Social Networks and Digital Communication


The digital communication shaped the way how people interact with each other, form interest groups, and maintain their socialization. Social networks became an integral part of modern life that generated new communication needs and established a unique frame to fulfill them. More than 37% of the globe’s population was engaged in different social media platforms in 2016 (Gallagher, 2017). Digital 2020: Global Overview Report revealed that 4.54 billion people currently enjoy access to the Web, whereas 3.80 billion are social media users (Kemp, 2020). It means that the Internet and social networks alter communication patterns and overall life aspects of approximately 60% of the world’s total population.

Nowadays, social media evolved into a life-changing and indispensable socio-cognitive interface that shapes the language and mode of interpersonal communications. Shortenings, new words, changed meanings, and multimodality of discourse are commonly seen on Tumblr or Facebook. Social media users internalize within smaller social groups that guide their behavior. Network society, self-determination, and social identity theories suggest that social networking meets an individual’s most essential psychological needs. Although electronic discourse ignores some standard language norms, it should be viewed as a natural language development phase fostered by overall globalization rather than language degradation.

Impact of Social Media on Self-Determination

Online communication became an essential part of social life for every modern person. It changed the way people converse both in terms of quantity and quality. Many day-to-day tasks regarding job and rest issues could not be adequately fulfilled without reaching others with social media. Although Internet users are forced externally to use social networks, it is crucial to determine this phenomenon’s psychological nature and motivations.

The self-determination theory (SDT) can be applied to explain human motivation to use Facebook and other networking mediums. This macro-theory, firstly introduced by Deci, states that “individuals have an innate tendency to regulate behavior based on choice and interest” (Brichacek et al., 2018). Every person’s internal states are under the influence of external (environmental and social) factors. Thus, motivation is viewed as “the interplay between internal states and external factors impacting those states” (Ferguson et al., 2015). In other words, SDT applies the concept of need satisfaction that explains why individuals are self-determined to join a particular activity. According to Zilka (2018), they satisfy three basic psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. The more people think that their needs are satisfied in a given domain, the greater chance they will assimilate and be accountable for their actions (Ferguson et al., 2015). The list of positive outcomes related to need satisfaction include well-being, work satisfaction, and vitality.

Motivation can be regulated intrinsically and extrinsically by different forms of self-determination. The continuum of forms ranges from amotivation to autonomous motivation. When a person is motivated externally to behave in a particular way through implicit rewards and punishment, it decreases the likelihood of positive outcomes. On the contrary, autonomous motivation is associated with a pleasure-based prosocial stance leading to well-being and self-actualization. Although people are social species relying on cooperation, their nature includes the need for autonomous decision making over multiple life issues.

Social media possess the necessary characteristics that can facilitate self-regulation and internalization over time. It creates an autonomy-supportive environment where users can freely exchange content among participants, converse with others, and build various relationships. Ferguson at al. (2015) found that Facebook users express the greater supportive intentions for charity when their motivation is influenced by integrated regulation. Integrated regulation of autonomous motivation takes place when an individual perceives his or her behavior as one suitable to the sense of self. It is a situation when one behaves following personal beliefs and values.

Moreover, different types of social media that create room for collaboration (Quora, Reddit), relationship (Facebook, Whatsapp), and creativity (YouTube, Pinterest) fulfill human candidate needs. According to Zhu and Chen (2015), all of them are socially oriented and address relatedness. They identify four common activities performed by users which are: participating in shared activities, feeling appreciated and understood, participating in pleasant or otherwise enjoyable activities, and communicating about personally relevant matters (Zhu & Chen, 2015, p. 4). These activities meet the general need for relatedness, especially when people join online social groups that share similar beliefs and aspirations.

Online Social Group’s Effect on Individual Behavior

The social identity theory proposed by Henri Tajfel explains why people form and join groups based on shared beliefs and interests. Groups give a sense of social identity, belonging to a particular way of life, ideology, or religion. Human beings tend to stereotype others categorizing them as in-group and out-group. Identification of differences and similarities to other groups of individuals is a natural cognitive process. Social identification is an interplay between internal and external comparisons (dialectic processes). Code and Zaparyniuk (2010) state that “the Internet enables individuals to develop and express multiple social identities and experiment with new virtual identities” (p. 1348). Modern human beings have multiple identities that help them to adapt to various social contexts.

These social identities are created and facilitated through communication within professional, cultural, functional, organizational, and other levels. For instance, a lawyer socializing both online and offline can identify her or himself as a parent, advocate, or friend based on different social contexts. To join a group, individuals undergo a self-categorization to associate themselves with specific social categories and identities (Code & Zaparyniuk, 2010). Then the formed collective identity depersonalizes individuals making them group members. Collective identification is facilitated by modern communication technologies enabling users to experiment with their virtual identities.

