One of the much-heralded advantages of social media sites is that anyone in the world can talk to anyone else. But that doesn’t mean they do.
Research from Carnegie Mellon University shows that the equivalent of “accents” are developing in the Twitterverse just as in spoken word, suggesting that a lot of communicating via Twitter is done regionally.
Post-doctoral fellow Jacob Eisenstein and his research partners set out to analyze almost 400,000 Twitter messages from around the country, trying to see if they could guess where each had been sent from. They expected words like “y’all” and references to local sports teams to tip them off. They did, but Eisenstein said they found something more surprising: slang that developed within Twitter was also clustered regionally.
“We came up with a lot of words I had never heard of before that demonstrated a really strong affiliation with a particular part of the U.S.,” Eisenstein said.
Different ways to spell slang words, for example: cool is “coo” is Southern California, while it’s “koo” in Northern California. Unique to the Philadelphia area, Eisenstein said, they found two saltier acronyms equivalent to LOL.
Eisenstein said he attributes the variation to people trying to express themselves within the limited medium of 140 characters of text in an unstructured environment.
“You’re taught to write at school, but nobody teaches you how to tweet, at least so far,” Eisenstein said. “So it’s kind of a unique thing in that it’s a written form of communication that’s unstructured.”
Muffy Siegel, a linguist at Temple University, says sites such as Twitter have given those who study language a treasure trove of information to sift through and analyze.
“Social media have proved a bonanza to linguists, because it gives us access to people writing and speaking in a very natural way,” Siegel said. “We didn’t have access to people’s social interactions this way before without sneaking up on them with tape recorders.”