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The wonder of Woolsworths

10 Nov

It turned out not to be true: Woolworths was not reopening in Britain. It was a hoax, announced from a stunted-up Twitter account and unwisely seized upon by numerous British media outlets. And how did people begin to realise it was a fake? Because of the typos.

As the BBC reports, the Twitter feed (now suspended) referred to the brand as “Woolsworths” more than once – deliberately, its teenage creator says – and although some of the media may have been fooled, several people on social media weren’t:

As we have recently discussed, social media is a forum that is highly sensitised to orthography and register. Formality is not the norm between private users, but when it comes to online political messaging or corporate communications, its absence is suspicious. Posts that purport to be from an official body written in casual – specifically, unedited – English seem as jarringly inauthentic as jokey Halloween Twitter handles do in serious news reports.

It is one of this blog’s hobby-horses that formality has its uses: however absurd “proper English” seems to linguists, it is the language authority speaks, and to which it most readily responds. In anyone’s mouth, it has the power to command. And it also serves another purpose, even today: as an implicit guarantor of authenticity. This is why consumer rights groups still advise customers to be alert to language errors on suspicious websites. As Which? puts it: “Watch out for poor English, such as spelling and grammar mistakes, or phrases that don’t sound quite right.”

Scammers and pranksters could solve many of their authenticity problems by hiring editors, of course. But, perhaps fortunately, they seem to have as little respect for the craft of editing as many news organisations.

Don’t touch that tweet

27 Oct

Can you name the president who transmitted this communique (lightly edited for tone and redundancy)?

Never threaten the United States again, or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few have suffered. We are no longer a country that will stand for your demented words of violence and death. Be cautious.

That’s right, of course: it was President Trump. Only he didn’t write it like that. He wrote it like this, on Twitter:

And the fact that he wrote it like that – shouting, emphatic, out of control – is as significant as the words themselves. If you were to intervene as above, by taking it out of caps (and tidying up the pleonasm), you would be editing back in a presidential register that the president either fails to understand or has chosen to abandon.

On social media, and on Twitter particularly, orthography tells a story and contains a subtext. It’s not just an anarchy in which the rules of formal English have lapsed: it’s that a different set of rules has partly supplanted them. That’s why – tempting though it is for older editors – you should never edit tweets.

Even we veterans can spot uppercase as signalling a register of speech: as Wired magazine says in an article about Trump’s tweet, it pre-dates the internet, and was one of the few typographical tools at hand in the earliest online chatgroups:

Philip Seargeant, a senior lecturer in applied linguistics at the Open University, says that the shouty all-caps convention really came into its own around the 80s and 90s, on early internet forums such as Usenet groups and bulletin boards. “The different ways of emphasising things were limited,” he explains. “Nowadays, we’ve got bold, italics, emoji, all sorts of things – in those days you had no opportunity for that.” You could put things in asterisks, space letters out to show you were being very deliberate in your speech, or use all-caps.

But what about its orthographical opposite – a tweet entirely in lowercase? In fact, that too carries a clear signal for the online-literate. On Twitter a couple of months ago, the videogames journalist Lucy O’Brien asked:

And the answers poured in, including this one from the Audible executive Maz Hamilton (citing mIRC, another internet chat system from the old days):

So the tone that’s being struck in all-lowercase is casual, often droll – the small voice at the back of the room – and not at all serious.

The millennial writer and humorist Joel Golby almost never uses capitals on Twitter, because almost all his tweets are ironic. For example, the absence of orthographical formality and the run-on sentence in this tweet

leads you to conclude – correctly – that he isn’t actually angry or ranting over the phone to the commissioning desk. But if you edit it into formal English, suddenly all the irony evaporates:

I went to the pub and it actually shut at 10pm. Column coming tomorrow: this is absolutely unacceptable.

Now it’s a notice of intent from a clarion of liberty at the Express.

