Smileys, those cute little sideways faces you see on line - like this :-) and this ;-> - are an idea whose time has come - and passed.
For centuries humans communicated perfectly well in written form without smileys. Then the Internet got popular. E-mail proliferated; IRC (Internet Relay Chat) got hot. Whereever humans gathered in digital form, smileys were soon to follow.
Today it's impossible to read electronic mail or postings without encountering dozens of the little beasties. Smileys have infected commercial networks as well, especially America Online, and even corporate systems.
All this has happened in just the past year or so. ``The Whole Internet User's Guide & Catalog'' has no index entry for smileys; neither does the equally tomelike ``Internet Navigator.'' More recent reference works allude to smileys, but with mixed sentiments.
Seattle's Adam Engst, in his ``Internet Starter's Kit'' (Hayden Books, $29.95), owns to using smileys ``heavily in e-mail, when I don't have time to craft each letter as carefully as I would ideally like.'' He avoids them in his newsletter TidBITS, though.
In ``The Windows Internet Tour Guide'' (Ventana Press, $24.95), however, author Michael Fraase says he hates smileys and ``can't think of a single times I've used one.''
While that may be, the craze has peaked. It's time to ban smileys (originally called emoticons, since only a few smileys actually smile and some of the more esoteric ones are downright scatological). They're the smallpox of the Internet; smoke signals on the information highway.
No longer a sign for insidersSmileys got their start as an emotional shorthand or emblem - a way of clarifying the intent of a potentially ambiguous statement. For a brief time they were also clubbish, identifying one as an insider of the digital age (the converse may now be true).
Initially, perhaps, smileys served their purpose. A lot of people on the Net were science and engineering types whose high school English class comprised their sole preparation for mixing subtle inflection or irony with the written word. A strategically placed smiley let them inform the recipient that an otherwise strange, opaque, or obnoxious declaration was meant only as a joke - e.g., ``You idiot! :-)."
A call to actionJudiciously used, smileys did the trick. As newbies discovered them, though, smileys proliferated beyond the point of usefulness. Today they've lost all impact and have become the equivalent of crackling and popping on a cellular phone.
Here are just a few reasons why they should be banned:
- They reflect the moral vision of your fourth grade teacher. Smileys belong on spelling tests, math homework and essays about your summer vacation -- not on informed communication between adults.
- They consume disk space. Not much, perhaps. But at a time when many users are falling back on compression software because of dwindling disk reserves, smileys have become the cellulite of network back ends.
- They contribute to computer injuries. Typing extra colons, hyphens and commas can spead the road to RSI - repetitive strain injury.
- They're heavy-handed. Attaching a smiley to something that's funny is like elbowing someone after telling them a joke and saying, ``Get it?''
- They're dysfunctional. Attaching a smiley to something that isn't funny doesn't make it so.
- Smileys can be confusing. There are literally hundreds of them, so many that entire dictionaries have sprung up. Many must be explained every time they're used - tell me what @8-I means, for instance - defeating the very point of their existence.
- They're unnecessary in most cases. The primary reason smileys didn't exist for so long is that good writers did not need them. A cleverly constructed sentence, finely wrought witticism or deft turn of phrase needs nothing to clarify or punctuate. It's a thing of beauty.
Good writing needs smileys like the Mona Lisa needed lipstick and eye shadow.
The smiley ban should also apply to TLAs - three-letter abbreviations - and other acronyms polluting the Net. Worst offenders are lol (laughed out loud), IMHO (in my humble opinion, which it seldom is), BTW (by the way) and goagal (go out and get a life).
If it's worth saying, it's worth spelling out. Do your part to clean up the Net. Stop using smileys today. :-) #$%X!!!@&&!
User Friendly appears Sundays in the Personal Technology section of the Seattle Times. Paul Andrews is a member of the Times' staff.
copyright 1994 The Seattle Times