Tuesday 30 October 2012

Do you smile with your nose?

Do smileys ever have a nose?

Emoticons are a good way of representing what gets lost when we switch from speaking to texting. We can’t use intonation or facial expressions to show whether we’re joking or are sad, so we use an emoticon to do the job. The emoticons people use can vary, though, as Tyler Schnoebelen discovered when he analysed nearly 4 million American English tweets that included at least one of the most frequently used emoticons. Just some of the variations that people used are shown in the Table.

Number in the corpus
Percentage of all emoticons in the corpus
: )
; )
: (
big smile
: D
: -)
; -)
     70, 618
: -(

Counts and percentages of emoticons in the American English Twitter corpus analysed by Schnoebelen

Schnoebelen showed that the variants corresponded to different types of users, tweeting with different vocabularies. His statistical analyses revealed that the most pervasive distinction was between emoticons with noses and those without noses. He therefore set out to discover whether emoticons with and without a nose, such as :) and :-) , mean the same thing. He did this by looking at how they patterned with other aspects of tweets.
Tweets cannot be longer than 140 characters, so you might expect people who send longer tweets to use emoticons without a nose, to save a character. But it turned out that people who used noses wrote longer tweets, not shorter ones. They also avoided abbreviations like thru. These ‘nosers’ made few typos and spelt words correctly. Overall, then, their language could be described as more standard. The ‘non-nosers’, by contrast, seemed to want to be more non-standard.  They tended to mis-spell words such as ‘tomorrow’ as tommorow, they dropped the apostrophe in contractions such as wasn’t, and they used more taboo words and more expressively lengthened words (like soooo or yummm). They also used more emoticons overall. They seemed to be younger than the ‘nosers’, keeping up with a younger set of celebrities and sending them positive vibes.

Schnoebelen explains that emoticons with noses were the first to be used, so for a while they were the historically ‘standard’ forms. This meant that people who were interested in presenting themselves as nonstandard had to change them, and remove the noses.

So, do emoticons with noses mean the same as those without a nose? Schnoebelen reminds us that meaning is an emergent property of social relations, not something that a symbol has in itself. He gives as an example a bouquet of roses, which is meaningful because there are lovers, patients, doctors and florists to give it meaning: the interpretation is shared by people we’re familiar with, using familiar interpretive schemes. To understand the meaning of emoticons, then, we need to think not only about the emotions they can convey but also who uses them and when. A smiley can tell us how the person feels about what they are tweeting, but it also tells us something about the kind of relationship they want to establish with the people they are tweeting.
Schnoebelen, Tyler (2012) Do You Smile with Your Nose? Stylistic Variation in Twitter Emoticons. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 18 (2): 117-125

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire