Electronic mail and Internet newsgroups are very efficient at sending digital text, and their asynchronous nature makes them valuable communications tools. However, both share one glaring fault: Their bare-bones ASCII text fails to convey the subtleties of meaning that we are accustomed to expressing via cues such as our tone of voice or body language when we are in direct visual or voice contact with another person.
One answer to that has been the development of shorthand symbols designed to convey specific attitudes, moods and emotions. We call them emoticons. The best-known one is the smiley, a sideways version of the smiley-face pin graphic originally developed by Harvey Ball in 1963 and never trademarked. The pin morphed into the :-) symbol (just tilt your head to the left) sometime around 1980, and Internet communications haven't been the same since.
Internet e-mail began 30 years ago [Special Report, Nov. 12], and those who used it did so mainly on terminals that had a single font of mono-width characters—and not all that many characters either.
In 1979, Kevin McKenzie of the Arpanet's MsgGroup made the following suggestion:
Perhaps we could extend the set of punctuation we use, i.e.: If I wish to indicate that a particular sentence is meant with tongue-in-cheek, I would write it so:
"Of course you know I agree with all the current administration's policies -)."
The '-)' indicates tongue-in-cheek.
Although the initial response was less than enthusiastic, the idea caught on and was extended to a number of variants created using different punctuation marks. Books have been published listing and describing emoticons, and some lists have collections of emoticons numbering in the hundreds. But in actual practice, only a few are widely used.
In the 1980s and '90s, the popularity of text-only Usenet newsgroups and chat rooms grew dramatically. Many of the individuals posting messages in these forums tried to be sarcastic or ironic, but the absence of other cues caused others to take seriously remarks that were never so intended. This resulted in arguments and "flame wars." A "flame" is an exaggerated criticism, often involving name-calling. Emoticons solved some of these problems.
Not Graphics, Shorthand
In addition to emoticons, a kind of Internet shorthand grew up. In part, this was to save time by abbreviating some common phrases, but some of these abbreviations and acronyms also had considerable emotional content.
My two personal favorites are gdr, which translates to "grinning, ducking and running," and ROTFLOL—"rolling on the floor laughing out loud." As with emoticons, there are many variations.
This state of affairs continued essentially unchanged during the 1990s, but around the turn of the millennium, a whole new class of shorthand came into being, driven not by e-mail but by the availability of text messages over pagers and cell phones.
Short Messaging Service has become popular among teenagers and young professionals for exchanging messages while in school or meetings. They have created a much denser form of shorthand, and for a very good reason. Entering text on a pager or a cell phone that has only a typical 12-key phone pad is a tedious business, often requiring as many as four keypresses to enter a single letter.
Anything that can shorten the process is welcomed, and the result has been a kind of shorthand reminiscent of those old bus and subway ads offering to teach shorthand to budding stenographers: "If u cn rd ths u cn gt a gd jb." This is called TXTING, or texting.
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