The emergence of a new way to talk about time (in research and in real life)

Events are rescheduled all the time. Many of us live highly planned and structured lives, in which changes to plans are more of the rule than the exception. When changing the time of an event, you might say that a dinner has been pushed back an hour, or that a trip has been moved up. But you probably don’t say that the meeting has been pushed to the right. Unless you’re a member of the US military.

That’s the main finding from research that I completed with Ben Bergen and Tyler Marghetis. Specifically, members of the US military find lateral metaphors (the words “left” and “right”) more acceptable for talking about time than civilians do. Phrases like “Next Wednesday’s meeting was moved two days to the right, to Friday” were more acceptable to military members than to civilians.

You can read more about that research in an earlier post I wrote, but one of the most important parts of that research is the so what? — why we found it useful to work on this topic in the first place. It’s not just that one subgroup of English speakers uses conventions that others don’t. Instead, we find it significant that English speakers generally think about time in terms of lateral space (something that has been shown extensively by other cognitive psychologists), but only a subset of us (military members, apparently) actually talk about it that way. Yet it’s a logical way to talk. It avoids ambiguity inherent in phrases like “Next Wednesday’s meeting was moved forward two days.” (Is this meeting on Monday or Friday? People are divided on this answer).

In this regard, military members might be ahead (to the right?) of the rest of us — they might have conventionalized a system of metaphors that will gradually become more mainstream.

When we first wrote these ideas and presented them to academic audiences, I thought there was a chance we were right — that someday it would be very normal in standard American English for someone to say that “Next Wednesday’s meeting was moved two days to the right, to Friday.” I thought this because my husband is in the military and says things like this to me regularly. Soon he might not be in the military, but might continue to say things like this, particularly at work with civilians. Who might, in turn, start using the lateral metaphors at home with their own families. And so on. It seems possible that these lateral metaphors are in the process of catching on with the larger population of American English speakers.

This seemed like a solid enough idea in theory, but I wasn’t sure I’d put money on it actually happening.

Then I saw this billboard in a metro station.

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www.getleftofboom.com

To be honest, I didn’t know what being “left of boom” meant at first. But when I actually went to the site, I learned that the company behind the ad (authentic8) is selling a secure remote browser called Silo. Their entire advertisement (in billboards and online) is an extension of the metaphor that earlier things are to the left and later things to the right. “Boom” is “an exploit, a data leak, compliance violation, or worse.” Bad cyber security tools “work right of boom. They assess and analyze content after it’s hit your network. By then it’s too late.”

I don’t know the particular target audience for these ads. Maybe many people in companies that might buy Silo have military (or government) work experience. In these cases, it’s likely that those targeted by the ads are at least somewhat familiar with this explicit lateral metaphor for talking about time. But I’d also guess that military- and government-adjacent people are not the only target customers. Authentic8 is counting on potential customers to either be familiar with lateral metaphors or to intuitively understand them.

I have no idea if their advertising strategy is effective. Do people even understand the ads? Or, on the flip side, do they understand them so easily that they don’t even notice the strange metaphor? Will one of my colleagues start talking about moving meetings left and right soon?

I don’t know — so stay tuned!

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Rethinking SciComm’s Spotlight on Jargon

It seems that a resounding theme of every science communication how-to guide is to avoid jargon. Jargon is any language that’s field-specific. On the surface, this “rule” makes total sense — if your audience doesn’t understand the words you’re using, they’re unlikely to understand the ideas you’re communicating. Jargon can definitely be a barrier to effective science communication, but there are two important points that the NO JARGON campaign misses: first, jargon is not always terrible, and second, eliminating jargon is not enough.

Jargon is not all bad

One way of accomplishing the first half of that reminder is to avoid the terms that require specialized knowledge to understand. Eliminating jargon sounds good.

But the rule to eliminate all jargon violates the second half  — to not underestimate an audience’s intelligence. Unless you’re speaking to an elementary school class or other specific population, your audience can probably handle some jargon. Of course you should define terms that could be new to your audience. But you don’t have to cut them out entirely. I didn’t attend ComSciCon-Triangle, but I was encouraged to see that speaker Abby Olena also suggested that we don’t need to treat jargon as Public Enemy #1 (thanks to this great blog post by Sarah Loftus for recapping the comments).

