A lot of meaning can fit into 140 characters. Pick a favorite sentence from your favorite novel, and it’ll probably survive Twitter’s constraints. (Results will vary, of course: Hemingway fans could squeeze two in under the limit; aficionados of Cormac McCarthy will have a tougher go.) But even a real, typical tweet—written by a lesser stylist avidly mashing truncated platitudes into a smartphone—can convey more than the medium’s limitations would suggest. This becomes especially true when you consider a bunch of people’s tweets together, as a new academic paper shows.
The study used a program developed by four Carnegie Mellon computer scientists to analyze the way people from different parts of the U.S. express themselves within Twitter’s cramped discourse. Some of the findings aren’t all that surprising. In terms of strength of affiliation—that is, local frequency of usage relative to the rest of the nation—Los Angelenos disproportionately tweet the words “Hollywood” (fifth-most frequent in 2010) and “earthquake” (twelfth). But when it comes to our city, even online, and even in pithy, acronymic summaries of weird things that happened at lunch, the way a New Yorker talks stands out.
“New York tweeting, to be honest, was one of the most extreme differences from standard English,” says Jacob Eisenstein, one of the researchers. That manifests itself through unique New York twitterisms—“LOL” is replaced by “LML,” or “laughing mad loud;” “deadass” subs, evocatively, for “very,” and “OD,” for overdosed or overdone, is a catchall for “too much.” New York tweets are also prone to phonetic spellings—“dha” for “the”—and will repeat the last letter of an acronym for emphasis. “LMAOO,” for instance, would be when one is laughing one’s ass off to the point of ass-detachment risk.
Continue to scan the list of New York Twitterisms, and a more noteworthy trend seems to emerge: Many borrow from black and Latino vernacular. (Two of the top seven are ways of saying “word,” with “werd” at No. 3 and “wrd” at No. 7.) And given the numbers, that makes sense. Edison Research has found that 24 percent of Twitter’s users are African-American, and 17 percent are Hispanic—demographics not unlike those of Kings County (36 percent African-American and 20 percent Hispanic). There’s a tendency to misperceive technology, and social networking in particular, as stuff white people like. Because Twitter lets us curate our feeds, we mostly hear people like us (and/or famous people) dispensing trivia in the slang to which we have become accustomed. If the Twitter version of New Yorkese sounds strange, it probably has more to do with the online neighborhoods in which you hang out than it does with the diverse, laughing-mad-loud metropolis that enfolds them.