Talking Text and Talking Back: “My BFF Jill” from Boob Tube to YouTube
Exploring the close relationship between poetic language and metalanguage, this article analyzes both a series of 2007-8 U.S. TV ads that humorously deploy the language of text messaging, and the subsequent debates about the linguistic status of texting that they occasioned. We explore the ambivalence of commercials that at once resonate with fears of messaging slang as a verbal contagion and luxuriate in the playful inversion of standard language hierarchies. The commercials were invoked by monologic mainstream media as evidence of language decay, but their circulation on YouTube invited dialogic metalinguistic discussions, in which young people and texting proponents could share the floor with adults and language prescriptivists. We examine some of the themes that emerge in the commentary YouTubers have posted about these ads, and discuss the style of that commentary as itself significant.
Imagine what would happen if young people began speaking exclusively in the manner in which they text messaged: in place of complete sentences, they would utter short sequences of letters abbreviating words and phrases. While they probably wouldn't have trouble understanding each other, parents would be befuddled by this ostensibly alien code and deeply concerned about their children's ability to speak standard language. This is precisely the kind of linguistic pandemonium a recent series of U.S. television commercials for AT&T Wireless depicts, dramatizing both young texters' verbal ingenuity and the potential of their speech play to disturb the social and linguistic conventions of everyday life. In this article, we discuss these commercials as metalinguistic meditations and examine the further metalinguistic commentary their widespread circulation—in the media, on the Internet, and in people's talk—has occasioned.1 In particular, we examine the reaction these videos have elicited since migrating from television—the “boob tube”—to YouTube, a website whose commenting feature has allowed texting aficionados to voice their metalinguistic views, at times in direct confrontation with language prescriptivists.
In the United States, as elsewhere, cell phones are ubiquitous accessories of adolescence (Baron 2008; Caron & Caronia, 2007). They have become an integral part of adolescent sociality, but not only as telephonic tools. Recent reports indicate that Americans cellphone users now send more text messages than they phone, and young people from 13 to 17 send and receive more messages than any other age group, averaging 1,742 a month, compared to 790 for 18-to-24-year-olds (Mindlin, 2008). As an everyday practice that interpenetrates many other activities, Mindlin says that texting has grown so deeply embodied that 42 percent of teenage cellphone users boast the ability to text while blindfolded. These embodied skills have developed in tandem with verbal skills that enable and enhance text-messaged communication. An instantly recognizable verbal style, typified by multiple strategies of abbreviation, has emerged as an iconic emblem of text messaging, text messagers, and, by extension, adolescents and their culture.
Several recent studies have attempted cross-linguistic characterizations of the style of texting in terms of a discrete, but generalizable, set of generative rules and maxims (Caron & Caronia, 2007, p.182;Crystal, 2008, p. 37; Thurlow & Poff, in press). In addition to creative uses of punctuation (e.g., emoticons), text messaging's most salient verbal features are its conventions of abbreviation: initialism (the use of initial letters to stand for entire words, like lol for laughing out loud); the omission of nonessential letters (especially vowels, like lv for love); and the substitution of homophones (like b4 for before). The distinctive style of texting is, in part, a response to technical exigencies, keeping messages under the 160-character limit (Crystal, 2008, pp. 5-6), reducing the number of keystrokes, and enabling texters to approximate the temporality of conversational turn-taking (Caron & Caronia, 2007, p. 189). However, this style is also a form of speech play that creatively exploits the expressive and ludic potential of verbal codes (Crystal, 2008, pp. 71–74), and an expressive symbol of peer-group affiliation (Ling, 2008, pp. 131–132). Insofar as the “act of texting has cachet and communicates something about the sender” (Thurlow & Poff, in press), the virtuosic deployment of text messaging conventions can become an especial mark of prestige (Crystal, 2008).
The popularity of text messaging and the apparent distinctiveness of texters' verbal repertoires have not gone unremarked. In recent years, local and national news sources have sounded an alarm about the potentially deleterious effects of both text and instant messaging on young people's spoken and written language, as Herring (2008) and Thurlow (2006, 2007) describe. Often, these stories connect linguistic degradation with other social ills supposedly visited upon us by Computer Mediated Communication: the deterioration of face-to-face sociality; cyber-bullying; compulsive behavior; and teens' use of coded messages to coordinate illicit activities such as sex and drug-use. As troublesome as these developments may be, adults' anxieties about what young people are doing with and to language are nothing new (Milroy, 1998). Still, the media maximally exoticizes text messaging, treating it like a foreign language, by focusing on its unfamiliar forms, abstracted away from the mundane social activities and conventional verbal practices from which those messages emerge (Crystal, 2008). In sharp contrast to media hysteria about text messaging as a vector of social and linguistic decay, research on the way young people actually use text messaging confirms that it is a tool for constructing sociality and enhancing language (Thurlow & Poff, in press). We reached very similar conclusions in our own research on a related form of Computer Mediated Communication, Instant Messaging (Jones & Schieffelin, 2009).
A common question about the language of messaging concerns its ability to cross over into speech. “Are abbreviations or acronyms from electronically-mediated communication appearing in spoken language?”Baron (2008, p. 179) asks. Similarly, Crystal (2008, p. 33) ponders “how much impact texting will have on speech.” The potential influence of texting on talk is the issue at the heart of the trilogy of AT&T commercials we analyze.2 Produced by the advertising agency BBDO, the series of ads depicts a white, middle-class, American mother's ongoing struggle to manage the impact of text messaging on her family. As part of a 2007–2008 ad campaign promoting the company's five-dollar unlimited texting package, the commercials portray preadolescents as obsessive texters. While the first two commercials in the campaign focus on parent-child conflicts over skyrocketing phone bills, their cultural success (as measured by their subsequent circulation) has more to do with the parodic treatment of resonant linguistic tensions. In their comically exaggerated world, preadolescents are so engrossed in the fad of texting that, having lost (or failed to develop) communicative competence in standard conversational English, their speech resembles keyed-in text messages. In the third commercial, the explicit focus shifts from the monetary to the linguistic costs of texting, with the mother acknowledging her failure to raise her daughter as a competent English speaker.
While often dismissed as culturally inconsequential, television commercials are, in the words of Dan Lefkowitz (2003, p. 76), “a highly elaborated domain of aesthetic practice” that rank “among the most complex of semiotic signs we encounter in modern life, combining visual images, written and spoken language, dramatized narratives, richly intertextual symbols, double and triple entendres, deeply poetic verbal structuring, and other semiotic material.” Although they are visually conventional, the AT&T commercials we analyze are linguistically complex, exaggerating everyday patterns of language behavior to the point of riotous absurdity. Each commercial consists of a short vignette staging the gulf between the mother's Standard English speech and others' text-messaging-inflected speech, always followed by a voiced-over sales pitch for AT&T's unlimited text messaging package. Characters in the vignettes never mention that product, which is only peripherally relevant to the ads' central talk-as-text conceit.
