The Problem With Emoticons

Actual Conversation

[Ed. note: That’s right bromigos, brosefs, and brobeans, my photo for this is a screenshot. Get over it. I’ve been asked many times why I don’t like emoticons, but I’ve never actually tried to write it down and make sense of it. Here’s a stab at it. Enjoy.]

The first important thing to note is that there was no specific moment where my brain went “FUCK EMOTICONS!” and drastically changed my life forever. It’s been a conversion over time; one that may only make sense to me even after a thousand words describe it. There was no frowny-faced breakup, no winky-eyed sexual tryst, and certainly no specific creepy smiley-faced moment that took me over the edge. For a while, I used emoticons. Then I didn’t. And that was that.

I began publicly railing against them a little over a year ago when I was becoming more heavily involved in social media from a brand perspective. It bothered me that a company would wink after it made a cheeky comment. As much as Citizens United may disagree, corporations are not people, and therefore should not wink at me. Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand the importance of building a brand identity and a brand voice (in fact, I do it daily over here), but the insertion of emoticons seemed like a line was being crossed.

From there it became more philosophical. As all philosophizing works, I will now break it down in a manner that all but assures me a MacArthur genius grant or a trip to the looney bin (there’s really no middle ground with these sorts of things). Put on your waders folks, because this is about to get deep.

Emoticons codify our emotions, like an alphabet does letters and a dictionary does words. These are the emotions we recognize and find true. These are the emoticons you can use to transmit them virtually. That used to be okay, back when virtual space and reality were walled from each other. But this is no longer the case, and blurred lines have changed the game.  Our lives are a streaming series of interactions based in both the virtual and real. We make friends, take photos, listen to music, and it’s all accessible in our life stream (sounds like Timeline, amirite?). I no longer end conversations with my closest friends. We don’t say goodbye because in a given day our conversation will move from twitter to Facebook to texting to seeing each other in real life. That blurred line means that those definitions of virtual and real no longer hold true. I’m sure you’ve heard of apps that use augmented reality – but really, aren’t our entire lives an augmented reality now? I reference a YouTube video at lunch and then immediately pull it up on my iPhone. Isn’t that projecting the virtual in a real space?

[Ed. note: Wow. Sorry. I think we might’ve lost a few good men back there. It got hairy quick, didn’t it? One second it’s “FUCK EMOTICONS!” this and the next it’s augmented reality that – let’s all take a deep breath before we head back in…]

So our lives today are augmented by virtual things wherever we go. We, as a society, have, for the most part, accepted that, embraced it and nourished it. But that doesn’t mean we have to cheapen the real by always infecting it with the virtual.

Most people say they use emoticons because they’re afraid that someone won’t understand their tone. That seems perfectly reasonable on its face, but it’s really more like a band-aid for a decapitation. The problem isn’t that people don’t understand our tone – it’s that they don’t know us. They know the avatars, the Foursquare check-ins and the usernames, but sometimes they don’t really know us. And that’s the problem. Or at least one of them.

Another problem is that a lot of people still don’t truly treat the internet and real life the same, which means they project who they think they are or want to be into these virtual spaces. That causes an identity crisis of epic proportions that works to worsen our real friendships and forcibly forge others based on lies, half-truths and “will saying it like this get me laid?” moments. This distrust in identity plays right into the problems with tone, adding yet another layer of potential confusion to statuses, tweets and comment forums.

Now if you know me, you know that I’m a champion of the internet. I play with every new social tool I can get my hands on because I firmly believe that an augmented reality is a good thing. I’ve met some of my best friends through sites like Twitter and have been able to continue friendships because of sites like Facebook. They are legitimately adding to the greater good of society. I may believe those things, but I don’t think a semi-colon is a wink. I think it’s a cop-out that says that we don’t really know who we’re talking to anymore.

When photography began to first emerge, many cultures were wary of its power. Some believed that creating an image of a human would take part of their soul with it. The root of the belief was usually based on the spirituality of our reflection, the idea that what we see in the mirror isn’t really us, but our soul.

