This archived article was written by: Carlie Miller
As a species, humans are very sociable. We require contact from others of our kind in order to survive in a somewhat stable universe. Whether it be a hug, a handshake, a smile or even a wink, these forms of communication are vital to social stability. Without communication, chaos ensues or something goes terribly wrong. Even with constant communication, we have “bad” and “lost” versions of this societal building block.
In John Cleese’s documentary series “The Human Face,” he explores facial expressions and how they relate to social status, cultural traits and communication. As society changes, we adapt by, among other things, changing how we communicate, but sometimes we do not and issues arise. Cleese presents the idea that “road rage” is one such problem. He discusses how, even when we are not aware of it, we are communicating constantly with our facial expressions. When one passerby bumps into another, they say their apologies or the simple facial expression given is enough of one.
When the automobile was invented, drivers lost subtle forms of communication through quiet words and facial expressions. When one driver upsets another, he cannot verbally apologize or give the “I’m sorry” look so the other driver knows he did not purposely commit the offending action. Because of this, the other driver may easily take offense and will come to the conclusion that the upsetting driver did it on purpose, just to make him angry. Today, little has changed since a driver’s only form of communication is his car horn and a wave of his hand; both are insufficient and so “road rage” remains present in our society.
So what does Abraham Lincoln have in common with “road rage”? Nothing, but he is in the conversation about this next form of communication that helps to prevent miscommunication on the Internet.
Emoticons. You either loathe them or use them profusely. A quick background explanation before we continue. Emoticons (the combination of the words “emotion” and “icon”) are a form of communication called glyphs, which are visual representations of characters that cannot be spoken and are created using present keystrokes. Emoticons have been around since the late 1800s when many were trying to come up with ways of putting more emotion into text. The first known emoticons published were from Puck Magazine and were symbols for the emotions of melancholy, indifference, astonishment, and joy. They were made popular by Scott Fahlman, a Carnegie Mellon University professor, in 1982 with a simple “smiley face” on an online message board (though the “smiley face” was invented in the 1960s, it was not used as part of text communication).
Since that time, emoticons have been used frequently online and in texting to insert certain feelings that cannot be shown otherwise but by lengthy description. Take for instance, the phrase “How are you?” If it contains the emoticon “:)” for “smile” or “:D” for “big smile” suggests a friendly question while “:(“ for “frown” or “:O” for “sad” and “shock” denote concern for the receiver’s wellbeing.
Though I do not use emoticons often, I can see the benefits of using them in certain situations to promote accurate communication. An interesting note on emoticons, according to the May 2010 issue of National Geographic Magazine, cultural differences are pronounced in these simple figures. The article “Say it with Parentheses” compares eastern (Asian) emoticons with western (Europe, U.S.) emoticons. The eastern symbols focus on the eyes (ex: sad is “(;_;)”) while the western versions are “bigmouthed” (ex: sad is “:(“) this shows what features each culture considers most important to facial communication. Also, some suggest that the sideways forms of the west is due to the efficiency of typing the emoticon compared to the more elaborate eastern emoticon, meaning that westerners are more in a hurry and that time is a bigger factor in the west.
Now we come to the part about Lincoln. In 2009, The New York Times discovered something very peculiar in their transcript of a speech given by Lincoln in 1862. The controversial text was, “…you being here yourselves, (applause and laughter 😉 and I offer…” see anything unusual? Imbedded in the line is what looks like the emoticon for smiling and winking (“;)”). At first, many thought it was simply a typo, but Vincent Golden, of the American Antiquarian Society, said, “At that time, type was still set piece by piece. So the typesetter would have had to pick up the semicolon and set it in the line then pick up the closed bracket and set it next. My gut feeling is it wasn’t a typo.” Others agreed, saying it would be easier to leave something out than to accidentally add a typo. Still, there are those on the other side of the debate who claim that the printer was running out of brackets (which are used frequently throughout the article) and had to use parentheses while others say it was a typo because the printer mistakenly switched the places of the semi-colon and the parentheses.
Though we may dislike emoticons or take them for granted, they are an important part of our society as we adapt to the world of new technology and communication, they are like a whispered apology or a look of contrition for those interacting with people a room or a half a world away. And what of Lincoln? Did the printer of that 1862 address create the first emoticon or was it a simple mistake? The debate rages on, but there is one thing for sure, Lincoln will always be tied to emoticons by at least one string, this: “=]:-)=”. The great man himself is summarized into his own simple emoticon.