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"Many people have denounced the very idea of the smiley face, pointing out that good writers should have no need to explicitly label their humorous comments. Shakespeare and Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain got along just fine without this. And by labeling the remarks that are not meant to be taken seriously, we spoil the joke. In satirical writing, half the fun is in never being quite sure whether the author is serious or not."
Scott Fahlman (Inventor of the Smiley)

So I guess it's safe to say that the "smiley" icon, or emoticon, has been alive longer than I have. Yes, it is now 25 years old, thanks to Scott Fahlman who invented it at CMU. In his article he raised a few interesting perspectives about the whole idea of the smiley which, in turn, made me take a look at my relationship with it.

In the words of Fahlman, the smiley was invented to ensure that the readers of the message knew that the comment or passage was to be taken lightly, in a joking manner. We've all had these experiences where we come off the wrong way due to the expressionlessness of writing online. So, basically it wasn't invented by some kid messing around. It actually had a purpose. A scientific purpose, if you will.

My relationship with the "smiley" is intimate. At first, I saw it was a crutch, a filler in an e-mail or a text message. However, the more I was exposed to them, the more I felt I could use them for communication. Now, I will find a text message that I send consisting of nothing but a smiley. That's how much I've come to depend on it. Especially in the area of instant messaging (and I know this because I've had many in-depth converstaions on AIM which could have been much easier if I would have made a simple phone call), smiley's are important. Because writing is so impersonal and the listener/reader cannot hear the tone you are saying something with, or the expression on your face, there is therefore no emotion behind a comment. For example;

i've had enough of you

can be taken offensively in a certain context, but if the writer includes a smiley face,

i've had enough of you ;-)

it completely changes the context. Perhaps the person is flirting? In any case, you can see how the addition of an emoticon can change meaning and improve communication.

As for those who say that Shakespeare and Twain didn't need smiley faces to communicate, I feel Fahlman answers those remarks quite sufficiently. And plus, none of us are Shakespeare or Twain... yet anyway.

All in all, I like smilies because they make me happy (or sad depending on the context). They enable us to communicate without using words. Which may or may not be a positive, but I see it as a plus. Personally, my favorite is the winky face ;) because it lets the reader know that you're joking, and not to take anything personally. So I'll end this entry with just that...


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I liked your examples!
But overall, your entry offered some interesting insights for me. I think I too have come to depend on the smiley! I feel like it is something I've grown up with, and I even got a little defensive when I read the Stephenson article against the smiley. I kept thinking, "Who could attack something as simple and innocent as an online smiley!?" And even as I was writing my own blog entries, I found myself referring to "the smiley" as just "smiley," like it was a fuzzy cartoon character or a close friend.

Nice example of the winky face Andrew. (Even if it was a little creepy, haha.) But really, you bring up a good point. In your wxample, without the winky face, I'd think that person was mad or fed up with me; but in the second one, the person is clearly flirting.

Oh, smileys...getting more and more people in trouble by the day.

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This page contains a single entry by Andy published on September 16, 2008 11:26 PM.

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