Scholarly article on topic 'Whatsapp, Textese, and Moral Panics: Discourse Features and Habits Across Two Generations'

Whatsapp, Textese, and Moral Panics: Discourse Features and Habits Across Two Generations Academic research paper on "Languages and literature"

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Abstract of research paper on Languages and literature, author of scientific article — Alfonso Sánchez-Moya, Olga Cruz-Moya

Abstract This essay sets out to compare discourse features and communicative practices in the use of textese in Whatsapp across two different generations. Textese, and other ways of online writing, has been associated with plenty of voices expressing a concern for the way young people adopted this practice (Humphrys, 2007; Sutherland, 2002). This prompted a “moral panics”, stating that textese triggers a failure in young people's ability to communicate using the standard variety of a language. Contrary to these voices, this paper defends the idea that online writing should not always be linked to the failure mentioned above. Results from this article prove that using textese and failing to communicate using the standard variety of a language cannot be systematically associated with teenagers’ literacy/communicative practices. They also provide evidence to support those voices arguing that the use of textese is intentionally adopted according to the circumstances surrounding a particular communicative situation.

Academic research paper on topic "Whatsapp, Textese, and Moral Panics: Discourse Features and Habits Across Two Generations"

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Procedía - Social and Behavioral Sciences 173 (2015) 300 - 306

32nd International Conference of the Spanish Association of Applied Linguistics (AESLA):

Language Industries and Social Change

Whatsapp, textese, and moral panics: discourse features and habits

across two generations

Alfonso Sánchez-Moyaa*, Olga Cruz-Moyab

a Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Profesor Aranguren, s/n, Ciudad Universitaria, Madrid, 28040, Spain bUniversidad Pablo de Olavide de Sevilla, Ctra. de Utrera, Km. 1, Sevilla, 41013, Spain

Abstract

This essay sets out to compare discourse features and communicative practices in the use of textese in Whatsapp across two different generations. Textese, and other ways of online writing, has been associated with plenty of voices expressing a concern for the way young people adopted this practice (Humphrys, 2007; Sutherland, 2002). This prompted a "moral panics", stating that textese triggers a failure in young people's ability to communicate using the standard variety of a language. Contrary to these voices, this paper defends the idea that online writing should not always be linked to the failure mentioned above. Results from this article prove that using textese and failing to communicate using the standard variety of a language cannot be systematically associated with teenagers' literacy/communicative practices. They also provide evidence to support those voices arguing that the use of textese is intentionally adopted according to the circumstances surrounding a particular communicative situation. © 2015TheAuthors.Published by ElsevierLtd.This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.Org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/). Peer-review under responsibility of Universidad Pablo de Olavide.

Keywords: textese; Whatsapp; IM language and communication; discourse

1. Introduction

For the purposes of this essay, textese is understood as a "language variety" (Crystal, 2006: p. 6) that predominantly characterises online writing. Since it began to be visible in society, plenty of voices expressed their worries about the way young people were adopting this practice (Humphrys, 2007; Sutherland, 2002). This prompted a "moral panics" that, roughly speaking, argues that online writing in general and textese in particular

* Corresponding author. Tel.: (+34) 91 394 5383 E-mail address: asmoya@ucm.es

1877-0428 © 2015 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license

(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).

Peer-review under responsibility of Universidad Pablo de Olavide.

doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.02.069

trigger a failure in young's people ability to communicate using the standard variety of any language. It also defends that young people cannot escape the influence of textese when using the standard version of the same code in other contexts.

Contrary to these voices, this paper defends the idea that online writing should not be associated with the failure mentioned above. As discussed later in this essay, there is not enough academic evidence to state that textese obstructs young people's abilities to comply with the standards of any language. Rather, textese is claimed to comprise a different variety of any linguistic standard, which users consciously adopt or not according to the communicative context and its circumstances.

When trying to support this hypothesis, we intend to contrast the use of textese by teenagers and adult people in a different age generation. Therefore, we aim to prove that using textese and failing to communicate using the standard written variety of a language cannot be systematically associated nor can it only stand for a symptom of teenagers' communicative practices. We also seek to provide evidence to support the voices that argue that the use of textese is intentionally adopted according to the circumstances surrounding a particular communicative situation.

