Abstract: This chapter explores the language of microblogging by focusing on dis-
course produced via Twitter, a popular microblogging service. In the first section
I consider microblogging as a semiotic practice, trace its historical development
and investigate the interdisciplinary research into this form of communication. My
focus will be on linguistic work in the areas of pragmatics and discourse analy-
sis which explores the dominant communicative conventions that have arisen via
Twitter, such as retweeting and hashtagging. I will then turn to the social concept
of what Zappavigna (2012) terms ‘searchable talk’, i.e. discourse which renders
opinion and sentiment readily findable through resources such as social tagging.
The chapter concludes by suggesting the important role that ambient affiliation
plays in microblogging by forging communities through negotiating values, an
issue to which I will return in my chapter on evaluation in social media (cf. Ch.
16, this volume).
1. Introduction: Microblogging as a semiotic practice
The advent of social media has seen a proliferation of semiotic resources for con-
struing experience, negotiating values, and enacting identities and communities
online. Microblogging is a short-form social media technology, involving the
posting of small, typically episodic, messages aimed at internet-mediated audi-
ences. These texts appear on social media services, such as Twitter and Weibo, as
chronologically unfolding streams of posts associated with a user’s social profile.
Microblogging services are “specifically designed to broadcast short but regular
bursts of content to particularly large audiences well beyond a user’s direct social
network” (Murthy 2013: 12). Users subscribe to the feeds of different accounts,
and search posts in the public stream with native or third party applications. An
example of a post is the following, taken from a corpus of tweets about coffee
1 Examples used in this chapter are drawn from this corpus unless otherwise noted. This
corpus of ‘coffee tweets’ has been used to investigate how people use language to forge
social bonds online, here by aligning around shared feelings about the positive effects
of morning coffee. This has been explored as a shared process of ‘ambient affiliation’
that we will return to at the end of this chapter.
202 Michele Zappavigna
As Figure 1 suggests, different kinds of textual elements augment the ‘body’ of a
post, including social tags (e.g. #needcoffee in the above), various types of meta-
data (e.g. timestamps), and material relating to the author’s profile such as an icon
At the time of writing in 2016, the range of genres deployed via microblogging
is vast, and correspondingly challenging to map them exhaustively. By deploying
a particular instantiation of a genre “an individual user establishes a contract with a
particular social group or a segment of social media users” (Artemeva 2015: 282).
These genres span most domains of social life from the personal and domestic, to
the political and national, incorporating a range of linguistic functions, from ide-
ational broadcasting of content, to interpersonal sharing of feelings (Zappavigna
2015). Descriptions of microblogging usually imply that these genres are conver-
sational, and that microblogging involves some kind of ‘conversational exchange’
(Honeycutt and Herring 2009). The practice has been described as “lightweight
chat” (Starbird et al. 2010: 242), as “prompting opportunistic conversations” (Zhao
and Rosson 2009: 251), as “a specific social dialect, in which individual users are
clearly singled out and engaged in a conversation” (Holotescu and Grosseck 2009:
163), and as constituted by “dialogue acts” (Ritter, Cherry and Dolan 2010: 172).
This chapter begins by broadly surveying interdisciplinary research into
microblogging and the kinds of features/dimensions of communication as well as
research methods that have been applied in this domain. It then historically con-
textualises microblogging as a semiotic practice, introducing Twitter, one of the
most popular platforms, as a semiotic technology. Some of the main communica-
tive conventions that have arisen on Twitter (such as @mentions, retweets, and
hashtags) are then introduced, alongside linguistic studies incorporating these fea-
tures. Since the social function of social media communication is, broadly speak-
ing, about forging relationships (across a large variety of often quite niche-like
domains), linguistic studies of social media are necessarily bound by the need to
locate theory and analytical methods that are able to account for how such social
affiliation is enacted in discourse. The final section of this chapter thus consid-
ers attempts to understand how people use language to forge (and disrupt) social
bonds, i.e. issues that are currently at stake in social media research.
Figure 1. An example of a microblogging post
2. Interdisciplinary research into microblogging
Research into microblogging is a multidisciplinary arena, spanning domains out-
side linguistics such as psychology, media studies, marketing, and many others.
