The Trouble With Emoticons

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By Stephanie Monteath

Everyone here is entitled to an opinion, right? And everyone is entitled to say their opinion, whether vocally, digitally or in writing. We are encouraged to give our opinions wherever necessary, for instance, by ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’ a video on YouTube, ‘retweeting’ comments on Twitter, sending instant ‘scale of 1 – 10’ feedback to O2 after they text you about their service or using the exciting new emoticon ‘reactions’ recently introduced on Facebook posts. It’s a nice feeling, knowing that our opinions matter. We feel like we can make a difference. We feel important in some way.

There is a flaw, however, in these numerical or emoticon-style ‘reactions’. They are no longer thoughtful opinions, but rather quick bursts of data, clocked up into bar charts or pie charts or whatever the big media bosses want for ‘improving their services’. We can give our full opinions on Twitter, but only in 140 character bursts. We can write our lengthy opinions on Facebook, providing anyone cares to spend the time clicking ‘read more’. We can even tell our stories to the press, if we are ok with our words going through editing, and sub-editing, to reach maximum selling potential. The Photoshop analogy of images can be applied to words, too.

On top of this, there’s the audience. According to Microsoft research undertaken in 2013, we, as humans, have a deteriorating attention span thanks to the use of smartphones, our span having fallen from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to just 8 now. That’s one second less than a goldfish, which gives the term ‘goldfish brain’ a whole new meaning. Bear in mind that this study was carried out three years ago, which could suggest that now it’s even less than that.

Somewhere down the line, where our opinions are condensed into a single sentence or a candy-coloured, stylised emoticon, they become no longer thoughtful. And when they aren’t thoughtful, or fully equipped to withstand debate, then we need to brace for the backlash. At this moment in time, let me ask you – is this ‘freedom of speech’?

Hold that thought.

Recently, British journalist and television presenter, Joan Bakewell, became the latest in a long line of well-known people facing immense fire over a comment that she made regarding anorexia. Which was printed in The Sunday Times, in an article written by someone else. Which was edited by someone else and – oh, you get the picture.

By some wonderful chopping and changing of words to fit Bakewell’s opinion into a ‘dramatic’ and ‘sellable’ less-than-8-seconds heading, The Sunday Times article blares, ‘Anorexia is narcissism, says Joan Bakewell’… opening the gates to immediate and uninformed onslaught.

Thanks to The Sunday Times’ journalistic skills, I’ll never know if Joan Bakewell implied this statement by the intonation of her voice, or her body-language, or if her comments were made in person to the article’s author. According to them, her opinion is: “I am alarmed by anorexia among young people, which arises presumably because they are preoccupied with being beautiful and healthy and thin. No one has anorexia in societies where there is not enough food. They do not have anorexia in the camps in Syria. I think it’s possible anorexia could be about narcissism.”

In the space of a day, Joan Bakewell has felt the urge to apologise to the British public – and international Twitter audience – for any potential distress that her comments may have made. Now, I’m sorry, but how has a free opinion – with the indirect terms ‘presumably’ and ‘I think it’s possible’ – suddenly become the scaremongering statement that is flashed across our screens and in our papers as its marketed headline? How is it ok for someone thinking outside of the box to be silenced by the general public, because she cannot cope with the influx of the quick-to-rise negative comments?

It has to be admitted, Bakewell is social media savvy – tweeting at 82 – and has proven herself to be an intelligent member of our society. The BBC itself states: “She was always a role model for intelligent, ambitious young women and now she stands for remaining active and inquisitive in later life.” Bakewell doesn’t just ‘say’ things to cause a shockwave reaction and I’m sure she could very well justify her comments to you and me in person, if she got the chance. It is exceedingly reasonable to argue that we are a narcissistic society now – selfie-sticks, keeping up appearances online, birds-eye photographs of our perfectly placed luncheons, ‘liberating’ our naked bodies. The constant inner attention that we give ourselves, comparing our lives to those presented to us online, and continuing self-scrutiny into how we appear physically and digitally – that’s a lot of pressure to put on ourselves. Are you telling me that there isn’t the slightest possibility that it could lead to any mental illness?

Can we be so quick to judge short, one-sentence opinions, without looking at the full, bigger picture? Joan Bakewell felt she had to apologise for the way that her opinion was presented in The Sunday Times because she “spent 6 hours answering tweets” and she is “tired”. I would be, too! Is it worth the effort for a bit of ‘free speech’? *Note: ‘Freedom of speech’ is the concept of the inherent human right to voice one’s opinion publicly without fear of censorship or punishment. ‘Speech’ is not limited to public speaking and is generally taken to include other forms of expression. Thanks Wiki, for clarifying that this is exactly what we are not doing.

We should be inquisitive, curious, and sceptical about the world. That’s what makes us learn, and gain knowledge, and share knowledge. No one needs to be spoon-fed simplistic yellow pictures of emotive faces, or restricted to 140 characters. We aren’t toddlers. We should ask questions, and be open to opposition, without being afraid of our opinions being twisted through the thorns of social media and mass-produced press. Free speech is writing and talking as much as we can, without restriction. And so I applaud Joan Bakewell for looking at the bigger picture to form a potential case study for what is a serious mental illness. I’m just sad that as a journalist, Bakewell didn’t write her own article on the subject. I would have liked to read it.

Perhaps the good thing to come out of this is that indirect awareness has been spread about anorexia, which begs the question, would anorexia have amassed this much response in a day through direct awareness? Time to have a think.

Stephanie Monteath completed a BA Hons in Fashion at the Manchester School of Art in 2015.

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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