Beginning last April, Instagram began hiding “likes” in Canada, Japan and Brazil. In 2020, Instagram will begin hiding likes for some users in the U.S., their biggest single market with over a 100M users.
Exact details of the change are not public, but like counts will be hidden on posts showing up in your feed, while the person/company posting will be still be able to see how many people are liking their content.
Likes on Instagram have devolved into an increasingly meaningless vanity metric. Common practices, like speed scrolling while double tapping and “like for like” tags have gamified the user experience. Bots and click farms have commoditized likes and interactions—think, “fake social media.” These activities dilute a like’s meaning and discourage users from meaningfully interacting with content.
Instagram’s actual customers are not users, but marketers and advertisers. Vanity metrics may impress some users, but empty likes bring individual ad and post performance metrics into doubt, and make brand managers question the entire influencer ecosystem.
Empty likes has reduced message salience and creativity on Instagram. Hiding likes will likely have a positive effect on both user experience and content. Brand managers will now need to step up their content and engagement game to reach Instagram audiences.
Innovative and creative content isn’t worth the effort when it’s ignored because it doesn’t have enough likes. In a world where likes are hidden, content connects when it creatively engages with users, not because it’s popular. Look for better, sharper and more targeted content and ads.
Connection and relationship will also become more important when likes are hidden. In reality, popularity has never been as important as community connections for social media. It’s just been easier for social media managers and marketers to value large numbers than has been to actually connect with customers. Look for a return to more active engagement with followers, especially in content showing up in the stories feed, which connects directly to a brand’s followers.
Influencers currently operate in a very opaque market with severe distortions. They will face increasing pressure to prove their ROI to marketers. They won’t go away. However, the days of equating audience size to influence are over. Influencers will have to prove audience engagement and link it to value.
Healthier interactions, better content and less market distortion, are all great things for Instagram, its users and customers. Hiding likes is the right move.
This article, number four in a series on ways we communicate digitally, looks at the Graphic Interchange Format (GIF).
The creators of the format pronounced the word as “jif” with a soft “G” as in “gym”…CompuServe employees would often say “Choosy developers choose GIF”, spoofing this brand’s television commercials. The word is now also widely pronounced with a hard “G” /ɡɪf/ as in “gift”.
“It’s Pronounced ‘JIF’ not ‘GIF.’” (Steve Whilhite inventor of GIF)
Wikipedia & The New York Times
What is a GIF?
GIF was created in 1987 by Steve Whilhite and a team of developers at CompuServe, many years before we all started using the Internet. GIF is a compression technique that greatly reduces the file size of images and series of images. (The GIF below is around 250 kb in size, as opposed to 39 MB in the original video.) GIF restricts the color palette and minimizes the number of pixels while maintaining remarkable clarity.
The first GIFs started showing up on websites in the mid-1990s as primitive stand-ins for video. Try to remember how slow the Internet was, even into the early 2000s. Video requires a lot of bandwidth, making it rare, even impossible, to use in the dial-up and early broadband eras.
Initially, GIF was limited to connecting individual frames of photos. Today we have animated GIF. Which uses another technology—Graphic Control Extension (GCE)—that allows us to seamlessly connect multiple images and facilitate the creation of GIFs from video.
Animated GIF is a natural fit for super-powerful smart phones and super-fast mobile networks. They’ve become so popular that Apple and Android phones contain libraries of GIFs for users to effortlessly insert into texts, in the same way they might insert a photo or an emoji.
The language of GIFs
GIFS have some of the same characteristics as memes. (More on Memes.) They’re usually created by repurposing existing images or film. They fall into various genre—like “face palm,” which we’ll consider below. And they are additives to text messages designed to either augment or replace actual writing.
Tracking GIF usage gives us insights into the language of images/video and other non-verbal cues. As mentioned in a previous article, linguists and other communication scholars are trying to understand the evolving shared-syntaxes and grammars guiding digital conversations.