It often focuses on snapshots (Popescu and Pennacchiotti 2010) of ‘real-time’
microblogging communication at particular temporal or contextual moments, for
instance during natural disasters (Shaw et al. 2013), elections, or as a backchannel
during live entertainment (Highfield, Harrington and Bruns 2013). The diverse
and extensive range of naturally-occurring discourse available on Twitter has also
meant that work has been conducted on this platform across most major fields in
linguistics, ranging from pragmatics, sociolinguistics, corpus linguistics to com-
putational linguistics, and systemic functional linguistics. These studies explore
communication about every conceivable topic from the nature of people’s discus-
sion of e-cigarettes (Cole-Lewis et al. 2015) to the interactions of athletes (Ham-
brick et al. 2010). Much research has investigated a wide range of pragmatic issues
such as the nature of Twitter corporate apologies (Page 2014), politeness in tweets
(Sifianou 2015), the speech act of self-praise (Dayter 2014), linguistic features
associated with sexual aggression in tweets, e.g. the language patterns seen in rape
threats, (Hardaker and McGlashan 2016), gender representation, and issues of per-
ceived linguistic authenticity (Kytölä and Westinen 2015).
Public access to Twitter’s Application Programming Interfaces (API)2 means
that tweets are relatively easy to collect and hence a vast array of domain-spe-
cific research into particular niche issues has built up around Twitter.3 Thus it is
unsurprising that the dominant research strategy has been to analyse (both quanti-
tatively and qualitatively) social media corpora (see for example Baker and McEn-
ery 2015; Page 2012a, 2012b; Seargeant and Tagg 2014; Zappavigna 2012). Some
of this work adopts a sociolinguistic interest in exploring variations in tweeting
practices across variables such as gender, ethnicity, and language variety (Adnan,
Longley, and Khan 2014; Bamman, Eisenstein, and Schnoebelen 2014; Neubig
and Duh 2013) and individual variation (Kelsey and Bennett 2014). There has also
been some interest in exploring social media texts in terms of narrative theory that
2 The API is the language that software tools use to communicate with Twitter’s back-end
database in order to assemble subsets of posts from the public feed. The ‘garden hose’
is the freely available access provided by Twitter to its data, and is a random sample of
posts (collected according to Twitter’s particular algorithm defining randomness) and
a subset of ‘fire hose’ access to all publically available tweets. Most Twitter corpora
are produced by creating what Popescu and Pennacchiotti (2010) refer to as a Twitter
‘snapshot’, featuring some entity, a time period, and a selection of tweets.
3 Payment, however, is obligatory if an exhaustive set of tweets is required, beyond the
‘random’ sample offered by the ‘garden hose’ feed of tweets that Twitter makes freely
204 Michele Zappavigna
has developed out of early research into narrative such as Labov and Waletzks’
(1967). For example, in accord with Page’s work, Dayter (2015) approaches tweets
as instances of “small stories” and suggests that these stories can span multiple
tweets and be analysed using the orientation, complication, evaluation and reso-
lution genre structure regularly used to characterise narrative. She also identifies
two types of stories that she claims are typical of an ‘eyewitness microgenre’. The
first is a ‘delayed resolution narrative’ in the form of live commentary which can
only be seen as a single coherent narrative once completed. The second is a ‘tiny
story’ which is a fragmented account of an everyday activity in which the narrative
stance is not clear. A detailed survey of research methods used to explore social
media is provided by the textbook Researching the Language of Social Media
(Page et al. 2014).
Despite the accumulation of linguistic research into social media, the major-
ity of studies investigating Twitter do so from a communication theory or media
studies perspective without applying a particular theory of language to the com-
municative patterns observed. The detailed linguistic analysis of particular types
of social media texts is a complex undertaking from which a wide range of meth-
odological challenges can arise. These include ethical issues due to the intimate
material revealed in posts, problems related to the multimodal nature of the data,
and the complexity of accounting for the relationship between online and offline
contexts (Bolander and Locher 2014). An ongoing and important consideration for
linguistic projects exploring social media is how “bespoke” the analytical instru-
ment to be applied should be, given the fast pace at which social media practices
and platforms change (Giles et al. 2014: 49). Tools that are designed specifically
for analyzing particular types of social media communication, rather than for
exploring general shifts in meaning-making, risk redundancy. This is particularly
perilous in view of the effort required to develop methods to capture the multi-
modal nature of social media texts.
