In Defense of Emoticons

There I was, cruising along in my car on a mild autumn afternoon, listening to my beloved “All Things Considered” on NPR, when all of a sudden, the conversation turned to a topic I find deeply significant and highly understudied. I speak, of course, of emoticons. Driving to work to teach a Sociology of Mass Media class (oh, serendipity), I listened with increasing annoyance as two commentators (“social media gurus”) discussed emoticons as, among other things, tools for lazily and inadequately representing our emotional states. One commentator even advised listeners to “maybe look for some verbiage that is more attuned to what you're trying to say.

My first reaction? “Did these people really say we’re not adept at verbally expressing our emotions on the interwebs? Have they spent more than 17 seconds on Facebook or Twitter? Expressing emotions is what we do best and most often!”

In addition to worrying about the ignorant masses “relying too much on the tools to do the work for us,” they posit emoticons as passive-aggressive symbols that are supposed to suck the venom out of a verbal strike. (Something like: “WTF? Did you just fall off the turnip truck? ;) LOL!”)

All in all, they weren’t down with the emoticons.

This story aggravated the heck out of me, but I let it slide for six months. Then, yesterday, I read an online discussion by some guy who wrote something to the effect of “You may like emoticons. Personally, I find they get in the way. Yeah, I’m no fun.” (No, I can’t find the exact story – sorry!) Anyway, I got grumpy all over again. Of course the writer doesn’t have to love emoticons; he can revel in his sad, bleak, smiley-less existence all he darn well pleases. But the dismissive tone of “they get in the way,” meaning they impede the real message contained in the words, harkened back to the NPR program and its emoticon naysayers. I got riled up all over again.

Given the proliferation of smileys and frownies on the Internet, I feel pretty confident saying I think these folks are in the minority -- or perhaps a frowny-silenced majority. Whatever the case, I don’t run across this discussion often, so I realize it’s not a social topic of great urgency. However, given how these arguments rest, in my opinion, on larger social issues, I find it useful to address and exorcise them, at least from my own noggin.

First of all, there is some serious intellectual elitism going on in calling out emoticons as silly pictorial representations utilized by peeps without the verbal skills to adequately express themselves. Really, social media gurus? We modern Internet users may not have an MA in journalism, but in this media-saturated world, we’ve all gained the vocabulary to express, even wallow, in our emotional states. Oprah made sure of that.

I admit it: I’m a rampant emoticon user. I pepper them throughout my emails, tweets, and Facebook posts. From casual to work-related emails, I toss in smileys as if I owned stock in Emoticons, Inc. If left unchecked, just about every non-authorly paragraph ends with a smiley. I love ‘em. This has nothing whatsoever to do with lack of, you know, words and stuff, – I think I have mad emotional literacy – nor am I employing emoticons to tone down my active verbal aggressive to a more passive version. I use emoticons for multiple reasons, the most important of which is to fill in some of the gaps left by language.

Starting with speech class in high school, we’ve all heard numerous times that nonverbal communication makes up a lot, probably the majority, of messages. All that’s gone in written communication. No wise nod, ironic eyebrow raise, embarrassed head drop. We’re left with lines, loops, spaces, and dots that are supposed to represent the complexity of human thought and emotion. Emoticons give people a clue as to the writer’s tone. A winky face means playfulness, a happy face is fun… you get it. Rather than obscure, emoticons are attempts to clarify. Might that mean using them to be passive-aggressive? Sure, but that’s one of a million functions served by those cute little symbols.

Furthermore, I can’t help but see this as a gendered issue. Whether we like it or not, emotionality has become inextricably linked with femininity* and as such isn’t valued as much as rationality. I see the use of emoticons as a gendered phenomenon, a feminine way to express and attempt to manage the emotional reactions of readers. It’s no wonder, then, that it’s trivialized as a less important mode of communication than the pristine, crystalline linearity of words. Emoticons represent emotionality while the words denote the message. Smileys are visual while words are verbal, each processed in different parts of the brain, which requires a bit of mental dexterity. Such mental gymnastics are also, I must add, typically associated (unfairly or not, realistically or not) with femininity. Emoticons are not frivolous, not just about “fun,” as the second person I mention claims. They’re shouldering the rather heavy cultural burden of elevating emotions to the same level as facts.

This phenomenon is also about age. Younger folks have grown up with the Internet, have learned to interact with their RT friends as well as the ones they’ve never met via this verbal and visual medium. Emoticons are a part of their vocabulary, a way to convey and touch base with their feelings while expressing themselves to 400 people, many all-but-strangers. It’s an emerging language and as such deserves respect and study rather than knee-jerk dismissal.

Emoticons may not be traditional modes of expression, especially for older folks and those who have been thoroughly literarized** by a liberal arts education. That said, they bundle a lot of cultural and interpersonal symbolism into their tiny packages. So let’s cut their cute, cheerful selves a little slack, all right?

Oh, and you know you’ve been waiting for it:   :)  

* It’s important to note that femininity can be something that women, men, and everyone else in between can access. It’s not inherently linked to femaleness.

** I claim my right as a sociologist and writer to make up words. 


  1. Utterly and completely fabulous. In fact, I strongly - strongly - encourage you to publish this someplace where lots of people can access it. I've been saying a lot of this myself, but as you know, it's hard to affect, much less *change*, minds when you're going one-by-one-by-one-by-one-by-one . . .

    I, personally, would emphasize the fact that online comm is an emerging language that allows access to and narrates the online culture. How many people do you know who have entire, enduring, valid and (not just subjectively) emotionally valuable relationships online? Friends in other countries they've never met, but who nonetheless do all the things a friend does - except hang out for coffee? Romance, friendship, hate, solidarity, etc., ad infinitum. Online is the new, and soon-to-be dominant, culture of Planet Earth.

    This - the naysaying - is, IMO, yet another example of the privileged group's attempt to discredit uprising (read: noncompliant) culture, including, of course, its communication, because its growth threatens the status quo.

    1. So says the Communications instructor! :-D Thanks for the enthusiastic kudos and the awesome contribution to this. I could not agree more that so much of our anxiety around the Internet stems from the discomfort of democratizing voices. Such a challenge to experts who spent $100K on our advances degrees to have the same information available for anyone to access. It's part of the reason why so many instructors hate Wikipedia and forbid using it as an academic source; how threatening to us experts to have our hard-won knowledge reproduced in a readily-available venue and format that advances and grows with each contributor *and* is answerable to the masses.

      Somewhere, Foucault is smiling. ;)


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