Emoticons as skin care

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Yesterday's Zits:



The strip takes it for granted than emoticons are a sort of transcription of facial expression, rather than indications of the attitude that the writer wants to project, via icons of stereotypical facial expressions. Whether or not it would cause wrinkles, this information is missing from written forms of language, since the projection of attitude in speech lacks the intersubjective constancy that makes the identification and transcription of word sequences possible.

Although emoticons were suggested in a primitive form by Ambrose Bierce in 1877, in the form of "the snigger point, or note of cachinnation", the full development didn't take place until the expansion of various forms of mass electronic communication, during the two decades following Scott Fahlman's 1982 BB post (see "The prehistory of emoticons", 9/21/2007).

Curiously, this is almost exactly the same time period as the development of the scientific version of the emoticon, namely the Facial Action Coding System — the first version came out in 1976, and the current version was published in 2002.

Now that FACS analysis is on national television every week, it's reasonable to wonder whether emoticons might see a new period of development, in a more abstract direction, leading to something less like icons of stereotypical faces and more like the multidimensional analysis of FACS. I doubt it — as I suggested above, emoticons are not really a transcription of facial expressions, but rather a set of emergent conventions for communicating attitudes.

The history of Paul Ekman's work on facial expressions is an interesting study in intellectual politics, sketched in two earlier LL posts: Political correctness, biology and culture and The cabinet of Dr. Birdwhistell.

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18 Comments »

  1. Brett said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 10:18 am

    "The strip takes it for granted than emoticons are a sort of transcription of facial expression, rather than indications of the attitude that the writer wants to project, via icons of stereotypical facial expressions." But I don't think the strip is using icons or emoticons. Zuma's just telling them what kind of face she'd be making if she wasn't consciously maintaining a neutral expression.

  2. Orbis P. said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 10:44 am

    Mark, "The cabinet of Dr. Birdwhistell" ended with a paragraph suggesting the saga would be continued… has it ever been returned to, or should I just look for a copy of Ekman's introduction myself? Fascinating.

    [(myl) That concluding paragraph was just a narrative sketch of the parts of the story that I didn't have time or space to cover:

    Next: people in 21 countries agree about pictures of facial expressions; Birdwhistell argues they've learned about facial expressions from John Wayne and Charlie Chaplin; Ekman studies the Fore people in in the highlands of Papua New Guinea to escape the influence of Hollywood; Margaret Mead writes in the Journal of Communication that Ekman's work "is a continuing example of the appalling state of the human sciences".

    I guess that I might come back to this at some point, especially in the larger context of the intellectual politics of the innateness controversy. But meanwhile, you definitely should consider buying a copy of the book, or finding one in a library, not only to read Ekman's introduction, but also (and especially) Darwin's original work, as well as Ekman's running commentary on it. ]

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    Brett: … I don't think the strip is using icons or emoticons. Zuma's just telling them what kind of face she'd be making if she wasn't consciously maintaining a neutral expression.

    That would have been true if the strip had been published 20 years ago. But then, it wouldn't have been funny, or at least wouldn't have been funny in the same way. Today, anyone reading it will take her to be vocalizing emoticons –and the incongruity of this — reproducing in speech the symbols that have been developed to make up for the things text leaves out — is the essence of the joke.

  4. Arnold Zwicky said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

    Mark Liberman: "Today, anyone reading it will take her to be vocalizing emoticons –and the incongruity of this — reproducing in speech the symbols that have been developed to make up for the things text leaves out — is the essence of the joke."

    I'm desperately old-fashioned, so I interpreted it in Brett's fashion.

  5. Karen said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    But Jeremy says "narrating your facial expressions". I dunno – I think you can read it either way. Especially since, is there a "pouty face" emoticon?

  6. Neal Goldfarb said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    Mark Liberman: "Today, anyone reading it will take her to be vocalizing emoticons –and the incongruity of this — reproducing in speech the symbols that have been developed to make up for the things text leaves out — is the essence of the joke."

    [Arnold Zwicky:] I'm desperately old-fashioned, so I interpreted it in Brett's fashion.

    Another example of the risks of intuition-based linguistic theorizing.

  7. Maria said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 5:01 pm

    Just wanted to add a data point that my interpretation was not related to emoticons, and was similar to Arnold's and Brett's. When I write emoticons, they usually go after the text they're intended to modify, while here the descriptions go right before the relevant phrases.

  8. Rubrick said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    @Mark: I have to join the naysayers on this one. I don't think "anyone reading it will take her to be vocalizing emoticons". Aside from the fact that I (and apparently other readers) didn't, my primary evidence is that there are no common, canonical emoticons corresponding to any of the expressions used. Surely if the joke were about emoticons, the writers would have chosen ones that were more familiar.

