I emoticon you.

I have a friend, let’s call him/her Morgan, who uses emoticons a lot. Almost all the time. Close to every text, every IM, is punctuated by a carefully chosen emotion. At first, I thought it was a tad too much. In my mind, emoticons were the equivalent to shortening a teacher’s name. Entertaining and fun, but a careful line to walk. There were some teachers you lovingly shouted “Hey Mr. Phi-zelps” at, while others teachers required a more formal treatment. Emoticons, I thought, were to be used sparingly and with caution.

They say that you pick up on the speaking habits of those you’re with the most, and so I picked up on the emoticon habits of Morgan. Suddenly, it became challenging to send something without an accompanying emoticon. My initial skepticism of Morgan’s emoticons evolved into a general fascination of how carefully M picked out the emoticon.

We’re not talking your standard faces. Morgan pushed the boundaries. M’s emoticons were more expressive than most people. Did M send the toothy-grinned smiley or the open smiley, both not to be confused with a closed-lipped smiley? M’s use of the crying face was a pointed sign that the situation was so tragic that not even a general frown could suffice. When M was sarcastic, it was the straight-lipped face, when M was ecstatic it wasn’t just a grin, it was the tilted open-mouthed laughing face.

I feel like I risk losing my readership here. Bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this.

I’ve sat in rooms where a lecturer droned on about how we live in a video age. I’ve been told that our brains are so changed by our constant exposure to TV and videos that we are wired to constantly expect changing images. After all, video killed the radio star. I went to Video Camp Austin this past year (a great info session) where we talked about the rise of video, how important video is becoming. I agree, I do, but I don’t feel that we’re living in the video era.

If anything, despite what we’re seeing about the decline of newspapers, magazines, books, etc, I feel like we’re witnessing the renaissance of the written word. I think written content is now more important than ever.

This was even addressed at Video Camp Austin. When talking about posting videos online, it was stressed several times that it was important to provide your viewers with either a transcription of the video or bulleted talking points. Why? Because these days people scan. Good luck getting someone to sit through your entire video.

I think Twitter, blogs, status updates, iPads, RSS readers, etc show us that words are back. In a big way. In all I’ve read about the latest tablets, it’s not the video quality that people seem most concerned with, but instead how readable the text is.

If we’re seeing the rebirth of text (and by all means, contradict me) then this poses a problem for people who struggle with words. Everyone has had that moment where they fear they’re misunderstood, especially in electronic banter. It’s why there have been ridiculous articles like this one on the proposed sarcasm mark.

Are emoticons a stop-gap for when words fail? Are emoticons a sign that we don’t trust ourselves to be understood? I know I use winking faces as a defense mechanism—look, I’m kidding. See, I’m winking at you.

Is it fair to judge people on their use of emoticons? I used to judge people on their use of exclamation points, myself included. A creative director once told me that you’re given three exclamation points a year. They’re overused. No one is really that enthusiastic. We don’t need to constantly exclaim things in order to show that we like something. But when I started working, I found myself suddenly concerned that my clients didn’t know how psyched I was to be working on their campaign. I found myself (!) making sure they knew (!) just how happy I was that we were working together (!) and felt myself die slowly as I pounded out shift+1 after shift+1.

To be honest, I was suddenly full of shift.

But these exclamation points and emoticons show us an interesting point—we’re missing something. Psychologist Albert Mehrabian argued that 93% of our communication is done non-verbally. Social psychologist Michael Argyle concluded that nonverbal channels are 12.5 times more powerful in communicating attitudes and feelings than the verbal channel. Computers have robbed us of face-time. Maybe emoticons aren’t as silly as we think, but a smart way to include mood cues.

My finals thought are these. Emails are getting shorter. We’re cutting out the salutations. Twitter reminds us we get 140 characters and that’s it. You have to say fast. If can’t have the benefit of non-verbals, why not indulge in an emoticon or two. If we’ve refocused on words, it makes sense to consider the spaces in between them as important too.

I would love to know what you 😕

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