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Generation E:
The Emoticon Generation

Six months ago, I snuck into my fifteen-year-old daughter’s room when she was asleep, ‘borrowed’ her iPhone, and started checking up on everything she’s been up to.

It was late at night, and I’d just seen Brian Williams profile pedophiles on the web. They’re out there, talking to teenagers anonymously, luring them away from their computers and into meetings in the physical world. Parents have no idea what their teenagers are doing on the web. And, yes, Williams gave us the money line, “Do you know what your kids are up to?”

The path from there to exercising my parental right to violate my daughter’s underage privacy was short: five minutes, all told.

Here’s what I discovered. For the last two weeks she has been getting literally tens of thousands of different-colored exclamation marks and tens of thousands of little moon-shaped icons on her iPhone from almost all her contacts. Thousands of the moon icons were half-moons, thousands were quarter-moons, thousands more were eighth-moons, and the rest were even smaller than that. At the same time, she had been sending the same enigmatic moon icons and strangely-colored exclamation marks back to almost all her contacts. By. The. Tens. Of. Thousands.

Do you know what the moon icons mean or why exclamation marks have colors? I certainly didn’t.

During the hour before she fell asleep, she had been in contact with a certain boy in her class who even I know she has been eyeing from afar ever since the school year began. She had sent him in that hour nearly 4,000 moon-shaped icons. He had sent back roughly the same number of the same icons. Keep in mind that each one of these icons needs to be sent separately, in a separate action by the user.

What could those icons possibly mean? What reason would anyone have to send the same thing over and over again thousands of times? How could this occupy an entire hour of a hormonal teenager with borderline ADD? How is exchanging the same icon over and over again speaking or communicating in any way? What equivalent would this have in my world? What word or sound can I possibly exchange so many times in such a short time and still be communicating?

The good news was that I could see no sign of her being in contact with people who were complete strangers to me. The bad news was that my self-image as a hip, cool, happening, young 42-year-old dad who is actually a teenager at heart was permanently shattered.

“Do you know what your daughter is doing?” an imaginary anchor in my head pestered. And my answer was that even though she seemed to be safe from sexual predators, I didn’t know a single thing about what she was doing.

There’s an Alex P. Keaton line from Family Ties that always plays in my head when I think about my parental skills: “I’m hip. I’m cool. I’m a happening fool.” That night, I realized that actually says it all: That line is from the eighties, and so am I. I’m not hip. I’m not cool. But my happening foolishness was happening fully.

She was speaking a different language, if you could call those icons language. She was living in an emotional and physical and social world I knew nothing about.

I panicked. I wanted to wake her up, confront her, question her, and blame her for not sharing everything with me. How dare she think I wouldn’t understand her? How dare she think I’m not a teenager in an aged body?

By the time I put the iPhone back in its place, I realized that confronting her would get me attitude, indignation, and permanent distance.

I decided to go with my strengths. I’m a journalist, and this was a social phenomenon. I would research. I would embed myself. I would interview people. I would make the social phenomenon something I know so well as to write a book about.

And then, when I know what her world consists of, I would talk to her, face to face, as equals. And I would already be in. I would already understand. I’d be a native.

The months that followed were months of revelations about the current state of American teenagers, about a slow and inexorable move toward a society completely different from the society we, our parents, our grandparents, and our forefathers imagined. America is beginning to move in an opposite direction, one we never knew existed.

It begins with the simple things.

Underneath the surface, underneath the zit-faced, clichéd, up-yours visage of most teenagers, behind their annoying you-don’t-understand-me attitude is a world most of us adults are not even aware of. They have their own concepts, new words, different interests, unique ideals and strange ideas that we may find incomprehensible. My trip into the world of the teenagers uncovered the story of an entire generation most of us know nothing about: Generation Emoticon. Or, as they prefer to call themselves, Generation E.

Do you know what your teenager is doing? No, you don’t.

I’m here to tell you all about it.


