Social Media Semantics – Part 1: To »Like« something

»When I use a word,« Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, »it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.«

– »Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There« by Lewis Carroll –

Complexity lies within

Everyone of us knows the situation: someone is talking to you in a long and endless flow of words. A stream of thoughts raining down at you. Your conversational partner is so focused on his topic that the only thing you could possibly inject every now and then is a slight »you are right” or »I understand your point of view« or »I like what you are trying to say«. Appreciation or rather say positive acknowledgment of someone’s statements or opinions is one of the basic elements of a conversation. It enables you to express your compliance with your dialog partner as well as asures him that you both are in the same universe topic-wise. What’s true for real life conversations is true for social media conversations as well as micro-blogging too.

A history of appreciation

In the beginning there have been message boards. Starting with – nowadays – almost antique systems like CompuServe, discussion boards and forums could easily be called the first social networks ever. They brought together people of the same interests and enabled them to talk about topics in a group interactively. Someone posted a topic and others could react on it or discuss it, adding comments to a single topic-focused stream. All the essential elements of modern community plattforms were already in use: frequent user generated updates in the form of new topics or threads, comments, user profiles and of course the facility to share external content like links or images (video was not a real »burner« then, so to say). This early implementation of a social plattform is still in use. Just head over to the Apple Discussions and ensure your self of their unbroken liveliness. One significant attribute of them has been and still is the strong orientation towards a long and verbosely type of dealing with topics. Discussions can easily go one for months and even years.

Things started to get a little frustrating. Users wouldn’t respond to your topic, others would take over opinion leadership within your own threads – to make a long story short: your reach would go down. Never mind the nerdy smack dicussion boards were putting on their heavy users and the lack of real analytics (for its still some kind of ego-thing to talk in public, isn’t it? :roll: ). Something should change. By the end of the 90s Xanga – being one of the first multi-user blogging plattforms – had grown from little more than 100 blogs to the sheer catastrophe of well over 20 million blogs. To blog on a weblog – or »online diaries« how they were called way back then – had become the new way to publish everything that you would like to share with the world. It was and is like building your self a social network profile without an actual social network being involved. It’s just like a Facebook »wall« without Facebook. But everything else was there: frequent updates in article form or within an RSS feed, comments, etc. Discussions could go on for weeks not months but you had at least a certain amount of control about oppinion leadership. Still there was this ugly part of flipping through a huge amount of comments, reading them, understanding them and responding to them.

Now fast forward to present. Blogs have become micro-blogs and micro-blogs have been incorporated into social networks. Facebook – being one of them and setting some kind of standard – established and standardized new ways of discussion and commenting. You could still enter a nice and lengthy conversation, but why should you want to do so with a more easy and convenient form of reaction: the infamous »Like!«. Suddenly reacting to a new topic (a status update) had become a matter of seconds. Just click one button, and you are done. But with briefness comes a lack of precision, »I like this« being only an inaccurate translation of »Oh my god, how fucking right you are!« or »Your point of view on this is so erroneous, you could easily kill a population with your dullness.«

Wildcard communication

»I like this«, don’t you? Using the more or less generic term »Like«, a user (let’s call him the sender) is heavily relying on the availability of his respondents to share his mindset, his values and inherent assumptions. On the other hand the respondents are also forced to compress whatever they want to say or comment into a single phrase, not having any kind of guarantee that the sender will know what they wanted to tell him. Only if the sender’s and the respondents’ semantic interpretation of »I like this« are overlapping at least situationally will this wildcard deliver its message. The syntactic reduction comes with a small but important downside: whatever your »I like this« means to the sender, it could never possibly stand for »I do not like this«. A fact more and more people are starting to complain about, hence arrogating some form of »Dislike« button. In the meantime there’s only silence. People could certainly use traditional long-form commenting, but – as you may have heard – they don’t tend to do so. A huge amount of all the interaction going on within Facebook happens to be clicking on the »Like« button. Facebook Developers describe the function of the »Like« button as being that of a rating. But how exact and accurate could a rating possibly be offering only one single level of weighing?

Saying more with less. Although Twitter – as another example of a social media plattform – is a low-level implementation of a social network, putting most of the common tasks like publishing images and videos or tracking stats on the shoulders of third-party applications and only implementing the most basic featureset in a uniquely distilled way, it still offers a richer form of commenting or reacting to topics. Of course it limits you to 140 letters (or less, counting @usernames and #hashtags) but it lacks one singular semantic approach to one-click-reactions. One could argue that Twitter offers some sort of expressing the respondents’ compliancy with the »Retweet« syntax – either coming as an »RT @Username« prefix or as a »(via @Username)« suffix. But the very idea of having two different ways of retweeting a topic could be seen as an effort to emphasize on what the respondents are trying to say. Still retweeting a post (without the respondent adding some extra words to the original tweet) could mean a lot of different things, e.g. »I like what you just said.«, »This guy shares my point of view.«, »I confirm your opinion.«, etc. And it is certainly a matter of semantic-interpretational overlap between you as the sender and your respondents again to be able to be sure what someone wants to express retweeting you. Retweeting primarily and syntacticly evolved out of a user-driven motivation to share acknowledgment. With Twitter incorporating it as an official feature users should be aware of the fact cannot be sure about its intended semantics without looking at the context of its situational use.

Saying less to more people. Social networks and community platforms tend to be seen as a huge leap forward in terms of interactivity and interconnectivity. Everyone can talk to everyone else about almost everything using any kind of content to express himself. Theoretically. Again we use Twitter as a role model. It offers you a chance to speak to millions of people instantly. But this promising opportunity comes with no guarantee that anyone will listen to you let alone responding to you or starting some sort of conversation with you. With wildcard communication like retweeting on Twitter or »Liking« things on Facebook all that you will get if someone finally reacts is some kind of blurry and fuzzy rotten tomato of a word. Being no useful answer to your questions nor some honest expression of feelings these wildcards are the preliminary culmination of a trend towards shortening our communication and sacrificing its accuracy in the name of efficiency.

PS.: I wonder how many of you are going to »Like« this.

Further reading

Twitter to make retweeting official with Project Retweet

Tweet, Tweet, Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting

Understanding the Name of the Game: Retweeting

Facebook Developers on “I like this”

Wikipedia: Semantics

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