Back in the early ’90s, I learned a new way of communicating.
Communicate: to make known; to inform; to convey knowledge or information; to impart or transmit; to send information or messages sometimes back and forth; speak, gesticulate, or write to another to convey information; interchange thoughts; to be connected.
I’ve been writing as a way to connect to other people—and myself—for as long as I can remember. I still have the first book I wrote. The cover is pale blue construction paper, which holds the hand-lettered pages together with brass fasteners. It’s fiction*—about two otters who live in Grand Rapids.** I was in first grade when I wrote it. Later there was the fan fiction based on the Beatles. And the innumerable letters I wrote to neighborhood friends left behind (my father was in the air force), kids who wrote back because they were wordy, communicative kids like me. I had many pen pals, as we called them back in the day. I journaled (“Dear Diary …”), and in high school my written smart-mouth antics, on occasion, got me into trouble.
I had then and have now a not-insignificant vocabulary, I don’t mind saying, acquired from the books and magazines I read, as well as from my wordy parents. I liked using it too. It’s a delight to have the right word for the right situation. Even if it’s slang. I’m a lifelong reader, a lifelong learner, and a lifelong communicator.
It’s also a delight to learn new ways to communicate. Like emoticons. You may think they’re old-fashioned now, but at the time—read it sideways, we were told—being able to write a smile into a sentence was revolutionary. :) Or communicate surprise :o or a raspberry :p or … here’s a list. It was brilliant. The smile emoticon filled my email correspondence (and still does).
I also learned Internet slang about this time—LOL, for example, and brb, which was handy for online chat (and later, phone texts). As usage of emoticons and Internet abbreviations increasingly crept into email correspondence, so did the gnashing of teeth of certain commentators over the demise of, you know, The English Language.***
But I see it as another interesting way to communicate. A new, different language, and just as valid. (Although let’s not call it a new language. It’s more like getting an additional kit filled with new, exciting, extra words that you’ll use alongside your standard vocabulary set.)
When I started blogging I learned about tagging and hashtagging. You’ve seen them, I know: #foodporn or #blacklivesmatter or #firstworldproblem. Wikipedia says a hashtag is “a type of label or metadata tag used on social network and microblogging services which makes it easier for users to find messages with a specific theme or content.” (Or, as they say, trending topics.) In other words, they make learning and communication easier. Although the concept was in place earlier, Twitter users really put hashtagging on the communication map, and between that and other social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, the practice is ubiquitous.
And, in fact, there’s another way hashtags are used, aside from trending topics and news about events (#WorldCup2014) or tragedies (#JeSuisCharlie). Now #hashtagging has developed into yet another way to communicate that allows us to express written irony or sarcasm (or even just humor) and be reasonably sure we won’t be misunderstood. Hashtags have become punchlines.
When author Matt Haig tweets, “Tomorrow I am going to Barcelona for two days to promote the Spanish and Catalan editions of [my new book]. #notaholiday #honest #tapas,” those hashtags aren’t trending topics, they’re humor. When a friend of mine who enjoys gardening posts a photo of, well, dirt on Facebook captioned, “Half a tonne of compost and manure has just landed on my drive. #gardeningheaven #sciatichell,” I chuckle. A friend of mine with a large (male) English sheepdog cracks me up every day with her posts about the dog (#peeonallthethings). When another friend has a little Facebook conversation (complete with sarcasm and ironic humor) almost entirely in #hashtag, I’m amused (though not clever enough to respond in kind):
She: I don’t care if it is getting Oscar buzz, I’m not going to watch another stupid movie about stupid boxing. #creed #Ihateboxing #didimentionthatihateboxing #alsowrestling #stopitAcademy
He: That’s understandable. #Boxingisformen #StayawayfromBoxing #Ihatecookingshows #alsodecorating
I enjoy interpreting hashtag in its written form, and it can be hilarious in verbal form, like this skit with Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake. I could go on and on. My younger friends are definitely far more fluent and clever in hashtag than I am, but I’m working at it.
The written word can be cold. There’s no tone of voice, no facial expression, no twinkle in the eye, no hand placed on an arm to accompany the message—and sometimes there are misunderstandings. Misreadings. Miscommunication, in other words. Emoticons and texting abbreviations and hashtags—these new subsets of our written language—are possibilities to create communicative nuance in ways we never had before. Communication is the thing.
(No, I haven’t forgotten emoji. I’ve wanted to write about emoji, but to be frank I don’t even understand them. It’s a language I haven’t been able to generate any desire to learn. I embraced emoticons—and though the words are similar (emoticon, emoji) they are unrelated—but emoji leave me cold. Wikipedia describes emoji as ideograms or pictographs. Meanwhile, I see a string of little icons and they mean nothing to me. Too much left open to interpretation—here’s a good example using just the smile emoji—which is the opposite of what communication means to me. Is it a new language? The New York Times says so, but why would I waste my precious life sorting though thousands of tiny, tiny drawings trying to piece together a bit of unclear communication I could type easily and with utter clarity in a tenth of the time? Nah.)
* Title: Tales of Tails and Tail-Less. Clever, I know. :)
** I made up the location name based on what I knew about otters at the time; it was much later when I learned about the real Grand Rapids.
*** And putting a smile into a business email was unprofessional. Whatever. I’ll do business my way, you can do it your way. So far, my way is working OK.
Tweet: I’ve been writing as a way to connect to other people for as long as I can remember.
Tweet: The written word can be cold. There’s no tone of voice, no facial expression.