#anorexia, #anarexia, #anarexyia: Characterizing Online Community Practices with Orthographic Variation

by   Ian Stewart, et al.

Distinctive linguistic practices help communities build solidarity and differentiate themselves from outsiders. In an online community, one such practice is variation in orthography, which includes spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. Using a dataset of over two million Instagram posts, we investigate orthographic variation in a community that shares pro-eating disorder (pro-ED) content. We find that not only does orthographic variation grow more frequent over time, it also becomes more profound or deep, with variants becoming increasingly distant from the original: as, for example, #anarexyia is more distant than #anarexia from the original spelling #anorexia. These changes are driven by newcomers, who adopt the most extreme linguistic practices as they enter the community. Moreover, this behavior correlates with engagement: the newcomers who adopt deeper orthographic variants tend to remain active for longer in the community, and the posts that contain deeper variation receive more positive feedback in the form of "likes." Previous work has linked community membership change with language change, and our work casts this connection in a new light, with newcomers driving an evolving practice, rather than adapting to it. We also demonstrate the utility of orthographic variation as a new lens to study sociolinguistic change in online communities, particularly when the change results from an exogenous force such as a content ban.


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