Trapped in Emoticon Hell

Posted on April 12, 2007

Leigh Buchanan of Inc. magazine feels trapped in emoticon hell -- and she wants out, right now. She argues that emoticons -- smiley faces, frowny faces and the like -- have no place whatsoever in adult discourse.

Still, emoticons bug the hell out of me. I hate the way they reduce the gloriously complex geography of human faces to a few crude lines and dots. I also resent their imputations of insensitivity. "I assume you lack the emotional intelligence to infer my attitude from mere words," the little buggers seem to say, "so I will help you with a device comprehensible to two-year-olds." Finally, I shudder whenever I see them -- as I increasingly do -- used in business correspondence. What does it say about a company when employees pepper their e-mail with the sort of juvenile glyphs common in MySpace chats? "This is to inform you that we have not yet received the order expected last week. >:-O" "To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Fenderbender played no role in the backdating of options. 0:-)" If this nonsense is going on in your business, you should stamp it out pronto.
Her solution to the plague of emoticons is for writers to stop using them, and instead describe in words what the emoticon would normally convey. So, instead of putting a smiley face after a sentence, instead you would write:
Picture if you will a colon: one tiny, perfect dot poised above its brother. Now imagine that colon transformed into a pair of eyes, bright and sparkling with mischief. From between those dots extends a hyphen. Yet screw up your eyes and-do you see it? A nose! Yes, a nose! Patrician in its straightness it dips toward the generous curve of a closing parenthesis. That parenthesis is a mouth, corners up-tilted in mirth. Viewed in sum, these marks compose a face whose expression of gentle amusement suggests the good humor intended in the previous remark.
She then invites writers to come up with their own lengthy descriptions of various emoticons in order to draw attention to the ridiculousness of their use.

We fear that Leigh is fighting a losing battle. Consider the exploding popularity of Twitter, in which you have a maximum of 140 characters to say what is on your mind. There is no room for a lengthy description of anything, so you have to make every word and symbol count. Which leads us to wonder: will we eventually lose the power of description, if we use Twitter long enough?