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“Our bodies are a big part of the way we communicate. If someone stamps into a room with a furrowed brow, slams the door, and proclaims, “I’M NOT ANGRY,” you believe their body, not their words. If a good friend looks you in the eye, grins, and says, “You’re the most terrible person I’ve ever met!” you think, “Awesome, we’re such close friends that we can mock-insult each other and we both know we don’t mean it!” Likewise, a lot of our language about emotion is embodied—our hearts race, our eyebrows arch, our cheeks flush, our stomachs butterfly, our throats, um, frog.
Writing is a technology that removes the body from language. That’s its greatest advantage—it’s easier to transport and store words written on paper or in bytes than embodied in an entire living human or a hologram of one. Sometimes, you don’t want the body component: Just because I ambitiously decide to keep a copy of Plato’s Republic beside the toilet does not mean that I want Zombie Socrates taking up residence in my bathroom.
But the lack of a body is also writing’s greatest disadvantage, especially when it comes to representing emotions and other mental states. Even though punctuation goes some way in helping to represent tone of voice, we’ve still been missing something in written communication—something embodied. On a technical level, we’ve gotten quite good at projecting and manipulating virtual bodies, a central feature for video games. But for general socializing, full-bodied avatars of ourselves never quite took off. Second Life made a lot of headlines, but it remained popular only in a smallish subcommunity of internet users, and similar efforts are even more obscure. The closest things most of us have to a social avatar are our profile pictures, which do provide some sense of who you’re talking to and what they (or their dog) look like. But they’re static. This is the void that emoji stepped into. But how emoji became so essential to digital communication is more complex than it first appears.”
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