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‘Smiley, you’re on candid camera’: Emoticons & Pre-Digital Networks

  • Sydney J. Shep

…plus d’informations

  • Sydney J. Shep
    Victoria University of Wellington

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Corps de l’article

Several years ago, I was browsing back issues of The British and Colonial Printer and Stationer, Bookseller’s Circular and Paper Trade Review at the St. Bride Printing Library in London. Under the regular column “Mems from our File” for February 16, 1882 was the following short note: “Several American and one German contemporary print these funny compositors’ portraits. … Any compositor with a sense of humour can vary them almost indefinitely. We shall be pleased to see other illustrations.”[1]

Fig. 1

The British and Colonial Printer and Stationer, Bookseller’s Circular and Paper Trade Review, February 16, 1882

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A fortnight later, more examples of ‘portrait painting by type,’ as it was called, were displayed, fleshing out the concept to include additional sorts from the typecase, including the “@” symbol in various configurations, and shifting register to the emotive language of advertising.[2]

Fig. 2

The British and Colonial Printer and Stationer, Bookseller’s Circular and Paper Trade Review, March 2, 1882

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Amongst the American precursors mentioned by the editor is the satirical magazine, Puck, which ran the four emoticons in its March 30, 1881 edition.[3] But even as late as 1911, the same images are circulating through the typographical press. Wimble’s Reminder. A Journal for Printers, Bookbinders, and Allied Trades, was a trade publication produced by the F.T. Wimble Company in Sydney from ca. 1908-1957. Number 17 for May 1911 includes a note about “A Catchy Bill-Head”:

The Australian printer with bright ideas is not confined to our large cities; he is frequently to be met in the townships of this vast territory. At times our travellers bring home to us print specimens that would discredit no reputable house in the land, and executed oftimes under conditions that would drive many metropolitan men to drink – or some other method of destruction. That the country comp. is capable of departing from the commonplace is manifested by what one has concocted out of the seldom-used boxes of his upper case. Herewith is the embellishment on the bill-head form of “The Border Chronicle,” run by Mr. Leslie S. Duncan.

Bordertown, S.A.[4]

Fig. 3

Wimble’s Reminder. A Journal for Printers, Bookbinders, and Allied Trades, May 1911, 15

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Did this particular “country comp” have access to back issues of the British and Colonial Printer or, like James Secord’s concept of literary replication,[5] did he learn his types by trade osmosis? Our expressive glyphs reappear in other printers’ trade magazines in more tenuous places and spaces, including the shortlived The Indian Printers’ Journal of 1896 and The South African Typographical Journal whose publication was disrupted during the Boer War (1899-1902). They are graphic evidence of the scissoring and scrapbooking impulse which drives what I term the “typographical press system”[6] and reveal the ubiquity of visual transmission. They also suggest that the emoticon is neither a new concept nor exclusively digital. How did these typographical journals operate, what kinds of networks did they create and participate in, and how does the recycling of such visual information – as well as its memory and forgetting – enable us to re-evaluate the hitherto perceived computer birthmark of this pre-digital code, the emoticon?

Nineteenth-century typographical journals were far more than vehicles for the latest in domestic and international printing and book trade news, or technical information known in the trade as “wrinkles.” They connected printers in a “trans-imperial discourse of colonialism” and helped to produce an “imagined geography of empire”[7] facilitated by an ever-expanding suite of communication technologies and journalistic strategies. Typographical journals, like printing chapels and trade unions, “wayzgooses” – the annual printers’ outing – and other social activities, linked memory to place.[8] They also familiarized the new by evoking nostalgia and continuity. At the same time, they participated in the widespread habit of exchanging, reprinting, and circulating snippets of textual information common to the Victorian periodical press and characteristic of the so-called “new journalism.”[9] Such scissors-and-paste journalism, whether authorised or illicit, and its attendant impulse – scrapbooking – created an integrated network which connected imperial centres and colonial margins, and erased the distinction between editors and readers. Notably, the typographical press also helped foster a new kind of “globalizing sensibility”[10] which was simultaneously local, national, imperial and extra-imperial. Such a globalising sensibility has frequently been associated with the third revolution, the digital age. Yet, communication technologies including print and genres such as the typographical press could enable a comparable kind of information dissemination. To understand this process further, it is timely to revisit the “history” of the emoticon.