Tweets look glaringly informal and unedited in formal, edited news writing. But that informality is often deliberate and coded, and created for a world in which formality is the exception, not the rule. (In fact, formality on social media can be so rare as to seem pointed: this is at the core of the neverending to-do about young people being offended by full stops). It may look awful (and that’s before we even consider the typos), but it was probably meant that way. Don’t edit it.

One ‘k’ in TikToker

17 Mar

More confirmation that that small cloud of dust on the horizon is actually the BuzzFeed style guide, racing away from the rest of us towards previously uncharted parts of the language. Some other style guides have a Twitter account, but not a Twitter account like this:

In case you, like me, are wondering what at least half of this means, let’s take it item by item. (I’ve looked things up in Urban Dictionary so that you don’t have to.)

 

Social video app originating in China in which (young) people lip-sync to short bursts of music or perform in other ways and share the results. Hugely popular; worries parents

The number of times you and a correspondent on the video-messaging app Snapchat have exchanged messages in quick succession (yes, they count such things)

Needs no explanation for Gen X-ers raised on The Dukes of Hazzard. Not quite sure why this is new – perhaps just to indicate that it’s closed up, not hyphenated

No, I had no idea either, but it’s short for Fake Instagram (account); a pseudonymous Instagram account that runs in parallel with one’s real Instagram (rinsta) but is made visible only to select friends (and not, one takes it, parents). Used to document unsayable thoughts, disastrous selfies and other unpolished content

Form of pop music sung in Cantonese and strongly associated with Hong Kong; also popular in many other parts of south-east Asia

We don’t have an entry for this in the Tribune style guide, which goes straight from “straitened circumstances” to “Strategic Rail Authority”

Quite surprised this was new for 2019 as well, as even we older types know what it means. To accidentally call somebody by sitting on your mobile phone and activating the screen (or in the old days, by pressing down on the keys)

Becoming widely embraced by baby boomers themselves, a phrase indicating weariness on a young person’s part with constant self-righteous nagging from their elders

An image, phrase, or piece of content likely or suitable to become an internet meme (the frog emoji, I am assuming, refers to the Pepe the Frog meme, in which a non-political cartoon character from an online comic was co-opted by white nationalists on social media and became a coded symbol indicating far-right sympathies)

A character in the latest Star Wars spinoff series The Mandalorian. Although of the same species as Yoda, the wise green sage from the original Star Wars films, it should be noted that the baby creature is not actually Yoda himself, and that the character’s official name is simply The Child

The people for whom this style guide will make the most sense. (To this day, I’m still unclear precisely what the sunglasses emoji is intended to signify)

The front page that never died

3 Sep

What can you tell from these front pages, just by looking? They’re very design-conscious, with that vertical masthead; socially left-leaning, judging from the columnists in the skybox; highbrow, judging by the news stories, in a broadsheet-turned-tabloid way. Oh, and none of them are real.

In March 2016, the Independent’s owners gave up producing a print newspaper altogether and went online-only. But ever since, they have produced a facsimile front page, entirely for distribution online, in the style of their last ever edition. Look closer and you notice that there is no issue number or price in the masthead. In real life, the bylines, captions and body text would be disproportionately big, like a large-print book; but that improves their legibility on screen, which is the only place they will be ever be read.

Whether Independent Print Ltd (still so named) wants to produce something that sums up the day better than any online news format yet can, or whether it just doesn’t want to give up its chance to set the agenda on What The Papers Say, it remains as wedded to its old-media traditions as it can still afford to be. It may have had to give up printing a newspaper, but it hasn’t given up having a front page.

Fit to print

20 Aug

If I was surprised to see the New York Times’s notorious splash about Trump and the El Paso shootings two weeks ago, it was as nothing to my surprise when I learned that Dean Baquet, the Times’s executive editor, sometimes doesn’t read the front page of his own newspaper (or at least has “gotten casual” about when he does so). He would have been as startled as anyone, then, when he saw the first-edition headline TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM above a story about a presidential speech, just a day after Trump had explicitly linked the issue of gun control to immigration reform in the wake of a racist mass shooting targeting Mexicans.

