Emoticons and digitally meditated communication

In this final blogpost, I would like to share with you all the ongoing research for my final project in another class I am taking at Wheaton College: Community in the Digital Age. I decided to study the widespread use of emoticons (emotion icons) and their relationship with digitally mediated communication. Are emoticons damaging our ability to convey emotions via a text-based medium? Or are emoticons offering digital media users a more richer means for interaction in a mediated space?

In this digital age computer-mediated communication has become the prevailing mode of interaction. Since one of the specific characteristics of computer-meditated communication is that it is heavily text-based, there is a lack of social nonverbal cues. Interactants in a digitally mediated space are not offered the chance to smile, smirk, nod their heads, wink, etc. They do not have the possibility of conveying embedded socially agreed messaged conveyed by these cues. Thus, emoticons are the solution to enrich the interaction and to make up to the basic functions of nonverbal cues that regulate social interaction.

Emoticons can thus be used to examine to what extent they depend on social context as they may add a paralinguistic component to the message. Emoticons are also visual cues that help augment the meaning of a textual message. Part of my research is to examine the social presence required for the interactants to use emoticons, and the context in which they choose to use the emoticons, as well as potential message interpretation from the emoticons chosen.

As I live in the Davis International House at Wheaton College, I was fortunate enough to have the chance to interview my housemates from a diverse group of nationalities and backgrounds. My focus was on the sophisticatedly constructed emoticons available on Facebook right now – the “stickers”. Facebook stickers are “illustrations or animations of characters” that serve as “a great way to share how you’re feeling and add personality to your conversation” (Official Facebook description of this feature). According to this description, these updated version of the traditional emotions – the “stickers” now act as a catalyst in the user’s virtual presence construction. I thus asked my housemates about their perspectives on this feature and whether or not they think the “stickers” contribute to their virtual identity.

Lu W., a Chinese exchange student who studies abroad in Japan, expresses her favour in this feature. She says they offer her a more interactive and fun conversation with her friends. Lu Wang says that the stickers enable her to appear much more “chilled out and approachable”. Emily S., a senior at my college from Massachusetts, shares that even though stickers is a fun way to interact with her friends, she often uses them as a way to avoid serious conversations on Facebook. Grace K., a sophomore from Washington DC, shares the same thought. She relies on the stickers so that she does not have to convey her true feelings in a textual message. Michael, a sophomore from Tennessee, disagrees. He regards Facebook stickers as a diminishment of human’s ability to effectively use words and sentences to convey a message. He also thinks it is childish and not appropriate even with friends, and he would rather write a longer textual message to describe his happiness or sadness than using a smiling or crying sticker. Emma from East Hampton uses the stickers to avoid misunderstanding. “I am always paranoid that if I only use texts, people will think that I am angry at them and I am not” – Emma expresses. Thao, a junior from Vietnam, is hesitated when she uses certain stickers because of their ambiguity. “People might take that as funny or sarcastic, so I am never sure” – she adds.

From the pattern observed from these personal interviews, it can be seen that emoticons can serve as a nonverbal surrogates in online communication. Globalisation augments day by day; information and people hence expand more widely all over the globe. Thus, computer meditated communication is an useful tool to bridge the distance. In that case, there should be a set of widely accepted cues for emoticons – the equivalent of nonverbal, facial and gestural cues in face-to-face communication to be used in digitally meditated interaction to avoid ambiguity and enhance interactivity and understanding among the participants.

I have not finalised my project yet, so any advices and suggestions are more than welcome. My current blog for this project is at: http://acadblogs.wheatoncollege.edu/nguyen-soc-398/.

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