Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The New Big Symbol (*S)

Katherine Rossman at WSJ reports:

Seriously, did he really mean that?

Since the dawn of email, using sarcasm in digital communication has created strife and confusion between friends, colleagues and romantic partners. Sarcasm, after all, is best conveyed using tone of voice, a wink or a nudge.

Now, as more people are sharing their opinions with casual acquaintances and strangers on social-media sites like Twitter and Facebook FB -2.82% —rather than in private text messages to people who know their senses of humor—the sarcasm disconnect is even greater.

"My work email is down. I'm devastated," or, "because that was so much fun the last time we did it," could mean completely different things to different readers. The confusion has driven some people to create special symbols and characters to clearly mark their snark.

And woe is the data miner who has the challenge of determining what is sarcasm and what isn't. Defined as stating the opposite of what is truly meant, sarcasm is proving to be an obstacle for the academics and marketers who create computer programs to analyze massive pools of online chatters to gauge public opinions about products and politicians.

Sarcasm "is one of the toughest problems in computing," says Shrikanth Narayanan, a professor of computer science, linguistics and psychology at the University of Southern California.

Computer programming follows strict rules, while natural language, particularly the inside-joke culture of the Web, doesn't...

Lovers of sarcasm who like to tweet are taking matters in their own keyboards. Aliza Licht, the senior vice president of global communications for Donna Karan LLC, who was "devastated" to lose her work email on Tuesday, calls sarcasm "a religion." Yet, as the hand that controls all of the fashion label's social outreach—and the popular @dkny twitter feed—she needs to be sure not to ruffle feathers with her humor.

So she invented a short, twitter-friendly sign to denote sarcasm—"(*S)"—and uses it to let her followers know when her tongue is in cheek, such as with her tweet about losing email. "We can't read tonality in text, and it's a problem," she says.

Strangers who follow her on Twitter have adopted her handiwork. Emily Fairbank, a student in San Francisco, says she noticed Ms. Licht's use of the sarcasm symbol and started using it to let those on Twitter who don't understand her sense of humor know that she's being sarcastic. "When you don't know half of your followers, you have to have a sarcasm indicator," Ms. Fairbank says.

When his best friend failed to recognize his use of sarcasm in emails about 10 years ago, Doug Sak, an accountant in Washington Township, Mich., saw a market: He since has created the "SarcMark," an upside-down lowercase E with a dot in the center, helpful for things that might actually not have been "so much fun the last time we did it." He says he is approaching phone carriers to try to get them to include the symbol in their fonts.

He is also developing an app and offers a free download of the SarcMark for using in email on PCs. He has been working on the project for 10 years and says he has spent nearly $100,000. "I'm not saving the world but it does have real relevance," Mr. Sak says—(*S).


  1. Why not just "/sarc" like what's been used for at least a couple years already. It's instantly understood and only requires one more character.

  2. As far as I know, the internet nomenclature for sarcasm is "/s", not "(*S)"... Not sure if slashes affect twitter, which could make the original non-usable in that format.

  3. Of course /s/ is used in lieu of a digital signature. Instead of "sincerely" or "best regards", I can now say "sarcastically yours" with two characters. Sweet!

  4. $100K to develop and promote a symbol? Serious entrepreneurship!

  5. What a sack of BS (no sarcasm)

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