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Smiley's People

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

The online world has its own clichés and truisms, none so haggard as the belief that reliable written communication is impossible without frequent use ofemoticons, better known as the "smileys." Emoticons are nothing more than characters that look like a face when viewed sideways. The original smiley is :-), but there are innumerable variations, such as :-0 ;-) :-(8-) :-{) :-()>, and each can signify anything from facial hair to a particular emotional state.Emoticons are the electronic equivalent of spin doctors: commonly inserted at the end of a sentence that is meant to be interpreted as sarcasm, or, in general, whenever the writer fears his or her prose may be about to jump the iron rails of literalism.

With the eerie uniformity of airport cultists, emoticon users all proffer the same rationale for the smiley tic: since the streams of ASCII characters flowing across the Internet (usually described as "cold," "mechanistic," etc.) cannot carry body language or tone, the missing cues must be supplied through punctuation. The tendency of writers to bungle their attempts at sarcasm, and of readers to bungle the detection of it, invariably leads (so the argument goes) to hurt feelings, which in turn leads to network "flame wars" in which people insult each other in extravagant terms that would never be used face-to-face, irony, it seems, is like nitroglycerin: too tricky to be good for much, and so best left in the hands of fanatics or trained professionals.

Never addressed by such people is the question of how humans have managed to communicate with the written word for thousands of years without strewing crudely fashioned ideograms across their parchments. It is as if the written word were a cutting-edge technology without useful precedents. Some hackers actually go so far as to maintain, with a straight face (:-I), that words on a computer screen are different from words on paper--implying that writers of e-mail have nothing useful to learn from Dickens or Hemingway, and that time spent reading old books might be better spent coming up with new emoticons.

Other smiley partisans maintain that, since many messages are tossed off extemporaneously, the medium has more in common with talking than writing, hence the need for emoticons. This neatly sidesteps the awkward fact that what these people are engaged in is, in fact, nothing other than plain old writing and reading, and that, as always, they may have to invest some time and effort in the act if they don't want to mess it tip.

Scott Fahlman, who is credited with inventing smileys, has been quoted by The Boston Globe as saying that "I had no idea that I was starting something that would soon pollute all the world's communication channels." The Globe does not record, however, whether he terminated this statement with a smiley. Jeremy Bornstein, a research scientist at Apple Computer's Advanced Technology Group, thinks that a silent minority of people on USENET (the distributed news system on the Internet) belong to the anti-smiley camp, but that "experienced users realize that it's futile to rail against popular custom." Thus, members of the anti-smiley underground constitute something of a secret subculture; they can find each other only through lengthy exchanges of smiley-free messages, growing more certain with each unadorned sentence that they have found a fellow traveler.

The irony is, Net culture was unusually literate. The pioneers of the Net were hackers, people who routinely spend twelve to sixteen hours a day editing text, and whose favorite leisure-time activity is inhaling fantasy and science fiction novels by the pallet load. These people are no strangers to words. Much has recently been made of the nascent revival of epistolary society that is supposedly growing up online. Such optimism is not entirely ill-founded, but innovations such as the smiley suggest that media-age writers may have a ways to go before they can compete with the average Civil War infantryman or Victorian diarist. The very ambiguity that, properly used, gives words much of their expressive power is viewed by many Net denizens as a glaring but ineradicable flaw in an otherwise promising system. Thus, in hacker argot, the emoticon is a "kludge," a hasty and inelegant patch on a problem that's too difficult to solve just now.

Nearly all academic computers are on the Internet, so access is open to anyone having an account on such a machine, which is to say, any student who bothers. The Internet is, therefore, still very much a college town and shares much the same ambience as Cambridge, Iowa City or Berkeley: a dysfunctional blend of liquored-up freshmen and polymorphously perverse deconstructionists. The politically correct atmosphere may help to explain the generally frosty stance toward humor exhibited on USENET, where people either use it badly--at the level of toilet stall graffiti---or categorically reject it; USENET is the kind of place where people can seriously (without smileys) discuss the proposition that humor is an intrinsically aggressive, nonconsensual act.

In such an atmosphere, the very ability of the smiley to destroy a joke must be comforting. The addition of a smiley can somehow turn even the sharpest bon mot into a clanking jape straight out of Reader's Digest it is the written equivalent of the Vegas rimshot.

Some hope is to be found beyond USENET, in relatively literate conferences such as the WELL, where it costs money (albeit not much) to get in; the entry fee cuts down on the number of feckless grad students wanting to air their sexual peculiarities and leads to an atmosphere that is at once more diverse and more serious. On the WELL, I have actually seen smileys used in a way that made me laugh out loud, usually in an ironic sense that would confuse or irritate any dyed-in-the-wool smiley-slinger.

It would be comforting to think that the smiley will be eradicated from online culture, just as the genuine smiley face has, for the most part, been vacuumed from popular culture. I am not optimistic, though. Most people, I suspect, go on the Net because it's the only ticket to cyberspace. As today's ASCII-based hardware is replaced with broadband switched networks and telecomputers, many users may desert what they see as the limited capabilities of prose for the supposedly more expressive medium of video. If so, they may be in for a shock. As many a political candidate has discovered the hard way, the ability to emote on-camera is for most people no more natural than writing smiley-free prose.