It started with last September's Facebook announcement of a potential change: an optional “dislike” symbol to use for status updates. Then, Twitter went ahead and changed its favorites icon from a star to a heart, prompting an immediate tidal wave of reactions both positive and negative.
Related: Coming Soon: A Facebook 'Dislike' Button
Combine those two big stories with the reality of the persistence and popularity of emojis (the newest iOS update added 184 more!), and you’ve got what looks like an interesting shift in digital culture.
On the surface, it seems that the more integrated we become with our computers, devices and social media, the more we’re seeking to express our humanity, opinions and moods. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that not only are brands and agencies capitalizing on this — in many ways, they’re spurring it on. At a time when any small change to our familiar and much-loved digital landscapes prompts thought pieces and 140-character soapboxes, we’re finding newer ways to express ourselves.
What’s emoting got to do with it?
It’s a plot twist novelist and essayist William Gibson could have seen coming a mile away: The more intertwined our lives become with machines, the more we seek to show how human we are. Ever since the two biggest social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter, urged us to tell our personal networks how we’re feeling or what we’re doing, we’ve been encouraged to express our emotions online.
And as digital attention spans have shortened, reaction buttons have risen as the stand-ins for a longer explanation or opinion. Click “like” or a "heart," and you’ve demonstrated your appreciation or support. In fact, chiming in with a "like" or a "fave" has become de rigueur for many social networks, although they mostly haven't offered users opportunities to express negative reactions, to balance out all those positives (more on that later).
When words — or buttons — just won’t do, there are emoticons and emojis. Sometimes, we tend to forget that putting words out through a computer can rob us of our human voices; one way to reclaim a jovial nature is to use emojis and emoticons. Emojis in particular are at the top of their game right now; the simple emoticon — the keyboard-based smiley face of the 1990s — has evolved into an entire library of cartoonish expressions, augmented by everything from food products to activities to props.
According to Buffer Social, these symbols aren't just silly, they can do everything from soften the blow of a critique to make the person on the other end seem more human.
Still, emojis tend to be used more as additions to text rather than a complete replacement. Many people argue that although it seems that a new language is being created, we're hardly losing the written — or typed — word as the number-one form of expression. “The ability to convey tone and emotion through text, without resorting to illustration, is one of the key challenges of writing. It’s what makes someone a good writer rather than an effective artist or illustrator,” opined an article on the subject in the New Republic magazine, adding that, “Though emoticons may make it easier to convey different moods without much effort, they have limitations of their own.”
So, even though it may seem like every person with a smartphone under age of 40 is conversing entirely in emojis, we need not fear that our language will completely revert to symbols anytime soon.
What does this all mean? Put together, it’s easy to surmise that as we join more social networks, we’re looking to assert our individuality and our presence out in a digital universe full of hundreds of thousands of users, all stripped down to binary ones and zeroes. Using reaction buttons, emoticons and emojis is a quick and easy way to do this — plus it evokes a positive reaction.
The reaction to reactions
Speaking of that positive reaction, in this era of online influencers and self-made digital celebrities, good vibes are turning out to be something of a currency. Vibes help determine the social clout a user wields online; namely, those who are the most popular on social media tend to use positive emojis and emoticons.
Buffer Social quoted Simo Tchokni of the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory about this topic. "The emoticon features achieved high performance, suggesting that there is a strong link between emoticon use and social power," said Tchokni. "Powerful users tend to use emoticons often and high clout is strongly associated with positive emoticons,” said Tchokni.
Powerful users — or online influencers — are also exactly what brands are looking for in social media allies. Ergo, if you’re looking to gain a bigger following and possibly convince brands to invite you to events and send you free products, start employing those smileys.
Related: The 2015 Word of the Year Is an Emoji You Use All the Time
It’s not just the emojis that are redefining how we express ourselves on social media; now, it’s looking as though the top social networks are leading a charge toward multiple options for expression. Facebook's rumored "dislike" button never came to fruition owing to the concern that it could be taken too negatively; instead the platform has been implementing a "more expressive" like button.
Digital Trends pondered what this decision could mean for reaction buttons on other social networks. “Most social networks deal in one or two reactions: on Twitter, retweet and favorite are the two options; on Instagram, users can only heart; and YouTube is the only social network to offer a like and dislike button," the site pointed out. "Facebook’s new reactions might be an interesting experiment to see what reactions users favor, and how behavior changes on the social network when multiple reactions, including unfavorable ones, are available.”
But there is more to it than just the notion that a dislike button might add more negativity to the online world (because even though positivity gets you more popularity, “trolling” and anonymous insults are still sadly common). Indeed there are two roadblocks to consider here: One is the uproar that happens whenever an old familiar social network changes anything drastic; and two is the possibility that having so few choices is actually easier.
If users have too many choices, then that diversity almost takes away from their ability to choose, and can feel overwhelming. When it’s a choice between “like” or no response, it’s easier to make that split-second decision on how you feel. If, instead, social networks force users to slow down and consider choices from a list of reaction options, they might be surprised by the results — not to mention how diversity might put a wrench in the popularity plans of those who default to like-ing everything.
Shifting social reactions
In the end, it’s strange to consider that we all have a wide range of opinions and expressions we want to put out there, but with social media, we tend to be boxed in to very simplistic reaction buttons.
Still, we're okay with that (and in some cases prefer it). With emojis, however, the opposite is true: the more the better; they might even help shape your persona to the point that you could gain popularity.
Either way, our evolving digital language is sure to be a fascinating shift to observe over the next few years, and even as early as the next few months.
How do you feel about giving users more reaction buttons and options in social networks?
Related: Forget a 'Dislike' Button. Facebook Is Testing Cute Emoji 'Reactions' Instead.
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