March 13, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
The Web smiley's motto: Grin and bear it
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But new Internet trends could relegate emoticons to the history books. The culprit in question is none other than the avatar, that customizable cartoon or 3D virtual identity famously used in virtual worlds like Second Life and the newly announced Home from Sony, as well as massively multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft.
Avatars can be tweaked to look like just about anything, and they can be made to express emotions, too. Second Life and Warcraft offer commands called "emotes," keywords that can be entered into the games' text fields and program an avatar to dance like a chicken or pick its nose.
C. C. Chapman, whose company, Crayon, operates a headquarters in Second Life, thinks avatars will see wider use in the future. "I think it adds what's been missing for so long, where all of a sudden you have chats and conversations in a three-dimensional environment where showcasing emotion, excitement or anger is much easier," Chapman said. "It's getting closer to real life."
And virtual worlds don't have a monopoly on avatars anymore. Instant-messaging clients like AIM and Yahoo Instant Messenger now offer customizable (albeit two-dimensional) avatars in lieu of "buddy icons," and one of the trademark features of Nintendo's Wii console is the "Mii channel" that allows players to create virtual likenesses. To top it off, many of these instant-messaging clients are now also offering voice or video chat functions. In comparison, emoticons seem downright prehistoric.
"You're definitely going to see much more convergence of all this media," Chapman said. "You have to. We're getting spread so thin with all these different tools, they're going to have to pull together to interact with each other."
And emote-equipped avatars are largely still a nascent phenomenon just as emoticons were two decades ago. "In Second Life, they're definitely not there yet," C.C. Chapman said. "To get the emotes you want, you have to buy them and plug them in." They just aren't fully integrated into the world, he added. "It has to become a standard part of the application."
Emoticons certainly aren't dead yet. For one, it's already pretty clear that people should never underestimate the power of retro. Just look at all the embedded Flash games of Pac-Man that have popped up in the MySpace profiles of teenagers who were nowhere close to being born when the classic video game first hit arcades.
And then there's the fact that emoticons, however outdated, may have already solidified a permanent spot in Web-surfing and communication habits. "It's become almost a convention," said Fahlman of Carnegie Mellon. "The original reason may have completely evaporated, but I think these things will live on for a little bit longer until e-mail itself goes away and we're all just talking and videoing at each other and everyone's forgotten how to write."
And most of us don't foresee humanity forgetting how to write anytime soon. ;-)
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