erin ryan

hi how r u: A Toolkit for Digital Expression

Date: Spring 2019


Design Research

Status: WIP

hi how r u?: A Tool Kit for Digital Expression

Through participatory research, this project explores how digital communication has evolved within the constraints of modern day messaging platforms, and how it can be furthered without them.


In the absence of physical cues like tone of voice and facial expressions, young people are increasingly using the materials provided for them for digital communication in unexpected or unintended ways to allow for more nuanced online communication. This is a new form of digital placemaking, as more and more our digital relationships and interactions hold a weight that rivals our physical ones.


Prompted to visualize something present but “unseen” I decided to investigate the idea of digital placemaking. How do we create digital spaces that feel like our own? Do some platforms afford this “placemaking” better than others?

I began by looking at elements we use to communicate, and to express ourselves online, and looked for connections between them.

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After sifting through a lot of internet content, I realized that the common thread I was interested in was the digital trend of combining and repurposing digital elements to create content that conveyed a more specific emotion or situation that could be evoked simply by using the base tools given to us by digital platforms (words, emojis, GIFs).

Workshop Components

  1. Roll two emotion dice to come up with a complex emotion. Create an emoticon that conveys that emotion using QWERTY keyboard elements.

  2. Using the same emotion from the first activity, create an emoticon that conveys that emotion using IOS emoji components.

  3. Change the tone of basic phrases using punctuation post-it notes.

  4. Contribute to the Digital Dictionary.

Workshop Results

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People (particularly young people) bend the rules of written language when communicating online to add nuance in a space where physical indicators like tone of voice and facial expression are absent. This can involve using punctuation in new ways, spelling words differently, using uppercase and lowercase letters in non traditional places, and using images, letters, emojis, and more to create hybrid emojis or reaction images that convey a hyper-specific emotion.

  • Different digital communities use language slightly differently, with alterations to spelling, punctuation rules, emoji use, and the use of keywords.

  • Linguistically these alterations by community can be compared to different dialects of the same language, as opposed to different languages entirely.

  • The medium we use and the tools given to us influence the way we express ourselves. Interfaces for digital communication are constrained, and often more creative expression occurs in digital environments with fewer constraints

Check out my process on Medium.