Language on TV and in Forums (Cynthia Gordon, 5/18)

Main takeaway from this lecture: Be careful what you post on the internet, because linguistics may be studying it. Also, how “Honey We’re Killing the Kids” used language to make its points and a linguistic dissection of moderator techniques to shut down threads without making people hate them.

Language, New Media Technology, and Identities on Screens

Cynthia Gordon

In discourse analysis, there has been a lot of interest in how people use language to construct identities. This has so far mostly been offline, but increasingly people are interested in how people use it in social media or other online or screen-based contexts.

  • Hashtags build community and differentiate insiders from outsiders
  • Medium affordances and constraints play roles
  • Online and offline identities

How do people use discourse features in reality TV and web interaction?


  • Framing – situations are framed as certain situations (lectures)
  • Intertextuality – we bring in language used in the past (quoting)
  • Meta-discourse – discourse about discourse
  • Face – people want to save face and also not be imposed on

Honey We’re Killing the Kids – Reality TV makeover show

  • 10 white families, 2 African American, 1 Hispanic
  • All over the US
  • Two parents (except in one case)
  • Most parents were overweight, so there was more face threatening there
  • Showed pictures of how the kid will look at 40
  • After three weeks of having them follow their instructions, showed pictures of how the kid will look at 40 if they continue on this path

Frames – there is the direct nutritionist-parent encounter, there is commentary, and there is the overall context of the TV and the story there

Reality TV is a site for reinforcing sociocultural ideologies (unspoken goal is to socialize working class people into middle class people), especially as related to gender, socioeconomic class, race/ethnicity, and food


  • Parents constructed as blameworthy for everything – mothers especially pushed as primarily culpable for obesity
  • “You are killing your kids”
  • Collects data through data diaries, uses words like “staggering”
  • Guilt inducing – “Do you feel at all responsible for the way he looks as an adult?”
  • Nutritionist is constructed as an expert
    • Introduced as an expert
    • Notes that nutritionist works in consultation with Harvard
    • Nutritionist wears a white lab coat, speaks with a medical doctor
    • Looks at charts and graphs
    • Uses medical and scientific language
    • Mentions numbers and measures
    • Food is discussed within the frame of nutrition science
  • Parents are incompetent without expert guidance
    • Kids eat processed foods (extreme pictures)
    • Foods introduced by the nutritionist are healthy
    • Narrator reinforces this
    • Several mothers are shown as unable to identify healthy food items
    • Mothers shown as having trouble preparing the foods
  • Parents can be improved with expert guidance
  • Child success = parental redemption
    • The predictions make them look younger, with clearer skins, wearing white collar clothes (rather than dirty, more working class clothes), not wearing glasses any more, the lighting looking better
  • Characterize the kids as out of control (because of the parents)
  • Overall identity transformations – parents became good parents, children are on the path to be healthy and middle class
  • To be a good parent, you need to listen to the experts

Online intertextuality takes many forms – you can use proverbs like before, but you can also have hyperlinks, quotation copying, etc. The focus has been on posters and participants, but people have also looked at images (do they have a grammar?), families of memes, and such

This study looked to 6 moderators who enforce rules with the focus on locking a thread looking at the 100 most recently locked threads that were available

Moderators draw on three intertextual strategies

  • Re-contextualize a standardized letter about why it’s being closed down – appeal to the boards rules
  • Add text in some place – justify their decision
  • Include images or gifs – add humor

An entire thread was dedicated to praising how tspring locked thread. Out of 33 threads, 20 of those messages included a gif

Typical moderator message: Uses a standardized letter, formal grammar, references a forum guideline, begins with “Dear…”

Tspring message: Began with “all this for a loaf of bread?” from Aladdin (the argument on the thread was about bread), then included the standard letter style

Other devices: gif was connected to a previous gif, adjusted the standardized text humorously and used a meme (I can’t even), shows awareness of her previous threat-locking

Moderators use intertextuality as a resource to accomplish threadlocking – uses a standard letter and are discussing previous discourse

Moderators can take advantages of the medium to mitigate the face-threatening act of locking a thread

  • Perform institutional roles
  • Create identities (tspring is the cool moderator, so people come to expect gifs)

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