On September 19, 1982 at 11:44am, on the flickering black and green screens of the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, Scott E. Fahlman posted the following message[11]:

Fig. 4

Scott E. Fahlman, “‘Joke’ Conversation Thread in which :-) was proposed,” http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~sef/Orig-Smiley.htm 5 May 2010; Fahlman, “Smiley Lore,” http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~sef/sefSmiley.htm 5 May 2010

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The smiley was born, or was it? Fahlman never claimed to be the originator of the smiley, although he has since been pleasantly surprised by its global uptake. He has heard of some teletype operators who used the smiley in both its Fahlman and the noseless “midget” variant. Popular history attributes the “-)” symbol, meaning “tongue-in-cheek,” to one Kevin Mackenzie in 1979. Harlan Ellison, a pioneer fanzine publisher, has suggested that science fiction contributors of the 1940s and 50s routinely punctuated their prose with a simple sideways smile framed by quotes: “)”. The bright yellow happy face was the ubiquitous symbol of the 70s and 80s and, along with the estimated 50 million happy face buttons, remains in circulation today, lost in cyberspaces such as “SmileyWorld, Ltd.”[12]

Attribution aside, the pictographic smiley now populates our netspeak. It has been extended beyond the original smile, frown and wink to include an astonishing array of different logotypes, single emotion icons, composite portraits, and even narrative sequences reminiscent of Pitman shorthand and evidence of the legibility of extreme textual compression. Straight-on rather than sideways smileys are now common, and additional body parts have been introduced into the equation with the arrival of assicons and boobicons.[13] Japanese smileys (kaomoji or “face characters”) accommodate ethnic difference, and more recently, make clever use of kanji to create composite symbols.[14] The extension of this pictographic impulse is ASCII Art which, like typewriter art, is now a recognised genre.[15] America OnLine has introduced SuperBuddyTM to animate emoticons. Other firms have dabbled with synthesised voice messages whose tone can be actuated by the use of smileys. Individuals and companies have endeavoured to trademark their particular character combinations and/or register the code to transfer keystroke sequences automatically to their humanised counterpart. Microsoft Corporation, for example, applied to the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 2005 to patent “methods and devices for creating and transferring custom emoticons.”[16] Despite the ubiquity of emoticons, and the dangerous precedent of patenting a universal language, comparable to the alphabet, the firm’s patent for “emotiflags” was granted in July 2009. The Milk Processor Education Program or MilkPEP uses the first branded emoticon – the milk mustache – to encourage American teenagers to drink milk.[17] A netiquette manual entitled Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, legislates the politesse of cybercorrespondence, including when and when not to use emoticons.[18] And finally, Xin Li, a Google software engineer, has developed face-warping and morphing software called Face Alive Icons that personalises the smiley, or wink, or frown, with one’s own identikit.[19]

Typographers talk about the voice of the page. In the world of netspeak, the relationship between speech and writing also lies at the heart of the medium’s linguistic capacity. Scholars refer variously to “written speech,” “writing talking,” “interactive written discourse,” “textual conversation,” and “electronic dialogue” in the context of the most popular forms of social software: e-mail, chatgroups, virtual worlds, and instant messaging. In order to displace the tension between the fundamental nature of the medium and user expectations, netizens may employ a variety of speech acts such as an exaggerated use of spelling and punctuation, the use of capitals, spacing, and special symbols for emphasis, as well as verbal glosses. However, as linguist David Crystal points out in the context of cybertext as distinct from the global uptake of video and visual communication forms such as YouTube: “Netspeak lacks the facial expressions, gestures, and conventions of body posture and distance (the kinesics and proxemics) which are so critical in expressing personal opinions and attitudes and in moderating social relationships.”[20] Smileys or emoticons punctuate electronic text with bibliographic codes based on human physiognomy and signal both authorial intent and readerly interaction. This “paralanguage of the internet”[21] can assist in disambiguating meaning, particularly with regard to humour’s most problematic offspring: irony and sarcasm. However, the range of meanings attributable to each icon and the lack of standardisation across a multiplicity of reading communities offer nothing more than a gross indicator of emotion and engagement. As one anonymous respondent put it: “Shit happens, especially on the Net, where everyone speaks with flattened affect. I think the attempt to signal authorial intent with little smileys is interesting but futile. They’re subject to slippage like any other kind of sign.”[22]

Why then, after some four hundred years of print’s visible language has the smiley or emoticon been introduced? Crystal muses: “Written language has always been ambiguous, in its omission of facial expression, and in its inability to express all the intonational and other prosodic features of speech. Why did no one ever introduce smileys there? The answer must be something to do with the immediacy of Net interaction, its closeness to speech.”[23] Other contemporary commentators likewise blame the arrival of the internet:

