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Tuesday 12 March 2019

Emoticons/Emojis Revisited. 2019 edition

The emoticon, or so the popular anecdote goes, was invented by a professor of computer science nearly 40 years ago, to 'mark jokes' in digital writing. Although there is evidence that the use of typographical symbols  to inscribe emotions into text has a much longer history, it is undoubtable that with the development of digital communication technologies and spread of digital communication in our everyday lives, emoticons/emojis have enjoyed unwavering popularity.

At the beginning the hype was all about playing around with the keyboard in an attempt to inscribe those all important missing non-verbal cues. During the past 40 years or so, we got better at it. Firstly, we had to: stakes were raised when much of business and professional communication moved online, and when social media stopped being, well, social. Secondly, we were bound to: with the increased prominence of online communication in our lives came greater practice to use whatever the keyboard allowed to inscribe nuances present in spoken interactions. So much so, that in contexts where high emotional involvement (confianza) is the default expectation, using all caps, duplicating letters or exclamation marks or peppering our texts with emojis is what is expected - these are unmarked, in a linguistic sense. It is when we do not use such techniques that make our message marked, it's their absence that carries a special meaning (Tannen, 2013).

So where are we now with emoticon and emoji appreciation? As Sampietro's paper shows, there is much research that now explores the wide range of functions that go way beyond the idea of adding emotional information: they have been found to  replace non-verbal cues, disambiguate content, mark politeness, emphasize, evaluate, build rapport, strengthen or mitigate verbal messages. But they do so depending on social and cultural contexts: for Spaniards, for example, the two-cheek kiss emoji is a standard sign-off because of local cultural customs. Also,  emoji and/or emoticon use tends to increase in situations with high emotional involvement: I like the term confianza here, the establishment of deep familiarity and understanding.

It is in this light that I became interested in  Molina's et al.'s (2019) paper about emojis in brand communication. The premise of the paper is fascinating: do/can brands use emojis in brand communication as a device for brand positioning? And whether there is a correlation between emoji use and engagement (measured in likes/ retweets)? To answer this the authors collected tweets from 4 beer companies and analysed the use and function of emojis. But although the authors do explicitly state that they would like to learn from linguistic research that emphasizes the context-dependent nature of emojis, they may need to go some way to actually achieve this. They propose 3 categories to assess emotions, use and themes, each further divided up into three subcategories. Little is revealed about how these categories came about (not to mention the convenience of each category to be subdivided into equal number of further categories) or the analytical process of assigning emojis into these categories. Instead, we are treated to a variety of nice graphs, maps and tables with statistical analyses, all based on what reads to me as sentiment analysis of emojis. Therefore the conclusions, for linguists at least, are unsurprising. Emoji use is context dependant, because, as even the authors attest "there are no set patterns for their use and that each brand uses different emojis without the pictograms having any predetermined meaning". Emoji use contributes to communication style and through the confianza they create they help customers to engage with the brands.

So what is the take-away? Emojis and emoticons are alive and well, now even used strategically as part of branding in business.  In spite of their playful nature, they need to be taken seriously - and appreciated for their rich range of communicative functions.

Casado-Molina, A. M., Rojas-de Gracia, M. M., Alarc√≥n-Urbistondo, P., & Romero-Charneco, M. (2019). Exploring the Opportunities of the Emojis in Brand Communication: The Case of the Beer Industry. International Journal of Business Communication, 2329488419832964.
Sampietro, A. (2019). Emoji and rapport management in Spanish WhatsApp chats. Journal of Pragmatics143, 109-120.Tannen, D. (2013)  The Medium Is the Metamessage: Conversational Style in New Media Interaction. In D. Tannen and A. M. Trester. (Eds.) Discourse 2.0. Georgetown University Press, Washington. pp. 99-110

Tuesday 19 February 2019

Quirky, manipulative or a downright bully...

... or why do we discursively normalise antisocial -or even harmful - behaviour when it comes to 'hero leaders'?