The most popular GIFs repurpose movies, television and other well-known video. Some media scholars have used this as an opportunity to find out how non-academic audiences critique film scenes.
GIFs captured from movies and television function as vernacular criticism, capturing and recycling favorite moments that audiences love or worship, or that express a particular feeling or experience.
Like memes and other online expressions of community through media appropriation and circulation, GIFs are examples of vernacular creativity among groups of users with shared interests and reference points.
These online social worlds are not usually academic, but they are not so different from scholarly communities either. Like film and television scholars, online fans are also dedicated to the analysis, critique, and appreciation of media.
Newman, M. 2016
Another interesting line of study around GIFs is as packets of human emotion. Researchers at MIT study participants’ reactions to GIFs to create data sets that aid artificial learning (Chen, W. & R. Picard, 2016). The idea is that certain visual cues found in GIFs trigger universal emotional responses and those connections can be taught to machines to help the machines read human faces and actions. (I just hope they don’t use a lot of Three Stooges GIFs. Thirty years from now, I don’t want some nursing home robot hitting me on the head with a hammer to cheer me up.)
How we use GIFs
We insert GIFs into text messages as visual stand-ins for emotion, connection, excitement, agreement and many other various non-verbal cues.
The GIFs themselves are used to reproduce actions that in face-to-face conversation do not require demonstration. Such embodied actions in talk are implicated in the construction and negotiation of stance and emotion.
For example, embodied displays such as sighs can be used as third-position responses, indicating negative affect. Smiles and nods, when produced by listeners, are affiliative and allow interlocutors to negotiate a shared interpretation of the content of the talk.
Beyond displaying emotion, the body may be used to demonstrate behaviors. Gesture and facial expressions commonly depict actions in talk. These gestures may co-occur with a verbal description, but they may also be part of a composite structure in which the syntactic organization of a turn projects completion through the body
Tolens, J. & Samermit p. 77
GIFs take the place of communicative elements that are challenging to write (especially within the limits of a SMS texting app). Even the most skilled writers would have difficulty capturing exasperation in a few lines of text. GIFs make it possible for all of us to have richer and more impactful “written” interactions.
The Face Palm GIF
Let’s briefly consider a specific genre, the “face palm” GIF. People, (and sometimes cats) move their hands to their faces for various reasons—shock, disgust, embarrassment, agitation, etc. This signal is also very common in stage and screen acting as a way to dramatize emotion.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that “face palm” has become a thing in GIFs. I don’t think the following GIFs need a lot of extra explanation. Just think about how you might insert any of these into a text message as response or to make a point and you’ll get the GIFs.
In the next article, we’ll look at emoji and emoticons as we continue our series on digital communication. 🙃 Thanks for reading.
Chen, W., & Picard, R.W. “Predicting Perceived Emotions in Animated GIFs with 3D Convolutional Neural Networks.” IEEE International Symposium on Multimedia. (2016).
Eppink, J. “A Brief History of the GIF (So Far),” Journal of Visual Culture 13 (December 2014): 298-306.
Newman, M. “GIFs: The Attainable Text.” University of Michigan Publishing. (2016).
Oleary, Amy. An Honor for the Creator of the GIF. New York Times, Bits Blog. (2013).
Tolins, J. & Samermit, P. “GIFs as Embodied Enactments in Text-Mediated Conversation.” Research on Language and Social Interaction, Vol. 49, 2 (April 2016), 75–91.
A bit of “wisdom” is juxtaposed with a dead genius. A troubled Keanu Reeves sits on a bench with Forrest Gump. Outrage and irreverence repurpose a famous political poster. We’ve all seen graphic posts like these in our social media feeds and email. They’re called Internet memes.
The word “meme” was coined by evolutionist Richard Dawkins in 1976. He combined the greek word mimeme (meaning to imitate/imitated thing) with the word gene as a means to extend Darwinian concepts to ideology and cultural evolution.
