Why are Smileys not in the history books?

I recently began a course in the history of handwritten texts, and I must say it has made me think a lot about communication.

Throughout history we are inclined to think that we as a race have evolved into more and more advanced creatures, which in turn has led to more and more advanced communication. We learned to speak, rather than just use sounds. We learned to use pictogram’s, then cuneiform writing, which in turn evolved into the modern alphabet.

Making parchment

Following these remarkable feats we also figure out how to print the written word, using movable types, thus enabling us to do masscommunication. 

From our standpoint though, we tend to think of the past, say thirty years as the most significant in this process. The IT-revolution. Everything from widespread use of television, to the Google aided memory. This has enabled more people than ever before to communicate with more people, and in more diverse ways than ever before. I would not go as far as to say that it has meant a complete democratisation of communication, but we are drawing ever closer to it.

And here is where I find my self at a cross-roads. Should I as a blogger and Web 2.0 guy follow the line of “This is awesome! I’m gonna’ twitter it right now.” Or should I listen to the historian inside. The historian is much more cautious. 

The historian in me sees a problem here. As we said it is generally believed that we go from less advanced to more advanced. And to me that also seams to be intimately connected to the notion that we leave more to the generations to come. We learned how to write, we have some of that left. We learned how to use better and better materials to write on and with, so we have even more of those things. We learned to store and curate things, conserve them. Massproduction saw to that some things hang around purely because there is so damn much of it. But today’s texts, when we finally seem to have left the mandarin culture of yester ages, it hits us: no one will read it in times to come. I can’t even use my old diskettes from the nineties anymore, and even less so my Zip-disks. Not to mention my old Nisus Writer files… Some formats have lingered and standards help. Text-files, ASCII, Unicode and to a certain extent CD-ROMs are still useful, but for how long? Besides, none of that is even close to useful without electicity… With the possible exception of the Cd’s. They can be used as mirrors, mini Frisbee’s or any number of other things, but I digress.

Adobe Caslon letter A

So what? Most of what is written today is not important for more than a few minutes, a couple of months at the most. Then it’s old and useless. But we should consider this: historians generally say that cultures with few traces are not very advanced nor are they particularly rich. We cremate our dead and leave fewer and fewer traces in writing, and yet we would all suppose we are a reasonably advanced culture. This is troublesome.

The other issue to address is that the languages have started to show to lacks. Lack number one is that word and phrases takes to long to type out. Hence we use things like LOL, BTW and RTFM instead. But at the same time, and this is my second point, it is lacking in expressiveness, which has brought back the pictogram’s in active use, and those are the smileys.

Why is this? Well, I think the shortenings were to be expected. The means of writing have almost always dictated the way we write. Ergo the rather cumbersome task of writing on a QWERTY keyboard, specifically design to slow you down on a typewriter will create a new way of expression when “normal” people start using it to do their communication. This is echoed in the ancient times when the Phoenicians invented the alphabet because they needed something faster to write with to do their trade. The cuneiform writing had been OK for the Assyrians, Babylonians and Sumerians because they mainly used it for administrative purposes, and this, as we all know, does not require any particular speed. The hieroglyphs of Egypt similarly, were designed for propaganda and religion, also two rather no speedy tasks, at least in those days. But when the average Joe or Jane needed a writing system, they invented the much more efficient alphabet. The same thing is happening now. Regular people need something faster, so they invent it. But they are not capable of inventing new sorts of keyboards, so they change the way they write instead.




The smileys are in a way more of a mystery. On the one hand it is rather straight forward. In a world where we use text instead of verbal communication, we need something to replace body language with. I mean fair enough, it is difficult to blush so someone understands it without being in the same room. No, the mystery to me is why we don’t seem to have needed these before. Surely bodytype language must have been needed from time to time before? Or is it a new thing thing? Are we the first ones to believe it is actually needed? Is it that people expressed feelings in writing better in times gone by? Maybe, but certainly not everyone.

Is there then a point to this rambling, other than creating more text that will be gone the day the power goes out? I’m not sure, but I think it is important to remember that we do not live for ever, and that we need to carefully consider what, and in that case how we want coming generations to remember us. I’ve heard that the Scientologists have had their important writings written on platinum plates to preserve them for when they come back after some great disaster. Maybe we all should start to think this way. Not perhaps writing our blog posts on metal, but at least give it a think!

If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.” 
Kingsley Amis



3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by neina on September 10, 2008 at 1:14 am

    Highly interesting… and well written! Looking forward to more! Kram


  2. I have always believed that smileys have become a necessity due to the brevity of modern writing.

    As communications are expected to happen faster and faster, we write shorter and shorter (sms… twitter…) — using common abbreviations such as b t w and others you mentioned earlier.

    The shorter we write, the less room for expressing “tone of voice”. So we replace it with brief pictograms of our facial expressions which we know will “bend” the meaning of a message in a certain direction.

    my 2 öre anyway.

    PS. I enjoy reading your thoughts. Nice to see you’re writing again.


  3. Posted by Tobias on September 13, 2008 at 11:54 am

    Thanks for the comments, and yes I agree. But what I find interesting about this is that we have tended to move away from pictogram due to their perceived complexity before.

    Thanks for reading my thoughts!


    Ps. It was a cheap comment… 2 öre… 😉


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