Twitter favourite button and meaning of symbols

Twitter changed their favourite button from a star to a heart. According to them, their test groups loved it. Perhaps it makes more sense to new users. Perhaps it reflects our contemporary culture where Facebook sets the standards with their ubiquitous like-button. Maybe, in the long rung, the change might be a good thing from an UI/UX perspective. But several people have expressed that they feel uncomfortable with the change. They note that favouriting something is not the same as loving. While others might not see what the fuss is about. After all, stars are also often used to express love and admiration.

What I find interesting is how, with this seemingly simple change, Twitter has hijacked and distorted the past actions of their millions of users. Because a rose is not a rose by any other symbol.

I think the main problem here is not just that the symbols – or signs to be specific – would have different meanings, but that they differ in the range of their meanings. A heart is more monosemic while a star is more polysemic. Monosemic sign has a unique meaning that everyone agrees on. Like our everyday Indo-Arabic numerals: we do not need to have a debate about what 3 means. In contrast, a polysemic sign has multiple meanings, leaving its interpretation somewhat ambiguous and subjective. We could also talk about pansemic signs, like abstract art, which do not have any precise meanings but are completely subjective. (Read more about this, for example, in Jaques Bertin’s Semiology of Graphics.)

Some treat these three as distinct categories, but I think it’s better to see these as points, or areas, with fuzzy boundaries on a continuum. Even the basic numerals can mean different things depending on the context. Mostly they are clear and unambiguous, but there are occasions where they take on numerological, mystical, or metaphorical meanings. For example, think about trinities in many religions, a 1% badge, or 88 which can be used to express good luck, love and kisses, or xenophobia and hate.

So I wouldn’t say that a heart is fully monosemic. It can have some different meanings. But among these meanings, at least in today’s Western culture, the link with love is quite dominating.

In comparison, the star does not seem to have such a strong link to any single meaning. Instead, it can be used in a variety of different ways. It can be used to express love and admiration, but it can also be to simply mark something as important.

This latter meaning has been reinforced in recent decades by software and web interfaces. The star has been a symbol of bookmarking in Chrome, Firefox, and other browsers. Also in Gmail you can mark messages with stars to signal that they are ‘important or to indicate that you need to reply to them later’.1

This is far from loving things. There might be content that you would never ever endorse, but might want to bookmark. Actually, you might sometimes bookmark content because you vehemently oppose it. For example, you want to show the unbelievable stupidity to other people, or you want to store it for criticising it later.

No wonder some people are rattled. Suddenly Twitter claims that they love things that they merely bookmarked in the past. Of course, to those who always saw the star button as comparable to ‘like’ on Facebook, the symbol change does not make a big difference.

I myself belong to the first group. The change made me feel horrible. I wasn’t even sure what was in my old favourites, but I just didn’t want to take a chance that there was something I object to.

And by hijacking my past actions, Twitter suddenly turned into one of the bad guis. I felt similar disgust towards them than I do towards politicians who promise something before the elections and then do the opposite when they are in power. While Twitter’s actions are hardly as significant to what happens in politics, there are similarities. Both cases are about distorting past opinions of their supporters/users.

The solution? Delete all past favourites. You can do this individually by clicking them, or you can use something like unfavinator to delete them in bulk. Googling will also offer you other alternatives.

  1. Of course, this is not an universal UI convention. For example, the Character viewer in OS X is the opposite, using the heart symbol for Favourites. []

Origin of the Oxford comma

The Oxford comma baffles, enrages, and delights people. But where did it come from? Who invented it? Why does it refer to a famous English university? Let’s look at the history of the Oxford comma.

This funky punctuation feature, also known as the Harvard or serial comma, has become a trendy topic. It continues to inspire debates, various blog posts, tweets, infographics, pop songs, and who knows what else. If you haven’t yet learned what it is, the video below will give you a quick explanation.

I personally like to use the Oxford comma in any kind of academic and serious English writing, because it clarifies meaning when listing things. Although what complicates matter for me is that I regularly write in more than one language, and each language has different rules for punctuation. So while using it in English is good, it has started to creep into my Finnish texts as well, which can be a bad thing. But today instead of talking about its usage, I want to look at its history.

Recently I started wondering when and how the Oxford comma originated. I was rather surprised when none of the online blog posts and sources explained in detail how the comma was invented. Most places simply state something similar to what OxfordDictionaries.com says :

It’s known as the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press.

