Happy World Emoji Day! 🎊

Just before bed last night, I remembered I had to send a message to my brother, who, thanks to the time difference, would already be celebrating his birthday in Australia. I typed a ‘happy birthday’ message, followed by a string of emojis: a balloon, two beer glasses and a cake with candles. 🎈🍻🎂

Pretty straightforward stuff. My brother got the message – that I was celebrating with him digitally and would, of course, much prefer to bake him a cake and say cheers in person. I could have said all that in words. I could have told him I’d like to have a party together to celebrate, and that I’d bring a huge sugary cake for the occasion, if only we weren’t continents apart. Instead, I chose to use three tiny pictures. Lazy? Possibly. An insult to the English language? Perhaps. Effective? Undoubtedly.

I have purist tendencies when it comes to English, but I like emojis. I think they function brilliantly as a universal language and play an important supporting role to traditional languages in the digital age.

I can remember when the smiley face that appeared in The Matrix brought emoticons to my attention. 🙂 (These representations of faces using punctuation marks had been around since 1972, but they didn’t fall into mainstream use for many years.) Fast-forward a decade and I was sitting in a writing workshop being told that to use emoticons was to risk being seen as unprofessional and even childish. Fast-forward another decade and I’m signing off work emails with an animated smiley.

I try to fight my purist tendencies. When the AP said ‘over’ and ‘more than’ are both ok for quantities, I attempted to accept it (this is a work in progress). I read David Crystal’s Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 and came around to his thinking (though I still use full sentences in my messages). Emojis haven’t given me as much of a problem; maybe it’s because they’re so universal and so useful.

Emojis are part of Unicode – a worldwide standard that contains 137,439 characters. Assuming the meaning of an emoji is clear, that means I can potentially communicate a message to any Unicode user in the world, regardless of what language they speak, using emojis. I can also use them to clarify a message I’m sharing in English to someone who has a different native tongue – a winking emoji to show I’m kidding, for example.

That does assume the recipient ‘speaks’ emoji, of course. Not everyone does.

There’s a Wiki that explains all the meanings: emojipedia.org is really useful if you’re not sure. Or, if you’re like my friend Emily, you could just go ahead and make your own meanings.

🍤 This is the Prawn of Love.

〽️ And this ‘part alternation’ symbol, which looks like a big gold M, means Murakami (everything is relevant and nothing is relevant and it’s all connected… long story).

I digress.

Today isn’t just my brother’s birthday; it’s World Emoji Day. People all around the world are celebrating the weird and wonderful visual language that’s evolved over the last couple of decades to help us out in times of textual trouble – to avoid (or fix) a misunderstanding, to get a message across quickly or to clarify tone. There are all sorts of ‘IRL’ events happening (including an emoji-themed musical in New York), as well as the more predictable online stuff.

This all seems a bit weird, but just think about how ingrained emojis have become in our lives: if you’ve got a smartphone or a computer it’s a sure bet that you’ve received an emoji, even if you haven’t used one. People have poo emoji pillows and laughing emoji key rings. Emojis have gone from being in the realm of the digitally clued-up to being on the shelves of our most ubiquitous superstores. And let’s not forget the OED’s word of the year in 2015 was 😂.

Love them or hate them, why not take a moment today to think about emojis and how they’re changing the way we communicate. Where will they take us next?

😀🔣🌅🎉

 

(In case you missed the link in the first paragraph, I’ve decided to use the plural emojis. Here’s an interesting article about the question of emoji plurality.)

 

 

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Read something good this week, for everyone’s sake

Join my 2018 Ditch the Drivel Challenge

At the start of this year, I had silently hoped to read less drivel – fewer poorly written articles, pointless social media posts and dreadful books. My hopes were dashed, I’ve managed to subject myself to all of these things and more. So for the rest of the year I’m taking a stand: I refuse to read any more crap. Who’s with me?

The enthusiastic babbling of my toddler roused me from a deep sleep yesterday morning, interrupting a rather curious dream in which I was watching him play charades in front of a crowd of rowdy socialist voters in The Hague. I recoiled at the bluish light coming from my phone when I checked the time. 06:52. Pretty good going.

