Emotions, Online

Just something that I wrote recently. Thought I would share and see what Vergers (Vergites? Vergins?) had to say about it.

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"@terencewang101 hey, long time no see bro... How’s life?"

On 11:44 a.m., 19 September 1982, Scott Fahlman became the first person in the world to use an emoticon.

Posted to the Carnegie Mellon University computer science general board, he was proposing characters for people to express themselves online better. In particular, their emotions. In an early digital world that communicated purely in text, Fahlman knew it would be important to have a means to replace one of the most significant parts of human interaction. And so he decided on three characters - a colon to represent the eyes, a dash for the nose, and a curved bracket for the (what else?) mouth.

I suspect, however, he never imagined the crude, yet ingenious smiley would live on to become an irreplaceable staple of the online world.

"I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:

:-)

Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark

things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use

:-( "

Imagine a world without emotion. Wait, let me rephrase that: imagine a world without visible emotion. Imagine not being able to see the unsure smile on your mum’s face, or hear your Biology teacher’s frustrated sigh as he patiently tries to explain the DNA structure to you for the third time. Imagine having to guess the feelings, motives and thoughts of a person only through plain, unrevealing text, and responding in kind, hoping the other party will be able make better guesses than yourself.

Welcome to the present.

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Before the dawn of the internet, the majority of two-way communication was done with audio and visual contact. Note the keyword ‘two-way’; of course, books, newspapers and the like used text, but it wasn’t as crucial to perceive the emotions of the speaking party as no response was necessary. On the other hand, two-way communication comprised of either 1) phone calling, 2) paging, 3) actual face-to-face conversation. With the exception of 2), which was the least used among the three anyway, communication involved voice at the very least.

Entering 2013, hopes for the return to visual and audio communication are becoming increasingly feasible, mostly due to the inevitable growth of tech infrastructure. Meanwhile, though, other than the occasional Skype/Viber call, most of us still deal with an insurmountable amount of text as part of our daily conversations. Think Facebook commenting, Whatsapp-ing etc. Even disregarding the internet completely, there’s still text messaging to confront:

"Ok."

That was the response of a friend to my suggestion of an outing some time ago. And just that one word was enough give me pause. A word that we can usually infer meaning out of by close observance of tones and expressions, but these methods are rendered absolutely useless when set into plain text. Could he be pleased about it, or otherwise? Was it a response peppered with a little sarcasm? Seriously, what did he really feel about it?

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To be perfectly honest, I had no way of knowing for sure. Which brings me to emoticons.

Someone once put very aptly the problems in using emoticons: "I always end my messages with smileys so that people don’t think I’m angry."

Emoticons are placeholders for our true emotions, temporary measures to solve this ‘emotion-rendering problem’ of text communication. But they remain just that: temporary, stopgap fixes that fail to properly deal with the core problem: a breakdown in comprehensible interaction.

Take the above example: Sure, adding smileys will inform the other party that you’re happy, or at least not upset. But what if you’re actually pretty angry, and subconsciously fill your words with sarcasm. And then add a smiley at the back. What then?

I’ll tell you. The most likely scenario would be an awkward 10-minute halt of any exchange of messages, while the other party scrambles to figure out a proper response. You were pretty insulting in the last message you sent; or at least, that’s what the guy thinks, given the way it was written. Note that even this has to be assumed. So, since you were such a douche about it, you must be upset, right? But that smiley...

This problem extends beyond emoticons. Another issue that no one seems to like bringing up abbreviations like LOL, ROFL, WTF, or even "haha". When was the last time you used, say, ROFL while actually ‘rolling on the floor laughing’? I’m willing to wager the answer is never. On the other side of the emotional spectrum, it would appear that we, teenagers in particular, b*tch and moan like never before - a quick look at the Twitter feeds of many reveal daily whines about people, bad luck, and a general overwhelming pessimism about life. Yet we know from our own experiences the ones who complain the most are rarely the ones who truly feel that way.

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Part of the early human development process was learning how to communicate with one another. And even before words, there was sound, there were moods, there was emotion. As such, it would seem that we are in fact taking a large step backwards to a world where man has to rely on his best judgement to figure out what another may mean. The chances of misunderstandings and nerve-hitting are so high, it’s just absurd.

We are moving towards a faceless society; a world of numb, emotionless screen-watchers, where true feelings are either things to be stored deep down within, forever unshared, or dumbed down and compacted into frivolous characters for a limit of a hundred and forty. And as the online world begins to seep through and blur the lines of virtual and reality, I wonder if a future populated by expressionless zombies is already a forgone conclusion.

Left-click reply button.

"Oh, great. Absolutely great."

Two second pause.

Add :-) .

Left-click "Tweet".

First posted at Suburban KID.