Teaching social media 2: media language

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A critical media education approach: using the concept of media language to teach about social media.


Are the ‘key concepts’ of media education still relevant in an age of social media? To what extent do they need to be reformulated, or even replaced? In an earlier post, I made the case for a critical media education approach to social media. This is the second of four posts in which I take each of the media education key concepts and think through how they might be applied in teaching this area. (If you’re not familiar with this key concepts approach, you can find a very straightforward summary here, and some indications on assessment here.)

In this post, I’m looking at the concept of media language (or ‘languages’, in the plural); and I’ll be referring primarily to platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. I begin by re-stating a few of the most important emphases here, and considering how they might apply to social media. I then outline an approach to analyzing the ‘languages’ of social media, and briefly suggest some strategies for teaching, primarily at upper secondary (high school) level. This is not intended to be comprehensive or definitive: it’s very much provisional, work in progress. I’m keen to receive feedback, via the old-fashioned medium of e-mail.

Keyboard and logos

Most media use a combination of different types of language to communicate meaning. On social media platforms, we typically encounter writing, speech, still and moving images, music and sound, and so on. These language forms are often combined, and users move between them: we read some text and then click on a video or a sound clip; an image draws our attention, and we read the text underneath. There are some exceptions, but social media are often multi-modal (they combine different forms of media language) and hyperlinked (they allow us to move easily from one element to another).

These forms of language work by using codes and conventions that are generally understood. To some extent, there are linguistic ‘rules’, albeit ones that can be played with or broken; and there are well-known idioms or genres that use familiar combinations of linguistic devices. The key point here is that – despite the claims of their more enthusiastic advocates – social media do not provide a free space for self-expression and creativity. The codes and conventions of media language shape what it is possible to say. Media languages are not transparent ways of merely showing or documenting the world. On the contrary, meaning-making is a social process, which involves relationships of social power.

It’s possible to look at this by using forms of content analysis. This approach begins by gathering a corpus of data – which in this context would mean, for example, a set of tweets or Facebook posts, or a collection of images from Instagram or Tumblr. This can be done manually, but there are also software packages like Discovertext that can help with this. There are then various ways of searching the corpus, looking for particular terms or linguistic phenomena, and trying to identify patterns. This can generate some real insights, although honestly I wouldn’t see it as the best use of time for hard-pressed high school students.

Close reading

Traditionally, media educators in schools have placed a stronger emphasis on detailed textual analysis of much smaller samples. Using a variety of analytical methods, we explore how media texts are put together, how they are designed and constructed, and how meanings are created. Of course, this doesn’t tell the whole story (language is only one of four concepts), but this kind of close reading does seem appropriate when we think of how older media are typically consumed. When we watch a film, we often go to a special building where we sit in a darkened room in front of an enormous screen; or we try to recreate this situation at home, as we settle down with a DVD or a box set. This isn’t the case with all media, of course, but we often try to give the text our undivided attention.

In some respects, the situation with social media seems rather different. As we scroll and swipe and click from one page or screen or window to another, our attention rarely settles for long. We often move on before we have reached the end of what we are reading or watching, and we frequently skim and scan as we search for what we need. Our engagement with any given text is much more fragmentary, unsettled and distracted: we know there is so much more out there, and we are often being invited and urged to move on. There are several kinds of ‘texts’ here, even if some of them may seem quite ephemeral: tweets, Facebook posts, images on Instagram, readers’ comments on a news story or a YouTube video, and so on, are all texts. Yet in some respects, it seems less appropriate for educators to be spending large amounts of time getting students to explicate such texts, in the way we might do with a movie or a TV drama.

However, social media are still very much in the business of delivering content. The people who create social media texts are making more or less deliberate choices about the kinds of language they use and how they use them. We still need to understand how these texts are put together, and how they work. We may not be contemplating them for any great length of time, but we are making meaning from them, often very rapidly. One of the important things about textual analysis is that it helps to slow this process down. It makes the familiar strange: it forces us to look much more closely, and think about how texts seem to convey the meanings that they do. It also helps us to identify evidence that will support or refute our more immediate responses.


A fairly entertaining way to begin the study of social media language is to look at the jargon of social media themselves. Like other media, social media have a lexicon of specialist terms that serves as a shorthand for insiders. It’s easy to think of examples, and you can find many more in online glossaries and dictionaries (again, it’s worth having access to the Oxford Dictionary of Social Media). There are obviously a great many everyday terms that could be considered here: what do we really mean by words such as ‘like’ or ‘follow’ or ‘friend’? But I’m also thinking here of more specialised slang terms like rickrolling, astroturfing, trolling or sock puppets, as well as more ‘techie’ terms like open source, geotagging, RSS or metadata. Compiling their own list (perhaps for an audience of social media newbies) could be a useful way for students to share their knowledge. However, it’s also important to consider how this specialist language works to intimidate and exclude people – and as a means of marketing.

However, the main focus should be on social media texts themselves. I don’t want to get into complex linguistic debates here, but there’s a case for looking at social media language, not so much in terms of its formal properties, but in terms of what it’s doing – its social functions and purposes, or what it’s trying to achieve (this is a ‘functional linguistics’ approach, rather than a traditional semiotic one). For example, how are people using language to attract attention, to invite participation or response, to flatter or deceive, to entertain or to deliberately offend? How do they display their authority or try to assert it? How do they create and police the boundaries between ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’? How do they negotiate the relationship between the public and the private?


These kinds of questions can be applied across three kinds of social media language. Most obviously, these things are going on in verbal language. So students might look at the similarities and differences between language on social media and other forms of language – for example, everyday speech or written texts. There’s a kind of studied informality about much online language: it is often abbreviated and unpretentious; it can be humorous, emotionally direct, or even impolite; it must not be unduly serious or self-important. These ‘rules’ are sometimes written out in the guidelines for online forums, for example; and it’s interesting to look at examples where people break them (inadvertently or deliberately), or play with them, for example through parody.

These questions take us into the territory of controversial phenomena like hate speech and cyberbullying. However, rather than just condemning these things, it’s important to see them in the wider context of how we all behave and relate to each other online. Identifying what counts as ‘bullying’, ‘hate speech’ or ‘online abuse’, for example, isn’t straightforward: we need a more systematic and comprehensive analysis of speech (or language) itself.


Of course, social media language is almost always visual as well. Platforms like Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr are largely devoid of verbal language, while other platforms are becoming increasingly dominated by visual imagery. It’s interesting to look at how marketers are taking advantage of this. Students who have considered the language of visual design – layout, composition, font choices, image manipulation, and so on – can easily transfer this to social media imagery. Yet alongside the familiar language of design and branding, social media also have distinctive visual devices, such as emoticons, memes and gifs. There are also particular visual forms such as infographics, animations and short videos that are heavily used in this context.

Thirdly, social media is also hypertextual – which is to say that it enables users to navigate their way between a set of linked elements (sometimes called modules). Students will be familiar with links and hashtags, but possibly less aware of the use of metadata. Search is an absolutely basic dimension of the internet, which overlaps with social media in some respects, and it’s vital that students understand how it works. How, and on what basis, do search engines generate their lists of search results? How do marketers and others seek to optimize search engines to their advantage? How is attention generated, how are reputations built, and how is popularity sustained, in the world of social media? How do people use these elements to build lists of followers, friends and subscribers? In order to understand these things, we need to look ‘under the hood’ to discover how this hypertextual language works.

A useful way of combining these different elements is to look at how they work together on different social media platforms – or across different social media genres. Platforms can be compared in terms of the kinds of communication they make possible, and the kinds they discourage or prevent. Platforms have built-in constraints and possibilities (sometimes called affordances): if we are going to use them, we have to conform to the template they provide. A very obvious example would be Twitter’s original 140-character limit – a constraint that implicitly encouraged particular kinds of communication and made others more difficult. There just wasn’t space to make nuanced arguments, or (some people argued) to be considerate and polite: the format encouraged clever one-liners and witty retorts, as well as various forms of advertising and self-promotion. It would be interesting to debate whether this has changed now that tweets can be longer.

Kids using - better

By contrast with the open public space of Twitter, Facebook is a semi-private space, which encourages sharing with (more or less) known individuals. We are required to describe and picture ourselves for an audience of ‘friends’, and to make our private life available to others – but largely in ways that are about self-promotion. Again, it’s useful to look at how changes in the structure of the platform might change the ways in which participants present themselves, and relate to others (for example, the introduction of Facebook’s timeline in 2011, or its more recent changes to its newsfeed). It would be interesting also for students to compare different platforms in this respect – for example, to compare Facebook with predecessors like MySpace and Friendster. Of course, the template does not determine everything: it’s possible to use these services in very diverse ways, although these are much less than infinite.

Students might use a version of this framework to explore how these different forms of language work across a range of social media platforms – following a YouTube vlogger, a Twitter debate, or a Facebook group, for example. Illustrious social media users (from Katy Perry and the Kardashians to Donald Trump and Pope Francis) are obviously valuable case studies here. However, it’s important that students also consider their own use of these various social media languages. It would be useful for them to consider how this varies as they move across platforms: what kinds of language would they use in a more public context as opposed to a more private one, in a setting where they are anonymous as opposed to one where they can be identified, in a more verbal as opposed to a more visual platform, and so on. Once again, the point here is not to condemn or proscribe particular uses of social media, but rather to understand how they work, and to gather some good evidence about their wider social implications.