Props to Jonathan Nolan, who got it wincingly right with “Poker Face” in the May 20, 2013, New Yorker. People who know me have found it strange that I, by most accounts a grammarian and formalist, could develop such an emoticon habit (which I’ve recently gone cold turkey with).
Easy. Because, as Nolan says, every communique—and we make hundreds a day now—is “an opportunity to offend, alienate, aggrieve, all in public, and at light speed.” I too had started with the gateway drug of exclamation marks to ensure I wasn’t being mistaken for unenthusiastic. The mark seemed to importantly differentiate between “I’ll get you the document specs by Thursday” and “Beers on me tonight!”
Gmail’s extra emojis then opened up my world: claw-clacking lobsters, tulips, zebras, and star-dappled champagne flutes expressed the subtleties of my mood more succinctly than I could myself. The English language was suddenly an old ironsided warship in the drone age. Friendships with people younger than myself exacerbated the problem. My first Android phone only encouraged me, with its wailing or puckering or rose-cheeked goblins.
Finally a couple months ago, I texted a standard issue smiley to someone, expressing standard issue pleasure, and it was answered with a threat of violence. I had to concede that my claims of ubiquity and shorthand convenience and “the culture” were excuses, and that the instruction I’ve heard given to three-year-olds, “Use your words,” was apt enough for me too.
I have emoted since, but only with these spongy, porous features at the front of my head. They work as well as ever, though they are a little dated.