Our Emoticons, Ourselves: An Interview With The Inventor Of The Internet Smiley

Are you using emoticons correctly? What does that weird one really mean? The definitive answers, from the inventor of the internet smiley.

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It’s really only a matter of time until our faces become our phones, and our phones become our faces, or until the messages we send each other appear as holograms to their recipients. Give it, what, eight months? A year, tops. In the meantime, we are left with just one simplistic — and rather polarizing! — method with which to provide our friends and family rough approximations of the way our faces look when we’re communicating with them: the emoticon.

For being tiny sideways smiley faces, emoticons can, in certain groups, provoke violent debates, personal resentments, and a looming sense that we are all very much alone. We can agree that they mean something, but we all have our own ideas as to what that something is. Are they sincere or are they cheesy? Are they friendly or are they foreboding? The short answer: … yes?

So should we use them, or shouldn’t we? And when we do use them, what are they whispering in secret, behind our backs? Today I bring you the definitive account on what your emoticons are REALLY saying, how to use them appropriately, and which ones you can use to keep Scott Fahlman on your good side.

Who is Scott Fahlman? According to the emoticon historians at Wikipedia, he’s the source from which all emoticon streams flow. Scott originally proposed the use of “smileys,” as he called them, in 1982 (!), to help users of Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science message board distinguish between serious posts and joke posts. Due to the notoriously haphazard nature of the Computer Science community’s sense of humor, Scott proffered smileys as a way to avoid users’ launching into “lengthy diatribe” –type responses that failed to see posts’ humorous intent. A :-) was therefore a “joke marker,” while :-( was meant to indicate a serious post – though Scott notes that the frown soon adapted to indicate “displeasure, frustration, or anger.”

I emailed Scott at Carnegie Mellon University, where he now works as a Research Professor in their school of Computer Science, to ask him what he thought about current emoticon trends and to ask which emoticons he loves and which ones he hates.

Hi Scott! I recently came across the Wikipedia page that cited you as emoticons' inventor. Congratulations! I enjoy a good emoticon.

I never claim to have invented "the emoticon", though some on the press have made that claim for me. I was the person (or one of the people) who first suggested using :-) and :-( in email and online posts to indicate joking/happiness and seriousness/sadness. I would argue that the first emoticon in English was probably the exclamation mark, which is hundreds of years old. (Ed. Note: O.M.G.)

Noted! Do you have any comments on how emoticons are being used today - do you think they're over-used at all?

Yes, of course. When people new to the web (are there still any of those?) first learn about these things, they go a bit overboard, just like people who first discover that they can use a dozen fonts and a dozen colors in the same message. These newbies settle down after a while, but there are some people for whom over-using this sort of thing seems to fulfill some deep inner need. They are probably incurable. I probably use too many smileys myself, but people sort of expect that from me, so I get a pass.  :-)

Have you seen any emoticon iterations that you particularly like or dislike?

I still am fond of the two I developed, plus the winky face ;-). I wish I had thought of that one, but nobody seems to know who thought of it. I don't like the "noseless" variants, which look like happy or sad frogs to me. But I suppose people typing on awkward cell-phone keyboards really don't want to add the extra hyphen, especially since it may be hard to find on some phone keyboards.

hate the little yellow or green circles with faces in them. I think they are ugly, and they eliminate the whimsy and the challenging puzzle of conveying the same thing with simple ASCII characters.  

Some people really got into developing very complex ASCII emoticons:  8-) "smiling guy with glasses and :-P "sticking tongue out" evolved into "Abraham Lincoln, Santa Claus, and the Pope being eaten by a python" — I'll leave the rendition of that one as an exercise for the reader. I never got into this, but it became a hobby for some people, and there are whole books of these. But they are not really useful for communication, since you have to explain each one in words before people "see" it.

Agreed! Finally, of particular personal interest, how do you feel about emoticons that use an equal sign for the eyes? (i.e. =)  )  Don't you think that looks kind of creepy, or am I alone on that one?

I just don't see these as eyes, even when someone tells me they are eyes.  They don't look like eyes. They look a little bit like the nose slits on a sea lion...  So to me they are not creepy, just meaningless.

So fine, I gave Scott Fahlman a leading question, but the important thing is that he TOTALLY AGREES WITH ME. Never in a million years should you use an equal sign to depict eyes, because it is insanely creepy and/or meaningless. (For instance: stand in front of a mirror and use your forefingers and thumbs to pull your eyelids as far apart vertically as you possibly can. Now smile. Ahhh!) Nor should you forget to give your smileys cute little noses, if you can help it. Don’t rely on emoticons to fulfill your inner needs. And finally – whoever knows the emoticon for “Pope being eaten by a python,” please email it to me ASAP. :-)

Katie Heaney is a writer and volunteer text message analyst living in Minneapolis. She thinks smileys should have colons for eyes, never ever an equal sign.