The Philosophy of Emoticons: A Serious Look at an Unserious Phenomenon

11 Dec

emoticonsWhile most of us consider emoticons inappropriate in the context of an essay, we are nevertheless likely to endorse their use in a text message. Why? Does this position involve some kind of contradiction?

At first blush, it certainly seems like a contradiction. After all, many rules of grammar and mechanics are medium-independent, like the impermissibility of misspellings. No matter where a misspelling is communicated–in a text message, an email, or an essay–we would all agree it’s inappropriate. Why then, are emoticons different?

Indeed, some argue they aren’t: that we ought to treat emoticons exactly as we treat missspellings–inappropriate in any medium. Proponents of this line argue we are on a slippery slope–if we lend our literary imprimatur to emoticons in one context, the justification for doing so can be used to legitimize them in any context.

While this may be true, it nevertheless doesn’t sit well with most of us. It really does seem perfectly appropriate to use emoticons in a text message but not in a book. The aim of this essay is to defend this stance while avoiding the slippery slope, by appealing to a set of principles which we would all likely agree on and which renders emoticons appropriate in some contexts but not others. To be precise, we will examine how this rule:

Emoticons are permitted in text messages, emails, and the like, but not in essays, books, and the like.

can be justified by a coherent set of principles. Now, just what sort of principles might we marshal to support this rule?

I. Length
The easiest justification to reach for begins with the recognition that the media above (text messages, emails, essays and books) run along a continuum of length. Books are longer than essays, which are longer than emails, and so on. The two poles of this spectrum are what we might call “tight” and “loose” space constraints, where a tight space constraint means less space and a loose space constraint more. Between these poles, we can plot all mediums, from text messaging to multi-volume works.

By way of justification, it may simply be proffered that emoticons are more permissible the tighter the space constraint and less permissible the looser the space constraint. This would explain why emoticons are appropriate to text messages and emails but not essays and books. But this isn’t a very satisfactory answer. It leaves us wondering just why emoticon permissibility varies according to space constraints. After all, there doesn’t seem to be anything embedded in the nature of length that would dictate emoticons in one context but not another.

Conceived of as a rule then, length is not among the principles we are looking for. Conceived of as a spectrum along which we can plot messages, however, length is a helpful tool in generalizing our rule. With this insight, we move on to another proposal for justification.

II. Formality
Another underlying principle to which we might appeal is formality. Generally, formality is present in loose space constraints, but not in tight space constraints. Consider, for example, the formality present in an encyclopedia as opposed to a text message. Presumably we would all agree an emoticon would be completely inappropriate in an encyclopedia entry on Thomas Jefferson, but permissible in a text message about one’s birthday.

Although the level of formality does not track the level of space constraint perfectly, it does tend to. And since emoticons are informal, this might explain why emoticons aren’t permitted in some contexts but others. On this line, our justification would run like this: Emoticons are more permissible the tighter the space constraint and less permissible the looser the space constraint because emoticons are informal, and generally formality increases as the space constraint loosens.

This justification seems better than the last proposal, but it still seems unsatisfying. Why does formality increase as space constraints loosen? Can a deeper account be offered?

III. Clarity
Consider the following sentence, taken from the first few paragraphs of a hypothetical essay about the Great Depression: “Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA and CCC employed millions of Americans :) .” The sentence could be translated like so: “Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA and CCC employed millions of Americans, and I’m glad it did.” The problem is that it could also be translated to a range of phrases, only one of which I’ve so far supplied:

  • Roosevelt received support even from conservatives, a fact which excites me.
  • Roosevelt received support even from conservatives, a fact with which I am pleased.
  • Roosevelt received support even from conservatives, a move which I would have endorsed.

As message receivers, we want to know which of these or a thousand other meanings the student is trying communicate. The “:)” is simply too broad–similar to the word “good,” a notoriously over-used word amongst novice writers. Just like “good,” an emoticon does not do justice to the broad range of positive human emotions, and that’s why, in this example, it’s inappropriate.

So, we can appeal to the following principle as a justification for our rule: be as clear as possible within the constraints of the medium. This would explain why emoticons are allowed in a tight space constraint medium like text messaging–because their use actually increases clarity by disambiguating the sentence they’re modifying, but not in a loose space constraint medium–because their use is imprecise. Put differently, under tight space constraints we are willing to sacrifice the clarity of emotion expressed in prose for some emotion at all.

Consider, for example, the text message “I got a Honda”. Without an emoticon, it isn’t clear whether the fact in question is to be considered in a positive or negative light. Perhaps a Honda was not the buyers’ first choice, or perhaps it was what she was hoping for. Since our rule says to be as clear as possible within the constraints of the medium, this would constitute legitimate grounds to use an emoticon.

One objection to this line is that the sender is simply being lazy. In this case, the sender could write “I’m excited! I got a Honda” or “I’m sorry to say I had to get a Honda.” No doubt these messages would be clearer than messages employing an emoticon, but I think a legitimate case can be made that the medium of text messaging, status updates, and the like are necessarily lazy: the sender in these media are acutely aware of the characters spent or time spent while composing their message, whether because of a fixed character limit or a difficulty in using an on-screen keyboard, for example. Laziness is a sine qua non of these media. At any rate, that is as far as I will pursue the objection here.

In sum, our justification here appeals to the principle which urges us be as clear as possible within the constraints of the medium, whatever it is. This satisfactorily accounts for why we ought not use emoticons in papers and books but are permitted to use them in text messaging and status updates.

In principle, we could stop here. We have found the justification we were looking for. But is this the whole story?

