Wednesday, October 1, 2008

On Punctuation

As a frequent Skyper and big fan of online chat generally, I've always enjoyed the creative potential of having a conversation written down. The challenge is to express yourself eloquently without any form of vocalisation and an extremely limited palette of non-verbal cues. As a result, there's a certain kind of humour or wit that's particular to chat, and as with spoken conversation, everyone has their own style.

Recently I was forced to examine my style of communication by a friend who is philosophically opposed to smilies. Her feeling is that smilies or emoticons are used too much as compensation for tact or an inability to communicate clearly. And to an extent, I agree (hence the self-evaluation). David McRaney points out the irony of this in his in-depth analysis of Lolcats:
"Strangely enough, though American culture is far less literate than in previous decades, we read all day long and communicate through written language possibly more than ever so in history. Words are the currency of text messaging, emails, blogs and websites. This may or may not be a good thing, considering how our communications within these arenas are so economical and utilitarian. The long-form, eloquent email is a rare bird in the cyberjungle."

In terms of email, which is after all the digital equivalent of a letter, I think it's fair to say that smilies shouldn't be necessary and certainly in a work context, it would cut out a lot of wasted time and frustration if a little more time, thought and relevant punctuation was put into email communications.

However, in the context of chat, I am still hopelessly hooked on emoticons. There's much that can be expressed with a well-placed emoticon, not to mention the entertainment value. As my friend David says:
"Really when you think about it... you are going to need a lot of words to describe Microsoft Powerpoint when it can be done more succinctly with a little yellow guy puking"

Interestingly (and only very tenuously related), in the entry for non-verbal cues on Wikipedia, the section on clinical studies mentions that "women with premenstrual syndrome were found to possess diminished abilities to read these cues". Curious. I wonder if it helps to know that.

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