3. Tracing the historical development of microblogging
3.1. Twitter and older media practices
The attempt to identify its historical antecedents is a characteristic feature of the
initial phases of research into new fields. This also applies to the new technol-
ogy of microblogging and leads to the question how it evolved from older media
practices (see for example Murthy 2013). Commentators have been keen to his-
toricise Twitter in terms of older restricted forms of communication prevalent in
the eighteenth and nineteenth century. These include the telegraph, and forms of
record keeping, such a diaries (Murthy 2013). Unravelling the multidimensional
interaction between the evolution of communicative potential (the meanings we
can make within a particular culture) and changes in technological platforms sup-
porting communication is no easy task. Historically, communication has always
been intimately connected to the material and semiotic particularities of different
media. This means that, on the one hand, it may be productive to think about the
shifts in meaning potential over time that are afforded by each new reading or
writing technology. However, on the other hand, this line of thinking can tend to
background the fact that the interaction between technical platforms and com-
municative practices is a complex feedback loop, evolving in tandem with other
Microblogging has now been around long enough that it features a broad range
of human expression, involving a wide range of communicative genres and con-
texts, as noted earlier. Because it spans areas as disparate as personal feelings
about daily routine (Zappavigna, 2014) and discourse about elections (Bruns et
al. 2015), microblogging has been seen as blurring the public and private realm
in novel ways (Baym and boyd 2012). However, public and private domains have
regularly intersected throughout history to differing degrees. Communicative
channels that we might characterise, with modern eyes, as highly personal, such as
diaries, in fact have emerged out of traditions in which diaries were often public
documents intended to be shared (Humphreys et al. 2013). A comparison of tweets
with eighteenth and nineteenth century diaries suggested that both condense per-
sonal experience into small texts intended to be distributed in the public realm,
and thus form part of the history of “personal writing for public consumption”
(Humphreys et al. 2013: 414). What is most distinctive about microblogging, if we
are to situate it within the history of communication, is the level of interactivity
enabled with potential audiences for any given text, and the potential reach of that
text to an audience of millions.
Facebook’s ‘status update’ feature is one of the earliest forms of microblogging
that was available to a large cohort of users. This feature invited users to respond
to the prompt question (sometimes referred to as a tagline) “What are you doing
right now?”. Prior to 2008, responses were restricted to a template featuring the
verb form ‘is’, constraining the type of updates that could be fashioned to posts.
This structure created a relationship of attribution, linking the account profile to
the content of the post. The examples below are posts conforming to this structure
by the author from 2007:
is listening to the rain
is having her morning coffee
And, due to the limitations imposed by the template, ungrammatical constructions
occurred, as in:
is just ate BBQ pineapple
206 Michele Zappavigna
Later, the verb form was abandoned, and the prompt shifted to the command “Share
what’s on your mind”, which allowed any type of grammatical construction in the
response. At the time of writing, the prompt is the question “What’s on your mind?”
The choices in response made available by these “invocations to participation”
(Burgess 2014: 283) offer insight into the types of semiotic behaviour a particular
microblogging service is constructing as normative, as well as the way the service
is hoping to brand itself as a media platform. The restrictions imposed are not nec-
essarily static and “[w]hen they do change, they are often accompanied by public
relations materials alerting us to shifts in business logic” (Burgess 2014: 283).
3.2. The advent of Twitter as a microblogging service
Shortly after status updating on Facebook had begun to develop as a practice,
Twitter, a social media service designed purely for microblogging, was released.
It would emerge as “a key player in the colonization of the internet by corporate
social media” (Sharma 2013: 49). Moving from “a niche service to a mass phe-
nomenon” (Weller et al. 2013: xxix), Twitter has integrated itself into important
domains of social life such as journalism, public communication, politics, and
activism, as well as corporate domains such as market research, advertising, and
branding. It has become largely synonymous in most countries with the broader
practice of microblogging, having outlived other nascent services, with the excep-
tion of China where Sina Weibo is the dominant platform (Weller et al. 2013).
