Smileys just ain’t enough

Scott Fahlman, 'inventor' of the emoticon

As long as there’s been an Internet, there’s been a chance that people will misunderstand what you say. No matter how orthodox your opinion, if you state it publicly, there will be someone out there to disagree, and loudly. Sometimes, that disagreement comes because people just aren’t understanding you.

And sometimes, the ones who don’t understand are your friends.

If I had a nickel for everyone who’s misunderstood me over my darn-near 25 years on the Internet, that’d be enough to buy a latte for everyone in this coffee shop I’m sitting in as I write this.

In 1982, Scott Fahlman, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon (and a guy who helped me a LOT with my own doctoral thesis, though he may not know it) became the first person to use an “emoticon” in public:

I propose the following character sequence for joke markers:


Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use


Fahlman then styled himself as the inventor of the smiley, though – that chief site of disputations – disputes the claim.

Inventor or no, however, Fahlman took the Internet a step in the direction of humanity. The cutesiness of the smiley was one ingredient that made the net – up to that point the place where only geeks could talk – a place where non-geeks might find a way to fit.

In 1993, Neal Stephenson, author of the Baroque Cycle trilogy and one of my favorite writers, became irritated by the smiley, and wrote

Never addressed by [smiley users] is the question of how humans have managed to communicate with the written word for thousands of years without strewing crudely fashioned ideograms across their parchments. It is as if the written word were a cutting-edge technology without useful precedents.

Stephenson recognized the literacy level of the net population. And also recognized the potential we had for misunderstandings, even with tools like smileys. Others have referred to the smiley as a “blunt instrument” for communicating humor or even simple agreement. Of course, along came a series of acronyms (starting with LOL) used the same way. With the same results.

I even had a Facebook friend tell me that people felt like they could “say any damn thing they felt like as long as they ended with LOL.” There’s the problem. We want to write the way we talk. The emoticon and the LOL are both bits (pardon the expression) of evidence. So if it’s talking we want to do on the Internet, we can still use Skype to CALL our friends, or we can vlog!

I could write about history all day. But what I’m trying to get to is that this small part of history hasn’t improved us. We still miscommunicate, and despite the best efforts of guys like Fahlman to help us be better, it still ends up being up to us to say the right thing. If your friend is upset about you for something you said, no “LOL” will be enough to make that go away. You have to do that the old-fashioned low-tech way: TALK to your friend. 🙂 <— LOL


~ by Ron Graham on October 7, 2010.

One Response to “Smileys just ain’t enough”

  1. Sincerity met with sincerity often works. It’s when we try to get clever or cute that our messages are misunderstood. LOL and other tricks sometimes work, but may get tiresome and may be a crutch used as a way to get away from communicating honestly.

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