If you try to replace all jargon with explanations that use less specialized vocabulary, you’re likely to end up with cumbersome and roundabout explanations that lose your audience anyway, and potentially make them feel patronized in the process — we can all tell when someone’s avoiding using a “big word” because they think we can’t handle it.

I am all for cutting unnecessary jargon, or cutting words that actually mean something different in science than they do outside science. The American Geophysical Union’s Sharing Science blog has a great list of these, along with tips for reducing jargon. Let’s continue to cut excessive and unnecessary jargon, but let’s also push back against the advice that proclaims Absolutely No Jargon Anytime.

Jargon is just the tip of the iceberg

Another reason I get frustrated when people fixate on jargon is that reducing it is usually not that hard. It requires care and diligence to anticipate what will be jargon to an audience, but if you have an editor or listener from another field give input, you can usually catch jargon and replace it with more accessible descriptions. It takes time, but it’s rarely too intellectually challenging to remedy.

A sole focus on removing jargon is like “fixing” a hole in the wall by sliding your dresser in front of it. The hole is not fixed; it’s just hidden. Excising jargon eliminates the most glaring signs of inaccessibility, but it doesn’t fix the communication. In many cases, even when jargon is eliminated, the talk or article is still hard to understand. Cutting jargon is the tip of the iceberg.

We need to drastically broaden our acknowledgement of the factors that make information accessible to our audiences. It’s not just the words we use, but the layers of assumptions and experiences that underlie our ideas that can make them hard for people outside our field to understand in the way we want them to.

For example, in scientific research, we place great value on background research — knowing what was already known and what wasn’t before a study began. Background information is almost always described at the beginning of a scientific paper because the scientific community by and large assumes this information is crucial for understanding a given study.

But when communicating outside your discipline, if you assume your audience has the same appreciation for background info and understanding that it sets the stage for what’s to come, you might lose them. It’s not that they don’t understand the background information, but they don’t have the same scientific experience that tells them why they should care about this information. I’m not being revolutionary right now — the “inverted pyramid,” in which findings are communicated first and background last (the opposite of how science is communicated to other scientists) is common practice for journalists. Failing to follow this advice and instead using an academic frame, assuming that your audience expects background information and knows how to integrate it into findings you will present later often makes a message inaccessible — whether or not it contains jargon.
Inverted_pyramid

Another common problematic assumption in science communication is that the topic is worth studying. If you’ve been working on a topic for many years, hopefully you consider it an important one. There’s a good chance your audience doesn’t yet know why it’s important, and this is especially true of basic science. Instead of mentioning at the end (again, as we do in scientific papers) why this topic is worthy of study, your whole communication can be framed around the idea that this topic is important; and here’s why!

To sum up…

I’m not advocating for jargon-filled science communications. When there’s a simpler way to say something, we should always do that. When jargony terms aren’t necessary for understanding the ideas, we should remove them. And when a term means something different in a scientific and a lay context, we should avoid it. But sometimes jargon is necessary, and using it sparingly can result in a clearer communication than banishing it altogether.

I think the science communication community should stop fixating on jargon in part because it’s not always evil, but also because it’s not the only evil. The assumptions that underlie our messages can be just as confusing and ineffective as incomprehensible words used within. We need to address factors like underlying assumptions that threaten the accessibility of our science communications and are more challenging than replacing words and phrases with descriptions. Sure, let’s reduce jargon, but in doing so, let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Scientists agree on climate change: How should we communicate that?

Scientists agree: humans are causing climate change, and if we don’t drastically change our behavior, there will be catastrophic consequences.

The Consensus Handbook, a recent publication by communication researchers John Cook, Sander van der Linden, Edward Maibach, and Stephen Lewandowsky provides a clear and concise compilation of research on communicating scientists’ consensus on climate change. Here are some of my highlights from the report*.

First, what percentage of scientists agree? There are a number of ways to measure consensus — examining published research, surveying scientists, or studying public statements made by scientists, for example. Different researchers have studied this question in a variety of ways, but each result has suggested that 91-100% of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is occurring. The majority of these studies actually converge on the estimate the 97% of scientists agree, which is why many of the studies that research the effects of consensus messaging use that number. Regardless, agreement is high. Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe addresses this consensus in a great video on her channel Global Weirding.

