Pictographic smilies (in the sky, above) have a much stronger impact than an old-school :-). Photo: Getty
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Your emoticon addiction may actually make people like you more

Emoticons are a new and evolving form of language, and they are producing new patterns of brain activity.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

The brain is a funny organ. It controls consciousness and thought but, it turns out, it can also be tricked into responding to a few punctuation marks as if they were a human face. The brain perceives emoticons the same way as it does real faces, according to a new paper in the journal Social Neuroscience.

Australian psychologist Dr Owen Churches and his coauthors at Flinders University and the University of South Australia recruited 28 participants and monitored their neural activity as they were presented with different stimuli: smiling emoticons, random punctuation marks, or pictures of smiling male or female faces. If the punctuation marks were rotated – for instance, (-: instead of :-) – the brain didn’t respond the same way.

“Emoticons are a new form of language that we're producing,” Churches told ABC News. “And to decode that language, we've produced a new pattern of brain activity.”

Though they’ve only come into popular use in the last few years, emoticons have become the subject of a growing literature within computer science and psychology. Here’s what some other researchers have discovered about emoticons and their impact on meaning.

For a 2007 paper in the journal International Journal of Business Communication, Kristin Byron of Syracuse University recruited 300 college students and had them take a personality survey, which was graded for emotional stability. The researchers then had the students read a series of banal emails from strangers – high school students asking for information on the university or professors requesting copies of academic papers. Some of the emails included smiley faces, while others consisted only of text. The students then had to try to assess the personality of the high schoolers or professors, based only on their emails. It turned out that the students who were higher in emotional stability tended to rate the senders as more “likeable” if they used emoticons, while less stable students weren’t swayed by the smiley faces.

For a 2012 paper in the journal Cyberpsychology Behavior And Social Networking, Tina Ganster and her colleagues at Germany’s University of Duisburg-Essen compared the psychological impact of sending and receiving old-school smilies – the kind made up of punctuation marks, “:-)”, with pictographic smilies (). Ganster recruited 130 subjects online and had them read the transcript of an IM conversation that either included punctuation smilies, pictographic smilies or neither – and found that the pictographic smilies had the strongest impact on subjects’ mood.

In a 2008 paper in the journal Information & Management, researchers led by Albert Huang at the University of the Pacific looked at how using emoticons in IM conversations affected emotions in 216 people. “IM messages are less formal and individuality is enhanced by a large variety of emoticons that allow users to express emotions easily,” wrote Huang. As they expected, they found a positive correlation between enjoyment and emoticon use:

An emoticon speeds up communication and eliminates some difficulty in expressing feeling using words; the process is easier, more interactive, and more fun. Also many emoticons are aesthetically pleasant and look amusing and many users apply emoticons sarcastically.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Flickr: B.S.Wise/YouTube
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Extremist ads and LGBT videos: do we want YouTube to be a censor, or not?

Is the video-sharing platform a morally irresponsible slacker for putting ads next to extremist content - or an evil, tyrannical censor for restricting access to LGBT videos?

YouTube is having a bad week. The Google-owned video-sharing platform has hit the headlines twice over complaints that it 1) is not censoring things enough, and 2) is censoring things too much.

On the one hand, big brands including Marks & Spencer, HSBC, and RBS have suspended their advertisements from the site after a Times investigation found ads from leading companies – and even the UK government – were shown alongside extremist videos. On the other, YouTubers are tweeting #YouTubeIsOverParty after it emerged that YouTube’s “restricted mode” (an opt-in setting that filters out “potentially objectionable content”) removes content with LGBT themes.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a social media giant be criticised for being a lax, morally irresponsible slacker and an evil, tyrannical censor and in the same week. Last month, Facebook were criticised for both failing to remove a group called “hot xxxx schoolgirls” and for removing a nude oil painting by an acclaimed artist.

That is not to say these things are equivalent. Quite obviously child abuse imagery is more troubling than a nude oil painting, and videos entitled “Jewish People Admit Organising White Genocide” are endlessly more problematic than those called “GAY flag and me petting my cat” (a highly important piece of content). I am not trying to claim that ~everything is relative~ and ~everyone deserves a voice~. Content that breaks the law must be removed and LGBT content must not. Yet these conflicting stories highlight the same underlying problem: it is a very bad idea to trust a large multibillion pound company to be the arbiter of what is or isn’t acceptable.

This isn’t because YouTube have some strange agenda where it can’t get enough of extremists and hate the LGBT community. In reality, the company’s “restricted mode” also affects Paul Joseph Watson, a controversial YouTuber whose pro-Trump conspiracy theory content includes videos titled “Islam is NOT a Religion of Peace” and “A Vote For Hillary is a Vote For World War 3”, as well as an interview entitled “Chuck Johnson: Muslim Migrants Will Cause Collapse of Europe”. The issue is that if YouTube did have this agenda, it would have complete control over what it wanted the world to see – and not only are we are willingly handing them this power, we are begging them to use it.

Moral panics are the most common justification for extreme censorship and surveillance methods. “Catching terrorists” and “stopping child abusers” are two of the greatest arguments for the dystopian surveillance measures in Theresa May’s Investigatory Powers Act and Digital Economy Bill. Yet in reality, last month the FBI let a child pornographer go free because they didn’t want to tell a court the surveillance methods they used to catch him. This begs the question: what is the surveillance really for? The same is true of censorship. When we insist that YouTube stop this and that, we are asking it to take complete control – why do we trust that this will reflect our own moral sensibilities? Why do we think it won't use this for its own benefit?

Obviously extremist content needs to be removed from YouTube, but why should YouTube be the one to do it? If a book publisher released A Very Racist Book For Racists, we wouldn’t trust them to pull it off the shelves themselves. We have laws (such as the Racial and Religious Hatred Act) that ban hate speech, and we have law enforcement bodies to impose them. On the whole, we don’t trust giant commercial companies to rule over what it is and isn’t acceptable to say, because oh, hello, yes, dystopia.

In the past, public speech was made up of hundreds of book publishers, TV stations, film-makers, and pamphleteers, and no one person or company had the power to censor everything. A book that didn’t fly at one publisher could go to another, and a documentary that the BBC didn’t like could find a home on Channel 4. Why are we happy for essentially two companies – Facebook and Google – to take this power? Why are we demanding that they use it? Why are we giving them justification to use it more, and more, and more?

In response to last week’s criticism about extremist videos on the YouTube, Google UK managing director Ronan Harris said that in 2016 Google removed nearly 2 billion ads, banned over 100,000 publishers, and prevented ads from showing on over 300 million YouTube videos. We are supposed to consider this a good thing. Why? We don't know what these adverts were for. We don't know if they were actually offensive. We don't know why they were banned. 

As it happens, YouTube has responded well to the criticism. In a statement yesterday, Google's EMEA President, Matt Brittin, apologised to advertisers and promised improvements, and in a blog this morning, Google said it is already "ramping up changes". A YouTube spokesperson also tweeted that the platform is "looking into" concerns about LGBT content being restricted. But people want more. The Guardian reported that Brittin declined three times to answer whether Google would go beyond allowing users to flag offensive material. Setting aside Brexit, wouldn't you rather it was up to us as a collective to flag offensive content and come together to make these decisions? Why is it preferable that one company takes a job that was previously trusted to the government? 

Editor’s Note, 22 March: This article has been updated to clarify Paul Joseph Watson’s YouTube content.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.