A Smiley Rant

What is it with software that automagically transforms the ASCII smiley symbol — 🙂 — into an leering yellow circle? MS Word does it by default, as does Opera mail now, and WordPress — and those are just the ones I’ve run across lately. _They are not the same thing_. If I wanted an actual smiley face, I’d have used a freakin’ yellow crayon.

I was there at the dawn of the “:)”. Before Jabber, before AOL IM, before ICQ, before Powwow, before a few other things that I can’t remember right now, there was xtalk on UNIX machines, just a bunch of ascii and a split screen and the ability to chat with people across campus or at other colleges in real time, for free, with text — at the time, it was revolutionary, and wicked cool. Anyway, I took part in all those early debates about whether the use of the smiley was an important tool in a new medium or a blight on the English language, and rolled my eyes when the debate surfaced again and again every couple of years after that. No need to resurrect it now: any linguist worth his salt will tell you that stuff like “:)” doesn’t arise because the unwashed masses feel like debasing the language, but because there’s a gap in communication that needs to be filled. They serve a vital purpose, definitely in chat, often in email (and similarly short, unrevised written communication) as well.

(In line with that point, it just occurred to me that I have never — and would never dream of — using a smiley in an actual blog post, but use them freely in the comments.)

Back in the days of xtalk and similar venues, “:)” came into being because it was the simplest way, with a limited character set, to denote a smile. There was probably some thought given to the association with little smiley faces that junior high girls would put in the notes they pass during class, but they came to serve a much broader role than just reinforcing how cute the guy in the front row in Algebra is. The “:)” and similar emoticons (did that word ever stick?) quickly became symbols in their own right, triggering responses in readers for what they were, not because they vaguely resembled sideways facial expressions.

Meanwhile, the full-on circular yellow smiley face has never died as a symbol all its own, “Alan Moore’s efforts notwithstanding”:http://www.timemachinego.com/linkmachinego/images/watchmen_smiley.jpg. Whereas “:)” indicates “Take what I should said with a grain of salt / not entirely seriously,” the raw smiley indicates ‘Don’t worry — be happy!” or “It’s Perky Time!” As symbols, they have _diverged_. Considerably. And so it makes no sense whatsoever to replace one with the other in electronic communication now, just because we can.

Thankfully, with all the software I mentioned earlier, it’s possible to turn off the autosmilification. It will be a dark day when that option is lost. But if “sites like this”:http://www.windweaver.com/emoticon.htm are any indication, that day may not be far off.