Blue Diamond is one of the smallest towns in Nevada. Much smaller than Moapa Town, NV (population 928 at last count), smaller even than its neighboring Gabs, NV (318 residents, the sign claims), but bigger than Goodsprings, NV (218 good people, thank you very much). Blue Diamond sports 281 people since the last death or birth, and is set in the midst of beautiful mountains, much greener than the mountains of Arizona (to the south) and California (to its more immediate west). Nonetheless, the place can honestly be described as a hole. You can’t find a Wi-Fi connection to save your life, and even a cellular connection is nonexistent: I had to drive an hour away from the town to be able to check if my daughter got home safely. And yet, in the heart of Blue Diamond, NV, my interviewee has been able to set the hearts of Generation E ablaze, using a dial-up internet connection from the phone in his mother’s basement.

Revolution begins at the oddest places.

Anthony Rockwell is 19 years old. The Beauty Fairy has not blessed this young man’s face, not even a little. And yet he would surely look much better if he took a shower more than once a week and did not wash his face only every other day. His clothes smell as if they’ve been worn for three days straight and are stained with many a-spilled drinks (Coke, not coffee or alcohol). But when you look at his face, there is power in his eyes, determination and excitement you’re only used to seeing in true leaders. And when he talks, once you begin to understand that he isn’t talking nonsense and deserves some respect, you can’t help but understand how teenage girls fall at his feet, at least in cyberspace.

Anthony is a poet. Now, before reading the next couple of sentences, you had better sit down. I am going to say something entirely ridiculous, but true: Anthony writes emoticon poetry. “I am the first emoticon poet,” he says with unabashed pride. “I’m making history.”

If your reaction was anything like mine, it was derisive, dismissive, and bordered on laughter. And yet this is exactly where we all get to feel old. My grandparents thought my parents’ Rock & Roll music was noise without melody. My parents thought my Guns N’ Roses records were noise without music. Are we not dismissing our kids’ interest in emoticon art in the same way our parents dismissed our interest in art?

How far away was emoticon poetry, really? Teenagers all around the country have been using less and less words. In their tweets (“tweets for the twits” I used to call them, but no longer), they are bound to 140 characters alone. Their words no longer needed to be spelled correctly (cu l8r), spelled at all (ROTFL, OMG, IMO) or even be real words (w00t, pwned). Online magazines (called ‘webzines’ or ‘e-zines’) have been in existence for well over a decade, but now there are webzines called ‘twitterzines’, dedicated only to stories that are up to 140 characters long, stories that can be tweeted. Dozens of ‘writers’ send their ‘stories’ to these magazines, which then reject the ‘bad ones’ and accept the ‘good ones’. These magazines actually have growing readerships, which ‘read’ the ‘stories’ and respond online. Find it hard to believe? Google it. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

With no room for plot, with no room for characterization, development, plot twists, or depth of any kind, these stories are becoming the latest great fad and its writers are becoming ‘authors’. A few of these magazines have lately created paperback anthologies of the best such stories published online. And us grownups? We just don’t get it. We’re old and we’re outdated.

Welcome to Wonderland, folks. This is just the first stop.

Anthony believes words are bad. “We don’t need words. We need feelings.”

Anthony doesn’t use many words. I’m not sure he has the vocabulary.

But this man is a star, and the Generation E’s see him as we saw Salinger. It’s worth it to stick with Anthony and peel back onion layer after onion layer, to get past the teenager and get at his point. Because not only are his basic points valid, but they may usurp us one day.

Anthony is saying that words shouldn’t be used to describe, but rather to convey feelings. It doesn’t matter what words you use to get the girl, it’s the getting of the girl that matters to you. Stories evoke emotional responses, he claims. Which is what he’s trying to do when talking to me. He’s trying to make me feel the way he feels about words.

“Emoticons aren’t words. Emoticons are emotions.” He’s not talking about the smiley face or the sad face or the winking face that we all know. There are thousands of emoticons on the web, most of which are trademarked and their use needs to be bought.

Every poet and writer has a dictionary. Today’s college students don’t need to carry one, they access their dictionaries online. Anthony has a completely different ‘dictionary’. Its first page has a horrified face, a face giving us the finger, a mooning, a devil smiley face, a smiley face with dollars in its eyes, a smiley with an S&M mask, and a few more. That is the first page out of hundreds.

