How to Tell a Joke on the Internet

The new typography of irony

The emoticon as we know it was invented to prevent a misunderstanding.

In 1982, a group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University began trading quips on an online bulletin board about what might happen if their building’s elevator cable were cut, sending the elevator into free fall. The conversation soon turned to various bizarre hypotheticals: What if the falling elevator had a candle in it? Or a pigeon? Or a drop of mercury? One jokester took the thread to its absurd conclusion: “WARNING!: Because of a recent physics experiment, the leftmost elevator has been contaminated with mercury.”

Realizing how easily the conversation could be misconstrued, the scientists concluded that they needed a better way to signal sarcasm—to distinguish the jokes from the everything else. Someone proposed an asterisk. Someone else, an ampersand (on the grounds that “&” resembles “a jolly fat man in convulsions of laughter”). And then a computer scientist named Scott Fahlman chimed in with the compound punctuation mark that would live on in chat windows and e‑mail inboxes the Internet over: “ :-) ”

“We were just nerds, goofing around,” Fahlman, now a research professor at Carnegie Mellon, told me. “This was not meant to be a serious invention.” But the smiley and its cousins succeeded where generations of misunderstood sarcasts had failed. In the late 1800s, the poet Alcanter de Brahm proposed a point d’ironie resembling a backward question mark—a suggestion echoed, a century later, by the novelist Hervé Bazin. Nabokov wanted “a special typographical sign for a smile—some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket.” Ambrose Bierce offered the “snigger point” (a horizontal parenthesis, or “”) to punctuate “every jocular or ironical sentence.”

But “ :-) ” was the right mark at the right time. Per Nielsen, the average American sends and receives more than 700 text messages a month; per McKinsey, we spend 13 hours a week—650 hours a year—writing and reading e‑mail. As our writing grows ever more plentiful, ever more functional, and ever less fanciful, ambiguity—the stuff that gave Shakespeare his puns and Austen her wit—can confound as well as delight. (I write, “Let’s do dinner.” She writes, “Haha, cool.” Should I put something in the oven, or not?) One of the early discussion boards on ARPANET, a precursor to the Internet, complained of “the loss of meaning in this medium—the lack of tone, gestures, facial expressions, etc.”

We compensate for this by creating digital versions of the irony point, using the keys available to us to signal what the linguist John Haiman calls “un-plain speaking.” Instead of standardized snigger points, in other words, we prefer a more customized approach. As the American University linguist Naomi Baron put it to me, “We develop our own particular ways of speaking—or in this case, of writing.” We use ALL CAPS, not just in the traditional way (to YELL AT YOU), but also in an ironic way (to JOSH WITH YOU). We surround the *funny stuff* with asterisks. We use “scare quotes” to signal our “hilarious jokes.” We LOL. We use <sarcasm> tags. We employ lots of exclamation points!!! We end winky sentences with winky emoticons ;-) . We MacGyver our way into meaning, adjusting to new platforms, teasing out their nuances—and finding new ways to make them smile.