Emoticons, or if you prefer the original Japanese word emojis, are everywhere. We are used to emoticons in all shapes and sizes — from animated gifs jumping out at us on our social media feed to yellow-faced smileys that we use to add tone and feeling, nuance and layers to our text-heavy conversations in the digital world. For many of the current users of digital communication, emoticons are pre-defined pictures that they select from a menu that gives them access to add a wink, a nod, a smiling or sad face to their messages. However, there are power users who, I am sure, still remember the times when emoticons were things that you created.
Before the emergence of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) that turned the computer into a box of cuteness, turning all of us into eternal children playing with the friendly faces of the digital platforms, the digital world was flat and largely textual. Emoticons were first proposed in 1982 to take away the density and the unforgiving monotone of text-based conversations on digital platforms. From that first proposal of a : ) and : ( sign to indicate the mood of a text, emoticons have had a fascinating history of evolution. Following the proposal of the basic emoticons by Scott Fahlman, a variety of early adopters of the web came up with a wide range of options. The smiley became a grin with : D and the sad face was made to weep with : ‘ (. The face became mischievous and winked with a ;) and swooned in love with a <3. It became silly with its tongue poking out :p and sprouted devil horns to show its inherent wickedness with >:D.
Early users will remember how, from that first explosion, the emoticons grew into forming extremely intricate art forms. In the world of text-based virtual realities, the shrugging emoticon was my constant companion when giving up on futile internet arguments : ¯\_(?)_/¯ . From there, we were only one step away from complex ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) art forms that made punctuation and critical marks the new tools for emerging artists to play with. The ASCII characters were keyboard symbols, letters and numbers mixed together to produce images ranging from flowers and animals to the globe and human bodies. In fact, ASCII became such a huge rage that there were special forums where people submitted their ASCII art. Even though we have now achieved high visual fidelity with our powerful computing devices, the ASCII messages still continue on our WhatsApp groups and discussion forums. So that we still tell people we love them in ASCII
`·.¸.·´ I Love
(¸.·´ (¸.·´ .·´ You… or pledge friendship in punctuation
<) )—( (>
One of the lesser known histories of emoticons and ASCII, however, has been forgotten in the gentrified, cute and commodified mass produced usage that we have put them to. In many cultures and spaces in those early days of the web, emoticons were also ways of resisting censorship and circumventing supervision. As the web became more open and more people started signing up for digital conversations, there was also an increase in the monitoring and surveillance of things online. In more conservative cultures, there were immediate bans on conversations that were considered pornographic or obscene. In stricter work places, the system administrators were trying to filter messages which might have certain words or images in their content. ASCII and emoticons came to the rescue, because, using these characters which the computer only read as punctuation marks without content, people were able to communicate sexual content without the fear of censorship.
In the late ’90s, there were graphic and explicit ASCII images that were circulated, so that the content filters would not detect them, and, using just the characters, the earliest internet porn, or Pr0n as it was tagged, came into being. The emoticon-filled messages were not just about nodding and winking at each other but also a way for people to question authority and to find new modes of expression. Since those days of subversion, emoticons have come a long way, becoming appropriated in our everyday practice — they have been tamed and made mainstream.
I am sure that the ubiquity of the emoticons produces a sense of irritation sometimes, and you want to send a slapping emoticon when you find a work email with a smiley face at the end. But before you announce the death of the emoticon, you might want to know that digital natives are experimenting with the radical power of these emoticons. They are developing an entirely new language filled with exploding bananas, pulsating aubergines, peeking monkeys, dancing unicorns, and victorious roosters to communicate in ways that are not accessible to the parents, teachers and authority figures around them. The repurposing of emoticons by young users to chat, express, flirt, tease and engage with each other in ways that defy all conventional sense. I find this fascinating because it gives me hope that the web is not going to just produce all users as cheap copies of each other.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.