smile

Have you been at the receiving end of an email or an instant message with smileys, winks and LOLs from your friends, teenage sons or daughters, or even from business people who, ironically, pride themselves on their gravitas? You are not alone. Millions of internet users around the globe have caught the fever-from budding teenagers to the most dour of business people. It is no longer reserved for the tweens on AOL Instant Messenger finding out after-school soccer practice is canceled.

Emoticons have been putting feelings to plain texts of the internet since the 1980s. The word is a portmanteau of the words emotion and icon and its first ever documented use was in September 19,1982, when Scott Fahlman proposed the use of ๐Ÿ™‚ and ๐Ÿ™ . Fahlman thought that the characters sequence would help people on a message board at Camegie Mellon University to distinguish serious posts form jokes. The symbols caughtย on. The following is the transcript of Fahlman’s email:

19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E. Fahlman ย  ย  ย  ย  ๐Ÿ™‚

From: Scott E. Fahlman

I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:

๐Ÿ™‚

Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to markย 

things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use

๐Ÿ™

The emoticon has evolved from just a series of punctuations to actually helping avoid serious miscommunications. You could convey that a simple plain text is actually a tongue-in-cheek by simply putting ๐Ÿ˜‰ . You can console a recently fired co-worker via email with ๐Ÿ™ or express disbelief with news sent via text with o_O .

However, emoticons can likewise produce another layer of confusion for some, especially across different platforms of the now-popular smart phones. One user comments “I sent a fairly new acquaintance a ‘big hug’ emoticon from my Blackberry-which, fort the record, was ironic. But anyway, on his iPhone it came up with the symbols, not the smiley face, which doesn’t look anything like a big hug. From his perspective they look like a view or, er, splayed lady parts:ย ({}) . He then ran around his lab showing colleagues excitedly what I had just sent him. Half (mostly men) concurred with his interpretation, and the others (mostly women) didn’t and probably thought he was kind of a desperate perv”.

These little misinterpretations aside and applied appropriately, emoticons can literally convey the feelings of one person to another across a medium that is too many times difficult to read tone.

“In a perfect world, we would have time to compose e-mails that made it clear through our language that we are being cheerful and friendly, but we’re doing these things hundreds of times a day under pressure”, said Will Schwalbe, an auther of “Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home” (Knopf, 2007), written with David Shipley, the deputy editorial page editor at The New York Times.

Perhaps it is not a surprise that writers and professors of writing were the least to accept emoticons as part of the digital communication. “I am deeply offended by them”, said Maria McErlane, a British journalist, actress and radio personality on BBC Radio 2. “If anybody on Facebook sends me a message with a little smiley-frowny face or a little sunshine with glasses on them, I will de-friend them. I also de-friend for OMG and LOL. They get no second chance. I find it lazy. Are your words not enough? To use a little picture with sunglasses on it to let you know how you’re feeling is beyond ridiculous”. Some even go beyond by saying that they are part of the degradation of writing skills-grammar, syntax, sentence-structure and even penmanship.

But such gestures of defiance seem to barely register, given the generally increasing embrace of emoticons. Whether or not you join the cult following, one thing is certain: emotions are here to stay.