(-: Just Between You and Me ;-)

(-: Just Between You and Me ;-)


Published : July 29, 2007 / The New York Times

There are many ways to console someone when a multimillion-dollar business deal falls through. Firing off a “tough break” e-mail message punctuated by a frown-face emoticon is not one of them.

More than once, Alexis Feldman, the director of the Feldman Realty Group, a commercial real estate company in Manhattan, has been moving forward on a major deal when, she said, “at the 23rd hour, I get an e-mail from the broker saying, ‘Sorry, my client is not interested in the space, too bad we couldn’t make the big bucks’ — then there’s a frown face!”

“I mean, it’s ludicrous,” said Ms. Feldman, 25. “I’m not going to feel better about losing hundreds of thousands of dollars because someone puts a frown face to regretfully inform me.”

Emoticons, she added, should be reserved for use by “naïve tweens on AOL Instant Messenger finding out after-school soccer practice is canceled.”

If only.

Emoticons, the smiling, winking and frowning faces that inhabit the computer keyboard, have not only hung around long past their youth faddishness of the 1990s, but they have grown up. Twenty-five years after they were invented as a form of computer-geek shorthand, emoticons — an open-source form of pop art that has evolved into a quasi-accepted form of punctuation — are now ubiquitous.

No longer are they simply the province of the generation that has no memory of record albums, $25 jeans or a world without Nicole Richie. These Starburst-sweet hieroglyphs, arguably as dignified as dotting one’s I’s with kitten faces, have conquered new landscape in the lives of adults, as more of our daily communication shifts from the spoken word to text. Applied appropriately, users say, emoticons can no longer be dismissed as juvenile, because they offer a degree of insurance for a variety of adult social interactions, and help avoid serious miscommunications.

In a perfect world, we would have time to compose e-mails that made it clear through our language that we are being cheerful and friendly, but we’re doing these things hundreds of times a day under pressure,” said Will Schwalbe, an author of “Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home” (Knopf, 2007), written with David Shipley, the deputy editorial page editor at The New York Times.

Mr. Schwalbe said that he has seen a proliferation of emoticon use by adults in delicate and significant communications. “People who started using them ironically are now using them regularly,” he said. “It’s really in the last couple of years that the emoticon has come of age.”

In fact, a recent Yahoo study indicates that the days in which emoticons were considered as unacceptably casual as flip-flops at work are over.

In a survey of 40,000 users of the Yahoo Messenger instant-message program, 52 percent of the respondents were older than 30, and among those, 55 percent said they use emoticons every day. Nearly 40 percent of respondents said they first discovered emoticons within the last five years.

Christopher P. Michel, the founder and chairman of Military.com, a military and veteran affairs Web site, said that usage of emoticons has grown “hyper-pervasive” in his communiques even with admirals at the Pentagon, where they provide a certain cover for high-ranking leaders to comment on sensitive matters.

“A wink says quite a lot,” said Mr. Michel, a former lieutenant commander in the Navy. “An admiral could say a wink means a thousand different things — but I know what it means. It’s a kind of code.”

There was a time, of course, that emoticons seemed intrinsically youthful. Just as children shared the special ability to see Big Bird’s magical friend Snuffleupagus on “Sesame Street” — a character who was long supposed to be invisible to adults — they seemed to easily recognize that the characters 3:-o represented a cow, or that @>--> -- symbolized a rose or that ~(_8^(I) stood for Homer Simpson.

But after 25 years of use, emoticons have started to jump off the page and into our spoken language. Even grown men on Wall Street, for example, will weave the term “QQ” (referring to an emoticon that symbolizes two eyes crying) into conversation as a sarcastic way of saying “boo hoo.”

Kristina Grish, author of “The Joy of Text: Mating, Dating and Techno-relating” (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2006), said that she grew so accustomed to making the :-P symbol (a tongue hanging out) in instant messages at work that it once accidentally popped up, in three dimensions, on a date.

“When the waiter told us the specials,” she recalled in an e-mail message, “I made that face — not on purpose of course — because they sounded really drab and uninteresting. And the guy I was out with looked at me like I was insane and said, ‘Did you just make an IM face?’ ”

Though we think of emoticons, or “smileys,” as an Internet-era phenomenon, their earliest ancestors were created on typewriters. In 1912, the writer Ambrose Bierce proposed a new punctuation device called a “snigger point,” a smiling face represented by \__/!, to connote jocularity.