The network society is another important theory developed by Wellman, Castelles, and van Dijk, which gives insight into how Internet-based communication technologies influence socialization. This social formation depends on the infrastructure that shapes its prime mode of organization and essential structure at organizational, individual, and societal levels (van Dijk, 2020). This concept opposes mass and information society claiming that the Internet brings together organizational, interpersonal, and mass communication. Nevertheless, technology is perceived to define the organizational structure, whereas political, cultural, and economic factors shape such societies’ context. Thus, internet users are linked to one another and can communicate and exchange information constantly.

The network society creates a platform for small groups based on common interests and beliefs that others can hear. Today society pressures individuals to join social media sites and fit into specific social groups. For instance, it isn’t easy to imagine that the professional manager does not use instant messenger or social network to keep in touch with his/her staff. In general, individuals turn to social media to receive acceptance from different groups.

Furthermore, social networks help individuals acquire the necessary information and join groups of interest; they also change how Internet users behave and think. Kaakinen et al. (2018) found in their study association between the time users spend in social media groups and their behavior’s stability. According to them, members start to mimic the behavior of others following prolonged engagement. Hence, social media platforms attract people with similar interests, whereas collective identity later shapes and reinforces it. Every group is based on a specific set of social beliefs and rules, which guide its members’ behavior, including the way they communicate with each other (Stocker & Bossomaier, 2014). For instance, the Facebook group of lawyers may apply common terminology and abbreviation in their posts that the out-group would hardly understand. Similar beliefs, backgrounds, ideology, or intentions of the group can influence how its members converse.

Language Use Changes

Social networks and accompanied technical development changed the way we communicate. One of the main changes spotted by Edwards (2015) is a sheer number of means to interact. Before the onset of such platforms as Facebook, people could interact mainly with individuals they know in-person. Nowadays, everybody who has access to the Internet and social network site accounts can share their thoughts, opinions, and beliefs with thousands of other users or group members. Online networking contributes to globalization by providing room for instant information exchange between various ethnicities, races, religions, and cultures. All of them have a chance to be involved in discussion and assessment of their text or media contributions on the sites or smartphone applications.

What is more important, the Web influenced the writing techniques and discourse of its users. There is a tendency of summarized writing that sees short messages with exact meaning and intent. For instance, 30 words limit was first introduced by Twitter, forcing people to choose the most appropriate words to convey the core message (Edwards, 2015). The users have to report on their life events or share an opinion in shorter sentences to comply. As a result, individuals who communicate using instant messengers or social networks often neglect correct grammar or semantic use. Emojis and various abbreviations form an entirely new language that is common and easily comprehensible by other members.

The interactivity of social media results in a proliferation of abbreviations and acronyms such as “btw,” “lol,” and “oic” for “oh, I see.” Moreover, social networks are characterized by its effective discourse style “marked by a high degree of intensification – capitalization, repeated exclamation marks, repetition, exaggerated quantifiers, such as “all” and “everyone,” and frequent use of boosters” (Darvin, 2016, p. 527). This linguistic pattern of intensification emerges from users’ intention to make their stories (often regarding ordinary everyday events) more exciting and unique to be shared on social media.

Instead of facial expressions and gestures people use in face-to-face communication, they apply emoticons and images to convey the message. The Web users also turn to the lexicalization of vocal sounds (“haha,” “umm”), spelling based on sounds (“coooool,” “kewl”), and formulaic openings and closings (Darvin, 2016, p. 528). Language loses its supremacy and importance in communication due to digital storytelling that features different modes such as gestures, images, writing, speech, music, and 3D objects. According to Gawne and McCulloch (2019), emojis as a parallel to bodily actions and facial expressions are closely related to accompanying text or speech. The text-accompanying emoticons’ meaning can be changed by the context and have possible form variation.

Electronic discourse evolved into a new variety of language that has semi-speech features of writing. Despite its popularity among young people, the research conducted by AbuSa’aleek (2015) found that only 25% of students’ words can be classified as electronic language. It conflicts with a common notion that adolescents and young adults use a shorten incomprehensible code. The list of e-discourse features included in language assessment comprises shortening, clippings, contractions, unconventional spellings, word-letter, word-digit replacements, word combinations, and initialisms. According to the findings, the most popular language e-communication feature is unconventional spelling, while the word combination almost remained untouched.

Multimodality of E-Communication

The multimodality of discourse is one of the essential sociolinguistic changes brought by social media. Leeuwen and Jovanovic (2018) examined social media applying semiotic technology and theories of social communication. According to them, social networks support multimodal dialog providing it through pre-designed templates of information exchange. There is an interdependence of social media use and design, with users responding to it within specific dialog forms. The dialog is guided not only by functional exchange structure but also by evaluative correspondence.

