Monday, May 6, 2013

Digital Language

The Internet has given us a new symbol in our lexicon: The "like".

Not to be confused with "thumb war".

It is a staple of the Facebook experience. If you see content on Facebook that instills positive emotion in you, then the provided way to express that emotion is to hit the 'like' button. It streamlines the entire response process - you get to state your approval of something and everyone else gets to know it.

The symbol has since evolved to take on independent functions in online context. 'Liking' things on Facebook moves them up higher in the home feed, exposing it to more viewers. 'Like's on YouTube function as ratings, with high-liked content being recommended more often to other YouTube users.

Reddit's upvote/downvote system functions similarly to this, where users can vote content up and down if they personally approve of it. What's more, sometimes people on Reddit will physically post 'upvoted' or 'downvoted', so as to communicate their approval (or lack thereof). On, approval of individual users can be expressed by voting to increase their reputation, or 'repping' them. Just as in Reddit, people will often respond to things with 'repped' in order to make their approval known. On 4chan, posting 'sage' functions in a way so that the thread doesn't get brought up to the top of the page, and is used to express disapproval of a thread's content in the same way that saying you 'downvoted' something does.

This is the new language of the online. Abstract concepts and functions are becoming recognizable and commonplace terms.

Communicating in written language has certain limits. What we gain in using deliberate, clarified messages, we lose facial expression, tonality, body language, and general environmental context. We have to compensate for this lack of information by use of our text.

Imagine, then, the ingenuity felt by the first person to ever put a colon, a hyphen, and a closing parenthesis together and call it a "smiley face". The ":-)" smiley was first used in 1982 on a local Carnegie Mellon online bulletin board, with the original message preserved here. The message is a strange read, specifically instructing readers to "read it sideways". At the time, such a detail was not taken for granted.

Such expressions of emotions have grown more complex since the humble days of the '80s. You'll find smileys that cover a whole spectrum of nonverbal expressions, with many of these combinations correlating to pictorial symbols called emoticons. Smileys and emoticons have even adapted to different cultures, with the Japanese having their own distinct smileys that emphasize eyes over the mouth for expression. The ASCII typeset becomes a palette for depicting your reaction.

Sometimes people go a little overboard with it.

On forums, the methods of expression diverge even further from straightforward text. Sometimes people surround their message with html tags that simply say "sarcasm", implying a sarcastic tone to their written voice. In some corners of the web, adding parentheses around someone's name can mean that you're hugging them. Then there is the near-universal "LOL", a condensation of the phrase "laugh out loud" that transmutes action into acronym and has many context-specific variations of its own.

The jump from text to smiley (or sarcasm tag, or emoticon, etc) is probably a bit like the jump from writing on paper to writing on a typewriter, and suddenly realizing that a "spacebar" key is important. That's a bit difficult to wrap our head around in this day and age - before the days of typing documents, leaving spaces between words was a non-action. The idea of a keystroke devoted to adding a blank space was an adaptation to the new technology.

In a very real sense, the vocabulary at our disposal greatly expands once we're on the Internet. Our language becomes richer for all of the terms that we develop in order to adequately express ourselves online. All of these examples emerge from a need, and take distinct advantage of the keyboard medium.

Art imitating life as it would imitate text imitating life.

As the online interface evolved and allowed for greater content creation by users, so too did the way we convey concepts to our peers.

2006 to 2008 saw the emergence of the Advice Dog meme, a simple picture of a dog against a rainbow background, giving bad advice. This simply had humorous appeal at first - there's something funny about a cute, positive face giving negative, destructive advice. But the 'Advice dog' meme soon gave way to the 'Courage wolf' meme, a significantly less ironic image series of an intense wolf giving intense advice. Soon, memes were popping up that described common pop culture, caricatures of people you might know, and even general behaviors that we see in ourselves. Now a whole website - quickmeme - is devoted to archiving and promoting creation of more memes with a lowered barrier of entry.

At some point, the concept of the "image macro" (which is what these picture/text mashups are called) stopped exclusively being opportunities for humorous juxtaposition of picture and text, and started being a way to describe concepts that resonate with us (often humorously). We have taught ourselves to associate certain imagery with abstract facets of personality and interaction, and we can share this imagery with our peers. We teach ourselves the meaning behind the imagery when we browse through iterations of these macros.

