I've never been big on the use of emoticons, mostly because I'm never quite sure what they mean. Sometimes it's clear from context what they mean, in which case I'm not sure what they add. But they are part and parcel of Internet communication, so it behooves me to figure them out.
What I do is read them as words. This habit of mine precedes emoticons, as I have always read the heart in the "I heart X" slogans as the actual word "heart" (rather than "love", which is what I suspect it's supposed to mean). I heart New York. I heart dalmatians. I heart cardiologists. I heart liver.
So naturally I read :) as "smiley-face". In fact, sometimes I actually use the words "smiley face" in my email. I still don't quite know what it means, but at least I know how to pronounce it.
The most vivid emoticon for me, though, is the winking smiley-face emoticon: ;) or ;-). In Lisa's comment to me, she used this as a sort of expression of support. Glad things are going well. Like a wink of hello across a room to a friend (which is charmingly archaic). But that's unusual in my online experience. Usually I see the winking smile as a flirtatious thing.
There's one guy in particular who frequently comments on the journal of a friend of mine with flirtatious comments, often accompanied by the winky-face. And so, in time, I have started to pronounce ;) as "slobber slobber drool". "Looking forward to seeing you this weekend. Slobber slobber drool." "Post pics of the pool party! Slobber slobber drool." "I hope we have a chance to meet in the flesh someday, slobber slobber drool."
I suggest you try it. It adds many giggles to online surfing.
;) ;) ;) :) :) :) ;)