Most positive assessments of the commercials in the media and online emphasize how “funny” they are, leading us to analyze them here as instances of speech play. According to Sherzer (2002, p. 1), speech play is “the manipulation of elements and components of language in relation to one another, in relation to the social and cultural contexts of language use, and against the backdrop of other verbal possibilities in which it is not foregrounded.” The playful elaboration of unaccustomed juxtapositions leads to consequences central to our discussion: “speech play provides implicit and explicit metacommentary … on systems and structure, social and cultural as well as interactional and sociolinguistic.” As we document below, these commercials proved as “good to think with” as they were infectious. In the mainstream news, reporters, editorialists, and parents seized upon the ads as illustrations of the epidemic proportions of texting among young Americans. For their part, young people appropriated verbal material from the commercials, which they circulated widely in playful and sometimes transgressive ways. The commercials became a focus of intense online activity: Millions have viewed them on YouTube, posting thousands of comments about them. A smaller number of YouTube users have posted video remakes and spoofs of the commercials, which have also inspired a profusion of remixes (Knobel & Lankshear, 2008) that incorporate elements of the original content in a usually ironic visual, video, or audio pastiche.
Generally speaking, humor depends on the performative violation of expectations or conventions, often providing a publicly acceptable occasion for expressing latent tensions, frustrations, or fears (Beeman, 1981, 2000). In this sense, jokes often vehicle serious meanings or perform serious functions. In her influential research on “Mock Spanish,” Jane Hill (2001) persuasively argues that the playful circulation of ostentatiously parodic Spanish language elements in Anglo-American's popular culture and everyday talk relies on and reproduces tacit racism towards native Spanish speakers. While we don't want to overstate the parallels, the AT&T commercials can be assimilated to a broader pattern of exoticizing and alarmist media representations that use the language of texting as a proxy for social anxieties about teenage behavior. The commercials depict young people as so engrossed in the texting craze that they are unable (or unwilling) to speak in anything but text messaging shorthand, violating conventions both of modality (speaking in a normally written code), and of register (addressing adults in a normally teen-only code). The humor of these incongruous transgressions is ambivalent and, as we demonstrate below, different constituencies have variously construed their implications.
The scenes of text messaging conventions intruding in inappropriate settings and situations are subject to contrastive readings, depending on how one feels about texting. On the one hand, proponents of what Cameron (1995) calls “verbal hygiene” can point to the commercials as evidence of the danger teenage texting poses to Standard English. From this perspective, text-like speech is a kind of verbal contamination, resembling Mary Douglas's (2002, pp. 44–5) famous description of dirt as “matter out of place.” Douglas writes: “Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements … [O]ur pollution behaviour is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications.” On the other hand, the positive reactions of young fans to the commercials suggest a different way of conceptualizing the same scenes of linguistic category confusion—in terms of Bakhtin's notion of the carnivalesque. For Bakhtin (1984, p. 10), “the temporary suspension, both ideal and real, of hierarchical rank created during carnival time a special type of communication impossible in everyday life … [liberated] from norms of etiquette and decency imposed at other times.” He associates this kind of speech with the “world inside out” spirit of carnival, and “the sense of gay relativity of prevailing truths and authorities” (p. 11). The AT&T trilogy enacts a carnivalesque elevation of the language to texting above Standard English, portraying a kind of verbal duel that proves fluent texters linguistic superiors to “normal” English speakers.
We note that the humor of these commercials also has a subtle but significant gender component. Since the 1940s, there has been a “convergence of telephony and teenage girlhood in [American] popular culture” (Kearney, 2005, p. 571), driven at least in part by the gendered messages of telecommunications advertisements. In the post-WWII era of expanding telephone access, advertisements and popular dramatization enacted tensions between fathers who policed domestic telephone use and verbal behavior, and their daughters whose “excessive use of the phone was discursively represented as a disease: telephonitis” (Kearney, 2005, p. 586)—a representation that fits into broader perceptions of females as “talking too much” (Holmes, 1998). In the age of cell phones, advertising practices reinscribe and reinforce the gendering of communications technologies, through an effort to constitute teenage girls as a market (Shade, 2007). Empirically speaking, U.S. girls not only own more cell phones than boys, but telephone and text significantly more than their male counterparts (Lenhart et al., 2008, p. 23). With this in mind, the focus of these commercials on the mother-daughter dyad emerges as itself significant.
One of the most popular generalizations about women's and men's speech is that women are more conservative, polite, and exhibit more standard and prestige variants than men. Women are also thought to more positively value standard and polite forms, to more typically “hypercorrect” their own speech and even to evaluate their own speech as being more standard than it is (Labov, 1972). Men, in contrast, are said to use and prefer more nonstandard varieties, practices which led Trudgill (1975) to suggest that while standard speech is a form of overt prestige, men's nonstandard speech signifies covert prestige. While these assertions and their cross-cultural validity have been widely researched and hotly debated among sociolinguists (Brown, 1998, Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992), and it is well known that in real life mothers and their children use informal, colloquial and nonstandard forms, the idea that moms should speak correctly because of their primary responsibility for child socialization, which includes teaching the “mother tongue” as well as prestige forms, is widely held in the popular American middle class imagination. Women are expected to set a good example by modeling and correcting their children's verbal behavior, which includes the basics of politeness (Gleason et al., 1984). Clearly, the ads' emphasis on the maternal role in supervising children's communicative practices has potentially deep cultural resonance.
The first AT&T commercial, BFF Jill, aired from April 10, 2007 to June 3, 2007. It depicts a mundane dispute between a mother and her cheeky preadolescent daughter, Beth Ann, over text messaging expenses on the family phone bill. In the opening shot, Mom, standing at the kitchen counter with the bill in hand, yells for her daughter. Beth Ann comes into the room, her eyes glued to a cell phone, audibly punching keys. “W-U?” she asks casually; a subtitle provides the translation of the messaging initialism: “What's up?” The mother, clearly exasperated, responds, “Your cell phone bill is what's up. All this texting.”“O-M-G! I-N-B-D [Subtitle: Oh my gosh! It's no big deal],” Beth Ann responds, her tone rising defensively. “It is a big deal,” Mom retorts. “Who are you texting 50 times a day?” Beth Ann visibly composes herself before responding, “I-D-K, my B-F-F Jill? [Subtitle: I don't know, my best friend forever, Jill.].” She tilts her head to the side, with her mouth exaggeratedly open, a cutesy facial expression with a frisson of provocation; her body language and her intonation keying her speech as somewhat smart-alecky. The mother derisively echoes Beth Ann's response: “Tell your BFF Jill that I'm taking away your phone.” Beth Ann violently slaps the phone into her mother's hand. Storming off, she rages, “T-I-S-N-F! [Subtitle: This is so not fair!].” Waving the phone bill in her hand, the mother calls after Beth Ann: “Me paying this bill—that's what's … S … N … F!” Reaching for a capper in the conversation, the mother only fumblingly mimics her daughter's texting lingo. In the last shot, she stands alone in the kitchen with a look of bleary-eyed confusion. The male announcer offers a solution to this conflict: “Now too much texting is N-B-D. Cingular brings you unlimited texting for five dollars more a month…”
The dramatic tension of BFF Jill centers on conflict over a child's expensive text messaging habit—a conflict the telephone company proposes to resolve for a low monthly service fee—yet the vignette's comedic appeal hinges on a less easily dissipated intergenerational conflict over language. In a sharp contrast of verbal styles, the mother speaks Standard English to a daughter who addresses her exclusively in messaging initialisms, uttering the phonemes that correspond to the graphemes of her abbreviations. A common form of shorthand in both text and instant messaging, initialisms are abbreviations generated by combining the first letters of a phrase (Crystal, 2008, p. 41–45). Unlike acronyms, they are not generally pronounced as words, but many have become widely recognized lexical features of online jargon. Indeed, initialisms are an iconic feature of Computer Mediated Communication, and bear an iconic-indexical association with the verbal practices of teenagers—especially teenage girls. The commercial's use of subtitles maximally exoticizes Beth Ann's speech, functioning as a visual cue that likens it to a foreign language. At first, the mother appears adept at this kind of crosstalk, successfully decoding her daughter's exotic utterances. Her clumsy attempt to replicate an utterance with a slightly altered abbreviation (TISNF→SNF), however, reveals her to be an incompetent text-talker. BFF Jill depicts a world out of balance: While the parents monopolize access to the means of communication, children direct communication in ways that are linguistically alien and, indeed, unfavorable to adults.
