Emoticons: regressed cave paintings or evolved punctuation?

English: Lascaux Caves - Prehistoric Paintings...

They are everywhere, aren’t they, those annoying little intrusions? Visual shorthand for the inarticulate; signposts for the emotionally illiterate; and evidence, as if more were needed, of the effect of the internet on our increasingly soggy brains. Or are they?

Recently, a dignified row broke out on an academic forum because a student had used a smiley in a thread dedicated to formal critiquing of submitted work. The argument was that, as the course was about writing, writing should be the medium by which ideas and views should be communicated, and this should be constructed so as to convey maximum meaning without the need for artificial aids. Fair dos, but how did we get to this? How come some of us are unable to resist littering our text with the little blighters and others have no idea how to interpret the meaning of a message without them? Has our ability to construe/parse/inhabit our own language really deteriorated so rapidly that we have regressed to the level of cave painters in just a few short years?

At first, I thought yep, that’s it for language – regression to the mean, lowest common denominator, and all down to the demon MSN Messenger where teenagers hung out in droves until their parents found it. Now they’re trying to escape them on Facebook and wondering how their Nan got into twitter. But here’s a thing – written language for the masses is pretty recent and it’s evolving as new words are invented and make their way into proper grown-up dictionaries. This year we got selfie although nobody told my spellcheck. Before written language, stories and news were delivered orally by visiting messengers, town criers, fable tellers, wise elders, and senior family members (your Nan again). These were obviously told in words and so language was in pole position. But with story tellers, there was also body language – grimacing, arm waving, eye-rolling, and intonation shifting – the gruntings and flappings that added contextual information to the words and embellished their meaning. Quite possibly, people’s vocabulary was extended in this way, hearing words in association with particular gestures and sounds. Although with much ecclesiastical delivery being in Latin, the only message you needed to get was fear, awe, and obedience which was not very complicated.

A telling change in the presentation of written material came with the advent of printing when people needed to be told how to break up the text in their heads according to syntax instead of just running out of breath during an oration[i] [ii] [iii]. Were these the first emoticons? Symbolic cues to interpretation, rhythm, pace, and meaning? Certainly, as written language became more complex with new words creeping in by stealth (other cultures popping along with their own dictionaries – beef and pork[iv] for instance), theft (people visiting other cultures and nicking words they liked – bungalow, cha[v]), and florid imagination (Shakespeare’s anchovies and puppy dogs) – rules for punctuation had to be consolidated so that everyone knew what it all meant, and so that greengrocers subsequently could annoy the hell out of everyone else by sticking inappropriate apostrophes to their sprout’s.

But then along came film and TV and, unlike stage plays where projecting to the back row and acting one’s face off in the interests of communication were an actor’s staple skills, these instead required and allowed the projection of nuance – tiny flickers of emotional content – right into our heads. Suddenly, exposure to intimacy of feeling was possible and it was right there on our screens, supported by graphic imagery, a simultaneous oral thread, and quite often, musical ‘gesture’ enhancing or clarifying the mood in case we were confused.  Video clips are now ubiquitous, TV is on your phone, your tablet, your computer, and even your TV. Imagery is everywhere.

So what do we do now with those bald pieces of text by which we communicate something that isn’t worth downloading Photoshop or a video editing suite to cartoonify? I think what we do is revert to our stage play phase – exaggerating humour, sadness, excitement, joy, with every symbol we can get our hands on. Multiple exclamation marks, question marks, ellipses … littered messages long before we knew how to LMAO or require others to STFU. Once we did, we added a whole new vocabulary (Shakespeare would have been proud of us) in which almost anything could be expressed – including humility (or maybe passive aggressive appeasement) by delivering a scathing review with an IMHO tag. Emoticons are what happened once digital conversion really took off so that they could be imported easily into anything without having to remember which combination of letters and dots made the face with the cool glasses and which the one with its tongue sticking out.

Perhaps this means that, rather than being less emotionally and technically literate than previous generations, the converse is true. We appreciate the mistakes that can be made within a brief communication if our nuance is misconstrued, and we do our best to clarify by using all means our disposal. This is not an argument for the inclusion of emoticons in all our written works – especially if that might be at the expense of fully realised language – but it may mean we should accept their role in our developing communications armoury the way punctuation had to be accepted by the traditionalists when the masses began to read for themselves. And anyway, Moodle – the academic platform for many universities – has them built into its messaging options now. Resistance, it seems, is futile 😀

‘No Animals …’ – the story behind the story

In the 1890s when gender role reversals could ...