So Steve Jobs mocked people's clothes, didn't pay for their work and threw things at them. Labelling this behaviour quirky or inspirational is a very dangerous thing indeed: not only does such language normalise this behaviour, it glorifies it.
Not that the myth of the 'great leader' is not a complex one already. (For an overview, have a look at Spector's book on Discourse on Leadership.) Young people in particular are exposed to a good dose of hero leaders. Rags-to-riches stories and their all-encompassing wisdom, but also the ease of becoming successful are hard examples to follow.
But what are these example exactly?
In a recent study Jonathan Clifton used close linguistic analysis to examine the way hero leaders construct their story of leadership and leader identity.
Clifton takes a social constructionist perspective: the study's premise is that leadership is what people 'do' (and now what they 'have'), and that this 'doing' happens, for most, in human interaction. Clifton examines how leaders 'do' their leadership identities in and through the stories they tell (he calls it the 'in situ construction of leader identity'), specifically an alumni talk given by Arun Sarin, former CEO of Vodafone (this is conveniently accessible on YouTube). More specifically, Clifton examines Sarin's answer to the questions posed by audience members, so that the reader can fully appreciate  the contextual, locally constructed and performed nature of stories. As we follow the painstakingly detailed close analyses of Sarin's responses, the thus far hidden layers of what makes a leader become visibly clear. Sarin, for instance, activates what Clifton calls the 'master narrative' of difference - a young person who has greater internal aspirations than his contemporaries although, that said, at least in Sarin's story, these aspirations should be kept secret from others.
Sarin's story then takes an interesting turn. Having what it takes to be different (and predestined to become a leader) is not something aspiring leaders are or can be aware of at the age of 25: "attaining awareness that you have the right stuff is a result of transition over time: you will only know if you have the right stuff once you have arrived at the top and have proved it – at 25 you don’t know." As Sarin's story goes on, the master narrative of 'leadership is having what it takes' moves to 'life's funny turns' 'lucky breaks' where aspiring leaders have very little influence on where they will end up. And even if they are advised to be active forgers of their own destiny, they are told to be modest, good followers and working very hard to get ahead step by step: by keeping their head down; doing a good
job; having a good attitude; being pleasant; and making others look good and successful. And even then, as Sarin argues  ‘‘you don’t get to choose er the top job it’s others who choose you to have the top job’’.
Clifton's close analysis thus exposes those deep lying tensions in Sarin's story. On the one hand, we have the heroic leader who is different and has the the right stuff, and overcomes dangers that allow him to achieve greatness and self-realisation. On the other hand, there are hints at the reality, which may include lucky breaks, the goodwill of others and perhaps other things conveniently not mentioned, like manipulation, cheating, lying or backstabbing.
This tensions, as Clifton notes, is not surprising though. The Discourse of heroic leadership legitimises dominant power relations and status hierarchies as it "makes claim to the natural superiority of leader who has the right stuff which others are lacking".
The interview about working for Steve Job's clearly shows that this hegemonic ideology is alive and well. An ideology that shows leaders such a Sarin,  to get to the top on account of having the right stuff, while  apprentice leaders have to wait and see if they have the right stuff, but this involves  helping those in power, rather than "kicking against the system". In this way, as Clifton puts it "the bag carriers become complicit in their own ‘‘oppression’’ on the promise that if they have the right stuff and ‘‘carry those bags well’’ then they too will be able to journey to the top." Whether that promise will even come true, however, is another matter.

Clifton, J. (2017). The in situ construction of leader identity in a leader’s life story during an alumni talk to MBA students. Leadership 14(6), pp. 622-643

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Professional casualties of social media

I wrote this for The Conversation (click here for the original article), and I would like to thank Laura Hood, the editor for her journalistic touches! I would also like to thank Scott Metzger for kindly allowing to use his brilliant Santa cartoon.

So here it goes:

Anthony Fisher, a lecturer at Nottingham University, has become the latest casualty of unwise social media use after causing outrage with Facebook posts about his students and their intellectual ability, or lack thereof.

Public humiliation ensued, which in turn prompted official institutional statements on the matter that could leave Fisher with a mark against his name for the rest of his career.

He is by no means the first to become a pariah for failing to think before he posts. Fellow academic Geoffrey Miller, from the University of New Mexico, felt the heat last year after tweeting about “obese” PhD applicants and PR executiveJustine Sacco was fired after sending an offensive tweet about AIDS just before getting on an 11-hour flight to South Africa. By the time she landed, her missive had been retweeted thousands of times.

