There’s a debate that constantly bounces amongst our team here regarding ‘tone of voice’ on Twitter and Facebook, and most of the arguments revolve around overuse of the exclamation mark.
You may or may not know this but many brands, when they issue instructions to agencies about what they perceive their company’s ‘voice’ to be and how it should be relayed, categorically state that they are against the use of smilies. Smilies are the lingua franca of normal internet conversation and the most expedient way of ensuring that your tone is not misinterpreted when hammering out bite-size communications at high speed.
Of course, one of the most important things about conversational platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, is that they are exactly that, ‘conversational’, as opposed to simple broadcast mechanisms. And one of the characteristics of most conversations is that they’re informal.
So what’s a writer to do when they’re required to conduct informal, quickfire conversations with large numbers of complete strangers, yet are not allowed to use the normal techniques, in this case smilies, that offset this weird dynamic?
Well it seems that the default position is to use the humble exclamation mark. A lot.
By way of, (completely non-scientific), research I did some quick back-of-fag-packet analysis of 15 well known UK brand’s Facebook pages, from magazines to toothpaste to chocolate bars. The data was surprisingly consistent across all the pages. Around 2.5% of all words ended in an exclamation mark! Which may not seem like a lot! But when almost 100% of contributing punctuations are typed by the brand (almost every status update!), the overall effect can be quite overwhelming! A little like CCTV cameras, once you start noticing them it’s very hard to stop!
Try it! Pick the Facebook page of a brand and see how frequently their tone is one of excitability! How relentlessly upbeat! How… exclaimed!
The thing about this emphatically constant positivity is that it’s a bit inhuman. It’s unnerving in the same way that those fixed grins and glassy eyes you only find on fundamentalist Christians are unnerving. It’s indefinably creepy.
I’m reminded of the Uncanny Valley Theory, which, in case you’re not familiar with it, describes the sudden dip taken by our sense of empathy when confronted with something that’s almost human but that has something about it that reeks of inhumanity. The uncanny valley explains why we’re able to anthropomorphise and empathise with a non-humanoid robot while a much more sophisticated and lifelike one may inspire revulsion.
“The uncanny valley is a hypothesis regarding the field of robotics. The hypothesis holds that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s lifelikeness.”
“The uncanny valley may “be symptomatic of entities that elicit a model of a human other but do not measure up to it.”If an entity looks sufficiently nonhuman, its human characteristics will be noticeable, generating empathy. However, if the entity looks almost human, it will elicit our model of a human other and its detailed normative expectations. The nonhuman characteristics will be noticeable, giving the human viewer a sense of strangeness. In other words, a robot stuck inside the uncanny valley is no longer being judged by the standards of a robot doing a passable job at pretending to be human, but is instead being judged by the standards of a human doing a terrible job at acting like a normal person.”
Think about your brand.
Is it coming across like this?
Or more like this?
And which of them would you rather be?
There are now enough brands and agencies who have been typing in this hyper-enthusiastic way for long enough that it’s become a micro-culture unto itself, much like the bizarre linguistic inflections evolved by aircraft cabin crew over the last fifteen years.
But do we really feel that people who connect with brands on these platforms are so dim-witted that they need to hear the enthusiastic tone of a children’s entertainer to keep them engaged? Are we such untalented writers that we’re incapable of communicating a pleasant and professional tone without channeling Adrian Mole-esque punctuation? Is using smilies really such a bad thing? These are genuine questions by the way, not rhetorical. Maybe the answer to all of them is ‘yes’.
Between constant changes imposed by platform owners and consumer behaviour adapting, as people are bombarded with volley after volley of marketing messages, the social media landscape for brands is changing on a virtually daily basis, and the skills required to…
a) be sensitive to it and
b) linguistically adapt to it
…are demanding, to say the least.
While we continue to thrash out the [over]use of the exclamation mark round our table, ask yourself if your brand is slipping into the uncanny valley or whether you’re still a cute and likeable R2D2!
Until next time!