Comms Corner 13 - originally published in the September 1996 issue of PCW Plus.

You know, for all the commotion continually surrounding the World Wide Web, the much vaunted but wildly exaggerated ability to make international phone calls at local rates, and oxymoronic phrases like virtual reality, it's still something as old-fashioned as plain old text-based e-mail that appeals to the imagination of most people. There's just something about this fleeting, instantaneous way of communicating that makes it not just extremely useful, but also immensely appealing.

This very transitory character means that we often compose e-mail messages in a completely different style than we would normally apply to our written correspondence. Some people even choose an amusing name for their e-mail account, rather like the CB radio handles of yore. But would you ever send a letter to your bank manager, asking for an extension to your overdraft, and sign it mr.blobby@blobbyworld.com? Well, you might, but you wouldn't be surprised if they foreclosed the following week, would you?

Because e-mail is often written on the spur of the moment, it can lack subtlety. Things tend to be expressed more directly than on paper, with less beating about the bush. In addition, if you post messages to news-groups for all and sundry to read, you'll soon find that you start to receive replies from perfect strangers. Since you don't know these people, what kind of characters they are or how good their sense of humour is, it can be hard to know when someone is being deathly serious and when they're pulling your leg. Even the subject under discussion can be a contributory factor, since the chances are that it will be an informal one. This kind of ambiguity can occasionally lead to animosity and, ultimately, to flame wars. With real correspondence, on the other hand, this rarely happens, since you instinctively adopt a more formal approach when you don't know the person who will be reading your words.

One way of attempting to avoid this kind of electronic misunderstanding is the smiley. Smilies, sometimes referred to with the horribly artificial term emoticons, are nothing more than collections of consecutive ASCII characters, usually triplets, which when viewed with one's left ear pressed against one's left shoulder, vaguely resemble a human face expressing some kind of emotion. If this sounds absurd, you'd better brace yourself. The original, quintessential smiley looks like :-) and is frequently appended to sentences to indicate that the sentiments expressed therein are not intended to be taken seriously, e.g. Smilies are the mark of a great wit. :-)

An old saying on the Internet is that using smilies to indicate you're not being entirely serious is the literary equivalent of delivering the punch-line to a joke whilst digging violently at the recipient's ribs. My own feeling is that if a smiley seems necessary to you, your joke probably isn't up to scratch. And if you genuinely are being funny, but the reader can't see it without being prodded, smilies are a poor alternative for a good sense of humour. It's like using canned laughter to tell your live audience when they should laugh.

Of course, this is just one writer's humble opinion: if you happen to find smilies amusing, by all means go ahead and use them, but please do so in moderation. Above all, don't commit the cardinal sin of being genuinely obnoxious and hoping that a smiley stuck on the end of your bile will function as an asbestos blanket. It won't!

The e-mail junkie's toolkit isn't empty yet, however, and also includes parenthesised expressions and TLAs (Three Letter Abbreviations, although some consist of four or more) for favourite clichés.

The TLAs are, in contrast to smilies, actually useful, since they reduce the time required to compose mail and news-group messages, reduce Internet bandwidth (data traffic) and have no adverse effects on clarity; except perhaps for a complete beginner, but even then, you can easily guess what they mean. FYI, for example, is for your information, whilst IMHO means in my humble opinion. AFAIK is the handy abbreviation for as far as I know and another favourite is ROFL for rolls on the floor laughing.

A frequently used acronym in computer related news-groups is RTFM. This is bandied about when a new reader asks a question that has already been posed a million times and is covered in the product's manual or the news-group's own FAQ file anyway. This little gem stands for read the manual. Polite people will tell you that the F stands for fine, but the real word drives the sentiment home somewhat harder. The golden rule with TLAs is not to use more than one in a single sentence.

The most common of the bracketed expressions is <g>, meaning grin. If you've really got something to smile about, you can always give the reader a <bg> or big grin. These expressions, which look like HTML tag impersonators, appear to be more the preserve of traditional British comms and are used far more on BBSes than the Internet.