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Does the public realize how high scientific consensus is? No.

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Why is there a gap between public perception of scientific agreement and actual scientific agreement? There are two primary culprits. The first, the authors refer to as a “cultural bias.” On average, people who are more conservative report lower consensus than those that are farther to the left. This report doesn’t delve into too much detail on the role of people’s ideological worldview in shaping how they think about climate change, but work by Dan Kahan (which I’ve written about here) is one resource for learning more about that.

The second — and larger — cause of the perception gap is a combination of a lack of information and misinformation. Misinformation campaigns have been relatively successful at confusing the public about scientific consensus on climate change. The most notable is probably the Global Warming Petition Project, in which “people” (some of whom are not real people and many of whom are not scientists) have signed a petition urging the US government to reject global warming agreements.

Adding fuel to the misinformation fire, the media often shows contrarian and climate scientist opinions in comparable ways, suggesting that there is a balance and that climate change is still an issue of debate among scientists.

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Why is it important for the public to know the true consensus on climate change? Research has shown that it’s a gateway belief:

what people think about expert agreement influences a range of other key climate attitudes, including whether global warming is real, caused by humans, resulting in serious impacts and importantly, whether we should act to solve it.

Since communicating consensus is also helpful for encouraging people to embrace other crucial beliefs held by climate scientists, the authors comment that “the 97% consensus offers a lot of bang for one’s communication buck.”

Given the importance of understanding scientific consensus, how should we communicate about it? The handbook offers a number of evidence-driven suggestions:

  • Use the number (97%). This is more effective than a description of the consensus as “an overwhelming majority” for convincing people of the reality of the consensus.
  • Consider a pie chart to show consensus. A study led by van der Linden (which I’ve written about previously) showed that the pie chart was more convincing than a simple description or analogy.
  • Encourage people to estimate consensus first. Revealing the consensus after people have estimated it has been shown to be more influential than simply revealing the same information.
  • Inoculate against misinformation (I’ve also written about this strategy). Research shows that people can encounter misinformation about the consensus and still come away with favorable climate attitudes if they’ve been warned about tactics that contrarians often use before they encounter them.

These are all promising tactics for communicating the climate change consensus, but amid these nuanced strategies, we should also not lose sight of the golden rule:

  • People need to encounter straightforward and clear messages that are repeated often and from a range of sources.

*All are figures from Cook, J., van der Linden, S., Maibach, E., & Lewandowsky, S. (2018). The Consensus Handbook. DOI:10.13021/G8MM6P. Available at http://www.climatechangecommunication.org/all/consensus-handbook/

Cover image from NASA: https://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/images/index.html

Framing your SciComm Message

When you’re communicating, whether about the frustration of finding facial hair stubble in your bathroom sink or the importance of addressing climate change, it’s useful to think not only about the idea you want to get across, but also how you want to get it across. Which words do you want to use, or which ones do you want to avoid, for fear that they’ll make your spouse or conversation partner feel defensive or closed-minded? How do you want to bring up this topic? What other situations do you want to compare it to?

We’re accustomed to framing our everyday conversations carefully in order to maximize the chances of a desired outcome, like a clean bathroom sink, and minimizing the chances of an undesired one, like offending. We need to use this same meta-cognitive strategy — framing — when we communicate all science, and especially when communicating science that some audiences may want to resist.

I’ve created this handout to give an overview of framing in the context of published research. What does research tell us about how we should communicate issues like the importance of vaccinations or addressing climate change? The handout includes takeaways from each of the topics to help science communicators apply research on the science of scicomm.

Click here to download the pdf.

What other strategies would you like to learn more about? I’m brainstorming my upcoming handouts and would love to hear from readers about topics from the science of science communication that would be most helpful.

