The Great Emoticon Debate Rages On ;-)

Illustration for article titled The Great Emoticon Debate Rages On ;-)

Writes Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams, "Smart people, nay, brilliant ones use emoticons. Articulate, bright, funny people. Yet when I see a smiley, my first thought is, 'What are you, 12 years old?'" :-<


I feel her. I used to hate emoticons myself, and they ranked fairly high on a long, obnoxious and completely hypothetical list of things I considered romantic dealbreakers, somwhere between an inability to catch car keys and enthusiasm for Eric LInklater. (Reality has forced wisdom, humble pie, and a collection of heist DVDs on me.) Along with e.e. cummings punctuation, it was the sort of thing which some modern U (as opposed to Non-) Did Not Do.

And then I got a job on a blog. And in our particular bit of the blogosphere, we communicate almost exclusively via IM. Since we're always on deadline, these communiques are generally terse, even curt. And I soon learned the value of the emoticon: a handy shorthand for softening a brusque one-liner, indicating sarcasm, and, occasionally, injecting completely inappropriate whimsy into an otherwise grim day. Whereas a text can be succinct - we're paying for them, and typing them out is a pain - these indicators are often necessary in other media where the implication might otherwise be, "it's not me, it's you." (Indeed, so precious is our time that we never use that archaic bit of iconography, the em-dash "nose.")

Says Williams,

What is it about the emoticon that fills me with such loathing? Maybe it's the wastefulness of the enterprise, the redundancy of it, the implied lack of confidence in the writer's ability to communicate, or mine to comprehend. If you say, "I'm looking forward to seeing you tonight," I think you're looking forward to seeing me. If you say, "I'm looking forward to seeing you tonight. :-)," I think you're not sure I understand the extent of sentiment in that seven-word message. And if you write, "I'm looking forward to seeing you tonight ;-)," I think your assumption of getting laid this evening may have been a bit premature, Winky.

But, see, nowadays I'd look at that first unadorned statement and it looks, without benefit of so much as a gratuitous exclamation mark, both naked and aloof. Email is, in a way, a cold medium: anyone who's worked in an office has probably trebled his use of excited punctuation, to sweeten requests and imply enthusiasm. And emoticons are just the next step. I wonder if this is what the emoticon's creator had in mind in the early days of computer profileration. And, yes, there was a creator, as Williams tells us.

That man was Scott Fahlman. On Sept. 19, 1982, the Carnegie Mellon computer scientist sent out a message with the subject head ":-)." It was intended to clarify communication on a message board at the university, and it read, "I propose the following character sequence for joke markers: :-). Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use :-(." The genie was out of the ASCII bottle.


The crying face, the animatronic gif steaming with rage, the bashful, blushing neo-Pac Man were inevitable outgrowths. Of course, in one regard Williams' rant is inarguable:

Of all the crimes perpetuated by the emoticon, surely the most grievous is its role in the passive-aggressive insult. There's at least an honesty to a plain old sarcastic, snotty comment. A group e-mail or Facebook comment to the effect of "Nice dress – I didn't know there was a hooker convention in town. ;-)" or "I guess I'll do all the cooking again like I always do! :-)" is just bullshit. And sarcasm with a wink isn't sarcasm. More than a quarter-century into Internet culture, we can safely say the emoticon has not eradicated flaming or general online assholery. It' s just another useful tool.


But by the same token, I'm guessing the assholery would exist in the absence of the emoticon. The problem, after all, is the brain, not - wait for it! - the smiley face.

Death To smiley [Salon]



Emoticons are the punctuation devices in the new era of digital communication. So use 'em, or get lost in the lingua franca of the young 'uns.

Join or die ;0)