By Liz Reusswig

My friend Rebecca Todd recently wrote that emoticons don’t mesh with her learning style.

In her post, Learning Styles: What Emoticons Can Teach Us, she made a compelling case that emoticons may be confusing and incongruous additions for those who don’t respond to visual learning.

I seriously laughed out loud…not at the content of her post, which was enlightening, but because I had spent the better part of the day writing a pro-emoticons post based on a comment Rebecca had made on Facebook!

Emoticons Have Feelings Too

Let me back up for a moment: I adore Rebecca, have enormous respect for her and think she is one of the smartest folks I know, so her comment that no one older than 13 should be using emoticons stung. It stung, badly. Anyone who knows me online has been subjected to my ridiculous and copious use of smiley, sad, meh, grouchy, confused, and other faces.

What did this mean? Does she wince when I respond to her with a winky smile? Has she banned me from her Facebook newsfeed? How many other friends gag on my posts? Should I cold turkey my emoticon habit?

So of course, I picked up a sponge and started to clean the kitchen and obsessed about pondered my choices.

History of Emoticons

These fun little additions to our written and typed communication have been around a long time.

According to Keith Houston, in his recent Wall Street Journal essay, Smile! A History of Emoticons, the first (a winky) may have appeared as early as 1862 in a speech by Abraham Lincoln.

The more recent birth, however, is widely accepted to be from a 1982 Carnegie Mellon University message board post clarifying a joke about a lab accident (smiley and sad faces). As online communication has proliferated in the last 30 years, so has the use of emoticons.

Emoticons as Visual Aids

So, why do we use them? Most evidence seems to indicate that just as we may wink or nudge someone after a verbal comment, these visual aids allow us to clarify (or cloak) the true meaning of our words. With so much communication happening online, emoticons provide a way for those who are not necessarily confident in their written skills to clearly project emotion.

I conducted a non-scientific survey (ok, it was a few of my friends and my kids), which showed that some people use emoticons just because they make them feel good! Typing the smiley face actually makes them smile. This is an interesting point and makes me think we will see them used more in consumer-directed content.

“Tawk” Amongst Yourselves…and Popeye

Anyway, back in the kitchen furiously scrubbing away on the counters, it struck me.

My emoticon usage is kind of like my fast-talking New York accent – a little bit ingrained, a little bit of a communication choice, but certainly not intended to offend.

Some friends might find it annoying or childish and there are options for limiting what they see from me, which would be understandable.

I don’t employ silly face icons to be irksome, I just happen to like the illustrative emphasis that emoticons provide. They’re fun for those of us who try to be a light-hearted, enjoy a good joke and the occasional (cough, cough) snarky comment, but they’re not intended to hurt anyone.

For friends who indicate a preference, like Rebecca, I’m happy to articulate my jokes better or make a concerted effort to lose the emoticons in our conversations. However, probably not going to be as easy to lose the exclamation points, the words AWESOME, AMAZING…as Popeye says, “I yam, what I yam!”

So there you have it – my kitchen is clean and we have some good healthy debate on these goofy little faces. What’s your take on emoticons?

Also, for those of you who love all things writing-related, check out Keith Houston’s blog Shady Characters- The Secret Life of Punctuation. It is chock full of really interesting information about…well, as he puts it “typographic raconteurs hiding in plain sight.”

Liz Reusswig

Liz Reusswig is the owner of EMR Strategies, a small business consulting firm, and is the founder/owner of Kids Theatre News, an informational website for the theatre community. She loves helping people discover the power of social media and online engagement. Liz lives in Pennsylvania with her hydrogeologist husband, their two theatre kids, and loyal dog, Coco.

View all posts by Liz Reusswig