With more and more people bent over their smartphones, social media platforms are transforming their communication tools to be more conducive to emotional expressions.

You’re having lunch with an old friend and as you stare into the depths of your half-eaten, chicken salad sandwich, you’re suddenly overcome with inspiration. You make a brilliant, though potentially inflammatory, political observation and your friend responds with a long, heavy “Hmm…” You quickly look up from your food for visual affirmation and, much to your relief, her eyebrows are raised and her head is nodding in approval — she’s impressed.

But make that same point via text message and get a one-dimensional, ambiguous “Hmm…” in return, and you’re probably already frantically typing up an apology for your inflammatory remark.

Welcome to the age of visual conversation, where we’re more likely to encounter a text-based “LOL” than the actual sound of human laughter. According to Eric Jaffe of Co.Design, as more and more of our communication becomes chat-based, the struggle to accurately convey and interpret emotion is becoming a serious issue.

During a face-to-face conversation or a phone call, we can interpret emotional cues through vocal inflections, hand gestures, and facial expressions. But in a digital conversation, “it can be tough to tell e-sarcastic from e-serious, or e-cold from e-formal, or e-busy from e-angry.”

E-sarcastic or E-serious?

Conveying Emotion

One of the most difficult things to convey and interpret via text is sarcasm. While the sender may mean something in jest, it can easily be perceived as offensive or hurtful. If your good friend shoots you a text that says, “You’re the most annoying person in the world,” you’ll probably just laugh it off. It might not sound as funny when it’s coming from a new romantic interest and you guys are only a couple of dates in.

Likewise, the ways in which we communicate professionally have become increasingly convoluted thanks to electronic platforms. Andrew Brodsky of Harvard Business Review offers the following example of a common workplace dilemma: “Good job on the current draft, but I think we can continue to improve it.”

Receive this email from a peer, and you’ll likely assume they have collaborative tone in mind. Receive it from a supervisor or boss, and there’s a good chance you won’t be getting much sleep that night.

Emoticons and Beyond

Thanks to Buffer, we know there are a whopping 6 billion emoticons sent around the world each day. Moreover, Instagram recently revealed that nearly 50% of captions and comments on their platform contain emojis. According to Scientific American, emoticons can help interpret meaning in text exchanges. Take for example: “you’re late” vs. “you’re late ;p”— without the cheeky emoji, this could easily be interpreted as genuine irritation.

Facebook has been at the forefront of developing creative new ways to help people convey their emotions more effectively on its platform. According to San Jose Mercury News, the social media giant has introduced new apps that allow its users to visually express their emotions in more than 40 different ways. Facebookers can send GIFs and e-cards, add filters and effects to an image for clearer communication, and even turn their texts into songs.

According to Wired, Facebook recently expanded the emotive range of its “Like” button to include six animated emoji-alternatives called Reactions: “Love,” “Haha,” “Yay,” “Wow,” “Sad,” and “Anger.” The real genius of this development is the emphasis on positivity, with more than half the Reactions falling on the positive side of the emotional spectrum.

Keeping Online Communication Positive

According to Jaffe, misinterpretation comes in two forms: neutral or negative. In other words, we tend to dull down positivity, and assume the worst in the face of uncertainty. If that’s true, it certainly doesn’t bode well for the future. Our dependency on text-based communication is only growing stronger. But if we don’t come up with some creative new ways to effectively convey our emotions on these platforms, our day-to-day lives are going to get considerably more difficult.
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Author Shayna Robinson

A graduate of NYU’s Gallatin School, Shayna manages social media for clients across all industries, monitoring the effectiveness of our social campaigns, manages social strategy, and spearheads breaking news coverage and the development of original, trending story ideas. She previously worked in media production and communications at an NYC-based documentary production company. Her interests include cooking, making short films, and traveling.

More posts by Shayna Robinson