It only takes a work commute to realise how constantly we connect to the web. Next time you’re on public transport, have a look at what others are doing. Never before has there been so much information, so readily accessible, at the tap of our fingertips.
And thanks to social media, there has never been an easier time to make and maintain social connections. For example, Facebook reported that an average 1.59 billion users accessed its site daily during June 2019 alone. The potential of such sites for reaching customers and expanding markets has not been lost on business: more than 140 million businesses use Facebook apps every month. The professional network site, LinkedIn, recorded 303 million active monthly users in 2019, 40 per cent of whom visit the site daily. In 2019, an average 500 million tweets are sent each day.
As internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch explored in her fascinating book Because internet, the pervasiveness of digital technology in our lives and the traffic it generates has affected the English language. Think of the words that have been repurposed for a new life: wall, troll, stream, pin; the social media neologisms that have seeped into our daily vocabulary: lol, selfie, fleek, meatspace; or the growing range of acronyms that were created for quick and shorthand messages: FOMO, ICYMI, IMHO.
Finally, think of the creative ways we are using the form and look of words to convey emotion and nonverbal cues, such as all caps to indicate we are SHOUTING, the period to puncture the rhythm of a sentence for emphasis (e.g. Not. A. Good. Idea), not to mention the use of emoticons and popular memes. Personally, I started to take notice when the Oxford English Dictionary nominated the ‘tears of joy’ emoji as its word for the year 2015.
What does it all mean for formal written English, as used at work and in educational institutions? Experts like Ingrid Piller suggest there is little likelihood of crossover – after all, the mash of informal spoken-written style of English in social media was created for a purpose totally different (and therefore unsuited) to that required at schools and work.
A Canadian survey of 300 senior managers found that the majority (79%) believed it was ‘unprofessional’ to use emojis and emoticons in work communications, however, 19% thought symbols were sometimes acceptable. Similarly, a 2017 study found that the use of emoticons (such as a smiley face) in work-related contexts decreased perceptions of competence.
But there are also signs that what is considered ‘appropriate’ at work may shift over time. Another survey found that millennials were more likely than the generations before them to use emoticons in work emails.
Language will always be adapted to the context and purpose of communication and the intended readership. As millennials and generations after them grow in number and populate senior positions in influential organisations, that context and readership are likely to change. Interesting times ahead.