Calls, Signs, and Twitter – From Laughter to LOL

Social media has heralded a “new”* era of communication, in which words are disembodied from any context where physical presence is a factor. Divorced from such basic primate realities, our big human fore-brains are set free to say nearly whatever we want.

Judy Daktari - Judy the Chimp (1967)When we speak with other people in face-to-face settings, there are whole sets of social clues that inform what we say and how we say it.

Social media provides both a safe distance and the near-automatic support of our social groups. We are physically distanced from our audience, and at the same time given near-instant verbal access to our own social support networks.

Using social media, we’re physically separated from our audience. This means we are less likely to take into account how such behavior will make others feel, and how they will react. The physical distance between us as speakers and those we are speaking about, and to, gives us the freedom to say whatever we want. It allows us to assume a context, instead of reacting to a social context that might not be in our favor–and might be acting on us at a level below our conscious mind.

Ooh and Ah!

Humans, as primates, have as part of our makeup a range of instinctive primate calls. Calls are not language, in that they are the same across the whole species, and can only refer to things that are happening in the “here” and “now.”

When we communicate using social media, instead of sharing actual gut, or instinctive, reactions, we ape them. Instead of sharing smiles and laughter, we “:),” “lol,” “LOL,” “rofl,” or even “roflmao.” We must translate our primate calls into language so that we can share it across a medium that doesn’t support the instinctive reactions that happen in person.

These primate calls are so important in social interaction that we find we need to fake them in social media. These new contexts, however, have changed many of the basic social rules. Additionally, since we’re trying to add primate calls to language, suddenly our grunts of approval and nods of recognition follow the logic of language.

What were once a fluid, instinctive reactions have become stilted and hedged about by the social rules. Instead of smiling at a joke, we ask “will laughing at this racy joke have social implications?” before sharing our reaction.

Illustration of The Boy and the Trolls by John Bauer (1915)
Welcome to the Internet

Is this shift toward social abstraction a good thing or a bad thing? As it turns out, it’s just a thing. These changes allow us to avoid sharing parts of ourselves that would otherwise embarrass others, but they also give a perfect space for anonymous Internet Trolls.

* We could argue that this is not a “new” era because all distribution of written material or even sending of ambassadors are efforts to circumvent the “logic” of primate interaction. On the other hand, we might say the era is “new” because so many have access to such technology.


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