Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=4097
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Courtesy Scott Falhman

Family resemblance?  Scott Fahlman is the father of the much-loved (and much hated) e-mail smiley.


Smile, :-). It's your 25th Anniversary!

by Laura Kwerel
Feb 20, 2007


Ever try ending an e-mail joke with the  “*” symbol?  How about the “&” mark?  Not too funny, right?  But if you asked Keith Wright, a Carnegie Mellon research programmer way back in 1982, he would’ve thought differently. 
 
“No, no, no!",  he wrote on the university’s online discussion board. "Surely everyone will agree that the “&” symbol is the funniest character on the keyboard. It looks funny (like a jolly fat man in convulsions of laughter.)  It sounds funny…I just know if I could get my nose into the vacuum [tubes of the computer monitor] it would even smell funny!” 

Twenty-five years ago, the Carnegie Mellon computer science community was trying to come up with a solution to an awkward problem plaguing their online message boards. No one knew when other people were trying to be funny.  Without aural tone-of-voice cues on their text-only forum there was no way of telling what a person really meant.   
Generally, misunderstood jokes hadn't been much of a problem.  Then someone posted an unfortunate wisecrack about mercury leaking into the physics department elevators, and a mild panic ensued.   No one was laughing at the prospect of trying to contain a toxic mercury spill, which often takes the form of hundreds of tiny, rolling beads.  By the next morning, when the message was determined to be a poor attempt at humor, it was clear something had to be done.  

“After talking to [another professor], I have discovered that there is no mercury spill in any of the Wean hall elevators,” wrote one user named Neil Swartz.  “Maybe we should adopt a convention of putting a star (*) in the subject field of any notice which is to be taken as a joke.” 

Different alternatives bounced back and forth.  One person suggested the * for good jokes, the % for bad jokes, and a *% combination “for jokes that are so bad, they’re funny.”  Another person suggested the joke character should be {#} “because it looks like two lips with teeth showing between them.” 

Then, on Sept. 19, 1982, professor Scott Fahlman decided to take a stab at it.  With one hastily written posting, he was about to make Internet history. 

“I propose the following character sequence for joke markers:  :-),” wrote the computer science professor.  “Read it sideways.  Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends.  For this, use :-(.” 

And so the smiley—and the frowny—were born.  

As with much Internet lore, the origin of the smiley has been debated.  According to the Nerd Times’ history of the smiley, the first incarnation may have appeared way back in 1979, when a man named Kevin MacKenzie posted the  -) symbol on an early message board, meaning “tongue in cheek,"  the hyphen represented a tongue, the parenthesis, a cheek. Others have stepped forward to claim the smiley throne, including Ken Smiley (yes, that’s his real name), who says his father used to type out the faces in the 1960s.

Still, most say it was Fahlman who popularized the smiley face.  After his initial posting, the cute convention quickly caught on throughout the rest of Carnegie Mellon’s online discussion boards, and pretty soon they spread to other universities in the system.  Within a few months, the simple smiley face had begat dozens of clever variations.  Early spin-offs included, for example, the person wearing glasses 8-) the open-mouthed surprise :-0 the Pope +O:-) the Santa Claus *<:-) and, fitting for 1982, the Ronald Reagan 7:^).  

In the quarter-century since, the smileys, also known as “emoticons” (short for emotive icons,) have popped up everywhere, becoming a staple of blog postings, text messages, and, of course, teenage MySpace pages.  The Hi-Tech dictionary, an extensive collection of techie computer terms, lists well over 200 emoticons, though the possibilities seem almost infinite.  In no time, “I have a toupee” {(:-) becomes “I have a toupee and it’s windy” }(:-( which easily becomes, say, “I have a toupee, it’s windy, and I’m being eaten by a snake” ~~~~~8}(:-(.  And so on.  

Emoticons exist not simply in the realm of e-mails and blogs, however. The perky punctuation-faces can mean big business for companies who want to cash in on their friendly, familiar aura. In 1998 Despair, Inc. actually patented the :-( symbol for use on its pessimistic calendars and mugs.  And last year Cingular Wireless successfully patented the concept of using emoticons on their cellular phones, to allow customers to see the fully displayed graphic.

Though Fahlman has since accomplished more weighty feats, including pioneering research in the artificial intelligence field, he said he enjoys being the brains behind this little icon of pop culture. 

“It’s a silly thing to be famous for, but it’s kind of fun to be famous for something,” he said. “The other day the nurse at my doctor’s office said, ‘Oh, my daughter showed me this [article about smileys,] you’re the guy!  You know, she’s been taking blood out of my arm for two or three years, and suddenly she’s like, ‘Aha!’ It’s kind of fun when I meet people and they realize that I did that.” 

So what’s Fahlman's favorite emoticon?  The Pope being eaten by a snake?  The Abraham Lincoln?  No, thank you, he said.  “I like the two I invented,” said Fahlman.  “The smiley face with the nose and the frowny face.”