One Click, Many Meanings (Lit Review, Silvestry)

Article Reviewed: One Click, Many Meanings: Interpreting Paralinguistic Digital Affordances in Social Media


In the article One Click, Many Meanings: Interpreting Paralinguistic Digital Affordances in Social Media, the researchers delve into the complexity of the paralinguistic digital affordance, or easier defined as social media’s one-click tools. Examples of one-click tools are Facebook’s Like button, or Twitter’s Favorite button. The researchers conduct focus groups and interviews to discover the purposes, motivations, and gratifications of these one-click tools. Their findings show promise into further research across social media platforms.

One Click: Many Meanings: Interpreting Paralinguistic Digital Affordances in Social Media

Literature Review

By John Silvestry

In their article One Click, Many Meanings: Interpreting Paralinguistic Digital Affordances in Social Media, Rebecca Hayes, Caleb Carr, and Donghee Wohn study and observe the “one-click tool.” The one-click tool is the common Like, Upvote, or Favorite button next to a post on a social media website. The objective of their study is to understand the meaning the senders and receivers ascribe to the one-click tools. To study their thesis, they use the means of qualitative research within interviews and focus groups.

To begin their study, they chose to ascribe proper terminology to the one-click tools. Hayes, Carr, and Whon decide to refer to the tools as paralinguistic digital affordances (PDA’s). The proper definition for PDA’s is, “cues in social media that facilitate communication and interaction without specific language associated with their messages” (Hayes, R. A., Carr, C. T., & Wohn, D. Y., 2016, p. 173). They note that the knowledge of them exist, but the motives and semantics that underlie the behaviors of the users’ have not yet been divulged. Hayes, Carr, and Whon also use the term “phatic communication” to describe the communication the PDA’s are categorized as. Phatic communication is, “language used in free, aimless, social intercourse” (Hayes et. al, 2016, p. 173). So in the example of a Like on Facebook, clicking the Like button signifies an effort of communication toward a receiver and the action itself is a free/aimless message that the receiver interprets. Hayes, Carr, and Whon reference the idea that the original phatic semantics of PDA’s intended by social media site designers may have grown and expanded in meaning (Hayes et. al, 2016, p. 173). When a tool is created and implemented, it is up to the users to determine what the normal use of the tool will be. The tools’ creators can only suggest its intent, but users control the actual application and assimilation into a social media site.

The next goal of Hayes, Carr, and Whon was to discover if the phatic communication cues differed when compared across different social media. So naturally, they begin asking questions and begin with, “Does the meaning of a PDA differ by social media platform (Hayes et. al, 2016, p. 174)?” In the focus groups and interviews, the researchers questioned the participants if they believed that Likes, Favorites, and Upvotes meant the same thing to them. In their findings, the most of the participants responded with a resounding no (Hayes et. al, 2016, p. 177). Some of the specifics include downplay of Likes on Facebook. The participants communicated that they were much more reactive on their Facebook feed, and a Like was much more common than the other PDA’s. Twitter differed in that most posts are expected to along without getting PDA interaction, and it was expected (Hayes et. al, 2016, p. 177-78).

Guided by the communication perspective called “uses and gratifications” (U&G), their next question is, “What motivations drive use of PDA?” Through the lens of U&G, this is asking what needs are being satisfied by their PDA interactions (Hayes et. al, 2016, p. 174). The research concluded four motivations used by the participants for their interaction with PDA’s: literal interpretation, acknowledgement of viewing, social support/grooming, and utilitarian purposes (Hayes et. al, 2016, p. 178). The literal interpretation motivation is based on responding with a PDA to evaluate the content. So if someone simply thought a post was funny and they evaluate it was worth a Like or Favorite. The acknowledgement of viewing motivation, was as it sounds, a signifying cue saying that they have viewed the post. Some participants reported Liking or Favoriting just so they would avoid their friends asking them if they had seen the post (Hayes et. al, 2016, p. 178). The social support/grooming motivation is based on a PDA being a way of socially supporting the person who posted the content. If some accomplishes something or experiences a significant life experience, the sender can interact with a PDA for the reason of supporting the receiver and their relationship. The utilitarian purpose motivation is based on the need of tracking specific content. For instance, Twitter’s Favorite button archives the tweets for later viewing (Hayes et. al, 2016, p. 179).

The third question the researchers addressed was, “What gratifications are associated with receiving a PDA (Hayes et. al, 2016, p. 175)?” After the focus group and interview testing, they discovered three key gratifications in receiving PDA’s: emotional, status, and social gratifications. The emotional gratification was found in respondents who said they felt positive when they received a PDA negative when they did not (Hayes et. al, 2016, p. 179-80). The status gratification is based in a person receiving an elevation in social status as PDA’s are received. Unexpected PDA interaction increase the feeling of the social status boost (Hayes et. al, 2016, p. 180). The social gratification theme is based in the actual relationship between the sender and receiver. The participants shared that the PDA interaction, especially through Twitter, reinforced and help form the interpersonal relationships they had outside of social media.

The final question Hayes, Carr, and Whon addressed was, “What are the faithful and ironic interpretations of PDA’s by both sender and receiver (Hayes et. al, 2016, p. 175-76)?” The research indicated there were both faithful and ironic interpretations of PDA’s. The participants said they learned the social norms of social media sites by understanding the PDA’s name (Hayes et. al, 2016, p. 181). For instance, if the person likes the post, then they would press the Like button. Ironic findings were discovered with the PDA interactions that were intended for the person and not their content. One of the participants admitted to just Favoriting a tweet when she did not see anything else for her to do (Hayes et. al, 2016, p. 181).

In conclusion to their research, Hayes, Carr, and Whon agree that a PDA’s use can be “complex and rich, even if activated by a single click within their respective social medium” (Hayes et. al, 2016, p. 185). Next, they conclude that the social medium does affect the PDA’s use and meaning, along with the social norms. The researchers conclude that there can be so many meanings behind a PDA, and further studies should be done specific to the mediums the PDA originates from (Hayes et. al, 2016, p. 181).


Hayes, R. A., Carr, C. T., & Wohn, D. Y. (2016). “One Click, Many Meanings: Interpreting Paralinguistic Digital Affordances in Social Media.” Journal Of Broadcasting & Electronic Media60(1), 171-187. EBSCO.


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