I’m a man whose communication style leans heavily on metaphor, irreverent observation, and a trippingly jaunty sardonic panache. It’s a technique best suited for face-to-face interactions, where my body language and facial expressions help unlock my carefully coded words. Without benefit of these visual cues, phone chats can sometimes be a bit dicey, but at least I have the element of ‘inflection’ on my side. That, and that fact that phone conversations are exactly that — conversations. Meaning any disconnects can be swiftly identified and rectified.
The potential for misunderstanding increased substantially in the early 1990’s with the arrival of an entirely new form of communication: email. Unlike traditional conversations, email interactions did not occur in realtime. One would type a statement, then wait about 15 minutes for their USRobotics 9600 baud modem to grind out a connection and transmit the message to its intended recipient — a recipient who, more likely than not, wouldn’t be online until sometime later in the week. In 1992, it could take a month just to make dinner plans.
It was beneath the dimly lit dawn of this nascent new technology that I first realized my communication M.O. was indubitably problematic. The written word did not communicate body language. It knew nothing of inflection and was, by design, a medium made for monologues. Sardonicism and metaphor are perfectly detectable in long-form writings, but email was designed for pithiness. And pithiness demands the sort of ordinary unambiguity that bores me silly.
So in 1993, I typed my first emoticon: the “winky face.”
It looked ridiculous to me — as if a violent sneeze had triggered an involuntary finger twitch in the middle of my typing. But its meaning was almost instantly understood by the recipient. It was visual intonation; textual body language. Without this funky bit of punctuation, my wryness was constantly mistaken for wrongness. And so the winky face became one of the most powerful weapons in my punctuation arsenal — exceeded only by my obsessive love for the em dash.
Curiously, I’m not really big on actual winking. I estimate I’ve winked a total of 20 times in my life. Tops. So what I really wished for was an emoticon that more closely approximated the physical expression I made when letting loose with some obscure utterance: a sort of cockeyed smirk. But, try as I might, typing :-/ only served to further confuse anyone reading my emails. So the winky face remained.
Over time, I grew to detest the winky face. I began to hate myself every time I typed it. It looked unprofessional; undignified; juvenile. But every time I decided to eradicate it from my emails, the old misunderstandings returned. I tried to eliminate all need for the winky face by crafting lengthier emails that built enough infrastructure and foundation to convey the mail’s intended mood and spirit. But humans were too busy and their attention span too limited for this to succeed. I even tried dabbling in the art of forthright, metaphor-free communications — but that was just anathema to my soul, which culminated in more self-loathing than if I had simply employed the winky face.
Email proved to be just the tip of a cultural iceberg, and the 21st century has given us all manner of new communication refinements. Emails grew even pithier, begetting Twitter. Emoticons grew cuter and far more numerous, begetting emojis.
Oh, great — thought farts and pictograms. It’s almost as if we’ve turned our back on everything that’s happened to written communication in the 4,000 years since the birth of the abjad. We’re cavemen again. We’re just guys named Ogg tagging a wall with some quasi-representational facsimile of a buffalo so Mrs. Ogg can see what we ate for lunch.
But maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe we’re not regressing. Maybe we’re just correcting a misstep in the evolution of human communications. Maybe pictographs were the right direction all along. After all, plenty of written languages have their foundation in symbols, rather than syllabaries or segmental scripts.
But even symbol-based languages have, over time, seen their pictograms simplified, stylized and bastardized until they’re no longer recognizable to anyone who hasn’t received academic training in their interpretation. We’ve reached a point at which there are now nearly 4,000 different written languages in the world. How many can the average human learn in a lifetime? How does this promote communication?
But emojis? They’re universal. A barfing guy in Russia is a barfing guy in China, who’s still a barfing guy in America. Barfing is universal. But the written word for barfing is not.
Every time I type a winky face at the end of a sentence, I feel as if the written word has failed me — that it wasn’t designed for folks who, like me, prefer to communicate in riddles. Perhaps this is why I got involved with photography — it speaks to my need to communicate in metaphor, but it does so pictorially. Photography is language — but it has nothing to do with the written word. For all intents and purposes, a photograph is nothing more than an elaborate and complex emoji. And that’s the way I use it. To communicate in the cryptically enigmatic manner that I have long favored.
So I’ve come to the conclusion that emojis are a good thing… if it weren’t for that fact that we’re already killing them.
Once again, we humans can’t help but mess up something good. We’ve set emojis on the same trajectory that doomed all those other pictographic languages — we’ve allowed different entities to stylize them and obfuscate their meaning. For example, look at this link to the various “smirking face” emojis.
What do you see? You see an emoji interpreted so freely that its intended meaning is no longer clear. So while the Apple, LG and HTC representations look exactly like a smirk, Google and Microsoft have stylized theirs to the point of resembling an emoji for “remembers a pleasant thought.” And Samsung’s interpretation clearly indicates “contentment” to my eyes. Smirkiness? I don’t see it.
So here we are — another promising technological advancement in universal communication turned into just another tool with the power to confuse. We’re now 25 years into the smiley>emoticon>emoji arc and I still can’t drop a simple smirk into an email, because someone reading it on a Samsung device will surely misread its intention.
Frankly, it’s enough to make me want to just quit writing altogether.
©2017 grEGORy simpson
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