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.