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We Talked to the Genius Behind the Viral Merriam-Webster Twitter Account

Jan 25 2017 3:45 PM
We Talked to the Genius Behind the Viral Merriam-Webster Twitter Account

Eldad Carin, Stocksy

The dictionary has been making headlines for calling people out, but ultimately it's about the truth.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has existed for nearly 150 years as a source a primary source for all English language related purposes. Recently, they've also become known as being the wokest and hippest dictionary on the internet.

Just this past week, the social media team over at Merriam-Webster went viral for politely telling off Kellyanne Conway. After Conway told Chuck Todd of Meet the Press that Sean Spicer didn't lie in a press conference when talking about the size of Trump's inauguration crowd, but presented "alternative facts." While "alternative facts" quickly became a ridiculous meme, the dictionary then tweeted a definition of the word "fact."

This is just the latest in a long standing list of snappy Tweets. At one point, the dictionary told Slate writer Gabriel Roth off after he criticized their style of tweeting. It went so viral that Roth felt compelled to write about it. In another instance, the social media account also called out users who were in denial about the word "genderqueer." During the election cycle, they took to throwing shade at Donald Trump by subtly calling him out for making up words.

We caught up with Lauren Naturale, Merriam-Webster's Content and Social Media Manager and Editor at Large Peter Sokolowski to discuss their political bent and why they've chosen to contribute to public discourse.

Broadly: When did Merriam-Webster make the shift to commenting on political affairs on Twitter? Was it always a strategy from the beginning?

Lauren Naturale: The "fact" tweet was part of our Trend Watch feature, which we've been running since 2010. When a lot of people are looking up a word at a rate higher than usual, in a way that's related to an event, we share that trend and try to add some additional information on the word's meaning and how it was used.

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Does Merriam-Webster as an institution feel it necessary to contribute to public discourse in a way that can be seen as "politically charged?"

In this case, not reporting the trend would have been politically charged: We've been reporting lookup trends regularly for more than half a decade, so continuing on as we always have was the least political course of action.

In light of the recent comments towards the Trump administration, why does Merriam-Webster feel it's necessary to contribute to political discourse in a way we haven't seen institutions do before?

First, it's not new: we've been doing this since 2010. We're reporting on what words sent people to the dictionary, which adds to the conversation, whether that means tracking lookups or answering questions about word usage or just sharing the history of a word that might be on people's minds. Language is communication, so we should at least know what we're saying. The words we use have tremendous power to shape our world; one important role of the dictionary is to provide people with the tools they need to understand each other.

How has your message and Twitter impacted your readership?

The Twitter account has definitely brought us to the attention of some people who weren't familiar with us before; we've more than doubled our followers in the past year, and conversations there are a lot livelier than they were this time a year ago. We hear from a lot of people who always loved words but hadn't necessarily found the dictionary relevant to their lives before, and from people who have come to love words because they've engaged with us there

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In the case of responding to "alternative facts," how do you decide what is important to focus on when tweeting? What kind of responses did you see after tweeting the definition of facts?

Well, we were reporting a lookup, not responding to a statement—and again, we've been doing that since 2010. Trend Watch is not new, and it's not political. We report when lookups spike, which happens for a variety of reasons. Some are driven by political statements such as this one; we've also reported on trends from movies, like revenant, and sports announcements, like irregardless, and pop culture, like sanity. That said, the response was overwhelmingly positive—it's among the most viral tweets we've had, and a number of people told us they were subscribing to our Unabridged dictionary or running out to buy a physical book. As one person replied, that's not a read, that's just a fact.



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