Saturday, 12 April 2014

The grammar of social intercourse on the web

Facebook notification: Fred Bloggs likes your comment.

What does that mean exactly? It occurs to me that, whilst human societies have had countless centuries to develop and disseminate subtle modes of social interaction in the face-to-face world we are having to put together similar codes for interaction ludicrously quickly when it comes to the internet. Take the general area of the notification that starts this post- namely the expression of agreement and affirmation.

In the face-to-face world there exists a whole range of means, verbal and non-verbal, to let the other person know that you agree with them- that you are on their side. At a base level there are the simple nods and mumbled "yeah"s and "mhmm"s that really signify little more than "I am not actually asleep yet." Then there are the slightly more enthusiastic smiles or "Yeah, yeah"s and "quite"s or the never-completely-sincere-sounding "Ooh I know." For the young there are the the more emphatic "innit doe"s and "you know it"s or even "that's what I'm saying blud," accompanied perhaps by a high-five or other congratulatory physical contact. For the older participants there is a similar lexicon of supportive (though often essentially meaningless) comments, such as "absolutely," or "I couldn't agree more." In some communities even the middle-aged can accompany these with physical contact, usually centred around handshakes, though we repressed Britons usually have to make do with vigorous nodding and enthusiastic smiles.

If the social context is veering more towards intimacy than debate there is a similar range of supportive actions and comments, often so highly charged that a tentative touch of the hand across a table carries a wealth of meaning and potential. In these contexts in particular the signifiers are so subtly differentiated that they can become a minefield for the unwary or socially inept. So it is not just a question of whether one smiles at a particular point in the conversation, but what sort of smile that is. Get it right and the relationship can move forward incrementally; get it wrong and you risk looking insincere, pushy, creepy or downright manic (or is that just me?)

And on the internet what do we have? A "like" button, often illustrated with a thumbs-up icon.

The thumbs-up icon is actually interesting in itself. In face-to-face contexts the thumbs-up is very rarely used, and then in very specific circumstances. It implies an invocation to stick at it in the face of difficult challenges. It is the non-verbal equivalent of the French "bon courage." Think- when was the last time you gave anyone a thumbs-up in the context of an actual conversation? Because it is also typically a sign given at a distance, when someone is leaving for instance and the time for words is over.

The word "like" itself is pretty inoffensive and all-purpose, but the problem is that it has to carry such a vast range of meanings. To take a variant of the post above for instance: when a woman reads "Fred Bloggs likes your photo" there is an enormous amount of guesswork involved as to the implications of that statement. It could mean:

  1. Fred appreciates the humour/beauty/photographic skill on display in the photo.
  2. Fred has been reminded of your existence by the photo and wants to say hi.
  3. Fred thinks you look very good in the photo, and wants to give you some supportive positive feedback.
  4. Fred fancies you and is using an inoffensive "like" of your photo as a way in to deepening your relationship.
  5. Fred is in fact a deeply creepy stalker who you would be well-advised to block from your facebook posts.
And how are you supposed to know which is which?

Or to take a similarly potentially awkward situation. Imagine the following: you have posted a sarcastically tongue-in-cheek comment about some issue which divides public opinion, in which you purport to put forward a point of view in order to satirise those who hold such views: "I really think the coalition government should be doing more to clamp down on the benefits that go to scroungers pretending to be disabled." Fred Bloggs (whom you barely know) 'likes' your post. Does this mean that he shares your political viewpoints and satirical humour, or that he is a closet Tory who thinks that he has found a political soulmate?

Mostly of course we have other clues as to what the 'like' means in any particular context, but we can never be completely sure. Did Fred click 'like' as a thoughtlessly automatic reaction whilst scrolling through hundreds of status updates, or is this a considered, thoughtful, even coded message of a deeper reaction to your post? Who knows?

The point is that I think we need somehow to develop a greater range of communication fillers and signifiers of social responses for use on the internet. Quite what I am not sure, and I think it would be hard to replicate the vast range of such signifiers we have in face-to-face contexts (particularly given the inherently multicultural nature of the internet), but we need something.

Click the button below to like this post if you agree.

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