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A GREAT Idea January 20, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Random Musings.

As some of you may be aware, a company has recently announced the invention of a new punctuation mark that can be used to indicate sarcasm.  The so-called “sarcmark” is intended to clearly denote sarcastic comments, much as question marks and exclamation points confirm that a statement is actually a question or an exhortation.

Like me, your first reaction is probably one of extraordinary relief, with the burden of missed sarcasm forever removed from your written communication.  How did we ever get along without a sarcmark before?

My second reaction is to presume that the creators of the sarcmark are simply engaging in a little viral marketing.  Although the mainstream media is treating this as a real news story (surprise!), the entire concept is outlandish and impractical.  That said, they are selling software that allows your PC to create and display sarcmarks, so there is a bit of entrepreneurialism in there as well.

It goes without saying that the sarcmark is doomed to fail.  Not because it is a silly idea (it is) but because it is going up against too much legacy technology to ever succeed.  From that perspective, the sarcmark does provide a useful lesson.

Modern punctuation was pretty much settled a few hundred years ago.  There isn’t a lot of space (or demand) for innovation in this arena.  Nonetheless, if we were all still writing everything by hand, you might be able to create a new punctuation mark and get some people to start using it.

Unfortunately, we produce most of our written content by machine.  Those machines use standardized encodings for characters and standardized fonts for presentation.  The idea that you could revise a standard like ASCII or Unicode to include a new symbol, let alone update a substantial portion of the thousands of fonts used worldwide, is ludicrous.  The combined inertia of these systems overwhelms a tiny effort like the sarcmark.

As agents of change, IT leaders must carefully assess and understand the inertia that threatens every initiative we undertake.  Is the inertia overwhelming?  Will it crush our efforts?  Is there enough value to overcome the challenge?  With careful consideration, we can choose our battles wisely.

More importantly, is there a better solution that simply circumvents all that inertia?  The best innovation occurs when a completely new path is developed, one that bypasses all the problems at hand.  People are far more open to solutions that relieve them of the burden of difficult change and allow them to easily adopt new things.

In the realm of symbols, emoticons have succeeded in creating new symbols by easily combining existing glyphs into new patterns.  No one tried to create a new symbol for “smiling;” they created the sequence “:-)” instead.  By stepping around the inertia of character sets and keyboards and fonts, people developed a whole family of new “symbols” that expanded the meaning that could be inserted into a message.

As we tackle problems, we need to find more solutions that build on existing successful tools and avoid those that creation unwarranted, expensive disruption.  At the very least, we stand a better chance of hearing “Nice job!” without needing a sarcmark.

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1. Don Holloway - January 20, 2010

How come I can’t find the SARCMARK on my keyboard? It is an IBM keyboard I think. Is that the problem? Does Dell have it?

Also, my keyboard is pretty filthy.

2. Aaron - January 20, 2010

Don, it’s next to the “any” key.

3. Don Sturdivant - January 20, 2010

And some day (when porcine critters slip the surly bonds of earth), the Dvorak keyboard will finally get its chance!

4. Peter Asmar - January 20, 2010

You couldn’t be more wrong on this one Chuck, the Sarcmark is right up there with the wheel and the computer! (S) But yes, better to compose one than pay royalties.
(S) – open source sarcastic symbol

5. Dr. Jonas Brothers - January 27, 2010
6. OpenSarcasm - February 18, 2010

Good news! There is a free, open-source punctuation symbol for sarcasm that has historical precedence (in Ethiopic language) *and* is already represented in unicode: ¡

More info: http://opensarcasm.org

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