April 20, 2024

The reactions are swallowing the Internet

I’ve been emailing a small group of people from another organization about a mutual project. You know how this goes. Many of the messages we pass back and forth contain no content, just recognition: Excellent! either Thank you either Will serve. But the other day I received an unexpected note from one of my collaborators, Jacob. Maybe note is not the word: I sent an email to the group (“Got it!”), and now, apparently, Jacob had responded by sending us all a photo of confetti. This was not an answer. It was something else: a reaction.

Last October, Google’s Gmail began allowing users to send emoji reactions to “quickly and creatively recognize an email.” That’s what Jacob did: he quickly and creatively informed me that he was in a state of celebration over the fact that I had understood his previous message. So, confetti. I saw this written in my inbox: “🎉 Jacob reacted to your message.” In other words, I received another email.

As a matter of official policy, reactions are supposed to relieve you of the burden of writing a full response. (“Don’t you want to have to create an entire email response just to send a thumbs up?” Microsoft asked when its emoji feature launched in late 2022. “Reactions in Outlook is here to help!”) But everyone Those relieved burdens, together, add up to a new one: the duty to react to everything, in one way or another. Whether we are asked to throw confetti or laugh or cry, a novel task has been created and distributed all over the Internet. Now even email (the creakiest and most outdated form of online messaging) has been infected by this terrible mechanism.

Traditional replies, that is, new messages sent in response to an initial one, have been around since the beginning of email, message boards, and blogs. At first they seemed very easy to produce and began appearing on forums by dozens or hundreds at a time. In those early days of response, a lexicon emerged to describe overuse. we had email stormsand the dangers of reply todopocalypse. New social practices, including moderation and blocking threads, emerged to prevent them.

The reactions were meant to be another solution. They came into earnest with the Facebook Like button, first launched in 2009. See a post you like? Say it without saying it. Soon, “Liking” was also applied to Facebook comments. (Before Facebook, sites like Digg and Reddit had their users vote content up or down, but the practice was not yet routine.) Then, Mark Zuckerberg unleashed the Like button across the web, where publishers could embed it in their own articles and product pages. As social media became social media, other services followed suit, adding favorites to Twitter and giving hearts to Instagram. The reactions also spread to smartphones, especially after Apple gave the world its iPhone emoji keyboard in 2011. Now people started sending text messages that contained nothing more than a symbol: a reaction in the form of answer.

By the mid-2010s, reactions were everywhere. BuzzFeed added them (“OMG”, “LOL”, “CUTE”) in his articles: “reacting and sharing media is the best way to express yourself.” BuzzFeed said CEO Jonah Peretti. Apple added “tapbacks” (i.e. reactions) to its messaging app. Facebook developed its “Like” button to include five basic human feelings, including love, anger, and “haha.” And since 2022, Microsoft has been expanding React features in its Office products. You know a trend has really arrived when Microsoft does it.

In fact, the reactions became so frequent that they led to another type of response. The substitute for noise became noise. An update to group chat software Slack last fall added an “activity” interface that collects substantive responses and emoji reactions alike and turns them into listed events for my consideration. Apple’s iMessage is designed to have the same effect. Sometimes I feel my phone vibrate with activity and then unlock it to discover that a friend or family member was just catching up on a group text, politely waving, tapping, or giving a thumbs up through a chain. of messages.

As the reactions spread, their meanings withered. The standard ones (👍 or 😂, say) now transmit almost nothing; They are just another way of saying Uh Huh. At the same time, the infinite number of emojis available has loaded other images with hidden meanings. In your workplace, does a thumbs-up sound clear-headed or aggressive to you? Someone says thank you with a pair of hands together (🙏), or with “ty”, or with something completely different? The reactions have been absorbed by a culture that exists on its own. The main objective they once had: communicative savings, has been abandoned.

This pattern is familiar in technology. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan described it as investment: A car takes you where you need to go freely, but then once everyone is driving, congestion sets in and no one can get anywhere. Today’s reactions are the same: so obligatory and abundant that they only slow us down. You react to messages not as a way to save time, but because doing otherwise would be wrong, like not recognizing a coworker in the break room.

The arrival of reactions to our email, of all places, represents its ultimate success and its inevitable futility. Adding confetti to a Gmail conversation affirms that reactions power the Internet: that online life has become reaction-driven in a profound sense. Much of what we do and share online is done or shared precisely in the hope of generating emojis. At this point, we are so overwhelmed with these attempts (with things that make us laugh, cry, or throw confetti) that the very work of having a reaction may soon become obsolete.

To what or against what is there left to react? More of the same: paperwork to file, projects to review, schedules to coordinate, greetings to acknowledge, affronts to regret. A reaction once condensed and clarified emotional expression. Now it’s just another thing to do. 🙃

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