Gaming TripAdvisor

Although my main project these days is focused on linguistic creativity and humor in social media, I’m still very interested in all things review-related.  My friend Michael just sent me this great link about how a VICE reporter “gamed” TripAdvisor by creating a fake restaurant profile on their website.  Although this was not exactly his intention going into it, in just over 6 months, his fake restaurant (“The Shed at Dulwich” = literally, the garden shed that he lives in) became the highest-ranked restaurant in London!

The article is a highly entertaining read.  Or, if you prefer, you can watch the 18 minute video version available from the same link.  To me, the most clever parts were the restaurant’s “mood”-themed menu, as well his unexpected food-styling reveals (“whipped cream quenelles” made from shaving cream & “scallops” that were actually round white bleach tablets).  As a consumer, I know that I am totally a sucker for exactly these kinds of conceits: sexy food pics and a conceptual menu.  I was especially interested to learn about how TripAdvisor responded (at the end of the article).

And on a different topic, I just remembered a recent conversation I had with business writer, Tara Ramroop.  We talked about how language shapes workplace culture: a very relevant topic, but something that not all businesses think about, or approach very systematically.  You can read more here.

mansplain, mansplaining, mansplained

Metapragmatics refers to the phenomenon of language use itself becoming the object of discourse.  As Judith Bridges (a current Ph.D. student in our Linguistics and Applied Language Studies program) has observed, the word “mansplain” is a perfect example of metapragmatics.  When a person says that someone else has “mansplained” a given topic, that speaker is not just providing a neutral account of what happened; instead, s/he is providing a particular interpretation of a prior interaction.

Furthermore, as Judith points out, “mansplain” is an especially interesting example to explore because it sheds light on gender-related norms, dynamics, and expectations in  communicative interactions.  In her article, just published in the journal, Discourse, Context and Media, Judith examines how the various meanings of “mansplain” (and related forms) are constructed and negotiated in a sample of 200 tweets and Facebook posts.

New research on Tumblr

In spite of being such a popular (and fascinating!) social media platform, not much academic research has been published about Tumblr.   A recent study suggests that this may be due to some of the following constraints:

“Severe research limitations are caused by the lack of demographic, geo-spatial, and temporal metadata attached to individual posts, the limited API, restricted access to data, and the large amounts of ephemeral posts on the site”

While these are limitations for carrying out certain types of research, they do not pose problems for the textual analysis of linguistic creativity and humor that I’ve been working on recently.  In fact, a former graduate student and I have just published a paper about popular “Chat” posts on Tumblr. Our article is available at Discourse, Context & Media:  In it, we illustrate  some of the discourse strategies that Tumblr content creators exploit in order to construct playful and humorous texts.

Growth in research on the language of online reviews!

Two years ago  I wrote a post about how excited I was to see 2 presentations about online reviews – other than my own – at IPRA (the International Pragmatics Association), the largest international conference about Pragmatics, which is held biennially.  Interest in this topic continues grow as was seen at this year’s IPRA in Belfast, where there were 7 presentations on the topic.  (Incidentally, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland = total playground for sociolinguists!)

My colleague, Tuija Virtanen, and I organized a panel for this year’s IPRA called “Analyzing Prosumer Discourses: Consumer Reviews, Customer Feedback, and other modes of eWOM.”  The panel was international in scope, with speakers from Finland, New Zealand, Italy, Belgium, and the US.  Tuija’s presentation dealt with various ways of conceptualizing the rather abstract notions of responsibility and accountability as they are made relevant in consumer reviews: in her case, in book reviews on Amazon.  Michael Barlow’s corpus study examined differences between hotel reviews written by male and female TripAdvisor reviewers; interestingly, he found virtually no gender-based differences in variables such as word frequencies, review length, lexical variation, as well as the other variables he looked at.  Irene Cenni’s presentation built on her prior work, comparing TripAdvisor reviews written in Dutch, Italian, and English; this time with a particular focus on service encounters.  She had a number of very interesting findings, which she plans to publish soon – stay tuned!  The two remaining presentations (my own, and Maria Rosaria Compagnone’s) looked at businesses’ responses to restaurant reviews.  I focused on features of “linguistic impoliteness” found in restaurants’ responses to 1- and 2-star reviews, posted on both TripAdvisor and Yelp.  I showed examples of restaurant owners firing back defensive-sounding messages, which included features like sarcasm (“So much for knowing your Florida seafood.”), dismissing the reviewer’s comments (“As for the rest of it…whatever”) and excluding the reviewer from future contact (“Hopefully this reviewer will stay true to their word and make this their last visit.”).  I thought these responses were unprofessional…until I saw Maria Rosaria’s data! Maria Rosaria’s Italian restaurant owners posted much more aggressive and hostile responses on TripAdvisor – including one death threat!

