Signaling our social status isn’t so much about the brand names we wear anymore. It’s about the content we post and the way we interact on social media.
On the surface, we signal through the articles we share from the New Yorker, the incisive Twitter threads we write about our favorite Oscar-nominated films, the Instagram posts of that immersive art exhibit we visited last weekend. But it has become more nuanced than that.
The design of social media platforms has evolved over the years to maximize engagement. And with each design update, we socially evolve with it.
On Instagram, we see who of our friends liked the post in our feed, presumably because we are more inclined to like it if someone we respect already did. We may reserve our like if we don’t want others to see it, or purposefully like if we want to align ourselves with that content.
On Twitter, a large percentage of our timeline is tweets other people liked from accounts we don’t follow. So we thoughtfully hand out or reserve our little hearts, highly conscious of the fact that our followers will see them. We might have appreciated that stupid meme, but don’t want to broadcast that to our timeline.
Depending on how and when we tag someone in our Tweet, it has different meanings. We might tag a celebrity for a chance to get a like or retweet. We might start our Tweet with a period if we want to publicly shame them.
We have learned to use micro-interactions to our social advantage. A thumbs up carries a multitude of meanings. The lack of one even more.
How do these tiny social signals influence who we are online and offline? How do they shape our conversations, our interests, our taste? If this exchange were happening in private, would it go differently? Are we performing for our audience or being our sincere selves?
As the design of these platforms continues to evolve, so will our social behaviors. Small, seemingly insignificant updates that change how we see ourselves and present ourselves to others. The goal is engagement. The result is a micro-language and social system, one we all silently accept and cement as we tap fingers to phones.
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the author of this blog, nice to meet you!