For example, there's an image macro called Scumbag Steve. What does "Scumbag Steve" mean? At first, you have no idea - the term "Scumbag Steve" refers to no existent person. The image macro presents scenarios where an acquaintance of yours does something somewhat underhanded or shady. These scenarios are commonplace - most people have known someone who evades paying back what they owe, or someone who is generally inconsiderate, or someone who doesn't keep their bad habits in check. The "Scumbag Steve" macro becomes the outlet where these individual scenarios are placed, and the term "Scumbag Steve" gains a definition - perhaps, even, an identity - from the aggregation of these experiences. It can even end up socializing people, if someone comes across a popular "Scumbag Steve" image that describes an event that you previously did not associate with shadiness.

The "lazy college senior". Hey, I bet you know someone like that!

We see something similar happen on a larger scale with rage comics. Rage comics, like image macros, have very low production requirements - anyone can put together a "rage comic" on Microsoft Paint. Typically these comics re-enact a story from their life using character templates. Each character used in rage comics will represent a distinct, near-universal emotion that helps guide the reader through the narrative.

Over time, we develop associations between these characters and their representative emotions. We might start attaching those characters' imagery with our personal concept of these emotions. We start generalizing their use and incorporating them in our conversations. These go beyond the typical smiley - these "rage faces" gain their meaning from repeated contextual use, rather than from their physical appearance alone.

What's that pipe-smoking crooked-smiling face have to do with anything? Well, if you knew the context...

This is perhaps the most interesting thing that is happening to language. In our efforts to enhance communication among each other - to make it more similar to communication in real life - we've introduced new paradigms of thought to ourselves. Our lives begin to imitate the language imitating life.

This brings us back to the Facebook 'like'.

The 'like' button takes a gesture with clear cultural precedence in human society and digitizes it, much like what emoticons do for facial expressions. It has become our go-to method to express approval or positive reception on most things online, giving it a clear personal function. We can see it alongside our text, or even in place of text if we want to give a low-effort response to something.

It communicates something else, too: the grander social currents of the web. Likes can be tracked and followed. Our 'like's are breadcrumbs that show our paths from one website to another, from one interest to another. A lot can be done with that kind of information - marketers can pander ads specific to your personality. Websites can filter in the things that you'd prefer to hear, to get more page hits out of you.

Fortunately, there isn't any evidence that Facebook is becoming one giant echo chamber. This is good - we wouldn't want our individual agency to be compromised by our online expression. But the 'like' is unique: the term communicates things to other people, but also communicates things to a greater machine.

Unlike our image macros and rage comics, this kind of language isn't exclusively meant for the eyes of other people. Reddit's 'upvote' and 4chan's 'sage' are also new ways of expression that specifically talk to a website in addition to talking to our peers. As developers continue to find new ways for us to interact with their websites, perhaps this vocabulary functionality will expand. Perhaps our learned ability to express abstract emotion through symbolism might find actual function one day, for example.

But given our acknowledgement that the way we're forced to speak online is affecting the way we think in real life, is there any reason to be concerned about the direction of our communication? Should we be upset that English is giving way to neologisms like 'Googling', 'liking' in the Facebook sense, and shoving Fs and Us together to make elongated expletives?

Probably not.

Stephen Fry argues this better than I do.

There is certainly no reason to grieve about use of our language. We know, after all, that written language is still capable of allowing very high levels of discourse. The presence of these new visual symbols in our everyday expression doesn't negate the value of eloquence. Plus, they have certain utility - historically, neologisms develop for new experiences, and online neologisms are no different.

The prevalence of rage comics and image macros signify a certain universality in human experience that is very valuable to acknowledge. Even if these things aren't particularly humorous anymore, they're one more reason to believe that we are all a lot more similar to each other than we'd think. Perhaps there is a growing body of people who let themselves get carried away with talking through internet speech, but that crowd is probably similar to the DeviantART crowd in terms of age and culpability.

If anything, we should be excited. The English language has always allowed for precise discourse as well as fluid expression, and this is a time where we are exploring the new boundaries of our ability to express. You can even see it in blogs like this - I can cite my sources without ever constructing a bibliography. Whenever I make a claim, I can provide a link to my source material embedded within the claim itself, offering all of the utility of a bibliography but in a more intuitive way.

How far can we manipulate self-expression? How abstract can our concepts become while still being communicable? How do we push the digital borders to express ourselves, and how else will it change us?

Perhaps this is a conversation worth having again ten years from now. Or maybe one year from now, given how fast things go.

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