Performative Emotions

by @edent | # #

Digging through my old tweets, I found this gem. A billion dollar idea that I never did anything was.

If my hazy memory is correct, we’d been asked to imagine future uses for a mobile phone with a front facing camera. The year was 2008. The iPhone had been out for a year – and it would be another two before it got a selfie-cam. But other 3G phones had them, and operators were struggling to find a way to monetise them.

My (naïve) idea was to have your camera continuously monitoring your face (!) and work out your emotions. If you received an SMS which made you laugh, the sender would get a laughing emoji automatically.

A silly idea? Probably! Here in 2020 we have the computing power to run facial recognition, basic emotional responses, and convert them into transmittable data. But I doubt many people would trust Facebook to continually scan their face just to save them the effort of manually typing :'-( in response to a sad message.

But there’s another downside.

Last year, I was asked to take part in a focus group for a TV advert. I was told that my webcam would be monitored and a computer would analyse my emotional response to the video I was being shown. Sounded invasive, but they were paying me. So why not.

The advert was dull. But I found myself performing the emotions I thought they wanted me to see! I exaggeratedly rolled my eyes at every cliché, and grinned like a chimp at every inane joke. I knew that the computer was watching, and I felt like I had to put on a show for it.

How often have you actually laughed out loud before sending “LOL” to your friends? Rarely, I imagine. In that case, there are important social relationships to maintain. Perhaps that’s the same reason we wave at the end of Zoom calls. We want to strengthen our social bonds with other members of the group.

Our primitive monkey-brains don’t really understand that a computer isn’t a person. It has an eye, it watches us, it recognises an emotion – therefore, we feel compelled to perform for it.

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