Besides our panel, there were 2 additional presentations dealing with online reviews.  One of these was about extreme positivity in Airbnb reviews: the presenter focused on UK data, but the trends were nearly identical to what Judith Bridges and I wrote about in our Airbnb paper, published earlier this year.  The other was a more exploratory study examining differences in Chinese and Anglophone reviews and responses.

The next IPRA will be held in Hong Kong in summer 2019.  Will the number of online review-related studies continue to grow?  I’m looking forward to finding out! 🙂

Pragmatics in the Media!

It’s not often that stories about pragmatics — and matters of linguistic politeness, especially — make it into the mass media.  However, I just came across this interesting article in the NYT, which reports on a study of major social relevance involving language, race and police interactions.

A group of Stanford social scientists studied recordings from police body cameras, which were made during traffic stops.  Applying well-known models of linguistic politeness (e.g., Brown & Levinson) to transcripts made from these interactions, they then analyzed whether there was any difference in the language officers used with white motorists compared to the language officers used with black motorists.  Specifically, they  focused on “levels of respect,” expressed via a combination of different language features.  I like this figure that the researchers included in their report, which shows how these features were identified and quantified.  As you read this top to bottom, the examples in the figure go from least polite to most polite.  In which of these ways would you prefer to be addressed, if you were to be pulled over by a police officer?  (click on the figure to enlarge it)

The full research article with all the details is available online here.

(Spoiler alert: Yes, they did find differences.  The title of the NYT article kind of gives that away.)

A Few Media Updates

Just wanted to share a few (unrelated)  items that have captured my attention recently…

  • This surprising story about a Dean at Yale getting suspended from her job over a couple of “insensitive” Yelp reviews. Actually, I am still figuring out what I think about all of this.  (Who found these reviews?  Why were they reported?  Was suspension of employment perhaps an excessive response?)  I DEFINITELY welcome your comments as I try to make sense of this situation myself. (This story was sent to me by former student, Dr. Erhan Aslan – thanks, Erhan!)
  • super interesting podcast featuring 2 of my favorite “celebrity linguists,” Deborah Tannen and John McWhorter, talking about some of my favorite topics: intercultural communication, interruption, language & gender, and, as most of my former students will likely remember… “complementary schismogenesis”!!! (Thanks to Taylor for the link & thanks to Nathan for the photo!)
  • And I just finished reading this engaging book by Marcel Danesi.

The main points of this book can be boiled down to a few sentences.  Basically, emoji add support to a text: they primarily communicate affective (rather than referential) meaning. In other words, what emoji contribute to a message is more of an emotional nuance than actual content – that is, they help cue readers on how to interpret the main message (just like our intonation, or facial expressions, provide in F2F communication).  The bulk of the message is still realized, by and large, linguistically. One final point: the overwhelming majority of emoji are used to communicate positive feelings, which means that 🙂  is much more common in our communication than 🙁 .  That’s the book in a nutshell.  (However, as an added bonus…for anyone who’s ever wondered about what “semiotics” is all about, this book offers a very friendly and approachable introduction to the topic.)

What goes on in the comments section below parody reviews on Amazon?

