Smiley emoticon celebrates its 30th birthday

You see it almost everywhere on the Internet and text messaging. You put it in your texts, Facebook messages, and tweets to your friends or followers for sometimes no particular reason at all. However, the smiley emoticon has been around a lot longer than the commercial Internet.

In 1982, Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science department were using Internet bulletin boards, the precursor to today’s Internet forum, where faculty, staff, and students could hold discussions. Many of the posts were serious: talk announcements, requests for information, and things like “I’ve just found a ring in the fifth-floor men’s room. Who does it belong to?” Everything you see today on Internet forums, such as flame wars, off-topic comments and controversial opinions, were all part of the bulletin board society back in the early 1980s.

However, the bulletin board also had humorous material as well, despite the fact that the Internet was just restricted to a few industries back then. The problem was that if someone made a sarcastic remark, a few readers would fail to get the joke, and seriously respond to the remark. 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.

Then came the smiley emoticon, and emoticons in general, and Scott Fahlman and his colleagues are generally thought to have invented the smiley emoticon. Once the smiley emoticon started gaining common use in Carnegie Mellon, other universities caught on as well because universities were one of the few places to have Internet access in the 1980s. “I do remember writing a longer message in which I explained the need for a humor-marker in more detail, and suggested the :-) symbol, along with :-( to indicate anger or real unhappiness. But this longer message must have come later–perhaps a later bboard post or an E-mail message that I sent to someone. In any case, that more detailed post did not turn up in our search,” Fahlman said. “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. But only my two original smilies, plus the ‘winky’ ;-) and the ‘noseless’ variants seem to be in common use for actual communication. It’s interesting to note that Microsoft and AOL now intercept these character strings and turn them into little pictures.”

“Some people have told me that the :-) or :) convention was used by teletype operators in the old days. Maybe so. I haven’t seen any examples of this, but it’s plausible, given the limitations of the character set in that medium. So, the smiley idea may have appeared and disappeared a few times before my 1982 post, but it is pretty clear from the timing that my suggestion was the one that finally took hold, spread around the world, and spawned thousands of variations,” Fahlman also said, noting that even though he didn’t necessarily “invent” the smiley emoticon, but at least he made it popular.