Emotions Online: the Economy of ‘Likes’
On the Web, when you love, you don’t keep count of clicks, nor one’s joys, sorrows or anger. In a book on the Affective Web, we propose talking about love: the love that Web platforms enables us to send and receive via many emotional signs (emoji, likes, emoticons, hearts, etc.); the love that these platforms have for our emotional statements, in order to refine the collection and processing of data about us; and finally, the love that communication and marketing professionals seem to feel for technologies and methods that enable them to capture, analyse and understand what we feel.
In short, in this essay, we seek to think of the digital economy through an emotional lens. And since it seems to us that, on the Web, the balance of power is not equal, we propose a critical look at the possibility of an affective capitalism where we work to make each other happy.
From the Multitude to the Individual, and from Emotions to Affects
In previous work on (e)reputation industries, we asked why many economic actors were so interested in what we say and do online, but also how they translate our clicks and comments into reputation, in other words into an intangible value.
This earlier research led us to see the link between two “black boxes” that communication professionals dream of being able to light up: our brain and the computational systems of digital devices (algorithms for example). Reputation, attention, influence: a set of cognitive objects at the centre of many organizations’ digital strategies that Web platforms propose to evaluate and measure. This set of objects, moreover, makes us unique, whether it is our attention span, our opinions, etc. However, discourses and practices concerning (e) reputation focus mainly on the crowd: it is only from a large volume of online criticism (for example) that we will be able to draw useful lessons for then employing specific strategies.
What then was this missing link between “black box” issues and the discourse about “customer experience” and the increased “personalization” of online interfaces and recommendations? In 2014, Facebook’s experience in evaluating and promoting the emotional contagion of platform users provided the flash of insight: what allow the digital industries and their customers (advertisers) to distinguish individuals in the crowd, to refine personalization and behavioural analysis, are emotions. But in the discourse from communication practitioners that we have studied, and in patents filed by the dominant Web platforms, while the term “emotion” does actually appears, it seems to us that this is not exactly what it is about.
Emotions are part of a person’s psychological spectrum. They certainly respond to external stimuli, but they are not quantifiable without the creation of performative measurement scales. More than the actual ability to capture emotions, here we are talking about the imaginations and beliefs about the possibilities of doing so. According to beliefs held and developed in the many writings on the “universal expressions of emotions” already proposed by Charles Darwin and refined by Paul Ekman, our face betrays seven easily recognizable emotions (sadness, joy, anger, anger, fear, disgust, surprise, and contempt).
Of course, here, no culture or context differences can undermine the determinism of our facial micro-expressions. But if these are not emotions, then what are we talking about? Our research, we decided to talk about affect, understood as the power to act, as the ability to produce an effect on others and thus set them in motion. Affections circulate between bodies, objects and signs. The ability of a person to produce content, then to successfully have it circulated from Internet user to Internet user, can be seen as a real economic advantage. Moreover, when Facebook or Google choose information and its formatting and context to present it to a specific group of Internet users to attract their attention and make them click on an advertising link, they are doing nothing more than affecting these users in the sense of “having an effect on.”
Affecting on the Surface and in Depth
This desire to facilitate the circulation of affects on platforms, which can in turn provoke emotions and thus play on cognitive triggers, is found in the interfaces: a multiplication of signs that attract attention while promoting interaction.
In particular, we trace the genealogy of Facebook Reactions enabling Facebook to diversify the original “Like ” into “I love, I adore, haha, wow, sad, grr”. In depth, our analysis of the patents filed by Facebook/Twitter/Google shows that this emotional signalling in fact contributes to the automation of what is circulating on these platforms: if Twitter offers hearts, it is so it can better select the messages that will be displayed to our followers. And thus affect them?
The link between depth and surface can be identified in the financial and managerial strategies used by these companies: in recruiting engineers or specialized designers, taking over start-ups, applying for patents, etc. The same applies to advertisers (organisations, service providers). On the surface, it means developing communication strategies where images, videos, humour and emoticons are legion. The aim is to gain visibility on platforms that enhance this content in depth and promote the use of these functionalities on the surface. In depth, we also note that this specific use of devices is the responsibility of those we call “click workers”: community managers or content moderators for example. They must therefore engage in affective work (provoking emotions in others) and emotional work (always looking happy to make audiences/customers happy); that is not without consequences for these jobs whose definitions are still shifting.
For these advertisers, between surface and depth, the link is made via specific technologies for the recognition and analysis of “emotions” (whose functioning and possibilities we detail in our study), and of course, the advertising features and targeting offered by the platforms themselves. We then noticed a form of dependence: to affect one’s audience, you are required to use these devices and their tools. Is this a form of alienation from the tools of production and the circulation of digital affects?
Are We All Affective Workers?
This alienation is examined at the surface and in depth for the daily users of these devices. On the surface, we share what we like, what shocks us, or challenges us. In depth, we try to fight against boredom, as shown in research by Julien Pierre and his colleagues. In any case, we work for these platforms and advertisers: to produce clicks, to produce personalisation and, whatever happens, to produce the impulses necessary for the circulation of what attracts attention and has effects on our representations, even our bodies.
We choose in the book to speak of the affective proletarian, less for provocation than to show that we do not possess the means to produce our digital affects: they belong to the platforms. How then can we regulate what is already considered a means of generating value? How to act on a (non)object? It is not actually our emotions that are measured or captured, but what we see and consume on a daily basis on the Web affects our well-being.
These are just some of the many questions we are raising and are only the beginning of an ongoing research project. In line with the “Émergences : Les affects numériques” section in issue 11 of the Revue Française des Sciences de l’Information et de la Communication, we believe it is urgent to study collectively what a commercial Web does with our affects and emotions. The objective is not just to criticize and to alert users, but also to reflect on how to (re)make our affects a “clean place” as Michel de Certeau said in his time. In short, the goal is to know how to get around the prescribed uses of platforms that seek to make our emotions an ordinary commodity that is only of value to those with whom we want to share them.
Crédits images en CC : Wikimedia Commons Pumbaa80 ; Pixabay Clker-Free-Vector-Images, Pixabay Pixaline ; Publicdomainepictures.net mohamed mohamed mahmoud hassan ; Patrick Mignard for Mondes Sociaux