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Electronic Innovation >>>

600px-Smiley.svg copyMy expertise in the conventions of texting and Twitter and Instagram, compared with the expertise of the undergraduate students I work with, is <.

Actually, it is <<<<<.

A couple of weeks ago,  Carlina Duan, a senior at the University of Michigan, dropped me an email to see if I had heard of a new(ish) bit of language use, which she was suddenly noticing everywhere in social media: to use her words, “the use of ‘>’ or ‘<’ in text as a way to compare an experience or item/mark an experience or item as either BEYOND good, or BEYOND bad.”

For example, Carlina’s friend had just posted a photo of a cheesecake and added the caption: “sugary life >>>>.” Carlina provided the following translation: “sugary life is better than anything else/sugary life is on-point right now.” (For those of you who do not use the slang term on point, its meanings include ‘excellent, gorgeous, sexy, stylish, perfect.’) She also provided the sample text: “people who feed squirrels <.”

As Carlina suspected might be the case, this was all new to me.

Urban Dictionary includes > as a symbol used to mean that one thing is greater than another (13>3), that one thing is better than another (cats>dogs), or that one thing “owns”/“pwns” another (I>you). On the first page of Urban Dictionary, all of the definitions have > occurring transitively, with a direct object, to express a relationship between the subject and object (much the way I used < in the opening sentence of this post—although I added the perhaps unidiomatic “is”). None of the definitions mentions > or >>> appearing intransitively, with no object.

This intransitive use of > and < is at least a few years old. Black Guy in America posted about it in October 2011,  providing the examples “Morning Sex >>>>” and “Working during Football <,” among others. Around the same time questions about what these symbols mean pop up on sites like answers.com.

The intransitive > and < can be read in at least three ways, from what I have gathered from undergraduate consultants and Internet posts. The first is that whatever you are talking about is greater than or worse than anything else. The fact that there is no object suggests that it wouldn’t matter what object was there: this thing/event is better or worse than everything it could be compared to. That would be the strongest interpretation.

The > or < can also be read as meaning that something is great or bad respectively, and the more symbols occur in sequence (>>>> or <<<<<), the greater or worse it is. A sequence like >>>> starts to become synonymous with the first interpretation: whatever I’m tweeting or Facebooking or texting about is so great that it is better than almost anything else. As Christianna Pedley, a junior at Michigan, explained “snow day >>>>” to me: it “would mean that the snow day is greater than anything at that moment.” She added: “I would read it as something along the lines of, ‘SNOW DAY!!!!!’ and you can hear the excitement in it when you read it.” Compare this with “lunch with Sarah >,” which Christianna described as expressing casual excitement, along the lines of “I’m having lunch with Sarah, and that’s cool.”

Or > and < can be interpreted to mean that the speaker/writer likes (or really likes) or doesn’t like (or really doesn’t like) whatever it is that precedes the symbol(s). The message “people who feed squirrels <” could be read as expressing irritation at these folks.

The (minor) ambiguity of the symbols in terms of just how awesome—or not—something is strikes me as highly manageable in the social-media world. It’s generally clear enough that whatever someone is texting, tweeting, Facebooking, etc., about is getting a big thumbs up or “like” (to use Facebook’s terms) or a big thumbs down.

But what if you had to read the Instagram or tweet or whatever bit of social media it is out loud? Probably a rare occurrence, but not impossible. This has been on my mind since an interview with Marketplace’s David Gura a couple of weeks ago, where the question was whether the lawyers in the Silk Road underground marketplace trial needed to address the emoticons and emojis in texts that were part of the evidence being presented in court. (My answer: yes.) And if the lawyers were to read the symbols out loud, what did they sound like?

The answer seemed relatively easy for “smiley face” or “winky face.” Then you leave it to the jury to interpret what that smiley or winky face is doing in context.

The symbol >>> did not come up, and had it, I would have been left recommending something like the mouthful  “greater than greater than greater than”—even though this translation of the written to the oral saps the innovative use of > of pretty much all its coolness. (But it’s better than “right angled bracket right angled bracket … ”)

And in some ways, that’s the point. The >>> and <<< are not designed for the world of the spoken, but for the world of “fingered speech,” to use John McWhorter’s term. These symbols, used intransitively, show speakers/writers creatively playing with the possibilities of language in this register.

For me, learning from students about these innovations in the world of social media >>>>.

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