the future of society in general (when we're being melodamatic, anyway). Yet, to take an anthropological approach, it's interesting to think about how these different forms of media actually mediate social relationships... including between ourselves and our students.

I often like to show the first 12 minutes or so or Michael Wesch's lecture "An anthropological introduction to YouTube" to students when we first discuss media. Wesch really brings home this idea that media is more than just content, and that media mediate social relationships.

So, really, it shouldn't be surprising that engagements through new forms of media have lead to interesting (if annoying) cultural changes in language use and meaning. An interesting example of this is observable in this piece from Newsweek: "What it means when you end your emails with a period." Here, David Crystal opens by remarking how "Regular emailers will have encountered the new styles, and may use all of them. The omission of punctuation marks, avoidance of capitalization, and the use of nonstandard spelling is commonplace." Yet, this kind of language use is also part of our learned cultural context:
These styles are characteristic of informal e-communication. The more formal the interaction, the less they are likely to occur, and the more they will be construed as inappropriate. So it's important for youngsters experimenting with internet styles to realize that breaking the conventions of the standard language is dangerous in certain settings.
Another interesting example of shifting meanings -- this time within and across social media platforms -- comes from this The Sociological Imagination piece, "“Liking” it on Facebook." Javier de Rivera explores the sensibility and standardization of feeling connected to the "like" function on platforms like FaceBook and Instagram. Consider the following statement about the shifting and standardizing meanings associated with functions such as the "like" or "fav" across these different platforms:
The evolution of Twitter seems to be going in the same direction, by experimenting with the Favs and changing them to Likes, establishing the trend – that started several years ago – for using this feature to show appreciation rather than for archival purposes. Here, overlapping is not possible, by choosing Hearts as a mean of social interaction we are deploying its value as an archival resource: our list of bookmarks would be flooded with the less memorable tweets we chose to mark as an expression of appreciation.
How might you bring these examples into your classroom discussions of cultural change, community, meaning, and language?

Quick links and further reading: