Social Media and Private Texting May Be Different Dialects

When is a text message not a text message? When it’s scientific research. Text messages could help advance our understanding of just how digital technologies are changing language. That’s the hypothesis behind Text4Science, a global project to gather 100,000 donated texts.

Linguistic Canadian researchers from three institutions—the Universities of Montreal and Ottawa, and Simon Fraser University—are collaborating on text database that will depend on the public sending old texts to the project’s website.

The researchers hope to dismiss the idea that people sending text messages are illiterate. Researchers notice that social context matters a great deal, and private texts vary greatly from more public expressions used on social media platforms. (Consider the case of deposed Mayor of Detroit Kwame Kilpatrick, whose private texts got him prosecuted.)

“When they talk to their friends, they speak differently than if they were to speak to [Canadian Prime Minister] Stephen Harper or the queen or to a university professor,” Christian Guilbault, an associate professor with Simon Fraser University’s French department, said in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. “Put them in an informal environment and they switch to a whole new register. It’s the same thing with writing; they are developing a new skill.”

Unlike social-media messages, many texts are private, so the researchers have little knowledge of the texting habits of Canadians and presumably Americans. But they will soon.

This is interesting to brandmakers who strive for meaningful connection with their audiences. The findings will give us a lexicon to invite our audiences to engage without gatecrashing their sense of privacy.

Donate your texts to science.