The Smiley Turns 25

The Smiley Turns 25

Although there’s no real way of knowing for certain, most folk agree that today marks the 25th anniversary of the smiley, long an icon of online culture. Carnegie Mellon’s Scott Fahlman lays a credible claim to having produced the first smiley on September 19, 1982, on one of Carnegie Mellon’s internal bulletin board systems. From there, the fad quickly spread to other institutions via academic computer networks, bulletin board systems, and nascent online services.

Smileys were originally intended as a simple way of indicating whether a posting on a bulletin board was meant to be taken seriously or not: as with most online communication at the time (and most written online communication today!), it can be difficult to tell if someone is being sarcastic or humorous without cues like body language and tone of voice, particularly once cultural and language differences got involved. The original smiley—:-) and its noseless version, :)—were intended as a way to indicate a post wasn’t intended to be serious. The so-called "frownies"—:-( and :(—were originally intended to indicate that a post was to be taken seriously, although they were quickly appropriated as a means to indicate sadness or frustration. Fahlman also came up with the "winkie"—;-) and :).

Although typing a smiley into many modern email and messaging programs—and even mainstream applications like Microsoft Word—now produces a graphic icon used to indicate the mood of the speaker, the original smileys were an elegant solution to indicate tone, and everybody could use them, since they required only standard ASCII characters. Back then, the online world was all-text, with occasional escape codes to make things bold or inverse video.

There is some evidence to indicate emoticons existed before September 19, 1982, particularly in the world of teletype operators. Heck, even telegraph operators in the 19th century developed shorthand codes which, today, we might count as filling the role of emoticons. But there’s little doubt Scott Fahlman typed three characters in the right place at the right time, and they became a defining characteristic of online culture.

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