Yes, yes, but when did the Oxford University Press start using it? Who invented it? Or who made the decision that it should be included in the house style? As you might know, the OUP uses strict style guides, like Hart’s Rules.

With terminological issues it’s usually wise to begin with checking ‘the definite record of the English language’ – the Oxford English Dictionary. In a sub-section to “Oxford” this mighty tome offers us a definition of the comma, but at first glance doesn’t explain its origin:

Oxford comma n. [after the preferred use of such a comma to avoid ambiguity in the house style of Oxford University Press] a comma immediately preceding the conjunction in a list of items.

After the definition OED lists recorded usages of the term, and – aha! – that contains much more historical information than the actual entry. According to OED, the first recorded use of the term was in Peter H. Sutcliffe’s 1978 book The Oxford University Press: An informal history. (Side note: Not to criticise the OED, but it seems a bit incredible that the first ever usage of the term in print would be so late. Especially as the text seems to refer to the term as something commonly known.)

1978   P. SUTCLIFFE Oxf. Univ. Press iv. i. 114   It was [F. H.] Collins who invented the ‘Oxford comma’, for which he obtained support from Herbert Spencer.

Now we are getting closer. So Sutcliffe attributes the comma to F.H. Collins (1857–1910). But when was this? And why? Let’s dig up Sutcliffe’s book. Actually it’s rather fascinating to read because it describes how the style guides of OUP came about about a hundred years ago. Sutcliffe explains that the ‘two of the most influential books ever published by the Press’ – Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press Oxford and Collins’s Authors’ and Printers’ Dictionary – both emerged slowly and gradually as small internal booklets and rule collections. (By the way, Hart’s Rules is still in print, the latest edition is from 2014.)

While the OUP has a reputation as a stern authority, both of these books actually contained idiosyncrasies and fairly arbitrary decisions on punctuation, capitalisation, spelling and so on. Many of what today are considered classical features of ‘Oxford English’ were decided in these books. For example, Collins is responsible for the usage of ‘-ize’ endings instead of ‘-ise’. According to Sutcliffe, Collins thought that ‘it was absurd to have the letter [z] in the alphabet and not to use it where phonetically appropriate’.

The Oxford Comma was a similar decision made by Collins. I’m not sure if the rule was already contained in the earliest booklet-versions of his Dictionary, which had existed since 1893. But I believe the rule was recorded at least when the book was properly published in 1905. Collins wrote a sub-entry for and called “and” or “, and”. In this he relied on the authority of the famous Victorian philosopher and scientist Herbert Spencer:

“and” or “, and” The late Herbert Spencer allowed me to quote from his letter: — “whether to write ‘black, white, and green,’ with the comma after white, or to leave out the comma and write ‘black, white and green’ — I very positively decide in favour of the first. To me the comma is of value as marking out the component elements of a thought, and where any set of components of a thought are of equal value, they should be punctuated in printing and in speech equally. Evidently therefore in this case, inasmuch as when enumerating these colours black, white, and green, the white is just as much to be emphasized as the other two, it needs the pause after it just as much as the black does.”

Origin of the "Oxford comma". from page 12 in Collins, F.H. (1912/1905) Authors’ & Printers’ Dictionary. 4th edition. Henry Frowde, London.You can look up the original entry in the digitised copy of the 4th edition from 1912, which is available at the Internet Archive. The entry is on page 12 (page 25 in the pdf file). If that is too much effort, just click on the image on the right to see the entry.

However, this still does not give us a definite answer to who invented this practice. As one can see in the quote shown above, Sutcliffe attributes the invention to Collins, who then sought support for it from Spencer. (According to Sutcliffe, the same happened with the ‘-ize’ vs. ‘-ise’ endings.) On the other hand, looking at the original Dictionary entry, Collins seems to give the credit to Spencer. Of course, it is also possible the custom of using the serial comma was already common by the time both Collins and Spencer adopted it. It would be fun to know more details on the matter, but I guess that would involve diving into the correspondence between these gentlemen – if that has even survived to this day. But I suppose Sutcliffe is right in the sense that even if Collins didn’t start the practice, he did in a way invent ‘the Oxford comma’, with his decision to include the rule in his book.

Why visual communication matters

What role does visual communication play in marketing? What about communication and branding? Is visual communication necessary? Should companies invest in design? When one works in the field, the answers to these and other similar questions are self-evident. So every time I get asked something like this, it kind of startles me. It’s a bit like a child asking about something grown-ups take for granted. But as people keep asking, I might as well answer once more.

