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Words, R.I.P.

Matt Labash, reluctant emoter

Nov 7, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 08 • By MATT LABASH
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For 13 years now, I have been a Yahoo! Mail customer. Notice I didn’t say a “proud” Yahoo! Mail customer. For if you use Yahoo! for emailing, there is nothing to be proud of. As Gmail or even AOL users will eagerly explain, Yahoo! has always had a down-market feel. It’s like buying your suits at Montgomery Ward, or tending your social networking needs at Myspace—a haven for birthday magicians, child predators, and unlistenable garage bands.

Cartoon of emoticons

David Clark

Who knows why I chose it in the first place. It was the go-go ’90s—a mad swirl of budget surpluses, impeachment hearings, and tech bubbles. There was no time to think. We were too busy living. Maybe I was seduced by the wild-westness of the word “yahoo” or the ever-present exclamation point, my portal to excitement. But I signed up without deliberation and have regretted it ever since. 

After tens of thousands of emails sent and received, I’ve always been afraid to switch. I worry that my valuable correspondence archive will be lost in the transfer, leaving historians bereft of trenchant material such as, “Are you watching the debate? Why does Newt Gingrich’s head look like it’s going through a growth spurt?” Though, good luck, historians, getting Yahoo!’s ironically named “customer care” on the line to jack my password after I shuffle off this mortal coil. Whenever my email goes buggy, which is to say weekly, and my online queries are outsourced to a customer care rep in Bangalore or wherever, so much time elapses between my questions and their nonanswers that I suspect they’re making chicken vindaloo or watching Slumdog Millionaire on the other end, hoping I’ll quit in frustration and switch to Gmail.

Now, to add insult to indignity, Yahoo! has forcibly upgraded me from Yahoo! Mail Classic to the new Yahoo! Mail, which best I can tell is as buggy as the old Yahoo! Mail. Though they now provide more choices of pacifying screen borders, such as “whimsy clouds,” which are supposed to calm you while you’re waiting for your customer care rep, Amrit, to finish his tikka masala. But that’s not the big draw. The main attraction is that Yahoo! Mail now features its very own emoticon library. Yahoo!!!

I’ve never been big on emoticons, or even small on them, preferring to do most of my emoting in private. Or better still, to channel my emotion into the songs I write for my Contemporary Christian rock band, Rahab and the Harlots (check us out on Myspace). As someone who writes for a living, I’ve always resented anyone who relies on these oppressive graphics, as I prefer the increasingly archaic system of thought-conveyance that relies on what the old timers call “words.”

Emoticons are coerced emotion, unearned communication. They are a prefab cheat-sheet for those too lazy or sub-verbal to say what they mean. And they are as propagandistic as anything out of Mao’s smiley-faced Great Leap Forward, which featured posters of agricultural workers laboring with forced cheer under headers such as, “We sell dry, clean, neat selected cotton to the state.” 

Unlike Mao, Yahoo! has not murdered millions. It is, however, helping millions of its customers murder the English language. For its emoticons are not the primitive colon-dash-parenthesis :-) type that requires you to look sideways to decipher it, as though staring at an optometrist’s eye chart designed by M.C. Escher. No, this is the hard stuff—fully formed, animated glyphs—the heroin of emoticons. There are 12,000 in all, and they cover just about every emotion you’ve had, and probably several you haven’t. A small sampling:

It’s enough to make you sick, i.e.:  

In his recent book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr bemoans the danger of becoming overdependent on our technology. As we “come to experience more of our lives through the disembodied symbols flickering across our screens .  .  . we’ll begin to lose our humanness,” he says, “to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from our machines.” Marshall McLuhan referred to this as “autoamputation”—our technologies numb the very faculties they strive to amplify. 

Am I overreacting, inflating small, plump-faced portents of illiteracy into harbingers of cultural apocalypse? Of course I am. I’m a professional journalist. That’s what they pay me to do. Still, it genuinely saddens me. Not that I’m any longer in need of language to convey the nuance or subtlety or texture of my sorrow. For I now have an emoticon that pretends to do that for me: 

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