Diversity in Emoji

Have you ever wondered why the Simpsons are all painted yellow? Groening, the creator of the Simpsons believed whenever someone was flipping through the channels, they would automatically know the Simpsons was on when they saw the yellow bodies flash by. Cut to today, and there are a set of people who aren’t happy being identified as ‘yellow’ albeit on the digital medium.

Apple in its new release of Yosemite has made an option available which allows people to pick the colour of the emojis in up to six shades. While I am all for inclusiveness and an increase in the emoji database to reflect the local cultural nuances, it hasn’t definitely gone well with most of the people.

Emoji Colour-shades

On Weibo, China’s largest microblog, some bloggers praised the new selection, especially since previous Apple emoji depicting humans had only come in a single shade: white but more users found the yellow toned emoji mildly offensive (there is a long racist history of using “yellow” to describe Asians) or just inaccurate. Read here. To me, it’s sounds all the more surreal because there were even a recent attempt to ban wordplay so as to encourage pun control.

And all of this makes we wonder what would Paul Grice, the father of linguistics, would have thought of. Grice argued that conversation is a joint activity, an activity that cannot be achieved without the cooperation of its participants. However, I think the rules change drastically when the conversations move online in a non-immediate setting. I have dwelled more on this in a longer Medium piece. There are many aspects of the digital communication that do not account for local cultural nuances and it’s not strange because the biggest internet organisations are headquartered in the US and to give them a fair play, it’s really difficult to the local traditions given that there are so many diversions and discussions within the micro-communities as well. However, it’s also worth noting that China and India now account for the second largest and the third largest internet population in the world and it’s only bound to grow for the future posing a not so easy conundrum.

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A social network for the dead

Is it ever possible that the social network you use frequently will contain profiles of more dead people than that of living ones? And what challenges does it pose for someone who is trying to study the user behaviour of people on that social network? Is it ethical? Does it adhere to the basic tenets of doing ethnography? Your social network can afford to keep all our pages and data indefinitely. Living users will always generate more data than dead ones, and the accounts for active users are the ones that will need to be easily accessible. Even if accounts for dead (or inactive) people make up a majority of their users, it will probably never add up to a large part of their overall infrastructure budget. More important will be our decisions. What do we want for those pages? Unless we demand that the social network deletes them, they will presumably, by default, keep copies of everything forever. But there are a lot of questions surrounding passwords and access to private data that we haven’t yet developed social norms for. Should accounts remain accessible? What should be made private? Should next-of-kin have the right to access email? Should memorial pages have comments? How do we handle trolling and vandalism? Should people be allowed to interact with dead user accounts? What lists of friends should they show up on? T

hese are issues that we’re currently in the process of sorting out by trial and error. Death has always been a big, difficult, and emotionally charged subject, and every society finds different ways to handle it. In every place, culture, and technological landscape, we develop a different set of behaviour around these same activities. And it is this evolving behaviour, which poses great challenges when someone is trying to do study users on digital platforms. Death may appear to be an easier issue to deal with, if you keenly observe the different cultural sensitivities that come into play when people are expressing their opinion on religion, politics or other complex matters of the society. There are also issues related to user anonymity and state control. To add to the complexity, the ethnographer faces many methodological challenges like playing the dual role of participant-observer, contextualizing and arriving at normativity while conducting the research.

To pause, to ponder, to tweet or to move on

Sherry Turkle:

A 14-year-old girl tells me how she gets her device-smitten father to engage with her during dinner: “Dad, stop Googling. I don’t care about the right answer. I want to talk to you.” A 14-year-old boy reflects: “Don’t people know that sometimes you can just look out the window of a car and see the world go by and it is wonderful. You can think. People don’t know that.”

John Dickerson:

When you pause to write about something—even if it’s for Twitter or Facebook—you are engaging with it. Something within you is inspired and, at the very least, you’ve got to pick the words and context to convey meaning for your private recollection or, if you make it public, for the larger world.

Don’t blame social media, it’s just a messenger

This has been on my mind for quite some time now. Everyone watching the spontaneous crowd coming together on Raisina Hill owed it partly to social media. The quite protests were fine until some of them converted into rowdy mobs exhibiting violence.

And there’s the rub.

Vikram Doctor in Economic Times has summed it well as – “often mobs can be contained without the use of force — sometimes humour or doing something ridiculous can distract the attention of people. But if force has to be used, it must be done in such a way “that make them think as individuals. Individuals should be given ample scope to escape and run as far away as possible so that they do not regroup again with a new group of ‘friend’”. But most of all, he emphasises again and again in his book, through situations as tense and diverse as the Bombay Police Riots of 1982, Datta Samant’s mill agitations, or the Punjab militancy, there is no substitute for genuinely trying — and being seen to try — to understand the concerns of protesters and what could be done to deal with them.”

Twitter and other social media are value-neutral tools, and they can be put to incredibly destructive uses. Let’s never forget, though, that the vast majority of the time social media is used constructively, connecting friends and family, facilitating expression and creativity, and even spawning amazing spontaneous efforts like the volunteer support on platforms like Ushahidi.

The same herd mentality is often used to nudge users to financially support others’ ideas on platforms like Kickstarter or to perform improv, leading the crowd into funny situations in public places.

It’s perfectly legitimate to be concerned over its potentially destructive uses, but let’s be careful what we do about it.

One reason is that the authorities are not very good at distinguishing between harmless fun flash-mobbing, legitimate political protest, and incitements to crime. They will tend to err on the side of caution—and the side of avoiding any potential controversy at all.

The authority tends to ignore the overwhelming amount of good that social media facilitates at the first sign of a potential threat. That’s a dangerous tendency, and that’s why governments—democratic or autocratic—should not have the power to pull the plug on social media.

What’s the alternative? Police should police and apprehend and prosecute the small minority of delinquents who use the new tools for ill. There’s uncertainty in that, and a real possibility that new media will be used for crime. It’s also a lot more work for officials. But that is the small price we must pay for a free society.

Has social media played a significant role in the recent uprisings?

Extolling the virtues of ‘the medium is the message’, social media platforms have clearly played an important role in helping people vent out their grievances,get the word out, and in helping organisers plan their protests. In the end, I don’t think it is not as much about a social platform as it is about the power of real time communication.

The social media tools can be incredibly powerful, both for spreading the word as well as generating external support thanks to the power of the network. And hence to deride all elements of cyber utopianism, social media may not have been a cause but it definitely has been a catalyst, a very powerful one.

So, to come back to the question. Social media did play a significant role in building the cause for the revolution but they did not necessarily let the people to revolt. They did help activists organise the dial-up and satellite phone connections that created a quasi-internet after Egypt turned the real one off – which, of course, it did in large part to try and prevent demonstrators from using the social media to strengthen their voice of dissent.

My response to: Has social media played a significant role in any revolution? on Quora.