Society is currently standing at an awesome mirror (emphasis on the awe). On the other side, a virtual realm so powerful that it has proven to move mountains and dethrone dictators. The augmented reality we create will be one that no one could have ever imagined, but that also means that no one has ever successfully determined the consequences. Do we lose a piece of ourselves when we use a frown to tell a friend on Facebook we’ve had a bad day? No, but we certainly begin to lose the complexities of life that the virtual world can’t even begin to comprehend. Emotions are humanity at its rawest point and there isn’t a computer that anyone can ever create that will understand that power like we do.

My semi-colons are going to stay semi-colons. My parentheses will always include an open and close. The lines are blurred enough without my help, and I want to hold on to as much of humanity as I can. (Insert pessimistic quasi-frown tempered with shrugged shoulders emoticon here.)

Written by Rob Engelsman.

Permanent link to this article: http://thetenthree.com/2012/01/22/the-problem-with-emoticons/


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  1. Ben Ratner


  2. Anonymous

    Nice piece you’ve written, Rob.  I understand your feelings about emoticons (even if you didn’t use them to relay said feelings in the piece).  I cannot bear to read LOL in a post either.  It’s like nails on a chalkboard to me.  I find emoticons to be insincere little signs to say what we want, but then make it nice (even if it wasn’t really) with a smile at the end.  

    I would argue though, that emoticons are really just the evolution of punctuation.  Would you ask this question without a question mark at the end?  It loses its intent without it.  It changes from inquiry to rhetorical.  Would you be able to aptly relay your frustration in “FUCK EMOTICONS!”  without the exclamation point?  Sometimes, it feels as if using an emoticon can clarify our intent…and that this is just a modern interpretation of what those punctuation marks are for.  So now, it’s not an emoticon, but rather a semi-colon, then a hyphen, and a right parentheses means “I’m being nice” like a question mark means “I’m asking you a question.”

    I must say, there were so many snarky things (McGee style humor) I wanted to write here with emoticons all over them that it made me realize what a huge part they play in communication these days!  But, knowing your feelings about them, I used restraint.  And so now, you’re just going to have to imagine me smiling after reading your blog.  
    Thanks for the interesting perspective.

  3. Dani

    I really enjoyed reading this piece. I also have mixed feelings about emoticons, and yet I continue to use them in everyday textual communication basically for one reason: they help to clarify that something was said sarcastically. Sarcasm is often difficult to express even in verbal exchanges and in text form it can become even more elusive. As a result, emoticons are often key, especially, as you said, when we don’t really know each other, as has become the case more and more often with things like message boards or blogs.

  4. Rob

    I totally understand the difficulties with conveying sarcasm, but I’m also concerned that we’re getting a little lazy when it comes to figuring out context for ourselves. I tweet sarcastically often, and if you were to simply look at my feed it’d be easy to determine that the sarcasm is there. As we read less and less, I guess I’m worried we’re losing out on those complexities as I mentioned in my piece.

  5. Anonymous

    Thanks for the awesome comment! I see what you’re saying about emoticons as punctuation and I guess my only rebuttal based on my arguments in the piece is that punctuation is actual grammar, whereas emoticons are not. Emoticons can clarify intent, but isn’t it partially out of laziness to clarify the intent with actual words and context?

  6. Anonymous

    Who defines grammar?  Even the MLA changes every other year.  They are grammar if they are designated as such.  You might be surprised to see emoticons listed there one day!  I guess what I’m trying to say is that as quickly as your generation, and every other generation before you, change the way we communicate with one another, these things will come and go.  I understand your concerns about how we connect and that these things are place holders for actually knowing one another and learning the ways we speak through relationship. It’s nice to know that this is important to you.  However, considering that we are now globally connected in ways we have never been before, having relationships with hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of people (with blogs, videos, etc…), how can we possibly know every one of them and relay to them our true spirit, our normal way of speaking….I’m still trying to train my own mother to know when I’m being snarky and when I’m being sincere.  Give me a punctuation mark that can fix that and I’ll show you a miracle worker. 

    And since we sort of know one another, I’ll let you figure out if I was being snarky or not sans the emoticons!

  7. Kristina King


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