As we speak, the computer behind him, set on a social network site and linked only through his mother’s slow dial-up connection, gives a gentle ‘ding’ noise every few seconds. Every ding is a new user sending him a ‘heart’. More than 95% of these are female fans. More than 99% of these are under 19. These fans don’t know who Anthony is. They only know him as Anthony R. They have never seen his picture and they don’t know his real name. They only know him through his web presence and, more importantly, through his poems.

Until my interview, no one knew Anthony’s real name or location. When I convinced Anthony R. to speak to me, I promised him anonymity. He didn’t want it. He’s using this article to out himself.

Towards the end of our interview, when I ask him what he thinks will happen to him now that everyone will know who he is, he gives me his prediction that his tiny town of Blue Diamond, NV, will now become a Mecca for Generation E’s. No doubt there is also a not-so-small element there of wanting to finally physically meet his female fans.

It could be that the fandom of Anthony R. is a passing teenage fad. Maybe the adoring girls will disappear as soon as they see another shiny object, like a new vampire movie. But the truth is that his bottom line is both angering and has merit: “[A] big vocabulary hurts poetry.”

A big vocabulary gets in the way of the poet, he says. At the middle of the onion peel is his claim that in the beginning, when languages formed, there were very few words. Language, by necessity, was poetic, because people were forced to describe concepts, emotions, object, and events creatively, using only the words that existed. You had to extract metaphors and similes and meaning from the few words that you had. This form of ‘extracting’ is lyrical, and it’s beautiful.

It’s hard to admit, but if you check with linguists, you’ll find that he kind of has a point. Dr. Jim Shalikashvili, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, happens to be of Georgian ancestry. During our first phone conversation, without knowing the subject of our conversation and without preparation, he had an example at the ready, “The best example I can give you off the cuff,” he says in his raspy, excited voice, “comes from my parents’ mother tongue. Back home, when you asked a woman ‘Would you marry me’, the literal meaning of your question was ‘Would you take a life-long trip with me’. Isn’t that beautiful?” It is. Georgian is an old language with a small vocabulary relative to English.

A week after our phone conversation, when I met Dr. Shalikashvili in his office, he was armed with dozens of examples. “The Bible is rife with these,” he says, his lean fingers going over the list, his eyes darting from me to the list, then back again. “Don’t forget that it was originally written in ancient Hebrew and the now dead Aramaic.”

He begins to read off the page, “The ancient Hebrew lacked a word for ‘criterion’, and so they used ‘arm of measure’. ‘Arm’ at the time was like ‘foot’ today, a measuring criteria. It was like saying ‘ruler of measure’. They put together old words to create new ones.”

Another example from ancient Hebrew is a word literally meaning ‘forgettings’. God tells the Hebrews that when they harvest the land to purposefully forget a bit of the harvest, so that the poor may collect it. That which had been left was ‘forgettings’.

“In many languages, until very recently,” Dr. Shalikashvili says, “the words standing for ‘signing a contract’ were ‘giving a handshake’, though not in English.”

How about English, then?

“Sure. ‘Roots’ means ‘ancestry’, but its origin, of course, comes from plant life. Its use is beautiful. To ‘shadow’ someone is to follow that person in a specific way. We borrowed the use of a word we already had in another context, to create a word we didn’t have. It’s quite poetic.”

But surely Anthony’s ideas do not cover all elements of poetry. I quote to Anthony, off the top of my head, my favorite Shakespeare line, “My heart has turned to stone. I strike it, and it hurts my hand.” Shakespeare’s line is beautiful, and he doesn’t use any word tricks.

“I don’t care,” says Anthony.

How about Shelley’s Ozymandias? I quote what little I remember from it and it’s still beautiful. Shelley doesn’t use words there in Anthony’s special way.

“I don’t care,” says Anthony.

What Anthony is saying, in his teenager-y way, is that he has found his niche, and the rest he chooses to ignore. What I say is true, but what he says is also true. He doesn’t need to use all the tools of poetry to create good poetry. Sometimes it’s good enough to master a niche.

Apparently, others believe him to be so good as to enable to him to tell me in a straight face, “I am the first poet of a new language. What I do today to the emoticon language... centuries from now people will learn it in schools.” Later on, he tells me his dream is to be America’s poet laureate and to one day exchange emoticons with the President on a daily basis.

