Tone indicators and the ever-evolving quest to clarify what we're saying online

The New York Times has a piece on "tone indicators" — a growing trend on the Intertubes to use short-forms that clarify the emotional tone of an utterance.

This tweet by @CosmicSky0_o, cited by the Times, has a good summary of some of the more-common tone indicators …

Tone indicators are, the Times writes, popular particularly amongst folks who dislike the tonal murkiness of much online posting — some of the neurodivergent, for example, or online cultures where inclusivity and clarity about intent is a strong value:

"Tone indicators are literally used to indicate the tone of what you write, since written conversation can be harder to get by people who have communication issues or just aren't used to a certain way someone speaks online," wrote Michael Guazzelli, who is 21 and identifies as neurodivergent, in a direct message on Twitter. "There's plenty of different typing styles and if someone is not familiar to someone else's, the tone indicators make everything more simple because no one has to ask what the person is talking about or what they mean with what they said."

Granted, even amongst fans of tone indicators, there are rollicking debates about how and when and why to use tone indicators, and whether they kill humor and textual wit (i.e. by effectively saying "I'm joking", "I'm speaking rhetorically", etc.)

Me, I'm generally an enthusiast for these sorts of linguistic experiments! I can see problems, of course. One big challenge with tone indicators, I think, is that they presume good faith in declaring one's intent; but we've long seen how right-wing trolls and President Trump deploy "I'm just joking" as a way to say something (say) straightforwardly racist or misogynist while also attempting to dodge accountability for their words. (My wife Emily Nussbaum wrote a fabulous essay about this dynamic back in 2017.)

But amongst good-faith wielders, tone indicators strike me as another delightful example of the Darwinian evolution of language online — our endless experiments in communication through the digital aeth'r. There's a long history of this experimentation — from emoticons (which Vladimir Nabokov envisioned in 1969!) to early-Internet Dagwood-sandwich-style acronyms like ROTFLMAO, to the formal introduction of the smiley in (as one story tells it) in 1982.

Sarcasm, in particular, tends to be a tone that — even when deployed in a good-faith, literary way — is misread online, so there's long been discussion of whether there's any simple way to indicate it. One example, cited in the Times piece:

In a 2001 post, the blogger Tara Liloia proposed that tildes might be used to indicate sarcasm.

"The closest thing to a sar­casm mark is the wink­ing smi­ley — and he is­n't really a pro­fes­sional tool. You can't write a missive to a busi­ness as­so­ci­ate with little cutesy ASCII faces in it. It's just not done," she wrote. "And no one can claim that sarcasm isn't professional. If the amount of sarcasm in the American workplace is any indication, sarcasm is nothing but professional!"

"My solu­tion," she concluded, "is the tilde. ~"

The common problem that all these inventions are attempting to address is, really, emotional stance. The linguist Gretchen McCulloch talks about this a bunch in her wonderful book Because Internet. As she notes, in F2F communication we each radiate a myriad of signals that emotionally disambiguate our words — body posture, vocal tone, etc. We don't have those signals that online; all we've got is words and images, mostly. And don't have very many words, and they usually don't have much context. When you read novels, these problems go away: The authors have a ton of words and a long time to establish their stance, and the novel provides a ton of context for any individual sentence. This is not true of the tweet. Often you're looking at single short sentence by someone, with little context of other things they've said.

But even amongst intimates — people who know each other well — it's easy to misread tone and stance, in emails or texts or DMs! This is why emoji have become so popular. People are "trying to solve one of the big problems of writing online, which is that you have the words but you don't have the tone of voice," as McCulloch told me when I wrote about emoji a few years ago for Wired.

It turns out we're even developing an emoji syntax, as the linguist Tyler Schnoebelen told me …

Indeed, people are even developing syntax and rules of use for emoji Schnoebelen found that when we use face emoji, we tend to put them before other objects. If you text about a late flight, you'll put an unhappy face followed by a plane, not the reverse. In linguistic terms, this is called conveying "stance." Just as with in-person talk, the expression illustrates our stance before we've spoken a word.

It's impossible to tell whether tone indicators will ever become as widespread as, say, emoji. But if they did, they might develop some similarly interesting syntatic rules. I'm fascinated to watch it evolve.