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About Those Speech Bubbles

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Recently, New York Times reporter Jonah Bromwich asked “Why Are All Our Words in Bubbles?” In a brief article appearing in the Technology section of the Times, Bromwich notes that Twitter and Facebook introduced “softer and rounder elements” in redesigns of their bubbles late last year because showing comment threads in bubbles seemed “a more conversational way to comment on posts.”

Interested in this new wrinkle in online communication, Bromwich contacted some design experts, who noted that the shape of the bubble can indicate mood or attitude: for example, a jagged bubble suggests anger or irritation. Scott McCloud weighed in, calling speech bubbles the visual equivalent of “quotation marks.” And Will Eisner referred to them as part of a comics artist’s attempt to invoke sound on a silent print page or screen.

The question of how to represent emotion, mood, or stance in a medium without sound is one worth talking about to students. Asking how they perceive such use of rounded or jagged or sharp-edged bubbles—and how they account for these perceptions—can lead to lively class discussion, at the very least. When body language isn’t available, as it is not in lots of social media communication as well as in traditional print texts, it’s important to ask students to think about how they create “tone” in their writing. Word choice, punctuation, even sentence structure all can help to build a certain tone in writing, as can the use of images. Do our students think that the use of speech bubbles might also be helpful, not just to signal dialogue or conversation but to suggest an attitude or emotion: Do round or rounded text bubbles make for a fuzzy, friendly feeling? Do sharp angles to bubbles suggest sharpness of tone, even anger? How might students not just answer these questions but go on to use text or speech bubbles in their own writing?

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Credit: Pixabay Image 3042585 by pencilparker, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.