Beyond Emoticons: The Emergence of a New Networked Language?

Andrés Monroy-Hernández 2012-03-08

Emoticons (by stuartpilbrow on Flickr)

Emotions are difficult to express regardless of the medium. Emoticons emerged as a way to augment text-based communication with symbols representing different types of emotions. More specifically, small illustrations, such as smiley faces, represent emotions. Emoticons’ popularity turned them into built-in features in many Instant Messaging and e-mail applications, from Skype, to Google Talk, to Pidgin, to Outlook. Emoticons are not unique to computer-mediated communication, though. According to  the SMS Language Quick Reference, “The National Telegraphic Review  and Operators Guide in April 1857 documented the use of the number 73  in More code to express ‘love and kisses’.”

Years later, a new iteration of these iconic illustrations has emerged from Internet culture: rage comics.

Rage comics are neither just about rage nor only about comics. They are an irreverent language composed of dozens of crudely-drawn rage faces that represent a wide span of  human emotions from very specific situations of everyday life. For example, one of the faces called rageguy represents the deep frustration and anger over an unfortunate situation out of one’s control; another called foreveralone, articulates a profound sense of chronic loneliness;  trollface, on the other hand, conveys the quiet enjoyment derived from annoying someone else;  the okayguy face expresses the discomfort of feeling pressured to agree in order to avoid a confrontation; megusta communicates the guilty pleasure over an otherwise distasteful thing.

This language is used by thousands of people every day to create comics and share them on online discussion forums such as reddit and other websites. Some of the subreddits  include the flagship fffffffuuuuuuuuuuuu (also referred to as f7u12), classicrage for “old-school rage purists”,  EFLComics for people using rage comics as a way to learn English, oooooooyyyyyyyyyyyy for “Jewish rage”, exmormonfffuuuu for “Mormon rage,” trollxchromosomes for women, and a site devoted to “Indian Rage”.

People often use web-based rage comic generators like Dan Awesome’s rage maker, browser extensions, or the iOS app to create, share and browse through rage comics. In some cases, people even summon rage faces by just typing a related file name as part of a  comment. For example, someone could type something like “Today it’s my birthday and no one has congratulated me foreveralone.jpg.”

Like many other artifacts from Internet culture, rage comics started on the (in)famous 4chan. However, it took off on reddit where new faces were added quickly through increased use. The language continues to evolve at a quick pace,  and new faces are added all the time through an organic process that relies on people’s remixing practices. For example, people sometimes link to  a new rage face while having an online discussion or creating their own rage comics. Others like it and reuse in a different context by reusing it. Nowadays, there is even a subreddit for sharing new faces. Some of the faces come from expressive photos of famous people, including  President Obama‘s “not bad” face and basketball player Yao Ming‘s “f**k that” face.

As an aside, the gender and racial politics of rage comics are rich aspects of this phenomena that deserve further analysis. For now it might be important to note that the first female face seems to have come out three years after the first rage face, and that most female faces are represented by simply the addition of a hair bow and/or long hair to the default rage faces.

At first glance, it might seem that rage comics are just a new form of emoticons. But I think they are significantly different. Emoticons are symbolic replacements for words or facial expressions, while rage faces become pictoral conversations that convey complex situational emotions and feelings. They are richer in meaning. Rage faces are a language with a rich lexicon that is co-produced and enriched through continuous networked interactions.They cross traditional national and cultural boundaries because it represents a language of the global network culture. Rage comics are co-created through large-scale conversations and the sharing of personal stories taking place in public forums. I tihink they epitomize what Manuel Castells would call a “communication protocol” of the “global network society”.