If we were standing face to face and I said something along the lines of, "I absolutely disagree with you, and I think you're an idiot," and then I smiled, what would you do? You would probably think "smug b*#$*%d" and attempt to smack me around the head.
So what I can't figure out is why people are willing to do in e-mail what they won't do in person? Why do people feel no compunction about insulting me online and following it up with a smiley face?
Smileys are those concatenations of ASCII characters that are supposed to convey emotion in plain text messages, as in :-). I find it impossible to believe that Network World Today readers don't know about smileys, but just in case, :-) is supposed to imply lightheartedness as in "I can't find the 'any' key :-)".
Thousands of smileys have been invented for all sorts of things. There are smileys for sadness, :-(, smugness :->, resoluteness :-|, a prognathous jaw :-], a lolling tongue :-P and a pointy nose :^).
These were once funny, but now they have descended to the nether regions of cultural hell alongside "Precious Moments" figures and Day-Glo velvet pictures of Elvis.
Now ask yourself what that message really means. I contend the message means, "I absolutely disagree with you, but please don't get serious about it." That's a pretty reasonable request, so why beat about the bush? Come right out and say it.
But, of course, context is everything. If the message were in reply to, "Do you think the logo should be in blue?" then the sender would probably not be too upset. But in response to, "You have to marry my daughter, you swine," the result would, most likely, be quite different, particularly if someone toting a shotgun delivered the message.
So how are smileys used badly? Many people add smileys to be cute, so "Am I trying to be cute?" should be one of the first questions to ask.
If the answer is yes and the recipient isn't your mother or a paramour who doesn't mind a dose of saccharine, then go ahead and look like a half-wit if you wish.
On the other hand, if you are trying to take the sting out of a comment that you can't figure out how to rephrase and you think a smiley is the way to go, save the message and lie down in a dark room until the impulse subsides. Chances are, you will soon realise that you were attempting to be duplicitous.
When you feel tempted to use a smiley, ask yourself what it is you're trying to say, whom are you saying it to and what is the purpose. After you choose your smiley, don't use it. Learn to say what you mean.
(Say what you mean to firstname.lastname@example.org.)