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

Lifestage
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Everything that is wrong with the app Facebook doesn't want over 21s to download

Facebook's new teen-only offering, Lifestage, is just like your mum: it's trying too hard to relate and it doesn't care for your privacy.

Do you know the exact moment Facebook became uncool? Designed as a site to connect college students in 2004, the social network enjoyed nearly a decade of rapid, unrivalled growth before one day your mum – yes, your mum – using the same AOL email address she’s had since her dial-up days, logged on. And then she posted a Minion meme about drinking wine.

Facebook knows it’s uncool. It had a decline in active users in 2014, and in 2015 a survey of 4,485 teens discovered it came seventh in a ranking of ten social apps in terms of coolness. In fact, only 8 per cent of its users are aged between 13 and 19. This is the main reason the corporation have now created Lifestage, an app specifically for under-21s to “share a visual profile of who [they] are with [their] school network”.

Here’s how it works. After signing up and selecting their school, users are prompted to create a series of short videos – of their facial expressions, things they like, and things they dislike – that make up their profile. Once 20 people from any school sign up, that school is unlocked, meaning everyone within it can access one another’s profiles as well as those from nearby schools. Unlike Snapchat (and truly, this is the only thing that is unlike Snapchat) there is no chat function, but teens can put in their phone number and Instagram handles in order to talk. Don’t worry, though, there are still vomit-rainbows.

But with this new development, rather than hosting your mum, Facebook has become her. Lifestage is not only an embarrassing attempt to be Down With The Kids via the medium of poop emoji, it is also an invasive attempt to pry into their personal lives. Who’s your best friend? What do you like? What’s not cool? These are all questions the app wants teens to answer, in its madcap attempt to both appeal to children and analyse them.

“Post what you are into right now – and replace the video in that field whenever you want,” reads the app description on the iTunes store. “It's not just about the happy moments – build a video profile of the things you like, but also things you don’t like.” They might as well have written: “Tell us what’s cool. Please.”

Yet this is more than an innocent endeavour to hashtag relate, and is a very real attempt, like Facebook’s many others, to collect as much data on users as possible. Teens – no matter how many hot pink splashes and cartoon toilet rolls are used to infantilise them – are smart enough to have figured this out, with one of the 16 reviews of the app on the iTunes store titled “Kinda Sorta Creepy”, and another, by a user called Lolzeka, reading:

“I don't like how much information you have to give out. I don't want my phone number to be known nor do I want everyone to know my Instagram and Snapchat. I could not figure out how to take a picture or why my school was needed. Like I said, I don't want all my information out there.”

But Facebook already knows everything about everyone ever, and it’s not this data-mining that is the most concerning element of the app. It is the fact that – on an app specifically designed for children as young as 13 to share videos of themselves – there is no user verification process. “We can't confirm that people who claim to go to a certain school actually go to that school,” Facebook readily admits.

Although the USP of this app is that those over the age of 21 can only create a profile and aren’t allowed to view others, there isn’t a failsafe way to determine a user’s age. There is nothing to stop anyone faking both their age and the school they go to in order to view videos of, and connect with, teens.

Yet even without anyone suspicious lurking in the shadows, the app’s privacy settings have already come under scrutiny. The disclaimer says all videos uploaded to Lifestage are “fully public content” and “there is no way to limit the audience of your videos”. Despite the fact it is designed to connect users within schools, videos can be seen anyone, regardless of their school, and are “viewable by everyone”.

Of course none of this matters if teens don’t actually bother to use the app, which is currently only available in the US. Lifestage’s creator, 19-year-old Michael Sayman, designed it as a “way to take Facebook from 2004 and bring it to 2016”. Although he has the successful app 4Snaps under his belt, there is no guarantee Lifestage will succeed where Facebook’s other app attempts (Notify, Facebook Gifts, Poke) have not.

There are a few tricks Facebook has put in place to prompt the app to succeed, including the fact that users are ranked by how active they are, and those who don’t post enough updates will be labelled with a frowning or (here we go again) poop emoji. Still, this hardly seems enough for an app whose distinguishing feature is “Privacy? Nah.” 

Only time will tell whether the app will appeal to teens, but one thing is certain: if it does, your mum is totally downloading it.

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