IV. Seriousness
Consider this text message: “The bomb killed 15 people. :( ” Most of us would consider this inappropriate (if not comical)–but why? The answer, I think, is that there is another important spectrum relevant to messages other than length–namely, seriousness of content. The rule we would need to justify in this case is

The less serious the content, the more permissible are emoticons, and the more serious the content the less permissible are emoticons.

But what can ground this rule?

I think the best candidate for justification here is that property of emoticons which we might call fixed low magnitude. The emoticon in “The bomb killed 15 people. :( ” is inappropriate because emoticons, for whatever reason, designate a low magnitude for the emotion being communicated. I think a not incorrect translation of the text message above might be “The bomb killed 15 people. Bummer.” The problem here is that “Bummer,” or “:(” is flippant. It does not do justice to the magnitude of the phenomenon which the emoticon is meant to describe. One death, let alone fifteen, deserves solemnity and respect on a high magnitude–a task for which emoticons are not equipped.

Interestingly, this problem is tacitly confirmed by the occasional repetition of an emoticon. Consider a text message such as “I got the job :D :D :D ”. The repetition is meant to communicate a high magnitude of emotion (by compounding emoticon upon emoticon), signalling that otherwise, emoticons are considered low magnitude.

In sum, the fixed low magnitude of emoticons explains why they are inappropriate for serious matters and appropriate for unserious matters. Our second rule and its justification, then, runs like this: The less serious the content, the more permissible are emoticons, and the more serious the less permissible are emoticons, because emoticons are fixed at a low magnitude.

One more note on seriousness. Recall earlier that we considered whether there might be some underlying principles which could explain why formality tended to be present in looser space constraints. One such principle could be seriousness. Consider that certificates of death, marriage, or divorce, or even the Declaration of Independence–all highly formal documents–are also all documents which are meant to show a great deal of seriousness. Dying, getting married, or rebelling against one’s country are momentous occasions, and it seems that, for whatever reason, formality is one way of expressing their seriousness. It looks very much, then, like formality turns out to be just a function of seriousness, and can therefore be safely ignored as a justification.

V. Conclusion
In this essay we’ve investigated just why emoticons seem appropriate in some contexts but not others. We’ve distinguished two important spectrums along which messages can be plotted: that of tightly and loosely space-constrained media and that of less and more serious content. In each spectrum, emoticons can be consistently endorsed toward one extreme but not the other by virtue of there being some underlying principle which renders such a judgment. In the case of space constraints, that principle is clarity. In tight space constraints, clarity can be improved by using emoticons, whereas in loose space constraints clarity is best achieved by avoiding them. In the case of seriousness, the underlying consideration is magnitude. In more serious messages, emoticons are inappropriate because they suffer from a fixed low magnitude, whereas in less serious messages the fixed low magnitude is appropriate.

By my lights, we have relieved ourselves of any worries about a slippery slope. I now turn to a final objection of a different flavor, in the style of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The hypothesis points out that the language we use constrains the very categories with which we can conceive of the world. To take an overly simple example, consider a small child whose moral vocabulary consists exclusively of “good” and “bad.” This child is prohibited from assigning any phenomenon she experiences to the category “supererogatory” because, as far as she is concerned, that category does not exist. Until her vocabulary expands, her mind simply does not house the facilities necessary to distinguish between, say, permissible and supererogatory acts. All acts are just good or bad.

Whatever the merits of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, I think an important objection to the use of emoticons can be constructed in the style of their hypothesis: namely, that the persistent use of emoticons will tend to blunt, rather than sharpen our phenomenological experience. If we imagine a world in which all or most communication takes place via text messaging and email–a medium presumably appropriate for emoticons–would any one of us want to live in that world? Over time, it seems our categories of experience might be blunted to scarcely more than the “good,” the “bad,” and the “wink,” which belies the wealth of emotion the human experience offers. To use emoticons constantly is to fail to take stock of the richly colorful and variegated world we inhabit.

By my lights, this objection weighs heavily on how we ought to think about emoticons. While they are appropriate in the contexts we’ve examined above, it must be kept in mind that ultimately they are second-rate shorthand. Of course, I doubt moderate emoticon use will dramatically dull our inner lives, but I think it cannot be denied it will not brighten them, either.

Nevertheless, sometimes they just cannot be resisted ;) .


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  1. Hadjar

    December 11, 2011 at 12:34 am

    Good job andy joon :-) ;-) [Interpret that!]

    One important factor which I think is missing here is the fact that emoticons are used to express one’s emotions, and is completely acceptable for the writer to express subjective feelings or judgments in a text message, email to a friend, personal blog entry, but in an encyclopedia entry, a scientific article and such bodies of text from whose author we expect objectivity, the subject and her emotions are irrelevant and the expression of such feelings will be inappropriate, whether it is through words, or emoticons.

  2. peter

    December 11, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    I found your choice to include Whorfianism in this discussion somewhat counterproductive. The introduction of new expressions–like emoticons–directly counters the S-W hypothesis, because it suggests that we don’t have enough words to express ourselves. So rather than gradually conforming to our language, we are making our language gradually conform to us: opposite motions along the same dynamic.

    Also, I think you miss two critical points. First, emoticons are a way of escaping the heightened formalism of the electronic medium, which forces us to express ourselves in a given font with very limited images to use in normal discourse. Second, emoticons overcome the barrier of language differences–and, as such, they are also highly cultural (observe the emoticons from Russia and different parts of Asia).

    Interesting thoughts, though. Cheers!