As maddening as that may sound to us, his poetry and what he expresses with it have struck a chord in today’s youth. Not only his poems, but his philosophy, are echoed in internet forums across the world. Is that because he is right? Or because he gives them an excuse not to learn more than the little they already know?

The sad thing is that there is truth behind their opinions. Some of the beauty found in language is often found in the way we make up for the language’s limitations. The more words we have, the more each word means exactly one thing, the more we have words for each and every thought or concept that occurs to us. It’s getting to the ridiculous point where words that shouldn’t exist, do. My favorite example for the over-richness of our language is this: ‘Mopery’ means the act of denuding oneself in front of a blind person. What occasion brought on the need for this word, one wonders. Was there an epidemic? How about ‘defenestration’, the act of throwing someone or something out a window? Another epidemic?

Language started out with a poor vocabulary and grew and grew and grew over the last thousands of years. Alongside it, our knowledge grew just as quickly, and words were created to fit what we knew. In the last century and a half, our knowledge has grown by factors of thousands every decade. As knowledge increased, the vocabulary of specialized words increased with it. How many words do doctors know that you’ve never heard of? (Acrocyanosis, schistosomiasis, bilharziasis? No?) Engineers? (Asynchrony, aliasing, aceltahyde? Anything?) Physicists? (Fraunhofer lines? N-type semiconductor? Nothing?) Biologists? (Rectrices? Allula?) Computer programmers? (Alpha Skip? Metaheuristic?) Mathematicians? (Automorphism?) Journalists? (Nutgraf?)

The more words we have, the less we need metaphors, similes, or lyricism. Is our great knowledge also our downfall? Are emoticons, as absurd and simple as they are as a vocabulary, bringing our poetry back? Would the new generation, Generation E, find lyricism again? Would it have to fall off vocabulary space and forget what we have worked so hard to know, to revive something of what we have lost? Because God knows, today’s kids don’t know many other words.

This is what Anthony has been claiming all along: a small vocabulary is a plus. Here is how he describes his process, “When I write poetry, I forget everything I know, forget the words. I concentrate on feelings. A sentence of mine can be the sequence of feelings, emoticons, and the sequence is beautiful. Sometimes I put real words next to real emotions. The connection is beautiful.”

Here is one of Anthony’s famous poems, called ‘Poetry’. For trademark purposes, we are not able to visually show the emoticons themselves. I wrote a short description between brackets in lieu of every emoticon. Hold on to your hats. You’re not going to like this.

By Anthony R

Rhymes... [Sad face]
Meaning... [A face with its tongue out]
Symbolism... [A face, with its hand giving us a thumbs down]
Old School... [A face, with its hand giving us the finger]
Generation E... [A face, with its 2 hands giving us two thumbs up]

Is Anthony’s point lessened, strengthened, or unaffected by the fact that you have now read his poetry?

It doesn’t matter. Because emoticon poetry is but a speck in the inertia machine that is Generation E. On the one side is a single, next-generation poet on a dial-up connection, overwhelming the minds of the young from his mother’s basement in Blue Diamond, NV. On the other side is the business world. Oddly enough, the CEO whose products are most popular with today’s teenagers is echoing Anthony’s sentiments.

“People don’t need words,” Mark Fox, CEO of Ping!, Inc., tells me. “People need attention.”

We’re seated in the cafeteria of the spanking new offices of Ping! Fox had just bought an entire office building in downtown Chicago for the use of his up-and-coming high-tech company. Six months earlier, when he released his first product to the internet wild, no one had heard of him. Today, his product, the Ping!, is used even more than Twitter, and has just earned him a reported 1 billion in investment dollars.

Mark Fox is a charming 30 year old man, neatly shaven, subtly new to suits, and much more grounded than you would expect a man who had just signed the deal of 10 lifetimes to be.

“There are only two words people really need to be able to say,” Fox explains. “One says ‘give me attention’, the other says ‘bug off’. That’s it. Start to finish. If you have food on your plate, and you are not fighting for your life, the only vocabulary you’ll need is those two words.” Then he adds with a wink, “If you’re honest with yourself, that is.”

