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2 Cute 4 Words

In Defense of the Smiley

First published in The Village Voice, October 4, 1994

A spectre is haunting cyberspace, and it looks like this: :-).

That is to say, it looks like a cheerful face turned sideways (have another look, I'll wait), whence its name (smiley), and whence its primary function in the world of online textual discourse: it adds a grin to statements whose humor or sarcasm might otherwise be misread as fuel for yet another network-scorching war of e-words. There are frowneys too :-(, and winkeys ;-), and a host of other variations, known interchangeably as both smileys and "emoticons" -- and all of them dedicated to the proposition that e-mail, in its speed and spontaneity, is as much a form of conversation as of writing. It is the basic smiling smiley, however, that has proven the most useful and popular of the emoticons, and it is that same goofily benign countenance that seems now to haunt certain respected guardians of net.culture, who have set out to exorcise the spectre through a campaign of browbeating aimed at all net.citizens hapless enough to avail themselves of this latest addition to the family of punctuation marks.

They're spooked, in other words, though I only say so because I am otherwise at a loss to explain why anyone would feel compelled to beat their brow against such a handy and pacific device. Certainly the antismiley camp's own arguments are no help in dispelling the mystery. With the wearying predictability of tenure-damaged English professors, emoticonoclasts invariably deliver the same smug lecture whenever called upon to justify their disdain. Writing is writing, they insist, and humans have been using it successfully to convey humor and other emotional flavors for centuries without resort to smileys. And dammit, they add (raising their voices as the bell rings), if a prose style free of such emotionally flavorful gewgaws was good enough for Jonathan Swift and Charles Dickens, it's sure as hell good enough for you wretched online heirs to the Great Tradition. Class dismissed.

At which point, of course, their logic melts back into the thin air from which it was spun, since as even we wretched heirs know, Dean Swift et al. were hardly averse to reaching now and then for that emotionally flavorful gewgaw known as the exclamation point -- let alone for such fripperies as apostrophes, asterisks, spaces between words, and other innovations unknown to humans during the first wildly successful millennium or two of written communication.

We are left wondering whether the smileyphobes haven't simply lost sight of the historical dimension of writing altogether. Writing is writing, to be sure; but writing is also language bound to technology, and bound so tightly that changes in the technology of writing have always altered the nature of writing as well. Surely even the most heavily elbow-patched of English professors recognize at this late date that the invention of the printing press didn't simply create a new vessel into which to pour the ageless wine of written words -- it radically reorganized the social context, the psychological experience, and in short the very meaning of writing and reading. Likewise, it is surely no secret to anyone with a modem (the rest of you have my word on it) that the spread of computer networks is currently effecting changes in the nature of writing as sweeping as those wrought by Gutenberg's gadget.

Which only makes the opposition to emoticons that much more curious, for the leading lights of the antismiley campaign are not in fact some modemless cabal of lo-tek book-sniffers, but some of the hippest online observers of the networks' unfolding effects on human culture. Neal Stephenson, Wired magazine coverboy and author of the neocyberpunk classic "Snow Crash," published his canonical antismiley screed ("Smiley's People") a year ago in The New Republic; Mike Godwin, savvy legal counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, followed with a broadside in Wired a few months later; and just three weeks ago, Peter H. Lewis, the New York Times's ace Internet watcher, tacked smileys onto a list of everything that is wrong with e-mail.

Why these otherwise sharp-eyed net.thinkers go myopic when they look at smileys is indeed a mystery, but I'm willing at this point to hazard a stab at the answer. As I said before: They're spooked. They've seen a ghost, and it's the ghost of a print-based cultural system in which trained intellectuals like themselves (like me) have figured more exaltedly than we are going to in the culture taking shape on the nets. The smiley may be just the newest punctuation mark, after all, but it's also a new kind of punctuation mark, and its novelty sends an unsettling signal to us professional wordsmiths. Graphically thrusting the human figure into the icon-free realm of alphabetic transparency, the smiley serves notice that from now on writing will be more intimately tied to the bodies that produce it -- more a matter of local, social interactions than of highly crafted texts designed to stand on their own.

We who craft texts for a living are not entirely unjustified, therefore, in fearing the smiley's message, and I can hardly blame my colleagues for wanting to browbeat the messenger. But in the end that's all they're doing, and I for one see no percentage in it. I'd rather try and find my place in the new culture as gracefully as I can, and preferably with a :-).