University of Ottawa researchers want you to “text4science”


published: Oct 19

Lynne Bowker, chair of the School of Information Studies, and Elizabeth Marshman, assistant professor in the School of Translation and Interpretation.

The Scientists
?4U: WTF does %-) mean? Language has never been static. It is continually shifting, but non-traditional languages like Textese (any text messaging language) or Olbanian (Russian Internet slang), which are intimately tied to their technological media, seem to evolve even more quickly than the spoken word. You might think this would be a disaster for linguists, but Lynne Bowker, chair of the School of Information Studies, and Elizabeth Marshman, assistant professor in the School of Translation and Interpretation, would disagree.

The Science
As with so many other researchers around the world, Bowker and Marshman see digital communication as a treasure trove. Each digital message is recorded and is computer-readable, which means that analysis software can be used to sift through mountains and mountains of data to illuminate differences between unique groups, identify patterns and chart trends over time.

There’s certainly a sea of digital messages available to Bowker and Marshman. Twitter, Facebook, countless forums and a slew of other social media offer an entire spectrum of publicly available messages for researchers to dive into. As with all communication, the language we choose to use in these public arenas reflects so many facets of who we are: our own cultural, national and personal identities. Yet it’s not an intimate form of communication: these messages are more like public announcements than conversations.

Text messaging, on the other hand, is extremely private. We text one-on-one to our children, our bosses and even our grandmothers, so the language we choose to use is extremely context-dependent. Some texts are more formal than others, some skip punctuation and, in Ottawa, some are a mixture of French and English. But unlike social media messages, these texts are private. Scientists have a fairly poor idea of the texting practices of Canadians.

The Strategy
That’s why Bowker and Marshman want you to text4science. They are part of a consortium of Canadian researchers attempting to gather over 100,000 donated messages. To participate, just forward your text messages to 202202. For more information, you can visit the project’s website at *.

This isn’t the first project of its kind. In 2004, a Belgian university launched a very successful campaign to gather French-language text messages. Since then, partner universities have extended the project around the world. The Canadian project includes researchers at the Université de Montréal and Simon Fraser University, along with Bowker and Marshman from the University of Ottawa.

Please consult the website for more information.