Emoticons: Laugh Tracking the Internet

June 29, 2011

There were artifacts of TV up for auction this past weekend. Dinosaurs from a couple of decades ago.

I wanted to buy one in particular so I could use it when my family didn’t find my old jokes funny anymore.

It was – a laugh track machine.

Critical to the widespread adoption of the television genre known as the sitcom, it was the secret sauce that made bad TV watchable.

Laugh Track Machine

Through some kind of tubular black magic (now accomplished through digital sampling) it recorded particularly infectious laughs from individuals and groups and stored them so the TV director could – cue the laugh, or sweeten the sound track by combining and  playing laughs back at different volumes and intensities.

The clever use of this machine told viewers at home what they were watching was funny, even if the dialogue was inane and poorly performed. It was chumming the laugh waters for the masses.

Another use was to fill “dead” spots in the show (when the writing, or the delivery or the situation fell flat) – with noise… in this case an appreciative chuckle or just a smattering of laughs.

The sound of a riotous laughter also allowed viewers at home to feel as though they were watching with a group, even if they were alone… another connection that was enabled by these machines.

Laugh track machines aren’t quite so popular for TV these days.

But the concept of “sweetening” the mix is far from dead.

Online, our communications are devolving into short bursts of typed words.  These printed messages are broadcast to single recipients or thousands of “friends” or viewsers without the benefit of human voice and its accompanying tone, volume, tempo, innuendo, facial expressions, eye contact or any of the other cues that give the listener a hint of where we are coming from. And certainly no one chooses to read anything longer than a few sentences anymore so it is tough to establish context.

Since 2008, Americans text more than they talk on cell phones.

We write one sentence wall postings instead of long, heartfelt letters.

And text sweeteners have evolved along with the media to help put some spin on your knuckle-ball.

Called Emoticons – my mobile device provider has conveniently stored all of these in the belly of my beast as a resource to help me enhance my texts or emails!

I try not to worry that someone actually knows what all 200 of these symbols represent.

Do I want to soften the blow of a particularly snarky email I’m sending?  There’s an emoticon for that.

Do I want to emphasize my words are trying to be funny? There’s an emoticon for that.

There is also a totally separate system of pure punctuation and abbreviation, rather than symbol, that accomplishes the same goal.

My only advice in trying to use emoticons is to use them with good taste – if that is possible, and with a minimalist sensibility.

When you know you are listening to a laugh track, or someone winks at you one too many times, somehow it doesn’t work anymore.

And as for hashtags – that # you see added in front of random words – first on Twitter and now everywhere… they have moved beyond their sorting utility and are now a substitute for creativity. They usually mean nothing except – I couldn’t think of anything clever to put here…



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