It is difficult enough to figure out when people are being serious or not in everyday face-to-face conversation, let alone online or in other ‘nu-tech’ scriptual economies, such as mobile phone texting… The emoticon emerged as a direct result of the lack of easily expressible affect in online exchanges.
The genealogy of the emoticon probably should be traced back to the invention of the iconic ‘smiley face’ in 1963. The circle, arc and two dot representation of a smiling face on the classic yellow background was invented by Richard Ball to help ease “the acrimonious aftermath following the merger of two insurance companies.” The face was placed on a button and punched out in numbers for the workers to wear and feel good about themselves… But from the origins in the depressingly dank hallways of actuarial capitalism, where the game is soley exploiting risk for profit, the smiley face was transformed into an iconic representation of the Anti-Vietnam War protest movement and the general happy-go-lucky debauchery of the Hippie era. Two brothers, Murray and Bernard Spain, knocked up a button that joined the smiley face with the caption “Have a nice day.” (Oh well, this Gumpism is wrong!) They sold 50 million buttons and other smiley products in 1972.
I raise the story of the smiley face (for more see here and here) as it is both an iconic and an indexical sign in Pierce’s semiology. It is an iconic representation of a smiling face (that is pretty obvious). It is also indexical in the sense that, like smoke as an indexical sign of fire, the smiley face is allegedly worn as an indexical sign of goodwill. It is an affective representation. Many signs have affective resonances, but there are very few signs constructed purely for the purpose of the indexical representation of affect. The ‘love heart’ could be another (but even then it is used in a literal non-affective sense, such as on some heart rate monitors). Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another indexical representation of affect used by entire cultures…
That is, until we jump forward to 1982. The 279th all-time greatest grossing movie at the box-office, Porky’s, was released and, on the 19 of September, Scott Fahlman wrote this message to a bulletin board at Carnegie Mellon:
19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman
From: Scott E Fahlman
I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:
Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to markthings that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use
See this page here and Scott’s own account of this fateful event. There is an obvious difference between the indexical icon of the smiley face button and the sideways (un)smiley face of BBS argot that pertains to the necessary scriptual economy of early ASCII programing language and the demand for an indexical sign of affect that used the available symbols of the QWERTY keyboard.
More interesting things can be said about the emoticon as an indexical sign of affect within collective assemblages of enunciation belonging to the post-internet regime of signs, lol!!… but someone else can worry about that stuff.
One final thought about the explicitly pragmatic nature of emoticons. They express a variation that is affective in nature, so that the emoticon operates as an order-word upon language. That is, they perform an immanent incorporeal transformation of the body of enunciation where the ‘body’ of enunciation is immanent to the expression of the emoticon. More importantly, the emoticon as order-word signals the social machinery (assemblage of enunciation) in which the emoticon is imbricated. An example: I send a smiley face on my phone as part of a text message. It does not simply insert an immanent affective variation, it signals that the enunciation is explicitly affective. It emotes; it is emotive. So what?
The event of the emoticon (sense) cannot be simply delineated according to the territory of the statement and the act of enunciation. The way I use emoticons is different from others, and no two uses of an emoticon are the same… in the sense that each act implicates its own sense. So what is being signalled by an emoticon is not simply the collective assemblage of enunciation in which nerds find themselves, the variation of sense belongs to the person who uttered. This exists as a very low level or even background potentiality of the emoticon; that is, the force of the emoticon is itself in variation. The affective nature of an emoticon is essentially pragmatic. There are fey frowns and cynical or innocent smiles… (via):
Q: How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of the immediate past?Â
Nabokov: I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile â€“ some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.
Edit: I am a shit spela and a bad Foucaultian. lol! Plus it is fabulously ironic that Mel posts on the affective nature of texting at the same time!