We react to emoticons the same way we react to human faces

All sizes | emoticon army | Flickr - Photo Sharing!
Go ahead and put that :-) in your email. 

The Internet sucks for communicating. Words aren't supposed to just be tossed out as plaintext, all alone and completely undressed. When we speak, they're accompanied by context: volume, tonal changes, and the 43 muscles on your face that quiver and jump and strain to add layers of meaning.

That's why anyone really fluent in Internet chat is also a master of emoticons. Don't believe me? Just ask science.

According to new research from an Australian research team, humans react the same way to emoticons as they do to faces. Dr. Owen Churches of Flinders University in Australia presented subjects with images of human faces, emoticons, and text strings. Churches and his team found that the occipitotemporal cortex had the same response when subjects looked at both human faces and emoticons, but differently when looking at the text string.

There's one small caveat, however: This only works when the emotions are "canonically oriented,"—in other words, typed left to right. So if you wink at me like this (-; you may as well be typing Greek. I mean, it kind of makes sense: It's not like upside-down faces look remotely human, either.

H/T Gawker | Photo by Gacabo/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Why reaction GIFs are the new emoticon
For the last 30 years, the emoticon has been the quickest and easiest way for people to express their emotions digitally. Most smart phones and chat services even have them built into the operating system, taking out the effort of manually making a smiley face.
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