Dawkins’ theory was a bit of an overreach. He and other memetic scholars failed to convincingly link cultural artifacts to changes in culture in the same way scientists can link a specific gene with a physical trait. Culture is just too complex. Upon deeper inspection, it proved impossible to determine “who is the boss?” in regards to the potency of a meme versus human agency (Shifman p. 12). As a result, a memetic approach to cultural studies withered on the vine.
Yet, the idea of a meme being a discrete packet of cultural information that is transmitted visually is useful. We can see this work itself out over thousands of years of world culture in areas like religion, architecture and (more recently) mass media.
Memes everywhere you look
If Dawkins’ memes tried to trace cultural evolution, Internet memes represent cultural devolution. Forget high-browed, survival-of-the-fittest theories of cultural competition. Today’s memes are more likely to be nonsensical, disposable and misleading. They’re emblematic of our open-source, user-generated, socially-constructed digital environments.
One of the key challenges for memetic thinkers was linking original artifacts to historical developments. They just didn’t have a good “fossil record” of original memes. Kilroy was the exception.
The “Kilroy was here” graffiti left behind by U.S. soldiers was a traceable example of a viral meme from its emergence.
Though Kilroy’s run as a cultural phenomena seems to be over, the meme is still an excellent example of bottom-up dissemination. It was the soldiers (not the leaders) who loved and spread Kilroy organically.
“Kilroy Was Here [is] an example of a pre-internet meme with the kind of cultural replication that happens on the internet.”
Because Internet (240)
If the Internet, especially social media, seems chaotic and ridiculous it’s because it is. There is no controlling authority. No gatekeepers. No grammar books. The connections, ideas and content populating social media feeds (including memes) are products of the great connected masses doing whatever strikes our fancy. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Understanding Internet Memes
Today’s memes often defy explanation, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.
Focusing on what we do rather than searching for intent, Lemor Shifman looks at how memes are produced and identifies “Two main repackaging mechanism of memes on the web: mimicry and remix” (Memes in Digital Culture, p. 30). Google any famous meme and you’ll see this process at work — the same photos are repurposed over and over until the original meaning is often lost. This straightforward analysis links meme generation to other forms of communication. How we write, for example.
Meme-generators like IMG-Flip and LiveMeme present users with pre-loaded, popular images and the ability to add their own original copy. This process simplifies, automates and drives “mimicry and remix.” To understand memes, look at how the technology guides the output as a great starting point.
Unfortunately, some scholarly writers stretch credulity a bit as they attempt to apply their respective fields to “meme studies.” (lol) When Cognitive Linguisticians Zinner and Geeraerts’ attempt to decipher the constructive act of choosing a photograph and writing meme copy, they get stuck on trying to understand how humor works. The real humor is in their analysis:
“As [anti-joke chicken] reveals, some of these image macros only truly make sense –- or at least receive an additional layer of interpretation –-when the recipient is aware of the name of the meme – or perhaps more accurately, the overall meaning of the meme that is captured by the name. ‘Sudden Clarity Clarence’, for instance, expresses the fact that any instance of the meme in question needs to be read in terms of an unexpected (though not necessarily deep or crucial) insight. In the theoretical framework of Construction Grammar, this links up with the non-compositionality of constructions: their conventional meaning is more than the simple sum of their parts.”
Zinner and Geeraerts, p 177
Aneeq Ejaz asks if memes are new form of literature, seeing them as a means of “transcultural expression [in a] hyperconnected world.” Maybe, but Ejaz’ critical interrogation of memes that “project emotions onto animals, like the famous Grumpy Cat,” feels a bit forced.
I wonder what code-shifting strategies Hipster Kitty is using to regain her lost feline/feminine agency?
Even amateurs want in on the action on sites like Know Your Meme. Know Your Meme is a crowd-sourced collaboration “that researches and documents Internet memes and viral phenomena.” Sounds a little too X-files to me.
