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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10 comments

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Slow News Day
this could have been communicated in 3 paragraphs or less
Posted by Rhyno#1 (8 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Agreed
Or even better, the article could have simply not been written :)

The article is completely speculative. It's really a history of the emoticon (which would have been fine as a fluff piece), couched as a "Scary! They're going away!" shock piece.

I clicked on it because I was wondering what could possibly be said on the subject. Sadly, I got my answer: nothing of substance.
Posted by chk42 (1 comment )
Link Flag
despair.com
I'm surprised that the author didn't mention that despair.com trademarked the frownie :-( a few years back.
Posted by zed (18 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Writing IS dead
Judging by most of the responses I see net-wise, writing has all but died. Rules of grammar? Fugetaboutit! Orthography? You gotta be kidding! I don't know if it's because people are in a hurry to get their thoughts on screen, or if they have no thoughts, or if nobody cares. I would be more inclined to take feedback seriously if thoughtfulness became the emotive force of the day.
Posted by CESSNA150SKYPILOT (14 comments )
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Grammar
You should check your grammar....
Posted by vagarob (24 comments )
Link Flag
Writing is Dying
In this age of teaching children that effort is enough and that results are unimportant, grammar, orthography, expressivity, clarity, and more suffer. Given the informality of chatting, e-mail, and instant messaging, the use of crippled data entry tools, poor education, and the rush to participate in ever more inanity, is it a wonder that writing today is so poor?

What bothers me most is the lackadaisical attitude about it. Few today *care* to improve. The mere idea of correcting a mistake can unleash great incivility or disdain. There's no need for perfection, as your own, "You gotta be kidding," will attest, but one should set one's ideals high and strive continuously to improve.
Posted by c|net Reader (856 comments )
Link Flag
emoticon dictionary ; )
In order to impart an everlasting value to this string of comments I'm including here the emoticons from an old AOL ad before I ceremonially tear it up to heal the faded spot on my bulletin board:

:-D laughing, ':-) raised eyebrow :-|| very angry :-[ angry :<) snobby :-) happy :-/ skeptical ;-) happy with wink :'-) happy with tears :-@ scream :-| indifferent :-o surprised :-0 very surprised :-* kiss |-0 yawn 8-0 shocked :-( sad :-C very sad :-X lips sealed [:] robot %-) confused 8-) glasses.
Posted by Razzl (1318 comments )
Reply Link Flag
So THAT's the problem...
LOL (abbreviations are an annoyance for another article)! My list didn't print completely because the software took the "/" for a command. Oh well, you got the idea...
Posted by Razzl (1318 comments )
Link Flag
c-oo c--j
c--j c-oo o--7o
Posted by ifoster (11 comments )
Reply Link Flag
anyone remember the x-face protocol?
avatars for e-mail. Since the eighties.

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X-Face" target="_newWindow">http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X-Face</a>
Posted by minitrue (11 comments )
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