2. Digital communication: Instant Messaging (IM), Whatsapp and textese

2.1. What's app with Whatsapp?

Whatsapp is a tool that enables people to communicate using Instant Messaging. Created in 2009, it has been downloaded more than fifty millions times (Reventos, 2012). Furthermore, it is by far the most popular IM software for smartphones in Spain (elEconomista.es, 2012). Whatsapp allows its users to send/receive information apart from text. Emoticons, images, voice notes, videos and web links are just few examples. Similarly to other IM applications, a user can simultaneously talk to a single person or to group. Nevertheless, unlike similar applications, Whatsapp has a peculiar policy when it comes to starting new conversations. No sooner has a phone number been added to your contacts list than it becomes available to start a Whatsapp conversation.

2.2. Salient discursive features of textese in Whatsapp conversations

Textese as a language variety in Whatsapp shares most of its linguistic and discourse features with electronically mediated language. Despite being transmitted through writing, it can be claimed that textese is closer to speech (Crystal, 2006, p. 45; Baron, 2008, p. 66) than it is to writing. Based on literature on this field (Thurlow, 2003; Crystal, 2006; Barton and Lee, 2013), it can be argued that electronic discourse can be characterised as having abbreviations (bro), stylised punctuation and spelling (veeery), non-conventional spelling (fone instead of phone), letter/number homophones (gr8 instead of great) and emoticons (©).

3. Some previous research on IM, textese and its effects

3.1. The pillaging, savaging and raping of language: moral panics

As suggested before, there is a deeply rooted fear in some contemporary media reports and articles surrounding textese. Unsurprisingly for us, terms like "vandals", "destroying", "pillaging", "savaging" or "raping" are associated with textese users (Humphrys, 2007). Equally apocalyptic are the views supported in similar media articles, explicitly stating that "textese is penmanship of illiterates" (Sutherland, 2002), to the extent of causing conflict in everyday life (Drouin, 2011).

3.2. Is it so bad?

Although it is less common to find, little research has identified detrimental effects in the use of textese. For instance, significant and negative relationships have been found between text messaging frequency and formal writing skills, especially in adults (Rosen et al., 2010). Spelling, also central in this essay and very much explored in this field, also seems to maintain a negative connection with textese. In fact, it has been suggested that a continued

exposure to textese might lead to forgetting form in the standard variety (Katz and Frost, 2001). Nevertheless, these results have been refuted by a substantial amount of studies in this area.

There is abundant research on the positive connections between textese and the notion of linguistic register. In the educational arena (O'Connor, 2005), scholars have stressed the importance that both textese and IM have when raising students' awareness of the appropriateness of some linguistic varieties possess depending on the communicative context. Empirical research carried out at schools shows results in the same line, signalling that "[school] children can write as conventionally or unconventionally as they wish, with or without punctuation or capitalisation [...] as long as the convention for 'reading' them is an established one that will enable the recipient to understand it" (Plester et al., 2009). Similarly, textese has been explored from a communicative perspective. Some voices highlight the benefits of textese in its quality of "hybrid register" (Tagliamonte and Denis, 2008), which allows textese users to change their linguistic variety in different written contexts accordingly (Lewis and Fabos, 2005). Likewise, as supported by the present study, research reveals that choosing textese as a communicative variety is a conscious decision (Drouin, 2011), since "the average person uses textese thoughtfully, and more often within the contexts deemed appropriate" (Drouin and Davis, 2009).

Turning now to the beneficial aspects of textese in its relationship with spelling, some studies in this field have suggested that textese does not have the detrimental effects some other voices have claimed. No negative association has been found between practicing textese and children's spelling (Plester et al., 2009; De Jonge & Kemp, 2012), nor even has the frequency in using textese been linked to negative results in literacy skills tests (Drouin, 2011).