Unfortunately, the media frenzy that so often surrounds these cases only fuels the fire for those who oppose social media and can be devastating for the people involved. They find themselves at the centre of debates being carried out across continents between people they don’t even know and become the subject of mocking memes, as Sacco quickly found.

Sometimes, the backlash is so extreme, it could even be defined as cyberbullying. Messages posted in response can be threatening and can involve the friends and family of the person who sent the original.

Faux-outrage or rightful anger?

But what is it exactly that causes such over-reaction? Are fellow social media users really offended by un-PC messages or is it the fact that they have been picked up by an unintended and unexpectedly wide audience?

We all have concurrent identities for different audiences and perhaps that is the problem. We are professionals, parents, children, customers, neighbours, drivers, dog-walkers, bill payers and joggers. But these identities don’t exist in isolation. We “perform” them to specific audiences and behave as accepted or required by the role. We talk the way we are expected to talk about the topics that are validated and relevant to a particular audience.

The problem, however, is that very often these roles, these identities, are conflicting: topics, words and ways of saying things could be accepted or even required in one situation and in one community, but they might well be incomprehensible or even offensive in another.

This is exactly what happened in all the cases above. Fisher, for instance, made it clear in his apologythat he had meant for the post to be seen only by his close circle of friends and did not realise that his Facebook timeline was publicly visible. He said he had thought he had changed his privacy settings to hide his posts from people who weren’t friends on the network but that doesn’t appear to have happened.

If you think about what is accepted behaviour when you talk to your friends, moaning is probably on the OK list. In fact, in some relationships, it’s practically a requirement to “perform” in this way. We moan about work, the boss, “the wife”, the traffic, sometimes when we want to really moan and sometimes as a gesture of confidence or to show solidarity.

Throwing stones at Fisher or Sacco about what they said is nothing but double standards. If anything, they should only be penalised for not realising the type of audience they addressed - whether due to ignorance, in the case of Sacco, or due to lack of technical competence, as was the problem for Fisher.

Which persona to use today?

So is banning professionals like Fisher from engaging in social media the answer? Or would disclaimers, like “these views do not represent my employer” work? The answer to both is almost definitely “no”.


Reputational resource” is a crucial aspect of professional communication in our age. This is the sum of all interactions by and about institutions or organisations. It’s the tweets from your marketing department, the Facebook updates from employees about their office and the way you deal with public criticism. Social media inevitably plays an integral part in this these days.

When it works, it has been shown to do wonders for a brand, when it doesn’t, an organisation can let it be a problem or put a positive spin on it.

The answer is perhaps a more thorough understanding of the blurring boundaries between the professional and personal sphere, and more education on different audiences you are addressing when you voice your opinions online. First and foremost though, learn how to adjust your privacy settings.

Friday 20 December 2013

Outrageous! Self-censorship on Facebook

When I skimmed the abstract of a recent paper on Self-censorship on Facebook, I was left in a shock, not only as a Facebook-user, but also as a researcher and academic. In outrage, I could not even read past the second sentence which stated that the authors collected data from “3.9 million users over 17 days” examining last-minute self-censorship. This cannot be right, I thought, and surely not legal, so I went directly to Facebook’s data use policy to check what is said there about collecting and storing UNPUBLISHED data. As I suspected, although there is a section on data Facebook “receives” about its users, like clicks, views, data about the devices on which FB is installed, nowhere is it mentioned that unpublished content is being collected, too. The fact that people - without my specific consent - have been watching my keystrokes made me feel very uneasy, and made me seriously consider deleting my whole account from Facebook.