Textual cyberspace filters away all qualities of a personal self save the highly mediated, acutely self-conscious elements that appear in written language. Phatic or metacommunicative cues, the linguistic and paralinguistic signs that maintain cognisance of the social relation between the sender and receiver of a message, are drastically reduced in this medium.[24]

But what do we make of earlier experiments in expressive typography from George Herbert’s “Easter-wings” (1633) and other shape poems to portraits in type populating the pages of typographical journals, from the exuberant and grid-breaking modernism of the Dada-ists and Futurists to the visual outpourings of concrete poetry? Or, the nervous tic of the manicule,[25] that fist or pointing hand populating the margins of manuscripts as well as printed books, and adopted by type designers in any number of guises: a “transient hieroglyphic,”[26] to use Francis Bacon’s phrase, that has both an indexical and gestural function. These examples all foreground the expressive possibilities of language in graphic translations, and confirm D.F. McKenzie’s notion of books as expressive forms[27] or Johanna Drucker’s discussion of books as performative spaces for the production of reading/meaning.[28] Equally, they emphasise the material conditions of reading as well as the material reader. As Roger Chartier reminds us: “Reading is not a solely abstract intellectual operation; it involves the body, is inscribed within a space, and implies a relationship to oneself or to others.”[29] Even across media forms, as Paul Eggert suggests, “whether the textual carrier be the physical page, a computational capacity, or the sound waves that transmit orally declaimed verse, there is always a material condition for the existence of text.”[30] Marlene Manoff reminds us, too, that in the digital domain, “human-made objects both reflect and shape those who design, make, and use them” [31] and thus meaning is inseparable from and instantiated in material form, a point taken up by other critics such as N. Katherine Hayles[32] and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum.[33] So what is it that links these two instances of expressive typography – portraits in type and emoticons – enunciated a hundred years apart? Why is there a need to communicate emotion textually using the bits and bytes of the typecase or computer keyboard, interjecting symbolic carriers of emotion in such an obvious and reductive way? Doesn’t punctuation already serve that function?

In his Noten zur Literatur / Notes to Literature, Theodore Adorno discusses punctuation marks: “The less punctuation marks, taken in isolation, convey meaning or expression and the more they constitute the opposite pole in language to names, the more each of them acquires a definitive physiognomic status of its own, an expression of its own, which cannot be separated from its syntactic function but is by no means exhausted by it.”[34] He goes on to anthropomorphise several common instances:

An exclamation point looks like an index finger raised in warning; a question mark looks like a flashing light or the blink of an eye. A colon, says Karl Kraus, opens its mouth wide: woe to the writer who does not fill it with something nourishing. Visually, the semicolon looks like a drooping moustache; I am even aware of its gamey taste. With self-satisfied peasant cunning, German quotation marks [>> <<] lick their lips.[35]

Adorno’s evocative reading signals the interpretive power of punctuation, its incarnation of bodily forms and functions, and its visceral visuality. It also emphasises a historic shift in communication registers from the oral, pointed, delivery of written records lacking interword space and punctuation to the silent, visual reading of printed text accompanied by spaces and speech marks now reconfigured in and as characters embodying the writer/reader’s identity.

A particularly inventive English engraver from 1824 produced 16 images for John Harris’ didactic booklet, Punctuation Personified: or, pointing made easy, one of the children’s series “Cabinet of Amusement and Instruction.” Mr Stops, composed from multiple marks of punctuation, walks young Robert and his sister through the sense-making process of pointing.

Fig. 5

John Harris, Punctuation Personified: or, pointing made easy, London 1824

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The final poem devoted to “An Index Hand” furnishes a clever advertisement for the book, the printer’s art, and the educational lesson:

The Index, or hand, is intended to shew
Some sentence deserving attention;
And this the young reader will probably know,
When one thing we venture to mention:
Whenever our book may appear in the shops,
A finger will point out the words, “MIND YOUR STOPS.”

It is no wonder, then, that Vladimir Nabokov could remark in 1969 that “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile – some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket.”[36]

To return to the backstory of Fahlman’s creation of the smiley, it was the design solution to a very real communication problem amongst the computer science bulletin board community at Carnegie Mellon University. On 16th September 1982, Howard Gale posted a warning about mercury and fire contamination in one of the department’s lifts due to a physics experiment gone horribly wrong. This was part of a thread about pigeons, helium, candles, and elevators. Although Gale’s warning was a hoax, it created much anxiety, and spawned a suggestion from Neil Swartz that all jokes should be signalled with an asterisk in the subject line. Fahlman then weighed in:

Subject line: Elevators (*)

Message: Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the elevator…

Unfortunately, the center elevator now contains what seems to be the remains of 40,000 two-pound pigeons in an advanced state of decomposition and the right elevator contains a bear of indeterminate color. The left elevator appears to be safe, but when you stand in it for too long, your voice gets squeaky and you start running into the walls, causing the elevator to rise.