I went to put my phone back on my nightstand, but something stopped me; my thumb hovered over the unlock button, springing it into life. Without thinking, I scrolled to the second page of apps and touched the big blue F.

Oh look, someone’s posted an inspirational, motivational, follow-these-rules-and-you’ll-win-at-life article on a group I’m in. I read it. It was a pretty poor rehash of a million other versions I’d read in that group and plenty of others before, but it was so familiar and so easy to scan that my brain hardly had to wake up to feel some sense of achievement, albeit empty.

Those three minutes spent on my phone felt productive – I was developing myself, after all – but in the cold light of day, I realize it was a giant waste of time. It’s not only a problem for me, either; I fed the monster by reading that article. I validated the drivel by scanning it, so whoever published it gets a tick and a thumbs-up to produce more of the same. This puts me – and all of us, actually – in a terrible cycle: people publish rubbish, we consume it, they publish more, we lose the ability to make judgment calls on quality, so we keep clicking…

This content is ubiquitous online. It’s splashed across websites, it fills blogs and it comes at us through hyperlinked promises in marketing emails. Everyone has something to say, everyone’s an expert and everyone’s a writer. Only they’re not all good at it. The articles and blog posts and books aren’t all valuable, or even true. We’re feeding our brains the literary equivalent of a soggy quarter pounder meal every chance we get – with a side order of nuggets and enough cheap sauce to drown in.

It’s time for me – all of us – to do something about this. We must start demanding quality when we decide whether something’s worth our time. Welcome to my 2018 Ditch the Drivel Challenge.

Information overload is killing our quality radar

It’s hardly news that we’re overloaded with information. We all complain about it, often on social media, giving each other even more information to deal with. Information expert Dr. Martin Hilbert published a study showing that we were bombarded with the equivalent of 174 newspapers worth of information every day in 2007. And that was more than a decade ago – just imagine what we’re facing now.

A lot of that information hits us through apps like the big blue F that stole my attention yesterday morning. Facebook and its affiliated apps, like Instagram and WhatsApp, are reported to hold our attention for 50 minutes a day. Add to that a whole host of other social networks, like Twitter, Pinterest, FourSquare, Reddit and so on, and we’re now spending on average 135 minutes a day looking at what other people are doing, saying and writing.

Think about that for a moment. 135 minutes. That’s 2 hours and 15 minutes. Long enough to run a half marathon, drive over 200 kilometres or watch the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s IT (which is only slightly scarier than some of these statistics, even for someone who’s terrified of clowns).

The problem is, in the depths of our information overload, we lose the ability to see what’s good. The strength and focus we need to wade through the relentless attack of links and status updates and motivational quotes overlaid onto whimsical images and automatically-playing videos with mistake-ridden subtitles wanes the more they’re piled on to us. That inability is carried over to other areas too, and before we know it we’re reading Fifty Shades of Grey and the Daily Mail.

A new reality emerges – one in which a listicle of the top 17 things you never knew about the Royal family’s baby-related traditions, with commentary from a writer you’ve never heard of, who is altogether too lax when it comes to typos, seems like engaging content. It’s a world in which a headline swallows you up and spits you into a sales funnel, and you’re powerless to do anything about it by the time you hit the first catch. It’s a world in which good writing has given way to ‘engaging content’, where it’s hard to tell whether you’re being informed, entertained, manipulated or sold to.

It’s a world I’m checking out of.

Ditching the drivel

When I woke up this morning, I ignored my phone, picking up one of the books from my nightstand instead. Bird by Bird, written by the altogether brilliant Anne Lamott. I’ve just finished reading Operating Instructions, a frank, insightful and heart-rending journal of the first year of her son’s life, and I’m now an addict in the very best way. Reading her books inspires me, touches me and teaches me, and I intend to make sure I read a lot more things that do that.

For the rest of this year, I’m challenging myself to read something good every day – and I’m challenging you to join me. I’m not going to kid myself that it’s possible to completely give up the drivel, but I’m going to ask myself a few questions before I read anything from now on. Here’s my very own literary sewage filter: Will this help me? Is this good? Will I be somehow better after reading it?

