English language and social media

Tagg, Caroline (2020). English language and social media. In: Adolphs, Svenja and Knight, Dawn eds. The Routledge Handbook of English Language and Digital Humanities. Routledge Handbooks in English Language Studies. Routledge, pp. 568–586.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003031758-30


Social media is transforming the ways in which people interact, maintain relationships and get things done through language and other communicative resources. The English language – as a global online lingua franca – plays a key role alongside other languages in the way people manage these transformations. Research into English language and social media can therefore shed light on what it means to be human in twenty-first-century networked societies. Much of this research falls into the traditional remit of digital humanities, with researchers drawing on digital visualisation tools and large databases of digital data, thus illustrating how digital tools can transform our understanding of an object of study. However, focusing on how English language use is itself transformed by social media, this chapter highlights the need for digital humanities to take into account not only how the digital shapes the humanities but also how the humanities might shape our understanding of the digital, as concepts and theories taken from the humanities are applied to texts and discourses that are ‘born digital’.

One key transformation brought about by social media is the availability of multimedia and networked resources, access to which enables users to connect with wider conversations, align with virtual communities and share their lives with meaningful others across social media platforms, as well as to draw on resources from languages in which they may not have full proficiency. These new possibilities for communication are illustrated by a sample analysis of WhatsApp messages which, as with other forms of social media, innovatively extend the meaning-making potential of English, with implications for what it means to be an effective communicator in the twenty-first century. Drawing on this analysis, the chapter makes a case for digital humanities to consider how the humanities can be used to explore and understand our increasingly digitally mediated lives.

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