The first commonly acknowledged use of the contemporary emoticon was in 1982. Scott Fahlman, a research professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, was linked to an electronic university bulletin board where computer enthusiasts posted opinions on matters as divisive as abortion and mundane as campus parking.

In one thread, a wisecrack about campus elevators was misinterpreted by some as a safety warning, so Dr. Fahlman suggested using :-) as a way to indicate jokes and :-( for remarks to be taken seriously (the latter quickly morphed into a signifier of displeasure).

To Dr. Fahlman’s surprise, his “joke markers” spread quickly on the board. Within a month, he heard, some peers out in Stanford had picked them up, and soon after, techies at Xerox were circulating a list of strikingly sophisticated new emoticons.

He never received a trademark for his invention, and never made a dime from it.

“This is just my little gift to the world,” said Dr. Fahlman, now 59 and still doing computer-science research at Carnegie Mellon. “If there had been a way to charge a nickel each time, no one would have used it,” Dr. Fahlman explained. “It had to be free.”

In classic Internet fashion, an application born of technological necessity soon flowered in unimagined directions. Soon there were emoticons for historical figures, like Ronald Reagan: 7:^]

And for bearded, sunglasses-wearing celebrities, like certain members of the band ZZ Top: B-)===>

Before long, emoticons had accomplished what Esperanto never could: establish a universal lingua franca. The Japanese, no strangers to the marketing of cute, devised a smiley which could be read without turning one’s head sideways: {*_*}

But the fundamental whimsy of the form belies the more serious usage of emoticons by adults now. In the early stages of dating, where text communication often replaces the telephone, the emoticon can be a Trojan horse, a device to sneak a greater level of intimacy into otherwise benign communiques.

When exchanging e-mail messages with a younger prospective girlfriend, a suitor from the generation that still used typewriters in college can, with a few well-placed smileys, bridge the age gap, softening the masculine edge to his humor, and making the pursuing male seem less aggressively predatory.

Indeed, people naturally look for signals of intimacy and trust in the human face — even a crude representation of one, said Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. This tendency is a result of countless generations of evolution, he said, during which people relied on the subtle contortions of facial muscles as life-or-death signals to survive, cooperate and reproduce.

When infants are given a series of geometrical patterns, Dr. Keltner said, their eyes will naturally be drawn to those that seem to represent a face. “So what these emoticons are capturing,” he said, “is this platonic, idealized form of an evolutionary device.”

Some members of the species seem more drawn to these particular face icons than others. In the Yahoo poll, 82 percent of respondents considered women more likely than men to use emoticons. For men who have a hard time using terms of tenderness, particularly “love,” emoticons can convey the affection that they are otherwise afraid to express — the graphical equivalent of a dozen roses from a bodega, with roughly the same level of effectiveness.

“I have one friend in L.A. who IMs me ‘Hey sexy :)’ every morning,” Ilana Arazie, the author of the videoblog Downtowndiary.com, said in an e-mail message. “It’s his way of flirting and maybe seeing how far he can take our relationship. But no, I’m not getting on a plane to L.A. anytime soon.”

But as with any technology, nothing stands still.

Just as ring tones lost their rustic charm a few years ago when they moved past a simple monophonic melody, emoticons have lost a bit of their soul by becoming animated and corporate, aficionados say.

Many programs for e-mail, instant messages and word-processing are now programmed to change text emoticons into cartoon smileys, some of which bear a striking resemblance to the frenetically chipper candy-men of the M&M ads. The Web site Lolfamily.com allows users to create three-dimensional super-emoticons that gyrate, wink and wiggle with almost Pixar-like complexity.

Like indie rock fans who squeal when their favorite underground band signs with a major label, purists see the dawn of elaborate graphics as the end of the emoticons’ golden age.

“I hate image emoticons, and turn them off in every application I use in which I can do so,” said one emoticon traditionalist who gave his name only as Elliott, in a post on Fluther.com, an Internet question-and-answer site. To trick the autocorrect functions imbedded in many applications, he types his emoticons backwards, so :-) becomes (-: , and neither he nor the recipient of the message has to stare down “the yellow abomination.”

But such gestures of defiance seem to barely register, given the generally increasing embrace of emoticons.

Amy Cohen, an author and a former dating columnist for The New York Observer, joked that she could “tell the whole story of a relationship in emoticons: Happy, happy, happy, sad, happy, sad, sad.”

That would be :) , :) , :) , :( , :) , :( , :( , of course.