Keeping track of all the trends and changes to social media platforms is an exhausting task, but necessary when the accuracy of Mediaverse analysis depends on it. When we heard about a trend where social media users deliberately avoid using keywords or names in their conversations, we decided to find out more about it so we (and you!) could factor it into our work – this is called Voldemorting.
We asked Emily van der Nagel (pictured right), a social media academic and whose PhD covered pseudoanonymity (the trend of users using false names on social media) and ‘Voldemorting’, deliberately avoiding a particular name or keyword, a tactic she says that ‘politically hides or silences a topic’.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you ended up becoming a social media specialist.
I have a PhD in media and communications, and I teach, speak, write, and research on social media. From January, I’ll be a lecturer in social media in Monash University’s School of Media, Film and Journalism. I’ve been interested in studying social media because I’ve watched as platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat have taken up the attention and time of so many of us. Social media has grown into a huge industry that’s worth paying critical attention to.
“Social media has grown into a huge industry that’s worth paying critical attention to.”
You specialise in examining ‘pseudoanonymity’ in social media. Can you explain what it is?
‘Pseudo’ means ‘false’ and ‘nym’ means ‘name’, so pseudonymity refers to a false name in its most basic sense. But when I talk about pseudonymity, I mean the broad range of usernames, handles, logins, avatars, and identities people use on social media. I deliberately use ‘pseudonymity’ more than ‘anonymity’, because whenever someone is active online, they’re leaving digital traces behind them. No-one is truly anonymous on the internet.
Why do people do it? And what is the most common reason you think that people do it?
People don’t always want to use their real name and real identity on social media, for so many reasons – from experimenting with their identity to escaping troubled or abusive relationships to playing a character. But I’d argue that we’re all constantly negotiating what to reveal and what to hide about ourselves, online and off. On social media, we’re aware that our communication is often public and persistent, so we develop strategies to reconcile the different aspects of ourselves, our lives, and our personalities.
“Social media communication is as messy as people are.”
What implications does it have for journalists? And for communications professionals?
Studying pseudonymity led me to understand that social media communication is as messy as people are. There aren’t neat profiles with complete information about whole populations – some people use different names on every platform, some just use Facebook but have a fictitious surname, some have multiple profiles on one platform, some aren’t on social media or even the internet at all.
Communications professionals rely on keyword analysis to help them with strategy and reporting – is there a way they can get around people ‘Voldemorting’?
Keyword and sentiment analysis might be able to tell us about communication patterns in broad strokes, but it’s incredibly difficult to factor in all the nuances of tone, sarcasm, cultural references, in-jokes, and play. Voldemorting, or deliberately avoiding a particular name or keyword, is a tactic that politically hides or silences a topic (like saying ‘45’ or ‘the Cheeto’ instead of ‘Donald Trump’). This complicates communication analysis, but it’s also useful to be aware of, because it reminds us that messiness is part of language.
Is Voldemorting a growing trend?
Voldemorting has been around for a long time, as a feature of searchable digital environments, but of course for longer than that as a linguistic device. People have always used nicknames as a substitute for saying someone’s proper name, for various purposes. The way I’m discussing Voldemorting is especially related to subtweeting, or the snarky way that people mention others on Twitter without including their @username when they don’t want to be overheard. It’s not enough to render keyword analysis defunct, but it definitely complicates the insights that can be gleaned from the practice.
“I see people referring to Donald Trump by all kinds of sarcastic nicknames to avoid giving him quantifiable attention.”
In what other ways have you seen Voldemorting on social media?
I see people referring to Donald Trump by all kinds of sarcastic nicknames to avoid giving him quantifiable attention. In my work on Voldemorting, I’ve been particularly oriented towards the ways it was used during the Gamergate phenomenon of 2014-2015, a controversy that intensified into an extended harassment campaign surrounding the videogames industry. Women gamers were targeted, and would often attract harassers by simply including the term ‘Gamergate’ in their tweets. Thus, Voldemorting by using alternative terms like ‘Goobergaters’ let them discuss harassment without inviting it.
“People play with language, use hashtags and emojis and nicknames, and either use keywords or deliberately avoid them.”
How can communications professionals and we as media analysts take Voldemorting into account in our work?
People don’t use language or technology in straightforward, easy-to-analyse ways. People play with language, use hashtags and emojis and nicknames, and either use keywords or deliberately avoid them. This doesn’t mean online talk is impossible to analyse, but practices like Voldemorting should be taken into consideration when engaging in social media analysis. Doing so can only work to enhance the insights that be gleaned from the conversations that take place on social media.