Emotions on the internet

Cultural differences

Recently, I’ve talked about the book How Emotions are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett, and I explained the basics of the theory of constructed emotion. I would like to go a step further, and discuss some of the implications.

If emotional categories are socially constructed, I’d expect different cultures to have different categories. Perhaps we have a lot of categories in common, since our cultures are all in contact with one another, and different cultures might be fulfilling similar needs. But the construction of emotions predicts that there must be some exceptions–emotional categories that only exist in some cultures and not others.

Dr. Barrett gave many examples of emotions that exist in other cultures, but not in US culture. For example, in Czech culture, “litost” is described as “torment over one’s own misery combined with the desire for revenge”. In the Ilongot tribe in the Philippines, “liget” is described as a feeling of exuberant aggression, usually felt by a group of people competing against another group. While these concepts are intelligible to us, we rarely think or talk about having exactly those combinations of feelings, and we have few expectations for how we would respond to those feelings.

I found these examples to be quite compelling, and not just because of the sheer number of examples that Dr. Barret described. Once I understood what a new emotional concept looks like, I realized that we’re creating new emotional concepts all the time! Even without looking outside the US, you can find plenty of relatively recent emotional concepts created right here on the internet.

Emotional acronyms

One of the oldest emotional concepts to originate on the internet is “lol”. I remember when we started using that in middle school, and it immediately became a joke that nobody actually laughs out loud when they type “lol”. “lol” denotes laughter, but I think this literal definition disguises the fact that it expresses a different emotion entirely. The meaning is a bit context-dependent, usually expressing light amusement, especially in response to something so absurd that it deserves no further comment. Or maybe that’s just what it means to me, and it means something different to you.

There are many other acronyms, some that have stuck around, and others that have gone in and out of fashion. There’s “omg”, “epic fail”, “fml”, “smh”, “wtf”, “yolo”, and I’m sure the rest of you can think of more examples than me. Special shout out to “tfw” which is like a meta-emotion you have when you have a feeling that can only be expressed by describing the situation that produced the feeling.

Like with the “litost” and “liget” examples, each of these emotional concepts is intelligible even if you’ve never heard of them before. You look up “smh” and see that it stands for “shaking my head”, and you can pretty much guess what it means from there. Even so, the meaning of the acronyms tends to diverge somewhat from the concepts or expressions that they’re based on. And before long, we have people saying “el oh el” in real life, because actual laughter doesn’t adequately capture their emotional response to the situation.

One distinction between the “lol” and “litost” examples, is that “litost” is an emotional state, whereas “lol” is merely an emotional expression. While this is an important distinction, I wonder, does an emotion have to be given an explicit name in order for it to count as a distinct emotional concept? Perhaps some emotional concepts do not have names, but they do have socially understood forms of expression.

Meme dialects

Going a step further, perhaps some emotional concepts are not even expressed by means of words, but instead through pictures. Case in point…

From left to right: trollface, rage guy, fuck yea guy, y u no guy, forever alone guy

Fun fact: the trollface image on the left is copyrighted. credit

Lots of people have seen at least some of these before, even if you don’t know where they came from. These are called “rage comics” and you can read about them on Know Your Meme. The one on the left, “trollface”, is one of the most widely-recognizable. It refers to the pleasure you get from trolling someone, how is that for a novel emotional concept?

Here’s another example. During the time that I was reading Dr. Barrett’s book, I had occasion to hang out with my brother, who was always chatting with his girlfriend on the phone. I discovered that he communicates to his girlfriend mostly using stickers.  (Stickers are not to be confused with emoticons like “:)”, or emoji, which are those little smiley images.)  I honestly don’t know what all these mean, or in some cases I read them differently from how my brother does. Between my brother and his girlfriend, it’s like an emotional pidgin.

some sticker expressions taken from Hatch

Some stickers that my brother uses, that I’m not sure I understand. In my research, I found that these come from a mobile game called Hatch. I don’t think my brother knows that.

It’s not merely that we come up with new emotional concepts on the internet. It’s more like, whole new emotional dialects are being created on a regular basis.  I’m sure you can come up with your own examples based on your own knowledge of memes.

I would be remiss not to mention how this might impact internet users outside the US. About 60% of the anglophone internet is from the US. For people outside the US, and even some people inside the US, I imagine there’s a steep learning curve, as people learn not only the emotional languages of the internet, but also the emotional language of the US simultaneously.

I don’t know if emotion psychologists would consider all of these things to be examples of emotional concepts, but I find it fascinating to think of them in this way. Signs of the construction of emotions may be all around us.

Caveats: Dr. Barrett is a psychologist, and her book is not just backed up by anecdotes, but also references to experiments and understanding of neurology. I have very little understanding of psychology or neurology, I only have the anecdotes.


  1. Allison says

    Colors are also socially constructed in this sense. That is, (most) people in all cultures can distinguish colors in a fairly fine-grained way if called upon to do it, but the categories they use vary from culture to culture. For instance, I remember from my Chinese class that in Chinese, the word for “purple” is used to describe the color of blood.

    For that matter, even in my culture (USA), some groups of people routinely distinguish colors that the rest of society doesn’t. E.g., the difference between “white”, “écru”, “ivory”, “cream”, “beige”, etc. Most people can distinguish them if they’re put side-by-side, but they’d simply call them “white.”

  2. says

    I bought How Emotions Are Made and have been holding off responding to your posts until I’ve finished it. Unfortunately it’s been a process (I just started chapter 5, depression has mucked with my reading comprehension) so I hope you don’t mind a bunch of replies all at once later. Now that I’ve posted this hopefully it will give me more of a boost in finishing.

    This book is changing my language reguarding our experience of the world a lot. I’m pleased that I’ve already changed my language in ways consistent with how this book presents things since I started reading about the brain and brain science in general. These changes are even politically useful as irrational and illogical ways of talking about human behavior become easier to see (people “being emotional” when all conscious thought is emotional, or “feels before reals” when feels are attached to reals in perception or memory).

    The memes you bring up are fascinating examples. Each has meaning embedded in feeling and a social context, or represents a collection of kinds in the case of tfw (are you going by “that face when” or “that feel when”?).

  3. says

    Allison @1,
    Yes, I also find the color comparison compelling, and it’s a fairly exact analogy. I’m sure you must already have heard of studies on color categories across cultures, finding that there are patterns in color categories, but it’s not quite deterministic. (see explainer video)

    Brony @2,
    I always thought of “TFW” as “that feeling when”.

    I’m glad you like the book recommendation!

  4. dangerousbeans says

    thanks for recommending that book, i’ve been finding it fascinating. it’s also really useful as someone who doesn’t process emotions and social situations in a “normal” way.

  5. Queenie says

    Fun fact: In Japan right now a lot of communication is done through LINE, a messaging app that has stickers. I’ve heard complaints from older folks that LINE has made it harder to communicate, since younger people use stickers fluently but they can’t understand what the stickers mean or their more subtle implications. (They frequently frame it as stickers “inviting misunderstanding.”)

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