We all learn another language in the classroom on The Hill - French, Greek, Chinese - whatever it may be. Outside the classroom, we are immersed in another language. In fact, it’s the most widely understood dialect in the world.
Let’s call it “social medianese.”
We speak, read, and write social medianese whenever we’re online. The internet has introduced new words into our vernacular and redefined so many others in the English language. Social medianese is a territorial dialect that is slowly eroding the English we find in a Hemingway novel or scientific paper by Darwin. English is evolving, and it is naturally selecting for social medianese.
Let’s begin with the word “connected.” It is the term that unifies all the social media venues and apps out there. They all strive for connectivity - the most salient word in the social medianese dictionary. Facebook and Twitter provide platforms to help people find mutual interests and passions. But social media also has the capacity to disconnect us from one another. We could rule people out as friends for “liking” Donald Trump’s Facebook page. Social media can disconnect and stratify us before it even has the chance to connect and unify us.
It also has the capacity to disconnect us from reality. Social networking sites are man-made worlds unto themselves - with different rules, laws, customs, and cultures. Becoming so invested in our online identity can distance us from our off-line reality. Social medianese continues to undermine and deflate the English word “connected.”
“Share.” “Sharing” is a part of the mission statements of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat alike. In traditional English, we think of sharing like splitting a black and white cookie with friends at the Cafe. In social medianese, however, sharing means letting others know that you are eating a black and white cookie at the Cafe -- by yourself.
“Like.” Like, what even happened to the word “like”? Once a demonstration of genuine approval, “like” has evolved into an expression of passive acknowledgement in social medianese. When people post on social media about a shooting in Tel Aviv or the passing of a family member, we “like” it in solidarity. The argument can be made that this is a productive evolution of the word “like.” It is more malleable. There is no denying, though, that it is a significant alteration.
“Open.” Here’s Facebook’s mission statement: “Give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Social media is intended to make us more open; transparent. More honest, less deceitful. But “open” is the perfect example of a social medianese misnomer. The personas and personalities we take on our profiles and accounts often diverge from our own identity. A Facebook profile is a chance to recreate our image. It is analogous to changing the perspective of our faces from our frontal view to our profile. That said, social media does not always make us more transparent and accountable. Instead, it often muddies the waters of our self-identities.
Having 850 friends is a lot. Are our 850 Facebook “friends,” or 400 Instagram “followers” people we can confide in? People we trust, we genuinely like? Social media has redefined our perception of friends - merging the words acquaintances, friends of a friend, classmates, family members, and complete strangers under one umbrella. This is a social sea-change. It changes the way we see the people we know.
How about “social media” and “social networking?” The word “social” is perhaps the most deceiving misconception in internet lexicon. In theory, social media is a platform through which we interact and learn from one another. So often, though, social media makes us antisocial, as it induces us to scroll through Instagram and open Snapchat stories in Upper Heath or the library in lieu of interacting with those around us (well, not in the library. Stay silent.) Being “social,” in English, demands active participation. Being “social,” in social medianese, promotes passive observation.
Finally, social media blurs the lines between “public” and “private.” In English, these two words are apparent antonyms. The debate over invasion of privacy and the bounds of the 4th Amendment to the Constitution continues to stratify us. What is private? What deserves to be public? In social medianese, the two terms are slowly conflating into synonyms. Our once private interests become public with pointed advertising. Even our “private messages” are catalogued by social networking sites and interfaces. In fact, the 4th Amendment, which is intended to protect Americans from government surveillance, is translated differently into social medianese. That translation leaves little certainty and a lot of ambiguity when it comes to the public/private dilemma.
Social medianese has also introduced various neologisms. To “unfriend” is a concept completely foreign to generations before Mark Zuckerberg & Co. coined it. Emojis are becoming the best way to communicate emotional disposition - so much so that the Oxford English Dictionary made an emoticon the Word of the Year in 2015. It’s universal, and transgresses language barriers worldwide. Don’t forget about “fomo” - the fear of missing out - which is a plague perpetuated by social media. The syntax of social medianese, in addition, is succinct and clear - hence the 140 character limit on Twitter. Its grammar is often period-less and mimics the loose grammar we use in spoken language. Suffice it to say that the spread of social medianese is a disaster for teachers in the English Department when preparing ninth graders for the infamous grammar test.
It is only a matter of time until the next Noah Webster creates the Universal Social Medianese Dictionary. This dictionary will have many of the same words as the English one - “connected,” “share,” “like,” “open,” “friends,” “social,” and “public/private” all included - but the definitions will be drastically different. Just like American revolutionaries changed the connotations of British words, social media users are hacking away at the meanings of our English terms. It’s a natural linguistic evolution. Both dialects - English and social medianese - exist concurrently in 2016. Only one can survive in earnest - which language is the fittest?