Alissa McNerney, Akina Nishi, Ryley Park, Nicolas Simone, Fontanna Yee
As slang and social media usage has risen in popularity in recent years, we wanted to explore how different patterns of slang would change a speaker’s identity on different social media platforms. Although we initially thought that examining slang alone would give us a good picture of how social media identities were created, we soon realized that slang usage was part of the story, but not entirely dependent on the social media platform. This discovery allowed us to pivot towards analyzing not just slang but also how prosody, speech-related information such as intonation and gestures, also contributed to identity construction. By conducting a case study of TikTok influencer @sirthestar across three social media platforms, TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter, and analyzing both written and spoken content, we concluded that greater usage of slang and prosody contributed to creating a more comedic identity on TikTok and YouTube and lesser usage contributed to a more social activist identity on Twitter.
Introduction and Background
Slang has long been an integral part of colloquial speech and plays an important role in social communication especially among younger people, as younger generations seem to be the greatest users and creators of new slang words (Zhou, 2013). Currently, a visible linguistic trend is the frequent usage of slang usage on social media platforms, both because of the younger demographic and because the informal dialogue on social media translates well to the nonstandard forms of slang (Teodorescu, 2015). Oftentimes, different subgroups end up creating their own slang usage (Zhou, 2013), and our research question centered around how slang would define certain subgroups on social media. More specially, we asked how users constructed different identities through their linguistic variation on different social media platforms. Initially, we hypothesized that a user’s identity could be influenced by the particular slang terms they used more frequently on a social media platform, and that slang usage would be different depending on the platform it originates from. However, after initial data analysis, we pivoted to include prosody in our analysis, encompassing non-lexical speech-related information such as pitch, intonation, articulation, and gestures, which contributed equally as much to identity construction as slang (Shih & Kochanski, 2002). Our final revised hypothesis was that a user’s identity could be influenced by the varied prosody and other speech patterns, as well as frequency of particular slang terms, they used on each social media platform.
For this research study we conducted a case study of TikTok influencer @sirthestar by examining his written and verbal communication on his TikTok, Twitter and Youtube accounts. Tiktok is a video sharing social media platform where users create a wide variety of different types of videos, with over two billion downloads across the world (Zukin, 2020). Like other forms of social media, TikTok has been the origin of new slang terms that have expanded in usage beyond the platform, especially because internet slang can develop and spread quickly because of the viral nature of online content (Zhang, 2016). We decided to analyze the speech patterns of only one person to minimize non-linguistic external factors that could affect the user’s identity. Although most well-known for storytimes on TikTok, Sir is also active on both Youtube and Twitter, which made him an ideal candidate.
We searched for both written and spoken samples from these social media platforms, and using our slang references, analyzed linguistic variation in each of these platforms. We collected data by using the closed captioning system in YouTube, written speech on Twitter, and self-captioning and our own transcriptions of TikTok dialogue. Before pivoting, our intention was to categorize the types of slang we found, such as alphabetisms, blends, clippings, and reduplicatives (Kulkarni & Wang, 2018). However, for Youtube, we could not find enough video data to make any conclusions about slang usage, and when we parsed the data of Twitter and TikTok to find significant slang terms, we saw inconclusive results because slang alone was not enough to distinguish between Sir’s identities on TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube.
Because of this, we switched gears to include more than just slang as part of our research. With a new direction, we looked at each platform’s data and divided the samples into “comedic” and “non-comedic” content to take a look at the tone presented by Sir. We determined this by identifying if a tweet or piece of dialogue from YouTube or TikTok was meant to elicit laughter and be entertaining or not, and then identified changes in slang, prosody, and other speech patterns that contributed to creating “comedic” or “non-comedic” content on each social media platform.
