Wednesday, August 24, 2005

On Emoticons

Paladin over at A Knight's Blog had this to say about emoticons:

What purpose do they serve? If they are just decoration, well, okay, I guess I can see that. A little adornment to your text, like changing the color or something. But if it’s to convey an attitude or tone to the text, then it strikes me as a bit lazy. It seems like the text itself should convey your meaning, tone, attitude. To that end, I use (admittedly, overuse) italics and parentheses, sometimes bold, sometimes underlining, to convey tone and emphasis. If I was a really good writer, I suppose I wouldn’t even need those formatting crutches, but, in case you didn’t notice, Faulkner I’m not. Also, commas. I use commas way too much, but I use them to convey a speaking style — a pause, an interruption in thought, whatever.

Though they might seem like bits of electronic pop culture flotsam, emoticons reflect an interesting by-product of electronic textual technologies -- the reconciliation of the oral and written. Actually, even though he doesn't like this, Paladin seems to be intuiting a lot of interesting stuff about emoticons.

First, about punctuation. Paladin writes, "I use commas way too much, but I use them to convey a speaking style — a pause, an interruption in thought, whatever." Actually, Paladin, that's exactly what the original function of punctuation was. Silent reading is a relatively recent innovation; up until a few centuries ago, all reading was done aloud, or was at least sub-vocalized. Punctuation was a method of directing the reader in how to pause while reading aloud -- one beat, two beats, full stop, etc. [By the way, the history of punctuation is shockingly interesting for such a dull-sounding topic. I'd recommend Pause and Effect for anyone interested in it. Be careful, though, because there is a different book by the same title.]

As society has become more literate, we have slowly divorced the oral from the textual (herein, when I use the word "textual," I mean "written"). Actually, I think this is one of the reasons for the decline of poetry. The only poetry that seems not to have hit bottom (in terms of readership) is music, poetry that the audience takes in completely oral form. Eventually, our production and use of texts became very linear, with books designed to be read cover-to-cover. Non-linear elements (such as footnotes, which seem to me a version of marginalia) became rarer.

Trying to read electronic texts in a linear, modernist fashion seems to me to be fighting against the medium. The advent of electronic texts allowed for greater play between the oral and the literate, as well as other forms of communication (such as images). Webpages, for example, are much better read as medieval manuscripts than anything modern. When reading a blog posting, do you read it straight through, or do you click on the links throughout the posting? If you click on the links and interrupt your reading, only to return to it later, you're reading in a non-linear fashion. In e-texts, the link is the new marginalia.

We even acknowledge that relationship among the texts by what we call links: hypertext. It is text, and in some ways we claim it (by linking to it), but we also understand that through that link the two texts have a dynamic relationship. Actually, trackbacks acknowledge that the relationship between the prior text and the subsequent text by allowing the link to run both ways, in a sense. So, when reading a posting, we often consider the trackback links part of the original text in a similar way that we would a link from a subsequent text to a prior.

As for emoticons, they seem to have grown out of this reconciliation between the oral and the written. The original use of punctuation was to provide clues for the orator reading aloud. Emoticons, on the other hand, provide clues to the silent reader, inviting him to imagine the face of the orator in one of any number of possible iconographic facial expressions. The writer of an emoticon knows that the reader will access her text entirely through a written format, but wants to reader in his own mind to enact an oration, complete with gestures, asides, and facial expressions. Emoticons are one way of facilitating that.

Paladin's complaint is that the meaning, tone, and attitude should be conveyed by the text itself, by which (I assume) he means the words in the text (since the emoticons are part of the text too). He's right to be suspicious of a rather lazy application of emoticons to substitute for meaningful writing. On the other hand, in some ways emoticons suggest a complex relationship between the written and the oral which, if applied well, is not necessarily facile.

By the way, I should confess that I am an emoticon hypocrite. My reaction to them is similar to my reaction to serial killers; I find them fascinating in the abstract, but hate to see them hanging around my mailbox. I rarely use them (generally only ironically), and get a slight sense of irritation when they appear in a letter to me. ;)


  1. I think one of the issues not addressed here is both genre and content. First, the genre of email and blog comments is--for the most part--ephemera. I don't spend a long time crafting a comment or an email (unless I'm requesting money with it). Yes, good vigorous writing removes the need for various formating signals including the blunt-instrument of formating, the emoticon. But if I'm dashing off a five line email I'm not gonna take the time to craft it. It's not worth it. As for content, I find that emails and postings tend to be more personal and have a higher emotional content. If you're *not* spending a long time to craft something, it's easy to be blunt and unintentionally offensive. An emoticon signals sarcasm or light-heartedness to replace tone of voice. I find them very helpful to maintain a certain emotional level of communication. :-)

    Overall, I find this a fascinating topic. One of my fields of study (and teaching eventually) is Homiletics--preaching. As a result I write and read a lot of sermons and think about how to help students communicate with them. I encourage students to think of writing a sermon as a completely different process from writing a paper; the flow, the use of puctuation, rhythm, timing, etc. *ought* to be different. Write as you talk, not as you write. And, with that it mind, that's what I like to do in emails and comments--I type as I talk, I don't write as I write. Thus, I use a lot of contractions and slang because I classify it as a spoken rather than written form of communication...I suppose because of the ephemeral nature of it.

    That having been said, the little yellow things that bounce and wave their arms around really annoy me... >:-|

  2. Another interesting function of emoticons is misdirection.

    I moderate on a rather large bulletin board--and when a flame war breaks out, there's inevitably one guy who says the nastiest, snarkiest things--then tacks a little bouncing smiley face onto the comment.

    The subtext, then, becomes something like, "yeah, I know exactly what a cheap shot that was, and how deeply offensive/hostile/aggressive I sound--but, trust me, I'm smiling when I say it, so you should smile, too."