Most Facebook users don't routinely act like 3-year-olds, who get red-faced with
frustration when they can't find the words that best express their feelings. But
we can all channel our inner toddler now: Facebook is making things simple by
introducing emoticons to use in status updates.
For instance, someone could make his status, "Emma decided to celebrate her first birthday by diving face first into her cake" with an "amused" emoticon. Or you can choose your own emotion ("feeling blah") and pick the emoticon you feel is most apt. You can even almosteliminate words. Just use a bored, wistful emoticon with the phrase "feeling 'meh.'"
One of the advantages of digital communication has been its reliance on an economy of words. But replacing words with simplistic facial expressions doesn't reflect the complexity of our emotions, much less the many dimensions of our lives.
Sure, facial expressions can powerfully communicate. Emoticons, however, are bare-bones imitations of the thousands of expressions -- the smile that doesn't meet the eyes, the slightest wrinkle of the nose in disgust -- that enrich human in-person conversation.
Even the animated emoticons Facebook has just released for chats (akin to instant messaging) just barely represent the amount of expression a human face can have. But even if emoticons could be better, they still don't belong on Facebook. There's a reason humans embraced talking. Words allow us to communicate far more complex ideas and emotions than our expressions could.
Consider the ebullience that 6-year-old Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind, felt when she connected the word "water" -- which her teacher was spelling in her hand -- with the concept of water.
No substitute for words
"Somehow, the mystery of language was revealed to me," Keller recounted in her autobiography The Story of My Life. "I knew then that 'w-a-t-e-r' meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!"
Try to pick one emoticon that illustrates her range of emotions. It's not possible. Instead, we have to expand our vocabulary and find more precision in our use of words.
We can also become more creative. Just look at how social media has helped create new innovations in language. Someone exasperated or angry might write a status update in all caps. People in face-to-face conversation now sometimes speak the acronym "LOL" (pronounced "loll"), which stands for "laughing out loud," to denote mild amusement.
On Twitter, hashtags were meant to be a useful tool: During a presidential debate, someone might tweet a message and then attach the hashtag "#debate" so that users looking to see others' takes could search "#debate" and read them. But the hashtag has evolved, often becoming a sarcastic or wry aside, such as when someone tweets: "Oh my gosh, Kim Kardashian is pregnant! #LikeIReallyCare"
Such creativity will be discouraged by emoticons, which will allow people to just "show" what they feel, rather than use words to truly reflect the complexity of their emotions.
Katrina Trinko writes for National Review and is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.
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