New AP Stylebook Responds to Users' Questions about Social Media Terms

When the AP Stylebook changed the style for "Web site" to "website" in April, the news was so big that "AP Stylebook Finally" became a trending topic on Twitter.

You wouldn't think that changing the style of a word would elicit such a reaction. But it shows that people pay attention to what the 164-year-old news organization has to say about how the Web and social media are changing our language.

(For those of you who don't know what a "trending" topic is, it's "the 21st century's most advanced method for monitoring Justin Bieber at all times." Oh, wait -- that's how @FakeAPStylebook defined it for a quiz we created about some of the terms in the stylebook.)

For the 2010 edition of the AP Stylebook -- the real one, which comes out today -- editors created six pages of new social media guidelines in response to user feedback, questions and suggestions.

"We found ourselves in the course of doing our jobs, asking and answering fundamental questions about social media in journalism: What does social media include? How do we use it?" said Lauren McCullough, manager of social networks and news engagement at the AP. "We thought the Stylebook was a good vehicle to put some really basic guidelines out there for journalists to reference and consider."

The guidelines -- a compilation of new terms and older ones that have appeared in previous versions of the Stylebook -- provide definitions of words such as "e-reader," "crowdsourcing," "curate," "hashtag," "metadata" and "trending." (Not all of the terms relate to social media, even though they're grouped together as such in the guidelines.)

The section also offers examples of social media, tips on how journalists should and shouldn't use social media in their work and how they can vet sources found this way. McCullough worked with AP Assistant Managing Editor Ted Anthony and AP Social Networks and News Environment Editor Eric Carvin on the tips, which are the same ones the AP uses internally.

Some of the terms in the guidelines might make digitally savvy journalists laugh. Under the text messaging/instant messaging entry (which appeared in last year's Stylebook, too) there's a list of the "most popular" terms, symbols and abbreviations. "POS" (parent over shoulder) made the list, as did "ROFL," which the Stylebook defines as "one step beyond LOL." And, in case you didn't know, "U" is shorthand for "you" and "Y" is shorthand for "why."

The definitions struck several of us at Poynter Online as good fodder for @FakeAPStylebook, and they raise the question: Do people really need the AP Stylebook to tell them what LOL means?

Sally Jacobsen, one of three AP Stylebook editors, said that although many people are familiar with these abbreviations, they may not know how to use them correctly in a news story.

"It's not just what LOL means, but it's how you use it," Jacobsen told me in a phone interview. "It's uppercase, three letters." (If you're copying and pasting an IM conversation into a story, she said, you would keep the abbreviations as they appear.)

"We want to be a resource for people who have all sorts of experience and familiarity with these kinds of terms," said McCullough, who oversees the AP's social media policy. "Most people at this point know what Twitter is, but if people want additional information about what the style should be for 'Twitter' and 'trending,' then that's the additional value of these guidelines."

One might assume that young journalists are familiar with these terms, but McCullough said that's not always the case. When the AP Stylebook Online solicited suggestions last year for its new social media guide, one user wrote:

"I would love a section for acronyms. Even though I'm still slightly young, I never know what they mean or how I should use them in journalism, i.e. when quoting, etc. I would like suggestions on how you would use acronyms such as 'LOL.' A vocabulary on all-things social media would be helpful, too, such as what a handle and avatar are."

The overwhelming majority of people who offered suggestions asked that the AP change "Web site" to "website." Others asked that the AP define "retweet," provide a glossary of standard Twitter abbreviations and add an entry for the verb "Facebooking." (The new guidelines don't acknowledge "Facebooking," but do define the verbs "fan," "follow" and "friend.")

In addition to reading what people wrote on the suggestions page, the Stylebook editors turned to AP staffers and Twitter for input.

The AP has used social media to solicit feedback about the Stylebook as it tries to meet the needs of its audience and stay relevant. (An @APStylebook tweet from last weekend: "We love hearing Stylebook Online described as 'freaking awesome,' even if that phrase isn't in the Stylebook.")

"We're trying to really listen to our audience and have an ongoing dialogue," McCullough said. "Honestly that's really at the core of what AP's larger social media strategy is all about, so it makes sense for the Stylebook as well."

David Minthorn, who runs the Stylebook Online's "Ask the Editor" feature, said in an e-mail that he gets a half-dozen or so questions each month about social media. Some of the recent questions he's fielded include:

  • Should "wiki" be capitalized? No.
  • Should the page in "Facebook page" be capitalized? No.
  • How do you spell the names of blogs? Render blog titles as spelled by the blogger
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"I think it's pretty cool that the Stylebook includes words like 'curate' and 'crowdsourcing' now," McCullough said. "The Stylebook is most certainly a living, breathing document and we're constantly evolving the decisions that are made in it."

Now, if only they'd change "e-mail" to "email" ...

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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