Our Expanded Vocabulary: Talking on the Phone, Revisited

by David Schwartz

Technology changes how we communicate. From shadow puppets to cuneiform reeds to moveable type to today: emojis, GIFs, augmented selfie-videos. Digital platforms provide more ways to express ourselves than ever before. But, in curating our content, computers now have the ability to take the words right out of our mouths. With the swipe of a thumb, the twenty-six characters of English are emboldened, embittered, embellished by a seemingly infinite lexicon of images, movement, and sound.

The design of communication is at the forefront of today’s products. Just look at voice interactions with Alexa or Bitmoji stickers. argodesign partnered with one of the leading GIF keyboards, a startup named Tenor, which culminated in their acquisition by Google in March 2018. Through personalized search and customizable categories, Tenor users interact with a unique keyboard that matches their expressed and implied preferences. When a GIF isn’t enough, users can create and customize content within the app by drawing freehand, adding stickers, typing, and embedding GIFs inside emoticons.

Tenor as a social network allows its users to curate the content they want to see and communicate with. This fashions a personal inventory of phatic language, or phrases used purely for social interaction rather than to exchange information.

Technology allows for greater options of the media we choose to send, but also a looser expression of what we send at the same time. Northrop Frye, literary critic and theorist, describes this as a function of metonymy, in which words are used as imperfect bridges of communication between two parties. Through the reintroduction of pictorial systems — digital hieroglyphs — we are amplifying our capacity for abstraction, or our ability to associate ideas based on individual point of view. In this way, perhaps the articulation of the personal experience has been made more accessible to anyone who can use a device and not just wordsmiths, artists, and musicians.

And so our digitized language converges, hence the viral memes so readily referenced by cell phone jabber. It might help us overcome the barriers of literacy and language; after all, everyone can understand a face, an emoji. But digital language also is rapidly personalized: a correspondent has her own unique interpretation of what someone means when he sends the crystal ball emoji, “me cry,” and a deep fried meme of Squidward. Computers then have offered us a greater immediate range of articulation and understanding which might lead to a greater sense of empathy, a coming togetherness. Perhaps they have opened up a more frequent platform for the less expressive to communicate things about themselves.

But unlike an angry teen scribing a Dear John letter, there’s always a third party on our phone. This harkens back to chat rooms filled with “P.O.S.” — but now it’s Marketer instead of Parent Over Shoulder. Algorithms surface recommendations and interaction designers organize content categories based on what data analysts have divined is popular demand. The machine is always listening, helping, suggesting. It won’t easily be mummed. With this gift of gab comes an interesting need to watch our mouths.

In this way, machines have nothing new to say, and we’d be remiss to design products that don’t offer us the control we need. While our range of media has expanded, holding our tongue simply because of what is recommended or auto-corrected is a step backwards. Memes can be nuanced commentaries on the zeitgeist, but unless we can find ones personalized to our unique ways of communicating, they’re just putting words in our mouths.

In a digital world where there is more than just letters, the computer and human begin to speak together. Our conversations have always been intermediated: by our tongues, our language, our lingo. This is just the next step. The gatekeepers of the written word — dictionaries — have stringent rules for codifying new material, based on how long it’s been cited with a certain popular meaning. Platforms like Tenor can provide a more egalitarian dictionary of personal expression. But the words — and pictures and emojis — at our disposal can’t solely be based on what’s trending, what’s tapped on. It wouldn’t be dope, sick, or on fleek at all. The smartphone has redefined how we can communicate and how often we do. But it has yet to help us find exactly what we wanted to say.


David Schwartz runs argodesign’s New York studio focused on social impact and East Coast work. He leads creative programs in design, research, and strategy. In 2015, he was listed among the world’s top designers in Fast Company. He has spoken, led workshops, and taught at SXSW Eco, General Assembly, Austin Center 4 Design, Texas Anthropology Summit, Association for Community Design, Austin Design House, AIGA, Social Good Summit, and TEDx. His work or ideas have been published in New York Magazine, How Design, Makeshift Magazine, Impact Design Hub, FastCo Design, and MIT Tech Review. Previously, he worked at IBM Design on Watson from which he holds design patents and IP publications. On the side, David is an avid traveler and writer.

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