At the risk of incurring the wrath of fellow members of the anti-smiley brigade, I've compiled a rather exhaustive list of smilies below. If this doesn't sate your appetite, you're probably irretrievably afflicted, but try the following resources:


EFF's (Extended) Guide to the Internet Smiley Dictionary http://www.eff.org/papers/eegtti/eeg_286.html
Helwig's Smiley Dictionary http://www.cg.tuwien.ac.at/~helwig/smileys.html
The Smiley Dictionary http://olympe.polytechnique.fr/~violet/Smileys/
The Smiley Server http://www.biologie.uni-freiburg.de/cgi-bin/smile
ASCII Art Gallery http://www.ioc.ee/~valdo/ascii/english.html

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Basic smilies

:-)   The original smiley, used to inflect a sarcastic or joking statement
      or show approval of or amusement at a previous writer's remarks.
;-)   Winking smiley. The writer just made a flirtatious or provocative
      remark. 
:-(   Frowning smiley. The writer is saddened by the foregoing statement,
      whether his own or someone else's.
:-I   Indifferent smiley. Better than a frowning smiley, but not quite as
      good as a happy smiley.
:->   Writer just made a really scathing, sarcastic remark. Worse than
      a :-) .
>:->  Writer just made a really devilish remark.
>;->  Winking and devilish combined. Very brash.

(Thankfully) less common smilies

(-:   Writer is left-handed
%-)   Writer has been staring at the PCW's screen for too long
:*)   Writer is drunk
[:]   Writer is a robot
8-)   Writer is wearing sunglasses
B:-)  Writer is wearing sunglasses on head
::-)  Writer wears normal glasses
B-)   Writer wears horn-rimmed glasses
8:-)  Writer is a little girl
:-)-8 Writer is a buxom girl
:-{)  Writer has a moustache
:-{}  Writer wears lipstick
{:-)  Writer wears a toupee
:-7   Writer just made a wry statement
:-*   Writer just ate something sour
:-)~  Writer drools
:-~)  Writer has a cold
:'-(  Writer is crying
:'-)  Writer is so happy that he's crying
:-@   Writer is screaming
:-#   Writer wears a brace
:^)   Writer has a broken nose
:<)   Writer is stuck-up
:-&   Writer is tongue-tied
-:-)  Writer has a Mohican haircut
+-:-) Writer is the Pope or holds some other religious office
`:-)  Writer shaved one of his eyebrows off this morning
|-I   Writer is asleep
|-O   Writer is yawning/snoring
:-Q   Writer is a smoker
:-?   Writer smokes a pipe
O :-) Writer is an angel (at heart, at least)
:-S   Writer just made an incoherent statement
:-D   Writer is laughing
:-X   Writer's lips are sealed
:-C   Writer is really fed up
:-/   Writer is sceptical
C=:-) Writer is a chef
*<:-) Writer is wearing a Santa Claus Hat
:-o   Oh, no!
(8-o  Total astonishment
3:]   Pet smiley
E-:-) Writer is a radio amateur
:-9   Writer is licking his lips
[:-)  Writer is wearing a Walkman
(:I   Writer is bald
<:-I  Writer is a dunce
@:-)  Writer is wearing a turban
:)    Midget smiley
:-p   Smiley sticking its tongue out

TLAs

AFAIK	As Far As I Know
BTW	By The Way
FAQ	Frequently Asked Questions
FOAD	Erů gertcha, or something similar
FWIW	For What It's Worth
FYI	For Your Information
IIRC	If I Remember Correctly
IMHO	In My Humble Opinion
IOW	In Other Words
ISTR	I Seem To Recall
OTOH	On The Other Hand
POV	Point Of View
ROTFL	Rolls On The Floor Laughing
RTFM	Ahem, please refer to the documentation
TIA	Thanks In Advance
© 1997. Page last updated 31st December 1997