The emoticon was invented, in its current form, as a means of moderating an intensely nerdy discussion. A nerdy discussion about—not to be redundant, but—physics. It was 1982. A group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon were chatting on an online message board; they began discussing what might happen if the cable on their building's elevator were cut, sending the elevator into free fall. What if the falling elevator had a candle in it? Or a pigeon? Or a drop of mercury? And then their chat, as chats are wont to do, drove itself to an absurdly logical conclusion. "WARNING!" someone wrote. “Because of a recent physics experiment, the leftmost elevator has been contaminated with mercury.”
This was, of course, a joke—if one of the heh rather than the haha variety. But the scientists realized that, out of context, someone might interpret all the hilarity as an actual emergency. They needed a symbol, they decided, to signal the fact that the only contamination taking place was of their minds, courtesy of all their hypothetical humor. Someone proposed an asterisk to do that work. Someone else suggested an ampersand (“&” resembling, the logic went, “a jolly fat man in convulsions of laughter”). And then Scott Fahlman chimed in with the compound punctuation mark that would live on in chat windows and inboxes across the Internet:
“I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers,” he wrote.
His next line?
“ :-) ”
“We were just nerds, goofing around,” Fahlman, now a research professor at Carnegie Mellon, recently told me of his sideways entrance into the lexicon of the LOL. “This was not meant to be a serious invention.”
It's a good thing he feels that way. Because, according to a survey conducted by eBay Deals, very few people, anymore, seem to be using the smiley as Fahlman first proposed it. We still use emoticons, to be sure. We use, even more often, emoji that offer a comically broad range of facial expressions. We have, at this point, thoroughly disrupted the smiley.
But, in that, we have also moved beyond that original smiley, abandoning it for facial renderings that are more nuanced, more wacky ... more, yes, meaningful. More and more of our programs automatically render the faces we type out as images. More and more of our programs are—to be heh and also haha—emoji-normative.
And even when we return to text-based emoticons, we seem to value efficiency above all. According to eBay's survey of 1,000 Internet users, more than half—58.89 percent—now rely on the hyphen-less (or, if you prefer, the noseless, or Voldemortesque) form: :)
A small percentage of participants have also gotten more inventive, it seems, with their smiley-face emoticons. More than 8 percent reported using the long-eyes variation of the noseless smiley: =)
And more than 7 percent reported taking a cheekier approach to smiling: ^_^
And more than 2 percent took the sterner approach: :]
As for Carnegie Mellon's ur-emoticon? Today, it's only a relatively paltry 17.96 percent of people who use the full-face version that Fahlman proposed those thirty-plus years ago.
Which is sort of :-(. And also a little bit :-/. But also, if you belong to the "language evolves" school of Internet discourse, sort of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. And possibly even, yes, :-)
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