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Interactivity and Playful Language on Twitter

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2013 32 Seiten

Anglistik - Linguistik


1. Introduction

Indisputably, the internet has fundamentally changed the way people interact and communicate. The places where communication and socialisation take place today are instant messaging clients, social networks and microblogging sites. Twitter, founded in 2006, is the most popular example of a microblogging site that sees itself to be an information network in the first place (cf. Twitter 2013). The technology on which Twitter is based developed from internet relay chatrooms and text-based online games, like Multi-User Dungeons (cf. Murthy 2013: 9).

Currently more than 485 million users are registered on Twitter (Globalwebindex 2012). Everyone of them can send short messages, called tweets, to the general internet. To receive another user's updates directly, one has to subscribe to his or her feed which is referred to as becoming a follower. But as long as one's profile is public, also non-members can read and explore the content of these updates.[1]

Tweets are not allowed to be longer than 140 characters. This strict character limit leads at best to eloquently trenchant messages. Twitter (Twitter 2013) itself says

[...] don’t let the small size fool you — you can discover a lot in a little space. You can see photos, videos and conversations directly in Tweets to get the whole story at a glance, and all in one place.

Hence, the length of these tweets should not be seen as deterministic of their communicative potential (cf. Murthy 2013: 9). The 140 characters available mostly contain interactive elements like hyperlinks and small-scale multimedia. Moreover, Twitter offers features for managing interaction with other users. These features are the hashtag (#) which labels a topic, @ to indicate address or reference and RT to republish other posts.

Furthermore, language is used creatively on Twitter: words are abbreviated and partly replaced by numbers. Capitalisation is used with ease for different purposes and punctuation marks serve to demonstrate feelings like in emoticons. Such netspeak became a phenomena of computer-mediated communication and it is becoming more and more interesting for linguists.

The aim of this paper is to show how language and punctuation can be used in interactive and playful ways, as can be seen not only in the creative use of punctuation marks to address others and to tag common topics but also in the use of netspeak.

In a first section, I want to clarify the notion of interactivity, before examining the three interactive elements @, # and RT. Next to their functions on Twitter, I want to give some more insights into the history and in the meaning of these elements. The @ character for example is held in such a high esteem that the Museum of Modern Art in New York has incorporated it in its design collection. Not only the history of the @ character will be looked at briefly but also different categories of how to use @ in electronic discourse and on Twitter. The usage of RT will also be considered, before focussing on the hash sign for which many different terms like octothorp, number sign or pound sign circulated over the course of time. Especially by describing the interactive functions of the hashtag on Twitter, I want to show how electronic discourse can increase our awareness of others. Therefore, the concept of ambient affiliation, coined by Michele Zappavigna, will be examined.

By using Twitter's streaming application programming interface (API), I created a corpus of 300 tweets for the purpose of analysing the usages of @, # and RT statistically as well as for gaining insights into the language of Twitter. So, in a last section, netspeak features are looked at. What I am interested in here, is how language is used creatively as a practise in which most people engage during everyday interaction on Twitter.

2. Interactivity and playful language on Twitter

2.1 Preliminaries: interactivity in the context of computer-mediated communication

The term interactivity is often used nowadays, especially in the context of new technologies. Laptops, tablet computers and smart phones give us more choices to experience and access different content more interactively compared to a decade ago. Especially when considering news reports and media in general, interactivity has become the key word when talking about the advantages of the "new media" in comparison to the "old" printed media (cf. Leggewie & Bieber 2004: 7). However, the term is barely defined and interactivity became one of the most used buzzwords[2] nowadays (cf. Jenson 1998: 185). Unsurprisingly, interactivity extends from the term interaction (cf. Jenson 1998: 188) which is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (2013) as "action or influence of persons or things on each other." The OED does not offer a definition for the term interactivity but it defines the adjective interactive as "reciprocally active" and with regard to computers, the OED says that interactive implies "a two-way-flow of information" between an electronic device and its user. With respect to language and communication Leggewie and Bieber (2004: 7) also refer to this bidirectional character and go on to explain that interactivity readily and continuously allows a role reversal between the sender and the recipient of information. Hence, the possibility of feedback is central to the concept of interactivity (cf. Kiousis 2002: 359) and this is what scholars seem to agree on: interactivity allows a "reciprocal message exchanges" (Kiousis 2002: 372) which is termed R ü ckkanalf ä higkeit by Leggewie and Bieber (2004: 7).

With regard to the functions of Twitter, any tweet that encourages responses, manages communication or has an interpersonal resource must be seen as interactive. Although, every tweet can potentially trigger responses, Twitter offers features that encourage interactivity, for instances, # for labelling a topic, @ to indicate address or reference and RT to republish other posts. Another thing which makes Twitter interactive is the possibility to upload small-scale media and to include hyperlinks in tweets. The recipients of these tweets do not only passively consume these updates but have the possibility to investigate their content (cf. Murthy 2013: 7).