Figure 2 below shows founder Jack Dorsey’s notes relating to the initial design
of Twitter. These are an interesting historical document in terms of the develop-
ment of Twitter as a semiotic platform.
As this image suggests, the initial design concept for Twitter was focused on
the notion that a user has a ‘status’ that they wished to share. The reference to the
chat protocol, jabber, suggests that this concept had been drawn from instant mes-
saging, where a status indicated a user’s conversational availability and was part
of the maintenance of online ‘social presence’ (Baron at al. 2005). For example an
‘away message’, indicating that a user is unavailable might be classed as informa-
tional or expressive (Nastri, Pena and Hancock 2006: 1028):
At the library [informational]
I hate this weather [expressive]
These short texts featured a range of speech functions, with assertives being the
most common type (Nastri, Pena and Hancock 2006). A quick search of Twitter
at the time of writing easily retrieves similar posts to the above away messages,
indicating that this early function remains:
been at the library for 4 hours …
I hate this weather
Twitter posts, which came to be known as ‘tweets’, were constrained in Dorsey’s
design to 140 characters, in order to allow messages to conform to the 160 char-
acter limit set for SMS on most phones in 2006 (factoring in 20 characters for the
account username). Figure 3 is the first tweet by one of Twitter’s co-founders. The
tweet features a brief message, “Ok we are in the car”, which has been retweeted 8
times, and ‘liked’ 5 times. At this stage of development there was no technical or
communicative convention for replying to other users or aggregating tweets into
types using social tags.
Figure 2. Twitter design notes produced by Jack Dorsey in 2006. Retrieved from
Figure 3. An example of a tweet. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/biz/statuses/10345
208 Michele Zappavigna
Many early tweets functioned as experiential status updates directly related to
a user’s activities, for example, this tweet from 2006 by Twitter founder Biz Stone:
walking the dog
However, just as the Facebook prompt question evolved, Twitter’s prompt shifted
from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?” Users had begun to post
about topical events and a wide range of phenomena not limited to their personal
activities (Tagg 2015). At the same time the business model underlying Twitter,
and also Facebook, began to increasingly rely on forms of data mining used to
collect material relevant to corporations and brands (Burgess 2014).
Figure 4 details the basic functionality of a tweet as made available via the
Twitter website in 2016. Tweets incorporate the user’s account name, username,
and a timestamp indicating when the message was posted, as well as a range of
interactive elements providing options to subscribe to the user’s stream of posts,
or to interact with it in some way. This functionality will look different depending
on how the user is accessing the service, for instance either via the web interface
or by a mobile device, or by using a native or third party application. In addition,
it should be noted that Twitter is a moving target in terms of research, since social
media platforms are constantly evolving alongside shifts in contexts of use (Hogan
and Quan-Haase 2010). While this is essentially the case with any form of commu-
Figure 4. The anatomy of a tweet.
nication, it is highlighted by social media discourse since constant change seems
to be part of maintaining the popularity or social relevance of the media employed.
4. Twitter communicative conventions
While first generation microblogging services were not designed to directly sup-
port ‘conversational’ exchanges between users, perhaps with the exception of
Jaiku’s (another microblogging service) message threading capabilities, the abil-
ity to reference and address posts to particular users has now become a funda-
mental feature of microblogging. This is part of a more general social need for
microblogging to manage discursive heteroglossia (Kristeva 1980), in other words
to allow users to engage with other voices, opinions, and information available
in the social stream. Bruns and Moe (2014) suggest that there are three struc-
tural layers of communication possible with Twitter, corresponding to the types of
information exchange and user interaction: micro (follower-followee networks),
meso (hashtagged exchanges), and macro (@reply conversations). This section
reviews research into key conventions used in Twitter communication that have
been developed both by the system designers and organically through community
use. As Zappavigna (2012) notes, these conventions center around three linguistic
markers: addressing and referencing other users with @, republishing other tweets
with RT, and labelling topics with #.
