emoticon

The emoticon is 30 years old ;-)

Sep. 20, 2012 at 1:43 PM ET

Gene J. Puskar / AP /
Carnegie Mellon professor Scott E. Fahlman is shown in his home office next to a his invention — the smiley face emoticon.

Thirty years ago Wednesday, noted Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Professor Scott Fahlman typed out the first sideways smiley face composed entirely of keyboard characters and posted it to the university bulletin board where — much like the Internet today —the flat text of faceless posts is often misunderstood.

"I propose the following character sequence for joke markers: :-) Read it sideways." he wrote in a post Fahlman recently described to the Independent UK as "a little bit of silliness that I tossed into a discussion about physics." It quickly spread from universities to the rest of the world, eventually co-opted and evolving into graphic yellow blobs effusing tears or laughter, and tarted up with fashion accessories such as sunglasses and Santa hats.

Fahlman doesn't care for the evolution. "I think they are ugly, and they ruin the challenge of trying to come up with a clever way to express emotions using standard keyboard characters,"  he told the Independent. "But perhaps that's just because I invented the other kind."

Or perhaps not. Ubiquitous, much maligned and yet still needed, the emoticon is often much abused — and not just in a graphics sense. Beyond the yellow blobby bastardization, there's the unfortunate passive-aggressive misuse, in which a smiley face added to the end of a snarky email dares the recipient to take issue with the obvious tone. "Obviously you can't be mad at anything I've typed, because here's a smiley face!"

Yet, as long as we continue to bring all our issues and baggage to every bit of flat text sent from friend, lover or boss, the unaffected use of the emoticon is still very much needed. There are countless creative variations since that sideways smiley face — and still no need to resort to prefab yellow blobs. On this landmark birthday, lets return to the simple keyboard character composition and give emoticons the respect they deserve.

Update: As Michael Kupietƺ, this guy I know from Facebook, accurately clarifies, it's specifically the ASCII emoticon that is 30-years-old. "There have been typographic emoticons for a lot longer," he points out, in a tone I read in the voice of Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons." Of course, Michael's typed missive might have been meant to be helpful, rather than rife with attitude. But since he didn't include an emoticon, there's really no way to know. Anyoo, to learn more, here's a handy link.

Helen A.S. Popkin goes blah blah blah about the Internet. Join her on Twitter and/or Facebook. Also, Google+.  

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