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shimmin's Journal: Meditations on the smiley :) 5

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So I've had reason to think recently about the use of the smiley in electronic text communication. I think the smiley could be a revolutionary thing, because it's possible that this is the first truly new act of punctuation in the English language in almost 200 years.

However, I'm a little bit uncertain whether the smiley is in fact punctuation. In some respect, it is meant to imply that the speaker is smiling, either to convey a sort of friendly insincerity in an otherwise insulting remark, e.g.

You are such a dork :)

or to express genuine joy, e.g.

Guess what! I got a job :)

In this interpretation, the smiley in supposed to convey the vocal inflections and facial expressions that accompany a smile, in much the same manner as the question mark conveys the vocal upturn at the end of a question.

However, it could also be said that the smiley is a word in and of itself, a new kind of word, one meant to express the nonverbal component of a sentence. This interpretation better fits the usage of the smiley by people who punctuate an already smiley-terminated sentence, e.g.

I'm sorry to say, your homebrew tastes like moutwash. Of course, I happen to like mouthwash :).

Are you going to remain such a dork forever :)?

Cleaning house (cleaning house being one of my favorite things to do :)) I found my favorite pair of socks. They'd been missing for months :)!

Personally, I frown on this usage, because often the smiley is indistinct from the sentence- terminating punctuation, especially in the case of parentheses. A good workaround in the case of the smiley-as-word is to put it after the closing punctuation, ala

Where in the world did you find that tie? :)

But I digress. Anyway, whether as a new act of punctuation or a new kind of word (a non-verbal word, pardon the paradox), the smiley is particularly interesting because of the rapidity in which it sprung into electronic communications. People have been writing in manuscript for centuries, and the rules of English punctuation have been mostly ossified for about 200 years, and yet nothing like the smiley ever came about. Yet the first smiley appeared on a bbs in 1982, only 11 years after the first email.

What about the new mode of communication fostered the birth of a symbol to convey the nonverbal part of a sentence. All text, whether electronic or manuscripted, suffers from the same inherent difficulty is providing subtextal context unless it is directly stated. Hence the existence of English majors. So why only with electronic media did people develop a symbol for indicating how their words should be interpreted?

One possibility is that the use of the friendly insult (at least in print) is a relatively new phenomenon, that when writers of times past gave their insults, they meant them, and so had no need of the smiley. Consider:

G.K. Chesterton: Oscar Wilde said sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for them. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde. :)

Somehow, the effect of the original text is lost.

Another possibility is that the smiley is an enabling technology (similar to the hearing aid or the prosthetic limb) developed by those with an above-average difficulty with deciphering subtext for the purposes of facilitating communication between themselves. While this does further the stereotype of the emotionally-out-of-touch computer geek, let's face it, such stereotypes exist for a reason.

They say 90% of communication is nonverbal (they also say that 90% of statistics are made up on the spot, yet they do not identify who they are, anyway). It is my belief that the people most aware of this are _not_ those who are particularly good at decoding nonverbal cues, but those who are not. Such people come to the conclusion much faster than the rest of us that the actual text of most communication carries rather little of the communicative content, and that most of the conversational bandwidth is borne on its nonverbal components, and (sometimes) the fact that the conversation is taking place at all. It is actually a mark of close relationship to have a conversation based on the principle that, "Although I have nothing important to communicate to you, I am going to have a conversation with you anyway to show I care." It is those who have difficulty tapping into this nonverbal bandwidth who most quickly realize that the actual text of most human interaction is rather banal.

Hence, email itself was an important enabling technology because by eliminating the nonverbal bandwidth, it forces all content to be brought out of subtext and directly presented. Consider the case of courtship. When done in person, it is rather awkward to come right out and say, "I like you." When done over email, it's still rather awkward, but there is no other choice. (YMBAGI you have conducted the opening stages of a relationship via email. Score double if you knew exactly why you were conducting them via email.)

The smiley in this sense was merely a further refinement of the technology, allowing content that is in normal conversation expressed nonverbally because it is more suited to the nonverbal channels to be explicitly expressed in text without translation into a verbal form. In other words, either emotional punctuation or a non-verbal word, depending on your take.

