Placing Your Digital Gestures


The world of the “smiley” has increased the amount of digital “gesturing”. We aren’t physically present with another person. They cannot see us smile when we text or message them. So we have the possibility of showing them what our face (or body) is doing with an icon. In the case of the smiley, it shows we are smiling.

You might think it was that simple. And it could be. In fact, many people, many years before computers were even invented used “emoticons” in their pen and ink letter writing. They might sign a letter with a happy face as well as a name. Or they might put a sad face to show how they are feeling. Emotional icons (emot-icons) are a way of showing how we are feeling to another, when we aren’t physically able to see each other.

And it could be that simple. Imagine that. You draw something that shows how you are feeling, because you can’t show that feeling physically to another person. The key thing here is that, what you are showing in the form of an icon. is a symbol of what you are really feeling – truly feeling. That might sound strange, because why would you share an icon of what you are not feeling?

Yet that is exactly what many people do when they choose a smiley, or type “LOL”. They insert a smiley, but they aren’t physically smiling. They type LOL, but they aren’t actually laughing out loud.

The simplest way to place digital gestures is to only place them truthfully. They become an authentic simplification of a true state – a smile or sad look on your face, or an LOL because you really are laughing out loud. The golden rule: never place a digital gesture that doesn’t accurately and truthfully render your physical state or expression.

Yet people LOL all the time when they aren’t laughing out loud. They LOL when they aren’t laughing out loud. Why is this?

One answer is that the conversation is an imagined one. We fall into role play, and these roles are inner, imagined roles. Often the “avatar” we have created laughs a lot more and more loudly than the real me. I may not be laughing out loud, but I am laughing inside and the LOL reflects THAT state. It’s an interesting state of affairs though, because often when we are chatting digitally, we are trying to render what might be taking place physically. If we are talking to our children or a loved one because they are a long way away, we miss them. We wish we were in a real room with them and this is the next best thing. We wouldn’t be role-playing in that room (well, most of us wouldn’t). We wouldn’t want our loved ones to be faking their emotions, or exaggerating them. We hope a smile online means a real smile in the physical world. So, our avatars can take us into a world of often well-intentioned fakery, where we project ideal versions of ourselves, versions which laugh more, smile more, cry tears and hug all the time. If this suits you, then read no further. If you are feeling an ache for the authentic, wanting your digital gestures to reflect true physicality, then you need to start by placing your own authentically. Your next kiss has to be a kiss you genuinely believe would be well received by the person you are sending the digitally gestured “X” towards.

If we kiss digitally when we don’t truly intend it, or when we know it would never be accepted by the other in the physical world, we also dilute the true gesture. It becomes projected, imagined, fictionalised and idealised. None of these things are necessarily wrong in all cases, but if we are missing a sense of truth and authenticity in our digital interactions, we need to place all of our actions as 100% truthful renditions of what we would do physically. Otherwise each digital gesture is as a good as a little white lie.

If the role play is intended freely and known by both parties to a digital conversation, then fun can ensue. We can play at being different and often ideally more than we are in the physical world. However, when this is done sub-consciously, or in ways that distort and self-delude, we can fall into the cheapening of relationships, the demeaning of those things we hold dear and precious, and even into illusion and deception. Role play can soon become power play, avatar can soon become dark fantasy, communication can fall into manipulation.

If I send an “X” it can signify many things. It can be role play. We kiss each other only in the digital role play. We’d never really kiss (or we might hope it becomes real one day if we X enough and in the right places). It isn’t we who are kissing but our much better looking, more romantic virtual selves, our avatars. Often people realise this is a diluted form of reality and they X even more. Texts start to end with fifteen Xs. We kiss strangers, even work colleagues. Some would argue that is liberates us, helps us to flow more, reduces unnecessary inhibitions. People can feel uplifted and exhilarated (even turned on) by these typed kisses. In time a 3D-printed pair of rubber lips, lifelike and a perfect copy of your partner can be created and animated to turn that kiss into a perfect version of the real other. This will come in time, sooner than you think. And now it is up to you and your own instincts as to whether this digital copying matter to you at an essential level. If you feel that this technological pathway is one you don’t want to travel down, then it is time to start consciously placing your digital gestures, to form them with attention and warm authenticity. Your foundation in the digital inferno will be walking with feet of truth, touching with fingertips of physical honesty and ensuring your inner gestures and your outer behaviours are in harmony with each other. An X means a real kiss, or you don’t X.

