One of the most salient features of modern Internet life is the use of emoticons to express emotions within the context of e-mail and Facebook messages. Emoticons are symbolic icons used to show the emotions of the sender of an e-mail. Sometimes emoticons can be typographic configurations, as when a colon and a right parenthesis are put together in an e-mail to demonstrate a smiley face. Sometimes emoticons can be pictorial images that show primarily different expressions of a standardized person or creature’s face and hands.
Some time will be spent here discussing emoticons, because they seem to represent a very significant phenomenon in modern life. In many ways, they highlight the changes going on in the modern human mind and in modern social expression. The problem with emoticons is that they are shortcuts that replace complex nuanced feelings. To use one out of a delimited series of standardized icons to show an emotional state is to get rid of many other different things that are normally expressed when an emotional communication is expressed with words.
When a person uses words to express, let us say, his positive feelings towards another person, there is frequently a temporal dimension demonstrated in his emotional statements. A person can say “I really was attracted to you when we met yesterday” or “I hope we can become friends in the future” or “I will love you always”. That temporal context is lost with an emoticon, which can only show a feeling expressed as a highly defined image in an indeterminate moment in time – a free-floating emotional figure in a temporal vacuum. An emoticon can’t show development of feeling. It is static, unlike words which can show the evolution of feelings over time.
Furthermore, emoticons take away personal agency from emotional expression. All that an emoticon really says is that there is an emotion of say flirtation, love, happiness, sadness or anger connected to the message. This is very different from a person saying “I love you!” or “I feel happy because of you or because of what you did.” It is as if the person using the emoticon is anxious, awkward or uncomfortable in expressing his feelings. Without the commitment of personal agency, a person can feel less vulnerable to having his emotions in any way rejected or ignored.
In addition, emoticons eliminate emotional complexity. When feelings are reduced to a single simple iconic image, there is no opening for really discussing them. What if a person feels particularly good about some aspect of the other person or something the other person did? An emoticon is a shield that eliminates the need to go into any detail about the nature of a person’s flowing blendable continual emotional feelings or what has caused them to appear. What if a person is angry about a particular aspect of the other person or something the other person did? An anger emoticon gets rid of the necessity for the sender to sort out his feelings of anger, to help him channel his feelings of anger so that he isn’t overtaken by them. Furthermore, it prevents the receiver from understanding the cause of the anger, so that he can do something about it and perhaps contribute to eliminating or at least diminishing the sender’s feelings. The same would be true of a sadness emoticon. The sadness emoticon simply keeps the expression of the feelings simple and undeveloped. The receiver can only be a spectator to the feelings rather than become involved with them.
The emoticon keeps emotions static, when in real life they are dynamic and evolving. How does one show an emoticon face that demonstrates conflicting feelings or tentative feelings? Wouldn’t it be much easier for a person to elaborate on these feelings with words? What if the feelings are evolving in certain ways that require the receiver of the message to understand these ways so that he can influence them. “If you continue to behave in such and such a way, I will have to stop speaking to you.” Or “I really enjoyed our date and I am looking forward to getting to know you more.” This is a sub-category of a temporal dimension issue connected to emoticons. It is not just talking about steady state feelings at a particular period of time. It is about feelings undergoing a transformation. The definition of them does not come with looking at them at one moment of time. The result of doing things in the latter way would be like taking a picture of a runner or a swimmer while in a race. The subject of the picture would be very blurry.
The emoticon distorts the presentation of feelings by pretending that one can take a simple focused defined discrete snapshot of them. And in so doing, a person’s presentation of self is distorted. The person is presented as a simple focused defined discrete image. The emoticon image has highly defined outlines, reinforcing the presentation of the person as a highly defined image. The emoticon gets rid of the need to sort out one’s feelings in a situation, to spend time really trying to understand them so that they can be fully expressed.
What I am really saying is that emoticons contribute to keeping a person’s emotions and sense of self both simple and undeveloped. This is in contrast to the increasing complexity of cognitive development that is stimulated as a result of a sustained interaction between people, on the one hand, and computers and other screen machines, on the other. This increasing imbalance of growing cognitive development and diminished emotional development leads to a person becoming robotized.
As people increasingly use emoticons to express their feelings, the emoticons become the feelings. Simple discrete robotic images. One more contribution to taking people away from their organic human essence.
Emoticons make it easy for people to not explore their feelings, to not have to experience the organic friction that comes from deep-bonding with people. Emoticons permit people to remain in emotional isolation in an emotional vacuum where they can become robots.
One last point. Emoticons are not only used as a substitute for direct statements of feelings, either towards the end of a message or as the whole message. Emoticons are also used to unpack the emotional content of declarative sentences within a message, when the emotional aspect of the sentences is unclear. Written communication has no natural substitute for the vocal inflection that plays such an important role in expressing the emotional content of oral communication. Nevertheless, before emoticons, people often would find a way of crafting their words when writing letters to others, such that their emotional messages were more effectively communicated within the content of the letter. But it did require more work than emoticons do, and traditional people who had important emotional content to communicate to others who lived close to them would probably have been more predisposed to communicate the message with the emotional content directly as a vocal communication whenever possible. Having emoticons gives the appearance of making it much easier to communicate emotional content (although in a distorted short-cut form) in written messages. So rather than feeling the impetus to go and talk with someone – which would have the added benefits of encouraging rich primary experience and deeper emotional bonds with other people, message senders can sink into the experiential vacuums created by their smartphones, their tablets and their computers and emotionally bond with these machines in the process of communicating flat mechanical emotional images to their receivers.
© 2015 Laurence Mesirow