Hashtags and social media do a lot more than connect us with people around the world. In fact, they impact the way we use language, too, according to a new study from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
The study, which reviewed three years of tweets from more than 2.5 million Twitter users, found that the way social media users use hashtags, word abbreviations and other online symbols says something about their language skills and personality.
For example, tweeters who use hashtags tend to be more formal and don’t often use emoticons or word abbreviations, the study said.
Researchers also found that people from different regions were more likely to use certain symbols and phrases on social media. For example, Los Angeles Tweeters were more likely to use “;o” than in other parts of the country.
"People want to show their regional identity or their tech savviness, using Twitter-specific terms, to their close social network ties," said Umashanthi Pavalanathan, one of the researchers for the study.
The study’s lead researcher Jacob Eisenstein said frequent social media users who include hashtags, emoticons or word abbrevations (such as g2g, txt, brb) have a different understanding of language than those who don’t.
"This research shows that for many people on Twitter, non-standard English is not a question of ability, but of reserving standard English for the right social situations," Eisenstein said. "In this sense, heavy social media users have an especially nuanced understanding of language, since they maintain multiple linguistic systems. They know to use each system when it's socially appropriate.”
Social media not only help users understand linguistic systems, but they can help students in the classroom, too, according to University of Maryland professor Christine Greenhow, who said in 2011 that students form social bonds over social media that transcend past the screens and into the classroom.
“When kids feel connected and have a strong sense of belonging to the school community, they do better in school,” Greenhow told California Watch. “They persist in school at higher rates and achieve at higher rates. ... It’s pretty promising that engaging in social networking sites could help them to develop and deepen their bonds over time.”
Students also use social media to find career opportunities and tips, according to Greenhow, who studied 600 low-income high school students in her research.
Greenhow acknowledged, though, that social media leave students more susceptible to inappropriate online content, sexual predators and online bullying. She also said that experts often find social media can hurt one’s language.
That’s not an uncommon thought. Teachers from Orlando to Minnesota have said texting and social media takes a toll on academic writing and language. Social media can also hurt student athletes with one bad tweet that could end their high school athletic career, according to The Democrat and Chronicle.
It may all come down to how social media are implemented in the classroom, Susan Domanico, a high school science teacher, told California Watch.
She had her students make class presentations and share them on social media so that they could be used as a study guide later on, which, she said, was an effective use of social media in the classroom.
“The big advantage is kids can be authors — they can add links and pictures and comments and it’s very familiar to them,” Domanico told California Watch. “It gave them more resources and made it a little more interesting.”
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Herb Scribner is a writer for Deseret News National. Send him an email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @herbscribner.