The Emoticon

Blog Digital History Web History

The first use of the smiley face on a screen was in September 1982 at Carnegie Mellon University.

Original Bboard Thread in which :-) was proposed by Scott Fahlman on 19 September, 1982

The convention caught on and spread to other universities and research centres. The smiley and other emoticons, like the wink, grin and tongue out were very quickly in common use on bulletin boards across the Internet.

In the mid-eighties, Japanese Internet users popularised a style of emoji’s that didn’t involve tilting your head, such as (*_*) and (^.^). Other examples include a wink (^_-) and confusion (@_@), while a stressful situation is represented by (-_-;), the semicolon representing sweat!

When web chat took off in the mid-90’s, emoticons evolved into images. Instant Messenger services, like ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger, started offering a wide range of icons that could be inserted into text at the click of a mouse. In 1997, Franklin Loufrani’s son, Nicolas, created a dictionary of animated GIF icons, based on the Smiley, to replace text-based emoticons. There are now over 2000 icons in this dictionary and, to the annoyance of many, modern platforms often auto-replace text-based emoticons with these animated images.

Of the phenomena he created, Scott Fahlman wearily says ‘I had no idea that I was starting something that would soon pollute all the world’s communication channels.’ I like to think, in his head at least, this statement ends with a smiley face :-).

This is an extract from 100 Ideas that Changed the Web, available on Amazon UK and Amazon US.

One Response to The Emoticon

  1. Brian Dear says:

    Online emoticons were in use for nearly 10 years before Fahlman did his thing. On the PLATO system, emoticons quickly evolved into an art form, with an endless variety of images. In many ways PLATO’s emoticons are more like Emoji, in terms of the sheer number and variety of them and how emoji are used now.

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