Why we need emoticons

Emoticons. You may like them or despise them. They range from the classic smilie to the downright ridiculous antics on dated forums across the web. They’ve been going strong for the last 20 years and they don’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

As I’ve said before, words are a blunt tool. I’m not sure exactly how much emotional meta-data is lost when you distill your thoughts and emotions into text on a screen but it’s got to be really high. And modern writing tools don’t provide us the capacity to fill in those gaps. SURE, YOU CAN WRITE IN ALL CAPS, BUT THAT ONLY FILLS ONE USE CASE… FOR WHEN YOU ARE REALLY ANGRY. How do we cover the full spectrum of human emotion?

In a non-virtual conversation, you have, volume, tone, emphasis, body language, and facial expressions. Even with these tools, things still get lost between parties, but it’s definitely a lot better. By combining elements, you add nuanced feelings to your message. Positive language + negative tone = sarcasm. Critical language + empathetic expression = constructive criticism. 

Skilled writers can capture such nuanced feeling in language alone, but most of us aren’t skilled writers. Emoticons may be nothing more than crude representations of the human face, but it’s a tool that anybody can combine with their informal writing to reduce confusion make their message more clear.

Maybe one day we’ll have come up with better tools to hold nuanced conversation online (sartalics, I’m looking at you). But in the mean time, I have to confess, no matter how silly, or ridiculous they, are, we need emoticons.