Facebook Reacts: When language and technology meet

Updated: Jan 27, 2019

At first hand it seems like something so arbitrary and simple. Your mate sends you a funny message and you reply with a classic ‘haha’ react. They send you something vaguely funny and after some consideration you go for a ‘wow’. They send a wholesome piece of good news and you give them a solid ‘love’. But are the seemingly innocent Facebook reacts instead indicative of something far deeper about human nature and how we express ourselves? How exactly do we come to learn to speak the language of Facebook reacts, and what are the implications for how we communicate more generally?

The complexity of the reacts is something I’ve thought about before, but I was acutely reminded of it after a conversation at dinner. We were talking about how we would react to certain messages, and how there were clear differences between me and others, despite us all being native English speakers, culturally very very similar and so on. As babies we learn languages from watching and imitating others, and we happen to be settled in a microcosm of people connected by the same sounds for the same things, the same grammatical rules and so on, in other words the same languages. The way in which we use Facebook reacts transcends the language barrier, however. We learn how to react to Facebook messages by experimenting ourselves, as well as watching our friends respond to our own offerings. Most people, myself included, have a relatively small sample of people who we message on a regular basis on Facebook, at least who we message in such a casual way as to use a multitude of different reacts to express ourselves. It is, therefore, these social groups which reinforce our interpretation of what reacts mean and in what situations they are relevant.

The implication of this is that through the human nature of language acquisition we have managed to create communicative differences on the same platform. We can text in the same language, but the way in which we react to messages means different things to different speakers of the same language. Outside my friend group, sending a ‘haha’ react instead of a ‘wow’ might be perceived as odd and bring confusion. It might make me seem forward, inhibited or awkward in a way that I am not, because our sense of normality transcends linguistic barriers.

In sum, technology is becoming essential to the ways in which human beings communicate. It is impossible to ‘react’ to something somebody says to you in the flesh, in the real 'physical' world, whereas it is possible to say out loud words that you have written down. Perhaps Facebook are deliberately developing their platform in such a way that social media is even further differentiated from every day interactions. If the way we communicate through Facebook is impossible to replicate in real life, then our dependence on the platform will only increase.

Whether social media enhances or diminishes human nature is a matter for normative debate. Whether it is changing it, however, is beyond doubt.


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