Neal Stephenson: Smileys  


When I was younger I wrote an opinion piece for The New Republic in which I denounced smileys (symbols like this :)  ) and the people who used them in e-mail, including Scott Fahlman, who invented them.

My smileys piece is an object lesson in why the Internet is sometimes a bad thing. The problem with the Internet is that nothing fades away there. And so a silly little opinion piece like this one lives on forever. In an earlier era, it would have ended up moldering away in a few libraries where no one would ever see it.

For the record, I no longer agree with my own smileys editorial of 1993, for two general reasons:

1.I wrote it in a snotty tone that I wouldn’t use if I were writing it today.

2.It reflects a mentality about writing that I clung to early in my career but have since rejected. According to this mentality, the way to write well is to produce a bad first draft and then toil through many revisions, editing it and refining it to bring it ever closer to some supposed Platonic ideal. If you believe in this (as I used to) and if you apply it to the topic of smileys, you arrive at the conclusion that smiley users are lazy writers who could get along just fine without smileys if only they took the trouble to revise and edit their work a little bit, to make the meaning clearer. Of course, as Fahlman himself points out in his web page about smileys, this is not the way people actually write. Since I wrote my denunciation of smileys, I have become more interested in the way that people (including myself) actually do write, and have stopped worrying so much about how they ought to write. So, when I re-examine what Fahlman and I have written about smileys, I end up agreeing with Fahlman, and thinking that this Stephenson kid must be living in some kind of fantasy world.