The death of the Emoticon

2206_mourning_over_dead_friend1A few weeks ago, I noticed an interesting comment from someone I follow on YouTube, which went something like this.

“This is really great news, which I feel calls for a pretty major deviation from my normal internet posting rules. I know you guys hate them, and you know that I hate them, but just this once, in honor of the occasion, I’m going to type a smiley. :-D”

In the replies to the original poster, I saw a number of people surprised (or mock surprised) at the inclusion of the smiley, and it got me thinking about emoticons in general; has there actually been a drop off in their use?

After almost a week of paying desultory attention to painstaking research on the subject, I’ve decided the answer is a qualified yes. Yes, within the group of people whose electronic communication I regularly read, there has been a marked drop off in the use of emotion-indicating text markers. They aren’t completely gone, but there are definitely fewer showing up than there used to be.

Any thoughts on why that might be?

My personal theory is that emoticons emerged (re-emerged, actually, since they were in use in other non-electronic eras) when communication over the (nascent) internet was starting it’s first major uptick, and more and more people were trying to make use of the written word, sans any other medium, to make a point or (harder still) have a conversation and/or debate. The reason given at the time was that communication solely via text was ripe for miscommunication – that text robbed the speaker of tone and inflection critical to conveying the nuances of an ironic or satirical statement. In short, they were saying they needed a smiley face so that people knew they were joking. (Conversely, readers said they needed the smiley to identify such things.)

Are people less sarcastic/ironic/satirical today? Seems unlikely. Sure, most of us use a smiley here and there, but – at least for me – it’s often to take the sting out of a particular harsh statement; less “this is a joke” than “remember we’re all friends here.” My opinion is that we (the global internet-using culture) have so immersed ourselves in text-based communication since those early digital days that we’ve collectively relearned how to clearly communicate nuance in the medium, as well as how to detect it.

We’ve become better readers. And writers.

Now if we could just get people to stop typing “LOL” as though it’s an actual word.