Josiah Zayner is a biophysicist working for NASA on how to design habitats for Martian colonization. In his spare time, however, he does linguistic research into how earthlings talk.
In particular, Zayner is curious to figure out how new forms of communication fit into the spectrum of “communication modalities.” It’s obvious that people communicate differently when we write vs. when we talk—we use different sorts of words and different syntax. But when we tweet or chat online, is it more like writing or more like talking?
Earlier this month Zayner posted a paper on arXiv, an online science posting board, in which he reported analysis he had done on word usage patterns on Twitter and Internet Relay Chat (or IRC, a chat protocol favored by programmers), comparing both to actual spoken English (using as his dataset an extensive collection of recordings called the Santa Barbara Corpus of Spoken American English) and writing in books (using Google N-gram database of book word usage). Tweeting and online chatting, he found, are much closer to speech than book writing—both are essentially typed talking.
Zayner’s work hasn’t been peer reviewed, so for the time being we have to take his word for it, but no one who has written or read a few tweets will be shocked by this finding. Asked over the phone why people tweet like they talk, he doesn’t venture much of an explanation.
As someone who writes for print, uses Google’s chat, and produces sporadic tweets, I wonder whether it might have something to do with the presumed lifespan of what we’re writing. When I send a chat, or a tweet, or even an e-mail, I think of it as something ephemeral, like a spoken sentence—the carelessness with which people (e.g. in the Chris Christie administration) continue to write extremely incriminating things in e-mails suggests I’m not alone.
Zayner also mentioned that he found people use the words “I,” “me,” and “my” on Twitter much more than in any other communication modality—more than in books, more than on IRC, more even than speaking. Twitter was the only modality he looked at in which “I,” “me,” and “my” were all among the 11 most frequently used words. “The Twitter corpus,” he says, “is the only one that has ‘I’ as the No. 1 word.”
When we tweet, in other words, we feel like we’re talking, except without the obligation to talk about anything besides ourselves.