The only problem with this scenario is that the people who are today enthusiastic computer users most likely have similar emotional makeup to the people who would have been literate in previous centuries when literacy was rather rare. If this is true, why then did scribes and scholars of these times not develop such a useful symbol for their own use in correspondence?

This goes doubly so since it seems the smiley may have had multiple independent inventions in the early days of the Internet. Although the western smiley :) has become the western form, one still occasionally sees the Asian smiley ^_^, especially in newsgroups and bulletin boards dealing with anime and similar topics. It seems unlikely that one of these two equivalent symbols derives from the other. Therefore, it seems that a symbol so useful that it was developed at least twice in the opening decade-or-so of electronic communications somehow completely avoided invention during centuries of manuscripting. How?

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Meditations on the smiley :)

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  • !Shimmin! I cannot qualify as a nerd or a geek... :P

    That said, I can even tell you I like you on /. and still not count as a geek. Why? Because I know next to nothing about anything, and there is a certain level of comprehension or proficiency, if you will, required to consider oneself either of the above. So I will. I like you.

    To answer your question, I will rely on the hypothesis that since the beginning of the information age, humans that are part of that age have desired everything to be bigger, better, and most importantly, faster. I can type faster than I can write? Can you? As a result, I rarely handwrite something unless it is notes for class, and even then I would use a laptop if I had one. I want everything done very quickly, and so does everyone else.

    You are correct in noting that the writers of the earlier ages of pen and paper were very similiar in makeup to the avid computer users of today, but many of them were without that need for urgency. Additionally, correspondance was not traditionally held between residents of the same town, letters were written to be delivered across distances. As a result of these two phenomenon, authors of said letters (1) had longer to think about what they were going to say and thus take the time to say it precicely enough that their ideas were conveyed without facial expressions and (2) casual conversation was just that... conversation, spoken, with all of the nonverbal cues present. Writing, in addition to being practiced by a smaller fraction of the population (think literacy rates, abundance of paper, less implicit need to communicate via the written medium), was much more formal an undertaking. Even today, smileys :) are not considered proper English and do not belong in a tenth grade student's history paper. Casual conversation, however, is more frequently held via electronic means, yielding the widespread acceptance of such symbols.

    My explanation is, in short, (1) Humans today spend less time pondering casual written correspondance and thus use the smiley to aide in communication. (2) Smiley users use the smiley in lieu of a bunch of words that would more properly convey their particular intended meaning. (Intimate knowledge of the other party also makes this easier because they are more apt to understand what they writer means.) (3) Letters no longer need be written formally; casual communication is now the norm rather than the exception. (4) Formal writing still does not accept the use of a smiley. (5) A comparatively lesser "need for speed" and the formal nature of generalized letter writing prevented innovative casual communication devices from developing prior to the information age.

    As people have been trying to do things faster, untraditional methods of communication have been embraced at a much faster rate, provided they save time, which the smiley does. Proof of this? I just wrote this whole thing, and then afterward was able to pull it into concise points, but I am still posting the whole thing because I am not taking time to revise. And I'm sure you'll forgive me. :)

    • In Googlis non est, ergo non est.

      It is not in Google, therefore it does not exist.

      (!!) Apart from the hommage to Descartes, did you come up with this yourself, and if not, where did you get it? More soberly, I'm afraid the next generation may grow up thinking it's true.

      • Funny you should ask this... There was an article here sometime about what to do when you can't "Ask Slashdot." Anyway, someone wrote a post about it not existing if it's not in Google, and I thought it was funny, so I put it in Latin, to make it even funnier. Unfortunately, some other people did it too (there are a *lot* of sigs out there now that say it), some of them even did it improperly, but I know that I got there first, as in, within minutes of the original post so I am still using it. I think everyone else knows I beat them anyway. Especially since everyone knows I find it particularly humorous because I don't Google.

        Yes, the next generation is in big trouble.

  • People have been writing in manuscript for centuries, and the rules of English punctuation have been mostly ossified for about 200 years, and yet nothing like the smiley ever came about.

    I'd disagree with this. I was using real smileys in correspondence on paper as early as 1979, easily before I ever saw anything remotely like email. And was receiving them back as well. People have put more than just text in personal letters for a long time, at least that was my perception.

It is impossible to travel faster than light, and certainly not desirable, as one's hat keeps blowing off. -- Woody Allen

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