The comedic incongruity of BFF Jill hinges on tensions over linguistic and communicative competence. While Beth Ann's speech indicates the mastery of a verbal code so inscrutable it requires subtitles, her use of that code in conversation with her mother suggests a blatant disregard for appropriate communicative conventions. The normative state of affairs the commercial playfully flouts is one in which messaging lingo is reserved exclusively for keypadded, texted, communication between youthful peers. In using the language of texting to address her mother, Beth Ann violates standards of both intergenerational and modal propriety. The linguistic practices associated with computer-mediated communication emerge as a verbal contagion threatening to contaminate young people's language, undermining not only intergenerational communication, but also their very ability to speak proper English.
The second commercial, BFF Rose, aired from September 3 to October 14, 2007. It reinforces the motif of contagion, placing the same mother in a situation of further linguistic alienation vis-à-vis her family. Like BFF Jill, BFF Rose revolves around a dispute over text messaging expenses on the monthly phone bill. The mother, bill in hand, confronts her two children, Beth Ann and her older brother Sean, as they watch television on the living room sofa (because the father is sitting in the background reading the newspaper in the middle of the day, this is presumably a weekend afternoon). “Beth Ann, three thousand texts last month?” Mom says, shutting off the television.3 Beth Ann, her thumbs on the buttons of her pink slider phone, sits up in surprise, her face beaming: “N-W-R-U-S? [Subtitle: No way! Are you serious?],” she asks. The camera cuts back to the stony-faced mother, who rebukes, “That wasn't a compliment. And Sean, a thousand texts?” The slouching tween, melodramatically rolls his eyes. “U-G-H,” he says. The subtitle, which playfully reverses the expected relationship with the spoken dialogue, reads, “(Ugh).” Sean treats a minimally articulate interjection as if it were an initialism, literally spelling it out for his mother.
The commercial then introduces a new wrinkle to the situation. Pointing to a yet unseen party in another part of the room, the mother chides, “And you, you’re old enough to know better.” The camera cuts to an elderly woman in a rocking chair, cell phone in hand. “M-Y-O-B, will ya? [Subtitle: Mind your own business, will ya?],” she says churlishly, without looking up from the text message she's composing. Dad lowers his newspaper and reproves, “Grandma.” With a bewildered smile, the mother asks, “Mom, who could you be texting?” Finally, the grandmother looks up and, with the same expression of wide-eyed innocence Beth Ann marshals in the first commercial, says, “I-D-K, my B-F-F Rose? [Subtitle: I don't know, my best friend forever Rose.].” Then she receives a text message, and turns back to her phone. At this point, the male announcer delivers a voiced-over commercial message: “Now get a texting plan the whole family can N-J-O-Y. AT&T brings you unlimited messaging to anyone on any network.” As he speaks, the mother looks around the room with an expression of bewilderment. The children, clearly annoyed, blink back, and the father, in the background, casts a helpless look in her direction.
The first two commercials in the AT&T trilogy present the diglossic situation in which the parents speak Standard English and the children (and grandparent) speak messaging lingo as the everyday norm in this fictional household. In BFF Rose, the male characters appear incommunicative and even inarticulate in respect to the verbally inclined female characters. The mother, cast as an embodiment of normative standards of language and communication, appears inured to her children's strangely discordant speech behavior. But in the third commercial, IDK Scrabble Challenge, which aired from February 15 to March 11, 2008, she challenges the acceptability of messaging abbreviations as Standard English. The scene opens with Beth Ann, her mother, her grandmother, and a friend (whom some viewers elatedly identify as Beth Ann's “BFF Jill”) seated around a coffee table playing the board-game Scrabble. With the exception of the mother (and Sean, who appears to be reading in the distant background), all the characters have a cell phone and text throughout the vignette. “You’re up,” the mother says to the friend. The camera zooms in on her fingers as she announces her play: “R-O-T-F-L [subtitle: Rolling On The Floor Laughing].” Beth Ann smiles approvingly: “Eight points!” The grandmother, also smiling, looks up briefly from her phone: “W-T-G [subtitle: Way to go.].” Stunned, the mother says, “R-O-T-F-L? Roffle's not English! Is texting all you girls do?” Beth Ann glances conspiratorially at her friend then focuses again on her phone (they could very well be texting each other).
At this point the mother angrily wrestles the phone away from Grandma, who hisses, “O-N-U-D! [Subtitle: Oh no you didn't!]”—an utterance that is humorous both for the incongruous age indexicality of the initialism, and the ethnic indexicality of the initialized phrase, which is stylistically marked as African American (fans found this especially funny, as we describe later). Mom sighs wearily and begins laboriously typing in a message, which she verbalizes: “A … Y … L … [Subtitle: Are … you … listening?].” She hits send and her daughter immediately receives the message. Beth Ann looks confusedly at the message, and then says to her mother, “Question mark? [Subtitle: What?].” Mom, trying desperately to find common ground with her tween, has clearly failed to understand the conventions of messaging language: She mistakenly assumes that experienced texters exclusively follow a rule of initialism to generate fluent utterances, while in fact they use the names of letters for homonymous words, i.e., ‘R’ for ‘are’ and ‘U’ for ‘you’ (Grandma's “O-N-U-D,” by contrast, correctly follows convention). Beth Ann's quizzical “Question mark?” is an elaborate play on the relationship between verbal utterance and subtitle: in a messaging exchange, the punctuation mark ‘?’ can constitute both an utterance and a turn in a conversation, conveying a speaker's confusion and serving as a request for clarification of the previous speaker's turn. While graphemes can be vocalized as phonemes, no speakable sound corresponds to typographic symbols. Rather than codeswitch to Standard English, Beth Ann continues to speak according to the conventions of texting, uttering the lexemic name of the punctuation mark. This outré turn visibly demoralizes the mother, who sighs, “I have completely failed you as a parent.” Beth Ann, still texting, casts a sidelong glance at her friend and giggles, conveying that the mother is hopelessly out of touch. The narrator epilogues, “Text like there's no 2-M-O-R-O. AT&T's family plan, now with unlimited texting to anyone in any network.”
The rule-governed Scrabble game provides an occasion for the mother to articulate her perspective on the social and linguistic stakes of her daughter's nonstandard verbal behavior. For the first time, she classifies a seemingly competent messaging abbreviation as “not English.” Reacting to Beth Ann's tenacious patterning of speech on the model of texting, and to her privileging of mediated over face-to-face interaction, the mother ultimately admits that she has “completely failed … as a parent.” This remark frames the daughter's speech as evidence of unsuccessful socialization, pitting parents—especially mothers—against peers as the stewards of communicative competence. Beth Ann's playful glances at her friend suggest that perhaps her mother's concerns are misplaced: are texting, and the transformation of texting into talk, simply forms of speech play that constitute sociality among peers?
