On October 6, 1960, a committee from the American Standards Association (fittingly and mysteriously called the “X3” committee) drew up the standard set of characters that would define computer communication for years to come. At the end of their discussion (which I like to imagine were conducted either in domineering plush chairs, or dingy metal fold-ups), the ASA committee decided on the numbers 0 to 9, some control codes like “alt” and “command”, a space bar, and several punctuation symbols. Together, these symbols comprised the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, ASCII (ass-kee)—a 128-character tool of communication. The ASA probably toasted their whiskey to all the future official government documents and academic essays that could now be typed up and distributed, all—thanks to their carefully selected punctuation—with perfect grammar.
Where did this lead us? 1997 witnessed the onset of the dot-com bubble as well as AOL’s official release of its instant messenger, AIM. As ASCII exploded in its availability, anarchy surfaced in the form of 12 year olds messaging sk8rboi92 that his Sketchers were “2 cute ;)” after words had failed them in the hallway. Although the ASA had given us all 26 Latin letters with which to create words, we felt driven to extend our possibilities for typed communication. With fingers in such close proximity to a few charmingly random symbols, we began to get creative. A well-placed “ :* ” at the end of a conversation could lead to Kool-Aid kisses at the next barbeque. Thus, the asterisk became the keyboard-generated relative of the scrunched-up shape our lips make when they pucker.
With more and more communication occurring digitally behind LCD masks, we strove to mimic the expressions that would have been clear face-to-face. Enter, the emoji: ASCII art incarnate. Japanese mobile phone provider DoKoMo i-mode first turned commonly typed emoticons in to small pictures that users could add to their texts. Not only were faces the right way around again, but we could now express ourselves in tiny bright images, a step up from black line symbols. The girl in a pink shirt with her hand cocked by her shoulder (an Apple emoji) filled a void in my sassy/smug communication that I didn’t know existed. With emojis, we can re-create over 50 facial expressions, but beyond that, we can now conjure up images in our conversation that we could not have easily produced face-to-face: a monkey with hands over its mouth, for example.
Emoji expression is certainly a force to be reckoned with, but ASCII characters aren’t going down without a fight. Maybe it’s nostalgia for a simpler time that has brought us to where we are now: the age of resurrected punctuation symbols. The New York Times took up our current obsession with punctuation earlier this February in their Style section. Journalist Jessica Bennett thinks “a kind of micro-punctuation has emerged: tiny marks in the smallest of spaces that suddenly tell us more about the person on the other end than the words themselves.” She picked apart the exact usage of periods and how the exclamation mark is now apparently worthy of standing alone (!). Bennett suggested that a major function of our punctuation these days is to create the pauses and inflection that are so important in spoken conversation.
Beyond what Bennett discusses, there’s something new going on with digital grammar symbols these days. Among my many mindless Facebook event wanderings this fall, I happened across a specific trend: the ubiquitous and inexplicable use of a few new punctuation symbols.
Apparently, in my current social media world, the hippest ASCII symbols are:
/+*(and the almighty) ~
Punctuation like this is everywhere:
~TONIGHT'S THE NIGHT Y'ALL~
+++ This Location @ 8 !!! +++
FREE FOOD from Cheap Indian Place will be served. ~Get excited~
~*PERFORMANCES INCLUDE*~: band1, band2, band3
Come for a night of… music//fun//baes
Featuring creative work from the most ~fab~, *fierce*, +feminist+ artists & poets ! ! !
Symbols function as punctuation specifically when they add meaning to a word or phrase, and some of the symbols used in those posts fulfill that role. The slash (/) is a cousin of the “&” but can also mean “or”; it is meant to communicate that these words in a list are related to each other. The tilde (~), a crowd pleaser, is more ambiguous. Actually, ambiguity often appears to be its purpose. Squiggles, as I fondly call them, surrounding a word impart a feeling of suaveness, of innuendo. I imagine suggestive eyebrow rising when I read a squiggle-d word. But that’s not all the squiggle can accomplish.
There’s a certain elegance to these trendy symbols. Their shapes appear minimalist but also frivolously decorative. Why did we choose to use two slashes, when one would have sufficed? Why the squiggle on both sides of the word? It could easily have imparted the same meaning if just one were used at the front. The answer is that we are highly conscious of how punctuation appears visually. This new trend is unique because it is graphical. Punctuation can be the technological equivalent of doodling in the margins of our notebooks. In our texts, Facebook posts and 140 character tweets, we are all graphic designers.
This is where symbols begin to diverge from punctuation. The plus symbol used above (+feminist+) doesn’t tell us much about the words it surrounds, but it sure looks lovely. Designing with symbols isn’t new. In 1898, stenographer Flora Stacey tapped out a butterfly on her typewriter. More than 100 years later, we’ve reached impressive heights in ASCII art (think Obama’s face generated entirely by your keyboard). What is new, however, is how the squiggles, dashes, and pluses go beyond basic ASCII art in their interactions with words. This new punctuation is important not just in the message it means to communicate, but also in how it looks. Today, our ASCII symbols impart meaning through their grammar functions as well as through their artistic design.
And why might design be important to our communication? If an estimated 80% of our in-person communication is nonverbal, this may be equally true in our digital conversations. Just as we communicate visually with our body language, maybe we are designing with pluses and slashes instead of arms and legs.
It may not actually be design that propels us to use these symbols. Besides being concerned with how pleasing a word looks when placed between a few symbols (*fierce*), there’s often a very practical use to this graphic communication: standing out. I think I’m over-saturated with people telling me that technology is over-saturating me, but it’s true that I receive a swarm of communication each day. An asterisk or two could easily be the cue that briefly stops my eyes from glossing over the thousandth email.
Why have we returned to using basic ASCII symbols like the asterisk? Is this the final triumph of the ASA committee in constraining us to their 128-character keyboard? Maybe, we’ve picked up on the Scandinavian trend of minimalist design. Now that we’re surrounded by fiber-optic, HD, retina display, it’s possible that our eyes crave simpler sights.
Regardless of where it originates from, this trend is exciting because its use of punctuation is beginning to offer something new. When conversations became increasingly digital, the messaging trends we developed all seemed to reach towards one goal: achieving what face-to-face interaction provides (tone, facial expressions, volume). But things are maybe starting to move in the opposite direction. Even though the squiggle suggests a physical expression to me (recall the eyebrows), that’s not exactly it. Like explaining the definition of a word, I could offer synonyms for a squiggle, but none of them would exactly encompass its dynamic meaning. A friend and I recently joked that in conversation, we sometimes feel the urge to emulate the squiggle. We debated the potential of flapping our arms at our sides as we said a word we wanted to give “the squiggly feeling” to. I wished I could have just texted her that at that night’s concert, there were bound to be ~good vibes~.
If digital communication has thus far always striven to live up to spoken word, maybe, finally, the underdog of text is beginning to offer something face-to-face communication cannot deliver. Why do our current uses of ASCII symbols have no one-to-one equivalent when speaking? With more of our experiences and interactions occurring in the digital world, including entire relationships formed online, there may be some thoughts//feelings//experiences created in the technological sphere that we cannot replicate in the physical world. It would make sense then, that we can explain our *digital lives* with text, but not with spoken word. !!!