How pronouns help attract online audiences

This is a repost of an article published on the blog “Researching Digital Media” in February 2019. “Researching Digital Media” is managed by Professor Camilla Vásquez, a discourse analyst and sociolinguist from the University of South Florida (Department of World Languages).

The author of the blog post is Katharina Lohmann, a B.A. student of English Studies at the University of Bonn, who has written an excellent term paper in the course “The Pragmatics of Digital Communication” (Dr. Stefanie Pohle) in the summer term 2018.

Photo: Controller by superanton (Pixabay CC0)

If you’re into video games or if you scroll through YouTube from time to time, chances are you’ve stumbled upon a “Let’s Play”. Although many variations of this type of video exist, the essence of it is easily explained: a gamer – the Let’s Player – records him/herself playing a game and simultaneously comments on their gameplay. Let’s Plays are highly popular on YouTube. The Let’s Players I’ve been studying have between 2-22 million YouTube subscribers. This means that Let’s Players are able to attract a huge anonymous audience to watch their videos without being able to immediately interact with them. So how do they do this?

YouTube’s Participation Framework

Linguist Marta Dynel suggests that communication on YouTube has two levels. The first consists of a speaker talking in front of a camera – either with the viewer in mind or addressing the viewer directly. On the second level the hearer interprets what the speaker has said. Building on this, I propose that Let’s Plays have three levels of communication. The first level takes place inside of the game. On the second level the Let’s Player interprets the in-game communication. On the third level the Let’s Player’s audience interprets the Let’s Player’s reaction to the game and the speech the Let’s Player addresses directly at them. Since the audience can’t interpret the first level communication on their own as they could when playing the game themselves, Let’s Players might try to make their videos appear more unmediated through their language. How can this be achieved with the help of personal pronouns?

The Pronoun “I”

To answer this question I transcribed the first 10 minutes of 9 Let’s Play videos and analyzed how often which personal pronoun is used, because personal pronouns demonstrate who we identify ourselves with and have an impact on the way we perceive relationships. When Let’s Players use the first person pronoun “I”, however, they do not always mean themselves. Instead they can equate themselves with the character they are playing.

Example 1:

10 I: just got MURDERD.

Obviously it’s not the Let’s Player who got murdered, but it’s his character that he is referring to. (Otherwise he wouldn’t be able to tell us about it :-).) The Let’s Player doesn’t simply talk about what has happened to his in-game self. He is his in-game self. This equation makes the Let’s Play appear more immediate to the viewer, as one level of mediation is erased in his talk.

“I do” vs. “We do”

One big challenge for Let’s Players is the conflict of trying to present the Let’s Play as a mutual experience shared by the Let’s Player and their audience, without being able to hide the fact that the Let’s Player is the only one who initiates the actions in the video. If the Let’s Player uses the pronoun “I”, they emphasize their role as the actual decision maker, as in the example below:

Example 2:

348 i don’t know if i’m gonna be able to beat this,

349 but i wanna at least lea:rn..,

350 how these work,

If, on the other hand, a Let’s Player uses the pronoun “We”, meaning the Let’s Player and the audience, the Let’s Player instead emphasizes the mutuality of the experience that is happening in the gameplay (Example 3):

92 .t alright,

93 we’re in again.

94 (1.4) let’s see where we’re goin’.

When the Let’s Players seem to be unable to connect both concepts, there is a rapid change in the use of personal pronouns in their speech, as in this example:

Example 4:

424 we got a lot of stuff i wanted to do with you,

Here, the “we” indicates a collective decision, but the “i wanted” emphasizes that the decision was initiated by the Let’s Player.

All of this shows that language and the use of personal pronouns has the power to influence “the way we interpret our relationship with others” (Proctor & I-Wen Su). It can emphasize the distance between two people, but it can also help to reduce it, even if those people are being separated by two screens, time and space.

References

Dynel, M. (2014). Participation framework underlying YouTube interaction. Journal of Pragmatics, 73, 37-52.

Lohmann, K. (2018). “We got a lot of stuff I wanted to do with you“ How personal pronouns help capturing the audience’s attention in Let’s Play videos on YouTube (unpublished term paper).

Proctor, K. & I-Wen Su, L. (2011). The 1st person plural in political discourse – American politicians in interviews and in a debate. Journal of Pragmatics, 43, 3251-3266.

Example 1 & 4: EthosLab: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meSIp50ymkU
Example 2: Markiplier: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TA5OMtKTbzc
Example 3: Jacksepticeye: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9h9nL9qISMc


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