Why are emoticons important?

One of the few areas of online communication that doesn't seem to attract much attention from forum owners or users alike is the effective use of emoticons to enhance online communication.

Communication - textual or verbal - is not only about sharing information but also carries an inherent emotional aspect with it. Whether we appreciate it or not, we are subtly influenced by the use of non-verbal cues to interpret communication in real life. The same goes for online communication as well. We always try to "complete" the communication from all aspects and apart from the informational value carried in messages, we also look for the emotional cues that lie beneath.

Classification of emoticons and how they affect online communication

I tend to think of emoticons as the "visual" aspect of online communication that gives us emotional cues. There are two broad categories of emotional messages that an emoticon can carry: positive or negative. Each has its own use in online communication and I'll try to explain them in more specific detail here.

A more detailed classification would be:
  1. Emotion "sharing" emoticons - positive/negative. ( :), :(, :D, :rolleyes:, :mad: etc.)
  2. Cue emoticons :)confused:, :eek:, :cool:, :eek: etc.)
  3. Ornamental emoticons (all custom/animated emoticons)
However, bear in mind that because of the widespread and careless use of emoticons these days, certain smilies have almost zero emotional content while certain other non-standard emoticons just serve as amusement value for the end users and don't have much effect in delivering emotional messages. Standard emoticons are generally more effective because they are visually simple and have a direct relation to facial expressions of different kinds.

Many of my explanations are based on subjective analysis and experience and have no backing by objective research. But with experience, I'm sure many forum users will agree that emoticons are definitely an important aspect of online communication.

Basic emoticons and their underlying emotional messages

  1. Happy Smile :)
    The most common emoticon, the happy smile is essentially positive in nature and conveys cheer. The important thing is to note that it should be used only when you would generally smile at the other person while delivering a message. Use of this icon in contradictory situations - namely while delivering negative or aggressive messages can easily be spotted - and will annoy everybody. The excessive use of the smile is also an irritation, so use this only to enhance the friendly tone of a message and not to tone down aggression.
    Situations to use in: thanking somebody, generally sharing a greeting, welcoming messages and in other light, humourous banter where warmth is to be conveyed.
  2. Cheesy/toothy Grin :D
    This is a very positive emoticon, but has a different connotation from the common smile icon. This should generally be used sparing to have maximum effect and should be used mainly for sharing humour and goodwill and never as a sarcastic device. Because of its high potential for emotional content, this should be used only in positive communication.
    Situations to use in: sharing and enjoying humour, exuding goodwill and in light-hearted banter.
  3. Cheeky/Tongue :p
    This is another positive emoticon, but has the ability to be interpreted negatively, especially when the message is slightly sarcastic in tone. However, different rendering of this emoticon may have a different effect (see the phpBB version of this to see the difference). While you might interpret the message as a joke, the use of this smiley might convey that you're ridiculing the other party, although mildly. Hence should be used carefully and only when the whole message is absolutely clear.
    Situations to use in: mainly in positive tongue-in-cheek humour or in light banter. Almost never in sarcastic messages and messages which can be interpreted in a negative light.
  4. Sad/unhappy :(
    This icon might be seen as a negative icon in certain situations, but is almost never aggressive in nature and can be used generally as a way to share unhappiness. However, this icon is best used only in situations where the user is more unhappy with himself/herself than with others. But care needs to be used to make sure that you don't come across as pathetic, especially when asking for help. So it's best avoided when you seek help.
    Situations to use in: Non-aggressive sadness/unhappiness. More effectively used to convey the passive emotion than to share it actively with others.
  5. Angry/aggressive :mad:
    This is one of the most aggressive emoticons that there is, mainly because of the intensity of the expression (the frown and the curled lip). This is very effectively used by trolls to stir up emotions, especially as a means to rebuke others. Use very carefully and almost always in showing your anger at impersonal situations or things rather than people. When the message is extremely aggressive in tone, this strengthens the aggression.
    Situations to use in: Best in showing anger at impersonal situations. Also used effectively in communicating that you're heated at the moment and don't wish to discuss a particularly sensitive subject any more.
  6. Rolling eyes :rolleyes:
    One of the most powerful smilies in delivering emotional impact - more than the aggressive emoticon - because of the way it's designed. It has a way of stirring up negativity when used as a weapon of cutting contempt (when delivering extremely contemptuous or overbearing messages). Be careful when you intend only mild sarcasm because it strengthens the "contempt" and "overbearing" element in the message. Also used effectively by trolls in ridiculing good, logical arguments.
    Situations to use in: Any message where you need to show heavy sarcasm or cutting contempt and an overbearing attitude. Needless to say, use sparingly at best and in an impersonal context.
Other emoticons with lesser emotional potential

Cue emoticons:
Certain other standard emoticons at best have a mildly amusing or positive influence. Some of them are the :cool:, :eek:, :confused: and :eek:. These are generally not as impactful as the basic emoticons. Most of these are not "shared" in the communication but merely as symbols of certain obvious feelings. They are used as highlights to clarify a certain mindset during the communication rather than sharing an emotion.

Ornamental emoticons:
The non-standard emoticons also have little emotional content and serve more as amusement elements, particularly animated ones like :banana::biglaugh: :tiphat::coffee:. In general, the more complex the emoticon, the less emotional content it carries. That's because the mind doesn't really interpret the emotional aspect of the icon but takes it as amusement. So these icons are used as mildly positive elements in communication, but are not really essential.


The importance of visual cues in communication, verbal or non-verbal, cannot be over-emphasized. Even in online communication, our minds tend to "fill up the missing pieces of the puzzle" and emoticons, if used wisely, can help the communication to convey and enhance the underlying emotional aspects of the communication.

Bear also in mind that this is subjective and the impact will vary depending on the actual quality of the text communication as well as the mindset of the receiver. The key is to used emoticons sparingly and accurately in context to have maximum potential impact.
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