Despite the * in the header of this message, this is not a joke and should be taken quite literallly [sic]. Do not panic – taking the stairs is good for you.[37]

What ensued was a discussion about which mark of punctuation was best suited to jokes. The asterisk (for good jokes) was joined by the % sign (for bad jokes); both were then combined to indicate jokes that were so bad they’re good. Keith Wright proposed the ampersand - & - “the funniest character on the keyboard. It looks funny (like a jolly fat man in convulsions of laughter). It sounds funny (say it loud and fast three times). I just know… it would even smell funny.”[38] Fahlman provided the sideways solution, the smiley, which quickly broke out of the Carnegie Mellon community and hit the world by storm.

In 1993, a subsequently repentant Neal Stephenson wrote in The New Republic that “emoticons are the electronic equivalent of spin doctors: commonly inserted at the end of a sentence that is meant to be interpreted as sarcasm, or, in general, whenever a writer fears his or her prose may be about to jump the iron rails of literalism. … Irony, it seems, is like nitroglycerin: too tricky to be good for much, and so best left in the hands of fanatics or trained professionals.”[39] Fahlman’s joke markers were intended to defuse flame wars and disambiguate meaning; in Stephenson’s estimation they were the equivalent of a “‘kludge,’ a hacker’s hasty and inelegant patch on a problem that’s too difficult to solve just now.”[40] My opening example of compositorial typeplay comes out of a community which likewise revelled in the ludic nature of language.

Printers’ argot is filled with double-entendres and wry commentary on the anatomical synonymy of human physical and textual bodies. Alphabetic units are “characters”; individual metal sorts are composed of “faces,” “beards,” “shoulders,” “feet,” and “bodies” or “shanks”; the antithesis of “display” type is “body” type. Macintosh has been held responsible for the global shift from “fount/font” to “typeface,” but “faces” – “new” and “old,” “bastard” and “freak” – were in common parlance. “Factotum,” whether chief or not, was a specific ornament open to compositorial intervention. “Stereotyping” is a specific reproductive technology. Press machinery has its own repertoire of the human including “cheeks” and “faces,” “arms” and “feet,” “ribs” and “sockets,” “hose” and “garter.” Books have “heads” and “feet” and “spines,” “footnotes,” “headpieces” and “tailpieces.” Communication forms and the technology by which they are produced are the mirror by which man reflects back to him- or her-self a whole cast of anthropomorphic identities and physiognomic ciphers. It is no wonder that Milton’s metaphor of man, meaning, and the B/book – “And yet on the other hand unless warinesse be us'd, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image, but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye”[41] – remains one of the most potent and resonant passages in Areopagitica, that rallying call for free speech and unlicensed printing since 1644.

Throughout the nineteenth century, frequent use is made of the trade jargon’s punning potential throughout the pages of printers’ typographical journals. A description of a printers’ wayzgoose or outing in 1882 from The Australasian Typographical Journal concludes with: “moored at Sandridge about 5 o’clock in the evening. All were well pleased with the trip, and in fact only one was out of sorts – his mishap being the loss of an upper-case cap, which got amongst the rollers, without a chance of picking it up again.”[42] To be missing letters or “sorts” is equated with an emotional response; losing a capital letter is equated with loss of headgear, the “rollers” synonymous with waves are the ink applicators of a printing machine, and “picking” is a standard term for picking up individual letters from the typecase. An 1883 cricket match, the Lithos versus the Typos, replaces italics with quote marks to emphasise the double entendres: “Though ‘cast’ down and ‘out of sorts’ the Typos. do not despair, but swear by their P.D. to turn over a ‘new leaf’ and ‘make even’ with the Lithos. in the next match. At the finish the book showed – Lithos., 100; Typos., 27.”[43] Technical terms which, for the modern reader, are the arcane language of bibliographic description are the jargon-in-trade of the printing industry.

