The pragmatics of social media

I took a developmental psychology course this year. And while learning about child development for ten weeks served as a concrete reminder that I never want anything coming out of my womb, I did really enjoy learning about how our social patterns take shape. Since I’ve been analyzing WDET’s Facebook pages for the past couple weeks, I’ve noticed a lot of similarities between the early stages of pragmatic development and the early stages of social media journalism. Here are a few factors that are important to growing into socially healthy adult and being an engaging and interactive news source: 

1) Understanding verbal routines. The thing that I’ve found most interesting about doing Facebook analysis is how routine our social media interactions actually are. If you’re an avid social media user, you may think that you engage with your mediums of communication in a lot of different ways, but chances are you don’t, particularly with pages. If you’re a commenter, you comment. If you’re a liker, you like. There isn’t a huge amount of overlap between the two. 

And although the connection is kind of contrived, I think these functions relate back to two general categories of developmental verbal routines: expressive and referential language. Expressive people are loud and outspoken, and tend to comment more. They build stories and create relationships in their speech patterns, and they want to be heard. People who adhere to a referential style tend to refer to particular objects or ideas instead of people and relationship structures. Referential style speakers are typically less social than expressive style speakers, so they’re fine with simply liking things. They want to be supportive and appreciative, but they don’t necessarily want to be involved in the conversation. 

2) Implementing turnabouts.
Before digital journalism boomed, trying to communicate with a news source was a lot like trying to talk to a three year old. They didn’t really want to listen to you in the first place, and if they did, it was only if you were talking about the thing that they wanted to talk about. They didn’t know how to use turnabouts. A turnabout is what directs conversation back and forth. It’s the “And you?” after you answer someone’s question as to how your day is going. Good social media implements turnabouts to engage readers. After any Facebook post or web episode, asking "What about you?" is more likely to engage readers than interesting content alone.
3) Adapting speech register. You adapt your speech to the people you’re around. To give a personal example, I am far more likely to push my tongue out a little when I talk and say things like, “Shoo’, girl,” when I’m with my black childhood friend Lauren and to sound like a pretentious asshole when I’m talking to anyone from Kalamazoo College. We all do it. Learning to adapt the way you speak to different social groups is an important tool in pragmatic development. If I said, “Shoo’, girl,” around some of my friends from K, they’d probably give me that look like, “Are you kidding?” 

This is an important social media strategy too. One of our popular shows, the Craig Fahle Show, has the tendency to turn into a giant sausage fest on Facebook. Conversations are interesting and intellectually stimulating, but they are almost always male dominated. Like this one about immigration reform in Detroit. You know all the ladies are looking at that comment thread like, “Are you kidding?”

Women can speak eloquently about political concepts (which they did when CFS posted about birth control), but once a bunch of males start chiming in on a male dominated page, it becomes more difficult for women to feel comfortable interacting. These effects could be deterred by adapting the speech register of the page to be more consciously gender inclusive. Our main page, which is run by a woman, includes a good mix of political, newsworthy content and more relaxed, fun posts that encourage everyone to engage. She typically posts in a more laid back feminine style (lots of exclamation points, informal language). And the user feedback is way more equally spread across genders. We’re not talking posts about shoes and sports bras here, we’re talking about something as simple as the weather.

4) Utilizing illocutionary directives.
 In developmental psychology, an illocutionary directive is described as the ability to understand a request without directly being told to do something, like when your mom says, “Man, that garbage really smells,” meaning you need to stop watching Netflix and go take out the garbage. News curation is essentially a giant illocutionary directive. WDET rarely produces breaking news content. We are usually a filter for other news. But the way we portray it directs our listeners and (in my area of interest) social media users to people, places and things that we want to call attention to. When we say, "Here’s some stuff to do around town this weekend," what we’re really saying is “Here are some ways you can support local arts and businesses in Detroit.” Or we’re just saying “Here’s some stuff to do around town this weekend,” and I’m living in my liberal arts fantasy land. 

25 notes


  1. youngblackandawkward said: I will only accept speech from you that sounds like “Shoo, girl” from now on.
  2. mypropheticsoul posted this