Communication Studies professor analyzes social media’s new languages

York University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) hosted “Social Media – The Great Equalizer?” with communication studies Professor Derek Hrynyshyn on Nov. 20, exploring the new languages of social media as part of the LA&PS Community Conversations series.

Derek Hrynyshyn
Derek Hrynyshyn (image: Stephanie Ross)

New forms of communication, such as memes and emojis, are being popularized through social media at a bewildering rate and have a great hold on the imagination. The implications of this ongoing shift are tied to its origins.

In this talk, Hrynyshyn discussed sources of this move toward a new form of literacy and what it means for our collective future. He looked at what is driving this shift and which forces are acting on our language and our relationships with each other.

Hrynyshyn began the discussion by suggesting that new forms of communication emerging through the use of social media have many implications for the way we understand our world, ourselves and one another. The challenge for researchers, he said, is finding a systematic way to study the issue because new forms of communication cannot be easily captured in the way that earlier forms of communication could.

“Mass media representations could be analyzed more easily because the one-to-many structure of that form of communication allowed researchers to systematically record and store all of the ways that representation took place, and then draw conclusions about the implications,” said Hrynyshyn. “With social media, however, the experience of the flow of information differs from one user to another, so generalizations cannot so easily be drawn about how that experience shapes understandings.”

The Community Conversation highlighted the characteristics that are common to all users’ experiences of new forms of socially mediated communication.

“For one thing, emojis, memes and GIFs all have a simplicity in the representation that works to undermine the need for a literate interpretation of texts,” said Hrynyshyn. “But such conclusions are not easy to rely on, as people may apply many different skills to such ways of representing.”

He suggested researchers look at the motivations behind the decisions made to introduce such forms of communication. A prime example is Facebook’s introduction of a wider selection of responses to messages, diversifying the “like” thumbs-up icon into six different emojis. Hrynyshyn makes the case that, on one hand, it makes sense to give users choices of more specific responses. Members of the audience agreed that it is useful to be able to, for example, show support for the victims of violence described in a message without appearing to support the violent actions themselves by clicking “like.”

“But, on the other hand, it is unlikely that the decision-making at Facebook is driven by a desire to keep users happier with the choice of responses,” Hrynyshyn said. “While the multiple options for responses serves users, it also serves the interests of the corporation by providing more information about users’ interests and emotional states.”

He added that this information is useful to Facebook because their business model is built on the sale of audiences to advertisers, and advertisers are able to benefit from knowing more about these audiences.

“These decisions about how to allow users to interact are driven by a desire to quantify and categorize users, which is made easier by forms of communication that reduce emotional responses and conditions to a small number of measurable indicators,” Hrynyshyn said.

He concluded the talk with other problems produced by the decisions social media companies make, such as invasion of privacy and the increased power that advertisers have to manipulate the purchasing decisions of users.

“Facebook has, in fact, conducted research on how effectively they can alter the emotional reactions of users through different forms of content,” said Hrynyshyn. “Public outcry questioned the ethics of a study on users who did not know that their newsfeed was being manipulated to see if it changed their mood, but this practice is part of the basic business model of all social media.”

Users are mostly unaware, Hrynyshyn said, that this function is part of the social media systems that are in use so commonly today.

Community Conversations is an initiative of the Office of Global & Community Engagement (GCE) in LA&PS. GCE funds Community Conversations, connecting the Faculty and York University with a variety of community groups and members within the Greater Toronto Area.

For more information on GCE, email; for more information on Community Conversations, visit the website.