Saturday, September 22, 2007

Death to the emoticon ;-)

...the computer keyboard, especially for touch-typists, is an invisible piano on which we play instantly ... First musings race into fully-formed words and sentences with no pause for revision, let alone perfection. As soon as they are on screen they acquire validity. Over them hovers the dreaded send button, itching to be pressed and behind which lurk a hundred links, addresses and possible misdirections. Send is always pressed too soon.

So says Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins in a passionate attack on the language of emails. His comment piece begins by pointing out that emoticons (the little symbols which smile, frown, wink or glow with shame) are now 25 years old and that their use has spread with the growth of online communication. He then goes on to make the point that all mechanical or electronic forms of communication have used some form of abbreviation, but that emails are a blunt tool causing "unintentional pain and embarrassment" and that even emoticons can't make up for the lack of subtlety or nuance in email communication.

Jenkins' article is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, his argument that email is less subtle than the handwritten word is perhaps true, but then each serves a different purpose - for the time being anyway. The written word (pen on paper) is still given more credibility and status than the word processed or emailed word: take birthday cards, legal documents and contracts, for example. Perhaps all this will change as e-communications take over the world.

One of his other points, that email doesn't provide an interaction is a little more dubious. While it's true that email isn't the same as face to face talk in its potential to be shaped and re-shaped depending on cues like facial expression, body language and eye contact, it is still pretty quick. Replies can zip across the internet backwards and forwards as quickly as you can read them and type them.

Then again, unlike MSN where conversations can be tracked in real time, there is often a time lag in reading and responding to emails which means that it can lead to misunderstandings and lost threads.

The discussion about Jenkins' views is taken up in a debate at the end of his article, and the responses are well worth looking at for some different angles.

Useful for:
ENA3 - spoken and written language
ENA5 - Language Change
2008 AQA A spec - Language & Mode

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