I’m biased, and so are you. Considerations for SciComm

I really like being right. Chances are you do too, because we humans are psychologically inclined to seek out evidence that suggests we’re right. We tend to interpret neutral information in our favor and contrary information as flawed. These related tendencies are often referred to as confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is inevitable, and it colors how every one of us sees the world. If I’ve just received an email from a student asking me to bump their grade up so they can get into med school, I might start grumbling to myself about my lazy students. Then as I’m ruminating on lazy students, I might interpret the next student’s well-intentioned question as a manipulative attempt to score higher on the exam. In other words, I may interpret this latter interaction as confirming my feeling that arose from the prior one — the students’ laziness — even if the second student wasn’t lazy or manipulative at all.

Confirmation bias can, in part, explain why there are still way too many parents who don’t have their children vaccinated. Once they believe that vaccines might be harmful for their children, they seek evidence to confirm that belief — for example, clinging to the very small percentage of people who do have adverse reactions to vaccines. Even an overwhelming amount of data demonstrating the benefits of vaccines and the fact that the vaccines-and-autism rumors started from completely fraudulent “science” will not persuade this person. They’ve chosen which evidence to believe and which to discard, even if they don’t necessarily see it as a conscious choice.

An audience’s confirmation bias can be extremely frustrating for science communicators. It can make it feel like communication attempts are futile, since some members will already have their mind made up, and will interpret new information through the lens of their current belief.

But successful science communication is not just a process of information transmission. The idea that the public just hasn’t received enough science info, and that they’ll hold more pro-science beliefs and make more pro-science decisions is incredibly misguided. Confirmation bias illustrates why heaping information on people will not change minds if they have contrary beliefs they seek to confirm. I’ve written about this before, and so have many other great writers.

We need to meet our audience where they’re at: LISTEN, recognize their concerns, find common ground, and empathize with them. Start there, and then share your message.

For science communicators: Your audience is going to have cognitive biases. It’s important not to let your awareness of their biases color how you think of the people you’re communicating with. In fact, if you start to characterize your audience as stubborn or irrational because their biases act as obstacles to accepting the science you want to share, you are falling prey to yet another cognitive bias —  a fundamental attribution error, or a correspondence bias. This bias plays out when we attribute someone else’s behaviors to their personality (for example, they’re not understanding my science because they’re irrational) more than we would attribute our own behaviors to our personalities.

Remember, you, too, have cognitive biases. Although at times those biases might drive you to make stubborn or irrational conclusions, you probably don’t think of yourself as a stubborn or irrational person. Instead, you might recognize that your unique background and your current circumstances have led you to make biased decisions. Acting stubborn in a certain context does not necessarily make you a stubborn person. We must remember this is true, even when we’re communicating with seemingly stubborn people.

So when you’re communicating, recognize that your audience has cognitive biases — this part, I think, is not too hard. What’s more difficult is to also recognize that you have cognitive biases. No real communication can happen until you do this — until you acknowledge that your audience is comprised of human beings, all of whom have wonderfully complex cognitive baggage, just like you.

Vaccinating, metaphorically and literally

There’s a lot of bad (either misleading or blatantly false) science information on the Internet. Science communicators often try to combat the bad content by dumping as much accurate information as they can into the world, but that strategy is not as effective as many would hope. One reason it’s not effective is that social circles on the Internet are echo chambers: people tend to be follow like-minded others. Scientists and science communicators follow each other, and skeptics follow each other, so we rarely even hear what others outside our circle are talking about. Plus, when we do encounter evidence that contradicts our beliefs, we tend to discount it and keep believing what we already did.

A recent study by Sander van der Linden, Anthony Leiserowitz, Seth Rosenthal, & Edward Maibach (that I recently wrote about) gives a glimmer of hope to this science communication trap: communicators may be able to “vaccinate” their audiences against misinformation. They found that if people are cued in to the kinds of tactics that opponents of global warming deploy, they’re less likely to believe them. This finding offers some hope in a time when the proliferation of fake and misleading science information seems inevitable. Scientific facts, along with a heads up about anti-scientific strategies, can help people better evaluate the information they receive to form evidence-based beliefs and decisions.

Does this apply to other scientific issues? Can we vaccinate against anti-vaccination rhetoric?

