Today, the Emoticon Turns 30 :-)

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Reflection, joy, and angst for the colon-dash-parenthesis

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Shutterstock, Scott Fahlman, the Internet

Today, at 11:44 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, the emoticon will likely experience a jolt of joy. Today, at 11:44 a.m., the emoticon will likely experience a pang of angst. Today, at 11:44 a.m., the emoticon will likely take a moment to consider where it is, where it's been, and where it's going. Today, at 11:44 a.m., the emoticon will turn 30.

First of all: Happy birthday, emoticon! Here's to you!!!  :-)  :-)  :-)  ;-) 

On this auspicious day, it's worth stepping back for a moment to consider the birth of the symbol that is, in every possible way, iconic. The emoticon was born on the Internet. And, like many things that sprang to life during the early days of the World Wide Web, it emerged as the result of much deliberation. It emerged, actually, as the result of an extremely nerdy joke. 

Here is a snippet from a lengthy conversation -- involving elevators, pigeons and mercury -- conducted on a Carnegie Mellon bulletin board and archived in 2002.

emoti.png

Which led to a discussion about the proper way to distinguish humor in the message board context: 

Screen Shot 2012-09-19 at 11.04.44 AM.png

Until, finally -- the next day, at 11:44 a.m. -- genius ensued:

Screen Shot 2012-09-19 at 11.29.28 AM.png

The emoticon, of course, had many antecedents in the analog world. In 1881, the satirical magazine Puck proposed a series of typeface-based expressions, including combinations for "Joy," "Melancholy," and "Indifference." There's the rumor that Lincoln used an emoticon in an 1862 speech (though that was more likely, alas, a typo). There's Harvey's Ball's iconic smiley face. There's Ambrose Bierce's proposed "snigger point," which should, he thought, "be appended ... to every jocular or ironical sentence." There's Nabokov's declaration, in answer to a reporter's query about his rank among fellow writers: "I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile -- some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question."

But before Fahlman's elegant abbreviation came along, nothing stuck. We had smiles; we had text; we had emotions. But we didn't have the tool that would weave those things together through three pieces of punctuation. We didn't have that perfect combination of invention and irony and nerdery and joy until Scott Fahlman took to his keyboard on September 19, 1982.  

:-)

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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