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How to Express Ourselves Online

We see this story crop up every once in awhile on Facebook: “share your truest self”, “post about your real life”, “why do we only share sunsets and puppies?”. While I admire the sentiment, as it stands today, I don’t think we can expect people to share their unfiltered selves in a one-to-many format (i.e. broadcast social media).

When we share something about ourselves, online or offline, we’re looking for validation from our listeners. If I’m excited about something, I want that person to be excited with me. If I’m upset about something, I want that person to be upset with me. This give-and-take, which social scientist John Gottman calls “bids”, is the definition of empathy. Gottman found that when someone doesn’t get a desired response from their listener, it causes a rift in their relationship.

Nonverbal communication makes up the majority of how we convey ourselves offline, but online, we’re confined to verbal cues. We’ve found workarounds over time, starting with analog smileys like :) and :(, stretching out letters like “omggggggg” to convey tone, and using imagery (like emojis and gifs). Much like shaking hands with a new person or smiling when saying hello, these expressions are semi-involuntary reflexes.

The convention of having a like button on social media (or a heart, favorite, etc) also feeds our desire for nonverbal cues online. Unfortunately, most conventions only allow us to convey a positive response.

If somebody shares that they are feeling sad on Facebook, it makes people uncomfortable because they are unable to exhibit an appropriate emotional response. A “like” is meant to be the equivalent of a smile or encouraging nod, but there is no way for us to frown or give a sympathetic nod. The only way to do so is through verbal communication (i.e. leaving a comment).

This is as frustrating as though in the physical world, we were unable to do anything but smile. As a result, most readers simply won’t say anything at all, leaving the poster feeling that nobody is listening to them, and making them less likely to post this type of story in the future.

Buzzfeed is one of the few outlets that have picked up on our need to express ourselves in more nuanced ways. At the end of an article, readers have the option to respond with OMG, LOL, WTF, etc. This article about baristas misspelling customer’s names will get LOLs, whereas this article about Wes Anderson’s new bar gets OMGs and <3s.

I assume Facebook doesn’t have a “dislike” button to keep conversations positive, but I think there is a range of other emotions that could be conveyed besides a binary like/dislike, which could affect the type of content that gets shared.