Ultimately, the commercials paint a somewhat equivocal picture. They imagine the texting craze as a source of verbal anarchy with the potential to radically transform language and undermine communication between parents and children. At the same time, they clearly delight in the generativity of texting conventions and the infectious new forms of speech play that texting enables. Each commercial culminates with a lighthearted use of a putative messaging initialism by the adult male announcer, suggesting that the register is fun and nonthreatening. It seems unlikely that the commercials intend to morally assess messaging lingo, but rather present texting as an essential feature of contemporary teenage culture that parents may find inscrutable, but which does not have to be a source of generational antagonism—provided one purchases an adequately capacious phone plan.
This depiction seems to have resonated with multiple constituencies, and various audiences continue to circulate it in networks of intertextuality. Journalists have cited the commercials in stories about the language of texting. Columnists identifying with the mother's plight, described the struggles over cell phone bills in their own households (Brodnar, 2007). The phrase “IDK, my BFF Jill?” achieved a kind of free-standing iconicity, circulating widely in young people's talk. The availability of the commercials for viewing on video sharing sites such as YouTube encouraged open-ended, asynchronous, discussion about their form, content, and linguistic implications in online forums. Young people posted their own renditions of the commercial on YouTube alongside often more outlandish remixes of audio and video elements of the ads. In the rest of this article, we focus on these sites of circulation as sources for further reflection on the status of the language of texting. We find that the relatively anonymous internet discussion forums, such as the one provided by YouTube's commenting feature, have given young proponents of texting a chance to publicize their own opinions about texting as a linguistic phenomenon and to confront people with competing views in ways that merit further attention.
Multiple Publics, Multiple Receptions
As a reflection of the zeitgeist in the United States, the “Beth Ann” trilogy proved tremendously successful. Since BFF Jill first aired, a number of national news sources cited the commercials as exemplifying the impact of text messaging on teens and families. While many commentators remarked on the humor of the ads, most often they are mobilized to articulate well-documented discourses of moral panic about teenage language and communication practices. For instance, on June 12, 2007, ABC Television's Good Morning America aired a special installment of their regular “American Family” segment entitled “Text Message Insanity,” notable for its recapitulation of moral panic topoi and its use of “Beth Ann” material. As the ominous phrases “Secret language of teens” and “Beware massive phone bills” flash across the screen, the segment begins with host Chris Cuomo cautioning, “Parents beware when your teenager tap, tap, taps away. They’re not just getting sore thumbs. They could be draining your bank account as well. And what in the world are they saying to each other anyway when they’re tapping all these acronyms? Who knows what they mean? They have a whole new language that's leaving Mom and Dad in the dark.” As an illustration of the financial perils and linguistic pitfalls of texting, the story then presents a 10-second snippet of the first AT&T commercial, moving on to profile a family with a profligate teenage texter and decode some of the insidious “secret lingo” of texting.4
Just as news programs like this “decontextualized” and “recontextualized” (Bauman & Briggs, 1990) materials from the “Beth Ann” ads to construct narratives about the evolving language of texting, other sources indicate that young people across the United States extracted and performed key phrases from the commercial in everyday communication, establishing different “relations of intertextuality” (Spitulnik, 1997, p. 162). In her study of the circulation of the reception of mass media in Zambia, Spitulnik explores the way “phrases and discourse styles are extracted from radio broadcasting then recycled and reanimated in everyday usage, outside of the contexts of radio listening.” Spitulnik focuses on the way “detachable” elements of media discourse provide iconic cultural reference points that accompany the formation of speech community. In the case of the AT&T trilogy, the detachable element that came to circulate as a freestanding catchphrase proved Beth Ann's sassy “IDK my BFF Jill” from the first commercial, one that functions for young people as both a pragmatic resource and a shibbolethic badge of membership.5 Here, we discuss some of the commentaries the circulation of this catchphrase has occasioned.
On the Internet, the commercials in general, but particularly the phrase “IDK my BFF Jill,” has spread with the characteristics of a meme—“a popular term for describing the rapid uptake and spread of a particular idea presented as a written text, image, language ‘move,’ or some other unit of cultural ‘stuff”’ (Knobel & Lankshear, 2007, p. 202). Encyclopedia Dramatica (ED), a website one journalist describes as “the Wikipedia of obscure Internet memes” (Douglas, 2008), features an extensive entry on “IDK, my BFF Jill?” It defines the phrase as “a minimeme spouted at random moments, in reference to a Cingular commercial.” In a hyperlinked entry, ED defines “mini-meme” as “a little meme spawned from a larger meme, which is already established in e-fame” and associates it overwhelmingly with catchphrases bearing an indexical relationship to culturally salient primary texts (movies, commercials, video games, etc.). The entry links to music videos for techno songs based around audio samples from the commercials. It also features a gallery of off-color pictures Photoshopped to include some variant of the phrase “IDK, my BFF Jill?” Similarly, the site icanhascheezburger.com, features an “IDK, my BFF Jill” LOLcat (i.e., a photograph of a cat literally on a phone, overlaid with the caption “IDK, my BFF Jill”), which has garnered 4/5 cheezburgerz after 2252 votes.6 Appearances of the phrase on a popular LOLcat website and on ED, are evidence of the iconic status it has achieved, as is its inclusion on popular peer-edited lexicography sites.
Netlingo.com, which claims to have the largest collection of Internet acronyms, terms, and text messaging shorthand, identifies “IDK, my BFF Jill” as “text lingo” and claims that the phrase was widely used in high schools throughout the United States. Multiple variants of the phrase “IDK My BFF Jill” appear on UrbanDictionary.com, a popular user-generated dictionary of contemporary slang—from words and phrases to abbreviations, initialisms, and acronyms. Visitors can vote on whether or not they agree with the definitions, and can send comments about the entry as well. Five variants of the phrase “IDK My BFF Jill” characterized by differences in capitalization and punctuation, collectively received hundreds of votes for and against. Most of the entries link to the commercial, and some include transcripts of dialogue. The entries are cross-referenced as internet lingo, texting, and aim. The site also has multiple entries for “TISNF,” labeled as “American chat English,” that provide a transcript of the relevant portions of the commercial. There is considerable debate about the authenticity and use of this initialism in particular, which one user asserts is “a phrase that absolutely nobody uses.” Clearly, these websites provide one context in which these meanings and currency of messaging forms may be challenged. Another major context are the forums on YouTube.
The life of television commercials is no longer limited to the time they air on television. Video-sharing Internet venues such as YouTube have provided additional opportunities for extending the media life of these visual and verbal artifacts, giving them additional routes for entering into the public and popular circulation of ideas, images and talk. Created in 2005, YouTube has become one of the most important, dynamic foci of Internet culture. Registered users, or “YouTubers,” can upload videos, and just about anyone can watch them—now even through selected mobile phone services. The site has also emerged as an arena of social networking through the sharing of videos (Lange, 2008). Commercials recorded from television by individual fans have been a popular upload item, making advertising itself an object of what Henry Jenkins (2006, 2008) calls the new “participatory culture” of fandom. Advertisers, in turn, have begun posting their campaigns on the site, which in turn provides them with demographic information on viewership (Elliott, 2008; Quinn, 2008). As we describe in this section, YouTube not only extended the “IDK my BFF Jill” phenomenon, but also provided a flourishing forum for relatively egalitarian metalinguistic commentary on the language register used in and associated with the AT&T commercials.
