The Emoji React, The Post-Modern and Journalism

You are engaging in conversation against a backdrop of a constantly shifting societal landscape. Epithetical headlines zoom before your eyes; you grimace, smile, weep, frown in frustration or laugh at the day’s cherry-picked events. You return to a superficial, faceless conversation with a friend, loved one, or acquaintance. This is no Black Mirror plot, but an insight into a profound characteristic of the zeitgeist that is social media.

Facebook remains the uncontested virtual deity of all social media platforms. With 2 billion users, Facebook’s network share dominates over Twitter’s more than 300 million. Facebook’s influence over human interaction, our engagement with information, and focus on the self have defined this decade and will be the subject of debate for years to come. But it is notably the use of ‘Reactions’ and ‘Likes’ as reactive indicators to Facebook content which suggest how our widespread engagement with sources has simultaneously discredited quality journalism and rendered our encounters with it a gratifying exercise of self-expression.

It all began with the universally recognised ‘Like’ button, kick-started on Facebook in 2009. For many years it was the common parlance of all social media platforms, however last year Facebook threw in the emotive ‘Love’, ‘Haha’, ‘Wow’, ‘Sad’ and ‘Angry’ reactions for good measure.

Whilst a passive user may note and compare the number of likes their posts receive, ‘liking’ a post or comment as an active user can indicate a plethora of thought processes.

You could ‘Like’ something through brand or partisan support of a company or party, because the content appeals to your sensibilities, or because it made you think. Ultimately, ‘Likes’ remain unquantifiable because they are indefinable. The same applies to the newly added reactions.

It personally feels like it’s all a bit too much. Beyond capitalising upon the animated emojis in the breath-taking – in a pinch yourself-kind of way – Emoji Movie, I would go so far as to class them as strikingly insidious. Chief amongst this malevolent and bewilderingly abstract paralanguage is the ‘Haha’ react.

The laughing face is a logical addition to express one’s amusement – say if you spot a ‘fail’ video, or if you’re tagged in a video epitomising the nature of you and the tagger’s friendship. But if you read the headline of a cautiously analytical and objective news bulletin treating a sensitive political theme, does it warrant you using a laughing react?

Facebook revolves around user experience and the regurgitation of information into the user’s own personal narrative. It has evolved to deliver this through not only the ‘reacts’, but also through the ‘Share’ button and the option to comment on said shared posts. But it is the ‘reacts’ alone which transcend personal accounts and friendship networks and leave a demonstrable impact on users worldwide.

Just as the ‘Like’ does not necessarily convey acknowledgment of something based on merit, equally subjective is the ‘Haha’ react, which can be seen as a symbol of derision in a journalistic context. Personally, I no longer count how often a laughing emoji ranks amongst the top three reacts on an Anglophone article dealing with Trump, Brexit, the EU or Russia. In an overwhelmingly sensitive political environment, emotions are very high, and people are prone to use the ‘react’ outlet to vocalise this. But sadly, in this echo chamber of personal thought and expression, we require more than paralanguage to nuanced debate on topics of the day.

In any case, I believe the ‘Haha’ react, whether intentionally or not, now discredits serious debate and reporting on the most pressing of subjects. For many, for whom Facebook is the main platform of engaging with the news, their immediate impressions may well be skewed by a combination of cynicism and condescension by other users beyond their own circles. How we interact with information needs to change. Yet the social media truism will remain: it’s all about you.


George Baines


(Image courtesy of Business Insider)