In the following sections, this paper examines the Twitter specific tokens #, @ and RT. These interactive elements will be explored etymologically and contextually, before focussing on other ways of language use on Twitter.

2.2 The @mention

2.2.1 Meaning making and usage of the @ character

The @ symbol is perhaps currently best known from email addresses. However, it was already part of the keyboard long before the email was invented. No one knows exactly when it first appeared. Some believe the story of the @ character dates back to the sixth or seventh century when @ was used as a ligature for the Latin preposition ad, meaning to, at or towards (cf. Antonelli 2010). However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (2013), the earliest textual evidence goes back to 16th century Italian merchants who used @ as a unit of measure, standing for an amphora, "a standard-size terracotta vessel" (Antonelli 2010). In 1885, when @ occured on the keyboard of the American Underwood typewriter, it was known as commercial a (cf. Antonelli 2010), so called from its use in accounting when "expressing the number of items in relation to price" (OED 2013), for example when saying four books at $5 (= $20). @ was defined as such in the American Dictionary of Printing and Bookmarking in 1894 (Antonelli 2010). Nearly 70 years later, in 1963, it appeared in the ASCII[3] list of computer codes. After lingering on the keyboard for eight years, Ray Tomlinson rediscovered the @ sign in 1971 when he created the world's first email system (cf. Antonelli 2010). Since that time, @ serves to separate the user name from the domain name. With the advent of the digital age, @ has become part of our everyday lives, both in private and professional usage. The @ character still develops further and its process of meaning making is not finished yet, as can be seen by its many variations in emoticons, on Twitter, and in netspeak in general. By considering the use of @ more generally in computer-mediated communication, Honeycutt and Herring (2009: 4) tried to categorise the functions of the @ sign:

1) Addressivity: Directs a message to another person
2) Reference: Makes reference to another person, but does not direct a message to him or her. E.g. soooooooooooo jealous of @strebel and his nap...
3) Emoticon: Used as part of an emoticon. E.g. @_@
4) Email: Used as part of an email address. E.g. [...]
5) Locational 'at': Signals where an entity is located. E.g. Relaxing @ Franks Pizza with the girls.
6) Non-locational 'at': Used to represent the preposition 'at' other than in the sense of location. E.g. [...] 3 conversations @ the same time [...]
7) Other: Uses not fitting into any other category, including in representations of swear words [...] E.g. The @#$%^& meeting ended badly.

(Honeycutt and Herring 2009: 4)

Considering these various uses, Michele Zappavigna (2012: 35) concludes that @ has "undergone an evolution toward being an increasingly interpersonal resource. This follows a general trend in the evolution of punctuation [...] namely an evolution from textual functions toward more interpersonal functions."

2.2.2 The @ symbol on Twitter

On Twitter, the @ symbol can of course be used in various ways, as seen above. Typical for Twitter, however, is the function of @ to be used as a "deictic marker" when an user wishes to direct a micropost to another user (cf. Zappavigna 2012: 34), like in the following tweet:

(86) @farahfazlin is that a cake? Looks good!

Although the @ + username symbolises the addressee of a micropost, the tweet is still public. Twitter, according to Levinson (2013: 31), represents a mixture of interpersonal communication and mass communication.[4] Especially with the usage of @mentions this phenomena becomes clear since although only one person in addressed through the @, many others can follow the conversation.[5] Twitter provides a search interface which enables everyone to search for any username in combination with @. This allows what Zappavigna (2012: 1) calls "the beginning of searchable talk".

Microposts can also be directed to several users:

(47) @Lolita_za @frikkenator Valve guys been working to get the slots optimised across the 2 servers. Demand probably spiked with game a launch.

When @ does not occur in initial position, it is "more likely to indicate reference to a user than to explicitly inscribe an address" (Zappavigna 2012: 34):

(300) @Kieran_Apter I'm definitely doing the closings my birthday again. Hopefully @karlynbrowne will come again yipeeee xxxx

2.3 The retweet function (RT)

RT is another lexical feature of Twitter that mostly co-occurs with @. To retweet something means to "republish another user's tweet within your own tweet" (Zappavigna 2012: 35). Hence, the initialism[6] RT marks that the following text is quoted. To attribute the retweet to the original source, RT is followed by @ + username. Michele Zappavigna (2012: 35) says that "RT marks grammatical projection, economically standing for 'User X has posted the following'".

(57) RT @ luke_brooks: Whenever I don't know what to tweet I'll end up tweeting a swear word because it makes me happy

By sending someone else's tweet to one's own followers, a user marks this content as noteworthy and also promotes the other user's account. Thereby, the promoted user potentially gains new followers. Hence, RT is an element which manages interaction between different accounts. It is also possible to add a comment to a retweet when manually retweeting something.