It partially explains why people tend to alter their writings and respond with pictures or emoticons following dialogs on Viber, Snapchat, Twitter, or Facebook. According to Mehmet et al. (2014), new media modalities make users utilize various combinations to change or create new kinds of meanings. On the social media platforms, “language may be combined with visual, auditory, and kinetic resources, to construct very complex texts over time” (Mehmet, 2014, p. 4). In general, the Social Semiotic Multimodality framework states that users can understand social media messages based on the meaning-making resources. Such resources are designed and provided by social media producers, whereas consumers are informed on how to use it.

Today, most posts and messages include different modalities that are perceived to be understood together through intersemiotic relations. The intersemiotic framework suggests that meanings of messages can be realized by enhancement, complementarity, or concurrence. Concurrence occurs when text is clarified, re-expressed, or exemplified with other mode help. For instance, the post on Facebook containing the pie recipe may be exemplified by its picture. The second resource is complementarity, which refers to the situation when one mode adds meaning to another (Mehmet, 2014). The image can add new meaning to the text or even put image and text content at variance. The third relation is called enhancement and takes place when additional message multiples the meaning already stated in another mode. Such Internet phenomena as memes can be a great example of enhancement, as text usually creates the condition, while image represents the event’s consequence.

Modern Illiteracy

Online groups formed according to interests or social features often share the specific knowledge base that influences their speaking and writing. For example, some content creators on YouTube mention the terminology of particular games, medicine, film, or the beauty industry in their videos. It can hardly be comprehended by those who face it for the first time, whereas his/her subscribers understand the majority of covered notions. In their turn, social networks created for texting and sending voice messages to increase such effect due to imposed rules of behavior, word limits, and website design. It forms a socio-cognitive interface that dictates norms and models of language use. The more individuals integrate into the group, the more they internalize linguistically to fit the online environment.

Moreover, digital communication fosters translingual practices when people often mix languages or continually code-switching. Transnational relations, migration process, and social media communication enabled the process of “textual co-construction, collaborative meaning-making and different types and degrees of language mixing” (Darvin, 2016, p. 529). As a result, individuals who simultaneously apply separate languages tend to use uncommon words and idioms. Nevertheless, users of the same online social group would understand this new code-meshed linguistic synergy.

Adolescents and young adults are more eager to endorse such changes to both written and verbal communication due to their excessive need for self-determination. They naturally perceive it as a slang that makes them different from their parents, who belong to previous generations. On the contrary, representatives of prior generations may characterize this phenomenon as an inferior way to communicate, a sign of illiteracy. However, the idea of literacy as a pre-constructed element of local cultural systems is out-dated and should be revised. Canagarajah advocates the need for a negotiated literacy model instead of conventional situated literacy (Darvin, 2016). Language alterations made on the Internet should not be assessed with grammar, punctuation, and formal language semantics common for face-to-face interactions.

The world of digital communication forces people to adapt and learn how to use the new form of language to be successful in the online aspect of socialization. According to the network society’s core ideas, communication change is a natural process ignited by technology development. The skills necessary to comprehend and reply to messages on the Web currently are of high importance. When a formal offline type of communication still requires literacy in its original meaning, social networking is more based on Web literacy. Hence, in the world of network societies, it is not enough to know how to read and speak in real life; it also essential to be effective on the Web.


To conclude, the advent of modern technologies encouraged social networking to apply digital ways of communication. Human beings strive both for autonomous decision making and social acceptance. According to self-determination theory, individuals seek to fulfill their basic needs, including competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Social network platforms provide their users with an autonomy-supportive environment that successfully addresses their need for relatedness. Integrated regulation of motivation to join the social media group was found to create the strongest associations with group beliefs. Social identity theory shows how individuals undergo a self-categorization to internalize with in-group members. People who form or join a specific online group with a social, ethnic, interest, or professional background usually change their behavior and how they speak or write. Thus, ideologies (social believes), personal experiences play an essential role in shaping the digital communication.

In their turn, social networks establish pre-designed templates of information exchange that encourage users to alter their language. The specific design affects the way people respond and conduct their dialogs. In general, E-discourse is not an incomprehensible mixture of acronyms and emoticons; it is rather an entirely new language. The main alterations made to the writings are unconventional spellings, word-digit replacements, word combinations, shortening, clippings, and contractions. Social media also supports digital multimodal communication is characterized by the simultaneous use of various modes that create original meaning. Emojis, images, and 3D objects supplement the text with sentiment and help the writer elicit emotions usually expressed by gestures and facial expressions. E-language is a new separate phenomenon that became a new standard of literacy.


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