Emoticons: Symbol bashing

Hey! ;-) Do those ubiquitous little faces dotting emails and texts make you want to :-0? Don't worry, you're not alone. Mary Elizabeth Williams explains why emoticons are a modern menace

Since the dawn of humanity, mankind has communicated via symbols. Indeed, it was a turning point for civilisation when the Sumerians carved a GOT BARLEY? icon on a rock. (The Sumerians also invented beer, making them the forefathers of drunken texting.) Letters and punctuation are nothing but code for our thoughts and ideas. Why then do I feel all stabby when I get a message that ends with three short marks: a colon, a hyphen and a parenthesis?

The smiley and all its variants have irked me from the day I first dialled up Usenet nearly 17 years ago. Initially I didn't know what it meant, until a helpful netizen told this newbie to "turn your head sideways".

Then I saw it. Once you've seen the smiley, you can never unsee it – especially when a large number of your correspondents use it with the gusto of a drag queen dispensing snaps at a Project Runway marathon. Smart people, nay, brilliant ones use emoticons. Articulate, bright, funny people. Yet when I see a smiley, my first thought is: "What are you, 12 years old?"

What is it about the emoticon that fills me with such loathing? Maybe it's the wastefulness of the enterprise, the redundancy of it, the implied lack of confidence in the writer's ability to communicate, or mine to comprehend. If you say: "I'm looking forward to seeing you tonight," I think you're looking forward to seeing me. If you say: "I'm looking forward to seeing you tonight. :-)," I think you're not sure I understand the extent of sentiment in that seven-word message. And if you write: "I'm looking forward to seeing you tonight ;-)," I think your assumption of getting laid this evening may have been a bit premature, Winky.

The emoticon evolved out of tech culture. To be fair to the geekier among us (aka My People), folks who spend a lot of time in front of computer screens aren't the most socially adept under the best of circumstances. Now take away visual clues – the human smile, the knowing touch, the gentle, jokey jab to the shoulder that would soften a real world "RTFM, NOOB" – and you can understand what a glorious day it must have been when man realised he could, with three simple keystrokes, put a facial expression on an impersonal medium.

That man was Scott Fahlman. On 19 September 1982 the Carnegie Mellon computer scientist sent out a message with the subject head ":-)." It was intended to clarify communication on a message board at the university, and it read, "I propose the following character sequence for joke markers: :-). Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use :-(." The genie was out of the ASCII bottle.

I spoke to Fahlman a few weeks ago and asked his opinion of what he had wrought.

"It's survived this long for a reason," he told me. "It's handy. We're not all great writers. This is very informal, quick-and-dirty communication. You don't want to explain if it's funny or not. I send a lot of messages where I use sarcasm," he continued. "If I toss one smiley off, it'll save me a couple hundred fights, and it's no big deal."

Yet even the Victor Frankenstein of emoticons has his limits. Reflecting on the newer, preset smileys (or the zillions of alternatives mailer programs helpfully offered), Falhman said, "I think those garish yellow circles are ugly. There's creativity in doing emoticons, in making up your own now and then."

My friend Craig Ward, a typographer whose website is called Words Are Pictures and who shares what he calls my "deep-rooted respect for punctuation", ponders in the reverse direction. "A smiley face graphic is different, conceptually," he says. "I think in that respect the emoticon as a cluster of symbols is on its way out ... So hooray for that."

But though Ward admits, "I've used them before. A lot, if I'm honest," he also says, "I'm using emoticons less. I think they've just been overused."

Whether they're humble punctuation marks or shape-shifting, animated gifs matters not – I loathe them in all their forms. I see a face at the end of a sentence, I start lopping off IQ and attractiveness points for the person who wrote it.

My gripe with emoticons has little to do with my fogeyism. I may be over 40 and need reading glasses to text, but who loves the smiley and its ancillary symbols more than your grandma? Unlike the cryptic acronyms and mystifying gamer terms that baffle us oldsters, the emoticon does not discriminate on the basis of age. But there is something gratingly cute about it, something breezily, notebook doodley in its nature that makes me want to smack the half circle off its stupid face.

Maybe that's because I don't entirely trust it. Of all the crimes perpetuated by the emoticon, surely the most grievous is its role in the passive-aggressive insult. There's at least an honesty to a plain old sarcastic, snotty comment. A group email or Facebook comment to the effect of "Nice dress – I didn't know there was a hooker convention in town. ;-)" or "I guess I'll do all the cooking again like I always do! :-)" is just bullshit. And sarcasm with a wink isn't sarcasm. More than a quarter-century into internet culture, we can safely say the emoticon has not eradicated flaming or general online assholery. It' s just another useful tool.

Even when the emoticon speaks truth, I submit that not every communication requires a clarification regarding how it makes you feel. A statement of action, ie, "I'm heading in to the meeting now," doesn't require a window into your soul. If you're telling me you're stuck in traffic or that you had a lovely dinner last night, assume I can guess the appropriate psychological response that accompanies it – or that I very likely don't give a toss. Furthermore, if you are in fact expressing how you feel, ie, "I am so despondent," the words stand on their own just fine without benefit of a mopey icon.

Sure, not all of us are writers. If a friendly icon greases the path of online relations, where's the harm? After all, we already employ punctuation to more clearly express ideas. What is an exclamation point for if not to convey heightened emotion? What are italics for if not emphasis (or to distinguish a bon mot en Français)? And if I should write, "I'm blushing here," how is that so different from sending an image of a red-cheeked face?

But the emoticon is so damn needy. The smiley is the snare drum rimshot of online communication (which makes the frowny the sad trombone). It clings to your virtual leg, begging for your approval. Love me! it grovels. Understand me! I am trivial and light of heart even when in despair! (The mere existence of an emoticon for "brokenhearted" is enough to, well, break my heart.)

So let me meet your thoughts halfway. Leave a little something to the imagination. You don't have to wow me with your dazzling prose (although dazzling prose is always welcome). And we don't need to draw a picture, I promise. Trust that if something is making you smile, you can tell me about it and I'll understand. Trust that even though you can't see me, my non-yellow, punctuation-free face will be smiling back.

Life & Style
Sampling wine in Turin
food + drink...and abstaining may be worse than drinking too much, says scientist
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Sport
Jose Mourinho restrains his assistant manager Rui Faria, Fabio Borini celebrates his winning penalty and Connor Wickham equalises for Sunderland
sportChelsea 1 Sunderland 2: Deafeat is extra bitter as former Chelsea player Fabio Borini scores late penalty to seal victory
Arts & Entertainment
Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin has been working on the novels since the mid-Nineties
books
VIDEO
News
Easter a dangerous time for dogs
these are the new ones. Old ones are below them... news
News
Brand said he
people
Sport
Roger Federer celebrates his victory over Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo Masters
sport
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Arts & Entertainment
The monster rears its head as it roars into the sky
film
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Apprentice IT Technician

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

    1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

    £153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

    Sales Associate Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

    Apprentice C# .NET Developer

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We provide business administration softw...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit