Andy is a pretty easygoing guy. He likes video gaming, travel, and Buddha memes. But there’s one thing that gets him really frustrated — when people ask to “DM” or “direct message” him on social networks. “I refuse to use the term,” he says. For him, it’s “PM” (private message) or no dice. He’s angry when companies randomly change their lexicon from one to the other and just expect people to fall in line.
As social media has become a part of everyday life, so has the language around it. The problem, in this case, is that people (and social media platforms themselves) can’t seem to agree on what that language should be.
The blanket term across chat rooms and early social sites like MySpace used to be IM (instant message). PM entered the vernacular around 2003, and it was embraced by Yahoo, Facebook, and Reddit. And then DM appeared on the scene around 2013 with Twitter, Snapchat, Discord, Slack, and Instagram using the language instead of PM. It may have gotten a further boost as the phrase “slide into my DMs,” which emerged around late 2013 and initially connoted flirting and inappropriate requests.
While talk of IMs today is about as common as Nokia phones, both PM and DM prevail. In one particularly messy scenario, Facebook, which uses the PM term, now owns Instagram, which uses DM.
Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist and the author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, says that verbiage is often generational. For example, she said, the associations of IM “link it to ’90s chat platforms.” Today, many people who grew up with Facebook messages use the term PM as a default, while those who were introduced to social media through Instagram or Twitter opt for DM. McCulloch uses the fashion world as an analogy. “Just because a cut of jeans are trendy, you don’t have to adopt them, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad or wrong for people wearing them.”
According to Google Trends, longitudinal data from the past 15 years, PM wins the popularity contest overall. But that’s shifting. In 2018, the term “direct message” was 9.2% more popular than “private messages.” In a recent story, TechCrunch referred to YouTube’s…