Been thinking about emoticons lately. I resisted them for the longest time, scorning them as the trivial insertions of giggly pre-teens with their “thanks for the cell, mom” texting. Or they were the refuge of the people who learned how to write through AIM, inserting them in their writing like another manifestation of “LOL!” I thought that if you couldn’t communicate well enough in writing to get your point across, a little happy face sure as hell wasn’t going to help you.
A bit ago however, I realized that because the internet spawned a more conversational style of writing, the nature of what we were trying to communicate through our writing had changed. In a story, you’re looking to convey emotions by how you setup your characters, the interactions they have, their thoughts, the points you make about what’s going on in your story, etc. A little ball sticking its tongue out at you isn’t necessary when you have the entire scene for reference.
When a character in a book delivers a bit of acerbic wit, you have a frame of reference to rely on to judge what his attitude at the time of that line was. You have his set of actions throughout the book, often his thought processes, and occasionally the omnipotent narrator. All of these levels of meta-observation give you clues as to how you are supposed to feel, or how the author wants you to feel, about this character delivering that line.
However, when someone replies to a post on a message board, or I suppose even more personally when you email something to someone who knows you, there are many levels of observation missing. I guess I’m mainly referring to something you would write conversationally. So if my friend emails me to tell me she is in Paris, and I email back calling her a wanker, she can’t see my face at the time, and she has nothing else other than the statement “You are a wanker” to go on. Now, given that she knows me, she probably won’t assume that I’m actually upset at her. On top of that, you could add more to the line, saying “Wow, I’m so happy for you, wanker,” or something of the sort to clarify the ambiguity (that I might actually be mad at her). However, a line like that doesn’t have the same brevity of wit (and I’m using wit in the very loosest of senses here) that a simple “wanker” does.
Which is where the smiley comes in. It allows for us to write the same exact phrase we would use in a conversation and provide an approximation of what our non-verbal (or in this case non-written, which is even worse because at least the spoken word carries tone with it) communication would be telling the other person at the time. Granted, a cartoon of two dots and a curve surrounded by a circle isn’t great approximation, but if you’re writing to someone who knows you, she can place that in the context of all the times she’s seen you smile in the past. Being removed from the person makes it more difficult, but a smile still has a meaning to people.
I guess my point in all of this is that it seems to me that as long as they are not used in inappropriate situations, and if they are not abused, emoticons allow us to carry on the flow of a conversation with greater clarity in a medium where a huge chunk of our communication (ie non-verbal/written) is lost.
Any of you emoticon haters out there disagree?