    I think that in the final frame, what's meant by "narrating your facial expressions" is "narrating your facial expressions". Comic strips mocking cyberspeak are so pervasive that perhaps you were predisposed to assume this one was too, but I don't see anything in the strip itself to justify that interpretation.

  9. Nathan Myers said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 6:22 pm

    When I saw emoticons mentioned I went back to see what Prof. Liberman was talking about. When I couldn't find anything, I had to conclude he was speaking analogously. That didn't work either. Are emoticons really "conventions for communicating attitudes"? As I understand (and (try not to) use) them they instruct the reader in how to feel about what I have said, not how I personally am feeling or pretending to feel. I avoid them in part because it's not my business to dictate how others should feel about what I said.

  10. Kenny Easwaran said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 3:39 am

    I also didn't think explicitly about emoticons when reading the comic. But I think that Mark Liberman is right that cultural awareness of emoticons does make the joke deeper and funnier than it would have seemed a few decades ago, even if people don't consciously make the association.

  11. Mark Liberman said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 5:19 am

    For background, take a look at some of the standard emoticon menus, i.e. the ones for MSN messenger or Yahoo messenger or gmail or Google talk. Or one of the lists that claim to document SMS emoticons, like this one. As for verbalizing emoticon-like indications of attitude, see e.g. the recent LA Times story with the headline "Fame is (pouty face) hard, says Britney Spears".

    And as a final piece of evidence, the previous day's strip:

  12. Tom Streetman said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 5:20 am

    I must admit, I did not think of emoticons either while reading. I took the meaning as that she did not wish to make the faces that would correspond with the attitudes that she was expressing at the time because she assumed that making those faces would result in wrinkles. (Some relation to botox-filled faces being void of expression comes to mind, though.)

    I also am in agreement with Maria, that I place emoticons at the end of the sentence of which they're meant to affect.

  13. Mark P said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

    @N. Meyers: I understand emoticons as a way to clarify the writer's intent. For example, a writer might use a given emoticon to show that a statement is meant in jest, so that it will not be interpreted as offensive.

  14. dr pepper said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

    Robin Williams used to voice his moods in "Mork and Mindy".

  15. pc said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

    I'm with the non-emoticon interpretation – this strikes me as more playing on actions that are verbalized in text inside of surrounding punctuation, as in (((hugs you))) or *sticks tongue out* or *sigh* or *hangs head in shame*. It probably is funnier these days as Mark and Kenny say, but my interpretation is it's funnier because of people's experiences precisely in using verbal text to narrate action or image that can't be seen, not their experiences in seeing/using emoticons per se. In other words, I don't think the relation of the facial expression to the text needs to be interpreted as mediated by emoticons (as you suggested in your comment above, Mark). I also don't see how the other strip that you provide is evidence for your interpretation of this strip – that strip is clearly a play on emoticons, but that doesn't mean this one is; it can be playing on a related phenomena that's not the same.

  16. Nathan Myers said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 5:33 pm

    pc has hit it the ball out of the park.

  17. Josh Millard said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    One more salvo from the "it's not about emoticons" department. I don't think remarking on the allusion (intentional or otherwise) to emoticons and .gifs if unreasonable and I can see that reading if I squint, but it doesn't seem to me to fit the strip as neatly as the notion that she is in fact just narrating in place of physically emoting, full stop.

    An explanation that incorporates an elided emoticon step in the analysis of the joke is (a) needlessly complex and (b) requires mapping those expressions themselves to emoticons.

    I don't think there are any unambiguous ASCII-style emoticons for "pouty face" or "exaggerated mocking face" or "eye roll", certainly, though I'll give you >:( for a reasonably common "angry face". And the fallback to full-on .gifs (animated and otherwise) doesn't feel sound because those aren't nearly as iconic at this point as text emoticons.

    It feels too subtle and too much of a stretch compared to the easy just-literally-describing-emotions botox-brand-humor read.

    Related note: a recent video game, Mass Effect, features (among others) an alien race called the Elcor who, out of deference to more facially emotive species, describe (in their flat, affectless voices) the emotions associated with their statements, which they would otherwise convey to members of their own race via non-verbal, non-facial cues.

  18. MelissaJane said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

    I agree with pc and Josh Millard, and the only comment I want to add is that I think the existence of emoticons gives Zuma a language to use, or perhaps more accurately a way to format her language, in narrating her emotions. I don't think she's trying to speak in emoticons; I think she's using the convention of emoticons to shape her wrinkle-avoiding narration.

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