I had just started writing this when I saw that the author of Digging Deep, which followed mine on EDF, had done exactly the same thing. His account of the genesis of his story lets us into the history of it, the emotional drive, and also the subtext that, for better or for worse, is so often implied rather than exposed in very short fiction.

Aaron Polson wrote in his blog about the intensity of feeling that underpinned Digging Deep because he wanted us to know, I imagine, how deeply he felt that connection. It is important to him and it adds deeper currents to the stream of his story. I liked his story and I felt a great deal of his connection with the theme, but his account of its inception adds another colour to my palette of appreciation and it enhances my satisfaction with the whole. Why? Because I know more now and I like knowing a bit more. It does not detract from the fiction, or rationalise it or subvert it or explain it or in any way make up for any perceived inadequacy in it. It is instead the thing upon which it rests, the mount that enhances it and adds new light and shade.

So what about No Animals? This was not universally loved, it must be said, with at least one person unable even to read it all the way through. Others liked the feisty heroine and gave it five stars, while some were confused about what was happening. If they read it the way I read most of the non-literary fiction I have delivered to my inbox, I am not at all surprised much of it escaped people so that all they were left with was a character some people really did not like and a scenario they found difficult to understand. These are the issues I was aiming to present, and they are admittedly, unlike Aaron’s, somewhat explanatory:

  • Difference and the inability to ‘see’ another group, race, or identity. Setting aside the actual likelihood of there being a species so utterly unlike ours biologically, these people are nevertheless much like us in that they are sentient, they like to be entertained, and they have codes of practice, yet they could not recognise sentient life when it was so different from their own. I wonder how much better we would do in similar circumstances.
  • The role of women in fiction. In so many TV and film productions, they are just victims – there to scream and be helpless while the hero sets about either saving them or investigating their death. This character is neither, instead she wise-cracks her way to a death that is not investigated but is certainly regretted. Real women do wise-crack in adversity, despite what the media would have us believe.
  • Victim-blaming. There is also the commonly held belief that getting wasted makes whatever happens to you, especially if you are female, pretty much your own fault, and this character has been on a celebratory bender that might have been exacerbated by spiking of her drinks by her colleagues. Subsequent to that is the ‘hazing’ to which she is subjected – shoved out into space by workmates as drunk as she is on the assumption they can haul her capsule back in again when they wish. So who is to blame for this? All of them for getting drunk? The tradition of bullying that is titled ‘hazing’ because it is accepted?  The character for buying into it? And is it worse, more blame-worthy, because she is a mother?
  • Responsibility and culpability. We live in a litigious and often scape-goating world but most mistakes for which individuals are blamed are actually systemic. The main character’s crewmates make an honest if stupid mistake when they send her out in the capsule. The aliens make an honest if ignorant mistake when they fail to see her as sentient. What is to blame there but, for each of them, a failure to take all eventualities into consideration, and how many of us do that?
  • Reality TV and the treatment of vulnerable participants. So often, we see people whose personal difficulties make them good TV and ‘willing’ victims who will suffer without knowing why. In this story, the aliens are trying to avoid harm by only using non-sentient artificial intelligences for their extreme reality shows, and in their ignorance, they fail to recognise this woman as a life form. Why? Perhaps because, like much of our own media, theirs is populated by arts graduates who have not the faintest idea of anything scientific, so they take the data they are given as absolute and make no further checks of their own. They do not recognise life because they are incapable of thinking outside their box, in the same way that many of our own reality shows fail consistently to recognise participant vulnerabilities because they are not trained, and also they do not wish to see them. They have a schedule and that is their priority – a recognisable problem for many of us.
  • Ethics and how these can tie us in knots. The aliens here are conservers of both life and materials and so they clean up near space and use only robotic entities for entertainment in situations that are likely to end in perceived (by the audience) destruction. This combination of ideals is central to the terrible consequences that ensue.

So the subtext of No Animals is ethics, ignorance, honest mistakes and their implications, bullying disguised as tradition, and gender role stereotyping. I am a fan of ethics, I understand how people make mistakes, but I abhor remediable ignorance, bullying, and unwarranted gender based pigeon-holing of individuals. This story took a bit of a pop at all that and yes, thank you, I feel a lot better now!