One factor behind YouTube's success is its inherently dialogic character. YouTube displays several indicators of the popularity of each video, providing the number of “hits” each video receives, as well as the number of times a video is “favorited” by registered YouTube viewers. The site offers features that allow users to express their reactions to videos by posting a self-made “video response” and/or written comments. In addition, users can upload videos that recycle elements of an original, and which are indirectly associated with it through self-specified keyword “tags.” The AT&T commercials—particularly BFF Jill—elicited dozens of videos reactions posted on YouTube with tags such as idk, bff, and jill. Overwhelmingly, these videos were reenactments staged by girls of approximately Beth Ann's age, though a few boys (several in drag) also took part. One girl used a webcam to make videos of herself lip-synching the three commercials, expressively imitating characters' facial expressions and gestures. Other young fans staged more-or-less faithful reenactments of the commercials, staying close to the script or improvising vignettes loosely inspired by the commercials' dramatic conceits. These reenactments often call attention to—and exaggerate—elements of the original young viewers find particularly funny: Beth Ann becomes sassier, Mom more incompetent as a text-talker, and grandma more vulgar (“W-T-F? [Subtitle: What the ****?],” she spouts in one remake). In one spoof, a vociferous African-American mother beats a daughter who has run up an outrageous texting bill with her “BFF Kashenya.” In addition to homemade reenactments, users manipulated audio and visual materials to make new videos. Some users posted slowed-down and speeded-up versions of the commercials. One video retains the original visuals, but replaces Mom's speech with a sinister computer generated voice that showers Beth Ann with obscene imprecations. Another video retains the audio track but replaces the visual track with scenes from the Disney Channel original movie, “High School Musical.” A remix credited to Paul O’Toole retains Beth Ann's speaking parts but replaces Mom and her phone bill with an irate man waving a roll of toilet paper. “It is a big deal. Someone took a gigantic shit in my bathroom and I want to know who!” he fumes. “IDK, my BFF Jill?” Beth Ann responds.7
These video-recorded reactions attest to the commercials' cultural iconicity, but it is in the written comments about the three commercials themselves where the most dynamic metalinguistic dialogue unfolds. YouTube members can post written comments about any video, evaluate others' comments with a rating of positive/negative, and also respond directly to other commentators.8 Because YouTube user profiles are not verifiable and often contain misleading information (and many accounts have closed), we cannot draw sure conclusions about commentators' gender, age, or country of origin. While we sometimes cautiously invoke user profiles, our primary focus is on the membership commentators display through not only their written assessments but also the stylistic conventions they employ, displaying cultural knowledge and enacting identity in respect to language norms. While some users' comments are characterized by standard spelling, punctuation and grammar, most deploy the nonstandard conventions of messaging (initialisms, acronyms, shorthand, and a few emoticons). Indeed the comments resemble text and instant message utterances in style and length.
While most commentators responded directly to something in the commercials, a smaller, but still significant number respond to each other's comments, sometimes creating a sustained (but asynchronous) discussion of a particular topic, with two or more participants. Although YouTube comments are limited to 500 characters, comment sets across a range of videos types and categories exhibit significant stylistic variation.9 Research on online viewer comments to YouTube videos is still in its early phases (Lange, 2007a). While some view this internet forum as having the potential to provide a positive multimedia participatory environment (O’Donnell et al., 2008), others claim that YouTube's comment forums are the most “loud” and “dumb” corner of the Internet.10 For those who must read the comments, but are offended by the form that they take, a Firefox extension called the YouTube Comment Snob has been created to eliminate comments that exhibit nonstandard forms.11 The application of this extension would eliminate most of the 4234 comments posted in response to the three AT&T commercials (as of 11/01/08), leaving us with little textual material to consider. We consider the comments a valuable source of user-generated metalinguistic data; in particular, they demonstrate that respondents have strong opinions about language and texting practices, and freely question and evaluate linguistic choices in terms of competence, appropriateness, and “correctness.” We see that in this community where language practices are dynamic and changing, prescriptivist norms are nonetheless asserted, and language choice gives rise to social stereotypes and assessments.12
We consider the YouTube dialogues about the emergent language of texting especially significant given Herring's assertion that “mainstream media commentators interpret new technologies and youth practices in normative, moral terms, a process that reinscribes youth as ‘other,”’ (2008, p. 71) and that young people have proportionally “fewer rights and opportunities to participate in public discourse” (p. 76) about their own practices. While we agree with Herring that venues such as YouTube's commenting forums may not carry the cultural weight of mass media outlets, we argue below that they are nevertheless relatively democratic spaces for exchanging metalinguistic views.
Much like bathroom graffiti (Rodriguez & Clair, 1999), the potential for anonymity that YouTube affords opens the commenting forums to a wide array of voices, but participants carefully scrutinize the style of their own comments and each other's. Unlike graffiti, YouTube comments tend to retain a high degree of topical coherence, if not a cumulative progression or structure of responsive turn-taking. The redundancy of the comments suggests that posters do not read more than the most recent comments, as the same queries and opinions recur. Contributors create an aesthetic or stylistic coherence by mirroring the content and genre of the commercials themselves. The majority of the comments are short, positive and relatively formulaic; in other words, they share linguistic features for producing and interpreting messages—all marks of a speech community. Many include one or more of the identifying catchphrases from each commercial (the most popular being “IDK, my BFF Jill?”), establishing them as quotable forms that could circulate across media. The use and circulation of these intertextual multimedia phrases became the subject of comments themselves, in many cases demonstrating their potential for keying a range of cultural responses from metalinguistic play to anxiety about texting, the demise of English, and the failure of parental control of teenagers.
In the following sections, we consider each comment set in turn, highlighting notable metalinguistic and metadiscursive features, and looking at ways users discuss the poetic, metapragmatic, sociolinguistic, and ideological dimensions of texting as a specialized register. Taken together, the comments offer an intriguing view into how particular linguistic forms elicit, circulate and come to constitute a set of iconic social meanings in terms of who uses and approves of them, who does not, and why.
BFF Jill: The Initial Novelty
BFF Jill was uploaded to YouTube 9 days after its original airdate by a user named Solarmax. As of November 1, 2008, it had drawn 1,564,989 views, been favorited 10,380 times, received 22 official video responses (with many other video reactions not linked) and 3,128 written comments. Many of the commentators react to the initial novelty of hearing texting as a form of talk by repeating some or all of the abbreviations spoken in the commercial (particularly “IDK, my BFF Jill,” which served as the sole content of multiple comments). For example, the following comment calls attention to the strangeness of talking text by spelling out the sound of each letter in Beth Ann's catchphrase:
eye dee kay my bee eff eff jill.
This early comment establishes a popular response pattern, approximating all of Beth Ann's utterances as an uninterrupted sequence, followed by a positive assessment:
IDK. My BFF JILL
As in subsequent comment sets, most commentators register their appreciation of the commercial's humor using online jargon (LOL, ROFL, LMAO, etc.) and associated graphic markers of emotional intensification/involvement (expressive punctuation, emoticons and other symbols). These features of the comments not only help convey posters' high opinion of the ads, but mark their self-identification with the verbal phenomena the commercial depicts. Some commentators echo the commercial's use of initialisms to generate comments. In the following comment, cherrycutsiegirls provides a gloss for novel initialisms (the comment has garnered a “+3” rating):
omg, wtbd? omg tism! itlftad too! (oh my god whats the big deal? oh my god this is so me! i text like fifty times a day too!)
