‘The cost of missing a face is higher than the cost of declaring a nonface to be a face.’
Dr. Sinha of M.I.T., quoted in ‘Faces, Faces, Everywhere’ (NYT)
I had this idea for trying to write a blog post every day for a month. For no reason, really, other than I’m curious to see what will happen – aside from the quality of these posts going rapidly downhill and becoming increasingly fragmented and diary-like and resentful, and aside from you stopping reading, maybe I’ll hit something new. Or maybe 90% of these posts will be about all of my perceived injustices while bike riding. But today, at least, I will ambitiously cobble together a few thoughts on smiley faces.
A couple of weeks ago I was following a thread on Twitter without saying anything, something I do a lot. A New Zealand radio DJ had just made a racist comment (now deleted), and then started to defend herself to all of her challengers, who rightly called her out and/or ridiculed her. This was all pretty routine, but what I found unusual was that the DJ’s tweets were festooning with smiley faces. Rather than overtones of friendliness, or being on your side, or optimism, each of her smileys seemed hostile. More at the ‘homicidal clown’ end of the smile spectrum.
It was a jolt to see the smiley being repurposed in this way, and I started thinking about the evolution of the smiley face. I realised that a snide smiley is not that unusual, since obviously the smiley face has constantly mutated through the generations: it’s been adorned with hats, Hitler moustaches, blood; it’s been stretched, worn by comic book villains like Boss Smiley and the Comedian (here’s Alan Moore stabbing a smiley-face cake), made to look drugged and dead, even depicted in place of Swastikas. Late last year an employee of the National Security Agency scribbled a celebratory smiley face on a post-it note that shows a diagram of how to hack the data centres of Yahoo and Google, enabling the NSA to gather screeds of user information. The smiley’s bland, fixed contentment is a kind of blank canvas for subversion. Considering all that, it seems more unusual that it’s ever been used to express joy or optimism or jokiness at all, and that it’s emerged out of all that tumult to depict, once again, just a smiley face.
The DJ had used the archetypal smiley emoticon. I’m talking about the parenthesis and the colon here – not even a nose, an unnecessary frill – together the perfect symbol for a smiling human face. Alongside emoji, it looks old-fashioned now. Almost shrivelled. But, somehow, it’s the very blankness of that parenthesis and colon that holds all the power, and that’s why I’ve always kind of liked it. The blankness allows the meaning of the smiley to constantly mutate. It echoes the fickleness and fluidity of the expressions on people’s faces and the way that we see different things in these expressions. In some ways, I guess the ho-hum symbol of the smiley creates as much distance as it does connection, because it lacks any complexity and nuance (something that emoji attempt to address, but often end up confusing, with their ‘pouty’ faces that actually look enraged and their ‘expressionless’ faces that actually look depressed). But, depending on who I’m writing an email to or who I’m reading one from, I sometimes feel like a smiley can convey genuine, wordless pleasure, or uncertainty, or transactional friendliness. It can almost take on the persona of the person I’m talking to. In some exchanges, its eyes seem weirdly lifelike.
This is an extreme example of how desperate I am to make meaning out of nothing. And of how readily we (I) project meaning, especially affection, onto symbols and objects, hoping that they will carry our signal faithfully or that we will find what we want to find. The name for perceiving meaning where there is none is pareidolia, a type of apophenia (seeing patterns in random data). There’s a story about a Latvian psychologist named Konstantins Raudive and his ‘electronic voice phenomena’. In 1965 he tried to contact the dead using a tape recorder and microphone. He’d set up the recorder for the day and then later would go over the audio, listening for voices. For months, he heard nothing. But soon, the more he listened and his ear ‘adjusted’, he heard whispers. He thought he heard an old girlfriend, and his mother too, though they spoke in different languages. But when the media came to investigate Raudive’s findings, they couldn’t hear anything. Later psychologists who tried the same methods found that everyone heard something different when they listened to the recorder. Disappointing. But a good demonstration of pareidolia.
Lately – I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s noticed – there’s been an explosion of interest in finding human faces in non-faces, i.e. inanimate objects, like floor mops and coat hooks and Iggy Pop’s torso (for our purposes today, inanimate). I bet people’s early encounters with the colon-parenthesis combo gave similar pangs of recognition and delight – a human face, shining out of functionality – and from then on it was impossible to see anything else. But I still wonder what’s given rise to this recent surge of interest in non-face faces. Why the competitive face-finding, which is really competitive apophenia? Imagine if it was because – this is completely fanciful and a massive stretch – we were all developing more empathy for faces that look different from our own. Imagine if it was because the regions of our brains that are highly attuned to faces – the regions that are sometimes triggered when we look at ink blots or rocky outcrops or buns or slices of toast or the moon – were becoming more sensitive, were evolving to recognise and accept more faces. The world would suddenly seem imbued with even more meaning.
The weird thing about the DJ’s smiley emoticon, though, was that I couldn’t really see it as a smile. I saw the functionality: a colon and a parenthesis. Like bits of wood with nails stuck in them.