Twenty-five years ago, when the world-spanning Internet was all but a gleam in the Defense Department’s eye (and the world-spamming Internet was even further off in the future), a small band of computer scientists were stymied over how to express their brand of often subtle humor online. That all changed one day when Scott Fahlman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science, “was just staring at the keyboard saying, ‘Gee, what is simple and elegant and can fit on one line?’ ” He finally looked at his keyboard sideways and had a sideways epiphany: :-)
“I don’t know if I’m the first person to type those three characters in a row,” says the 59-year-old. “What I do know is that . . . within days it had made it across the ARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet.” Thus, the emoticon (whose name actually came years later) was born, and people riffed on it right off the bat. Within a month of its debut in 1982, the emoticon’s cousins in bike helmets (:-) and dunce caps <:-) showed up. Then came the winky ;), making online flirting easier for untold millions.
Fahlman continues to use emoticons to this day. “I think they humanize what is otherwise a cold medium.” Online communication is like speech, he says, but it lacks body language or tone to cue intent. “Suddenly we have an awful lot of informal communication flying around, and that’s one reason why the emoticon is useful: You’re not going to stop and express in lovely, flowing prose what your mood is.”