Isn’t this the same as faking in the physical world? Don’t the false “mwahs” of pretentious friends when they greet us, the air kisses and the exaggerated words and smiles, amount to the same thing? There certainly is an overlap here. There’s plenty of fakery in the world of the senses and the advice would be the same: to return to something that feels more authentic to you, make your kisses and smiles sincere, reduce your role-playing in front of those you want to truly connect with. And yet, for most people, when we are (without the emotionally lubricating assistance of alcohol or drugs) interacting digitally, without the physical cues and scrutiny of physically present others, there is more scope to be fake – the visual signs are not there. If we scowl in our face whilst typing a smiley there is no one there to see. The Digital world lends itself more easily to both deception of others and self-deception – deception of others because we can hide behind the screen, and deception of ourselves because we often get feedback that confirms the apparent veracity of our falsely delivered gestures. We see ourselves in the mirror, not the true other, and the mirror tells us often that we are the fairest of them all, often with twenty typed Xs in case we needed any more confirmation. The digital world takes away the complication that we might be rumbled, betraying what we really feel on our faces, in the way our eyes move, or our bottom lip quivers. We can replace all of these with clear, colourful, no-nonsense (and often humorous to add effect) smileys. There are even dark versions. We can puke, shoot ourselves in the head, or explode. Often the gesture is a huge exaggeration holding enough of a grain of truth to lend believability. An animated flood of tears actually hides mild irritation or disappointment. We feel the need to exaggerate, knowing it is all largely not believed, in the hope that by the time the floods of tears reach the other person, at least one tear might have been registered.

Will that reduce digital interaction down to something more bland? Possibly, if your physical life feels bland or disappointing to you and where you have embarked on imaginative and fantasy-based journeys online in order to compensate. The prize for this is digital intimacy, connection, devoid of physical touch of another. The prize is that you can role play your idealised self, as long as you don’t leave your chair or your bed and actually realise your meeting in real with the other person. For some, that is a price too high.

Yet when we gesture (often less) authentically, we often find our well and consciously chosen emoticons assume more value for us. Their authenticity lends them credibility to ourselves and others. Our digital experiences seem deeper and richer. Often, without the simplicity of the faked emoticon, we can find that less is more, that our mindful typing and gesturing becomes more of a warm, nourishing and soulful experience. We may also find that we meet more. The no longer typed fake kisses which hid a genuine wish to physically see our loved one, turns into a will force to actually go and meet that person. Soon, weekly typed conversations with Grandma covered in guilt-laden kisses, turn into a more potent, real and enjoyed physical visit. By not diluting, we start to remember what physical life really used to taste like – both bitter and sweet.

Let’s get practical…

1. Go for authentic simplicity.

Try this for a day, or even a week, then see how it went and how you feel. Set yourself the resolution to only ever digital gesture what you would truly physically gesture. Don’t put a smiley if you aren’t smiling. Don’t put an X unless there really would be a kiss in physical presence. Choose what you gesture, do it mindfully and truthfully. Observe the reactions in you and in others. If someone offers you an X, don’t offer one back unless you not only mean it, but really would be allowed to deliver it with your real lips.

You might start to feel this is all spoiling your fun. You might start to feel less “cool”. It all might start to feel too sober and sombre. Be patient; see past that and persevere. Soon you may just find an electric moment creeps through – a genuine, natural high – a few lines of interaction that feel more real, and more vital. You might just feel more on control but also more present and feeling the interaction more keenly, when you succeed in placing your gestures with authenticity.

2. Watch out for gestured habit

Over the next day or two, notice how you end your texts or messages. Look our for habitual responses and gestures. Look out for “cool” and “LOL” and “XXX”. Look out for habitual use of certain phrases or emoticons. Have a try at replacing them with consciously willed gestures, fresh and new, in THAT moment, relating to THAT person. Make each gesture or phrase a more conscious choice. Retrieve your spontaneity from the habit of repetition. It might feel slower, more clumsy, even interrupting your flow. Once again, be patient and go with it. Soon you might find it all feels more fresh, more alive, and more willed by you. Banish the automatic response. This digital interaction is based on real people. Behind those words I am receiving is a real person, with feelings in that moment. Value that person by giving them an authentic, in the moment and not automatic response.

3. Try a day with no emoticons at all, no digital gestures.

Simply “speak” and type deliberately to the person you are interacting with. Call them to mind in your memory. Picture them if you can. This is about getting back to essential thoughts and feelings, not dressed up with easily thrown out smileys, symbols and simplified gestures. Put those feelings into words, or simply feel them inside without communicating them. Let the words speak, Again you might find this slows you down, you might even get writers’ block. But after a while, these words and phrases chosen by you in the NOW, will feel brighter, more yours, created by you out of your own inner life. You’ll feel that it is entirely your expression, and your words may even feel more valuable, effective and eloquent as a smiley becomes a thank you, a frown becomes a statement of why you are disappointed, a wink becomes a little teaser of a line. Sometimes when we clear the cupboard of ready meals, we start to enjoy the taste of real home cooked food.

