Sometimes I click over to Twitter and feel great because everyone seems to be clapping for me. I haven’t even done anything! But there’s all this applause. So many of my friends in virtual reality can hardly squeeze a single word out before the urgent desire to thwack their hands together overwhelms them.
Why do you fête me so, Internet? In my quest to get to the bottom of my own praiseworthiness (it’s why Slate pays me the big bucks), I came across some bad news, which is that this particular use of the “clap” emoji doesn’t really pertain to celebration. (It doesn’t pertain to venereal disease either—a silver lining!) Instead, the applause tweets have a simple explanation: They aim to visually represent a conversational gesture known as the emphasis clap.
The emphasis clap (Urban Dictionary has dubbed it the “ratchet clap”) belongs to the toolbox comedian Robin Thede introduced to the world as “Black Lady Sign Language.” It is when you clap on every syllable of a statement you are making in order to underscore the very important content of that statement. Sometimes the claps express excitement; more often, they convey anger. Ariana Grande exhibited perfect form on a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, playing a salty version of The Sound of Music’s Maria opposite a flock of smack-talking nuns.
In his glossary of #RapTwitter emoji meanings, Frazier Tharpe confirms that users have repurposed those two gleaming cartoon hands to bring the emphasis clap online.
As in meatspace, the convention highlights syllables that are so manifestly obvious and true that they shouldn’t have to be crafted at all. The necessity of typing them often represents a source of frustration for the speaker, who thus wishes to imbue her words with the epiphanic impact of, well, a thunderclap. I can’t believe I am saying this, huffs the emphasis clap, but since I am: LISTEN UP.
Emphasis clapping therefore lends itself to social justice and activism-inflected tweets. (In fact, by initially interpreting the emoji as applause for moi, I deftly enacted the white cis privilege the gesture so often attacks.)
But because they’re frequently conscripted into the cause of getting us woke, the claps can also be jokingly applied to less burning issues.
Sometimes the humor lies in the contrast between an academic topic and its vernacular delivery, or in the goofy impracticality of clapping on each syllable of an elaborately Latinate word.
Here’s the thing, though: The emphasis clap doesn’t translate online. Forget for a moment that the emojis are patronizing and oppressive, as visually assaultive as they are tonally bellicose. Forget that they make you look like a deranged cheerleader. They are not doing their one job, which is emphasizing. While IRL emphasis clapping stresses certain syllables, the interpolated emoji seem to arrive after the words, not at the same time. They disrupt the flow of the statement, creating a stuttering and uncertain effect. It’s a rare instance when the multimodality of online expression—its blend of text and image—actually degrades the message being communicated.
And here’s the other thing: That message being communicated? It presumes a consensus and essentially calls the reader an idiot. As such, it is typical of a bigger, badder tendency in progressive online discourse: that of unequivocally claiming the moral high ground and browbeating anyone who disagrees with you. The emphasis clap doesn’t just present a viewpoint. It presents a viewpoint as the only possible viewpoint.
The 👏 future 👏 of 👏 online 👏 conversation 👏 is 👏 a 👏 hand 👏 emoji 👏 clapping 👏 in 👏 your 👏 face 👏 forever.