The Emoji React, The Post-Modern and Journalism

You are engaging in conversation against a backdrop of a constantly shifting societal landscape, in turn defining your most relevant subject of debate and your constantly shifting convictions. Epithetical headlines zoom before your eyes as they pierce your thin skin; you grimace, smile, weep, frown in frustration or laugh at what you are being coarsely reported about as the day’s cherry-picked events peak and trough in line with your concentration, fading in and out of focus. You return to a superficial, faceless conversation with a friend, loved one, or unmet acquaintance. This is no Black Mirror plot, but an insight into a profound characteristic of the zeitgeist that is social media.

Facebook remains the uncontested virtual deity of all social media platforms. At around 2 billion users, Facebook’s network share dominates over Twitter’s more than 300 million monthly users.  Facebook’s influence over human interaction, our engagement with information, and the focus on the self have defined this decade and will be the subject of debate for years to come. But it is notably the use of ‘Reactions’ and ‘Likes’ as reactive indicators to Facebook content which I’d like to focus on in this piece as we come to realise how our widespread engagement with information sources and authoritative news providers has simultaneously discredited quality journalism and rendered our encounters with it a gratifying exercise of self-expression.

It all began with the universally recognised ‘Like’ button, kick-started on Facebook on February 9th 2009. This rapidly became the common parlance of all subsequent social media platforms, with those such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram opting not to make any further physical gesture available for users to choose in response to a post. However, in May 2017 Facebook threw in the emotive reactions ‘Love’, ‘Haha’, ‘Wow’, ‘Sad’ and ‘Angry’ for good measure.

The universal ‘Like’ reaction can be seen in several lights, dependant on your role as a passive or active user. While the passive user may note and compare the amount of likes of several posts to see which is received best amongst the wider community and their immediate ‘Friend’ connections, giving a ‘Like’ to a post or comment as an active user can indicate a plethora of thought processes. You could ‘Like’ something through brand or partisan support to a company or party; you could ‘Like’ something because the content of the attached hyperlink appeals to your sensibilities; you could ‘Like’ something because it made you think and question. So as a unit of measurement, the question remains: what does a ‘Like’ represent? At the end of the day, ‘Likes’ remain unquantifiable because they are indefinable. The same applies to the new wave of facial reactions.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s all a bit too much. Beyond capitalising upon the animated emojis in the breath-taking – in a pinch yourself-kind of way – Emoji Movie, I would go as far to class them as strikingly insidious. Chief amongst this malevolent and bewilderingly abstract paralanguage is the ‘Haha’ react – or the smug prick emoji, as I like to call it.

Ofc, the laughing face is a logical addition to the cache of reacts, since Facebook’s universe of viral funny posts demand a different outlet to express one’s state of ‘rofl’ at, say, a doge meme. Naturally subjective, if you spot a ‘fail’ video you may well lmao; if you’re tagged in a video epitomising the nature of you and the tagger’s friendship, you’re going to pmsl — but if you read the headline of a cautiously analytical and objective news bulletin treating a sensitive political theme, does it warrant you putting a laughing react?

Facebook’s entire raison d’être revolves around user experience and the regurgitation of public information into a form of the user’s own personal narrative. It has evolved to deliver this through not only the ‘reacts’, but also through the ‘Share’ button and the option to comment on said shared posts. But it is the ‘reacts’ alone which transcend personal accounts and friendship networks and leave a demonstrable impact on users across the globe.

As mentioned above, just how the ‘Like’ does not necessarily convey acknowledgement of something based on merit, equally subjective is the ‘Haha’ react, which can be seen as a symbol of derision in a journalistic context. Personally, I no longer count how often a laughing emoji ranks amongst the top three reacts on an Anglophone article dealing with Trump, Brexit, the EU or Russia. In an overwhelmingly sensitive political environment, emotions are very high, and people are prone to use the ‘react’ outlet to vocalise this. But sadly, in this echo chamber of personal thought and expression, we require more than paralanguage to nuance debate on topics of the day.

At the most benign, the use of the laughing emoji as a ‘react’ is simply a futile gesture at the messy state of a presidency, negotiations, political union or aggressive state. At the other, users could be taking a page out of Vladislav Surkov’s book and carrying out a new subversive campaign of disinformation. In any case, I believe the ‘Haha’ react, whether intentionally or not, now discredits serious debate and reporting on the most pressing of subjects. For many, for whom Facebook is the main platform of engaging with the news, their immediate impressions may well be skewed by a combination of cynicism and condescension by other users beyond their own circles.

At the start of this year, Mark Zuckerberg announced an overhaul of the Facebook algorithms for user News Feeds in favour of more ‘personal’ posts appearing from your ‘Friend’ list.  How we interact with information needs to change. Turning away from information sources towards a more inward-looking, friendship-oriented user experience may not necessarily be the solution to the digital echo chamber. Yet the social media truism will remain: it’s all about you.

[Uneditied, original submission to Gryphon Views. Printed (abridged) in Gryphon 26th January]

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