We have today progressed far from what Žižek dubbed as one of the most important inventions of the 20th century, that is Charles R. Douglass’s “canned laughter” of 1950s shows. Robert Pfaller, then adapted by Žižek, was the first to recognize the inherent danger of new media — not interactivity that makes us lazy, but interpassivity that prepares us to do “mindless frenetic work” . When we look at comedy shows on television, the laughter does not function as a mere cue to where we should laugh, but it literally laughs for us — we do not have to laugh to feel good about the show. Likewise, the role of the pornstar today is not merely to enact orgasms that titillate us — they literally reach orgasms for us. The point in watching comedies is not to laugh out loud in front of television sets, but to be able to feel the relief of having laughed without doing the embarrassing, tiring act of real laughter. The point in watching porn movies is not even to masturbate, but to be able to feel good even without having to do all the long, tiring sex/masturbation ourselves.
Emoticons are among the ultimate crystallization of this mode. When we type in the :-)) or :-D symbols, is it not true that we never actually laugh out loud ourselves? But it is not that we are lying to our chat/text message partner/s, since there is already an implicit understanding of this going on (though always an understanding of which is already necessarily denied in the presupposition of the act). And, more importantly, after we type in those icons, is it not true that we, although not having laughed out loud ourselves, nevertheless feel relieved and enjoyed the chat session as though both/all sides laughed and had a good time? Of course, it does not have to be emoticons; it can be all the LOL variations or a simple “hahahaha”. But the point here is clear — we never laugh like that in reality. We do not need to.
So here is a simple question: why all the fuss? Why do we need our emoticons to laugh for us — can’t we just be happy without all the exaggerated digital laughters (even rolling on the floor!)? Of course, when you chat without enough emoticons, you will simply be perceived as cold, distant, etc. So, there is a necessity demanded by a digital big Other to use emoticons, to indicate that we are somehow always laughing out loud when interacting with another.
The worst thing about emoticons is that they do not only indicate laughter, but almost every expression imaginable; from waving hands to that miserable dancing banana. Of course, we have all the explicit promise of being able to express ourselves more, to compensate (warmth, understanding, etc.) for the loss of voice intonations, etc. But is it not rather the implicit promise that seduce us; the promise to be able to stay distant without any presupposed other knowing it? Rather than “You can show the other how you are now laughing out loud!” is it not more precise to say “You can now let go of all the tiring idle banter and moral injunction to be continuously friendly without the other knowing about it!” Let’s face it: laughing and smiling all the time when we meet people — the standard American big Other — is tiring.
Emoticons, I believe, with all its so-called interactive dimensions, is a much greater invention than canned laughter due to its direct role in multiple-way communication. We can now maintain the posture of being friendly and still obey the standard superego of self-expression and individuality without having to really do it. We do not have to laugh, or cry, or blush, or wave hands, or dance in jubilation. We do not even have to listen (feel free to work and read and not really listen as long as you do not close the chat window!). We only need to be active in texting back, with no more necessity for real passive response. The computer is already passive in our place.