Could Skype’s “Humoticons” replace emoticons?

By May 2, 2012Social Media

Earlier this week, Skype launched a new Facebook feature – Humoticons. Part of a campaign that attacks modern communication methods like Facebook and Twitter, the humoticon adds a more human element to traditional emoticons. Using a Facebook app, users can upload photos of themselves or take photos of themselves imitating standard emoticons using their webcam. This is my “Blue Steel” emoticon.

Emoticons date back to 1982, when Carnegie Mellon computer scientist, Scott Fahlman proposed the smile face and frown face as contextual joke markers to the computer science general board.

Why do we use emoticons?

As Fahlman’s proposal implies, meaning and context can often get lost in translation with written communication. Communication scholars believe that about two-thirds of face-to-face communication is nonverbal. Take these tools away, and effective communication becomes much more difficult.

Just think about it – what gives away that someone is being sarcastic? More often than not, it is told through their vocal intonation and body language. There’s a huge difference between someone laughing and happily saying “You’re so funny!” and someone with little expression ironically saying “You’re sooo funny.” With out these paralinguistic clues, a person can quickly misinterpret the speaker’s original meaning.

This is where emoticons come in. Throw a quick “:D” behind the above sentence, and the reader is likely to interpret it as a sincere compliment. Follow it with a “;)” and the reader will likely recognize it as a sarcastic insult.

While emoticons alleviate some of the limitations of written communication, they are by no means perfect. As Judith Newman of The New York Times points out, “Emoticons can produce another layer of confusion.” She uses the example of Columbia epidemiology professor Lisa Bates to illustrate her claim.

“In the text function of my BlackBerry there is a sidebar menu of emoticons (how ridiculous is that?) that shows the yellow smiley faces, except they are also crying and raging, and winking and blowing kisses, etc.,” Dr. Bates wrote. “I sent a fairly new acquaintance a ‘big hug’ emoticon — which, for the record, was ironic. But anyway, on his iPhone it came up with the symbols, not the smiley face, which don’t look anything like a big hug. From his perspective they look like a view of, er, splayed lady parts: ({}).“He then ran around his lab showing colleagues excitedly what I had just sent him. Half (mostly men) concurred with his interpretation, and the others (mostly women) didn’t and probably thought he was kind of a desperate perv.”

Parents often recognize the “limitations of the medium,” and their embarrassed children are all too eager to publicize it on “When Parents text.” Hilarity ensues.

Could humoticons solve these limitations?

Humoticons certainly eliminate some of the ambiguity left by emoticons. For example, a winking emoticon can be interpreted several ways. Are they being playful? Sharing an inside joke? Flirting? A picture of a wink is much easier to interpret (although, I’m still not sure how to interpret Lucielle’s winks on Arrested Development).

So maybe Skype is on to something. By making emoticons more human, they are also making them more effective (unless you’re Kristen Stewart).

Will Humoticons catch on?

Its impossible to guess whether or not the humoticon will catch on. I mean, who would have thought Wham-O could sell Twenty Million plastic hoop in six months.

“You know, for kids.”

The humoticon does have a few things going for it. First, as mentioned above, from a communication standpoint, it is much more effective than the traditional emoticon. Second, it is completely user generated, which means it has a good chance at going viral. People love to share things they create, and the more something gets shared, the more free word-of-mouth advertising the product gets. Which leads to my third point: It is built into Facebook, where people love to share pictures of themselves.

On the other hand, releasing it on Facebook may be the humoticon’s downfall. Facebook is already a highly visual platform, so emoticons aren’t frequently used there. Sure, people may share their humoticons on Facebook, but will they actually use them to communicate?

My prediction is that, if humoticons are to become common, they will have to jump platforms from Facebook to more chat-based platforms like instant messaging and texting. And, if they are able to jump platforms, it won’t be because of their functionality; it’ll be because of their virility.

If they do catch on, I look forward to the “When Parents Text” spinoff that will inevitably follow.

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