Have you ever wondered about whether or not anyone ever writes anything in that “Comments” section that’s found under each review on Amazon?  As far as most reviews go, I’ve noticed that some readers assign a vote of “helpful” if they like a particular review; however, I’ve also observed that the “Comments” sections usually remain pretty empty.

In the last year or so, I’ve been researching different aspects of parody reviews on Amazon.  And I’ve found that although users don’t typically comment on normal reviews… there are, in contrast, many comments in response to parody reviews of products like the following.

Over the last few weeks, my undergraduate research assistant, Chelsea Lo, and I have been building a data set of comments responding to parody reviews.  Our sample consists of nearly 300 comments responding to reviews written about 6 popularly-parodied products on Amazon.  Chelsea and I have found that the most common types of expressions that appear are ones which show a reader’s appreciation of the review writer’s creativity and cleverness, such as:



I keep coming back to giggle at this post.

or (one of our personal favorites):

I hope you got some college credit for this.

A few even took the form of mock wedding proposals:

Marry me. You are the man?/woman? of my dreams.

The next most common responses are those which pose some kind of a reply that’s directed to the review’s author. Often, these types of responses play along with joke, acting as though they inhabit the same fictional world that’s been created by the parody review writer.  For example, this commenter asks the author of one of the Three Wolf Moon T-shirt parody reviews for more information about the missing ending of the narrative he has crafted:

Hey what’s the end what happened between you and the asthmatic???? Don’t leave us all hanging!!!!! Did you end up ordering the shirt in newborn size? Hmmmmm???

These 2 types of responses account for over 80% of the comments in our sample. The remaining 20% of comments are things like: a reply to another commenter in the same strand  (“I second that impulse to “like.””); stand-alone laughter tokens, for example “LOL!! ” or “BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA“; or random popular culture references, like references to Star Wars, or to lyrics of popular songs.

We found only 2 instances of “policing behavior” (e.g., “Seriously?” , “GROW UP”  ) – and these followed some of the more political parody reviews of Avery Binders, which were associated with Mitt Romney’s now-famous “binders full of women” comment.

By and large then, Chelsea and I conclude that vast majority comments in response to parody reviews on Amazon are favorable, showing affiliation with and appreciation of their authors’ creativity and humor.

NYT Story about UBER

I have a long list of topics that I have been wanting to blog about, but between dissertation defenses, conferences, and course-final assignments, it’s a busy time right now.  Hope to be posting at least once per month starting in May though!

In the meantime, this weekend, the NYT ran a great story about Uber.  Especially fascinating is how Uber is leveraging insights from both behavioral science and big data analytics to entice their drivers to stay on the road.  To do this, Uber relies on principles of “gamification,” which combine individualized income targets for drivers with the “ludic loop” = that state of mind that happens when you’re playing an addictive video game and the target goal is always just a tiny bit out of reach.

Whenever I take an Uber, I usually ask the driver a series of questions about their experiences working for the company.  It looks like I’ll be adding some new questions to my “informal interviews” about how drivers view the effectiveness of these targeted messages they receive.

Anti-Refugee Rhetoric on Twitter

This week’s RDM guest blogger, Ramona Kreis, shares her research about a topic that could not be any more timely: anti-refugee discourse.  Ramona writes

Twitter has become part of our daily lives. Twitter occupies an unprecedented position in contemporary U.S. politics, as current President Trump continues to use his personal Twitter account  to connect to his followers, to react to his opponents, and to reaffirm his political and ideological viewpoints.  On January 27, the Trump administration issued an executive order, which suspended entry of refugees to the United States, and suddenly brought the topic of refugees into the spotlight in the U.S.  However, the “refugee issue” has been a central one for some time now in Europe, where the discourse around refugees and refugee asylum policies has dominated news and social media over the last year and a half.

