Not All Words Are Equal, or Used Equally


Dilbert
There’s an economic principle known as the rule of fungibility that states a commodity is equivalent to other units of the same commodity. For example, a litre of gasoline is the same commodity regardless of the brand or source. A bushel of wheat is the same regardless of the country. Ten dollars is ten dollars whether presented as a single bill or in smaller denominations. These are fungible items.

But fungibility doesn’t apply to language. Words do not have an absolute base value, but are rather weighed in their context, and their source. A street thug telling his pack followers to “Kill the bum” is very different from a sports fan shouting the same thing at an empire during a baseball game. Context is everything.

If a neighbour comments, “Taxes in this town are too high. They are killing jobs, hurting homeowners and bankrupting businesses,” it’s a complaint. A fairly common one from a taxpayer. One person bitching to another is lightweight, regardless of the truth of that complaint.

Put it in a letter to the editor, and it gains weight because others read it and may start discussing it. It gains traction.

Put it on social media and you can engage people in discussions immediately and share the comment with people outside your own borders, creating an image of the town for outsiders: don’t move there, don’t start a business there, because taxes are too high. There’s no work there.

It can quickly become damaging to to whole community.

If the media says it in an editorial, it’s bulks up. Even though the media does not necessarily represent any more voices than the editor’s sole view, media still has a patina of authority for most readers.*

And when that editorial gets put online, like the social media comment, it not only spreads the idea, but it helps build – or deteriorate – the community’s reputation for outsiders.**

If a politician (say a municipal councillor) makes the same statement – even one who pays the same level of property taxes – it weighs far more heavily than a single resident’s comment. It becomes part of the political agenda. It may be taken as a statement of intent that he or she plans to do something to redress this situation. Expectations for action develop among the community.

The effect on outsiders can swing the other way: some may think that, while it has troubles, here’s a place where politicians are actively trying to make things better. And if nothing gets accomplished, the politician’s own reputation takes the beating, not necessarily the community’s.

Media may critically dismiss it as mere campaigning or grandstanding.

If a staff person says the same thing, then it acquires a whole new meaning. It could be read as a criticism of the local politicians, of their economic policies and a statement of defiance. A staff person posting a comment to “ask your town council why taxes are so high” both legitimizes the complaint (staff acknowledges that they are too high) and assigns blame (not my fault – it’s council’s doing). There is an immediate perception that all is not well in town hall.

Dissent and confrontation in town hall shakes the public’s confidence, both internally and externally. Again, the damage to the community’s reputation can be felt throughout the larger online community.

The words may be the same in all cases, but the context and the source are different. The result from each scenario is different, sometimes wildly so. There is no equivalence, no fungibility.

Social media also changes context in other ways. Having no formatting such as bold or italics, or being restricted to content size, such as Twitter’s 140 character limit, means that the normal tools for emphasis disappear, leaving only artificial methods, all open to misinterpretation. To emphasize a word, you can surround it by asterisks (*killing*), you can make it all-caps (KILLING) or you can find some other decorative manner (e.g. K*I*L*L*I*N*G).

Since none are standard typographic methods, they leave the reader to question the intent. Are these equivalent methods of emphasis? Did the writer mean the same as we mean when we use bold, underline or italics? There are no guidelines, just opportunities for misinterpretation. Is someone “trumpeting” because they use all-caps to emphasize a word or simply trying to make it stand out in an environment where normal typographic tools are absent?

Irony and humour, too, need special additions such as emoticons like ;-) to identify when a comment is not intended seriously. This cramps both content (who wants to have to explain you jokes?) and leave the door open for misinterpretation (are you laughing at me? making fun of me? suggesting I don’t get it?)

On my first term on council, I sent an email with a tongue-in-cheek comment to my fellow council members. To show it was meant as a joke, not to be taken seriously, I put that little ;-) at the end of the line. One councillor knew nothing about smileys, thought it was just a typo, and responded blisteringly to my attempt at humour. I had to email him links to online sits that explained how these little typographic images worked before he calmed down.

Then there are the acronyms and abbreviations. We’re used to many of them by now – LOL, OMG, ROFL, CUL8R – but because they are often arbitrary, site- or group-specific, many still leave room for misunderstanding. ROFL can also mean Running on Four Legs. What about AFK? ASAMOF? IMHO? BBFN? BIOYN? DBEYR? YMMV?GSYJDWURMNKH?

Is ROTFL or ROTF the same as ROFL? What’s the qualitative difference between ROTGL and ROTFL? Between ROTFL and ROFLMAO? When someone types WWW do they mean World Wide Web? or World Wide Wait? or What Went Wrong? Is BBB Bye Bye Babe or Boring Beyond Belief? Is BFF Best Friends Forever or Best Friend’s Funeral?

Is LOL Laugh Out Loud or Lots of Love? That difference created quite an embarrassment for UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

With literally hundreds of these acronyms in use, many created on the fly, or in use for less than a decade, the potential for misinterpretation is significant.

The other problem with context on social media is that comments occur in the rushing stream of content, often disassociated from background, or thoughtful analysis, let alone fact. Content that was onscreen a hour ago may have being subsumed in the deluge of new content – which grows greater as you add “friends” or followers. The sheer volume drowns out any real possibility of extended (and civil) discussion.

People generally share things that reinforce their own beliefs, not necessarily because they are true. They share what generates a positive feedback loop. Like the mis-attributed quotations that frequent Facebook, it’s easier to post something you agree with, that supports your own world view, than it is to stop and verify that it is factual and accurate.

Actually checking facts may disprove the item: being wrong is an attack on one’s self worth.

It’s equally easy to simply lie or misinform people online, knowing that others will accept it rather than do any fact checking or analysis. And that lie – like the mis-attributed quote or such pseudoscience conspiracy nonsense as chemtrails or anti-vaccination diatribes – becomes the new “truth” that gets shared.

Words. So many things to say about them, so many ways the affect us. I’ll have much more to say on this subject later.

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* Because the media still has an accepted authority, it has both more responsibility and more blame for what it chooses to publish. However difficult it may be, editors have to be far more scrupulous not to present political agendas and opinion as news. Is it the media’s responsibility to promote and defend the community? That depends on how you see the media: is it an integral part of the community (in which case, the answer is yes), or is it just another, private business whose role is to make a profit?

** Reputation is everything, as Machiavelli wrote. Many people commenting on social media do not appreciate the impact their words have on the collective reputation of the community. But for outsiders, the effect is significant. Would you want to retire to a community where residents constantly criticize or attack their own town and politicians? Would you open a business in a community beset with strife and dissent? Would you want to vacation in a place where the locals don’t seem to like living?

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