First of all, let me say that I’m genuinely sorry about not posting for so long. I guess I was struggling to come up with something to write about, seeing as I didn’t simply want to write ”oh, and this was my day” or something too repetitive. Also, I’ve just started writing my masters thesis in social anthropology, and since I’m going to write it in English, I figured that until it’s done; that I’ll try to write as much as I possibly can in English. So, you’ll have to bear with me.
I spend a lot of my time on different social media platforms, when I’m not posting myself, I’m definitely spending time reading different things. It’s quite interesting. But writing has changed, to some extent. And I find it interesting. The kind of change I wanted to write about here, is about the use of emoticons, you know the smiley faces and what have you.
Of course, depending on your OS and what software you’re using, the emoticons may vary. But you get the point. They can help convey certain emotions, and that’s what they’re there for.
Emoticons aren’t new though. I remember first using them along with MSN Messenger, years back. But they weren’t that integrated back then. Nowadays, you find them attached to chat programs such as Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger and Skype, to mention a few. Not to mention their uses in apps such as Instagram and Snapchat. And no, of course not everyone uses them, but a lot of people do. So do they matter? Are they important? Are they good to use? Do they make people’s writing better or worse?
These are some of the questions that I’ve been asking myself lately. And I guess I can see the good and the bad about them, at least when it comes to my own writing.
To be honest I sometimes feel really silly, or even embarrassed if I find myself overusing ”:)” or any of the yellow emoticons in chat conversations. I’ve just gotten so used to them, so yes, they have–to some extent–changed my writing. I feel like I should be able to just use my words and expressions, to convey what I mean, rather than relying on the emoticons. But I do know when to draw the line though, while I might use them–almost like a crutch–in conversations online; I don’t use them here or when I write more ”official” texts. Here’s what I can say, I don’t like the use of emoticons in texts like blogs, or essays. The use of them in a serious text would make it hard for me to take the text seriously.
But that’s not to say that I would write off the use of emoticons completely. Last spring, I conducted a small fieldwork project (a week long) for my ”Digital Anthropology” class online. It was on the social media site Facebook, and being inspired by anthropologist Tom Boellstorff, I wanted my research to be carried out solely online. Boellstorff’s argument for not connecting the online research with the offline (by for example conducting in real life interviews with the people you’ve interacted and observed online), is that virtual worlds are places and therefore constitute sites for cultural production. By not privileging the ontological status of offline reality, he doesn’t refer to the offline world as ”real” but rather ”actual”. Because, as Boellstorff points out, the participants online see virtual worlds just as real, just as meaningful as the actual world. So I set out to look at ”Facebook Sociality” in a specific Facebook group. I wanted to look at what it meant to ”be social online,” in this Facebook group. So I studied the group, how did people talk? How did the conversations take shape over time? What where the threads about? And when I conducted interviews with my interlocutors a lot of them, it turned out, used emoticons in our Facebook Messenger conversations.
These were some of the frequent emoticons used in those conversations, if you are on Facebook, you probably recognize them. And if you’ve had an online conversation before, over email or a social media platform, you might relate to the fact that it can sometimes be hard to gauge a person’s tone of voice or intention with a message. If you for example write about something sensitive like:
My cat just died. I’m in tears.
And the response is:
Does that convey much? Maybe it’s just because I’ve become so accustomed to the whole use of emoticons, but sometimes I actually do think that they can help. And if you interact with people online, people that you’ve never before interacted with, understanding what a person might mean by a simple ”Sorry”, can be difficult. Depending on who you are, a simple ”sorry” might not feel like enough, what does it mean? It can seem harsh, or cold to simply leave it at that. But what if that person doesn’t know exactly how to express themselves. Maybe finding the right words, in that moment, might be difficult. This is where a simple emoticon–in my opinion–can be helpful, in order to set the tone. Like adding a sad smiley face after, or a hug emoticon, or even a flower.
When I was conducting my study, I realized that emoticons could be very useful. Especially since I didn’t know these people, and they didn’t know me. But by adding a simple ”;)” could help me see that the person meant to say something in a joking manner. Conducting anthropological studies solely online, is a method that hasn’t been widely accepted within the discipline. One of the disadvantages is that a lot of the communication is text based, and when you’re deprived of sensory aspects such as tone of voice and body language, it can be difficult to understand a person’s true intentions. However if you, like Boellstorff, conduct a study on a virtual world, such as Second Life (cf. Boellstorff 2008). Then you have a virtual avatar (that looks like a human person) that you can observe some social cues (body language) from. While on Facebook, it’s all completely text based. And sure, if you spend a lot of time interacting with the same people, you will probably be able to ”read between the lines”. But if you don’t have much time, emoticons can help to understand a person’s tone of voice or intention. Just seeing a ”;)”, to me can definitely change how I read a message written to me.
So, no. I’m not writing emoticons off, I just think that there’s a time and a place to use them. And while I might use them as a crutch at times, your writing and your phrasing is what’s most important. And we shouldn’t rely too much on them, especially since some are a bit harder than others to interpret, and might also look different on different devices.
I think it’s interesting how we change, and adapt to the use of things like emoticons. And maybe, in the future, a linguistic anthropologist or someone else should look into this more (maybe even me, since this might be an odd, and even silly topic to some people). Because emoticons are becoming more prevalent, and with that, it changes the way we write online, does it not?
Do you guys use emoticons, and if so, in what way? Or are you one of those people who wants to scream, each time one of them pops up?