Digital ‘smiley face’ turns 25
Web’s ubiquitous ‘colon-hyphen-parenthesis’ celebrates a milestone
PITTSBURGH – It was a serious contribution to the electronic lexicon.
Twenty-five years ago, Carnegie Mellon University professor Scott E. Fahlman says, he was the first to use three keystrokes — a colon followed by a hyphen and a parenthesis — as a horizontal “smiley face” in a computer message.
To mark the anniversary Wednesday, Fahlman and his colleagues are starting an annual student contest for innovation in technology-assisted, person-to-person communication. The Smiley Award, sponsored by Yahoo Inc., carries a $500 cash prize.
Language experts say the smiley face and other emotional icons, known as emoticons, have given people a concise way in e-mail and other electronic messages of expressing sentiments that otherwise would be difficult to detect.
Fahlman posted the emoticon in a message to an online electronic bulletin board at 11:44 a.m. on Sept. 19, 1982, during a discussion about the limits of online humor and how to denote comments meant to be taken lightly.
“I propose the following character sequence for joke markers: :-),” wrote Fahlman. “Read it sideways.”
The suggestion gave computer users a way to convey humor or positive feelings with a smile — or the opposite sentiments by reversing the parenthesis to form a frown.
Carnegie Mellon said Fahlman’s smileys spread from its campus to other universities, then businesses and eventually around the world as the Internet gained popularity.
Computer-science and linguistics professors contacted by The Associated Press said they were unaware of who first used the symbol.
“I’ve never seen any hard evidence that the 🙂 sequence was in use before my original post, and I’ve never run into anyone who actually claims to have invented it before I did,” Fahlman wrote on the university’s Web page dedicated to the smiley face.
“But it’s always possible that someone else had the same idea — it’s a simple and obvious idea, after all.”