Ironically, in Ping! Fox has come up with exactly two words, but different than the ones he insists we need to say. It began with only one word. Remember the inexplicable exclamation marks and moon icons I found in my daughter’s iPhone? Those are Fox’s. They are each a word which we do not have in the English language.

The idea came to Fox one night, when he was reading a friend’s tweets. The particular tweet that caught Fox’s attention was comprised only of half words, abbreviations, and emoticons. Suddenly Fox saw a jumble of symbols, and he began to understand words differently. “It was an apple-just-fell-on-my-head moment,” he says.

Fox was haunted by the clarity of what emoticons really were: “Emoticons are not words, they’re smaller than words.” Without realizing what he was doing, he walked out of the house, and sat in the street for hours, until, at 4 a.m., it came to him.

“The thought that haunted me was: how small could a word be and still be a word? What is the minimum feeling I would ever have to convey?” In those few hours, he played around with thousands of words and concepts and emotions, looking for the smallest one possible. In the end, he found it.

“I found it!” he exclaims, and there’s fire in his eyes today. He really does see himself as another Newton, discovering something that has been in front of our eyes but never been acknowledged. “One word and one word only. The only word you would ever need.” He leans in closer, and his eyes sparkle. “Ping!” he whispers.

A Ping! is written as an exclamation mark and it carries with it meaning only teenagers are (so far) aware of. When a person sends someone else a Ping!, he is saying, “I’m thinking of you”. Or, in Fox’s lingo, that would be “I’m giving you attention”.

Remember? People don’t need words, according to Fox, they need attention.

The instant Ping! was released into the internet wild, it spread like wildfire among the tweeting teens.

Within a week, teenagers across the U.S. and, in fact, the world, were sending exclamation marks to each other. The second a teenager receives an exclamation mark, he or she can send one back. Girlfriends can tell their boyfriends they’re thinking of them. Boyfriends can communicate with and flatter their girlfriends, without needing to resort to those pesky conversations. Secret admirers can send Pings to their objects of desire. Not only did high schools across the world become hotbeds for attention, attention had to be given back.

A week after that, everything changed. “Evolution in the internet is so quick,” says Fox. “If you blink for a few days, you’ve missed something. And then you’re dead.”

Fox never blinks. He noticed that after a week, people were not satisfied with sending single Pings!. People were sending five, ten, fifteen, twenty exclamation marks in a row. Teenagers wanted to show how they really really really really feel, and one ‘really’ wasn’t enough. Messages in Facebook and Twitter and emails and text messages were filled with dozens and sometimes hundreds of Pings! in a row.

In a day, Fox came up with and released the next product on his line: Colored Pings! A normal black Ping! is a regular exclamation mark. A yellow Ping! (a yellow exclamation mark) stands for five Pings! An orange Ping! stands for 10 Pings! And so on: Red is a hundred, green is a thousand, purple is fifty thousand, and blue is infinity.

Cut to a few days later, and Fox’s premise that we don’t need any other words seemed truer than ever. All over the country, high schools, college campuses, grade schools and junior high schools were filled with teens not playing around, but sitting down and exchanging endless Pings! back and forth. I’ve seen a few security videos of some of these schools. It’s like a scene out of Hitchcock’s The Birds.

This is something slightly incomprehensible to us older folks: How can pressing one button, how can sending one icon that says ‘a thousand Pings!’ actually be proof of love? There’s no effort in it. It’s just one character. I wonder, is there something to my sentiments, or am I just being an old doof saying how things were different ‘when I was young’?

Fox certainly believes that sending it is meaning it. He bought his wife a parrot and taught him to say exactly one word: “Ping!” His wife works from home and Fox works from the office. But still, when he’s not there, she hears it all the time: “Ping!” “Ping!” “Ping!”

Okay, so the Ping! was popular. But how pervasive is it? Ask Hollywood. Released only last week (at the time of writing this) is Patrick Dempsey’s first directorial attempt in 15 years, The Ping Queen, a remake of one of the movies he starred in, back when we were both teenagers: Can’t Buy Me Love. Its plot: An unpopular high-school girl wants to become popular. She teams up with a geek who figures out how to send her Pings! and make it look like she received it from many admirers. The number of Pings! she gets makes her instantly popular in school, able to choose the best jocks to take out to the dance. In the end, she learns how shallow success is and falls in love with the geek.

