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Tech States Sensemaker

Language in the age of big tech

Wednesday 30 June 2021

Internet abbreviations are nothing new, but recently a greater shift has started to take place online, one that’s more about how new forms of language are going to be interpreted. Could we be witnessing the online democratisation of language?

Here’s what you need to know this week: 

  • Tech state platforms create new language patterns among teenagers

State by state:

  • Facebook suffered a defeat in the Texas courts (but won against the FTC)
  • Microsoft undercut Apple on developer fees
  • Google removed human rights videos from YouTube
  • Amazon bought a new weapon in its fight against Microsoft
  • Apple revealed another samey iPhone
  • Tencent weathered a year of state scrutiny, thanks partly to its founder

State affairs

A different language is a different vision of life. Federico Fellini’s observation is particularly true in the age of social media, when billions of digital interactions are helping to shape everyday speech.

On YouTube, for instance, censorship fears have driven creators like Ethan Klein to say “SA” in their videos instead of sexual assault. They fear that YouTube’s notoriously clunky algorithms might pick up on the use of the word “sex” and censor the content. 

But the abbreviation seems to have stuck. YouTube users with no incentive to abbreviate have started talking about SA too. In the last few weeks, Redditors have posted discussions about their own sexual assault, we’ve found, including one entitled “How I was SA-ed”. A new word in Internese has been born.

Of course, the internet’s influence over the English language isn’t new. LOL – short for laughing out loud (and not, as David Cameron thought, lots of love) – is now 32 years old. Its first documented use was in this quaint newsletter from 1989.

Most of us are aware of the dozens of internet-derived abbreviations, emoticons, neologisms, logograms and other internet-derived terms – from selfie to Srsly – that have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Yet, as Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist and author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, has argued, something broader and more significant is happening. Language is being democratised online. 

“The old rules are top-down: here’s how you use a semicolon,” McCulloch has said. “The new rules are about how other people are going to interpret your tone of voice.” 

Whereas older internet users still see LOL as an acronym, and use it to convey actual laughter, younger groups use it in far more diverse ways: as a marker of irony, to soften a statement, or to convey a double meaning (“I’m in love with you lol” means precisely the opposite).

Scientists are beginning to realise the potential of such linguistic markers as a predictor of future behaviour. Researchers at Princeton University published a paper analysing the posts of more than 6,800 Reddit users as they were going through a significant breakup. It showed that linguistic changes – a greater use of “I” as opposed to “we”, for example, were a predictor of relationship breakups up to three months before they actually occurred. 

Facebook: Liability

US lawmakers are debating whether to repeal or replace section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. The once obscure provision has become a lightning rod for concerns about the power of social media companies, because it protects them from liability for content published by its users. But are cracks in s.230 already beginning to show? This week Texas’s highest court ruled that Facebook could not use the section as a blanket defence against accusations that it facilitated sex trafficking on its social media plaforms. “We do not understand Section 230 to create a lawless no man’s land on the internet”, the Texas justices said. Read more details of the case here. On the plus side for Facebook, this week saw its market capitalisation jump to over $1 trillion for the first time, as it scored a major victory against antitrust regulators who saw their case against the platform thrown out for making a “legally insufficient” complaint.

Microsoft: Tax break

“If you bring your own commerce engine, you keep 100 per cent of your revenue. We keep zero.” That is what chief product officer Panos Panay told app developers using the newest evolution of the Microsoft Store. He should have added “…unless your app is a game”. As part of the Windows 11 update on 28 July, 0 per cent commission will apply to all non-gaming apps. The policy change is a not-so-subtle undercutting of the Apple Store; which has been the focal point of a legal case between Tim Cook’s tech state and the game developer, Epic Games. Microsoft is clearly willing to take a revenue hit in order to grow its non-gaming developer community – those on the Apple Store fork out 30 per cent.

Amazon: Encryption

Amazon and Microsoft are locked in a contest to secure cloud contracts with national governments. This week, Amazon completed an acquisition that could give it an edge – paying an undisclosed amount for the encrypted messaging service Wickr. The start-up, which was bought by Amazon’s cloud computing unit AWS, provides a “burn-after-reading feature” which is a lot like Snapchat, but with military grade security.

Google: Censorship

Why did YouTube remove several videos posted by an accredited human rights organisation documenting abuses in China’s Xinjiang province? Apparently the Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights’ channel, which attracted millions of views by showing testimonies from people who say their families have disappeared, was in breach of the site’s “cyberbullying and harassment” policy. After an appeal, some of the videos were reinstated, only for others to be removed after anonymous complaints against the channel. The episode suggests that YouTube is unable to prevent bad actors from manipulating its reporting features. Reuters says the channel has now moved to an alternative video platform. 

Apple: Innovation

When was the last time you were excited about a new phone? The iPhone – once so revolutionary – has kept basically the same shape since 2017, when the X model did away with the home button. In September the company will release the iPhone 13. Leaked specs suggest that – again – almost nothing has changed. The most obvious tweak appears to be that, rather than sitting vertically, the camera lenses on the 13 are now diagonal. Hardly revolutionary. How much of a problem is this for Apple? On the one hand, iPhone sales are at record levels and are projected to hit $200 billion in 2022. On the other hand, two respected analysts have issued a rare “sell” rating, arguing that Apple’s iPhone 12 sales, boosted by 5G, are unsustainable. Does Tim Cook need a product revolution?

Tencent: Crackdown

Why has Pony Ma, the chief executive of Tencent, come through a torrid year for Chinese tech companies relatively unscathed, when rivals like Alibaba have been hit so much harder? Tencent has faced censure and investigation – and is likely to be sanctioned later this year over its huge music streaming business (including, possibly, an order to give up exclusive music rights deals with major labels like Universal). But its core business of video games and WeChat is not facing similar pressure. “Pony is what the government wants in a tech executive. He is low profile and generally goes along with government plans,” one tech founder said. “He is the opposite of Jack Ma.”

Thank you for reading the Tech States Sensemaker and do ask your friends to sign up here. We’re trying to do something new with our tech coverage – and we’d love to hear what you think. Please email opinions, tips or stories to alexi@tortoisemedia.com or luke.gbedemah@tortoisemedia.com.

Alexi Mostrous

Luke Gbedemah