Photo by Mike Johnson @ sxc.hu
Photo: Mike Johnson @ sxc.hu

To help you understand, forget visual communication for a moment. Instead, think about meeting someone for the first time. What do you do? Perhaps you shake hands, and perhaps utter a short greeting. Before they tell you anything about themselves, you have already formed an impression of this person. You take in all the visual cues and evaluate them automatically, even if you aren’t conscious of the process. In addition to the visual cues, of course you also receive signals from their handshake, the way they smell, the tone of their voice and so on. But let’s concentrate on the visuals for now.

Photo by Jarlehm @ Wikimedia Commons.
Would you go to a job interview looking like this? Photo: Jarlehm@Wikimedia Commons

How do they look physically: short? tall? plump? muscular? attractive? What is their posture like: slouching? standing tall? What kind of emotional state they are in: tired? energetic? happy? sad? stressed? angry? What about the clothes they wear: casual? business? worn or ragged? expensive? old-fashioned? What do their facial expressions and other things tell you about their intentions: do they like you? resent you? do they find you attractive? Based on how we judge the other person, our attitude and behaviour towards them changes.

We do this all the time. And, even more importantly, we know that we ourselves are being judged just the same all the time. We also instinctively know that there are occasions when these things matter even more.

Think about job interviews. Or first dates. Or speaking in public. You will use a lot of energy and time to ensure you’ve showered and shaved, brushed your teeth, chosen the right clothes, put on make up and so on. Because you know the day will be won or lost not only by what you say, but also by how you look and present yourself.

We are also aware that different situations require different types of preparation and clothes. A job interview in the business sector requires different clothes than interview at a design agency or at the local coffee shop. We also realise that we will be judged to the other person’s standards, regardless of our personal tastes. So even if you like your music heavy, dark, and brutal, you probably won’t go to a business sector job interview looking like the guys from Immortal.

Photo by Greg Smith @ Flickr
How many records you think this guy would sell? Photo: Greg Smith @ Flickr

On the other hand, if you are being interviewed as the possible new front man of a metal band, or you are going to a heavy metal concert, you will definitely not put on your suit and tie. And if you indeed get to be in the band, when you go to the stage you might even put on your corpse paint, because your point is to shock, entertain, and generally look cool (and perhaps kvlt) to your fans. Who knows, you might end up selling hundreds of thousands, or even millions of records.

There is no right or wrong style. Just appropriate styles for each occasion. For each audience.

Now, your company does not wear clothes. And it does not shake hands. (Employees of the company will of course, and therefore getting their behaviour and uniforms just right is also vital.)  Instead the way most people will “meet” your company is through various visual channels: website, print advertisement, TV ads, logo, letters and so on.

The human mind wasn’t build by evolution to treat companies differently from people. Thus, the same process of instantaneous judgement which happens when people meet, also happens when people “meet” companies. While there might be some differences the overall process is more or less the same.

In both human and corporate relations the first impressions are vital. Without paying attention to visual communication you risk losing that golden opportunity. Of course, proper appearances have to be maintained later as well. A CEO shouldn’t one day arrive to work looking like a hobo. And a metal musician can’t in the middle of a tour switch his leather and spikes stage outfit to pink overalls (except in some weirdly modified or ironic way). In the same way, a company’s visual look has to be built and maintained consistently.

So, in a nutshell, visual communication makes up the clothes of your company. It forms the basis of how people will perceive your company. That is why there is no escaping visual communication. The only choice is between doing it well and doing it badly.

Corporate logos

It takes time and practice to build up a sensitivity to visual communication. That is why you shouldn’t simply trust your own, or your nearest colleague’s, taste in doing it. It is not enough that something just “looks good” to you. Just like in the clothing example above, you need to forget your own tastes and think about your target audience. A professional of visual communication will tell you what works for your audience.

Once again, there is no right or wrong style. Just appropriate styles for each target audience.

Metal band logos

Visual communication, just as clothing, usually employs various stylistic and genre conventions. Just look at how the logos in the two figures above show similarities and form stylistic groups. You can compare it to how all businessmen look more or less the same. But the really smart ones still manage to stand out from the crowd. That is why using professionals is so important. They will choose the right visual style/genre for your company or product while being distinct from the competition.

Overall branding, of course, is a much larger issue. Building a brand includes everything that affects how people perceive your company/product. (More on that another time.) But because visual communication forms such an unavoidable layer between your company and consumers, it is really essential part of branding and should not be ignored.

Don’t let your company, organisation, or products go around in raggedy clothes.