Where Imoji First Began
In 2009, the New York Times ran a long article asking if the paper of record ran the very first emoticon in a transcription of an Abraham Lincoln speech. It was a semi-colon before a closed parentheses. Everyone now knows this as the “winky face,” or the winking emoticon, or whatever you want to call it. It’s pretty clear that it was just a typing mistake, since it came after an open parentheses. It was just a random semicolon. Also, why would it be there? Did they wanted to say they were joking about the crowd laughing and applauding at Lincoln?
The idea that the single greatest American citizen used an emoticon – or at least that he was involved in their invention – is probably nonsense. The brief thrill and wide debate that accompanied that article speaks to the now-permanent place emoticons have in our society. With Imoji, the new app for Apple that lets you turn yourself or any photo into an emoticon, we’re entering the age of completely personalized texting.
Why we need emoticons
That’s kind of a ridiculous subheading, right? Writing has existed for centuries without needing any orthographic simulacrums of human faces. We’ve somehow existed in a world devoid of winks. You know, those winks that connotate you’re being a big ol’ goof when you say you would rather die than go to Stephanie’s party.
But then, there has always been something mysterious about writing. Since people first put ash to papyrus, there is always the chance for misinterpretation. It’s the bane of all writers. People simply don’t understand what they are trying to say. It leads to an interesting question about the strange dance and unknowable alchemy between writer and reader. Does authorial intent always trump reader interpretation? Can there be different versions of the same words, based entirely on the minds of different readers? Does a book change even after the final printing, because the readers change?
Are Winks Better Than Words?
Those are all really deep questions that get into the weeds a little bit. They show the difficulty people who write for a living have. They labor over every word and every comma when it comes to making themselves understood perfectly. What chance do the rest of us have?
It’s odd, and it flies against the face of intuition. The written word is more important now than it ever has been. We all think, and rightly so to an extent, that language is being devalued by email, text-speak, and IM. Language itself might be debased (arguable), and the ability to read and write longer messages could be disappearing. Nonetheless, we rely on the written word for everything. Transactions that used to be done over the phone have become digital. Before phones, even, letters were sent, but literacy wasn’t universal. If you couldn’t write or read, you only spoke with those within earshot. The idea of everyone communicating with everyone else via words, even shortened, vowel-deprived words, is astonishing, and astonishingly recent.
Because of this, making sure intent matters is more important than ever. A quickly-jotted note can be read a million different ways and can poison a relationship. We’ve all received a message at work saying, “can i get those files today,” and felt a surge of reaction against an aggressive presumption. We read it sarcastically, emphasize the “today,” and feel insulted. Or we read it with a cold tone, enraged at the lack of “please,” and wonder just who our brusque correspondent thinks they are, talking to you like that. And they really typed it thinking that the casual nature – look, I didn’t capitalize the “I,” like some kind of square – would show that it was a casual request, no big deal, and then wonder why you’re cold-shouldering them in the break room.
This can be disasterous in business or in personal relations. How many dates have ended in agony after getting a brief “sure” when texting to ask if she’d be interested in another? So emoticons have become the language of text, connoting the actual emotion behind it, and for those who don’t think emoticons are still weird and new (i.e. old people like your correspondent), there are emojis, extremely expressive faces that aren’t just repurposed symbols, but actual faces – laughing, dancing, hugging, being angry, eating donuts, being racially retrograde, crying – the whole gamut of human emotions that can be contained in a vaguely-animated smiley face.
Imoji has taken this a step further, allowing you to take a picture of yourself, or your dog, or a tire fire, or whatever you feel you will need to express yourself – and turn it into an emoji. Right now, this is slightly flawed. It apparently is a lot of work to trim the picture, it isn’t compatible with a keyboard, it is only useable for Apple, etc. However, something not going gangbusters right out of the box is never an indication that the service – or at least the idea behind it – doesn’t have a future.
Becoming the text
The idea makes a lot of sense. We are expressing ourselves more and more through text, if not simply through texts. At work, I can go for days without actually talking to anyone, and that is increasingly common. No one makes calls to make plans or ask anything remotely expressible through text, except old-fashioned people with clumsy, stupid fingers who take forever to type something out (i.e. your correspondent, again).
Language has always been a tool to express who we are – a collection of words that reveal our inner expressions, that try to make a sense out of the world and create a narrative that ties together disparate and jumbled threads of perception. It makes sense that, as we rely less and less on the spoken word, we would want it more and more personalized. As text becomes us, we want to become a part of the text.
For some, this might sound ridiculous, but I think that this trend could help to boomerang the growing incomprehensibility of our shorthand language. After all, the whole point is to communicate. Adding faces to text, robbing it of painful ambiguity, is an aid to communication. In a way, this is the evolution of language. In his day, Lincoln was sometimes considered scandalous because he spoke in a common tongue – not like the high-flown rhetoric of Douglas. But Lincoln is now known as one of the great orators. Who knows? Maybe one day the text using a thousand faces can capture the gamut of human emotions as well as an essay or poem. And who is to say that isn’t art? Who is to say that can’t be language?