The sideways smiley face emoticon just turned 20. I have to admit I have never used this or any other emoticon. I can’t exactly explain my reticence, maybe something about the cutesy, insiderish tech-dude aspect. I have even gone so far as to write the word “smile” in parentheses (smile) rather than use the symbol because online communication does require some qualification of statements: subtley of tone is not something computer communication conveys well.
But no one else seems to hesitate:
- It was 20 years ago today that Scott Fahlman taught the ‘Net how to smile.
The IBM researcher has devoted his professional life to artificial intelligence, the practice of teaching computers how to think like humans.
Fahlman is known for his work with neural networks — a computer technique designed to mimic the human brain — and helping develop Common Lisp, a computer language that uses symbols instead of numbers, but the bearded scientist is perhaps best known for a flash of inspiration that helped to define Internet culture, in all of its ungrammatical glory.
On Sept. 19, 1982, Fahlman typed 🙂 in an online message.
The “smiley face” has since become a staple of online communication, allowing 12-year-old girls and corporate lawyers alike to punctuate their messages with a quick symbol that says, “Hey, I’m only joking.”
Fahlman’s innovation has since inspired countless other “emoticons” like 😉 to signify a wink or :-0 to show surprise.
“I’ve certainly spent 10 times as much time talking with people about it as I did coming up with it in the first place,” Fahlman said from his Pittsburgh home. “Hopefully my actual research career will add up to more in the long run.”
In the early 1980s, computer networks were rarely found outside university science departments and secretive government facilities.
But even then, discussions on primitive online “bulletin boards” could quickly turn nasty when touchy users misinterpreted remarks meant to be taken lightly.
After a particularly tangled joke about mercury contamination in an elevator, users of a Carnegie Mellon University bulletin board proposed a variety of markers for humorous comments, including *, %, &, (#) and \__/.
Fahlman suggested :-), along with the admonition to “read it sideways.” Before long, other bulletin board users were placing the smiley face in their messages. The practice spread as Internet users found the symbol useful as a rough approximation of a twinkle in the eye….
Or something like that. Happy Birthday.