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Diffusion of Phrases through Social Media

Phrases, sayings, lingo, colloquialisms; no matter what you choose to call them, we all have a certain set of things we say and ways we say them, and this set is primarily constructed through our environment. We tend to have accents similar to our parents and to the people with whom we interact most. We tend to pick up phrases that our friends say, and our friends tend to be geographically close to us. With all of this, we can easily explain the existence of dialects through our models of information cascades. If one were to create a social network, most individuals would have strong connections to people geographically near them, and once enough friends pick up a new habit such as a phrase or word, the trend will spread to these people’s friends, and through the network, becoming quite strong within a physical region. Over hundreds of years, this process formed the dialects we see in the world around us.

One would notice an interesting phenomenon, however, in very recent history if they looked at the spread of new phrases. In his article, Nikhil Sonnad portrays the seemingly unpredictable spread of new “words” in the United States in the past few years. Normally, phrases would spread outward from one region and spread to the rest of the country, spread to a certain degree and remain stagnant, or be picked up a little but die out. Recently, however, through the power of social media, many new words and phrases such as “on fleek,” “booling,” and “tfw” spontaneously pop up in popularity in multiple different areas across the country, and not only spread somewhat geographically¬†inwards, but also spread unpredictably, which indicates the hidden force of social media.

Two marvelous words to consider that can be seen in the article are “fuckboy” and “fleek.” “Fuckboy” appeared to spontaneously appear in South Florida, the Northeast U.S., the Midwest, and California during the same month in 2013, which seems to defy our conceptions of diffusion, because it is very unlikely that the initial adopters of the word had numerous strong connections to these other regions given the physical distance. However, because of social media, and Twitter specifically, new types of “strong” connections are fabricated through the presence of certain figures on social media. In explaining the spread of “fleek,” Sonnad explains that the phrase began in the southern United States, but was quickly picked up by restaurants and celebrities, which in turn created an exponential popularity of the phrase.

This strong presence of social media is now allowing people from opposite sides of this country to adopt similar speaking habits, which may present a danger to the integrity of dialects and cultures as more and more people start sounding the same. However, Sonnad insists that there is no need to fear because even with this rapid spread of language, there still appears to be a split between the north and south, suggesting that social forces outside of social media still hold a strong place in the evolution of language and habits in general.

How brand-new words are spreading across America


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