I am an emoticon abuser. Whenever the situation is appropriate for a smiley face, you bet that I’ll go ahead and include one.
This is not something of which I am particularly proud. Granted, the New York Times has justified the existence of our smiling keyboard friends, but this does not make me feel a whole lot better about the ways that I liberally sprinkle them through text messages, GChat instant messages, and even professional e-mails (though to be fair, I only felt free to do so when one of my professors opened the emoticon door first and typed one of his own to me). Emoticons are almost a compulsion for me; when I’m smiling, I want to SHOW the other person that I’m smiling; I want to transmit my smiles through cyberspace and I’ve somehow lazily relied upon a colon and a parenthesis mark to do the trick for me. Why do I need to bother to express my joy, my enthusiasm, or simply my light-hearted understanding when I can simply excuse it away with a :)?
I want to believe that there’s something still irresistibly powerful about expressing something in language that simply cannot be expressed via an image. I want to believe that I could say whatever I want to say BETTER if I just used my words.
Yet I’ve come to discover that no matter how hard I want to believe that the word is the most powerful means of communicating, it may not necessarily be true in the digital age. This week at my internship, my supervisor asked me to draft up some proposal suggestions. My first suggestion was a long e-mail explaining how I would organize the information. My second suggestion was a series of PowerPoint slides illustrating the ways that I would organize the information. Guess which one he actually looked at and responded to?
In this situation, I can understand why the PowerPoint was more rhetorically effective; I’m re-organizing help information for an interface that is entirely contingent upon visual logic. Why should I write out my ideas in words when the information will eventually be presented entirely visually? The issue at the heart of the help documentation I am supposed to re-organize is, in fact, in its wordiness; apparently, customers are not reading the help information because they simply want to be shown how to use the software that the company has sold them. So, I probably should have assessed this rhetorical situation a little bit better at the start and just made the PowerPoints to begin with rather than spending the time drafting paragraph after paragraph of well-written ideas.
My boss actually spoke to this in a meeting that we had, too. We met in his office to discuss both the e-mail and the slides that I had sent him. Initially, I attempted to explain through my justification for fashioning the slides in the ways that I did, explaining the visual choices I had made and why I had organized the information in a particular way. At a moment of pause, my boss pointed his finger to his laptop and said:
“Look, with words, we’re always going to misinterpret each other. When I explain things to you, you probably won’t understand me and I won’t always understand you. So, just SHOW me what you have here.”
It was a striking statement. I don’t think he meant it in any aggressive way; he was just being honest. But I remember feeling vaguely hurt by the statement. DOES he always misunderstand me when I speak? I pride myself on clarity; I’d like to think that I am articulate. But perhaps I have too much pride in this respect for the PowerPoint certainly upstaged everything I said. Once he saw what I had in mind, he finally liked my idea enough to give me the feedback to continue to move forward with the project.
The thing is, I really did not enjoy mocking up those slides. It was a task with which I quickly grew impatient and distracted. Adjusting the heights of different boxes, determining what information went where on the page was a surprisingly taxing activity. But it was one that I had to do; I had to SHOW him what I had conceptualized and that required an awareness of spacing, formatting, and organization.
To be fair, I’ve never been particularly detail-oriented (case in point: when my sister and I used to cook together, I messily chopped the ingredients into pieces while she designed the beautiful platters. I was never trusted with design. I probably still shouldn’t be trusted with design). Even now, thinking about my goals for the summer and the forever-lingering goal to redesign this very page, I find myself hesitant to do the task; I simply don’t like the tedious work of figuring out the perfect colors for the appropriate boxes or the correct sizes and orientations of different objects on the page. It matters to me, but not so much that I am willing to invest my time in that way. I would rather read about design and think about the implications of design choices then to do the dirty work myself.
But you know what?
It is a good thing for me to feel uncomfortable. I have not felt this discomfited by my efforts in a long time. As I’ve mentioned in past entries, I’ve tended to pursue work at which I KNEW I would succeed (or at least I knew I would enjoy, which inevitably involved stories! Ideas! Words, mere words!). So, to see that a powerful industry like information technology makes decisions based primarily on graphics, tables, and icons is powerful; I see that I need to stretch my ways of thinking more, to be OK with feeling uncomfortable.
In the meantime, perhaps I should also forgive myself for the emoticon abuse. After all, if this is, indeed, a world invested in the logic of an image, maybe it’s OK that the simple warmth of a smiley face excuses my own inability to articulate what it is I want to express.