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Is That a Joke? Check the Emoticon

Spring 2010
Alan Jalowitz
Three simple punctuation marks can now carry positive emotional content, as with this "smiley".

English teachers around the world should have rejoiced when one invention had finally inspired people of all ages to value the importance of punctuation, leading to a movement, where even the most casual message insisted on using the dreaded colon. Yet, there was no celebration. Instead, there was a digital revolution that changed all the rules of how punctuation could be used. This revolution was the creation of computer scientist Scott E. Fahlman. His invention originally consisted of only the two images: :-) and :-( . These simple character combinations eventually inspired thousands like them, and in turn, led to what is known today as the emoticon.

On September 19, 1982, Fahlman, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon, created the emoticon somewhat as a joke. As a member of an online computer science community bulletin board, he saw that there was an issue with people incorrectly reading sarcastic messages in a serious tone. After attempts by several others to create a marker that would work to identify jokes from non-jokes, Fahlman suggested the now famous :-) and :-( . The newly born emoticons stuck and began to spread quickly throughout Carnegie Mellon, and eventually the world; however, Fahlman did not expect anything to come of his clever idea, let alone for it to become a universally used concept. Because of this, he had not kept any documentation of his original post. For several years, the creator of the emoticon was not able to prove what he had done. Nor was anyone else.

Scott Fahlman
Scott Fahlman
Scott Fahlman is now credited with writing the email that contains the first emoticons.

Luckily for the history of the emoticon, Microsoft’s Mike Jones initiated and sponsored a search for the long lost post. After an in-depth hunt, members of the CMU computer science team led by Jeff Baird unearthed the historic post while searching through Carnegie Mellon’s computer science back up tapes. Credit was finally given to the emoticon’s inventor on September 10, 2002, just nine days before the 20th anniversary of its conception.

In online forums, instant messaging applications, and mobile text messages, users write in a casual manner, just as if they were speaking to one another. The only problem with this casual environment is that facial expressions and vocal cues are absent from the interchange. Acting as a digital replacement to these missing components, the emoticon has been very important in determining how successful the electronic media have become. The actual term “emoticon” is an Internet creation combining the words emotion and icon. Internet users found the emoticons to be perfect for the role as an emotional outlet in the strictly text-based environment.

The addition of an emoticon can add a personal touch and suggests the tone that one should read the message. Emoticons are most often used in text messaging; these messages tend to limit the number of characters that can be sent, in which leads to the problem of not being able to express one’s intended tone in such a limited space. This is precisely why the emoticon has become so vital to this form of communication. For example, the addition of a “ :-)” would explain to the recipient that the message is meant to be friendly despite any sarcasm that could otherwise be read negatively. By adding these symbols, emoticons can clarify and add a personal touch to the message forming a whole new dynamic.

Text messaging has gone from being a once expensive and rare form of communication to the primary form of contact between young mobile phone users in a span of about 20 years. With its growing popularity, the emoticon has been able to stay an important part of text messaging. In some extreme cases, the emoticon has even been used to replace words altogether. Simply responding with a smiley can be used to signify that you agree or are pleased with the message. Responding to bad news with a sad face can be an easy way to show that you are genuinely sympathetic to the sender. Sometimes it can be hard to find the right words and it works out perfectly that there exists a symbol that can express those feelings.

Cover of Emoji Dick
Fred Berenson
Japanese emoji, or emoticons, bring an entirely new interpretation to Herman Melville's classic, Moby Dick.

Emoticons have grown into a new type of language. This is being shown most dramatically in a new project called Emoji Dick. The plan for this fascinating use of emoticons is to rewrite the novel Moby Dick strictly using emoji—the Japanese word for emoticon. The purpose of this project is to see how language and culture are affected by digital technology; in this instance, the emoticon. The idea is that the infinite number of emoticons available could effectively replace the written language as we know it. This may seem like a stretch but emoticons have been referred to as the digital age’s hieroglyphs. Just like hieroglyphs, these images can be used to tell stories, but unlike hieroglyphs, emoticons seem to be easily understood by a greater number of people. Despite the multitude of connotations each emoticon may have, common users seem to have incorporated them into their digital vocabularies. Fahlman did not intend to create a new world language, but emoticons have clearly evolved into a simpler form of universal communication.

The use of emoticons has become so commonplace that it has even inspired people to write entire books about proper usage. By 1993, David Sanderson wrote a dictionary, entitled Smiley’s, to offer new users tips on when and how often emoticons should be used. With a growing user base in the Internet community, usage was beginning to open to more people, thanks to more user-friendly Internet browsers like Netscape and AOL. Books like Sanderson’s gave the novice surfers an idea of how to casually converse using online communication. In a short time, the smiley had become so popular that it created a new form of art, spawning over thousands of different variations including: “ o{-<]: “ meaning skateboarder and “@>--->---- “ meaning rose. Online communication no longer limits its users; it simply comes down to how creative a person can be using a keyboard.

Alan Jalowitz
Three simple punctuation marks can also carry negative emotional content, as with this "frowny".

In 1998, AOL introduced an automatic feature for AIM (AOL Instant Messager) that translated the character smileys into a cartoon image on its community messaging board. Following suit, cell phone providers and other online communication software began building image-based emoticons into their programs as well. Even Microsoft’s Word has recognized the input of a “:-)” to be automatically corrected to look like “J“.

The popularity of emoticons has even made its way into the food industry. In 2006, the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP) was the first to brand an emoticon. The symbol, “ :-{) “ or “milk-mustache” was used to target a teen audience and may well have contributed to a 1.2% sales increase.

In the short period of time emoticons have been around, they have managed to become a global phenomenon. Originally used by computer experts, emoticons are now being used by children around the world with the same ease and effectiveness. They have allowed people to communicate with almost the same emotional level that a face-to-face conversation could have. In the fast-paced world that we live in today, it only makes sense that emoticons be embraced as a necessity for effective electronic communication.


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