I don’t know. But I’d like to find out. In order to design a communication that alerts people about anti-vaccine messages they might encounter, it’s important to understand anti-vaccine tactics. I explored some very passionate corners of the Internet (videos, discussion threads, and blog posts by anti-vaccine proponents) for a better understanding. Here are the anti-vaccine tactics I found, a lot of which are described in this SciShow video:

Ethos: Appeal to Authority

First, note that this immunologist isn’t explicitly saying that children shouldn’t be vaccinated. But the quote implies so much. I don’t know if that’s actually her belief, but regardless, as a consumer of this image, I do get the sense that she looks pretty smart (#educated, in fact), and maybe she knows what she’s talking about…

Jargon

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There are four chemical names in the first five lines of the ad above. It sounds like whoever wrote it must really know their science. The message implies that the author has deep scientific knowledge about the chemicals mentioned and wants to warn you of their presence in vaccines. Paired with our society’s tendency to believe that all things “natural” are good, and all things “chemical” are enemies, this jargon-wielding author might appeal as someone worth listening to. Most of us (and I am definitely included here) don’t know much or anything about those chemicals — how do they work? Are they actually dangerous in the doses found in vaccines? This jargon paves the way for persuasion through the naturalistic fallacy — the idea that all natural things are better than non-natural things.

Logos: Appeal to “Logic”

Logical fallacies

A logical fallacy is faulty logic disguised as real logic, and it’s another common tactic used by anti-vaccine proponents. In the Tweet above, the author presents two facts, implying that they’re connected (that an increase in mandatory vaccines led to a change from 20th to 37th in the worldwide ranking of infant mortality rates. Just because America “lost ground” on this ranking, it doesn’t necessarily mean our mortality rate even went up — it’s likely that many other nations’ mortality went down. Plus, there are so many other factors beyond number of mandatory vaccines that influence infant mortality rate, and no evidence supplied by the Tweet that vaccines and mortality are related. They’re just two pieces of information, placed next to each other to give a sense of a causal relationship.

There are lots of ways logic can be distorted to suggest that vaccines are bad. One that really stands out to me is the suggestion that if vaccines work, why should we care if some children are not vaccinated? After all, they’ll be the ones who get sick… why does it concern the rest of us?

It does. For one, no child should end up with a paralyzing or fatal disease because their parent chose to disregard scientific consensus. But one person’s choice not to vaccinate directly affects others — for example, people who CAN’T be vaccinated for health reasons. If everyone else receives vaccines, that one person who cannot is safe thanks to “community immunity.” But if others stop receiving those vaccines, the person who had no choice but to remain unvaccinated is susceptible. This person is unjustly at danger as a result of others’ choices.

Pathos: Appeal to Emotion

Fear

Fear is a powerful motivator. Appeals to ethos and logos can work together to have an emotional effect. Parents just want to do their best for their kids, so messages that strike up fears about the harms of vaccines have a good chance of swaying them.

One way of drumming up fear is to promote vaccine proponents as bullies, as this article demonstrates:

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Yea, that description sounds pretty scary to me… Breakdown Radio. Link to article

Considerations for inoculation messages

Of course, I’ve just scratched the surface with these tactics that anti-vaccine proponents use (you can get an idea of some others in a post on how the anti-vax movement uses psychology to endanger us by Dr. Doom) Messages that vaccinate against misconceptions have to walk an extremely fine line. The goal of such a message is to foreshadow misleading messages a person may encounter, and to point out the reasons that message should be reconsidered.

Vaccine messages might be useful when they introduce new information, but they also need to be proactive, anticipating anti-vaccine rhetoric and alerting people to its flaws. There are a few dangers in doing so, though. For one, it often requires repeating the misconception, and research shows that doing so can backfire and reinforce the inaccuracy instead. In addition, pointing out flaws in an argument that someone might be prone to believing can alienate that person. If the warning message isn’t constructed conscientiously (for example, if it suggests that seeing through the misleading information is a no-brainer), it can imply that anyone who might believe the misconceptions is an idiot. A message like this will make some members of the audience feel defensive (wow, am I an idiot? No, I can’t be an idiot. Maybe this author of this message is the idiot…).

That doesn’t mean that inoculation messages can’t be effective. We have some evidence to suggest they can, and I think there’s a lot of room to continue honing this strategy. The first step in a successful inoculation message is to uncover the tactics used by those who misrepresent the science. Then it’s important to raise awareness of those tactics without alienating the audience and while being careful not to repeat the misinformation in a way that can be construed as reinforcing it.