Twitter showed us a pretty even split between comedic and non-comedic tweets. This was mostly due to Sir’s numerous tweets on Black Lives Matter, and his purpose of spreading awareness. For “comedic” content, Sir tweeted with themes of relatability and silly snippets of his life. As for speech patterns, comedic tweets had simple words and were only a few lines long. There was not conclusively a disregard for grammar, because there was still proper capitalization and usage of punctuation like “…” or “*scrolling twitter*”, but it was fashioned casually to be humorous. Meanwhile, non-comedic tweets were usually more than one line long, and had more proper punctuation and capitalization. Some common themes included social activism, self-esteem/positivity, and gratitude towards his fans. An example is his tweet on September 17- “Something I’ve learned…don’t search for or force love, it’ll only hurt you in the long run. Focus on loving yourself, be in your bag. This creates a positive energy which attracts positive relationships ✨” This is not to say, however, that these kinds of rules applied to strictly all of Sir’s tweets, as we saw that both comedic and non-comedic tweets included use of emojis, like in the above examples, and use of all-caps written speech to emphasize emotion.
On YouTube, we noticed that there was an imbalance between comedic and non-comedic videos uploaded. While Twitter was a platform that @sirthestar utilized to voice his opinions on more serious matters, YouTube was a platform where we regularly saw @sirthestar telling stories for entertainment. His language contains many slang words, and his speech pattern of repetition appeared frequently throughout his videos. One example was a quote from a video on July 24 – “Ain’t nobody gonna cheat on us, cheat on us, treat us like sh*t, none of that, none of that. What we gotta do is we play the game, we play the game, and if they think they win. NO! They didn’t win, tie them up!” This was most likely due to the fact that YouTube videos were much longer than the time duration given on TikTok, and therefore @sirthestar was able to take his time to relay his messages with more humor. However, this longer time duration also appeared as a hindrance in terms of collecting data. While TikTok and Twitter content did not contain too many words, the YouTube videos had twelve to fifteen minutes worth of spoken language, which made collecting data from multiple videos too difficult. Overall, we could see that the repetition of certain phrases that appeared on YouTube was not present on the other two platforms.
TikTok was where Sir also had a large majority of comedic versus non-comedic videos. Of the thirty TikToks that we examined, there were only a few that focused on serious topics like politics, racism, and homophobia, but even in these videos, Sir maintained his comedic persona. This persona was evident through his use of slang and prosody in his videos. On TikTok, Sir used the most slang by far, with words like “bitch” and “y’all” being used frequently in his videos. Along with this slang, Sir would commonly clap and stress certain words in his TikTok videos for emphasis on his jokes. An example of this was in a TikTok where he said “ Mind you, I already had a long ass day, and getting cat-called was not gonna end good for him [clapping between each word].” Sir’s use of prosody and articulatory gestures were present in the majority of the TikToks we analyzed, and unlike other platforms, there was plenty of slang usage in the majority of his TikToks. TikTok was also the platform where Sir used the most stream-of-consciousness type of speaking by utilizing run-on-sentences and speaking quickly, which emphasized that every video was a performance, and he maintained a very exaggerated, entertaining persona even when he was speaking on a sensitive topic. These linguistic features contributed to his comedian persona that he developed on the application in a different way than his other social media platforms.
Our findings were able to help us understand how one’s identity differed depending on which social media platform they were utilizing. By researching @sirthestar’s profiles on Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok, we saw that he used Twitter for more non-comedic content, and thus there was proper grammatical usage, punctuation, full sentences, and less slang, although there was still usage of emojis in both comedic and non-comedic content. His speech patterns on Twitter proved to be more formal and demonstrated that it was a place where he could be more serious and voice his opinions on social activism. On the other hand, on YouTube and TikTok, @sirthestar uploaded content for entertainment purposes. After seeing the higher use of slang and prosody in YouTube and TikTok, we were able to conclude that he has a comedic persona on these platforms, although the persona was created in different ways on each platform. On YouTube, his comedy came from word repetition, partially because of the longer timeframes, whereas on TikTok, he had the higher frequency of slang words as well as articulatory gestures. Although we had to pivot about our original hypothesis, we learned that it wasn’t completely wrong. Slang usage is not dependent on the social media platform but rather plays a role alongside prosody and other speech patterns in developing a comedic persona on YouTube and TikTok.
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