October 5, 2011

Inventor of the smiley explains its origins

by Kerry Butters

The ‘smiley’ reached the grand old age of 29 last month, and its creator, Scott Fahlman, has explained why it was invented.

The now widely used smiley was initially created in order to flag a message that was intended to be taken as a joke on bulletin boards.

The Computer Science community at Carnegie Mellon University were heavy users of such boards back in the early 80s.

However, they soon found that without the nuances of expression through both voice and body language, many messages were being misconstrued.

The boards were used for serious discussion on a wide range of topics, as well as day-to-day topics of general interest and were “an important social mechanism in the department.

Scott says that this led to many users becoming involved in lengthy debates after they just didn’t “get the joke” and the original points in many posts becoming lost.

This led to community members suggesting that “maybe it would be a good idea to explicitly mark posts that were not to be taken seriously.”

Whilst lots of suggestions were made, Scott decided that an appropriate “character sequence” would be :-), as it could be “handled by the ASCII-based terminals of the day.”

He also thought that using the sequence :-( could mean that the post was to be taken seriously, “though that symbol quickly evolved into a marker for displeasure, frustration, or anger.”

The symbols quickly propagated throughout the university communities and the smiley was born.

It soon caught on and Scott says that “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.

Whilst he acknowledges that these have become “a serious hobby for some”, Scott also thinks that the way the smilies have been “turned into little pictures [...] destroys the whimsical element of the original.”

Scott lost the original post which contained the very first smiley, as he didn’t realise at the time just how popular the character would become.

The post was lost for almost 20 years until Mike Jones from Microsoft “sponsored a more serious “archaeological dig” and the tapes were found.

This meant that the actual birth date of the smiley could be found – 19th September 1982.

Whilst Scott says that “many people have denounced the very idea of the smiley face” as good writers shouldn’t need such humour indicators, this seems irrelevant to the millions of people who use it around the globe.

However, Scott says that whilst he largely agrees with these critics, “not all people who post on boards have the literary skill of Shakespeare.”

He also points out that many people are writing casually in a completely different medium.

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