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Word! The Language Column
Craving for Language

Illustration: A mobile device with a rectangular wide-open mouth, jagged speech bubble
You can learn a lot about human depths and dynamics from social networks | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Social media is “pared-down reality in pared-down language”, says writer, journalist, podcaster and now Word! columnist Jagoda Marinić. Why does X, formerly known as Twitter, cause both satiety and hunger these days? And how can we get the old playfulness back on social media?

By Jagoda Marinić

2024 has started for me with a craving for language. It’s my fifteenth year on Twitter. And that’s how long the platform – now called X since Elon Musk took over – has been changing the way I use language: not just how I express myself, but also how I read others – excepting trolls and bots, needless to say.

Haiku tweets

Tweeting was, at first, a sort of digital poetry. We were allowed only 140 characters per tweet. So we each took our particular reality and condensed it into a nutshell, like one big collective haiku-writing project. The tweeters’ creativity was readily apparent. Who could encapsulate complex matters and opinions in just a few words? On the other hand, the obligatory brevity put off many people, who opted to write their own parallel private feuilletons on Facebook in just a few words instead ushering in a mood of mutual discursive terror that prevails to this day. Then Twitter doubled its limit to 280 characters, followed by “threads”, a kind of Ten Commandments of Twitterism. And since 2023 you can post your own essays on Twitter if you pay for it. The texts are a nightmare, most of the time, I can’t get past the third paragraph.

Digital mass movement

Our individual and collective online identities have changed society and the way we talk about it. What a strange mental process it is to start our day looking for short sentences that will stick in as many readers’ minds as possible, thereby subordinating our very thoughts and writing to this digital mass movement. And posting them one after another as frequently as possible. Although there are millions of German-speaking Twitterers, reading their tweets sometimes feels as though it were all one long uninspired string of redundancies, in which everyone posts the same thing in a different way. The handful of users – in this case, better to call them “people” – who still think for themselves and use language creatively on Twitter stand out starkly from the crowd. They’re the human aliens in this digital melting pot of conformity.

Close to the action

Two things that happened on this platform were decisive for me: the Arab Spring and Trump. I can still remember not knowing what exactly was going on at Tahrir Square in Cairo in the early 2010s and yet at the same time reading suddenly on my smartphone what the protestors there were thinking, as if I’d been granted a sneak peek at all their private notes in real time, even if they were intended for the public from the get-go. Since the press hardly had any access to the goings-on on the ground, CNN was suddenly quoting a young man who’d expressed his opposition in 140 characters on my mobile. It seemed to me like a revolution that my phone should know more than CNN.

Donald Trump was a different story altogether. His presidency turned Twitter from a medium of resistance and free speech into a bullhorn co-opted by a head of state to establish his dissing machine in the public mindset. “CROOKED HILLARY!!!” The all caps and exclamation marks became a front for authoritarian rallying cries.

Where has all the playfulness gone?

You can learn a lot about human depths and dynamics from social networks, almost more than you can from pondering people’s multi-layered realities and the resulting ambiguity of what they say. Social media boils down to a kind of pared-down reality in pared-down language, because we all feel obliged to concentrate on what are supposedly the essentials. We almost invariably opt for an annunciatory mode in our posts – as if each of us were their own PR office. A message is relevant only if repostable. As a result, our playful impulses have been by and large driven off the platform by Trump and can only be found nowadays in the last few remaining niches. But this is probably also a reflection of current-day society, which leaves less and less margin for nuance and doubt. The digital world of social media is teeming with words – and yet I feel the biggest craving for language when reading debates on Twitter.
This craving for language can give rise to playful interludes that sometimes bring together the finest pearls to be had on the net. They might not result in a viral post, but in words that reach the right people. After New Year’s Eve, I scoured the web for words that need to be paraphrased in translation because they have no equivalent in German. I found kuchisabishii, a Japanese word meaning literally “lonely mouth”, i.e. eating not because you’re hungry, but because your “mouth is lonely”. When I posted it, it generated quite a buzz among my fellow language-cravers.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.