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

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“There will be an absolute meltdown in 2020” : what’s holding back the introduction of electronic voting?

The government's reluctance to implement electronic voting will affect our future, and in – the case of Brexit – may have already dramatically affected our past. 

Imagine, just for a second, that the situation was reversed. Imagine if, for a hundred years, we had scanned, swiped, and tapped our votes into a secure, fool-proof electronic system and someone waddled along and said, “Alright lads, how about we try pencil and paper?”. How about we desperately try to find a spare hour to shuffle to the village hall in the rain and scratch an “X” onto a scrap of paper with a stubby bit of lead, and then let a volunteer named Deidre count it at two am? What could possibly go wrong?

If you picture this scenario – posited by my colleague Anna – then it quickly becomes clear how ridiculous it is that the UK has not yet implemented electronic voting in any lasting way, shape, or form. Not only are we not on board with popping online to vote, we’re also reluctant to use technology when it comes to marking our ballots, authenticating voters’ identities, and counting votes. Despite the success of electronic voting in countries such as Brazil, Estonia, and India, the UK continues to reject reform. Why?

 “I think the problem is political at the moment,” says Mike Summers, the program manager at Smartmatic, an electronic voting company who have run three national elections in the Philippines, have a 15 year contract with Belgium, and have counted around 3.7 billion electronic votes in 12 years. “I think there is a fear that if you enfranchise groups of younger people, then you don’t necessarily know how they’re going to vote.”

We can, however, make a pretty good guess. Smartmatic’s own research shows that 57 per cent of 18-24 year olds would be more likely to vote if they could do so online and 55 per cent said they would have used online voting at the last general election. As Labour's vote share could have been boosted at the last election if only more young people had turned out to vote, this might make electronic voting an uninviting prospect for Theresa May.

“Prior to the last parliamentary election the Labour party were vehemently in favour of electronic voting,” says Summers. “Things are moving very slowly compared to other developing and developed nations so our reading of the situation is that it’s a largely political one.”

The consequences of this inaction are severe. Holding off on a voting system that provides greater accessibility to all compromises the very notion of democracy, but it also has potentially more immediate repercussions. “In 2020 everything is going to hit the proverbial fan we’re going to be a laughing stock,” says Summers.

The reason for this is because of the wide array of elections sheduled for 2020. Not only will there be a general election, there are also police and crime commissioner elections, the London Assembly and the London mayoral elections, and also local elections. “There is real concern that because of the complexity of this event there is going to be an absolute meltdown.”

Electronic voting would help prevent such a meltdown by ensuring, among other things, that voters couldn’t accidentally mark a first past the post ballot with a preferential voting system (or vice versa), that votes could be counted faster, and that overseas votes would not be lost in the post. The last is of particular importance as the government are now planning to scrap the 15-year rule that bans long-term expatriates from voting in UK elections.

“That’s a potential five million additional expats who will be eligible to vote,” says Summers, “How are you going to service them?” The answer to that is via the postal vote, and the limitations of this traditional method make the case for electronic voting even stronger.

“Postal voters authenticate themselves with a signature – mine is easily forgeable – and their date of birth,” says Summers. “The traditional methods are not secure. With online voting we can use facial biometrics to compare a person’s digital facial portrait – a selfie, if you like – with their ID, and we can verify there is a match.

“The next problem is security, and putting your ballot in an envelope is not secure. We have very, very strong application level cryptography. The moment a voter casts their ballot we encrypt it on the voting side and digitally sign it as a method of proving the integrity. Additionally, when postal voters put their vote in the post box they have no way of checking it was received or counted, so you have no verifiability. We have a number of tools that voters can use to verify their vote was received and was included in the final tally.”

Nowhere is the importance of the postal vote clearer than in the case of Brexit. “You could argue that the outcome would have been different,” says Summers. “Lots of expats voted by post and a lot of the votes didn’t come back before the close of the election count. We have an office in Amsterdam and one of the guys plays in a local rugby club in The Hague. There are ten Brits on that team and six of them received their postal vote after the close of the election. If you’re an expat living overseas then are you going to vote for or against Brexit? If those voters had voted then the outcome could have been completely different.”

Yet the benefits of accuracy, transparency, verifiability, and accessibility are easily side-lined by one bloodcurdling word. Hackers. If Hillary Clinton’s emails can become your bedtime reading, isn’t it possible – nay, probable – that elections will be hacked, falsified, and corrupted?

“The easiest election to hack is a paper election,” says Summers. “It is important to educate people on the difference between election information systems, which the DMC use, and voting systems. The protections of voting systems are above and beyond anything you will use in any other online application, including online banking and ecommerce solutions.”

As a representative of Smartmatic, Summers would say this, but they and other companies have created a wide variety of solutions which – even if imperfect – are vulnerable to fewer mistakes than Deidre in the village hall. Even if there are flaws, it seems important to iron these out now – before 2020 – to ensure the success of electronic voting in the future.

Although the House of Commons’ Commission on Digital Democracy recommended that the UK should adopt electronic voting by 2020, there is little evidence that steps are being taken towards this goal. “I’d love to turn around and say I think steps are being taken but there is a lack of willingness to acknowledge the shortcomings that we have in terms of UK elections,” says Summers. For now, then, the debate rages on. Should we stick to the tried-and-tested, or should we transform the electoral process forever? I know – let's vote on it. 

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