Culture of subtlety: On the language of Facebook

Tracy Lam/File

In 2016, Facebook rolled out a whole new system of “liking” posts: reaction emojis. With it, users could “love” hilarious posts, “haha” relatable memes and “wow” facts they never knew. And while these reactions have certainly served their purpose well, providing analytics for companies to know what’s going well and allowing a richer range of emotion to be displayed, they have come with subtle but loaded meanings. Now, simply liking someone’s post implies a sort of indifference — perhaps the person is not a good friend of yours, or your post just isn’t interesting enough to people. On the other hand, a “love” often means that the person is a good friend of yours or just someone with whom what you’ve written resonates strongly.

As social interactions have largely shifted to online, it’s become harder to discern a person’s feelings or motivations. There are no longer the social cues we have in real life: fidgeting hands for nervousness, furrowed eyebrows for distress, different smiles for politeness and for happiness. There’s no longer the ability to leave awkward conversations without seeming rude and no longer the tones in voice we use to express our emotions.

As UC Berkeley School of Information professor Coye Cheshire points out, the reality of the interaction is called into question.

“People end up picking up lots of signals and other information that they infer about the (interlocutor) through these kinds of online platforms,” Cheshire said.

In the absence of visible interpersonal cues, all we are left with is the black and white text sent along with whatever emojis or stickers accompany it. And because there are so many fewer cues with which to gauge a person’s feelings, each of these small signals becomes loaded in meaning, from being left on read (“omg is she mad at me”) to getting the most boring reply of a thumbs-up (“yo she’s done with me”). Arguably, the aspect people focus on most is language.

Language and phrasing have become more and more important. There are different ways to phrase the same intention, and certain ways of saying the same meaning give off certain impressions. Texting “Get some pizza for me please.” is very different from texting “please save me a slice!” Even though they fundamentally ask for the same thing rather politely, the first sounds stiff and formal while the second sounds friendly and funnily desperate. The punctuation we use, the way we spell or misspell words and use slang, the length of our response — all of these can completely change the tone of our message and, to different audiences, can reflect a different personality than how we truly are. And this isn’t only limited to messages and interactions with people we know. The content we post, the pictures we share, and even the captions of our profile pictures are all being taken in and judged by viewers who might not know us, who might be processing this information and forming their own impression of us.

In the absence of visible interpersonal cues, all we are left with is the black and white text sent along with whatever emojis or stickers accompany it.

“People will make … sort of snap judgments where they see very little information, so they might fill in the gaps negatively or positively … based on the few things they’ve said. In online interactions, there’s just a ton of opportunities to misunderstand people and to potentially misread signals,” Cheshire elaborates.

This summer, I witnessed such an opportunity during a small chat with my mentor, who is 30 years old and an active Facebook user. We somehow got on the topic of how we use Facebook, and my friends and I, all interns still in college, gave off-handed comments on how posting regularly with life updates was obnoxious.

“Is that true?” my mentor asked, furrowing his eyebrows.

“Do you post all the time or something?” we joked, still taking the conversation in jest.

With an uncertain hesitation, he replied, “Um, yes?” A quick scroll through his timeline confirmed this, and if I hadn’t known him on a personal level, I might have immediately thought of him as someone annoying who shared too many details when no one asked — someone I knew he wasn’t. I was taken aback. I realized that at some point in time, Facebook had somehow become its own sort of language, a system with its own unspoken rules and dialects, to generational users like my friends and me. And it was a language that my mentor didn’t know about.

… each of us became fluent in the vernacular we spoke and that we ourselves unknowingly generated: Facebook.

I remember in middle school I’d make hyperactive, stupid posts on Facebook every couple of days, and this was something normal within my online community. The posts often included trendy words such as “rawr” or complex pictograms like “xD” and were about insignificant life events. In a sense, we used Facebook how it was probably intended to be used, but looking back, we used it in what most people would agree to be a very “middle school” manner.

Then, high school hit, and without ever saying a word to one another, we matured collectively: Posts dwindled, the slang we used suddenly changed, and captions began including puns. Each of our middle school selves somehow recognized it was time to stop our middle school habits, and each of us became fluent in the vernacular we spoke and that we ourselves unknowingly generated: Facebook.

With all the experience I now have in this language, I’ve realized the extent of my own tendencies to make what Cheshire calls “snap judgments” of people just based off what I see in their profile. If I see someone posting excessively, I automatically classify them as obnoxious; somebody with an awkward profile picture is bound to be just as awkward in real life; and there’s a high chance that those people without profile pictures are antisocial nerds. Each of these — biography, posts, profile pictures, captions — I view as a social cue, in a sense. Just as small variations in punctuation give off drastically different impressions in text, to me, small variations in the way users employ Facebook and portray themselves give off dramatically different characterizations.

But relatively new users, such as my mentor, wouldn’t know of these unspoken rules even as we assume their understanding. We judge them as we judge ourselves — as though they mean to appear the way they do — to unfavorable results.

Maybe one day we’ll acknowledge the absurdity in our judgments and even abandon the language altogether, but until then, I guess that it’s time to hit up those photographer friends and inner poets — after all, you’ve got to make sure your next profile picture and caption get those likes, loves and wows!

Contact Candace Chiang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @candace_chiang.