Silly, Clever, Unpredictable
To me, the joy of memes is that they bubble up from the vox populi. Who cares if they make little sense? Or if they don’t have any lasting value? Or if they can be at times ignorant, crude or patently false? Memes are made by we the people, who often make little sense.
Internet memes are glorious because they are free expression and because (like Kilroy) they rise spontaneously from the crowd, unlike the dogma produced by thought leaders and gatekeepers.
The best way to “get” memes is to make memes. I’d love to see you use the meme generators above to make and post an original meme on the comment section of Smith’s LinkedIn page .
Next in this series, we’ll look at Emoji.
Ejaz, A. “Are Internet Memes a New Form of Literature?” Quillette. November 28, 2016: https://quillette.com/2016/11/28/are-internet-memes-a-new-form-of-literature/
Gries, L. (2015). Still life with rhetoric: A new materialist approach for visual rhetoric. Logan: Utah State University Press.
McCulloch, G. (2019). Because Internet; Understanding the New Rules of Language. New York: Riverhead Books
Shifman, L. (2013). Memes in Digital Culture. Boston, MA: MIT Press.
Shifman L (2014). The cultural logic of photo-based genres. Journal of Visual Culture 13(3): 340–358.
Zinner E. and D.Geeraerts (2018). One does not simply process memes: Image macros as multimodal constructions. De Gruyter 167-193.
When I hear any fuss about textspeak—weird punctuation, abbreviations, inventive phrasing and other short cuts that are common to texting— I think about the moral certitude of Mrs. Wilson. She was my 8thgrade English teacher and the type of grammarian who would send a parent’s note back to them with the errors circled in red ink.
Mrs. Wilson taught us the rules of grammar as though they had descended from Mt. Sinai. These were not to be questioned, only obeyed in their immutable state of perfection.
Many hold on to Mrs. Wilson’s view of grammar, not recognizing that these rules are not laws of nature. No, grammar and punctuation are invented technological conventions designed to help us merge speech, writing and printing.
Like any technology, these conventions have a beginning and a history. Mrs. Wilson’s rules have only been with us for a couple hundred years.
About 500 years ago, before the printing press was invented, books were hand-illustrated, rare and extremely expensive. Also, most weren’t written in the vernacular, but in Latin.
Latin, an inflected language, doesn’t use word order to determine sentence structure. Instead, agreement between prefixes and suffixes determine syntax. Even with the words rearranged, each sentence below reads, “Bad is the plan that cannot be changed.”
malum consilium quod mutari non potest
non postest quod mutari consilium malum
quod mutari malum consilium non potest
To make matters even more confusing, up until just before the printing press was invented scribes didn’t use punctuation or even spaces between words. They wrote in a form called scriptio continua.
A page in a book looked like this:
The way people read scriptio continua without punctuation was out loud, allowing the inflections in the language signal all of the separations and meanings.
The point of this little history lesson is that only a few centuries ago most people didn’t read. Those that did, commonly read aloud. And the majority of existing books didn’t have punctuation or space between words. Then everything changed with Johannes Guttenberg’s movable type press. BOOM!
The printing press awoke and transformed forms of writing that had been stagnant for a couple millennia. It facilitated knowledge sharing and built connections between people and cultures. But this didn’t happen immediately.
For the first 200 years of printing, there were no agreed upon rules. Each little town’s printers invented their own way of making books. They made up their own unique spacing and punctuation and also cut and pasted ideas from competing printers. From this process emerged various letter shapes, punctuation marks, spacing, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, etc.
Over time, these divergent methods merged into the standardized grammar rules that were lovingly taught to us by sweet middle-school teachers with red pens.
Most of the grammar and punctuation rules that we think are permanent have only become standardized over the past couple of hundred years. In fact, even standardized rules are in flux.
Fresh and in your face
Today, we are living at an exciting new moment for writing. Computers are freeing words and meanings from the limits of a printed page. New literacies and grammars are being created on the fly. Just like with the first little print shops in Europe, it’s untamed masses (not red pen gatekeepers) who are inventing (un)rules for using OMGs, #s and Emoji.
