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Only joking?

There has been a slightly acerbic discussion on alt.usage.english about that almost ubiquitous and distinguishing marker of online communications, the smiley. A number of the regular participants swear they never use them, never feel the need to use them, and would wish never to see one in the group. Their belief is that smileys are ugly and unnecessary, that there is nothing which cannot be communicated in words alone, and that using them is a sign of an uneducated writer.

This is pretty damning stuff and, as usual when this kind of moderately polite flamewar erupts, says as much about the personal prejudices and convictions of the participants as it does about the ostensible subject being considered. But the discussions do throw up some interesting sidelines on the nature of communication, and of the online communication process in particular.

Smileys were first used in the very early days of bulletin boards, indeed The New Hacker’s Dictionary claims the first user was one Scott Fahlman on the CMU bulletin board in about 1980. They were so named partly because they were intended to look a bit like a smiley face, and partly to reflect the name given to the printed version that had been so popular with the hippies in the early seventies and then as a badge of association with acid house in the eighties. For some reason, the alternative name of emoticon was invented sometime in the eighties, perhaps because not all smileys show smiling faces. They have since become (depending on your point of view) either an essential part of the online messaging process, a minor irritation, or a confounded nuisance that pollutes the world’s communications channels. Alt.usage.english tends towards the latter end of the spectrum, as you will have gathered, and the smiley count in that newsgroup is well below average.

It seems that early smileys were largely meant as jokes, but the fact that they have become so well established is surely an indication that they fill a need. It is easy to deride them as unnecessary if one starts from the perspective of a couple of thousand years of written communication, whose authors seem to have got along pretty well without needing them. But those authors (at least those whose works have survived) have been a select group, who both have had something to say, and have been fluent enough to say it more or less cogently.

In the online community, we have a different situation, one which is, despite its public nature, nearer to the traditional idea of the personal letter. If you look at manuscript letters from the period before the telephone and the typewriter, you find many types of expression markers in use which are largely unrepresented in formal printed texts of the same period: underlinings, multiple exclamations, even pictures and doodles drawn in the margins or in the text. I suggest that it is to that kind of communication that we should look for our model of the online message, a technique which has substantially reinvented the letter, just when we all thought it was nearly extinct.

I do not go all the way with the predictions of the far-seeing prophets of the information superhighway, nor would I wish to hype the value of the Net. But it does seem that those who claim that it is something genuinely new in the history of the world have a lot going for their arguments. Never before have so many ordinary people been able to communicate so freely with others: radio, television, newspapers, journals and books are one-way, only open to a select few with particular skills. In Usenet, bulletin boards and other online media, we have a genuinely interactive way for people to speak freely to large numbers of their fellows.

But it is this freedom which is causing the problem. For a large proportion of the people writing messages online, this is not their natural method of communication; only a proportion are able to write fluently and have the vocabulary necessary to express shades of emotion and attitude. And the Net is a curiously impersonal medium: the letter writers of earlier times usually knew their respondents, or if not had standard formal styles of writing to fall back on; online we have a community which is dispersed, disparate, often with cultural preconceptions impossible to judge in advance, and almost no member of which has ever met any of the others in person, or is ever likely to. The potential for embarrassment, misunderstanding, irritation or anger is huge.

The advantage of the smiley is that it tags statements with a marker to show the emotional coloration of the writer’s intentions. This helps to prevent many of the misunderstandings which might otherwise arise. It may seem crude to tag a message with a symbol which says “Only joking, everybody!”, but that is so much better than to have some unknown reader on the other side of the globe take it as a personal insult or a stupid remark.

But, like all good things, smileys are best taken in moderation. As the New Hacker’s Dictionary puts it: “Overuse of the smiley is a mark of loserhood! More than one a paragraph is a fairly sure sign that you’ve gone over the line”. I’d put that limit at one per message myself.

My guess is that methods of online communication will continue to evolve; the smiley is one attempt at finding new techniques for a new medium: we shall see others.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Aug. 1996

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 6 August 1996.