The Evolution of the Emoticon

The emoticon is old. Or, young, 30 years young! Either way, it's a bona fide grown-up symbol now, with the life experience under its lack of a belt (for it has no waist) to prove it.

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The emoticon is old. Or, young, 30 years young! Either way, it's a bona fide grown-up symbol now, with the life experience under its lack of a belt (for it has no waist) to prove it. But it has changed since it was born a wee colon/hyphen/partial parentheses on an online computer science bulletin board at Carnegie Mellon University back in 1982. Emoticon entered the world at 11:44 a.m., his reputed father, Scott E. Fahlman, a research professor at the Language Technologies Institute and Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon, announcing his arrival thusly:

19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman :-)
From: Scott E Fahlman

I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:


Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use:


As The Atlantic's Megan Garber wrote today, this birth took a digital village. The whole computer lab got involved, discussing the right way to represent humor online. Fahlman wrote in a post about the subject linked to his Carnegie Mellon bio, "Yes, I am the inventor of the sideways 'smiley face' (sometimes called an 'emoticon') that is commonly used in E-mail, chat, and newsgroup posts. Or at least I’m one of the inventors." From its earliest days, ASCII-based emotion or the tech-smiley or the emoticon (a portmanteau comprising emotion and icon) was intended as a notification that whatever came with it was not to be intended as anything but a harmless quip. According to Fahlman, it was designed to solve a problem that's been around for as long as people have been talking to each other online:

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.

Hence, the need for the :) or the ;), which only grows more common as we spend more and more time communicating online. As Fahlman told The Atlantic Wire, "I think that the survival of the emoticon into an age when it is so easy to send photos and videos to one another is interesting. I guess it really has become a part of the language: as long as there's sarcastic humor, people will need some easy way to say 'I'm only kidding.'"

Little did he know, though, in 1982 how far the emoticon's power and influence would spread, along with its progeny, many of which will be familiar to readers. For example, :), :(, :P, O_o, and so on—and some less so: >, :], :o), :] , :3,  :c),  :> , =],  8),  =),  :},  :^),  :っ). Some existed only in far off lands—these Eastern emoticons, for instance, mean "table flip": (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ ┳━┳ ◡ ヽ(`Д´)ノ ┻━┻. For more, take a look at the emoticon's substantial Wikipedia page. Elsewhere, and not even online, there are other emoticon children, in the form of magnets, stickers, pillows, and on and on.

These spin-offs happened quickly, writes Fahlman: "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. Personally, I think this destroys the whimsical element of the original."

Though perhaps the noseless variety existed from early days, there evolved a clear division between it and the nosed versions. Language Log's Ben Zimmer pointed us to emoticon research done by Stanford University's Tyler Schnoebelen that showed "emoticons with noses cluster separately from variants without noses. So one cluster includes :) ;) :D and =D and another contains :-) :- D :o) ;-) and :-P." Schnoebelen writes, "Emoticons with noses are historically older. Since it is words that unite and distinguish clusters, this means that people who use old-fashion noses also use a different vocabulary—nose users don’t mention Bieber or omg." Zimmer adds, "Noseless emoticons tend to be used by younger Twitter users and are associated with more informal discourse."

Nose discrimination is just one indication of the emoticon's uphill battle against aging. Most worrisome may be the emoji: Why type a :@ or a QQ (angry, crying) when there's all kind of other stuff, full-blown images like below at your fingertips with the press of just one key?

Related: We hear there are a whole bunch of new emojis just waiting to be incorporated into your daily missives, via the latest iOS upgrade.

But just because our dear emoticon is no longer in his salad days doesn't mean he shouldn't be celebrated. It's not as if he's as old as, say, Morse code symbols or other teletype that may have preceded him. It's not like he's irrelevant; he's got some good years left, and maybe he'll grow old as our OG smiley while those who come after fade away upon the inevitable next upgrade.

Fahlman told us, "I hope that those little graphical circle-faces are a passing fad, and that the text-based emoticons outlive them—I think the text versions are more attractive and more elegant, but perhaps I'm biased."

The good news is, there's now an emoticon for everyone. But, thirty! That's a milestone to be celebrated, :) :) :), obviously.

Pillow image via Flickr/Veronica Belmont.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.