The last scene in the movie ends with the two getting closer to each other. “Ping!” he tells her saucily. “Ping,” she returns racily. As the camera moves up, you hear her say, as if in orgasm, “Ping ping ping!” and he returns, in an equally orgasmic tone, “Ping ping ping ping ping!” Credits roll. Movie ends.

Meanwhile, in TV world, the new season of Jersey Shore is rumored to have a character that refers to his penis as “The Ping Machine”. It’s sleazier than – but not as dirty as – it sounds. His ‘Ping Machine’ generates quite a lot of Pings! (attention, and positive at that,) from the women-folk. Thus it is a Ping!-generating machine.

The first Ping!-related arrest took place in Chicopee, Massachusetts. A young, 15-year-old kid was so enamored with a girl in class that he began to send her dozens of Pings! to her various email addresses, iPhone, and home computer. When he was told in no uncertain terms that his advances were not welcome, his socially inept mind forced him to continue to send her Pings! without end. First the teachers became involved, then the parents, and then the police. Boys that can’t speak to girls can still send them Pings!

Anthony Rockwell, the emoticon poet from Blue Diamond, Nevada, has used the Ping! in his poetry. Here is another one of his poems. Again, I will convey the meaning behind the different-colored Pings! rather than use the Pings! themselves.

By Anthony R

America [Ping!]
America [Five Pings!]
America [Ten Pings!]
America [A hundred Pings!]
America America America [Infinity Pings!]

Is this poem sad because America’s illiterate youth thinks it’s good, or is it actually good? Are Anthony’s patriotic feelings any lesser than mine, simply because I can express them in a beautifully-constructed sentence, while all he has to do is press a button on a machine?

Is this just teenagers being stupid? Or is something greater going on here? Is the inertia permanent, or will it change when the teenagers grow out of it, the same way the sixties’ hippies turned into the eighties’ yuppies?

Hold your judgment, please. You’ve only heard the first of Fox’s two ‘words’. There’s still another one coming, to finish off the revolution.

Let us return to the massively quick evolution of the internet world. Remember that Fox does not blink? Someone was faster than him. The teen world is filled with young and keen programmers looking for a new way to bend the rules. A small team, identity as yet unknown, came up with a program that distributes, on its own, constant attention to those you choose. The program has a basic AI, which allows it to send these Pings! at time intervals that seem random and not, say, every 30 minutes (or 30 seconds, if you’re a teenager,) on the dot. The AI allows the robotic program to appear less robotic.

Boyfriends no longer had to pay the even the smallest kind of attention to their girlfriends, when they weren’t together: they had a computer program that did it for them.

Rumors of this program’s existence quickly arrived on the female side of the web and knowledge spread. Now everyone had to find a way to Ping! that proved that it was you who was Ping!ing and not a computer. Suddenly, the Ping! wasn’t enough. The high-schools were already a mass of seething teens, craving ever-more-immediate attention. But now they were not able to get it.

This time, Fox did not blink and was the first to pull his gun out of his holster.

He had developed an online network that follows who a person Pings! The Ping!ing network tracks your friends’ Pings!, and you are able to track all the Pings! sent by anyone who acknowledged you as a friend on the network. Boys can’t send Pings! to two girls without the girls knowing about it. It became a sort of a chastity belt for male teens. But at the same time, it increased the number of Pings! the teens were exchanging. If you’re a girl, and you’d just sent one of your girlfriends a thousand Pings!, you’d just know that your other girlfriend will be insulted if you didn’t send her exactly the same number, if not more. Of course, by the time you reassured your second girlfriend, your first girlfriend forgot all your reassurance from earlier, and needs to be reassured again. And all Pings!, of course, had to be sent back with more meaning and more Pings! or the receiver of the Pings! would be insulted.

Thus the Ping! network caused the Ping! exchange to skyrocket.

