Haas, Takayoshi, Carr, and Hudson, “Young People’s Everyday Literacy: The Language of Instant Messaging.” RTE 45 (May, 2011) (36 pages)
Haas and Takayoshi (along with their colleagues) look at some of the language features unique to instant messaging (IM) technology. Such work, as they write, allows us to have a better understanding of what this kind of writing is and how we can frame it in terms of a wider theory of writing. Specifically, they look at how these language features allow us to see how writing is shaped in these emerging digital writing platforms used in everyday life.
Framing their work, they reference Yancey who has written that “the everyday worlds of college students are saturated with writing…a kind of parallel world (as Yancey would have it) that is composed of written texts, albeit ones that look distinctly different than the texts typically produced in academic college settings” (379). Their understanding of such texts is firmly positioned outside of the academy—in other words, their definition of everyday writing is site-based (referencing Gere). But they also note the ubiquity of these everyday writing spaces (see Gee’s lifeworld domains): “the importance of Gee’s work for us has been in his understanding of humans as meaning-making creatures and of technologies—especially everyday technologies—as tools that humans use, in often unexpected ways, to build and convey meaning” (382).
IM is a unique platform where users’ conversations a mediated by the keyboard and screen. Users are typically at a distance—separated by space and sharing within a virtual space. It is also synchronous, or nearly so, as well as one-on-one. Observing 103 different users and their conversations in IM, they identify 15 language features unique to Instant Messaging conversations (see table).
These language features are further broken down into categories: punctuation (includes using punctuation to emphasize pausing or emphasis); letters (includes repeating, dropping, or replacing letters); words (includes using numbers, letters, or symbols for words, abbreviations, or ‘slang’); dialect (includes using language features to demonstrate pronunciation/meaning or to verbalize a sound, e.g. “ah or hahah”); and met discursive markers (includes emoticons and asides).
Looking across these features, the authors found that—contrary to popular belief—the changes in language is not largely due to speed and brevity; rather, they found that they were more likely to use these language features to be more precise is conveying intended meaning. In other words, they point to these language features as being the result of paralinguistic inscription: “realted to how one might ‘read’ the writer herself” (390). Further, while the paralinguistic signals appear, on the surface, to denote the use of features familiar within oral context/traditions, the authors believe that IM is rather a product very much deriving its features from writing traditions: “IM is writing in which paralinguistic features are inscribed and reproduced within the affordances of the conventions of print” (394). In other words, IM does not support the claim that the user’s language is “speech written down.” They continue, “beginning with writing allows us to contextualize our own work as writing teachers and researchers within an understanding of what writing is now and how language changes. …Seen in this way, IM is hardly the ruin of the English language but rather a type of change that indicates the healthiness of written language” (398-9).
I would also like to point out that the authors note the importance of phatic language in these conversations: rather than primarily conveying information, users use language where the primary purpose is to build social bonds.