Did you know the Emoticon is almost 30 years old? Twenty-nine years ago, Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, first proposed a colon, hyphen and bracket as a way of conveying emotional meaning via plain text.
Fast-forward and the simple smiley has evolved — some might say mutated — into various, and very varied, multi-colored, animated characters leering at you from your computer or phone screen.
To mark this anniversary, we’ve taken an abridged look at some interesting moments in the history of the emoticon. Have a look through the gallery and let us know in the comments your thoughts on this form of communication.
1. The Olden DaysUsing symbols to convey emotional meaning was not a 1980s concept. A hundred years previous, the “letterpress department” of satirical magazine Puck jokingly created typographical “studies in passion and emotions” so as not to be outdone by cartoonists.
It has since been suggested that one very early use of an emoticon can be credited to none other than Abraham Lincoln. In the original New York Times transcript of an 1862 speech by Lincoln, the symbol ;)appears. There have been interesting arguments put forth as to whether or not this was a winking face, or (as we suspect) simply a typo.
Various reports (that we’ve been unable to verify) suggest that in 1979, an ARPANET user called Kevin MacKenzie, inspired by an unidentified Reader’s Digest article, suggested using punctuation to hint that something was “tongue-in-cheek,” as opposed to out-and-out humorous.
Apparently, MacKenzie through a hyphen and a bracket — -) — would be a suitable symbol: “If I wish to indicate that a particular sentence is meant with tongue-in-cheek, I would write it so: ‘Of course you know I agree with all the current administration’s policies -).’
However, as we now know, it wasn’t the tongue-in-cheek concept that took off, but the smiley-based emotion Although the classic yellow “smiley” design existed before Fahlman got creative with his computer keyboard…
Image courtesy of Wikimedia
2. The Smiley
The yellow smiley face symbol predates and was developed independent of the emoticon, although now it could be argued the two symbols have merged in the general public’s consciousness.
Back in 1963, a freelance artist called Harvey Ball designed a yellow smiley face to be used on a button to try and boost morale at a recently merged insurance company. Ball netted $45 for his design and by all accounts it was a success for the insurance company, but it wasn’t until the 1970s when it became more widely known.
Bernard and Murray Spain, two brother from Philadelphia, saw the symbol’s commercial potential, adopted it, added the phrase “have a happy day” and churned out millions of buttons, bumper stickers, t-shirts, mugs. Thanks to the Spain brothers, the smiley as a symbol of ’70s hippie culture was born. Later in the ’90s, the symbol was used to depict another counter-culture — the acid rave scene.
Today, Ball’s smiley is celebrated on “World Smile Day,” the first Friday in October, when folk are encouraged to “Do an act of kindness. Help one person smile.”
Image courtesy of Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation
3. A Proposal
Credited as containing the first modern emoticon, Scott Fahlman original suggestion proposing punctation-as-symbols was posted on a Computer Science community message board at Carnegie Mellon in 1982.
Fahlman has since explained why he felt such symbols were required. “The problem was that if someone made a sarcastic remark, a few readers would fail to get the joke, and each of them would post a lengthy diatribe in response. That would stir up more people with more responses, and soon the original thread of the discussion was buried. In at least one case, a humorous remark was interpreted by someone as a serious safety warning.”
“This problem caused some of us to suggest (only half seriously) that maybe it would be a good idea to explicitly mark posts that were not to be taken seriously.”
“After all, when using text-based online communication, we lack the body language or tone-of-voice cues that convey this information when we talk in person or on the phone. Various ‘joke markers’ were suggested, and in the midst of that discussion it occurred to me that the character sequence 🙂 would be an elegant solution – one that could be handled by the ASCII-based computer terminals of the day. So I suggested that.”
Interestly, Fahlman explains that the unhappy face symbol evolved further than he meant it to: “In the same post, I also suggested the use of 🙁 to indicate that a message was meant to be taken seriously, though that symbol quickly evolved into a marker for displeasure, frustration, or anger.”
So what does Fahlman think about how the emoticon has developed? “It’s interesting to note that Microsoft and AOL now intercept these character strings and turn them into little pictures,” Fahlman says. “Personally, I think this destroys the whimsical element of the original.”
If you agree, then we’ve a tip for you. Take a leaf out of Mashable European Editor Stan Schroeder’s book and type your smilies backwards: (:
“When you type it backwards, scripts don’t recognize them and they don’t get turned into yellow ugly ones,” says Schroeder. “They stay old school. (;”
4. Evolution & Easter Eggs
Text-based emoticons fast developed from the simple happy/unhappy face. Other characters were introduced to suggest further emotions, and even crude depictions of famous people/personas. Fahlman says this happened within months of his original post.
“Within a few months, we started seeing the lists with dozens of ‘smilies’: open-mouthed surprise, person wearing glasses, Abraham Lincoln, Santa Claus, the pope, and so on. Producing such clever compilations has become a serious hobby for some people.”
When chatting on the internet became a serious hobby for the general public, emoticons evolved even further to be shown on screen as tiny images. Services like ICQ, AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, MSN Messenger and later MySpace started offering a wide range of emotions that could be generated at the click of a mouse, rather than memorizing the characters needed to create them. These then evolved into animated versions.
There were also many “hidden,” or “Easter egg” emoticons not shown on main menus that could be generated if you knew the correct character sequence. The emotions shown here are the hidden emoticons available for Yahoo! Messenger. While Skype and MSN have their own versions, Facebook’s “Chris Putnam” emoticon, depicting the designer, is a famous, although ultimately useless, hidden option.
In 2007, Yahoo! Messenger carried out a survey about emoticons. With 40,000 respondants, we think it’s safe to say the results were a decent snapshot of how the average Messenger user felt about the medium.
82% of those who use Yahoo! Messenger said they used emoticons on a daily basis and 61% felt that they “best expressed themselves” in IM using emoticons.
5. The Future
Today, the iPhone’s text messaging function does not automatically support emoticon graphics.
Gmail Chat’s default emoticon setting is text-based with simple animation.
Have we gone past the elaborate emoticon phase in our ever-evolving history of digital communication?
Should recent calls to stop using emoticons be heeded?
Has the smiley become a tired cliche, soon to become obsolete, or is it still useful in the emotionless medium of SMS, IM and email?
Have your say on this topic in the comments below.