Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Emoticons, you could say, have captured the public’s fancy. People want to make them on their phones, in their texts, on Facebook, even in e-mails. They learn how to make new ones and see if they fit, that is, if they express useful things, and if other people understand them. Whole Facebook sites spring up for emoticon use in general, or even for a specific one.

But I found two separate studies that both said that emoticon use in texting is at about 4%, with women using them more than men. In my own phone it was 0%; people like me are bringing the average down. And that brings me to my first point, which is that I admit there’s a good likelihood that I don’t know what I’m talking about, since they are used widely, in a number of very different situations, by different people, and for widely different purposes. I only see a corner of the action: 500 Facebook friends and a limited number of people whom I text regularly. We are not big emoticon users. But there are plenty out there, and use, in general, is probably increasing.

At first, I thought, this is interesting, and revolutionary: a pictoral hieroglyphic language that is not based on sounds, where symbols have direct meaning without going through their spoken-language equivalent. But, upon reflection, I decided that we have actually been using them for a long time. How long has XOXOX referred to kisses and hugs? Has $#@#$ referred to the so-called ‘four-letter words?’ Hieroglyphics themselves are as old as, well, ancient Egypt. So what’s the fuss?

What’s different is clearly that we have so many different media to use them in. Facebook alone has the main posts, and the chat; there are our phones, with their texting plans, and Apple trying to steal business away from the phone carriers by providing texting free to its users. So many of these machines reward emoticon users because they limit the number of characters one can use. Economy may dictate that we say with a smiley face or a wink what might otherwise take an entire sentence.

So what gets people to use them all the time, and in particular, use the three big ones 70% of the time? I’m referring to the Rice study, which said that smiley-face, frowny-face, and very-smiley face (colon D, I assume) accounted for 70% of the emoticons there were. At first I was surprised that wink (semi-colon parenthesis) and tongue-out (colon – P) weren’t on the list. But a lot of things can account for the relative frequency of an emoticon. If you invent one, and make a Facebook page for it, and advertise it, even then it might not catch on. But those big three are doing fine: why?

First you have to know that everyone you use it with will recognize and understand it. All of the big three are at that 100% recognition mark, but I’m not sure you can say the same for wink and tongue-out. Then again, it has to be genuinely useful in a number of situations. One guy said, “I never stick my tongue out in person; why should I need a symbol that does it for me?” You, do, howver, smile, frown, and smile broadly, and in many circumstances.

So then, the major question: Are they increasing dramatically? Slowly? Not at all? Or what? I think they will increase slowly until even guys like me start using them. I think women will continue using them more than men but everyone will reach a ceiling beyond which they won’t go. There are two frequency variables: number of emoticons per hundred texts, and number of emoticons per text. Even now, we’re only at 4 per hundred texts; very few people are using more than one per text regularly. One said, “I use smiley-face as a kind of text-punctuation. When the text is over, I smile.” I mention this because the emoticon seems to operate on the sentence level, like an exclamation point, rather than at the word level, where you might get five or six in a single sentence, given the right variety. No, you probably won’t find more than one per sentence, or one per text, as a general rule (this is my guess). And then, we will reach a point of balance: lots of emoticons, perhaps one per sentence, but never much more than that. We appear to be in no immediate danger of losing our word-based language in favor of a language consisting of a small group of picture-symbols each of which has several meanings. You can really only have so many emoticons, then you have to let words do the rest.