In mid-2015, increasing numbers of refugees and migrants crossed the borders to Europe, trying to reach countries in Western, Central, and Northern Europe. According to the Dublin Regulation, asylum seekers should apply for asylum in the state where they first enter the European Union. Public awareness of the development of a humanitarian crisis – 71 migrants heading to Germany were found dead in a truck in Austria – led German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to admit Syrian refugees to Germany, and to accept applications for asylum despite the Dublin Regulation. With her statement “We can do this” (Wir schaffen das), she encouraged the work of many volunteers and made an appeal to Germans as well as her European partners.

After an initial period of welcoming refugees however, some Europeans grew more critical of accepting large numbers of migrants, fearing financial and societal repercussions. News stories began to appear about refugees and refugee homes being attacked by right-wing extremists. On Twitter, I came across a hashtag that seemed to resonate with this changing attitude toward refugees: #refugeesnotwelcome. Many tweets that included #refugeesnotwelcome were disturbing, irritating, and, frankly, disgusting, but given the large number of tweets that used this hashtag and the increasing rejection of Merkel’s “We can do this” stance, I wanted to learn more about the types of discursive strategies being used by the authors of those tweets.

I collected over 100 tweets that were posted in the middle of September 2015, when the number of arrivals started to peak and, at the same time, when violent crimes against refugees increased drastically. Dealing with a topic so tied to inequality and relations of dominance, I chose a critical discourse analytical (CDA) perspective to guide my analysis.  My study explored how Twitter users employed this hashtag to express their discontent both with refugees and immigrants as well as with pro-refugee policies and practices (such as the initial welcoming of Syrian refugees by Chancellor Merkel). Tweets that included #refugeesnotwelcome ranged from “I have nothing against immigrants, but …”, a well-attested and commonly-used preface to all kinds of racist discourses, to “they are not ‘refugees’ but invaders”, whereby the authors reframed European nations as being under threat from an “invasion” of Muslims. Often refugees were depicted as social parasites and criminals. Overall, the authors of these tweets presented themselves positively, while presenting refugees negatively.

The following tweet illustrates how some Twitter users employ strategies to negatively depict migrants and refugees.

This author retweets a previous tweet about unrest that arose between refugees and the police in mid-September 2015 in Röszke, a Hungarian village close to the Serbian border. The original tweet also included images of rioting men, thus establishing a connection between the migrants referred to in the text, and the men depicted in the images. The author not only retweets this particular account of violent (im)migrants, but also adds the comment: These poor “refugees”. And all these women and children…. #IronyOff #RefugeesNotWelcome #Invasion. By putting the term refugees in quotation marks and adding the adjective poor, the author constructs an ironic tone, both questioning the legitimacy of the term “refugee” and the notion of refugees requiring assistance. He further adds all these women and children, a group that is often considered as in need of special protection, further questioning the need to protect refugees. Indeed, many refugees arriving in Europe were young males and this argument was often used in anti-refugee discourse. Seeing only rioting men in the images further implies that these refugees are not in need, but rather causing trouble. By including #IronyOff, the author confirms he was being ironic, however after “switching off” the irony, the following hashtags, #RefugeesNotWelcome and #Invasion, instead reveal the author’s true perspective. Although he does not refer to refugees as “illegals” or “criminals” as many other Twitter users did, he delegitimizes the term “refugee” and questions the need to help refugees. Instead he views the migration movement as an invasion, and as a threat to his identity and territory.

When I started the project, it didn’t seem like right-wing populism had fully permeated Europe or the US. We were still pre-Brexit and pre-“alternative-facts.” The discourse strategies I identified in my project are certainly not new, but as we see such nationalist and anti-the-others discourses gaining ground in many Western societies, it is necessary to be aware of these strategies in order to dismantle them.

Restricted entry: online code-switching and long-distance belonging

This week’s RDM guest blogger, Antonella Gazzardi, takes us on a multilingual journey that started in Orlando’s Epcot center – and eventually found its way to Facebook.

