Thursday, July 15, 2010

emoticon economics

I have been thinking a lot recently about smiley face inflation. What will happen when it reaches a panicked peak? Will there be long lines before work to buy attention and happiness? Hoarding? The shoe leather cost of new parentheses and semi-colon keys?

Sometimes these days the absence of emoticons has more meaning than their presence. Plain text can have an air of seriousness or impersonality without them, no matter what's being said, or how. With so very much text being flung back and forth--so many words--the stakes continue to be ratcheted up fast. What will happen when we expect smileys in everything but legal documents? (Can you imagine the blizzard of smilies a divorce decree--for example--would require if people's real "feelings" were expressed in them that way?) How much umbrage and misunderstanding? Confusion? Extra extra extra long messages? Will written sarcasm and irony fade out, frustrated at being taken at face value without the soundtrack of smiley faces to point us toward our proper reactions to it?

I once idly asked a friend who uses smiley faces a lot what it "meant" in her case--what she generally intended with them (I don't mean in individual cases, which I tend to overanalyze, but as a general gesture). It turns out I was entirely wrong in how I had guessed them, despite knowing this friend pretty well. Despite knowing this friend in strong part through written communication. I could see it--I could see all the acres of textual communication between us and how the smileys had varyingly colored communication depending on a thousand different things, as a kind of vague congenial buttressing, but that how they were sent was not necessarily how they were received. Which is no different from words--you can't control how they get read--but emoticons are a different kind of communication lubricant. They sort of ease the transmission of words from one person to another, diffuse conflict.

But words aren't easy things. They're words. I was recently reading a stream of my Facebook posts and noted how the smiley faces in them read afterward: they read like nothing. They looked gratuitous. They didn't even particularly impart an air of amiability. They were just filler. They reminded me of bad performances in good movies that don't seem so bad first time around, because you're just trying to understand what's going on--later you realize just how bad they were. Words are still much more powerful creatures than emoticons once any immediacy in communication is over.

But when the immediacy is there and with smiley inflation ever-growing... I don't know! Stock up, I guess.

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