Digital forms like text messaging, file sharing and streaming are shifting once immovable constraints of time and space, integrating a myriad of media, and empowering new connections across the globe.
This makes this a really cool time for writing geeks. We still have the highly precise and refined Standard English for writing contracts and such. And we have this vibrant, eclectic, inventive, bubbling stew of digital communication that is constantly changing, constantly evolving.
This is a major disruption. Grammars that we viewed as permanent we now see were simply asleep. Computer processors, small screens and user desire are creating something fresh right in front of us.
People are just starting to write about textspeak. Some write from a linguist’s perspective, others with a cultural curiosity. For me communication is the most interesting issue. How are people connecting and making sense of life while using the capabilities of these new platforms?
The following observations just scratch the surface of what’s happening with textspeak.
Short for abbreviation
Two main reasons drive textspeak abbreviations. First, the screen on an SMS text box is small and it scrolls. Every space and character are precious in a small space that must be read in a linear fashion. Second, it’s hip to know what others don’t. Never rule out cool as a driver of change.
Using abbreviations on a small interface is nothing new. Check out the writing on this coin for the Emperor Trajan:
In textspeak, abbreviations and acronyms often signal idioms and colloquialisms, not literal meanings. Where IRS is short for a scary government agency, people writing lol usually aren’t laughing. Sarcasm, irony and slang underscore a lot of textspeak.
This is where the hip factor comes into play. If you don’t have the 411 on how to KPC then H-MDY…H_FDAY you’re old, slow and uncool. As with any slang, textspeak is a moving target. Try and keep up.
There’s a maxim in real estate investing—highest and best use—that says a structure needs to elevate the value of the land. In a text message the screen is like an empty lot in San Francisco. You want to be careful to build the right house on it.
Long scrolling texts are very difficult to read because, unlike a full-size page, one’s eye cannot scan back up through the document to connect points and references. Both the writer and the reader can easily get lost.
They’re also unfriendly. Imagine a conversation where one of the parties just kept talking and talking while the other party was reduced to simply nodding. Many good conversational on and off ramps are bulldozed in a long text. Maybe, send an email instead.
Blocking and spacing is a textspeak alternative to punctuation that helps us stop/pause/resume. It also enables the writer to separate and emphasize important points in the conversation.
Remembering that texting more closely approximates talking than it does formal writing, blocks and spaces also make room for the reader to jump in with a comment, rebuttal or (more typically) a random non sequitur.
ALL CAPS are everywhere in advertising and print media. They are meant to stand out and grab our attention. However well they’ve worked for marketers, they don’t have a great reputation in interpersonal correspondence.
Most of us have either sent or received an angry email. So, we understand that ALL CAPS MEANS SHOUTING!!! But we don’t only shout when were mad. Sometimes we shout when we’re excited or happy, or even ironic:
To exclaim: CONGRATS
To emphasize: We will be heading to Atlanta NEXT WEEKEND
To be ironic: I’m so CHILL
To show how out of touch we are: LOL is so 2008…lol
Punctuation optional? (not exactly)
As I mentioned in my last article, the punctuation issue is getting on peoples’ last nerve. Old school writers are baffled by its chaotic absence and digital natives are thrilled to see it go and change. Here are a few of the ways punctuation is different in textspeak:
The period signals passive-aggressiveness.
An asterisk signals *emphasis*, like little sparkles.
The ~humble~ tilde is sarcastic.
A semicolon says show off.
An apostrophe signals anal retentiveness.
A single question mark begs a response. Three or more says W@ dude???
Smartphones let us drop wonderful sprinkles on top of our textspeak. We can add music, photos, emoticon, emoji, gifs, video, and more. Linking media is one of my favorite aspects of digital communication. It reminds me of being a kid and discovering a great new band. Half the joy was sharing the music with my friends.
Over the next few articles we’ll take a closer look at the sprinkles that color our Internet conversations.