:-) celebrates 25 years
By James Grahame
Carnegie Mellon Research Professor Scott Fahlman coined the ubiquitous :-) smiley emoticon twenty five years ago, at 11:44am EDT on September 19, 1982. Its sad-faced brother :-( was born mere seconds later. They spread like wildfire throughout BITNET and across university campuses worldwide to become a mainstay of the online lexicon.
Professor Fahlman explains: "By the early 1980’s, the Computer Science community at Carnegie Mellon was making heavy use of online bulletin boards or “bboards”. These were a precursor of today’s newsgroups, and they were an important social mechanism in the department – a place where faculty, staff, and students could discuss the weighty matters of the day on an equal footing.
Given the nature of the community, a good many of the posts were humorous (or attempted humor). The problem was that if someone made a sarcastic remark, a few readers would fail to get the joke, and each of them would post a lengthy diatribe in response.
Various “joke markers” were suggested, and in the midst of that discussion it occurred to me that the character sequence :-) would be an elegant solution – one that could be handled by the ASCII-based computer terminals of the day. So I suggested that. In the same post, I also suggested the use of :-( to indicate that a message was meant to be taken seriously, though that symbol quickly evolved into a marker for displeasure, frustration, or anger. This convention caught on quickly around Carnegie Mellon, and soon spread to other universities and research labs via the primitive computer networks of the day."
Fahlman failed to recognize the importance of his idea and didn't bother to keep a copy of the historic message. It remained lost but not forgotten until Mike Jones at CMU successfully retrieved it from an old 9-track backup tape in 2002. It was short, sweet, grammatically incorrect and sparked a revolution in online communication:
The full thread surrounding this fateful message can be found here.
These days it's rare to see a 'pure' version of Fahlman's original emoticon. Many instant messenger and email apps mutilate it into a distracting yellow happy face. Even Microsoft Word doesn't leave it untouched. I miss the days when text was just text. Heck, I miss the days when character set ROMs didn't have enough space for lower case letters. And it wasn't really that long ago...