I miss smileys. Specifically, I miss the old simple ones you could create on your Nokia brick, or in your college emails. I probably didn’t appreciate them at the time. As a pretentious 17-year old, I no doubt looked down on such a corruption of language! How could people be so lazy as to use a crude little picture to represent what they could easily convey with words, if they just took a moment to think about it. It was the death knell for the English language, and blah blah blah!
But then, probably in the mid-2000s, and probably on MSN Messenger, I saw something remarkable. I typed in a colon, a dash, and a parenthesis, and when I hit enter, they transformed, transcended simple punctuation, and became something truly other: a bright, beaming, yellow little face. How did I do that? I thought. Did I break the computer!? After a little tentative experimentation, I realised that the computer was rendering my little faces as it presumed I wanted them to look: in a better-looking, more comprehensible form. And I understood that. Only, it still didn’t sit well with me…
Looking back, that was largely due to a simple resistance to change. I’d got used to the simple emoticons, and didn’t see the need for jazzing them up. Everyone understood them without needing to make their meaning so obvious and yellow. But then that’s a very natural response. Once we get used to something in a certain form, we don’t want to get used to another form. We like our comfort. I’m sure in 10 years people will be nostalgic about the time when the flowers around your head in a picture were stationary, and you had to imagine what they felt and smelled like.
There’s something else to it though. Turning punctuation marks and mathematical symbols placed side-by-side into little pictures (sometimes even animated ones!) is all well and good, but it takes all the mystery out of it! You don’t have to figure out what they mean. You don’t get that feeling of surprise and joy commingled when you realise six months after first encountering an emoticon that you’d completely misinterpreted it. For example, I remember receiving a text at about 4AM one New Year’s morning which was signed off with :-*, which I instantly assumed meant vomiting. In my defence, it’s likely that the person who sent it was engaged in vomiting either during, shortly before, or shortly after the sending of the text. And those old emoticons really demonstrated impressive ingenuity and creativity. What vision to realise that putting a few unrelated symbols together could make an instantly-recognisable picture of a face! A picture of that face just isn’t the same thing.
And yet, it’s hard to go back to the old ways. When people first starting using emoticons, they were constrained by the limitations of the media they were using to communicate: old mobile phones, and computer keyboards. But now it’s no problem for even the most basic smartphone to create an image of a face, so going back to the old style would be an affectation. Now that we’re no longer constrained by the old limitations, can we really impose then on ourselves? We had to type 🙂 because we couldn’t draw more realistic face, but that’s not a problem now. So would you like to be an emoticon hipster and deliberately eschew the modern emoji for a crude little face that most people under 18 probably wouldn’t understand? I know that if I deliberately avoided using modern smileys (I don’t know if my phone even has the option not to transform smileys), I’d also be conscious that I was deliberately not using the potential of the amazing little device in my hand.
As we have to do so often in life, I have to accept that the age of 😉 is over. It had its time, and it was a good time, but it’s over now. I’ll always prefer the old emoticons, but I have to accept that young people now probably prefer emojis of poo and pizza, and that’s ok. Time simply moves on and passes us by :’-(.