Only a few weeks later, a new cowboy was on the scene, trying to outdo the old pro, Fox. The cowboy, actually called ‘The Cowboy’, found a way to hide users’ IP’s (that’s ‘address of the sender’ in internet-speak) when sending a Ping! Suddenly, Pings! could be sent anonymously without leaving a trace. The ‘scene’ changed. A good looking 17-year-old guy sitting in the mall with a few of his friends was suddenly assaulted by dozens of anonymous differently-colored Pings! coming from any of the teens walking around. Girls were subject to even more endless and anonymous Ping!ing. The border between harassing and admiring vanished.

At this point of the ever-fluctuating internet, Fox released his second ‘word’. This one is called ‘Roger’.

A Roger is an icon as big as a letter, that is comprised of a filled-in circle. Its meaning is ‘I acknowledge receipt’ of a Ping! or of anything else. If someone sends you a Ping! you can acknowledge that you got it, thus giving the sender attention, but less so. If you’re not in the mood to give full attention, like if you want to finish the ‘conversation’, but you still want to give attention, you send a Roger.

Fox knew very well that in a word keen and starved for attention, even acknowledgements had to be acknowledged. And so he released the half-circle icon (acknowledging a Roger), the quarter-circle icon (acknowledging the half Roger), the eighth-circle icon (acknowledging the quarter Roger) and the sixteenth-circle (acknowledging the eighth Roger). And that was it. Because anything more would be ridiculous, right?

Remember my daughter’s iPhone being filled with moons, half-moons, quarter-moons, eighth moons and even smaller moons? Now we know what they are. But now we also know what she did in the last hour before sleep. Let’s say she sent the boy a Ping! and he was already tired and it was time to go. He sent her a Roger. She sent him a half Roger. He sent a quarter Roger. She sent a quarter Roger back, refusing to go lower. He was touched by her sentiment and wouldn’t go lower first, so he sent her a quarter Roger back. It’s a Generation E version of “You hang up!” “No, you hang up!” conversation that can last for hours. They bounced up and down on the Roger scale, getting at times down to eighth Rogers, and even sixteenth Rogers, only to climb back up the acknowledgement ladder.

But are we witnessing simply a Generation E variation of behavior we already recognize? Is there nothing new under the sun? Fox says things have changed.

“Emoticons are not words,” he tells me again. “They are half-words. They are words about things so small that they shouldn’t be said using full words. Take a smiley. Even adults your age have used them. But how would you say it when talking to me? You wouldn’t. Either your tone or your body language would convey it or you would let it go unsaid.

“Now suppose you wanted to say it. Saying it in words gives it a weight in our attention it doesn’t deserve. It changes the meaning of the sentence. Emoticons are half words because they only need to be half said. Saying them fully would magnify them and give them different meanings. Writing them as words also distorts what they mean. Emoticons are a way to display things that you feel and think but words are entirely unfit to convey, because they’re too big and weighty. When inventing the Ping! and the Roger, I was looking for the smallest half-words that could exist.”

Fox’s voice slowly builds up to a crescendo, as he closes his speech with his bottom line, “The question isn’t ‘isn’t the emoticon trend destroying America’, the question is: ‘How did we survive this long without emoticons?’”

But is the youth surviving? Even accepting Fox’s premise, that two words are all you need if you have food on your table, Generation E’s have food on the table. But in a few years they’ll have to start working, showing skills, knowledge, or the food on the table will disappear. Will they join the workforce or leech off their parents forever?

In the Feb. 2nd, 2010 installment of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert spotlighted a few sites we adults would find strange:, a social network in which people report where and when and in what position they had just had sex; and, a social network in which every little thing you buy is automatically posted online. Surprisingly behind his audience’s fads, Colbert missed the Ping! and the Roger. Looking at these horrifying websites through Fox’s eyes, we understand them for what they are: teenagers seeking attention. They post something just to get a response and attention. They then follow the reactions to their posts and the speed with which these reactions come.

The Ping! and the Roger are making these kinds of websites obsolete, because they are giving the teens their attention drug without the hassle of actually doing anything to earn that attention.

Fox’s baring of Generation E’s true desires is threatening to stay and stay permanently, unlike the spotlighted websites, simply because the Ping! and the Roger are everything a teenager craves. All a teenager wants is attention. And here all a teenager gets is attention, more and more and more. And all the teenager has to do is give someone else attention, also. It’s human nature that if you don’t need anything more than what you have, you don’t do anything more than what you’re doing. The vicious cycle ends here, and it might stay there for decades.

