You use them to take the edge off a joke. Lovebirds use them to playfully flirt. Sometimes you need more than just words, and nothing else but a wink will do. They’re emoticons, and after 30 years, they’re still changing the way we communicate — even more than you think.
When you want to share straightforward ideas, simple punctuations does the job. But surprise, sorrow, laughing and eye-rolling are harder to convey electronically. When you want to subtly ask a favor or send a coy quip, you need emoticons, or emotional icons, to add nuance to your words. The smiley and its descendants are woven into the fabric of our culture — and changing the way we work and play.
Many consider Scott Elliott Fahlman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, the inventor of the modern-day emoticon. On September 19, 1982, he sent an e-mail to students, asking them use symbols to show their intended tone.
“I propose the following character sequence for joke markers: :-) Read it sideways,” he wrote, adding to use “:-(” to show more serious messages. But that symbol quickly evolved to mean displeasure, frustration or anger.
The impulse to show emotional intent with a simple symbol, however, dates back even further. In 1969, Vladimir Nabokov, author of “Lolita,” foreshadowed the modern symbol. When asked to rank himself among writers, he said in a New York Times interview printed in 1969, “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile — some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.”
Abraham Lincoln may have even used it, back in one of his speeches from 1862. The New York Times reported on a sideways “winky face” after the word “laughter” typed into his speech. This sparked a debate on whether the smiley was a grammatical notation from the time, an early emoticon attempt or simply a typo. He probably tried to write “==|;o)>.”
In some ways, we all want to say more with fewer words. Ancient Greek playwrights used the chorus to show the audience the characters’ hidden emotional states. That evolved into the theatrical “aside” — a comment or speech made to viewers, who understands the often witty or sarcastic remarks aren’t heard by other characters in the play. The aside, like the emoticon, gives you emotional insight, so you can better relate to the person speaking.
The emotion-revealing aside took hold, and luminaries from Shakespeare to O’Neill embraced them, as do artists today. Look at “The Office” or “Modern Family” — characters step away from the action and give you a wry observation.
Yup, that’s the same Shakespeare technique.
Emoticons, especially in work-related e-mails, can add a spark to romances. Nearly 45 percent of women and 60 percent of men who date a co-worker say their romance started with an emoticon in an e-mail or text, according to a WhatsYourPrice.com survey. That’s not surprising, since 70 percent of women and 90 percent of men say receiving a winky face indicates a chance for romance or a first date.
But more and more, people who grew up in the digital age are bringing habits like regular use of emoticons to the workplace. So, if you light-heartedly punctuate e-mails with emoticons, you may want to think again.
The Next Generation of Emoticons
Emoticons aren’t without controversy, especially as they’ve evolved. “I think this destroys the whimsical element of the original,” Fahlman wrote, referring to how complicated emoticons have become with color and animation. Likewise, artist and storyteller Rives, called the “first 2.0 poet,” uses emoticons to bring words to life, but he embraces the old-school, symbols-only emoticon, fusing bare-bones symbols with wit and creativity.
Purists value keyboard-only emoticons, while younger generations embrace an advanced set of icons — the emoji. Originating in Japan, emoji is a moving animation of bright images and colors used to express ideas. In addition to the humble smiley, it represents weather, vehicles, food and drink, and even animals and plants. They’re emoticons on steroids.
Thanks to emoji, the subtlety of first generation emoticons may be lost on younger generations. Teens and tweens who use apps like Instagram, which rely more heavily on pictures than text, are often emoji fanatics, downloading apps containing hundreds of them to capture exactly what they want to express but can’t say.
But there’s a drawback to all that convenience. While emoji can express complex ideas, researchers say they can also stifle the development of emotional intelligence, or EI. Teens and tweens need face-to-face interaction — good ole’ talking — to develop skills that are crucial to future success, but emoji can help break down social norms. Apple’s iOS 6 software, for example, included a slew of emoji icons for same-sex partners. Want to show you’re interested? If you’re gay, now you can send a hand-holding or kissing picture, among others — just like your heterosexual counterparts.
How Emoticons Betray Us
When you want a fun way to flesh out short chunks of writing in e-mails or texts, emoticons are effective. Adding a smiley saves you time. It’s quick and easy — one symbol can replace 15 to 20 words of explanation. But they can also be used against us, and a Facebook project hints that convenience has a cost, at least on social media.
Facebook is testing a status box that lets you share with visuals. You see a drop-down menu of activity options, so if you say you’re feeling sad or ecstatic, a corresponding smiley pops up, and if you say you’re reading or watching TV, a book or eyeglasses pop up. That feature, similar to what social rival Path offers, lets you give a visual representation of your day — but it lets advertisers target you more easily.
Emotions are at the heart of advertising and emoticons let them find you faster. Too many sad emoticons, for example, may one day bring up ads for prescription depression medication.
Just as fast as the emoji arrived, the evolution is on the horizon — icons you can personalize. The app “Talking Emoji Friends,” for instance, lets you record funny messages in high-pitched voices, paired with, of course, animated emoticons. Fantastic. Now your friends can send you their own brand of annoying icons. ==|;o)>. ♦