My academic curiosity, however, was stronger than my Facebook-user outrage, so I went on to read the paper. I couldn’t get too far before coming to a halt again, this time caused by the outrageously inaccurate starting sentence of the whole paper:  “Self-censorship is the act of preventing oneself from speaking”. No, it isn’t. Self-censorship is critically checking ones message before sending, perhaps deleting or amending the content according to the perceived audience or predicted response. You won’t even need to check the literature to get it right (e.g. Hayes, 2007), just check any Thesaurus online. 
But past the unsupported, generalising statements, my favourite bit is the justification of doing this research, the explanation of how last-minute self-censorship can be “hurtful”, since members “fail to achieve potential social value”, and social media sites loose out on the lack of content creation. Is the paper really saying what I am hearing? That if I decide not to post (for whatever reason), I am depriving them from valuable content (=$$$)? Yes, that is exactly what they are saying: Understanding the conditions under which censorship occurs presents an opportunity to gain further insight into both how users use  social media and how to improve  SNSs to better minimize use-cases where present solutions might unknowingly promote value diminishing self-censorship”. I really can’t get my head around this: if they wanted to do a commercial study on “value-diminishing”, why didn’t they? Why did they have to disguise this wolf in the clothing of an academic piece of work?

Luckily, in the Methodology section the authors clarify their method of data collection, and it turns out that ultimately no keystrokes were recorded, only the absence of posting in the 10 minute interval following the commencement of content creation: “Researchers were not privy to any specific user’s activity. (...) the content of self-censored posts and comments was not sent back to Facebook’s servers: Only a binary value that content was entered at all.” 
The fact, however, that they only considered posts and comments that had been started but not published shows a very skewed picture about the whole issue of “self-censorship”. How about if I re-write the text of my posts/comments so that it does not contain the message I originally intended to share? Or even worse, I decide to delete a post one minute after it has been published? 
In this light, I am not sure what their finding of 71% of self-censorship means. Oh wait, they don’t know either: We suspect, in fact, that all users employ last-minute self-censorship on Facebook at some point. The remaining 29% of users in our sample likely didn’t have a chance to self-censor over the short duration of the study.” The rest of the paper gives a very detailed account of how user-related factors (such as age, gender and the scale and variety of networks) affect the frequency of “self-censorship”, but the ultimate conclusion they arrive to is that the users’ decision whether to publish a post or comment is hugely influenced by the perceived audience. Kinda old story though, don't you think Dr Bell?

Bell, A. (1984). Language style as audience design. Language in Society, 13(2), 145-204.
Das, S., & Kramer, A. (2013). Self-censorship on facebook. International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM),
Hayes, A. F. (2007). Exploring the forms of Self‐Censorship: On the spiral of silence and the use of opinion expression avoidance strategies. Journal of Communication, 57(4), 785-802.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

YHBT!!!* (You have been trolled!)

*You have been trolled! - An all too well-known phrase for the citizens of discussion boards, bloggers and social media fans. Trolls appear in the quietest, most unsuspecting communities, to deceive, upset and provoke - without any seeming reason.

With the rise of serious cases of cyberbullying, cyberstalking and RIP trolling, trolls have started to receive considerable attention in the mainstream media. But defining trolling is not as easy as it seems - for most, there is only a very fine line (if any) between sheer impoliteness or rudeness and deliberately upsetting a community or luring people into frustrating arguments. 

In a new study, Claire Hardaker set out to find and classify trolls. She analysed an 86-million-word USENET corpus to identify instances of perceived trolling, which were then classified based on the various strategies the trolls followed. 


The classification of perceived trolling strategies range from not openly acknowledged (covert) to very obvious (overt) strategies, and include six types, as shown on the scale: (1) digressing from the actual topic, (2) criticising, for example aspects that are irrelevant to the content of the discussion, such as spelling, vocabulary or grammar, (3) anthipatising with the original poster or community, (4) endangering other by providing misleading information, (5) shocking others, in particular regarding very sensitive topics, and finally (6) aggressing others by threatening or insulting them.

While Hardaker's classification is a very useful tool for defining trolling behaviour, the danger of it is that it can easily become the justification for labelling people trolls. In particular, when it comes to disagreement in a debate, he accusation of someone being a troll is often only justified by the fact that they represent minority opinion and not by deliberate intention to upset or deceive the community. 

The study repeatedly emphasizes that the analysis is based on how trolling behaviour is perceived, and not the actual intentions of the alleged trollers, and suggests that further research should incorporate both aspects. Volunteer trolls welcome.


Hardaker, Claire. 2013. "Uh..... Not to be Nitpicky, but... the Past Tense of Drag is Dragged, Not Drug.": An Overview of Trolling Strategies." Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict 1 (1): 57-85.