[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.