I want to make sure that each time I pick up a book or click on a link it’s to read something fulfilling. Something beautiful. Something good. I want to look up to the people who have written the words I’m reading, take notes from them and become a better writer myself as a result.

I challenge you to set up your own literary sewage filter. And who knows? If we stop being baited to click and say no to the dregs, maybe, just maybe, we’ll avoid the overload, get better at spotting – and choosing – quality and actually help lift the stuff we’re subjected to out of the gutter.

I’m off to read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. What’s next on your list?

(Want some ideas for great books? Check out Joe Queenan’s One for the Books for a fascinating journey through an avid reader’s memory, or The Novel Cure for ideas of books that will match your mood.)


Political discourse and the manipulation of meaning

By Kiri Scully

We use words to express our ideas, but the words don’t always dictate our meaning – two people could be speaking the same language, using the same set of words, and meaning entirely different things.

This happens every day across the world’s media, as political leaders us powerful words to further their causes. A new study has shed light on just how pervasive this is, by looking at the way US Presidential candidates used certain words in the 2016 election.

Through semantics, linguistics researchers study meaning – they look at the logic of words, phrases and texts to decipher how they are interpreted and how they form rhetoric, using language in a way that makes it more persuasive. In a recent study, a group of researchers from Penn State University analyzed the way Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton used language in the run-up to the 2016 election in the US, showing that words and their associated meanings changed depending on who said them, and when they were being said.

The researchers conducted a series of studies that focused on the language Clinton and Trump used in speeches. What they found was a stark difference between what the candidates said and what they meant, despite the clear crossover of key terms.

For example, Trump was fond of the word “deal” and used it in a vast range of contexts. He even managed to associate the business-related word with “family” and “education,” which are not traditionally linked to it. Clinton, on the other hand, used “education” when referring to “women” and “family,” associating the word more with issues of equality and access to education.

 

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Image (CC) Pixabay 

In a series of studies, the researchers used computer algorithms to track various politically charged words that the presidential candidates used in their speeches over a three-year period, such as “minority,” “spending” and “justice.” They tracked 213 single words and 397 phrases and looked at what words appeared together to determine associations. In doing so, they found that word associations changed over time.

“In a lot of ways, it’s worse than speaking two different languages,” said lead researcher Ping Li, professor of psychology and associate director of the Institute for CyberScience. “If, for example, I speak Chinese and you don’t, you have no idea what I’m saying. But, if we’re both speaking English and you think you know what I am saying, but don’t get what I actually mean, or worse, think it means something different, it can be really confusing.”

In a study that followed, the researchers focused on 324 participants who were eligible to vote in the elections and examined their word associations using machine-learning algorithms. Interestingly, they found that they could predict each participant’s political view and which political candidate they were more likely to vote for.

“We were able to predict voters’ reported political affiliations with a relatively high degree of accuracy simply based on the way they organized a list of 50 political concepts, that is, how they grouped these concepts,” said Prof. Li. “This also suggests the complex interdependence of language, speech and culture.”

Perhaps the most interesting point of the study is that this striking semantic divide – a split in the meaning of words – seems to be growing.

“What you see is that the parties have become farther and farther apart as time goes on,” added Prof. Li. “In other words, for the same word, people tend to associate different words for them and, hence, convey different meanings.”

What do you think this research could mean for the future of dialogue? Could we reach a point where we find it impossible to discuss politics and understand each other’s points of view? And what would happen if we did?


#ShitWordSaturday: Resonate

Whenever someone says “that idea really resonates with me,” I wish I could manifest* that idea and twang them on the head with it, like some kind of tuning fork for the brain.

tuning-fork-1906402_640The bad thing is that I use it myself sometimes; it just slips out, to my utter horror. What’s worse is that no one bats an eyelid. I don’t see people lifting pens to play bullshit bingo in meetings any more (now there’s a game we should revive), which makes it so easy to leave the corporate butchery of words like this unchecked.