4.1. Addressivity and @mentions
The first convention marks address with the @ character when a user wishes
to explicitly direct their micropost at another user. In these instances @ will be
deployed as a deictic marker, as in the following example:
@User1 there will always be time for #coffee #beer and #wine ☺
Used in this way, the @ character indicates that the username which it precedes
is directly addressed in the tweet.4 As such it functions to mark a vocative, often
occupying initial position in a clause, though it also can occur in medial or final
position. When not in initial position, @+username is more likely to indicate a
reference to a particular user rather than to explicitly inscribe a direct address. For
Tried to make coffee this am..complete user malfunction – coffee ALL over the kitchen
counter..leaving that job to @User2 from now on
4 All usernames in this chapter have been anonymized.
210 Michele Zappavigna
This tweet is not directly addressing ‘User2’ and instead indirectly refers to this
user with what is termed a ‘mention’.
Mentioning a user with the @ character in this way is a kind of ‘amplified’
reference and potential tool for self-promotion since, depending on privacy set-
tings and the evolving functionality of Twitter, other users who follow this user
may view the mention. The @mention is also amplified in the sense that the @
character is searchable. Mentions can be aggregated and other users can search
for particular instances. It is possible to retrieve all instances of @mentions to a
given user (within a particular time window) with the Twitter search interface or
using metadata and the Twitter API. Twitter is, however, continually modifying
how it deals with @mentions in terms of who will see a conversational exchange
in their feed (e.g. only direct followers of one of the participants), presumably in
an attempt to predict the interests/attention span of its users.
Honeycutt and Herring (2009: 4) provide an overview of the various uses of
the @ character throughout digital communication (examples added):
@User3 I wish I could bring you bagels and coffee. Thinking of you.
Coffee and pseudo-dinner with @User4 lol. Work talk, makes you think. Change can
go both ways.
Will have a cup of coffee and cookies for breakfast then I’ll be fixing myself. Lazy
Bought pear balsamic @ the Oilerie. Eating @ door county coffee co. Eyeing up hub-
i kno my co-wrkr jst bodied a red bull, a mountain dew, aaand a coffee all @ once …
he goes hard
Forgot all about instant coffee, JEBUS how do they make that cr@! ?
Taking into account current Twitter usage, the @ character seems to be trans-
formed into an increasingly interpersonal resource. This follows a general trend in
the evolution of punctuation identified by Knox (2009), namely an evolution from
textual functions toward more interpersonal functions, and toward the service of
social affiliation (Zappavigna 2015).
Another way of bringing external voices into a tweet is to republish another user’s
tweet within your own tweet. This is known as ‘retweeting’ and is usually marked
by the initialism, RT, to indicate that the body of the tweet is quoted text. In other
words, RT marks grammatical projection, economically standing for ‘User X has
posted the following’. In most instances RT will be followed by the @ character to
attribute the retweeted text to its original author, @User1 in the below:
RT @User1: Packed up and heading to Lake Tahoe. Need. Coffee.
Sometimes retweets are used in a similar way to the reply function:
Of course NOT I’m not expecting miracles LOL! RT @UserA: @UserB what you
kicked the coffee habit ? lol
Ha ha yes come to San Diego and I’ll pay for it :] RT @ddlovato: Power through, power
through, power though.. coffee anybody?! haha
The way that Twitter handles retweeting has evolved with the functionality of
the service, from manual retweets (RT @User, as in the above tweet), to native
retweeting by clicking an icon present at the bottom of each tweet (when accessed
via the web interface) (see Figure 4).
Retweeting “allows members to relay or forward a tweet through their net-
work” (Nagarajan, Purohit and Sheth 2010: 295), marking the quoted text as nota-
ble and effectively recommending it to their followers. It can significantly amplify
the reach of a tweet, particularly when a user with a large body of followers, such
as a celebrity, chooses to retweet something. Beyond rebroadcasting, retweeting
“contributes to a conversational ecology in which conversations are composed of a
public interplay of voices that give rise to an emotional sense of shared conversa-
tional context” (boyd, Golder and Lotan 2010: 1). The convention marks a tweet as
worth of the attention within this conversational context and allows the retweeter
to display a stance toward the retweeted text and project it as valuable to the com-
munity, whether in terms of merit or notoriety. For example, the underlined text in
the following has been appended to the original tweet by the retweeter:
Love this! RT @User: Just paid for the couple behind us coffee at starbucks. I encour-
age you all to pay it forward too.
