The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 1 (Spring 2018)

Expose Thyself! On the Digitally Revealed Life

Christine Rosen

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 1)

When Ross W. Ulbricht, a thirty-year-old California man accused by the US government of running the black-market website Silk Road, was on trial in a federal district court in Manhattan in early 2015, his defense attorney lodged an unusual complaint with the judge. He claimed that prosecutors had failed to include a vital piece of evidence in the case it presented to the jury, one that spoke to his client’s innocence and credibility: a smiley face.1

It turns out that the purported criminal mastermind was, like many of us, a devotee of the emoji, or emoticon. Ulbricht’s case is not the only one in which emoticons have been weighed in the balance. A case that came before the US Supreme Court in 2015 hinged on whether a man who made threats on Facebook against his estranged wife should have his conviction overturned. (He eventually won his case before the Supreme Court.) The man claimed that his threats weren’t serious because they included emoji of a face with its tongue sticking out, a tactic suggesting that perhaps we have entered the era of the Winkie Defense.

Like many inventions, emoji were borne of frustration—an inability to “read” the meaning of early e-mail messages that lacked the nonverbal emotional cues that define face-to-face communication. Scott E. Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University and the man widely credited as the creator of the first smiley-face emoticon, designed it to convey sarcasm; his fellow computer scientists active on early online bulletin boards were so literal minded that attempts at jokes often fell flat. The emoticon was intended as a kind of “joke marker” to prevent this.2

Emoji are a form of emotional punctuation, a creative attempt to translate one aspect of the human experience—our emotional lives—to the screen, and in this they have been successful. But they are also a symbol of our broader struggle to reconcile human emotions with the limitations of the technologies through which we express them. The opposite of the cheerful winking emoji is the ANGRY MESSAGE DELIVERED IN ALL CAPS or the harassments of the determined Internet troll that we must endure when our efforts to connect to one another online misfire.

More and more of us now express our emotions through the devices and software we rely on in our everyday lives. E-mail, text messages, social media, video chat—each platform demands of us different expressions of ourselves. And in the near future, we will have a new range of technologies at our disposal—sensors, monitors, and software with the power to track, nudge, persuade, and coerce. What the clock did to time, technologists hope to do to emotion—regulate and regiment it, measure and monitor it. But taming the temperamental beast that is human emotion might prove a challenge that contemporary technology is unfit to take on.

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  1. Benjamin Weiser, “At Trial, Lawyers Fight to Include Evidence They Call Vital: Emoji,” New York Times, January 29, 2015.
  2. Scott E. Fahlman, “Smiley Lore 🙂,” Accessed December 11, 2017.

Christine Rosen is senior editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society. She is the author of Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement and The Extinction of Experience (forthcoming).

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.1 (Spring 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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