Recently, there was quite the Twitter backlash to a tweet sent by @ColbertReport. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then read this, or just Google “#CancelColbert, because if this whole kerfuffle has taught us anything, it’s that context is important.

Sociolinguists know that context matters. It helps us make sense of what we hear. If someone uses a pronoun, but hasn’t made clear that the pronoun refers to a specific person at some recent point in the conversation, then you might have this kind of exchange:

“She told me that the skirt was too expensive”

“Who’s she?”

“Oh, Amy told me”

Not only is this an example of repair (where there’s a problem with understanding that needs to be addressed and fixed before the conversation can continue), it’s also an example of a mental mismatch between the people talking.

(((Side note: Isn’t it amazing (and awesome, in a lingustic-y, nerd-tastic way) how much there is to be studied in just three lines?)))

Back to context and #CancelColbert.

Without knowing that the @ColbertReport tweet was an intertextual reference to something that had happened earlier (intertextual in this sense means that interpreting what was said requires some prior knowledge that the speaker–or in this case writer—expected the reader to know), then it’s easy to see how the basic text, taken out of this context, could incite such backlash.

Of course, this all relates to the problem of sentiment analysis in online communication. It’s why we use emoticons, emojis, exclamation points vs. periods vs. no punctuation, “okay” vs “k”—we want to give “non-verbal” cues in our online communication, because while texting and tweeting may sound more conversational than traditional written text, it’s missing those vital clues to interpretation that we take for granted when we interact face-to-face.

Colbert may have apologized for the tweet, but I highly doubt it’s the last time that lack of context causes so many misunderstandings.

 

***If you read the title and description of intertextual references, and recognized that I was referencing Colbert’s book, then bask in your intertextual awareness!***

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