This kind of evaluative appendage has also been noted by Page (2012b) who,
approaching media from the perspective of narrative, has suggested the role of
retweeting in new ‘co-tellership practices’ and noted the tendency of celebrities to
append evaluative assessment to their retweets as a means of aligning with their
Some studies have explored how often posts are retweeted, for instance as
a measure of success in activism (Potts et al. 2014: 66). While retweeting is an
212 Michele Zappavigna
important way to expand the reach of a tweet to new audiences, it also can be
part of establishing and maintaining social relationships (Boyd, Golder and Lotan
2010). Puschmann (2015) claims that community structure can, to varying extents,
be predicted by the social use of quotation. His study identifies four functions of
retweeting: passing on information, commenting or responding, presenting one’s
own interests, and building social capital (Puschmann 2015).
4.3. Hashtagging and ‘searchable talk’
The drive to make our opinions and emotions readily findable has become an
important social preoccupation, realized in social media as what Zappavigna
(2012; 2015) refers to as ‘searchable talk’, discourse that relies on forms of social
tagging to create alignments with potential audiences. Social tagging is the prac-
tice of appending user-generated metadata (often referred to as social metadata)
to social media texts. An early example is Flickr tags for annotating photos (Bar-
ton 2015). Social tagging has been described as “conversational tagging” (Huang,
Thornton and Efthimiadis 2010) since, in microblogging environments at least,
tags often have a function beyond classification through taxonomies or folkson-
omies5 and facilitate forms of mass ‘conversation’ since “the ‘globally public by
default’ nature of tweets lends itself to the development of means for automatically
organising discussions of specific topics through shared conversation markers”
(Bruns 2012: 1324). Tags can be conversational in the sense that they help users
to engage with topics receiving broad interest, and also, more locally, to produce
interpersonal meanings through forms of metacommentary and linguistic play, as
we will see later in this section.
A dominant form of social metadata is the hashtag, which has received exten-
sive attention in social media research, both due to the interesting new commu-
nicative affordances it has offered users, and because it provides researchers with
5 The kind of collaborative tagging evolving with community use in social media is often
referred to as a practice of ‘folksonomy’ (Vander Wal 2007) or social tagging very dif-
ferent to the top-down hierarchical approaches of traditional document classification.
Whereas document classification involves experts, social tagging engages communities
of general users. For example, it is used heavily on photo sharing sites such as Flickr
where it functions as a cooperative form of verbal indexing involving a ‘bottom-up’
approach to the kind of classification previously achieved by reference librarians.
Indeed, hashtags have been likened to the concept “better known to librarians as a
subject heading” (Ovadia 2009: 203). The tags assigned provide “access to the reader’s
view of aboutness in a way which was previously possible only on a small scale through
elicitation experiments” (Kehoe and Gee 2011).
an efficient means6 of collecting discourse about a particular topic, person or
event.7 This also includes studies of the veracity and reliability of information
annotated with hashtags in relation to the problems that can be caused by various
kinds of inconsistencies in formats and conventions, the tendency of tags to prolif-
erate, become redundant, or be misused and hijacked. Linguistic studies of hash-
tags have been studied in relation to a wide range of contexts including transla-
tion (Carter, Tsagkias and Weerkamp 2011), inferential processes in reading (Scott
2015), self-branding and microcelebrity (Page 2012b), bullying discourse (Calvin
et al. 2015), digital libraries (Schlesselman-Tarango 2013), and political memes
(Zhu 2015). Zappavigna (2015) explores the different linguistic functions that can
be employed using a hashtag, noting their linguistic flexibility and tendency to
be employed interpersonally in the service of social affiliation through forms of
metacommentary. Similarly, adopting a pragmatic perspective, Scott (2015) and
Wikström (2014) have noted that hashtags perform significant functions beyond
facilitating search, and “have been appropriated by users to perform other roles in
the communicative process” (Scott 2015: 19).