Resonate comes from resound – it means to produce a deep, reverberating sound or vibration. These days it’s used to mean something is appealing on a fundamental level: “that really resonates with me.”

Yuk. Maybe it’s my aversion to the idea that we’re all ruled by some kind of mystical vibration (again, see *) or maybe I’m clinging to proper usage too tightly and should let the world’s chief storytelling officers run wild without complaining.

Either way, I’m setting myself a challenge on #ShitWordSaturday: for the coming week, I will not use the word ‘resonate’ (unless I’m talking about sound or some kind of physics-related wave). Are you up for the challenge too? Or is there another word you need to ban from your textual toolkit?

 

* Not really. Manifest is a worrying trend in self-help books (my guilty pleasure) – even more worryingly, the ones written by and aimed at women.

“We just need to want something badly enough and it will manifest,” they say. “Hey girl, just connect to the higher power and manifest yourself that money you deserve.”

What?! Don’t be sucked in by the industry’s latest butchery of the English language. What they’re implying is that these things will materialize. But that’s not how life – or physics – works. (If it did, I would be sitting here cradling a first edition of The Count of Monte Cristo, not You are a Badass.)

Here’s my take: if you want that Ferrari/house/holiday you need to (*shock horror*) WORK FOR IT. Of course some ways of working are smarter than others, but just wishing something will appear from thin air and happy thoughts is not a good strategy. (It does remind me of that episode of Bagpuss when the mice make chocolate biscuits out of butter beans and breadcrumbs, though. Classic.)


#FavouriteWordFriday: Beleaguered

In our post-truth world (as people have depressingly dubbed it), it’s helpful to be certain of a few things. Author (and so much more) Anne Lamott decided to write down some of the things she’s sure of, and she shared her list of 12 things in a recent TED talk. Before she even launched into the first item, she used a word that caught my attention: beleaguered.

“I hope that my list of things I’m almost positive about might offer some basic operating instructions to anyone who is feeling really overwhelmed or beleaguered,” she said.

I think we’re all feeling a little beleaguered – like we’re having to deal with a lot of problems or a barrage of criticism. Perhaps it’s our constant connection that’s to blame: by being continually updated about the world’s challenges and tragedies, we feel responsible, but because they’re too big for us to solve, we’re left feeling helpless. And while the internet gives us the wonderful opportunity to share our messages with the world, it also exposes us to criticism, ridicule and attack.

Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 14.25.22The word beleaguered comes from the late 16th century Dutch ‘belegeren’, which meant to camp round (‘be-‘ meaning about and ‘leger’ camp). It’s connected to ‘besieged’, which means being surrounded by military; in modern Dutch, ‘leger’ means army.

So yes, we’re probably all somewhat beleaguered – besieged by an army of internet trolls, troubled by the world’s seemingly insurmountable problems and harassed by our own feelings of inadequacy. Perhaps it’s a word we need to use more often to reflect on these issues that we all too often ignore.

What’s your #FavouriteWordFriday word of the week?


Hands off my notebooks!

I have an obsession with notebooks that’s bordering on unhealthy; I have a shelf dedicated to my (unused) notebooks in the office. I also love backing cool new ideas on Kickstarter and Indiegogo (you should see my computer keyboard that feels like a typewriter!).

So you can imagine my excitement when I saw The Perfect Notebook: the notebook to end all notebooks, one that will make me more productive, happier and healthier, and a better friend, employee, wife and mother.

It’s pretty plain looking, but it has a “modular disc binding system” – you can move pages around in it. I like that; it made me click on the promo video. That’s when it all went wrong.

The video shows a young professional woman struggling to juggle everything in her life: she should be getting more done at work, she should be getting her startup off the ground in her spare time, she should be eating right and going to the gym. She should be better at life.

ThePerfectNotebook-Video

But don’t worry, help is at hand! All she needs to do is switch all her clumsy files and lazy ways for The Perfect Notebook and she’ll be running a marathon and a multi-million dollar business in a matter of weeks. The pages are already printed with the stuff she should be doing, and some space to write her own goals. She just has to get stuff done and tick away.

