Understanding the language of social media


All languages naturally evolve over time. Depending on the social, economic and political situation languages change and adapt to the situation. Each generation has its own nuances and phrases that contribute to the identity of that time as do different social groups. Today’s Gen Z use terms such as ‘sick’ with a completely different meaning and acronyms are used more than ever. Its nothing new that people complain about change in language. Linguistic purism has existed for centuries, and describes the notion of believing one form of language is superior to others.

I recently read an article about why it’s time to stop worrying about the ‘decline’ of the English language because it’s just part of the natural cycle of language and it got me thinking. Social media is often seen as such a huge negative part of today’s society, notably because of its ‘impact’ on language, but as far as language goes is it not just one of the ‘social’ factors involved in the natural language change?

Understanding this change, however, is important for the modern day marketer. The way that language is used and the way that people communicate with each other on such a prominent marketing channel is something that a marketer can’t ignore. By studying the trends and social interactions involved in language on social media can help to understand our audiences and the best way to join in the conversation.

The use of emojis

A prominent and interesting part of language on social media is the use of emojis. Emojis can be used to represent emotions but also objects, places, and various other situations and were created in Japan in the 1990s (they have pretty much replaced the emoticon which was created in the 80s and are less ‘complex’). Emojis are now used more than ever, with more than 700 million(https://worldemojiday.com/statistics) used each day on Facebook alone! Thus, their importance can’t be denied or ignored.

What can we learn from the use of emojis? Some say that, in fact, emojis constitute a language of their own. This is a bit of a stretch as more often than not they are used with other text. But they do act as a visual form of communication in their own right. Adding a ‘laughing crying face’ emoji to your response than completely change the meaning, for example. And some emojis have a whole multitude of connotations attached to them just like different words and phrases.

As a marketer, understanding when and how we can use emojis to resonate with our audience can be make or break for the success of content. Is it appropriate to use emojis? Could it make your message more attractive? Does it change the meaning of your text or add some sparkle? When writing social media content, it can be beneficial to think about what (if any) emojis you are going to use.


Another prominent element of social media is the use of hashtags. Understanding when to use hashtags, how to use then, and how many of them to use is a science in its own right! Each platform has unspoken rules about the etiquette of using hashtags that we are all expected to know. Too many hashtags on Facebook or Twitter can be seen as unprofessional and spammy, yet on Instagram (and more and more so on LinkedIn) we see the use of multiple hashtags on every post. Why is it so important for the marketer to understand the use of hashtags? Aside from the fact that using hashtags appropriately can drastically increase your organic reach on social media, they can also change the tone and message of your copy.

Using hashtags in the middle of a sentence, for example, can be seen negatively. Or, using too generic hashtags such as #likeforalike. Before social media, hashtags didn’t exist. Now, the world of social media almost revolves around them! As a marketer, understanding the use of hashtags in your industry and how you can use them to your advantage without making your post seem too spammy is a delicate but important balance to strike.

Abbreviations and text speak

In the world we live in, everything moves at such a fast pace and this is reflected in the language we use. Abbreviations are used everywhere, and some have even evolved to have new connotations past their original meaning. Take ‘lol’ for example, originally it described the notion of ‘laugh out loud’ but now it is sometimes used at the end of a statement to soften it slightly, rarely with the intention of actually showing laughter. Other abbreviations used are things like ‘imo’ which means in my opinion but is universally recognised as such. The use of abbreviations has increased largely due to Twitter and the character limit on Tweets. Interestingly, though, the character limit increased a couple of years ago and the introduction of threads means that people can express longer thoughts than ever before. Will this has impact on the use of abbreviations in social media? Only time will tell.

For the time being, marketers need to understand the use of abbreviations when contributing to the conversation. Perhaps it would be deemed inappropriate to use an abbreviation for some companies and their brand image, but for others it can help ease interaction and resonate with the target audience much more so than formal sentences. The tone and voice used on social media needs to be consistent with the brand and suddenly adding ‘lol’ to the end of a Tweet is not going to sit well with consumers if it doesn’t fit with brand image.

Slang and neologisms

A similar rule goes for slang. The use of slang on social media is paramount. This is arguably largely due to the main demographic on social media but it is important for brands to understand that social media is a place where new words are used, formed, and experimented with. The voices on social media are informal, relaxed and part of a conversation. Whilst it is essential for businesses to remain professional, social media is also a place for expression and communication and the use of slang is part of that.

Whilst we are not suggesting that you start writing like a 16 year old with their mates, using high-brow vocabulary to communicate with an audience of 16 year olds is also not a good idea. Understanding how your audience communicates on social media and the vocabulary they use can help you to understand what language you should be using yourself.

Something important to understand about social media is that it is a space for two way communication. You are not broadcasting an article through a newspaper or traditional media but rather communicating with your audience and inviting them to engage with your content. The use of new media has transformed the way that we speak to each other and some words are only used in this space. It also overlaps the idea of spoken and written communication. Linguists find it hard to determine whether social media should be studied as a spoken or written text and therefore it is often studied as a separate entity.

Adapting your tone to the platform

Social media is obviously an umbrella term for different platforms such as FacebookInstagram, TwitterLinkedIn, etc. and whilst it is often discussed as one entity, the different platforms have their own social rules and consequently their own set of language nuances. Twitter is known for its short and snappy content whilst long, story-telling captions are currently very popular on Instagram. Knowing the type of content that best suits each channel is important for a marketer and understanding the differences in language use is also important.

The language of social media is always evolving, as are the features of each social media platform. Until recently, Instagram captions worked much better if they were kept as short as possible, now long captions are very, very popular. There are new fads, trends, and words each week and social media is forever adapting and changing. It is one of the reasons that using new media is so exciting and fun because it doesn’t stay static, but that obviously poses challenges too. Keeping up to date with social media trends on different platforms can be a constant uphill battle. Language changes with the digital space, and the social situations of different audiences. Understanding how important it is to make sense of language trends on social media can be very beneficial to a marketer.

In order to keep yourselves in the know, we would recommend using social media daily and analysing the way that language is used. It is also advisable to keep up to date with industry news. If a feature is about to change, might this affect the language on the platform? Are there any pop culture fads that might also have an impact? What is happening within the social groups of your target audience? Like with any other element of your marketing, understanding your consumer is at the heart of success.

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