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Screen Shot 2013-10-17 at 6.40.29 PMSo. Where do you come down on emoticons?

They’re everywhere, these tiny typed expressions, and locally, reviews are mixed:

“I rely so much on emoticons to convey my emotion,” wrote Lauren Hall-Stigerts.

“Shakespeare didn’t need emoticons! We can suck it up too!” wrote Vanessa Fox.

“I learned to write in the 20th century B.E. (before emoticons)” quipped Mark Finch.

I’ve used emoticons for a while, but I’ve only just noticed the extent of my usage. Emoticons are 31 years old — the digital variety, at least — but it wasn’t until Saturday, when I posted what turned out to be my sixth emoticonned tweet that day, that it finally occurred to me that they might be taking over my briefest communications.

Are emoticons as harmless as a smile, or do we have a growing, grinning, emoticon problem?

Whether you love or hate the little chat charms depends on what you expect from written language and what allowances you grant to our sped-up, fast-talking digital lives.

Every January, Shemaiah Gonzalez tries to quit the emoticon habit. By February, she’s back at it.

“I’m nearly 40 years old, I shouldn’t need to add a smiley face so you understand my intent,” she wrote. “I feel peer pressure. I’d really rather never use them again.”

When sorting out where a tech trend is going, it’s always good to go back to the start.

The typed emoticon could be as old as Lincoln, if you believe this crazy story, but the digital emoticon traces its origin to a computer science online bulletin board message that Carnegie Mellon’s Scott E. Fahlman sent at 11:44 a.m. on Sept. 19, 1982:

Screen Shot 2013-10-17 at 12.19.15 PM

Critics say communication is suffering with the emoticon. But communication on this particular bulletin board, or “bboard,” was suffering without it.

emoticonAs Fuhlman explained years later: “The problem was that if someone made a sarcastic remark, a few readers would fail to get the joke, and each of them would post a lengthy diatribe in response. That would stir up more people with more responses, and soon the original thread of the discussion was buried.”

The value of emoticons makes a lot of sense when you consider what’s missing from written communication. In a word you’ve probably never heard before, “prosody.” That’s a term for the rhythm, stress and tone of speech.

Writing got along fine without prosody-signifying emoticons for centuries. There’s no arguing that. But writing in the last 30 years is nothing like writing in the last 3,000. It happens more often, in briefer bursts, among any number of people and often as a substitute for what used to be conveyed in person or in speech.

It stands to reason, then, that the higher the frequency, volume and breadth of written communication, the more likely some of those messages are going to be misunderstood.

And who has time these days to be misunderstood? If a smile or a wink can clarify your tone, why not let it?

A lot of things can explain why emoticons seem to serve a purpose. The biggest might be message length.

Message length accounts quite nicely for why I sometimes feel a little weirder about using emoticons in an email than I do in a tweet. Brevity on Twitter is a requirement. Brevity in an email is a choice. I’m a writer; I know you can communicate anything in words. But even the most hard-core linguist must agree: It gets harder the less room you give yourself to do it.

If I add a smiley to a tweet, I’m squeezing in content. If I add one to an email, I’m letting an doodle substitute the nuance of my own voice.

That’s where the critics have a point.

Emoticons have another limit. As Kimberly A.C. Wilson put it, they are best used to express joy. That doesn’t sound much like a limit until you consider the relative effectiveness of :( vs. :). A smile is a smile is a smile. But add a sad face to something seriously negative and it can come off insensitive, incomplete, or, in Wilson’s words, “deeply lame.”

One possible conclusion: Emoticons, by their nature, can only reflect a lightness of mood.

And if the convenience of emoticons results even a little bit in a lightening of the mood of all our communication? That’s more bad news for nuance, and a consequence I doubt we intend.

Emoticons are hardly the first figure of digital speech to seem overused. Getting more attention these days is the hot, hot hashtag, a native of social media that appeared no fewer than nine times in the body of an email I received last week.

Nor are emoticons the first to be — like the messages that might need them — misunderstood. People left criticism after criticism on a Facebook thread on this topic, then designer Nadja Haldimann raised a point they’d missed: Emoticons are great, she said, because they speak across language barriers. It’s thanks to emoticons that her global community of visual artists on Instagram, she told me, are able to communicate at all.

Are emoticons a limitation or an opportunity? Are they a problem or a solution?

To all this I say:


Image by Miguel Pires da Rosa, via Flickr.

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