Some of the comments following this pattern seem to have an ironic or sarcastic tone, as in the following examples:
it's called i. we’ve been talking in i for years.
i t i i s t y p t t i s c.
omg tic IW I cdt i dt att w my bff & rotfl
We suspect that the first intitialism stands for “I think it is stupid that you people think this is so cool,” and the second for “oh my god, this is cool. I WISH I could do that. I do that all the time with my best friend forever and roll on the floor laughing.”
Participants used the commenting feature to express their own orientation toward the language of the commercial and to address metalinguistic questions it raised. Some boasted they could understand the dialogue without the subtitles because of their own texting expertise, while others voiced mystification. Several thought that Jill was speaking a foreign language like French, German, or “a Middle Eastern language.” Commentators proposed a number of metalinguistic categories to classify the kind of language Beth Ann uses in the commercial, even seeking each other's input:
this is so funny, wht ar these things called like btw,omg,lol wht are they called.
they are called “if my kids talk like this in verbal conversation they are
they are called acronyms
Many posts spontaneously classify Beth Ann's speech style using descriptors like “slang,”“texting slang,”“Internet slang,”“IM slang,”“IM,”“IM talk,”“IM speak,”“chatspeak,”“chat talk,”“text speak,”“text code,”“l337,”“l337 speak,”“Newspeak,”“AIM,”“AOLer,”“Internet stuff,” and simply “i.”
Through the BFF Jill comments, Tubers share information about novel language forms, pose questions about language they might not otherwise ask their friends, and offer each other practical advice. A surprising number of viewers posted requests for glosses of particular initialisms used in the commercial. The announcer's “N-B-D” (which is not accompanied by a subtitle) generated lots of confusion, as in the following exchange:
What is NBD??? they say that at the end “ Now texting is NBD” wtf is that lol
NBD=No big deal and my name is Jill and really i no Megan
no big deal
nbd is not a bad deal
I think “no big deal” would make more sense ;)
are you an idiot? it is typed out in the commercial.
Others requested definitions of initialisms used in the comments themselves (e.g., lmao). Contributors recommended resources to each other for deciphering messaging terms (e.g., UrbanDictionary.com) and for texting more efficiently (e.g., t9.com). Some commentators negatively assess the commercials' use of initialisms as inaccurate or inauthentic, singling out “TISNF” as especially problematic:
some of this stuff like tisnf nobody says that online
In the following comment, Rayofpain poses a rhetorical question: “TISNF? What the fuck. Get the fuck out, ok?”
NOT FUNNY NOT FUNNY NOT FUNNY k
TISNF? WTF. GTFO K.
Another initialism attracted attention not because of its form, but because of the gloss provided for it in the subtitles, which mattsherwoodmusic123 deemed unsatisfactory:
OMG does not equal “oh my gosh”, but w/e
what does it mean than cause it kinda does..
It's not age apporpiate if they say Oh My God on T.V. so they say Oh
So yeah, it is the same thing.
This exchange suggests that initialisms can also be tools of surreptitious vulgarity. Other commentators suggest that the ad would have funnier if it had used more popular, but vulgar, terms such as “WTF” (What The Fuck) or “STFU” (Shut the Fuck Up).
Commentators were fiercely divided on the social and linguistic implications of BFF Jill. Some frame the language of the commercial as a fashionable model for their own verbal behavior:
O M G I'm gonna start to like talk like that…
lol … i —-> i do!! a t t —–> all the time i i f ——> it is fun … lol.
Others, negatively evaluate the verbal behaviors depicted in the commercial, generally presenting prescriptivist views in standard written English. Many of the posts espousing prescriptivist views argued that the daughter should be punished for her sassiness as much as her verbal behavior.
The fact that not only would most parents in this country let their child be this insubordinate, rude, and generally idiotic without just fucking smacking them and the fact that that people somehow think this is ‘cute’ or something proves this country is going straight to hell.
unclejimbo, i completely disagree, but you can parent your children like that, with the abuses of smacking and physical attacking, and politley be pumpled in to state prison for child abuse!
Note that the ScienceNerd11, who responds to unclejimbo827, is very active in this forum, identifying herself as a preadolescent girl. In an earlier post, cited above, she writes “lol … i —–> i do!! a t t —–> all the time i i f ——> it is fun … lol.” In responding to unclejimbo827 (who self-identifies as a 28-year old male), she codeswitches to relatively standard written English.
We note that these codeswitches also function in the opposite direction. For instance, ometta7, who identifies as a 16-year old male, enunciates the following prescriptivist perspective in relatively standard English:
IT'S NOT FUNNY!! In ten years that is how people will talk. It will either start
in America or Japan, and kids will talk like that using their vocal apparatus!
Teachers will be forced to teach this strange new language. “Alright class,today
we’re going to talk about OMG. Can anyone tell me what that means? Yes,
Kyle?” Do something and fight this menace! Now!!!
Respondents derided the comment (which also received a rating of–7), and snidely point out grammatical errors in his subsequent turns. Frustrated, he switches to a more aggressive style of discourse, telling his adversaries in initialisms, “shut the fuck up, stupid motherfuckers”:
Man … I really don't give a shit anymore …. So stfu smf, ysaslf
His primary adversary, who identifies as a 15-year old boy, retorts:
Excuse me sir, i could not understand your slang terms. please restate that so i can understand, SIR.
While we acknowledge that the personal information Tubers post may be unreliable, the shifting styles of users like ScienceNerd11 and ometta7, indicate a shared understanding of writing styles as indexically related to both social identities and particular discursive activities (serious debate, aggressive insults, etc.).
Some commentators thought it implausible that people would actually talk text:
Because if people actually started talking like that in real life, I'd die or go crazy. And holy shit, it'd be annoying.
Nevertheless, a significant number of users report that they in fact talk like Beth Ann in the commercial:
im 12 and to get my my mom pissed i talk AIM!
This user indicates how annoying it is when parents try to talk text, humiliating themselves like Mom in the commercial:
this roxzz i always talk to parents thiss way but they dont get it lol thenn they “try” to talk in i/m or txting lol and they say abuncha letters like ttyr and im like lmao lol
Other comments make the social symbolism of text messaging forms as markers of identity more explicit by associating speech styles with specific social categories:
that girl is so 1337 and the mom is a /Vub
A number of commentators, like LKr721993 below, identify “IM talk” with “preps,” presumably privileged and trendy young people:
IM talk is in …. speaking ou tthe words = OUT!
its not called IM talk mainstream loser. go fuck yourself with your
stupid shit prep friends
wow jeez calm down..
Other comments indicate the “preppies” are incapable of using “text talk in real life,” presumably associating such language with a more elite stratum of computer users (the poster's screen name suggests involvement with online gaming):
I loathe this commercial. With a passion. DEATH. Preppies like her do NOT use txt tlk IRL.
In the following thread, mhlzero suggests that talking text is marked for both race and gender:
hahahah only white girls talk like this
nobody ACTUALLY talks like this, dumbass. it's “text-speak”,
people TYPE like that.
i fuckin talk like that.
no, i got friends in school and their white and they talk like this
all the time … lol
A number of comments attest to the widespread popularity this commercial enjoyed, particularly among young people. Commentators report mimicking some or all of the commercial and many early comments indicate the pleasure of memorizing the lines and acting them out.