A tweet by the polling analyst Nate Silver drew the front page to Twitter’s attention, and a furore erupted. Baquet subsequently told the Columbia Journalism Review that, had he seen it, he would have “recognised this was a bad headline even before we got killed on social media”, and he ordered the second edition to be amended. (He honourably deflected blame away from his staff, saying “we tied the poor print hub’s arm behind its back because [the headline count] was too small”. Nonetheless, the new headline, ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS, although far from giving a complete picture, communicated much more scepticism across the same measure.)

But this is not a post about the attitude of the New York Times organisation to its print publication, or about the credulous tone of that original headline. What was also interesting about the whole uproar was that, in the era of online news, so many people seemed to feel that a print front page still mattered.

That story about Trump’s speech began its life, as so many newspaper stories now do, on the internet. According to the Wayback Machine, it first went live, with the apparently unproblematic headline TRUMP CONDEMNS WHITE SUPREMACY BUT DOESN’T PROPOSE GUN LAWS, the previous day, hours before the front page was prepared. The average number of unique visitors to the New York Times website is about 90 million a month, or 3 million per day; the daily print circulation is about 490,000. In other words, these days, the internet version of a story will vastly outstrip the newspaper one in terms of audience size. Newspapers are now also painfully late to the party, repeating much of what has been circulating online and on rolling news the previous day. In the modern news industry, the internet rules for immediacy, reach and relevance.

Why is it, then, that a print front page – surfacing belatedly in the evening and not on sale until the next day – still makes people so angry? (And it did make them angry: the New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described it as the kind of “cowardice” that aided “white supremacy”; the Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke described it as “unbelievable”; and his rival Cory Booker told the paper that “lives depended” on it doing better.)  Of course the headline was wrong – or not so much wrong as disturbingly ingenuous, in an angry and polarised moment. But would a poorly phrased Facebook post or tweet promoting the web story, which might easily reach 490,000 people, have provoked so much outrage?

The reason, I think, is because print front pages still do something that no other forms of news distribution can do: they definitively encapsulate the news that took place on a given day. News site homepages don’t work in days – they are in a state of minute-by-minute flux as news breaks, features go live and editors change their minds about priorities. TV bulletins don’t either: there is one every few hours, each sometimes very different from the other as the news cycle changes throughout the day.

We have previously discussed how print front pages offer the opportunity for the kind of rhetorical flourish that web headlines, constrained by the need to optimise for search, do not. But print has this other role to play as well: to act, in the old-fashioned term, as “the paper of record”. There is no single definitive version of the New York Times’s web homepage for August 5, 2019: but there is a definitive Page 1. And that is what will be referred to by historians and appear in future illustrated news features – not because print is best, but because it is the only format, still, that parcels up news by the day rather than the hour. That’s why it still matters, and why politicians, readers and the Times’s own journalists still fight so hard to put the record straight.

The cowboy and the president

5 Mar

Social media is changing journalism fast. Old news can be made fresh when something nearly 50 years old goes viral. Allegations of criminality can be sourced to a single user with a pseudonymous Twitter handle. We are becoming used to the idea that sources may be anonymous even to the journalists citing them. But, even in this complicated age, what are we supposed to make of this?

“An account parodying the late Richard Nixon”? What is the reader supposed to understand from that? Is this tweet meant to be:

  • Written in Nixon’s persona as a satire on the Nixonian worldview? (Although it doesn’t sound particularly like him.)
  • Written in Nixon’s persona, but meant as imagined serious commentary from an acquaintance and contemporary of Wayne’s?
  • Written by whoever is behind the parody account in their own voice, having dropped the presidential mask (which is what it sounds most like)?

In other words, is this tweet intended to say something about Wayne, or something about Nixon? And is anyone at the Mail going to help the reader navigate through the layers of meaning to find out which?

