I remember when I was thirteen and dad showed me AOL instant messenger (AIM). We had moved away from Wisconsin the previous year and I was feeling pretty isolated. But then dad swooped in on the wings of a mustache and was like, “Son, let there be chat.”
Immediately I was able to talk to people like Pat and Izzy in Wisconsin. AOL led to MSN and all sorts of other chat programs. Everyone at school was using it. It was the precursor birth of social media and the social internet.
I remember— and this will likely sound quaint to those who have grown up with it— the first time I saw someone use an emoticon.
Colon symbol + Capital Letter D. It makes a smiley face!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Even WordPress turns the emoticons into emojis so they all have to be in fucking quotation marks.
It was such a feeling of concise nardledanger that my life was altered forever. I was delighted about making smileys. And after a time they eventually started taking on specific meaning. So the “:D” smiley became one of sarcasm, not just being overjoyed.
“Have fun at work! :D”
The smiley was me joking at my friends who didn’t want to go to work, or something else marginally sarcastic. Most emoticons had this happen to them. The only one that really stayed true to its original was “:P.”
Eventually MSN and AOL introduced emojis. It pissed me off because now they changed the expression I had come to know and use in my lexicon. I had assigned emoticons meaning beyond the literal. You know, how language develops. But then these companies took the faces and gave them more distinguishable expression.
On the left here you can see what they did. Just giving little graphical faces to the emoticons. Now— much like a fickle pokemon, they have evolved into something I didn’t expect nor liked.
Directly to the left of this sentence (a happy accident) you can see what happened to my “:D” emoticon. Those three different faces communicate different things. Less sarcasm, more smug. For the MSN emoji it seems more like Fry from Futurama finding out how socks work. When I use the “:D” emoji it has nothing to do with looking like Totoro figuring out that he can make fucking umbrellas.
The rest of them as well. The language of the emoticon was seized on by larger forces. And they turned them into a new staple of language: emoji. Some of them were better, some were far worse. Winky face “;)” had vaguely flirty, mischievous connotation. Now depending on the company you have the knowing wink, the creeper wink, and the “I have something in my cheek pouch” wink.
This is not the first nor last time the emojis change. Each time they change we adapt and use the emojis in a more exacting manner. We re-adapt the meanings we had applied so that our language could stay the same.
The entire point of this post is that I realized how fascinating it is for language to change as the “words” change. I almost rarely use emoticons or emojis unless the emoji displays the surgically precise feeling I want to convey.
But now we are inundated in emojis. I think I read a fact once that if you combined the weight of all the emojis in the world— they weigh more than the rest of the creatures on earth.
People sling emojis into messages and across social media in ways I am far too outside of to understand. For instance: my coworkers with children when trick-or-treating. Inevitably there were images of their children getting candy. And on those posts there was every single candy or chocolate emoji that they could find.
To me it was like, “Well duh. You get candy on trick-or-treating why did you have to go locate all 14 different candy emojis?”
Well to them I’m sure it was just the same as me back in the day slapping a “;D” on the end of my sentences. They are just a part of language. They convey meaning in a more specific way than words might given several sentences.
The whole reason I thought to write this is because the other day I was responding to my friends sarcastic comment and I went in search of the perfect GIF to express my response. As I was searching I took pause to wonder why I was searching for a GIF when I had the nearly infinite human language to express my response.
The images and pop culture that we now use in place of emojis (in place of emoticons (in place of words)) are far easier and more specific to understand. We are a massively social world and common experiences are more useful in communication than words themselves now. Using a GIF from Parks and Recreation are easier to get my point across because someone will see the GIF and remember the context and situation of the TV show and apply it to my current response.
Even reading my above caption for that image you immediately understand why I’d use that specific GIF. You don’t even need to play Warhammer 40k— from the context of the GIF you can tell that it’s fucking great for me and terrible for anyone else and I’m experiencing schadenfreude.
Language is weird. To this day I wish that certain chat programs wouldn’t change my emoticons into emojis. Its simply not what I want to express. But the more I have to communicate digitally the more I realize that this is simply how its going to be. It’ll probably evolve into a different thing as more interesting technology becomes available.
I can only hope that at some point 3D printers become ubiquitous and I can start sending my friends emojis that automatically print. I would love to send a text message accompanied by a 3D file and my friends have to sit there and watch their 3D printer slowly create a giant middle finger.