As the name implies, a hashtag is prefixed with a hash symbol marking the
label appended to the tweet. This symbol may be followed by a keyword or con-
catenated phrase or clause, as in the following examples:
I have a feeling about today, it is either going to take lots of #coffee or #beer ?
French Press coffee is the jam. #ilovecoffee
The hashtag emerged through community-use on Twitter and the concept may
derive from Internet Relay Chat (IRC) conventions for naming channels (#chan-
nelname), where a channel is the essential mechanism that people use to communi-
cate with each other during an IRC session. Hashtagging is not restricted to Twitter
and occurs across a range of social media platforms, including image-focused ser-
vices such as Instagram (Highfield and Leaver 2014), notorious for the tendency
for users to employ excessive numbers of tags, for instance a picture of a cup of
coffee accompanied by the following tags:
6 A limitation of such hashtag-based research is that it does not necessarily capture all
the communication surrounding the primary media, since there will be posts that do not
use the hashtag, and, in particular, reply-posts may omit the tag. However, hashtags do,
at the very least, make obtaining a snapshot of particular discourse at a particular time
7 For example, see work on election hashtags such as studies of the Australian #auspol
and #ausvotes hashtags (Bruns, Burgess and Highfield 2014; Sauter and Bruns 2015;
214 Michele Zappavigna
#coffee #mocha #soymocha #skittlelane #skittlelanecoffee #coffeetime #morningcoffee
#coffeelovers #coffeelove #cafe #sydneycafe #sydneycafes #sydneyfoodie #sgfoodies
#coffeeadventure #cafehopping #mytaveldiary #mytravelgram #visualdiary
While metadata has a long history in the domain of information management,
this is the first historical period where we see it so closely tied to enacting social
relations, having extended its semiotic reach as an information-organising tool to a
social resource for building relationships and communities (Zappavigna 2015). As
Barton (2015: 64) has noted, “[t]here are many things going on in tagging spaces
and it is not just about taxonomies, nor just about folksonomies”. Annotating posts
with hashtags is a form of linguistic innovation (Cunha et al. 2011) and is unfold-
ing as a means of expressing more than just the ‘aboutness’ of a social media text
(Kehoe and Gee 2011). In a study comparing celebrity and ordinary users, Page
(2012b: 187) classifies hashtags into two functional types: topic hashtags cate-
gorising a tweet “in the manner of folksonomic tagging” and evaluative hashtags
“expressing an evaluative sentiment”. Evaluative hashtags are associated with the
broader practice of using social tags for metacommentary, often for humorous
effect as the contemporary equivalent of postmodern quotation marks for signal-
ling ironic or self-conscious distance (Scheible 2015).
An important function which hashtags have evolved to perform, beyond clas-
sification, is construing forms of metacommentary, particularly evaluative meta-
commentary. Some studies have drawn on the pragmatic insights offered by speech
act theory, initially developed to understand face to face communication:
[…] meta-comment tags may be understood in terms of hedging, disclaiming and man-
aging face, through the exploitation or flouting of maxims. The parenthetical explana-
tions are analyzed as providing background information which is sometimes crucial to
clarifying utterance force, but other times supplemental. The emotive and emphatic tags
are analyzed mostly in terms of how they strengthen or change the illocutionary force of
utterances, often in a manner reminiscent of the work done by non-verbal cues in face-
to-face conversation. The humorous and playful uses of hashtags can be understood in
terms of maxim-flouting and the exploitation of background knowledge. (Wikström
Adopting this type of perspective, Wikström (2014: 130) argues that hashtags can
be grouped into a range of types (examples added):
– topic tags, where the topic is designated by the hashtag:
I hate being ‘twired’ where I am awake because of stimulants, but actually tired. #coffee
– hashtag games, similar to topic hashtags in terms of categorising function, but
with the aim of participating in a social game:
When I say I’m great at customer service, I mean I can fake a great smile and only
scream on the inside. #BaristaProblems
I hate every last one of you. Every. last. One. #baristaproblems
Stop ordering fraps. #baristaproblems
– meta-comments, where the hashtag makes a comment on the content of the
tweet itself rather than creating an association with other tweets:
yeah i order a small coffee at the daily drip but grab a large cup, so what? #idont-
