George Mason Law Review Civil Rights Law Journal

B. The Truncated Nature of Speech on Digital Technologies

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B. The Truncated Nature of Speech on Digital Technologies

What does Liking something on Facebook really mean? A 2011 study conducted by the marketing firm ExactTarget concluded that “there is no universal understanding of ‘Like,’ because it depends entirely on the individual user and the context in which the ‘Like’ button is used.”204 The study adds that a Like is “deceptively simple and infinitely complex, with subtle variations in meaning that are highly dependent on context and the individual user.”205 Although the meaning of, and motives for Liking may vary, the act of Liking is common, with 93 percent of Facebook users engaging in “some form of “Like” behavior at least monthly.”206


A separate report published in February 2012 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that “Use of the ‘[L]ike’ button is among the most popular activities on Facebook. A third of our sample (33%) used the [L]ike button at least once per week during this month, and 37% had content they contributed liked by a friend at least once per week.”207


While the meaning of Liking may not always be clear, its sheer popularity as a form of truncated speech that occurs with the mere click of a button reflects a growing overall trend toward the acceptance and *578 legitimacy of abridged modes of expression that challenge rules of standard English, exhibited in numerous digital spheres today.208 For instance, when texting, both teens and adults often use abbreviations for words and acronyms for entire phrases,209 such as the ubiquitous LOL for “laugh out loud”210 and the somewhat more obscure ROFLMAO for “rolling over on the floor laughing my ass off.”211 Text speak (“textism”) is replete with “acronyms and symbols as well as rebus abbreviations and other phonetically based variants.”212 In reference to text speak, one scholar stated:

Textspeak is characterized by its distinctive graphology. Its chief feature is rebus abbreviation. Words are formed in which letters represent syllables, as seen in ‘b’, ‘b4’, ‘NE’, ‘r’, ‘Tspoons’, ‘u’, ‘ur’, ‘xcept’. Use is made of logograms, such as numerals and symbols, as seen in ‘&’, ‘@’, ‘2’, ‘abbrevi8’, ‘b4’, ‘face2face’, and ‘sum1’.213



Furthermore, the use of emoticons--a portmanteau melding “emotions” and “icons”--such as the smiley face (“:)“), “often accompany textual computer-mediated communication.”214 The emoticon concept was invented in 1982 by Carnegie Mellon Professor Scott E. Fahlman, who *579 proposed “:-)” as an attempt to compensate for the absence of paralinguistic cues in standard written English.215 Put differently, emoticons “can be considered a creative and visually salient way to add expression to an otherwise strictly text-based form.”216 Today, “hundreds if not thousands of similar signs have developed, many of which have been catalogued in dictionaries.”217 The “Like” feature itself, with its thumbs-up symbol, arguably is somewhat akin to an emoticon for expressing positive emotions toward someone or something.


The disconnect between Liking as an accepted mode of truncated and abbreviated speech in computer-mediated communication218 and Judge Jackson’s opinion may simply represent a case of one judge, over sixty years of age,219 not conversant in new modes of digital speech. In other words, a generational gap may be the reason for a lack a familiarity that is responsible for the law’s failure to accept modern styles of speech. Following Judge Jackson’s opinion in Bland, the legal system--in particular, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals where Bland v. Roberts now waits for review--must play judicial catch-up. “U.S. law is infamous for its tendency to lag behind technology at a seemingly embarrassing pace.”220 Thus, just as movies and videogames previously tested the judiciary’s understanding of speech under the First Amendment,221 now new technological communications challenge judges to push notions of speech forward. The social reality is that truncated forms of expression are *580 regularly used to convey important messages,222 and Liking simply falls within this larger paradigm shift in how humans communicate using digital technologies. The law, in turn, must alter its notion of speech to comport with this social and communicative reality.


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