How does a user ensure they are understood with the absence of contextual and social cues by communication partners, in order to avoid misinterpretation and FLAMING?


As previously mentioned, when communicating via text over the internet there is an absence of social and contextual information, such as attitude, mood and non-verbal cues (i.e. body language) (boyd, 2011; Lo, 2008; Luor et al., 2010) that are part of face-to-face interaction. When using social media, such as Twitter, a tweeter needs to ensure that their message is understood. There are various ways in which a tweeter can provide contextual information, two of which are emoticons (emoji’s) and the hashtag symbol.


As internet use has spread and developed, so has the developments and use of emoticons. Derks, Bos & Grumbkow, 2007, conducted a study with adolescent internet users, with results showing that emoticons were used more in socio-emotional social contexts, than in other task-orientated social contexts. In a sense they have become a paralinguistic feature of interaction in the online context. Huang, Yen & Zhang’s 2008 study found that emoticons have positive effects upon interaction online, through the enjoyment of use. This means, that emoticons are most used in positive interactions in which the purpose is to socialise and emotionally connect to others (Thompson & Foulger, 1996). If we revisit Halliday, 1975, and boyd, 2011, they serve an interactional and social purpose.



Hashtags were originally used by Twitter as a search tool, to find posts of the same topic (Caleffi, 2015; Scott, 2015). This role has evolved, and now the hashtag guides the reader’s inferential processes when interpreting the ‘utterance’, as each audience member will bring their own set of contextual assumptions to the utterance. This aids the readers understanding of the message (Caleffi, 2015; Scott, 2015).

In a social media such as Twitter, where there are limited social cues and dynamic discourse, the use of hashtags is a pragmatic element that provides explicit social and contextual information (Justo, Corcoran, Lukin, Walker & Torres, 2014; Kunneman, Liebrecht, Mulken, & Bosch, 2015). An example of this is seen with sarcasm. In face-to-face interactions, sarcasm is portrayed through vocal inflection (Lee & Narayanan, 2005), when online however; this is not possible. Instead, “#sarcasm”, “#irony” and “#not” are most commonly used, at the end of the utterance. In doing so there is a restriction on misinterpretation, decreasing the risk of FLAMING, as well as an increased identification of the speaker’s sarcastic tone. The hashtag then becomes a linguistic marker for sarcasm (Justo et al, 2014).


“The more explicit the marker, the better the utterance is understood, the less complex it is perceived and the better it is rated” (Burgers, Mulken & Schellens, 2012); which in turn links back to the relevance theory, and Habermas’ notion that media broadcasts what the audience chooses, not necessarily what the individual wants (boyd, 2011; Habermas, 1991). When creating an utterance with the addition of the ‘#’, a user is grouping that utterance (their opinion/feelings/experience) with others whom have also used that same hashtag. Although hashtags provide some social and contextual cues, there are still risks of misinterpretation and flaming, especially if the symbol is not used reliably, or is used to signify cynicism or disagreement.

In addition to its online extra-linguistic function, the hashtag has recently become a part of the linguistic landscape in offline social and interactive environments (Caleffi, 2015; Landry & Bourhis, 1997). Based on the statistics, a large percentage of the world’s population is on two major social media sites, Facebook and Twitter. Therefore, not so surprising that ‘hashtag’ was voted 2013 word of the year by the American Dialect Society (Caleffi, 2015) and made its way into the Oxford Dictionary (Oxford Dictionaries Online). The hashtag now appears is advertising, competitions, speeches, and even in face-to-face interactions, usually with the accompaniment of a hand gesture.


For Speech Pathologists with adolescent clients with pragmatic disorders, it is important to consider the use of these two pragmatic elements (emoticons and hashtags), and how they function in online social media networks, as well as being aware that these elements have moved to the offline linguistic landscape. It is not only important for practicing Speech Pathologists to be able to provide clients with understanding and the ability to safely use hashtags and emoticons to provide appropriate social context in a networked environment, but also provide them with the means and skills to in turn interpret and infer the messages of others who also use these symbols with pragmatic purposes. In doing so we are able to provide our clients with the best quality, holistic service that caters to the individual’s needs and sense of self (Reich, 2010; Zhang, 2010). However, research as to how these tools may potentially benefit or disadvantage clients with specific pragmatic disorders and impairments is limited, and future research and exploration of these elements is needed (Mazurek, 2013).

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