In her blog post “Why You Should Stop Worrying and Start Using Emoticons,” Anne Trubek defends the use of emoticons:
A punctuation purist would claim that emoticons are debased ways to signal tone and voice, something a good writer should be able to indicate with words. But the contrary is true: The history of punctuation is precisely the history of using symbols to denote tone and voice. Seen in this way, emoticons are simply the latest comma or quotation mark. And despite the oft-repeated story that Carnegie Mellon professor Scott Fahlman invented the smiley and the frown face in 1982, the history of emoticons goes back much further.
In 1887, Ambrose Bierce wrote an essay, “For Brevity and Clarity,” suggesting ways to alter punctuation to better represent tone. He proposed a single bracket flipped horizontally for wry smiles, “to be appended, with the full stop, to every jocular or ironical sentence.”
If “emoticons are simply the latest comma or quotation mark,” and Ambrose Bierce suggested a j/k mark more than a century ago, why hasn’t there been a standard print punctuation mark developed that is the equivalent of ;)? (And if Ambrose Bierce—master of prose humor—felt a need for it, then presumably it’s not simply a matter of failing to hit the adequately jocular tone by word choice alone.)
But perhaps the question is not simply why/how emoticons and other internet abbreviations developed. The number of quick and informal interactions online, the online conversations that once would have taken placed in person or in longer letters, the repetitive and casual nature of so many of these conversations that calls for a standardized “wtf” or “lol,” the mechanics of typing—it hardly seems surprising that a :) would develop so quickly in such a flexible medium.
But… given that it was Bierce, of all people, calling for these punctuation marks earlier, does the internet’s quick adoption of these marks suggest that we’ve all revealed ourselves to be wannabe Ambrose Bierces? That it was preferable to make tongue-in-cheek jokes that could be seriously misunderstood—and develop a whole new set of punctuation to accommodate this tendency—than just to write what we had to communicate?
In an internet of lolcats, this may not be surprising. But the speed with which these marks have become prevalent in online culture may also suggest something about the high and widespread value we place on humor, and not simply reflect our informality or laziness. :)