Antonella writes:

I am interested in code-switching practices, their underlying creativity, and how they spill over into social media. I am referring to a way of playing with languages that is shared by a small community of practice I belong to – and Facebook is what allows me to be exposed to it daily. Our community consists of Italian expats who mix Italian and English in a distinctive way, which is very much tied to a specific work environment that we all shared for one year: Epcot’s Italian pavilion food & beverage facilities.

For people who must leave this environment when their visa ends and then scatter around the world, language practices that originally emerged in this face-to face context eventually leak over into social media communication, where it’s possible to reach many people across the globe with one fast, cheap, and simple click. So when a Facebook page was opened to share our memories , it was quickly flooded by comments reminiscing about those days, conveyed, of course, using the particular hybrid language that we have come to identify with our Epcot experience.

The most active participants in the FB group are former employees, who post, comment, and comment on comments, using a jargon that can only be understood if you are … one of us.   This is because some of the unique blends only make sense in that Italian-American working context.  Some of these expressions take on entirely new meanings, which are virtually obscure to outsiders – even if they are bilingual. I’ve been collecting samples of this context-specific language for roughly 8 months, and I have classified them in two major categories.

The first category is word blends and expressions that are context-specific to Orlando/Industry expats. For example, an Italian speaker who is fluent in English may quickly (and correctly) infer that “ciargiare” is an Italianized infinitive for “to charge,” since it has become common for many Italians with some knowledge of English to Italianize technology-related words in exactly the same way. These days, everybody understands “postare”, “taggare”, “hackerare”, or “spammare”, blends that bounce back and forth from offline to online exchanges.  So what exactly  is distinctive about our Facebook posts? This is where I think context, creativity, bilingualism, and code-switching all come into play in a uniquely clever way:

What is a cippettone? What does stampare mean here, if it is not the literal translation of “to print”– which it is not. What is pompa time for bananas? What does push push push and pusha babe! mean when the speaker does not specify what needs to be pushed? And, if one’s “final trip” is not the one to the graveyard, then what is it?

“Cippettone” is a blend of the English word “cheap” and the Italian suffix “-one,” which translates into a “big” whatever noun precedes it. In this case, the augmentative (“-one”) is pejorative in connotation: it refers to a very cheap patron. “Stampare” means to stamp checks, a metaphor for a priori adding gratuities to the bill based on the number of patrons. “Pompa time” is when the “pompatori” (literally, people who inflate) get into action, i.e. servers who are known to regularly make much more money than average ones. So “pompa time” is rush hour, when skilled servers can upsell and turn tables as fast as possible, which is what “push push push” and the blend “pusha babe!” mean. Of course, in so doing they make lots of money, affectively nick-named “bananas”, maybe because of their golden skin. And when their one-year work contract is over, it’s time to use  time left on their visa to travel around the United States before heading home: the “final trip.”

The second group of posts consists of somewhat less context-dependent, but still community-contingent, instances of code-switching used by expats for communicating specific types of information.  These language switches often refer back to a past event, or a memory of the time spent working at Epcot.  Here’s are a few examples from FB:

“Se per quelli che erano all’Alfredo, many years ago, ma ve lo ricordate Charlie, il cameriere brasiliano?”           (For those who worked at Alfredo’s, many years ago, do you remember Charlie, the Brazilian server?)

No way!! Il vino la sua ossessione!”                                    (No way! Wine was his obsession!)

“(…) Family numerosa !”                                                                   (Big family!)

These three comments, like many others, use Italian syntax and vocabulary for the most part, but occasional English phrases or words are dropped in that tie their authors back to this specific bilingual community. Because most of the members of the FB group are Italian, there is no need to use “many years ago”, “no way”, or “family” instead of their Italian counterparts here.

This language use is automatic, it expresses being part of a community, and it reinforces the bond shared by those who have had common experiences in this particular setting. In fact, I have found that this jargon is kept alive across continents by those of us who are former Epcot employees – but when we communicate online about things other than our Epcot experience, we very rarely code-switch.  Therefore, the mixing of codes that I have been studying is both functionally and contextually specific.