Humour was slid into the 1904 Australasian edition of the trade journal of the paper merchant and printing equipment broker, Cowans: four children of different ages and heights are lined up to represent the various point sizes available in a new Australian type ‘family.’[44]

Fig. 6

Cowans, For the Paper, Printing, Stationery, and Allied Trades of Australasia. December 1904, 6

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In terms of pictographic avatars, one of The Australasian Typographical Journal’s 1880 correspondents signed off with a printer’s hand, another with a gun, still another used a sideways parenthesis to fill in the ellipsis for Melbourne. Rebuses constructed from ornaments were common jeux d’esprits. Pied type – that is, type that is hopelessly mixed-up – could always be made the source of compositorial in-house jokes, as can be seen in this example from the New Zealand journal Typo of 1887:[45]

Fig. 7

Typo. A Monthly Newspaper and Literary Review devoted to the Advancement of the Typographic Art. April 1887, 30

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Twenty-five years on from its first “invention,” where is the smiley, that anarchist of the instant messaging age, and its estimated 20,000 glyphs? No longer content to saturate the digital marketplace, emoticons have morphed into a range of tangible consumer products: cushions, pencil sharpeners, earrings, fridge magnets, and, of course, those barometers of public taste, biscuits.

Fig. 8

Arnott’s Crazy Faces

Arnott’s Crazy Faces

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Arnott’s Crazy Faces – “crazy on the outside, insanely jammy on the inside”[46] – join the UK’s popular Jacob’s Happy Faces, and their esteemed progenitor, Burton’s Jammie Dodger. All belong to the genre of jam biscuits whereby two shortcake biscuits are stuck together with jammie glue, usually a chemical decoction of high-pectin plum or apple extract disguised as raspberry jam, and revealed by some kind of hole in the top biscuit. Jammie Dodgers, invented in the 1960s, feature a heart for a hole. Early packaging pictured the Knave of Hearts, presumably engaged in some sort of dodgy activity (shared by Dickens’ Artful Dodger, hence the name), like stealing tarts. Saatchi and Saatchi’s tried to rebrand the product, rather unsuccessfully, with a mythical Jam Wrestlers promotional campaign.[47]

Rival company Jacob’s of Jacob’s Cream Crackers, came up with Happy Faces, a variation on the Jam and Cream Sandwich biscuit sub-genre. In a 2004 review of the biscuit, it was pointed out that: “The jam sits like a little nugget surrounded by a ring of cream filling. The effect of the filling being viewed through the eye and mouth holes of the face creates teeth and eyelids. …the biscuits… hold their graphics well.”[48] The review writer later confesses that “most of the Happy Faces look a lot like gargoyles,”[49] and one correspondent reveals that office afternoon tea time was spent competing for the most evil-faced biscuit. Another suggested a conspiracy plot was afoot with the advent of the “Smiley Potato”: “Before they go under the grill, they are innocent and as the name suggests, smiley. Once cooked, the awful reality is that they resemble evil grinning burnt demon faces, and thus become difficult to consume, if not impossible.”[50]

Morning and afternoon tea afficiandos are probably already aware of those master of biscuit connoisseurs, Nicey & Wifey, whose website <http://anicecupofteaandasitdown.com> is populated with news, reviews, correspondence, and trivia of all sorts. Not long ago, one Alvis Bentley reported:

Dear Nicey,

In a letter to the editor of a magazine I was reading yesterday, an affronted reader criticised a particular editorial position with the comment, "It really does take the chocolate Hob-Nob."

I was wondering if this is an isolated instance of such specificity, or if there is some kind of established formula for different kinds of outrage warranting the taking of certain sorts of biscuits. Taking the jammy dodger, for example, would seem an obvious choice in particularly egregious instances, whereas perhaps a situation generating merely mild irritation would take only the shortbread finger.[51]

Arnott’s Crazy Faces are the closest we have come to alimentary emoticons. Just as we are consumers of biscuits, so too are we consumers of reading material – making the printed word part of our own experience by devouring text with our eyes, cued by emotional markers whether they be the traditional marks of punctuation or the composite smiley glyph.

Historically or at the present time, hand, machine and digital compositors build textual worlds from the various sorts in their typecases and keyboards in their day-to-day practice and explore the human dimension of typography and its physiognomic possibilities. Humour is a notable feature, both in the composition and reception of these anthropomorphic portraits; and finally, at least in a pre-broadcast age, typographical journals were an important conduit for the international circulation of information. So, before we dismiss smileys and emoticons outright as short-lived eccentricities of the digital domain, perhaps we should remind ourselves of Adorno’s passing remark that “History has left its residue in punctuation marks, and it is history, far more than meaning or grammatical function, that looks out at us, rigidified and trembling slightly, from every mark of punctuation.”[52] Smiley, you’re on candid camera!

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