Jed Cohen

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Microsyntax

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Note: I’ve updated this post with a few new thoughts on some recent changes to Facebook.  Check out the end if you’ve already read this.

As far as I can remember, the first time I heard the word “microsyntax” was at The 140 Characters Conference (#140conf) during a talk by Stowe Boyd.  Among other things, Stowe writes/runs Microsyntax.org, which proposes and tracks new forms of microsyntax.  Examples:

  • The hashtag – using #word as a way to track a topic
  • The retweet – sharing a tweet from someone else using either RT @user or (via @user)
  • CoTags – marking who wrote a tweet using ^AB, where AB are the writer’s initials

All of these are focused on Twitter, yes.  I suppose that’s what happens when you only have 140 characters to work with – you start to invent shorthand for various grammatical constructs.  There are three things that I’ve been thinking about lately (not related to any specific platform):

  1. The development, mainstream adoption, and evolution of microsyntax tells you something about the network in which it is used.  I’m thinking primarily that it means that there is a large enough (semi-cohesive) community willing to embrace a standardized form of communication.  I suppose that the development and evolution of these elements also provide for a way to study a medium’s network and determine the flow of ideas and influence.
  2. Mainstream adoption of a microsyntax allows for its modification by the platform.  I’m thinking here of the change that Twitter made to the way @replies work.  If you’re not aware, you only see people’s replies to users you also follow, whereas a while back you had the option of seeing every tweet a user sent.  That’s why some users put a period in front of reply tweets, or shift the username of the person they’re replying to to the end of the tweet.  Veronica Wei Sopher has a great explanation of the change and how it impacts you, if you want to read more.  There’s also Twitter’s upcoming formal adoption of the retweet and alteration of the concept.
  3. Perhaps most importantly, it becomes the responsibility of users to learn current microsyntax.  Like verbal language, microsyntax can change; that said, it happens a lot faster due to the connective, real time nature of the Internet.  I’m surprised at how many Twitter users regularly forget to change their tweets as a result of the change to @replies; they forget that a lot of their tweets that they intend for many users are in fact seen by just a few.  It then becomes our responsibility to understand and properly use different microsyntaxes so that we can better engage with the community and accurately portray our thoughts to the public.

What might this mean for you?

Here’s what I think:

If you’re a user, try and follow the ways in which microsyntax changes over the course of your time on a particular platform.  Or create your own – it may just evolve into the next big thing on the platform you use.

If you’re a platform, try and listen to your users (which you probably should be doing anyway).  When they create a new syntax, consider adopting it and developing it in a way you feel is consistent with the overall principles of your service.  Or don’t and allow the community to manage it; it’s one more choice evolving social networks must make as they grow.

Update:

(9.10.09 11:10 PM)

Something related happened that I can write about!

Facebook added @mentions to status updates today.  Pretty cool, and I think an interesting example of how the development of microsyntax is not focused on a single platform.  Instead, it’s about creating standards that allow users to communicate clearly, regardless of where they’re actually communicating.  Think about the other standards you interact with when you use the web – domain names, programming languages, UI/UX, and so on (never mind the hardware standards in your computer).  Are any of those so open to modification by us, the end users?  Not so much.  Which is why I think the opportunity to create standards of communication like microsyntax is so unique – it is perhaps one of the few chances the general community has to shape the social web of tomorrow.

Written by Jed

September 8th, 2009 at 11:17 am

Posted in social media

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