He Seconds That Emotion

Almost 20 years ago, Scott Fahlman decided that people using computer-based communications needed a way to express emotions. His solution? The now ubiquitous emoticon. Here’s why the man who brought the smiley face to the Net is still smiling.



Jonathan Swift’s acerbic wit would pack a dangerous punch online. Just imagine the uproar if [SWIFT_EMAIL] posted “A Modest Proposal” in an AOL chat room today. “A young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled,” the message would say; “and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.”

Young mothers would besiege the discussion boards. Student activists would go on the warpath. Matt Drudge would have a field day. And chat administrators would curse satirists everywhere.

Now imagine if Jonathan Swift had paired every brilliant turn of phrase and biting piece of satire with ; -) One look at the winking emoticon used to flag smart-ass email remarks, and ohhh, now I get it.

“It’s true that Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain didn’t need the smiley face to communicate effectively,” says Carnegie Mellon professor Scott Fahlman. “But most of the people sending email and posting on news groups today are not Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain. They can’t convey humor very well.

“All you need is one or two clueless people who don’t get a joke to create an email response that dwarfs the original message. Certainly Twain had dissenters too, but his audience didn’t have a printing press at its disposal. Today, readers can retaliate.”

Why does Fahlman care so much about : -) and its literary reputation? Because Fahlman is the originator of the “emotional icon,” or “emoticon” — that international translator of irony and defuser of parody.


” ‘Emoticon’ is such a grotesque label,” Fahlman says. “I prefer ‘smiley.’ “

Back in 1982, Fahlman was participating in a university bulletin board called “Opinion” when the smiley notion struck. In those early days of electronic communication, misunderstood sarcasm often sparked fierce disputes between students, and wisecracks too often prompted avalanches of response postings. Fahlman was annoyed, so he suggested using visual clues to communicate tone of voice.

While working on his PhD at MIT in the late 1970s, Fahlman contributed to bulletin boards where posters wrote “joke” after every wisecrack or jibe. He thought that he could do better. He tilted his head to the right and : -) was born.

Nineteen years later, more than 2,000 emoticons have infiltrated popular culture through books (Smileys), browsers (Emoticons), and nearly every correspondence with coworkers under the age of 25. There’s even an agency devoted to bringing social equality and civil rights to “leftwise emoticons,” such as (- : and < - ;

“Until … people and emoticons become more tolerant, analysts expect emoticon violence and segregation to continue,” says the farcical Emoticon News Bureau. What has the world come to?

It’s come to : – F (bucktoothed vampire with one tooth missing) and % \ v (Picasso). It seems Fahlman’s smiley suggestion has spawned a unique lexicon used by many but appreciated by few.


Fahlman has stared : -) in the eyes for nearly 20 years, and still hasn’t grown tired of peppering it throughout emails and devising new, more obscure variations on the original. At the end of every email he sends, Fahlman includes a “mood” rating that usually reads : -) (He only uses : – (when making customer-service complaints.)

“Every once in a while, I like to see how over-the-top I can get with the text images,” he says. “One of my favorites is Abraham Lincoln being eaten by a python that’s got three or four other lumps in it already.”

Still, Fahlman has come to terms with the notion that the smiley’s days are numbered. As electronic communication grows more sophisticated, users will no longer rely on strings of dashes and parentheses to convey their point. Ringing smiley’s death knell are AOL and Microsoft Word, which automatically insert cutesy new icons when a user types in an old-school emoticon.

“A lot of people ask me whether I expect these emoticons to be around in 50 years,” Fahlman says. “I’m amazed that they are around now. Smileys only make sense in an ASCII world. They resulted from ASCII’s limitations.”

Will the smiley burn out or simply fade away? The emoticon isn’t going to die without a fight, judging by the clamor and criticism that erupted when secured the trademark registration for : – (and announced that it would press charges against 7,000,000 email users found using “frowny” in correspondence. The trademark was real (the U.S. Patent Office officially granted registration 2347676), but the lawsuit was a publicity stunt. Perhaps should have included ; -) at end of its press release — hardly anyone got the joke, but a lot of people got defensive. Users of Slashdot deluged with angry email messages about intellectual-property rights and the sanctity of smiley and frowny.

People really do care. But does popularity make emoticons a viable and valuable linguistic phenomenon? Will smiley go down in history as the spokesman of the Internet revolution? Fahlman certainly hopes not. With a PhD in artificial intelligence from MIT and more than 30 years of academic research under his belt, the emoticon originator hopes to be remembered for more than his way with colons and dashes. Especially since he isn’t earning any royalties.


“I don’t want this emoticon to be the most important thing I do in my career,” Fahlman says. Like it or not, Fahlman’s invention continues to save modern-day Swifts and Twains from getting roasted, broiled, or just plain flamed for their biting sense of humor.

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