Monday, October 24, 2011

On Emoticons

I resisted emoticons for years—all those cute little smiley graphics and punctuation-mark approximations seemed sort of ... immature. But the older I get, the less "maturity" seems to matter. And in recent years, emoticons have made their way into frequent rotation in my social correspondence. At work, I use them less often, but I expect they will continue to make inroads there, in time.

So I read with interest this story in The New York Times: "If You're Happy and You Know It, Must I Know Too?"

It's one of those "end of human intelligence" stories in which experts bemoan the fact that a new technology will spell doom for literacy (if not civilization itself). As Bill Lancaster, a lecturer in communications at Northeastern University in Boston, puts it in the story, "[Emoticons are] part of the degradation of writing skills—grammar, syntax, sentence structure, even penmanship—that come with digital technology."

I disagree with Lancaster on this point. Technology is changing language, yes. But language is always changing. It's supposed to. I imagine 15th-century Lancaster types bemoaning the fact that Gutenberg's newfangled printing press would spell the end of our ability to remember and recount long stories (and perhaps it did, but I think we're better off for the bargain).

Sure, emoticons can be a crutch. But as a shorthand, they're effective and suited to the medium of texting and email. Elsewhere in the Times story, emoticons are called "lazy," and we're invited to imagine The Great Gatsby's final sentence followed by a frowny face: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past :-("

That's funny, but I don't think it's fair. Fitzgerald had access to illustrations but didn't use them—and isn't that what emoticons are? Just because a writer uses emoticons in his emails doesn't mean he's going to use them in everything he writes. I think most of us know the difference between a tiny picture of a cartoon tomato and the word tomato.

Looking at work emails that I've used smileys in, I feel that they've returned a dimension to interpersonal communication that we took for granted at the height of the telephone era: the helpful clues offered by facial expression and tone of voice. (The anti-emoticon language purists surely wouldn't insist that I speak in a monotone and avoid facial expressions when I'm communicating face to face.) A smile can buffer a request, soften a criticism, or indicate irony, whether it's personal or digital. Emoticons are rudimentary, sure, and many of us are still figuring out how frequently to use them—but I can look at them as a step forward for clarity in communication, not a step back.

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