A few weeks ago I mentioned some of the research I was doing with two groups of students this summer. The first group is working on tattoos and spirituality. The second group is working on emoticon usage.
Emoticons, I'm sure you know, are the ubiquitous little faces we add to electronic communication--emails, texts, Twitter, Facebook, blogs--to add emotional content to our message. The most common emoticon is the smiley face, which comes in two main varieties:
:-)I pefer the one with the nose. I have no idea why. Likely it's a Freudian thing having to do with my mother. Beyond the two main varieties there are some less common variations:
:0) Adding a big nose for a kind of clownish look.You can accentuate the smiling and even laugh by adding a capital D for the closed parentheses:
=) or =-) Using an "equals" sign rather than the colon for the eyes.
:-DAnd so on.
Beyond smiling the most common emotion is the wink, a way to take the edge off a playful or sarcastic electronic communication:
The wink:The creativity here is really remarkable.
And there is so much more. You can stick your tongue out:
Get angry or grim:
Beyond the emoticon we also see the use of initialisms to communicate emotional or physical reactions to electronic communication. The most common being:
lol, LOLAnd, finally, you can add emotion to electronic communication by using capital letters, because REALLY YOU NEED TO KNOW THIS STUFF. This along with a promiscuous use of punctuation. Like:
LOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Where's all this coming from? Well, humans evolved to communicate face to face. Consequently, most of our communication is nonverbal, with meaning judged by attending to tone, volume, eye contact, and body language. These aspects of language are called paralanguage, and they are critical in the communication process.
Now ponder the dawn of electronic communication and the challenges it has placed upon human communication. Think of it from an evolutionary standpoint, how completely unequipped we are to communicate through this medium. Having stripped away the paralanguage electronic communication is very glitchy. Lacking tone and other nonverbal cues we often misinterpret electronic communication. This, combined with the anonymity, is the main reason blog conversations are so difficult and unproductive. We are trying to communicate about volatile material though a medium stripped of paralanguage, the aspect of language most critical to getting us productively through difficult conversations.
Given this situation, it's remarkable how a paralanguage has evolved for electronic communication. It's still glitchy, but it has helped. Consider the two sentences:
Joe, you're a jerk.Odds are, you interpret the second sentence as being a stab at humor. Or, at the very least, good natured ribbing between friends.
Joe, you're a jerk. :-)
And this is one of the interesting things that the students and I discovered in getting into the emoticon literature. The power of paralanguage is that it can override the literal meaning of our words. When I use sarcasm--deploying that paralinguistic tone we all know and love--I mean the exact opposite of what I'm saying. Interestingly, the same goes for emoticon use. Having evolved to clarify electronic communication emoticons can now be used to create ambiguity in meaning which can then be exploited to say hurtful things.
For example, imagine this sentence:
Joe, you're a jerk. ;-)What's that wink about? Do I mean what I'm saying? Or not? Likely I mean it, but if I add the wink I can say what I want ("Joe, you are a jerk.") while hiding behind the emoticon (wink, wink). It's the Internet equivalent of saying something harsh and sarcastic and then appending "I'm only joking." Because, really, you're not joking. The "I'm joking" is just a way to insert enough paralinguistic ambiguity into the conversation so that you can hide if you need to.
The point of all this is that, as silly as it sounds, there is an ethical issue involved in emoticon use. Emoticons can be, albeit small, forms of violence. Tiny daggers that can add a bit of sting to our electronic communication or, more properly, allow us to sting others while granting us plausible deniability. Come out and shoot and then run for cover behind the ;-).
Have great day on email, texts, and the Internet! Be kind out there.
(That's a kiss.)
(And if I add a halo it's, what, a holy kiss?)