OMG! i love this commercial! lol during english i was actin it out with
mi friend lol she told me to stop it though! glad u posted it!!!!!!!!! ∧8∧
omg me and my friends act it out alll the time!! haha. theyre like ‘omg
you do it so good do it again do it again” lol
Many describe the frequent—and irresistible—use of the commercial's slang in conversations with parents:
This is the best commercial ever. My mom is getting so mad when I tell her omg, indb, tisnf! Half the time when I'm talking she doesn't get it.
Comments soon attested to the popularity of the phrase “IDK, my BFF Jill?” among peers, particularly in school (and classroom) settings:
love this its sooooo funny! i hate when ppl imitate it like in school!!
idk my bff jill? the new catch phrase in my school lol
IDK MY BFF JILL?! I luv that part. that's like the slogan of my nmath class!
Some users report using the phrase “IDK, my BFF Jill?” when they don't know answers on tests, or in spoken responses to teachers:
today my spanish teacher asked me a question and i was all like “idk my bff jill??” n she gave me a detention. cc
The reports of recontextualizing “IDK, my BFF Jill?” in different interactional settings point to the expressive and pragmatic productivity of this kind of detachable discourse—even if the immediate consequences prove unpleasant, as in the above example.
BFF Rose: A Meme Ages Gracefully?
Following the intense and largely positive response to BFF Jill, AT&T uploaded a “sneak peek” of its sequel, BFF Rose, to YouTube on August 30, 2007, four days in advance of the commercial air date. As of November 1, 2008 BFF Rose had 458,466 views, was favorited 3757 times, had three official video responses and received 1005 comments. As with the first comment set, the comments exhibit a high degree of redundancy, with frequent echoing of favorite lines of dialogue, and the revoicing of punchlines from BFF Jill. Commentators again made heavy use of messaging forms (initialisms, emoticons, etc.) in assessing the ad, and articulated a wide range of metalinguistic perspectives. BFF Rose elicited comparisons with the original, favorable and otherwise:
thanks for butchering a funny meme AT&T.
Others worried the new commercial would reinvigorate the “IDK, my BFF Jill” fad:
omg people just got over saying idk my bff jill well now once the preps see this it will be the new “in” so they will start saying it. that really makes me mad at school i would hear idk my bff jill 100 times aday and its annoying
Many of the comments expressed enthusiasm for the grandmother's text talk and her feisty demeanor, as well as the intertextual relationship between her “IDK, my BFF Rose?” and Beth Ann's iconic phrase in the first ad. As with BFF Jill, a number of comments indicated the ad would be better if the grandmother used initialisms containing swear words such as WTF or STFU.
If the old woman had said “w-t-f”, this ad would have been a bona fide classic. Comedy gold.
Uptight Americans would never allow it, though. Imbeciles.
Saying “W-T-F” is not profane, because she would not be saying the actual word “fuck”.
This comment, which makes the initialized F-word visible, drew a rating of–7, the lowest in the entire comment-set (001bf self-identifies as US resident).
The two most commonly queried forms were Jill's “NWRUS,” which is subtitled, and the voiced-over “NJOY,” which is not. The first provided material to be reframed as a rhetorical question to mock the person asking for help, as in the examples below. Here, Mschocolate410 was clearly operating on the strict initialisms hypothesis.
omg! i didn't understand any of what bethann says in the beginning … i thought it would be nw! ays? but that's not what it sounded like …. clarification anyone?
she says NW! RUS? meaning, no way, are you serious?
DOOD. ARE YOU SERIOUS? R U S? WTF?
In the following response to one of several queries about NJOY, ChomuSclavus recycles NWRUS as a playful jibe.
anyone know wut njoy means???
I think it's short for enjoy.
NWRUS??? = −D
Sean's spoken “U-G-H” provoked queries and discussion:
You don't really spell “ugh”… it's like something said when disappointed and stressed. It's not an acronym. lol and lmaoqxz are what you spell out … not ugh.
ugh isn't an acronym x__X
Yeah but they’re speaking in text which uses acronyms like “myob” it does not include “ugh.” would you spell out the word “woof?” if you were describing how incredibly annoying your dog was when the mail man came by?
“O yea … so my dog wuz crazii lyk w-o-o-f b-a-r-k g-r-o-w-l w-o-o-f so i lyk let him outta da house”
In the above thread, as ZeroCorpse and DontHoldYourChops explore the apparent resemblance between interjection and onomatopoeia, the latter imaging a hypothetical utterance with spelled-out onomatopoetic terms.
Many comments point out alleged spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes in other comments, or criticize unconventional language as a way of questioning an author's credibility, as in the following example:
these commercials encourage illiteracy
u encourage illiteracy
You BOTH encourage illiteracy. Punctuation and grammar, they’re your friends!
no u both encourage illiteracy what the hell why would you end a sentence with an explanation point if its not an exciting sentence
Because I thought it was interesting. Also, It's not an “explanaition” point. And you didn't use any punctuation. I can't take your comment seriously.
ur mom encourages illiteracy
wtf ppl who think this encorage illiteracy they r just funny just chill peeps! :)
Given this captious forum, it is not surprising that commentators often followed conversational preferences for self-repair, evidencing a concern with looking good. In the following instance of self-repair, Xgen209o4fan posts to negate a definitional question, but this face-saving move is not enough to stave off the sarcastic response of rebeccazx3:
idk my bff..URE MOM
what does that mean tho?
oh and SIIYE djm
nvm lol i remembered that its mind your own business
gee … maybe you should look at the subtitles when she says it …
(i = I) (d = Dont) and (k = Know) and when you put them all togeather you get “I Dont Know”
IDK Scrabble: Testing the Rules
The third commercial, IDK Scrabble, was posted to YouTube on February 20, 2008, five days after the initial airdate, by ShareATT (apparently a surrogate of AT&T). As of November 1, 2008 it had 24,469 views, had been favorited 307 times and had 100 comments. The frame of Scrabble invited a number of metalinguistic comments focusing on the rules of that word game, e.g.:
I hope Scrabble doesn't accept texting lingo next.
A number of viewers found Mom's reaction to the suspect play particularly funny:
i lol'd hardcore when the mom said ’roffle's not even a word’ definately epic
As with the other commercials, commentators corrected each others' spelling choices, as well as their own, and also engaged in various types of verbal play based on common texting forms.
Many of the comments recycle some of the “talking text” expressions that feature centrally in the commercial—“ROTFL,”“ONUD,”“question mark?,” and “AYL”—and most of the metalinguistic discussion centered on the use and meaning of those expressions. Many commentators positively assessed the commercials' humorous violation of everyday language conventions, such as the grandmother's sociolinguistically jarring “ONUD,” and Beth Ann's pragmatically far-fetched but stylistically consistent “question mark?”:
the grandma is prettyy badass XD
A metalinguistic controversy emerged around the proper form of highly lexicalized messaging initialism that the commercial renders as ROTFL, resulting in numerous exchanges that focus on repairing the commercials' usage:
It's rofl not rotfl … fucking retards.
never heard rotfl without the mao …
hold the mao? wu w/dat?
No rotfl makes more sense, everyone leaves out the ’the’ lol xD
These commentators make normative assertions about the definitive form of this common messaging intitialism, evaluating the variant the ad employs. The second comment involves particularly clever soundplay: the user named goldfndr, asserts that the only variant of ROTFL s/he knows is ROTFLMAO (Rolling On the Floor Laughing My Ass Off). “Hold the mao?” s/he asks, playfully recontextualizing a deli counter commonplace. Two months later, the same issue resurfaced, as one commentator asked,
Is it ROFL or ROTFL?
Roll On Floor Laughing
Roll On The Floor Laughing
both right, but ROFL is easier
One user deployed numerous variants of ROTFL, when the possible identification of Beth Ann's friend as none other than the BFF Jill, provoked a paroxysm of risibility:
these r my fave commercials!!! i actually saw my BFF jill in this one!!!!!!!!! ROTFLOL!!! ROTFLMAO!!!! ROTFLMFAO!!! ROTFL!!!! LOL!!! I FUCKIN DIEDDDDDDDDDDDD
Besides ROTFL, other elements of text-talk attracted critical scrutiny from viewers. The following comment highlights the self-reflexive use of incorrect texting forms in Scrabble Challenge (note the poster's own self-repair):
The joke's on Mom. It should be AUL not AYL.
Correction: it should actually be RUL.
The next exchange begins when jordangirly524 questions the authenticity of ONUD, AYL and even the “corrected” form, RUL.
wow no one says “onud” or “rul” or “ayl”
Hella true ….wtf shit is that.
That's why she said “question mark” to AYL
In the second response, lucky644 suggests that these solecisms are at least, in part, intentionally humorous. As debates over correct forms suggest, YouTube's commenting feature provides a context for participants to display what they perceive as correct forms and discuss whether the commercial accurately represents actual usage. In registering their verbal preferences and policing others' choices and linguistic rationalizations, these metalinguistic arguments reinforce the social meaning of variant forms (Schieffelin & Doucet 1998).
Popular advertisements come and go, communications technologies obsolesce, and youth language rapidly evolves. Through the examination of a recent convergence between advertising, technology, and slang, we explore a timeless relationship fundamental to human language: the nexus of poetic language and metalanguage. In his famous distinction between the six dimensions and corresponding functions of language, Jakobson (1985) defines a verbal message that calls attention to its own construction as poetic, and a verbal message about language itself as metalingual (i.e., metalinguistic). While Jakobson discusses these functions separately, others have seen that they not only resemble, but also complement each other (Cameron 2004: 314). Linking the reflexivity of poetic language to the reflexivity of metalanguage, Lucy (1993: 21) writes that “verbal art is a form of creative metalinguistic play with the power to affect social reality.” For us, the “IDK, my BFF Jill” phenomenon in American popular culture offers a powerful illustration of this relationship. The original AT&T commercials are brilliantly crafted artifacts of speech play that assemble elements of everyday language in highly artificial but eminently entertaining verbal performances.13 These performances, in turn, provide not only resources for further verbal play, but also an impetus for metalinguistic commentary and assessment. In short, we argue that there is a direct, if not causal, connection between the ads' poetic deployment of texting language and the critical discussions about texting language they have occasioned.
Monologic mainstream media sources largely assimilated the Beth Ann commercials to the recurring discourses of moral panic that young people cannot easily counter. YouTube, by contrast, has provided an inherently dialogic forum in which young people and texting aficionados can display, develop, and co-construct the meaning of preferential stylistic and communicative practices, at times talking text and talking back to language prescriptivists—or, in some cases, aligning themselves with the prescriptivist viewpoint. While demographic information about YouTubing is difficult to assess, our evidence that young people are actively participating in (still ongoing) dialogues surrounding the Beth Ann trilogy is robust. From the dozens of video responses made by tweens and teens, to the hundreds of written comments from users self-identifying as adolescents and providing firsthand accounts of adolescent life, it is clear that young people are actively consuming and producing YouTube content. What is particularly impressive to us is the attentiveness to language, both as a medium for verbal play and as stylistic marker of group membership subject to careful scrutiny, evident in the dialogues around the commercials. This leads us to conclude that the verbal ingenuity associated with texting—and talking text—should be viewed not as evidence of linguistic decline, but rather in terms of the reflexive, metalinguistic, sophistication it necessarily presupposes and potentially promotes.
Thanks go to our three research assistants: Veronica Shi and Rachel E. Smith, who contributed to the early stages of our collecting activities, and Kristina Nazimova, who helped coding—and decoding—the YouTube comments. We are grateful to Kevin Funabashi for suggesting the subtitle. We also wish to thank Crispin Thurlow for the opportunity to participate in this special issue, and the JCMC's anonymous reviewers for their helpful input.
As part of a panel honoring Jane Hill, we presented an earlier version of this project that also explored the circulation of material artifacts—from coffee cups to T-shirts—inspired by these commercials (Schieffelin & Jones, 2008).
Crystal (2008, p. 33) also mentions the first of these commercials in connection with this issue.
Fans have engaged in lively online debate about whether there is a Verizon or Cingular commercial momentarily visible on the TV before Mom switches off.
For another television news report citing the AT&T commercials in connection with moral panics over texting, see: CNN's “American Morning,” May 1, 2008.
There are several Facebook groups that revolve around the “IDK, my BFF Jill?” phenomena: as of 10/25/08, the group “i-d-k;my..b-f-f, jill?” had 83,759 members, and “IDK my BFF Jill” had 30,246. A cursory glance suggests that most of the members in these groups are female.
http://icanhascheezburger.com/2007/10/08/idk-my-bff-jill; on the LOLcat phenomenon, see Knobel & Lankshear (2008: 28).
Rymes (2008) classifies YouTube remixes on a “resemblance cline” based on the number of attributes they share with the source video.
Several users took “bffjill” as part of their usernames.
For example, comments on a video about the importance of voting posted by the Wall Street Journal (“Obama or McCain: Why you should vote”) were written for the most part in standard English, took a serious tone toward the content, and said little about the production techniques of the video itself. In contrast, a comment set about a gaming video (“How Runescape will end”) drew heavily on typical texting features and exchanges included not only evaluations of the video production techniques, but evaluations of the comments made by other contributors, many negative and personally insulting (see Lange, 2007b).
Of course, not all comments focus on language or metalinguistic issues; comments about the actors or production quality of the video are outside our purview. Nor do we discuss the surprisingly high percentage of comments expressing sexual interest in both Beth Ann and her mother, or voicing more-or-less explicit sexual fantasies about them.
As poetic texts, these commercials function as what Alfred Gell (1998) terms technologies of enchantment—expressive artifacts that, by fascinating us with the ingenuity of their production, ensnare us in webs of social intentions. Thus the millions of Internet users who voluntarily view, memorize, enact, and recycle the ads, also expose themselves and others to AT&T's commercial message and corporate prerogatives.
About the Author
Graham M. Jones is a postdoctoral member of the Society of Fellows at Princeton University, where he is also Lecturer in Humanistic Studies and Anthropology. In addition to sociolinguistic research, he studies forms of knowledge in practice, performance, and interaction, with a focus on stage magic.
Address: Joseph Henry House, Princeton, NJ 08544. Email: email@example.com
Bambi B. Schieffelin is Professor of Anthropology at New York University. A linguistic anthropologist, her research areas include language ideology and language change, translation and Christian missionization, and LOLcats.
Address: Anthropology, New York University, 25 Waverly Place, New York, NY 10003. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org