How social media ‘likes’ create a conversation of connection

July 7, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
You might think linguistics professor Deborah Tannen would lament the effects of social media on how we communicate. Instead, she sees how it fills an essential need for connection, and the ways we've adapted the tools of "liking" and "tagging" to acknowledge the contributions that friends and family make to our lives. Tannen offers her humble opinion on the new language of social media.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: Linguist Deborah Tannen has written a new book on women’s friendships, “You’re the Only One I Can Tell.”

And, tonight, she offers her Humble Opinion on the new language of liking.

DEBORAH TANNEN, Author, “You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships”: For a book about friendship, I interviewed over 80 women, ages 9 to 97, and heard a lot of worry that people are getting more self-absorbed, constantly texting and posting pictures of trivial things, like plates of food.

One woman complained: “I don’t care what somebody had for dinner, all this stuff out there that nobody needs to know.”

I’m a linguistics professor, so you might think I would lament the effects of social media, especially how it corrupts language.

But I don’t. I have spent my career studying the language of everyday conversation, and I know that most everyday talk isn’t about information we need to know. It’s about staying connected to the people we care about. And that’s a need that social media is extremely well-suited to.

My students at Georgetown University have helped me understand how this works. They like each other’s pictures to show they’re paying attention, like nodding and saying uh-huh when a friend is talking. And they use tagging to link their pictures to their friends’ accounts, drawing friends into their circle.

A student in my class explained that a photo of bowls of food and glasses of wine might seem to scream, look at me and this cool party I had. But tagging the friends who brought the food and drink to the party was a way to thank them for helping make the party a success, and to remind them of the time they all spent together.

Surely, selfies are self-indulgent, you might think. But the way my students use them, they aren’t, at least not if they observe selfie etiquette. For example, a selfie usually includes at least one other person, so the one taking it isn’t really focusing on herself. And she shows she doesn’t take herself too seriously by mugging and adding captions that are funny or self-deprecating, or, preferably, both.

I think of social media as an extension of the how-was-your-day conversations that let you know someone cares about you, so you feel less alone in the world. It’s not that I don’t see downsides, but those are also extensions of liabilities that have always been with us.

For example, seeing what your friends and family are doing when you’re not there can make you feel included or left out.

Social media haven’t transformed human relations. They have intensified them. While that means ramping up some of the stresses and frailties of friendships, it also gives us new, more immediate, more creative ways to stay connected to the people we care about, who care about us.