4. Methodology

4.1. Groups and participants

For the purposes of this study, two different generational groups have been studied. The first group (Group A henceforth) included fifteen Spanish teenagers. It was a mixed-sex group, secondary school students aged between 13 and 18 years old. The second group (Group B henceforth) was integrated by fifteen Spanish adults aged between 28 and 33. Note that the ten-year gap was intentionally chosen to reinforce the generational difference. Similarly, Group B included both female and male participants. However, all participants in this group received higher education in the past and are currently active in the job market, required features in order to create internal validity. The fact of being high-qualified people and the equally important fact that they are working can arguably be taken as a guarantee of these people's ability to comply with the communicative standards of Spanish.

4.2. Materials

In the attempt to study and contrast linguistic features in textese, participants from both groups were asked to send an original Whatsapp conversation they had recently had (November-December 2013) with a peer, making a corpus of thirty conversations. When trying to compare the two groups' literacy practices in/perceptions towards Whatsapp, an online questionnaire was sent to participants in both groups. Of the fifteen questions that made up this questionnaire, thirteen of them were close, multiple-choice questions.

4.3. Methodological issues

Participants were asked to supply real conversations they had had on Whatsapp with peers (classmates or friends for Group A and colleagues or friends for Group B). Only when the participants had sent their conversation were they provided with the online questionnaire. Regarding ethical issues, all participants agreed on my use of the conversations they were sending. Likewise, they were guaranteed complete privacy and confidentiality.

5. Results and analysis

5.1. Generational comparison of discourse features in Whatsapp

After analysing the thirty Whatsapp conversations, it is possible to argue that teenagers and adults use textese in a more homogenous way than originally expected. Despite the similarities, conversations from teenagers contain a higher density of textese. In fact, only three typical features (out of the eight) of textese are scarcely represented in teenagers' conversation. Contrary to this, adults' conversations contain a low density of textese features in five categories. Nonetheless, conversations from both groups did not show a high density of discourse features found in textese. Both corpora were characterised by a non-conventional use of spelling and punctuation. Unlike the tendency to shorten and abbreviate words in the adults' conversations, teenagers seem to be eager to delete more peripheral elements of discourse that do not obstruct comprehension. Similarly, textese produced by teenagers can be defined as more expressive, since it shows more instances of stylised spelling and emoticons.

5.2. Generational comparison of communicative habits in Whatsapp: textese in context

According to the participants in both groups, textese is dependent on the context in which a given communicative situation takes place. This can be read from the results illustrated in Figure 1, which shows that an important proportion of participants in both groups believe their use of textese in Whatsapp to be determined by the person they are talking to. In fact, 60% of teenage participants adhere to this option, whereas only 47% of adult participants do so.

14 12 10 8 6 4 2 0

Yes No It depends on

who I am talking to

Figure 1

This tendency is also reinforced by answers to questions testing both teenagers and adults' perceptions towards textese in different communicative situations. Figure 2 and Figure 3 below provide a visual summary of both groups' frequency of textese use depending on the person they are having a conversation with. In this case, participants were expected to rate the frequency in using textese according to the audience of their Whatsapp conversations. Possible audiences ranged from more intimate figures such as close friends to more distant ones such as their teacher/boss. As the colour distribution suggests, teenagers seem to hold more polarised views than adults. Thus, the former prefer a constant use of textese when they deem the context lets them do so. The closer the intimacy, the more frequent the use of textese. Likewise, teenagers' use of textese is progressively reduced as the level of familiarity decreases. Adult participants show a somewhat divergent pattern. As Figure 3 depicts, the more radical perception shared by teenage participants is no longer present here. Neither the 'always' nor the 'never' ends of the scale are so recurrent in this case. Conversely, the more central ends of the scale are now more visible. It seems that adults, unlike teenagers, do not have such a forged view on the appropriateness of textese in particular textese, using this variety in a wider range of communicative scenarios. Still, it is possible to observe a comparable pattern in the 'never' end, suggesting that adults using textese share teenagers' assumption that the less close, the less frequent the use of textese.

Teenagers and textese... Who with and how often?