I’m a productivity tool junkie, so why did this notebook – which technically combines lots of my favourite things – turn me off so quickly? This made me think about all the reasons I love notebooks.

They’re simple.

Get a load of pages and bind them together. It doesn’t matter if it’s lined, squared or plain paper, fixed with staples, glue or thread, bound in leather, fabric or card, the notebook’s core structure is simple. And it works.

They’re multipurpose.

Granted, the first page of my used notebooks almost inevitably spells out all the ways I’m planning to use that notebook to change the world, but by page four it’s usually home to shopping lists, reminders and scribbled down phone numbers.

They’re inspiring.

Some of them are beautiful and all of them make me want to pick up a pencil. They inspire me to write down my ideas and worries, my daydreams and doodles. My notebooks are where my thoughts come together somehow, a meeting place for words and scribbles. They give me the space to be creative and pragmatic all at once.

They’re non-judgmental.

My notebooks don’t tell me I should be working harder, or make me hang my head in shame if I miss a gym session. They just listen to my incessant rambling, which is rather lovely.

 

Even though The Perfect Notebook claims it can make me a better person, I’m sticking firmly with my imperfect notebooks instead. Would you make the switch?


Simple solutions for stress-free writing

Writing is stressful. I think Hemingway nailed it when he said: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

I suppose we should be grateful we don’t have the added stress of using a typewriter (thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for undo, cut/paste and autosave), but the writing process has many more sources of stress that are best to squash or avoid if we want to enjoy it.

Ok, so I’m probably not the best example of a stress-free writer – walk into my office at any random moment and there’s a chance you’ll find me staring out the window with two handfuls of hair. But it’s a small chance, because I’ve got a few stress busting moves to keep me breathing under the weight of a million words. Here they are, to keep us all calm during what’s left of Stress Awareness Month.

Get organized.

Deadlines. Oh, deadlines. I love them and I hate them. They hide in a dark corner silently for ages, then jump out and scare the monkeys out of me in the middle of the night. There are the ones that are far away, looking all tiny and harmless (but that get bigger and hairier until… aaaAARRRRGH!) and there are the ones that appear suddenly – other people’s giant deadlines, thrust onto my to do list. Individually they’re manageable and helpful, but in a pack they can become unwieldy and menacing.

Familiar? Then maybe it’s time to get organized. Having multiple clients, projects and deadlines can get really confusing, and the best way to keep on top of it all is with some kind of project management system or calendar. I use Asana and a simple spreadsheet, but there are lots of (free) options to choose from.

Asana holds all my main projects and sub-tasks, and my trusty spreadsheet has my daily to do list. At the end of each week I check in on the upcoming deadlines on Asana and make myself a list, broken down by day and deadline, so I can shift things around if I need to. (Because, you know, other people’s deadlines.) Of course, nothing is foolproof, but this way I know I won’t forget anything and I have a good idea of how much is on my plate before I take on more work.

Set yourself clear goals.

What’s worse than loads of deadlines? NO DEADLINES! Talk about the perfect way to make sure I get absolutely nothing done. My novel has no deadline, and that’s exactly why it’s languishing deep inside one of my computer’s sub-folders and not front and centre in all my favourite bookshops (I really should work on that…). Without deadlines I’m a flailing, flaky disaster.

That’s why I set myself deadlines! If a piece of work comes in without a clear deadline, I make sure I have my own, even if the client doesn’t know about or need it. This is particularly useful for bigger projects: if there’s a report or a book that’s stretching out over a number of weeks or even months, I make sure I set sub-deadlines. That way I avoid the cold sweats and silent screams in the middle of the night when I realize the big deadline is only a week away (flashback to my dissertation… ok, both of them).

Write something. Anything.

Then there’s the terror only a blank page can bring. Sure, it’s sometimes a blessing, but what if you’re completely out of inspiration, tired at the end of a busy week? You can almost feel the beads of blood gathering on your forehead, reluctant to drip onto the page.

