Recently I posted a picture to Instagram of a New Zealand beer that a co-worker had brought me. My niece liked the picture, but she’s 9, so I jokingly chastised her that she’s not allowed to like pictures of beers. Her response was that she wanted to give me a like.

We all have that one connection on our social sites who seems to “like” everything posted. Everything. I don’t know about you, but I’m inclined to roll my eyes most of the time.

But my niece’s comment gave me pause. She wasn’t liking the beer; she was liking me. This was yet another wakeup call regarding how people (mostly younger) use media and develop/spend social capital.

It’s similar, I think, to how conversations on instant message apps between herself and her sister (and sometimes with me) can consist almost entirely of stickers and emojis. It’s mostly nonsense, but can be a lot of fun.

Attention has become a currency, sometimes more valuable than actual currency, and there are real physical and psychological responses to getting, having, not getting it, or losing it:

When you see those three dots that tell you someone is composing a reply to your message, but the message doesn’t arrive … When you screw over your friend (accidentally or intentionally) by not replying to a Snap and ruining the Snapstreak you had going.

Simply “friending” or “un-friending” someone online has become the least of our decisions regarding pursuing and crafting relationships online and expressing our preferences and emotions.

What might seem frivolous to some is a big deal – and big business – to others.

Nowadays attention currency can translate into actual currency. I was talking to a friend recently whose teenage daughter plays Overwatch, and has a Twitch channel. People not only sign on just to watch her play a video game and maybe participate in the chat channel, some people pay her – not to do anything for them, not for product placement, etc., but just … because they like her or like watching her team play. She gets stuff sent to her that has been bought from her Amazon wish list, too.

Now, yes, she’s a teenage girl on the internet, but to date things haven’t gotten gross or weird. From my perspective, it would throw up red flags all over the place for her parents, but then, it’s a huge community and a set of ways of interacting that I’m not a part of. Ways of expressing fandom have changed, too.

She’s not making enough to quit her part-time job or forego university, but there are folks who do. For a very select few, it’s possible now to build a career (or relatively lucrative hobby) from your online recreation, at least for a time.

Imagine how hippies in the ’60s would have reacted at being told that there were people who would make a living driving around in VW vans and taking pictures of themselves.

Or telling kids in arcades in the ’70s that one day they could make money by playing video games and letting people on the other side of the world watch them do it.

I spent a lot of years in community-centric roles, but I find it hard to wrap my brain around it all; the very idea of building community and contributing to the attention economy via … voyeurism?

Except … hasn’t that been the basis of fan clubs since forever?

Further to ancient communications technologies, the other day my friend sent a link to a Twitter conversation between two authors. It was goofy nonsense, but pretty hilarious. I replied back: “I actually lol’d”.

LOL (laugh out loud) got overplayed a long time ago, and I don’t think anyone believes that anyone else is actually laughing when they use it anymore. It’s just a throwaway indication that something was cute, funny, appreciated, etc.

So when something is genuinely funny enough to wrench a guffaw past your jaded larynx, you need some other means to express your appreciation to the person who sent it. You need to literally tell them. Awkward.

I suppose half a dozen “laughing so hard you’re crying” emojis would have done the trick, but we’re such dinosaurs that we mostly still communicate via email. Desktop email.

Fortunately, if you’re feeling old school, imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery. Which means nothing shows love, appreciation, bonding, and other oxytocin-producing experiences like … memes!

Recently a friend of mine was featured on the cover of Now Magazine. Great photo, but not her usual schtick. I don’t know about you, but among my friends, that requires an appropriate response.

So began the memes. Day after day, friend after friend, posting their own re-creations of the cover photo. Sometimes with beers, sometimes with other things: milk, scotch, a Chihuahua …

It was sweet and hilarious, cheered her up while some other crappy stuff was going on, and made her feel the love. Which was the point. It ties right back to the value of attention and its effects, as well as how and why we use media.

Of course, it can work the opposite way, too. Memes can be weapons. Expressions of anger, displeasure, or political statements. Just try googling “Donald Trump memes”.

I think everyone reaches a period when their view on the world starts to develop an anthropological bent. Are kids who text emojis and selfies all day long really any different than kids who spent hours on the phone (tethered by that never-long-enough cord)?

As long as we give those close to us the benefit of the doubt that they’re trying to express positive things, we’re halfway to understanding, even if the language is a bit murky. But hey, think of getting “language” lessons as a potential bonding experience.

Just keep your eggplant emojis to yourself.

Photo: Emoji, by Frank Behrens, is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or me@melle.ca.

About The Author

Melanie Baker

M-Theory is a guest column by Melanie Baker, who is a big fan of building communities and working with geeks. She spends her days fixing the internets (in a way), writing, chasing her puppy, and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.