Communicators can keep in mind that anti-vaccine messages often attempt to establish authority, tap into emotions, and apply misleading logic in order to convince people of their message. By anticipating these strategies, we can have greater success in counteracting them and promoting vaccines as the life-saving technologies they are.

More information

 

The Pope’s #scicomm: Effects of Laudato si’ on beliefs about climate change

Climate change is an extremely polarized issue: while many people firmly believe scientific evidence that human-caused climate change is ruining the planet and our health, many others adamantly maintain that it is not a problem. Figuring out how to communicate the gravity of climate change has been an urgent puzzle for climate change scientists and communicators (a topic I’ve written quite a bit about).

Collectively, we’re trying many different ways of communicating this issue. I especially love these videos by climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and others by researcher M. Sanjayan with the University of California and Vox. Pope Francis also contributes to the scicomm effort — in 2015 he published an encyclical called Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home, which called for global action toward climate change (he also gave a copy of this encyclical to Donald Trump recently when the two met).

Was Laudato si’ effective?

Did the document influence beliefs about the seriousness of climate change and its effects on the poor? Recent research by Asheley Landrum and colleagues took up this question.

The work is based on survey results from Americans — the same people reported their beliefs about climate change before and after the encyclical came out.

They found that the encyclical did not directly affect people’s beliefs about the seriousness of climate change or its disproportionate effects on the poor.

But… the encyclical did affect people’s views of the pope’s credibility on climate change, encouraging them to see him as more of an authority after the document was published than before. This was especially true for liberals, though, reflecting a sort of echo chamber effect: people who already found climate change to be an issue gave the pope more credit for his stances on climate change after he published the encyclical.

Importantly, these altered views of the pope’s credibility did in turn affect how much people agreed with the pope’s message on climate change. In other words, there wasn’t a direct effect from the publication of the encyclical to agreement with its message; instead, there was first an effect of the document on beliefs about the pope’s credibility, and then an effect of those credibility assessments on agreement with the pope’s message.

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This work reminds us that science communication efforts can’t be considered in isolation. Whether people agree with a message is influenced by factors like their political beliefs and the credibility of the source. This point calls for two directions for future scicomm: for one, communicators should do their best to consider their message and audience holistically — what factors are likely to shape an audience’s receptiveness to a message, and how can those be influenced? This work also reminds us that we need more research on the science of science communication. We need to continue working to understand how people perceive scientific issues and communicators, and how they respond to the scicomm they encounter.


Featured Image: Korea.net / Korean Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han)

Philip Guo & I talk about scicomm

The summer before I started grad school, I scoured the Internet for first-person accounts of what it’s really like to be a PhD student. I had just committed to doing a PhD in Cognitive Science at UCSD and figured that would be a good time to find out what I was in for.

Philip Guo‘s PhD memoir, the PhD Grind, was the most satisfying – check out my earlier post with reflections and favorite quotes to learn more about his free e-book. Just a couple years later, Philip came to UCSD Cognitive Science as a professor where he does research on human-computer interaction, online learning, and computing education.

He also creates some podcasts – “video interviews of interesting people [he] know[s].” I somehow fell into that category, and Philip and I had a fun conversation about science communication. We touched on the science of science communication, the blogging seminar I’m co-teaching, and how I discovered and pursued science communication.

You can read more and watch our conversation on Philip’s site.

The Language of Twitter

Technology is well-known (at least in linguist circles) for giving rise to new language. New innovations require new words, but those words are often quickly repurposed from their original parts of speech. For example, we can receive an e-mail (noun), but we can also straight up e-mail (verb) someone, and I think I’ve heard people refer to e-mail (adjective) messages (those are probably people who grew up with the idea of some other kind of messages for a while before they were introduced to the e-mail, though). Similarly, we have text (a group of words), a text (noun – a book, or, more recently, a text (adjective) message), and we can definitely text (verb) people. Instead of creating nouns, adjectives, and verbs for new technology concepts, we often create one word and use it for whatever parts of speech we need.