How bad are things getting? Dr. Rose Albert, is a psychologist working almost exclusively with teens, and has seen with her own eyes how bad things are getting.

“Some of these teenagers’ need for attention is so bad I actually had to send some for rehab and some for hospitalization,” she says.

Seriously? It’s just instant messaging.

“You haven’t seen what I’ve seen.” We’re seated down at her home, after spending a day in her office. There is no television in this house. “I have seen a girl start screaming because it’s been fifty seconds since she sent a Ping! and no one has acknowledged her yet. Screaming! She felt so alone in the world, like everyone abandoned her.”

Dr. Albert deals, by definition, with the extreme cases. But in conversations I’ve had with teens, she’s not far off. Mary (not her real name), a sixteen-year-old student that seems well-adjusted in all respects told me, “The worst time in the world is the time between the Ping! and the Roj!” she tells me. ‘Roj’ is short for ‘Roger’. “Those seconds pass so slowly.”

Mary’s friend, Sally (also not her real name), agrees, “It gets so bad you start measuring how much people love you by how long it takes them to Roj back. Anything over five seconds and you know they don’t love you enough.”

Mary nods, “One second, they’re crazy about you.”

Sally agrees, “Right.”

What if you have to go the bathroom? I ask.

“You take it with you,” they say together.

Dr. Albert explains the phenomenon: “It’s not healthy to get everything that you want. The more attention you get, the more you need it. The less you get, the more you know how to deal with not getting it. A balance needs to be struck.”

Halfway through our conversation, her daughter came in. She is a beautiful, well-adjusted fifteen-year-old who is allowed to use her iPhone for only an hour a day, can only use her computer to do her homework, and is not allowed to watch TV. This is how her mother decided to strike that balance. Too much? Too little? Could you do that to your kids? Or are you just spoiling them rotten, keeping them boundariless, spinning around the endless-cycle drain?

Our kids, according to Dr. Albert, are spoiled. Thanks to Fox, they get exactly what they want and need all the time, which only makes them want it more. The sole desire of our kids is to Ping! or be Ping!ed. Is a society in which that is all they get and that is all they do that distant in our future? Is America’s youth moving to a place that doesn’t need words, that doesn’t need knowledge, that only needs – and gets – attention.

It seems so. And I’m not at all sure that the next decade is something I want to witness. And yet, all the time, I do my best to remain a journalist, to see the other’s point of view, and to remember that I’m the doddering grown-up who doesn’t understand the youth, and that all the grown-ups that have come before me in all generations past, have also claimed that the new generation is destroying the fabric of society. It’s what grown-ups and it’s what teenagers do. We’ve survived so far. In fact, we’ve done pretty well. Maybe it isn’t so bad. Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe I just don’t understand. Maybe it’s good for us.


So I talked to my daughter.

I told her I knew that she Pings! and that I wanted to exchange Pings! with her as well. I explained to her that I’ve done quite a lot of research over the last few months and that I probably know more about it than she does. So if she ever wants to hear what I’ve learned, she’s welcome to it. I also told her (How could I not? I was going to write about it!) about the breach in her privacy all those months past, and that I was sorry, and that I wouldn’t do it again.

To all of that, she gave me exactly one word, a word which is also not found in the English dictionary: “Pfah!” And with that, she screamed at me in frustration (no words, just frustration), walked off, and closed herself in her room.

In the ‘pfah’ afterwake, I had an epiphany, an apple-just-fell-on-my-head moment, if you will.

Anthony was wrong. Big words enable big ideas. Small words enable only small ideas.

To conceive of something big and complex, you need to lean on complex issues and complex concepts. First you have to come up with complex ideas, and give them words. Then you refer back to them, using these words, to create more complex concepts, building on your earlier ones. Repeat this process many times, and you will be able to fly people to the moon, to heal cancer, to rid the world of hunger, to create wealth for everybody.

Big words, big ideas. Small words, small ideas.

This isn’t an adult thing. I’m not just being a doof of a grown-up. This is a major issue and Generation E is on the wrong side of it, threatening to fall off the face of the earth.

Okay. Now that we know I’m not the problem: Get off my lawn!

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