Always ■ Usually ■ Sometimes ■ Seldom ■ Nevei

Close friends Classmates/colleagues

Adults and textese... Who with and how often?

ftlw.iyc HkiMlly ■ ■ Si»IHnm iNwr

Close friends 2 |

Acquaintances 1 | ?

Family 101 5

People I know very little 10 2

Teacher/ho« 0

Clas:matcs/collcagucs 1 | Acquaintances Familv

Family tj 3 4

| Peoolc I know verv little 0 2

Teacher/boss 0 2 0

Figure 2 (a) and Figure 3 (b)

Despite Whatsapp conversations from both groups proved that textese is not so different from a linguistic point of view, there are some manifest disparities in the ways teenagers and adults would use textese under similar communicative circumstances. Three of the questions in the questionnaire asked participants to choose the Whatsapp message that they would send to three different recipients (close friend, family member and teacher/boss). The three options provided read the same message, with the exception that the density of textese was modified. If the first message was visibly altered by textese, the second would represent a medium density. The third was written following the spelling standards of Spanish.

As can be interpreted from Figures 4, 5 & 6, neither teenagers nor adults opted to choose messages with a high density of textese in any of the communicative contexts. Interestingly enough, adults seem to be more prone to make use of messages where textese is clearly present if both groups are compared. The graphs below also support the already mentioned idea of teenagers being more aware of the need to comply with a register if it is required by the situation. Unlike it happens with adults, the majority of teenage participants agree on the message that should be sent to either a close friend or somebody in a superior position to them as their teacher.

Figure 4 (a), Figure 5 (b) & Figure 6 (c)

As suggested throughout this paper, both research on this field and media voices have also focused on the influence of textese on spelling. As usual, teenagers have been portrayed as atrociously affected by the evil effects of textese. The results obtained in this study are again opposed to these views. Both teenage and adult participants

were given a text with ten mistakes. Five of them were traditional spelling mistakes, with Spanish misspellings of varied sorts. The other five were textese-driven mistakes, such as over-stylised punctuation or lacking capitalisation. Participants were asked to identify as many mistakes as they could find. Table 1 and Table 2 below illustrate the performance of both groups respectively.

Table 1. Identification of spelling mistakes by teenage participants (out of a maximum of five per section and per participant).

Teenage participants Traditional Textese-driven

spelling mistakes mistakes identified identified

SUBTOTAL 59/75 51/75

TOTAL mistakes identified 110/150

Table 2. Identification of spelling mistakes by adult participants (out of a maximum of five per section and per participant).

Adult participants Traditional Textese-driven

spelling mistakes mistakes identified identified

SUBTOTAL 55/75 40/75

TOTAL mistakes identified 95/150

As conveyed by the tables above, secondary school teenagers could identify more spelling mistakes than adults, who received higher education and are active in the job market. A sharper difference is noticed at the correct identification of textese-driven mistakes, again denoting that teenagers are more aware of the line separating textese from the standard variety. This also confirms their keen perception regarding what might or might not be considered as acceptable in standard Spanish. Also, the number of teenager participants excelling at identifying mistakes is higher than in the adults' counterpart.

6. Conclusions

This study has sought to provide empirical evidence to challenge the apocalyptic views regarding the use of textese by teenagers, which are especially frequent in the media. The main tool to prove this has been a generational comparison, which has tried to refute some widely accepted assertions on textese and both the effects and practices surrounding it.

First, this study has demonstrated that an overuse of textese in teenagers' IM practices should not systematically stand for a failure in complying with the standard forms of a language. The analysis of all the conversations considered in this study show that teenagers write their Whatsapp messages with a higher density of textese features than adults. Regardless of this fact, it has been proved that teenagers show a greater ability to recognise spelling mistakes of various sorts, especially those created following typical features of textese.

Second, contrary to the media moral panics, teenagers seem to be even more aware than adults when identifying which communicative situations allow their use of textese. Even though a real examination of these situations should be much more useful to offer a more conclusive argument, teenage participants in this study are in fact more conscious of the suitability of textese for some contexts than adults are.

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