(227) Aww How romantic RT @sheiryplease: I wanna go for a walk, as soon as the sun begins to rise

One can also use Twitter's retweet button which automatically zaps the post to someone's followers without allowing him or her to add a message. A tweet which has become retweeted several times, can significantly increase the interactivity and connectivity of one's profile on Twitter. Also, RT can not only be used as a deictic marker but as verb as well, as can be seen in the following tweet:

(251) RT @spacegrande: i RT 89276 indirect things in a day but get like 2

2.4 Hashtags

2.4.1 The history of the hashtag

Before # became a convention on Twitter, it was probably most commonly known from the telephone keypad. In 1968, the North American telecommunication company AT&T introduced the hash sign (#) as well as the asterisk (*) on the telephone keyboard. These symbols were used to establish connections "with computers and other remote devices" (Hochheiser 2006: 2). Within the company, the term octothorp circulated for the hash sign (synonyms). Western Electronics however, another manufacturing company that focusses on the production of telecommunication technologies, "hated octothorp, and in a 1973 press release stated that 'the #'s name is emphatically number sign'" (Hochheiser 2006: 2). Yet, this name was nothing new since the Oxford English Dictionary (OED 2013) cites a Typewriting Study from 1923 where # is either defined as number sign or as pound sign:

1923 W. E. Harned Typewriting Stud. II. 29/1 Special Signs and Characters‥# Number or pound sign; # 10 (No. 10); 10# (ten pounds).

The genesis of both usages is unclear but according to this typewriting study, # used before a number was referred to as number sign. # after a number was referred to as pound sign, representing a measure of weight (lb.) like in 4# of sugar (cf. Liberman 2010).

Michele Zappavigna (2012: 36) assumes that the use of # to tag a topic on Twitter "may derive from internet relay chat (IRC) conventions" where # is used to name channels (#channelname). A channel "is the essential mechanism that people use to communicate with each other during an IRC session" (Zappavigna 2012: 36). Also, hashtags are currently increasingly used on photo-sharing sites, for instances on Instagram or Flickr, where # also functions to categorise photos.

2.4.2 Hashtags on Twitter

As already mentioned before, hashtags are a typographic convention for labelling the topic of a micropost on Twitter (cf. Zappavigna 2012: 83). When using a tag, a user assumes "that other users will also adopt this tag and use it as a keyword for a tweet on the same topic" (Zappavigna 2012: 85). The use of a hashtag creates a virtual community of people who communicate about a certain topic attached to this certain hashtag. Hence, hashtags are intertextual and serve to create discourses online, similar to the conversations going on in IRC channels. Typically, hashtags occur at the end of a tweet, but they may also be used inside sentences. During the royal wedding of Prince William and Katherine Middleton on April 29, 2011, for example, many users were using #rw11 or #royalwedding to comment on the events of the wedding. #royalwedding shows that when there is more than one word assigned, the words will usually be represented without spaces in between. After the death of Margaret Thatcher on April 8, 2013, many Twitter users were spreading the word on Twitter with the hashtag #nowthatchersdead (= no thatcher is dead). Some, however, read now that cher is. Based on this lexical misinterpretations, they were assuming that the singer Cher had died. Even though it is only rarely used, internal capitals are useful to indicate the boundaries of words (e. g. #RoyalWedding).


[1] This kind of communication situation is called one-to-many communication situation.

[2] A buzzwords refers to a word which is heard often in a certain context and appears to be something important in that special context. However, buzzwords are often difficult to describe and to understand (cf. Jenson 1998: 185).

[3] ASCII is standing for American Standard Code for Information Interchange.

[4] Mass communication means that one person is sending information to many recipients at the same time. Interpersonal communication instead is a pinpoint and two-way communication situation (cf. Levinson 2013: 32).

[5] But Twitter also supports private messages between mutual users. If such a private message exchange takes place, it is no longer a one-to-many communication situation.

[6] RT, spoken as sequence of letters (R-T), is an initialism. According to Fromkin (2011: 504) it can also be called an "alphabetical abbreviation". Such an "alphabetical abbreviation" or initialism is distinguished from an acronym in that its letter components are spoken singularly (e.g. FBI) while an acronym is pronounced as one word (e.g. NATO). With the new technological age, both, initialisms as well as acronyms found their way into language. Further examples for this phenomena is the word blog, standing for web log as well as the initialisms PDA or MP3 (cf. Fromkin 2011: 504).


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Bayerische Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg – Englische Sprachwissenschaft
interactivity playful language twitter



Titel: Interactivity and Playful Language on Twitter