Sunday, 05 July 2009

"So you'll know I'm joking."

Cameron did something strange with his hands, thumbs touching at the tips, fingers curled above.

“What's that?” Prudie asked him.

“A smiley face. Emoticon. So you'll know I'm joking.”

From The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

I made my first foray into Web 2.0 some years ago when, at the suggestion of my schoolfellows, I created a MySpace account. At that point, netiquette seemed quite simple. Don't spam. Don't flame. Don't type everything in capitals. Don't forward emails containing viruses.

Today, the rules seem much more complicated. A pair of asterisks bolds a piece of text. Alternatively, the asterisks could indicate that the enclosed text is an action, much like the italicised sections of a script. Weirdly, though, you don't use asterisks for italics. For that, you use a pair of backslashes.

Then there are TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms): the norm on some sites, but unacceptable on others. Usually the forbidding of excessive TLAs goes hand in hand with the forbidding of excessive emoticons. I understand that the TLAs get confusing, but it's stranger that emoticons are banned. After all, most netiquette guidelines recommend using emoticons to indicate what body language and tone of voice would usually communicate. Simple text, apparently does not have the scope to communicate those things.

That's why an author like Terry Pratchett can't write beautifully ironic prose without smileys. It's why Jane Austen scattered '<3's throughout her novels; otherwise, naturally, we wouldn't know that there was romance involved. It's why people have never written letters without funny combinations of numbers and punctuation marks. You probably wouldn't be able to tell that I don't mean this paragraph seriously, except for this: :P

I think emoticons are great in some contexts: chat threads, IM, some emails, amongst other things. It doesn't seem right though, that we use emoticons for everything. There's quite a bit of meaning to be mined out of words themselves. I know that if I let myself use emoticons everywhere, I get lazy about choosing words that mean exactly what I want them to. When I become lazy in what I write, I become lazy in what I say. I can see that I might end up like Cameron in Fowler's novel, but I hope that I won't. Emoticons, in my opinion, remain inferior to all the things they can replace.


  1. I like emoticons, but since I don't use them that much, it always takes me so long to type them in that I lose the whole point of whatever I was going to say that needed the emoticon to begin with. (here I would insert a frown if I knew how).

  2. Really? This is a frown :(
    I guess it depends on which sites you visit most. I 'read' emoticons so frequently that they're second nature to me. I don't think anyone knows them all, though. The anime ones in particular get very long and complicated.

    Thanks for commenting!