Today, emoticons - those smiling, frowning, or winking faces comprised of text and punctuation - can be found in everything from emails to text messages. But before their invention 30 years ago, there was no short cut for expressing sentiment in text form. Brooke speaks to computer science professor Scott Fahlman, who came up with the smiling and frowning faces, about how they came to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you’re writing an e-mail or texting a friend and you want to make a sarcastic joke, but you’re worried that your friend won’t get it. So maybe you turn to an emoticon, those faces made of punctuation marks, artfully arranged to express a wink or a smile. These days you can find faces online evincing everything from ecstasy to moral panic. But it all began 30 years ago, with computer science professor Scott Fahlman. This was before the Internet, back in the days of the ARPANET, when only a couple of dozen insular universities departments and research institutions linked to one another. One day, Fahlman’s colleagues were on the computer discussing a theoretical problem involving an elevator, and he learned to beware of nerds making jokes.
SCOTT FAHLMAN: What would happen if you were in one of our elevators and somebody cut the cable and you went into free fall? If there was a candle burning, would it go out? What would happen if you had some birds flying around, would they become all disoriented and start flying upside down and every other way? What would happen if there was a ball of mercury on the floor of the elevator? One theory was it would sort of slowly rise up off the floor. And then somebody just humorously said, “Well, sorry to report but we shouldn’t use the elevator in the computer science building. Due to some recent physics experiments, it’s gone some flame damage, dead birds and some mercury contamination.”
And one of our administrators jumped up and said, “You have to be very careful because if somebody just saw that one post they’d think it was a serious safety warning.” So we said, oh boy, you know, as long as this guy’s around we’re gonna have to mark everything that’s not meant to be serious.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, you and your colleagues went through a series of suggestions. One of them was putting an – an asterisk in the subject field. Someone else said, well, how about an asterisk for good jokes, percentage for bad jokes? And then someone else said that no, maybe it should be an ampersand because that’s the funniest figure on the keyboard.
SCOTT FAHLMAN: Yes, he thought it resembled a jolly fat man laughing or something.
I don’t quite see that. But I was thinking, gee we ought to be able to do better, so what can we do? And I’m looking at the keyboard and the most obvious thing you need is eyes. So I looked at the percentage sign for a while, and maybe. And my eyes landed on the colon character, and gee, that looks like eyes but only if you turn your head sideways. But if you do that, you can make a pretty nice little face. You can make a smiley one or a frowny one. So I posted it into this message group, and I thought it would amuse three or four of my friends, and that would be the end of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Didn’t your friends say, Scott, you’re a genius? Smiley face.
SCOTT FAHLMAN: N-no. But I did notice over the next few days that people were starting to use this in their own mail to Carnegie Mellon. And then a couple of weeks later I heard it had reached the West Coast, and it – it pretty quickly spread to all the research places that were on the Internet. But there were only like 20 of them, and then that was the edge of the world. The interesting thing is that more and more universities, more and more research labs and companies started joining the ARPANET, they hooked up with research networks in the UK and, and Continental Europe and Japan that already existed. And as soon as there was a connection, some e-mail would go across the connection and some of that e-mail had the smiley faces in it. And then it wasn’t until the early- to mid-1990s people could suddenly have a computer in their living room that’s connected to the Internet, and they saw this crazy smiley face thing, and some of them thought it was cute and it started spreading through there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now Scott, judging from the sound of your voice, you don’t seem to be the kind of person who wears your emotions on your sleeve.
SCOTT FAHLMAN: Well, I – I think that’s probably a fair assessment, actually.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you ever wish that you had emoticons to use in real life?
SCOTT FAHLMAN: You know, I’ve an interesting story that autistic kids, their big problem is being able to relate to other people, and it turns out that a lot of those kids communicating to one another, even if they’re in the same room, like using e-mail and text messaging ‘cause it’s a little bit removed, it’s a little bit less personal and confrontational. And they really love the emoticons because I mean, here – here’s this thing that people have criticized as taking a real human emotion and trivializing it. But that’s kind of what they’ve been craving.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why don’t you like the word “emoticon?”
SCOTT FAHLMAN: I’ve always called mine smiley faces and frowny faces, and I don’t claim that I invented the emoticon because people mean different things by that, and that always starts a fight.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
SCOTT FAHLMAN: You know, is it only these sort of sideways things that look like a face? Well, there was something a little earlier that was a parenthesis and an equal sign that in some very small communities meant tongue in cheek. Some people have said, well, you know, I used to send those things in letters I sent to my uncle back in the 1950s.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I so don’t believe them.
SCOTT FAHLMAN: Well, so far I haven’t seen any examples. But, on the other hand, I don’t really doubt that, necessarily. Really, if you want to think about it, maybe the earliest emoticon in English was the exclamation mark.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If I’m typing an e-mail today and I try to create this smiley face using the punctuations that you came up with.
SCOTT FAHLMAN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A lot of programs will automatically change that series of punctuations into that yellow round smiley face thing.
SCOTT FAHLMAN: Right. I don’t like those. I think a) they’re, they’re mostly ugly and b) I think it kind of spoils the sort of creativity of trying to come up with some way of saying something interesting with just a few characters. Really, these days if I want to send you a smiling face, I’ll just my camera on the computer and –
- and send you a picture of me smiling.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] But do you just use the smiley face, or have you, yourself, ranged into the tongue hanging out and the sly wink, and so on?
SCOTT FAHLMAN: The ones I use are the smile and the frown, always with the minus sign included for the nose. I think the ones look like frogs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I agree.
SCOTT FAHLMAN: I also like the semi-colon winky one. I wish I had invented that. I don’t know who did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Scott, thank you very much.
SCOTT FAHLMAN: Oh, my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Scott Fahlman is a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.