It was originally meant to be a joke.
“It was a sarcastic suggestion…we said, maybe what we ought to do is mark the things we mean not to be serious.”
On September 19th, 1982, 32 years ago to the day, Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, decided to take action. All over the ArpaNet (a pre-cursor to the internet put together by the Defense Department) Fahlman’s peers were entering heated arguments about the validity and sanctity of fact versus fiction.
“One joke was that the elevators were in free-fall due to recent physics experiments. And one person said, ‘well that’s not funny, if somebody saw that one message, they might see it as a genuine safety concern.’ And we said to ourselves ‘Oh, boy.’ As long as that guy’s around.”
If the light-hearted nature of CMU’s online billboard community was to stay intact, something had to be done. And so, smiley was born.
After some serious digging, Fahlman was able to find the original message that contained his first sideways smiley– you can read the whole thing here— and the instructions to “read it sideways.”
“And I thought, okay, that will amuse the 10 people involved in this discussion and it will be completely forgotten by tomorrow,” says Fahlman.
Little did he know at the time that 32 years later, we’d still be celebrating his happy invention.
It took less than a month for smiley to make his way into the emails of every university using the Arpanet, which, at that time, was acquiring new users at an alarming rate. It was only a year later that the Arpanet was transformed into the Internet, and smiley was being sent back to the United States from users in Japan.
“It was all tech nerds, but tech nerds around the world,” says Fahlman.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that actual civilians had a reason to use Fahlman’s invention. It was around this time that more and more people started to acquire computers for use in their homes. But by the early 90s, smiley was old news to Fahlman and his colleagues. They had been using him for years and frankly, were a little bored with him.
“It’s like when people figure out they can use 16 colors and 32 different fonts. They go crazy for a little while. We were used to him, but the younger people thought he was pretty cool.”
After his first two faces, the smile and the frown, smiley’s future was out of his hands, Fahlman says. Xerox Park began to develop their own graphic versions of the familiar electronic face, and it was there that the term “emoticon” was coined.
But Fahlman is okay with not having a hand in smiley’s transformation. He’s a fan of the original. He thinks the newer versions lack the creativity that it took to come up with an expression with just a few keystrokes.
“If I want to send someone a picture of a smiling face, I can just send them a selfie, nowadays. Why would I send them a picture of an ugly, yellow, little circle?”
There are instances that make Fahlman proud of his invention, however.
“Back in the late 1980s when the Soviet Union was breaking up, there was a big thing with parliament and tanks in the street and people climbing up on the tanks. Some people here were from Russia, and they were quite anxious. They were getting messages from their parents, a couple of them showed me, with smiley faces. Just to say, ‘We’re still okay, it’s not as bad as it looks on TV’.”
Fahlman also explained that many autistic children use the emoticon to help them express themselves to their peers even when it’s difficult for them to communicate. He says a lot of the time, autistic students will choose to message each other instead of speak face to face, and the emoticon gives them the ability to sum up their feelings in one, succinct picture.
“It’s easy for this thing to spread because it’s language independent. A smile is culturally independent.”