4. Direct the digital gesture into physical space.

Over the years I have noticed that gesturing on stage in the theatre, when done well by performers, really adds to the power of the drama. The effect is more authentic and lasting when there is a consciousness in the way the actors and performers direct their hands, their words. When it is all rather undefined the drama doesn’t travel well to the audience. When it is all directed clearly and with consciousness and competence, the drama takes off, can become alive and deeply move us. When we speak to someone, but look elsewhere as if distracted, the listener feel properly communicated with. We can feel neglected or ignored. Now, this may seem strange, but when we send a text message by pressing “send”, the data might travel along fibre optic wires and through the air, but our actual gestured words do not. We are in physical space. I am in London, you are in Edinburgh. There are a few hundred physical miles between us. So, when pressing “send”, imagine the other person in physical space, geographically distant from you, and direct your gesture – your message and its meaning, using your will, across SPACE, not through the SCREEN. You might even turn your gaze away from the screen and look towards where you imagine the person to be. Put the gesture into physical space, even as you technically send the data via the digital realm. I’m not suggesting anything psychic or paranormal is going on here (though it might be). What you are doing is making a willed gesture, attaching importance and relevance to the physical relationship you and the other person currently have. You are removed from each other, apart from each other. The technology will transmit the data and enable the message to be delivered, but you are reminding yourself of the distance between you both.

Often this reminder can be a bit painful – it can wake you up to that distance, that detachment. It can also remind you that the very ease with which you can text each other can dim your awareness of, and make you forget, the importance of seeing each other physically. Remembering physical distance and apartness can reignite the will to move your physical feet into a real visit.

5. Do an Authenticity Check

This little exercise builds a bridge between what you do and what you feel and nudges you towards them being congruent. So, if you are about to send a smiley, then smile first. If you don’t feel like smiling then don’t send the smiley. If you are about to send an unhappy smiley face, then practice a little grimace or a sad look. Set yourself the discipline to always generate and express (outwardly if possible, in your mind if not) a real gesture before you send a digital one.

What if you don’t feel like physically smiling but you do feel you are smiling inside? Then look at the digital gesture you are about to make as a little imagination in your head. Imagine yourself smiling. The smiley will be a simplification, but you can imagine the smile as physically real as you like. Ensure your imagination contains the fuller detail, the subtle nuance.

It is then more like blowing up a balloon and letting it go. You decide how much air to put into it and where, how and exactly when to let it go. The wind may still take it somewhere you didn’t intend, but the original act was yours. And it will feel more real, held by you, an often more truthful. Those little grains of truth can add up to quite a lot of inner strength and motivation. Try it for a few days.

6. Dive into the Digital Inferno and Immerse Yourself

Try a day of using as many emoticons, digital gestures and icons as possible. Use as much text shorthand as you can (“LOL” etc) and immerse yourself in the medium. Give yourself permission to role play and be whatever avatar you want. Observe yourself and at the end of the day look back and read your various digital interactions. How did it feel and how does it feel now? How present were you, how conscious? What was gained and what was lost? How authentic did you feel and do you feel now?

Some people use digital gadgetry and hold back from diving in fully. It might be fear or it might be they’ve seen others doing just that. A day diving in can be a revealing experience. Some love it and find they can hold their own pretty well. The digital realm is a new space and there’s a new artistry in the freedom of emoting, and digitally gesturing, role playing and avatar inhabiting. But if you are seeking to hold your own as YOU in the digital realm, a deep immersion can offer up some shocking perspectives. We can function very well with our white lies, our exaggeration and our role playing. It becomes game playing, shared fantasy, and we can also find it takes away or dilutes the need for physical meeting. Diving in properly may actually fire up your will to climb out for good.


Digital gesturing is a new form of theatre, and theatre is acting. Confident actors can step into role and then step out of the costume at the end of the day. For many others, we can lose our essential self-awareness and control by acting without quite knowing what we are doing. Emoticons offer us readily grabbable punchlines and, because we are all using them, the threshold for audience approval and applause is fairly low. Kisses fly all over the place and we exchange euphoria and giggles for tenderness and subtlety. As we get better at it we can become skilled at the drama and out chosen role and then a well timed smiley can achieve a sinister undertone of threat or smugness, and a carefully counted XX can communicate anger (because there’s a third X left out). We can start to gesture deliberate;ly willed confusion and coded message. The drama becomes epic, the ongoing dialogue so much emotional rollercoasting soap opera. We can literally forget who we were and our digital gestures can become full blown drama.

You may have dived in so profoundly and for so long that you are reading this and wondering what all the fuss is about? Well, there is no fuss unless you’ve personally had enough and would like to simplify and because you feel you’ve lost some or all of your authentic self in the process. If you feel that your two hours a day in digital gesturing is too much drama and not enough real life, then it might just be time to pull off the costume, get off stage and walk the street for a bit of physical time.

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on September 2, 2013, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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