Twitter language

Social media platforms tend to also have their own niche linguistic habits. Twitter and Twitter users have introduced lots of new terms – for example the verb tweet as a thing humans can do while at a computer (with its accompanying noun — the tweet). Tweet is “productive,” in the linguistic sense that it can be combined with other morphemes (meaningful word parts) to make new words: there are retweets, subtweets, and tweetups.

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2010, seriously!?

Of course there’s also the expansion of the word hashtag (into something people now say verbally preceding pretty much anything they want). In fact, the primary definition of hashtag seems to be the Twitter sense now, with the actual symbol taking on the secondary definition.

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Plus, Twitter’s strict character limit encourages lots of esoteric abbreviations, bringing about lots of new elements of language. Sometimes, scrolling through my Twitter feed I’m reminded of the experience translating sentences from Latin — I’d figure out pieces one at a time, not necessarily in a logical order, and put them together, to hopefully reveal something meaningful.

Lately I’ve noticed a few especially cool linguistic inventions on Twitter that I think result in part from character restrictions, and also because even though most people’s Tweets are public for anyone on the Internet to read, conversations often include people with a lot of common ground. They may not even know each other IRL, but they follow similar people, communicate about similar topics online, and maybe share some background experiences.

First, an important mention: The people I follow on Twitter are not representative of the population of Twitter users. When I compare my Twitter followers to all Twitter users, there are some pretty striking differences. For example, a greater percentage of my followers are between ages 25 and 34 than the Twitter population at large.

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Similarly, my followers are much more interested in a handful of related topics than the whole Twitter population:

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These demographics should provide some context for the linguistic innovations I experience on Twitter.

#NotAllMen

First, the nature of hashtags on Twitter has kind of coerced these 3 words into one, as it often appears as #notallmen without caps to distinguish the component words. #Notallmen means what it sounds like. When someone says something negative about men, someone might reply with the reminder that not all men (#notallmen) are sexist (or whatever the original claim was — usually sexist). But I usually see #notallmen take on a more meta meaning, a way of pointing out that replying to some instance of sexism with “not all men” distracts from and avoids the problem (i.e., “Men who disguise their own hurt under #notallmen – into the bin with you”). Here, #notallmen is a noun.

But it can also be an adjective: “In my dream last night I was dating a #NotAllMen boy I went to high school with…”, “walk off your #notallmen instincts dude”, and “I wish guys put all of their angry ‘#NotAllMen!’ energy into just.. actually not being one of those men.” I know there must be verb uses of #notallmen out there, but I’ve yet to stumble upon one…

One other cool thing is that I see #notallmen in lots foreign language tweets — for example “Pero en este punto los hombres se vuelven víctimas y debemos dedicarnos al #notallmen para no herir a aquellos que “aman a las mujeres”.” To my eye, that looks like: “Spanish Spanish Spanish #notallmen Spanish.” (If you’re interested, Twitter translates it as: “But at this point the men become victims and we must dedicate ourselves to the #notallmen to not hurt those who “love women”.”)

#WellActually

#WellActually is #NotAllMen’s cousin. I admittedly don’t always understand how people are using it, but I do often see it to indicate that someone (most often a man) is correcting someone else (most often a woman). Sometimes it’s used to call out a man-splainer (as the man-splainer is likely to say “well, actually…” to a woman), but I’ve also seen it used to refer to correcting people in general: “I got to #wellActually one of the people interviewing me and it felt gooooooooodddddddddd” or “sorry to #wellactually.”

Like many of the other terms I’ve described, #WellActually can take on whatever part of speech its user needs. It’s often a verb (“Got a BALD MAN in my mentions trying to #WellActually me”), but can also be a noun (“Cue the glasses being pushed up and the ‘#WellActually'”) or an adjective (“Alright, #wellactually twitter. I see you never waste any time.” or “#WellActually twitter came really hard at the people trying to revel in the magnitude of this upset, huh?”). Well actually, I’m not completely convinced that #WellActually is describing Twitter in that second example. It might be an instance of using the hashtag for the actual words “well” and “actually,” which are… an interjection and an adverb? Someone can #WellActually me if that’s not right.

I love the content that I find on Twitter, but I can’t help paying attention to the way people package the content — which words they use and how they use them. The more I pay attention, the more I remember that people are clever, and language is one of the many ways they let that cleverness out.