Happy Birthday, Emoticon

Scott Fahlman didn’t really think he was starting something. He’s a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and on this day in 1982 he made a modest suggestion:

If you’re on a computer bulletin board (they were big back then), and you write something you don’t want people to take seriously, he said, perhaps add a colon, a hyphen, and a closing parenthesis. When people read it sideways, he wrote, it would look like a smiley face.

Like this: : - ) With that suggestion, posted at 11:44 a.m. On Sept. 19, 1982, Fahlman became the father of the emoticon — the first of those quick little symbols people now use daily, by the millions, to let you know what they’re thinking. Today is its 29th birthday, fittingly noted by The Writer’s Almanac.

“We kind of sat there and watched it spread,” said Fahlman in a telephone conversation today. “About a month later I got a message from Xerox PARC [a research facility in California] that they were seeing it. That was like the edge of the world. There were possibly 20 places on the Internet at the time.”

Fahlman guesses that his casual invention spread because plain words — especially if they’re typed in a rush in an email, instant message or online comment — don’t always do their intended job. Sarcasm online almost never works. Today, for instance, if you were to write, “Gee, Netflix, it’s really great of you to raise your prices,” (see our earlier post on the Netflix apology), people would probably pile on, thinking you were crazy. A little ; - ) (that’s a wink) would help.

Fahlman did not save his post; it was just part of an online thread following one person’s joke. Someone suggested an asterisk ( * ); someone else chimed in, “I believe that the joke character should be % rather than *.”

Pretty soon things got out of hand.

“No, no, no!” wrote a user. “Surely everyone will agree that “&” is the funniest character on the keyboard.”

This literally went on for days, until Fahlman wrote:

“I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:

: - )

“Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use

: - (”

The rest is history. Several engineers had to pore through archival tapes 20 years later to find Fahlman’s original message.

“I probably was not the first person ever to type these three letters in sequence, perhaps even with the meaning of ‘I’m just kidding’ and perhaps even online,” says Fahlman in (where else?) an online musing. “But I do believe that my 1982 suggestion was the one that finally took hold, spread around the world, and spawned thousands of variations.”

Fahlman, still on the faculty at Carnegie Mellon, says he’s never made a dime off the emoticon, and is happy to answer questions about it on the anniversary.

“It’s kind of fun,” he said. “It’s weird, though, to think what the first line of my obituary will be.”