– parenthetical explanations/additions, where the hashtag adds information
explaining the tweet:
I’m in a pub at 10:20 on a Friday am. Today will be a good day haha #drinkingcoffee
– emotive usage, where the hashtag supports emotional expression that might
otherwise be realised through some form or paralinguistic cue:
@4james When I worked in offices, I felt like I was the ONLY ONE who ever made
coffee. #sigh #ifeelyourpainbrother
– emphatic usage, where the hashtag realises some form of intensification:
WTF! The coffee machine is broken! I can’t work under these circumstances. #wtfwtf-
– humorous and playful usage, including hashtags that support some form of
joke structure, hyperbole, or self-conscious humourous self-reference, for
example through excessive hashtagging:
Guys my coffee cup is empty WHAT SHOULD I DO #ifiwasonaforum #thiswould-
beanentirewebcomic #iamnotkidding #thishappens #ohno #theinternet
– memes and popular culture references, where knowledge of a particular cul-
tural trend is needed to interpret the tag. An example explored by Zappavigna
(2012) is employing the fail meme as a kind of humourous self-deprecation
no water nor coffee, me thirsty and sleepy #fail
Some studies have noted that hashtags have the additional function of forming
communities (Yang et al. 2012) or ‘publics’ (Bruns and Burgess 2011), often
through supporting visibility and participation (Page 2012b). Lin et al. 2013: 1–2)
propose that hashtags “are more than labels for contextualizing statements, objects
for bookmarking, or channels for sharing information, but they are active virtual
sites for constructing communities”, where they are able to be used to monitor
“on-going conversations” and “communicate non-verbal cues such as irony”. Just
how to explore the linguistic realization of ambient communities is a key and
emerging area of current research.
216 Michele Zappavigna
5. Conclusion: towards understanding ambient affiliation
This chapter has provided an overview of linguistic research into microblogging
and Twitter. The studies surveyed have explored how experience is construed in
microblogging texts, drawing on a range of linguistic perspectives. However, this
is only part of the picture. While most studies make some reference to the cen-
tral function that forging community plays in microblogging, systematic linguis-
tic models of affiliation are still in development. There has been a long-standing
interest both within and outside linguists in the shared communicative strategies
that might characterize communities of language users, variously theorized as
‘discourse communities’ (Bizzell 1992) and ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger
1998).8 Language is resplendent with resources for negotiating community, such
as naming practices, slang, and all kinds of variation across phonology, grammar,
and semantics that characterise different personae and groups (Martin 2010). In
Chapter 16 (this volume) on evaluation, I expand some of the perspectives intro-
duced here to account for the important role that evaluative language has in shar-
ing feeling and forging social alignments in social media discourse.
The challenge for social media researchers is to model how microbloggers
discursively negotiate their communal identites through sharing ‘bonds’ that con-
situte the value sets of communities and cultures (Knight 2010). In other words
this is a challenge of understanding what Zappavigna (2011, 2012, 2014a, 2014b)
terms ‘ambient affiliation’: social bonding where microbloggers as individuals do
not necessarily have to interact directly, but may engage in mass practices such as
hashtagging in order to participate in particular kinds of ‘belonging’. As an object
of study, microblogging offers a rare opportunity to the linguist to track the par-
ticular configurations of shared social bonds as they emerge and unfold. In part,
this is because the brevity enforced by the medium goes some very small way to
reducing complexity of the endeavour, and because the affordances of the channel
mean that we can collect large volumes of textual interactions that give us insight
into both individual and communal linguistic disposition.9 This gives us some
ability to gain a window on what Firth has referred to as the “general language
of the community” that governs each person’s “command of a constellation of
restricted languages” (Firth 1968: 207) (see also Zappavigna, Ch. 16, this volume).
8 For an overview of these concepts see Prior (2003).
9 This disposition is informed by a persona’s particular semiotic ‘repertoire’ that arises
out of the potential semiotic ‘reservoir’ available via their membership in a given com-
munity (Bernstein 2000).
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