Further down in the same article, another tweet is quoted from “Twitter user” Jonathan Pie.

Jonathan Pie is the alter ego of the British comedian Tom Walker – a fictional, ranting TV news reporter who has become a cult YouTube favourite and has sometimes been mistaken for a real journalist (including, almost, once, at the Tribune). “Twitter user” hardly seems to cover the complexities of that CV. Is the reader absolutely sure who he is? Is the Mail?

More anon

20 Feb

This blog has always had an eye for an odd correction, and this one certainly seems a bit odd:

As we were discussing last time, social media, and the anonymity it affords, is starting to have a noticeable influence on the tone of traditional journalism. One aspect of this is that news is starting to sound slightly less serious, as substantial stories are sourced from revelations published by Twitter users with silly names. But in another respect, the prevalence of pseudonyms on web platforms – including, in most cases, news organisations’ own sites – means that news is also becoming more profoundly anonymous.

Of course, this is hardly a new concept for journalism: some of the biggest stories ever broken have relied on unidentified informants, from Deep Throat to the person who sold MPs’ expenses data to the Telegraph. But in cases like those, although the reader did not know who the source was, the reporter did: and the organisation always had some opportunity to weigh up its informant’s bona fides. In the old days, anonymous sourcing worked because of an implicit assurance offered by the newspaper: we cannot name this person, but you can trust them because we trust them.

The crucial difference between then and now is that, in the case of an online commenter or social media user, it is not always possible to offer that assurance. Indeed, it is likely in many cases that nobody in the news organisation – not the journalists, and probably not even the website administrator – really knows who they’re dealing with. Typically, to log in to a newspaper website and make a comment, you need only give a name (not necessarily your own), an email address (not necessarily one that identifies you), and a date of birth, which hardly narrows things down. Everything you need to join the debate can be arranged from scratch in five minutes without ever making a personal revelation. This is no vox pop conducted on the street, when a reporter stops you and asks you how to spell your name. In this new, deeper anonymity, whether below the line or on social media, your identity is well protected even from the journalist who is quoting you.

Of course, this article was only the Guardian’s “Comments of the Day” roundup, not a major investigation. And of course, many arguments have been advanced about the benefits of anonymity in online forums – the speech tends to be freer and the focus stays for longer on the ideas, rather than the people propounding them. And of course, it’s not factually correct to say LearningIsLife said something when he or she didn’t. But still, the sense of strangeness doesn’t entirely dissipate.

Sometimes, assigning the wrong quotation to the wrong person does make a big difference to understanding, as in this example:

But the correction of attribution between upwthitimustput and LearningIsLife is something that could only really matter to the contributors, not the readers. The audience can hardly be any the wiser as to the authority of the comment, or more informed about its antecedents, if both the contributors concerned are anonymous. And it’s even slightly difficult to understand what’s in it for the commenters themselves: if you’ve opted for anonymity, what does it matter if someone gets your alias wrong?

The Big Zayn Story Is Right Next To The Leaked Brexit Documents On The Homepage And Everybody’s Just Like Whatevs

6 Feb

BuzzFeed got the big story of last week, and we’re all talking about it!

Wait, not that one. This one:

Sorry about that, but it’s an easy mistake to make, because one of the things about this era of digitally mediated news is that the very serious and the very frivolous now exist side by side, and nowhere more so than on BuzzFeed:

And the really interesting thing is that, on BuzzFeed and elsewhere, there’s often not the least embarrassment about it. We saw last month that an abashed New York Times recently apologised for citing Twitter user Jillian C York by her temporary Halloween username Chillian J Yikes!. But jokey handles are a part of many online forums, from Tumblr to the Tribune’s comments section, and any sense of loss of dignity or gravitas arising from that informality is quickly evaporating – especially as social media becomes the source, and not merely the conduit, for many news stories.

