Lately, I've been thinking a lot about stars—the glyph kind.
In early November, Twitter replaced its ★ button with a ♥ button. Many Twitter users reacted negatively to the change, lamenting the loss of the ★'s neutrality, on the one hand, and its multi-valence, on the other. Clicking ★ underneath a tweet never automatically signaled agreement, but it is hard not to feel you're agreeing with a tweet when you click ♥ (especially when Twitter itself explicitly equates ♥-ing something with liking it).
The other day, I was writing about the use of asterisks in seventeenth-century English playbooks and how they would have been legible in a system of dramatic typography only if readers knew them as reference marks from other genres of printed material. In early non-dramatic texts (especially liturgical ones), asterisks embedded in the main text typically correspond to marginal notes that provide exegesis, source material, caveats, or further reading. In the early modern playbooks I've been writing about, asterisks refer readers to marginal "stage directions" that offer descriptions of non-lexical business (i.e., an action, a change in addressee, a particular tone, etc.) that, in effect, modulates the dramatic situation in some way apart from or in conjunction with language. In other words, asterisks signal: "There's more to see!" and/or "This is important, and you should dwell with it for a little longer!"
As I was considering patterns of asterisk use in printed plays, it occurred to me that the Twitter ★ had a similar function to its textual (but not necessarily dramatic) counterpart. It marked tweets as worth attending to—as worth dwelling with. Why they were worth others' time didn't matter so much as that they were worth that time. Unlike the act of retweeting, ★ing a tweet didn't force it into the sightline (i.e., the feed) of other users. But like a marginal note or footnote signaled by an asterisk, we could look to a ★ed tweet if we wanted to look at it. In hailing other readers to look without requiring them to do so, the Twitter ★ was a connecting glyph. ★ing a tweet referred others to material that they might not have otherwise seen or considered but that nevertheless might be worth their time. The ♥ doesn't have the same connecting function. It signals a bond ("I like this!") between a reader and the content of the tweet. Unless I have the same taste as you, I probably won't ♥ what you ♥. Twitter just became a lot more personal!
While I know there are many other ways to parse the uses and significations of the Twitter ★, I guess I ♥ed it a whole lot because its design recognized and relied on a set of entrenched readerly habits that originated even before the advent of print.*
* For a terrific account of the asterisk, see Chapter 6 in Keith Houston's Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks (Norton, 2013). And if you're curious about the rise of asterisks to *emphasize* words/phrases in lieu of bold and italic (see my title!), there is this fascinating post by John Gruber.