How Yahoo! Messenger became a hotbed for modern online communication

How Yahoo! Messenger became a hotbed for modern online communication

The emoticons of the discontinued chat service were in a semiotic league of their own.

Art by Neal P. Corpus

 

That specific shade of purple in the title bar is burned into my brain. A sickly lilac greets you when you open the program and sign in. It’s a school night, your parents are still learning to get off your case about limiting “screen time,” and you go into this noisy digital bazaar of vague statuses, Invisible presences, and buzzing. So much buzzing.

It doesn’t occur to you that Yahoo! Messenger, which was discontinued July of last year, will eventually be seen as the functional ancestor to almost every social media account you’re keeping now, the thing that’ll condition how you talk online. For now, all you wanna do is maximize every capacity of this chatroom service to convey to the M.U. you’ve been kinda sorta seeing for two and a half weeks that, uh, hey, I miss you, when’re we going to Eastwood next? Words are not enough. Words are never enough for this love that could shatter the earth and throttle heaven. You hover your cursor over a grid of makeshift faces and there, you find it, the perfect signifier: 😡

Short for “emotion icon,” emoticons predate Yahoo! Messenger. Scott Fahlman is regarded as the inventor of the first smiley, and intended 🙂 to be the visual marker that distinguishes joke posts from serious ones. (Much has changed.) But the classic inventory of Y!M emoticons were their own beings, a former internet giant’s attempt at capturing the entirety of the human emotional spectrum. A futile project for sure, but impactful. It was a project that rewired our brains, and transformed our flesh-and-bone bodies into what John David Ebert calls “suits of light.” We may have been hapless and amateurish about it before, but we are good at being suits of light now, practicing a kind of symbol literacy that would befuddle any alien civilization that finds the ruins of our planet.

In a paper written by scholars and language specialists Lauren Gawne and Gretchen McCulloch, they argue that modern emojis present a solution to a longstanding problem of conveying ourselves online. Words on a screen are handicapped, working without our voices and body language. But emojis fill this lack, approximating the gestures that form our interactions IRL.

Y!M was perhaps our generation’s first introduction to the subtle art of digital gesture. While there were many different emoticons that existed beyond the platform (rawr XD forever), Y!M’s emoticons were a palette from which we could paint vivid, nuanced emotional pictures. The smirk of :> was intrigue, a smile with a sharp edge. :-S is somehow perfect for worry, a mouth bent out of shape for a situation outside the hold of control. O:-) was an angel and a lie. :”> was deeply flushed, the sweetest nothing for your M.U. I was personally a big fan of the sh*t-eating grin of :-j, and how it conveyed a lax, blasé disaffection. And there was charm to the kiss of :*, its pinpoint pucker mawkishly askew in a Natalie Dormer kinda way.

I had an ex who used =)) when she was in a good mood and :)) when she was upset. To this day, I can still feel the cold shoulder frost of a colon and two parentheses.

There’s a feeling I get when I log into the internet now that I’m used to at this point: a dead-eyed loss of control where my thoughts and moods are puppeteered by whatever information is in front of me. But I felt that feeling on Y!M before, I think. It seems silly to think that my full emotional capacities could be constrained and locked down by a finite supply of emoticons. But if technology affects the way we move through the world, then the limits of those technologies also limit our movements. The limitations of how we talk correlate with the limitation of gestures available to us.

 

There’s a feeling I get when I log into the internet now that I’m used to at this point: a dead-eyed loss of control where my thoughts and moods are puppeteered by whatever information is in front of me. It seems silly to think that my full emotional capacities could be constrained and locked down by a finite supply of emoticons.

 

Do our inner emotional worlds determine our expressions, thoughts flowing outward as though through a conduit? Or do our outward expressions influence our inner world, our brains rewiring bit by bit with every statement? It’s a chicken-egg situation. And it’s both, I think, but the second thing goes against our preconceptions of how communication works.

Think about it: would we be conversing with each other on the internet the same way if we didn’t have a template of expressions to cherry-pick from? I know we have it in all of us to be discursively innovative and inventive with language. But you’ve also got basic-ass suits of light who don’t know how to construct a sentence without using certain gestures as a crutch. Anybody who’s received a peach or an eggplant in lieu of an eloquent sext knows this.

That’s kind of how language works. There are only so many symbols, so many words.

You could learn to live with these linguistic impediments. Or you can scramble for more words, more signifiers. In the pursuit of more, inherent to capitalist ideology, Y!M emoticons would come to be dethroned by the modern emoji. The emoji inventory is way more eclectic and complex, discontent to settle for just makeshift faces, and pulling random objects out from their vacuums and into new worlds of meaning. Fire. The number one hundred. The aforementioned eggplant and peach. Clapping hands. A turd, a ghost, a sun and moon that look uncomfortable. If you’re going to say “MAMBA MENTALITY” or “KOBE!!!” you GOTTA use the flexed bicep emoji. There’s no Y!M emoticon for that. There’s also an interesting case to make here about how Y!M audibles walked so that Telegram stickers could run, but that’s a whole other thing.

I think another reason Y!M emoticons fell out of fashion was that their full semiotic charge could only come through within the platform. Used outside of it, they were reduced to their punctuation mark parts, and looked haphazardly cobbled together. The embrace of >:D< just looks like a crazed smile with tiny legs. :)) is clunky compared to the more elegant “lmao,” and =)) surrendered its tremors to the keyboard smash.

This is all to say that we’re still doing what we were doing in Y!M. In more complex ways, to be sure, but the spirit and function are the same. I still use some Y!M emoticons, though, for the specific energy they carry, whether I’m using them earnestly or ironically. Every now and then I’ll use ;;) or :>>>>> or B-) to be annoying. If my girlfriend says something sweet, of course I’m gonna bust out the blush :”> because nothing else can convey what I’m feeling.

Extreme semiotic precision is the name of the game when it comes to cyber communication. We’ve known this for a while. We’ve learned to second-guess, self-edit, make all our statements airtight and grammatically perfect under the great burning eye of the internet. Technologies have evolved but one thing has stayed the same: it is still a chore to avoid being misread. Easy to understand why one would rather be invisible.

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#culture #technology

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