Back in the days of AIM, my friend and I had a code. If I ever IMed him something sarcastic, I would alternate the case of the letters so as to make my tone absolutely clear; ‘I absolutely can’t wait for practice’ became ‘I aBSOlutELY cAN’t WAit fOR prACTicE.’

Maybe he was a tad behind in his ability to detect cynicism (he ended up at Princeton, after all), but the difference between how I write online or on my phone and how I write in Street or for papers has only grown since getting a BlackBerry and becoming obsessed with GChat.

I’m not talking about abbreviations like ‘ur’ and ‘tho’ and ‘c u’ (So 2000! So lazy!). I mean onomotopeia and icons and techniques we use to express thing via text that aren’t words.

For instance — I have several different laughs: ‘Ha’ is for ironic situations, ‘haha’ is a generic mark of approval, ‘hahaha’ or longer is for genuine LOL laughter. ‘Bahaha’ is for laughter making fun of people and ‘hehe’ is for when I’m feeling a little guilty. It gets more complicated: ‘Mahhh’ and ‘ugh’ are for concern or frustration. Repeating a letter, particularly vowels, is for emphasis but also to imitate actual speech. ‘Heyyy’ is very different from a simple ‘Hey.’

Then, of course, are the emoticons — definitely necessary to establish tone, project mood or opinion, and to alert your companion to sarcasm or to the fact that what you’re saying is anything but absolutely literal. I would never say “you’re insane” without a ;) in the next line.

Here’s my question: have emoticons replaced body language, and spelling manipulations replaced tone? According to sociologist Albert Mehrabian, successful human communication is 7 percent words, 38 percent tone of voice, and 55 percent body language. For methods of communication that, by definition, only encompass one fourteenth of how we interact with each other, email and chat have become highly effective and wonderfully efficient. Have emoticons replaced body language, and spelling manipulations replaced tone?

Where does it stop? Will this compression of human communication into text form then translate back into the world beyond BlackBerrys and chat windows? Will I start ‘bahaha’-ing (like a sheep) when I’m laughing at someone in person? Will the practice of repeating letters seep into written language of a more substantial nature (we recently posted “ohhh” in an Under The Button post)?

I suppose for now, immerse yourself in a magazine full of old-fashioned textual communication. Enjoy it while it lasts.

‘til next week,


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