What really helps me is to chew it up, one chunk at a time. I start by reading up on the topic and once I’ve gathered my thoughts, I draw (physically, with paper and a pencil) the skeleton of the story. What do I want to say where? I start with the big sections – the introduction, sub-headings and conclusion – and assign rough word counts to each part, based on the overall length of the piece.

Then I just get writing. I tap away, following my stream of consciousness, and eventually it starts to sound coherent. I don’t always start at the beginning, I often just pick whatever pops into my head first or whatever seems easiest to get on with. If it’s an article about bees, say, I might decide to start with a paragraph about what makes them the coolest insects in history – that’s easy stuff for me.

Fleshing out the skeleton this way is far less stressful than sitting down and attempting to ‘bleed’ thousands of words from scratch. Plus it means I’m not wasting time writing hundreds of (albeit inspired) words about one tiny aspect of the topic, only to slash them later. That’s always painful.

For #%@&’s sake, BLINK!

If I’m madly trying to make my fingers keep up with my brain while getting increasingly stressed out about the five other things I have to write that day, I can easily sit for hours without standing up, drinking, peeing or blinking. I mean, seriously, that’s just inviting stress to bubble up inside, ready to pop out at the tiniest thing. The same happens when I’m in a flow – I forget everything that’s going on around me, including the passage of time, only to emerge hours later with dry eyes and a full bladder.

This might help me get through something on nervous energy, but the next day I’ll be a wreck. Working in little bursts helps me (or if I’m in a flow, setting myself reminders to ‘check in’ with myself). I often work in Pomodori – 25-minute stretches of intense focus, followed by little movement breaks. When the egg timer alarm beeps in my ear, I blink, breathe and check in with my body to see what it needs. Thirsty? I grab water. Peckish? A mandarin. Then I blink and breathe some more, before refreshing the timer and diving in again.

No, Facebook, just no.

I’m waxing lyrical about a brand new material that could end our dependency on fossil fuels when POP! my phone makes a little noise telling me something important has just happened somewhere in my social network. I glance across then ignore it, because distractions take 15 minutes (or 25, depending on the study) to overcome. It’s probably just a photo of someone’s cat. Or maybe someone with a few days off checking in at a bar in Berlin. But what if it’s someone asking a question on my Tell Lucy Facebook page? Or someone Tweeting me about a piece of work? Actually, it would be really unprofessional of me not to look.

I look. It’s a cat. Granted, it’s a cat in a jumper with an inspirational quote, but a cat, nonetheless. It takes me 15 minutes to get back on track. I’m 15 minutes more stressed about my deadline.

There’s a simple solution: switch it off. Turn of notifications, pop-ups, noises, vibrations. Or go one step further like I have and delete the app altogether. Yes, today it’s important to be connected online for business, but that doesn’t mean you have to be on emergency standby in case someone posts a photo you need to like, especially not if that’s sending your stress levels sky-high. Carving out a bit of time each day – maybe five minutes in the morning, after lunch and at the end of the day – to check social media means your apps can leave you in peace while you’re writing.

Overcome imposter syndrome.

There’s another reason those pesky notifications bother me: what if it’s someone saying they don’t like my article? What if it’s a troll on social media? As a writer, I have the common but debilitating fear that my writing isn’t good enough – especially if I’m writing something that’s meaningful to me (like a children’s book, which has been collecting dust for months).

If you’re a professional writer too, the chances are you’re just experiencing imposter syndrome – the irrational fear that you’ll be ‘found out’. There’s an easy way to deal with this. Find a proofreader (or several) and ask them for feedback. Proofreading is absolutely vital if you want to produce decent work, and by asking someone you know will give you an honest critique while they’re finding typos, you can stifle that stress. Here are my tips for finding the perfect proofreader.

What’s stressing you out?

Are you sitting and trying to bleed over your computer keyboard, Hemingway-style? Is it stressing you out? As with most things, the key to eliminating (or, more realistically, reducing) stress is to identify your own pain points and take steps to tackle each of them. Share your biggest stresses – or your best solutions – in the comments so we can all keep calm and carry on writing.

Now I’m off for my ultimate de-stresser: a good old cup of tea.