The Macquarie Dictionary, probably the most authoritative source of Australian English, declared its 2017 word of the year to be “Milkshake Duck”* – a phrase coined by the Twitter humourist known only to the world (and, one suspects, to Macquarie as well) as @pixelatedboat. The Daily Mail ran a story about historical sexual harassment allegations sourced from a series of tweets by Canadian user @JodiesJumpsuit without ever identifying her by name. And a few years ago, the Tribune’s economics editor was doing a reader Q&A online and had a very sensible conversation about policy with a reader identified only as “underwearstain”.

This isn’t the same phenomenon as the collective irreverence that leads to important research vessels being named (or nearly named) Boaty McBoatface. In cases like that, creating discomfiture in high places is all part of the fun. What’s significant about this, again, is that there is no discomfiture: the profound and the silly are becoming comfortably assimilated in our new global forums. For a Gen-X broadsheet journalist like me, BuzzFeed’s blend of listicles, OMGs and heavyweight Westminster scoops is disorientating in the extreme. But perhaps it’s just at the forefront of a phenomenon that we are rapidly becoming accustomed to elsewhere.

 

* Basically, “the type of instant celebrity on social media who becomes discredited within days of rising to fame”. Pixelated Boat’s original tweet, in 2016, read: “The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the duck is racist.”

The one thing you notice

9 Jan

This armchair-continuity-expert thing is getting addictive. Moving on from The Crown to Netflix’s excellent Manhunt:Unabomber – the birth of forensic linguistics in eight parts, featuring Paul Bettany in a beard, Sam Worthington in a suit and Chris Noth in giant ’90s spectacles – the following subtitle screen appears:

Like the costumes and the hairstyles, it all seems redolently in-period. That’s the old San Francisco airport control tower, not the new one that was opened in 2016. The 747 on the right looks convincingly retro in Air China’s old-fashioned livery.  But what about that plane on the left?

The lettering says “United”, but the logo on the tail, an outline globe over a blue background, is the mark of Continental Airlines – or it was, until United and Continental merged and decided, unusually, to adopt United’s name but use Continental’s livery on all its planes from then on. That merger took place in 2010: which means that this pleasingly period-looking footage cannot be more than eight years old.

How did I notice that? Just by chance. As a frequent flyer to the US, I eagerly hoard my airmiles. The obvious way to do that is by always flying with the same airline: that way, the free flights and upgrades come quicker than they would if you were slowly accumulating credit with multiple carriers. The airline I flew with repeatedly over the years was Continental: so I heard about the merger in customer emails, saw the name change on the website, nervously logged on to United’s loyalty programme to check that my airmiles had been transferred.

I had no idea that San Francisco had built a new control tower: I haven’t been there for years. I didn’t know that Air China was painting its planes to look like that well into the 2010s: I discovered those facts on Google. Now that I look into it, I’m not sure that the flowery logo on the 747’s tail is correct for the period either, or that that model of United Airbus was even around in ’95. But all this would have been a closed book to me before. I’m not an expert on civil aviation: the logo on the tailplane was the one thing I noticed.

And editing can be alarmingly like this as well. Internal inconsistencies in copy – variant spellings, bad maths, impossible chronologies – are obvious from the text. Names, dates and places can all easily be checked with other sources. But even with the highest levels of professionalism and diligence, some errors will only be spotted because you happens to know something.

Sometimes, it would need a baby-boomer editor to tell the difference between Bob Dylan and a Bob Dylan impersonator before broadcasting footage of the latter on the BBC. Sometimes, it would need a Gen-Xer to know where Luke Skywalker and Obi-wan Kenobi first met (hint: not in the cantina). These are the kind of facts that have to be known, rather than checked: there is scarcely time in a daily news routine to compare photographs of musical pioneers or rewatch Star Wars, just in case.

And sometimes, you might need a youngster – someone who understands that users change their names on Twitter for all sorts of reasons – in order not to trip over something like this: