A Metadiscursive Analysis

As a dialect, text (“textese”?) is thin and – compared, say, with Californian personalised licence plates – unimaginative. It is bleak, bald, sad shorthand…Texting is penmanship for illiterates.” – John Sutherland, The Guardian (2002)

Text messaging might one day be as popular as talking.” – AT&T spokeswoman (Quoted in Thurlow 2006)

The two quotes above could not be more perfect representations of the two groups vying to regain control from, and over, the rising global culture of netspeak-savvy young people. The first is from John Sutherland, Professor of Modern English Literature at University College of London, who here acts as one of the more disgruntled spokesmen for dominant institutions—in this case, education—that wish to reinforce Bourdieu’s norms of legitimate language. The other, from an unnamed AT&T spokeswoman, is almost comically appropriate given her role as the face of the telecommunications industry; as Crispin Thurlow states in “From Statistical Panic to Moral Panic: The Metadiscursive Construction and Popular Exaggeration of New Media Language in the Print Media”, “these are people for whom there is a clear vested, economic interest in promoting the novelty and uptake of new communication technologies.” (2006) They have already sold millions of mobile devices to young users across the world and they must continue to protect their investments.

This same article centers on a detailed metadiscursive (read: talk about talk) review of 101 “print-media accounts” from across the globe, written between 2001 and 2005, that focus on language use on different CMC platforms. In it, they break down the corpus of articles into a few general categories based on the author and publisher in order to illustrate recurring themes and attitudes within them. The most telling findings were those pulled from news media articles written by educators such as John Sutherland and scholarly journals, the majority of which were negative to widely varying degrees as they have nothing to gain from the rising prominence of netspeak in society.

The Guardian article from which Sutherland’s introductory quote comes exists at the extreme end of a spectrum. On one end, there are the academics that view netspeak’s influence as unfortunate but make sure to write with a generally unbiased voice since they have professional reputations to uphold. On the other, there are the mainstream newspaper publishers who have nothing to lose by speaking in hyperboles, reducing netspeak’s subtleties and variety to a small “repertoire of hackneyed examples” (LOL, ASL, etc.), describing its influence in “overwhelmingly pessimistic” terms and even relying on unspecified sources and examples (Thurlow 2006). Thurlow found that all of the news media articles expressed some sort of moral panic regarding netspeak’s degenerative influence on standards of language, literacy and even society itself, to the point where one commentator expressed fears that “text messaging…is posing a threat to social progress.” (Quoted in Thurlow 2006) Not surprisingly, these concerns habitually centered on how these changes will affect the cognitive and social development of young people.

However, those same concerns were not apparent in articles reporting on the use of CMC platforms by adults. One article in the corpus celebrated (then candidate) Barack Obama’s use of texting to spread his selection of Joe Biden for potential Vice President, while another commended the Center for Disease Control’s decision to publicize updates on the 2009 swine flu epidemic through Twitter. But when young people use those platforms in a similar fashion, their practices are reduced to being “cryptic chat”, “ramblings”, and “argle bargle” (Quoted in Thurlow 2009).

Netspeak was portrayed in varying shades of grey within the more scholarly publications; many of them viewed this evolution of a new linguistic style positively, but the majority still discussed it in a negative or even condescending manner. In many of the examples, netspeak was set in opposition to standard language and “canonical symbols of acceptability”, including Shakespeare and Socrates; while some of these comparisons were made humorously, it was always designed to indicate the subversion of traditional standards. With a few exceptions, the majority of what was written “relied on apparently anecdotal evidence…rather than empirical research that might more reliably demonstrate and confirm the nature and extent” of netspeak’s effects on language, and remarkably few of authors were specialists in the field of new media or computer-mediated communication. Thurlow points out that this may have contributed to their underestimation of netspeak’s intricacies, an unfortunate but understandable side effect (2006).

As exemplified by the spokeswoman for AT&T, articles in the corpus written by or featuring members of communication technology companies universally portrayed netspeak’s rise and influence as a revolutionary event. This is unsurprising considering their vested economic interest in the success of netspeak and CMC platforms, but the collected data is nonetheless intriguing as it suggests a level of complicity between big business and journalism. Some suggested that netspeak was the “biggest revolution in communications since the advent of email” (uttered by the vice president of 3G Americas) and that nothing had changed the English language like this “since Webster’s dictionary” (president of transl8it.com, a free translation website that converts netspeak into standard language and vice versa).

All of these groups frequently used “numerous, superlative numerical citations…and claims of quantity” which, as previously mentioned, often came from unreliable or unspecified sources. This was especially prevalent throughout the news media coverage of netspeak, a type of media where the credibility of figures is often overshadowed by the drama that such statistics can create. As quoted by Thurlow, this disproportionate reliance on quantitative data is symptomatic of what University of Washington Professor Kathleen Woodward calls the “society of the statistic”, where statistics are used by media outlets to instill fervor, panic or concern in the public about a societal issue; in this case they are being used to popularize concerns about netspeak’s impact on young people’s communicative abilities.

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