A computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University was trying to find a way to distinguish serious posts from joking ones on his school's online message board.
Thirty-three years ago today, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University invented the emoticon.
Scott E. Fahlman, along with other members of CMU's computer science community, used online "bulletin boards" to share information, make announcements, and chat, Fahlman recalled in a post on Carnegie Mellon's website.
There were also a bunch of posts trying to be funny, Fahlman writes. But the members of Carnegie Mellon's computer science community had a hard time deciphering sarcasm from more serious posts.
"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," Fahlman writes. "That would stir up more people with more responses, and soon the original thread of the discussion was buried. In at least one case, a humorous remark was interpreted by someone as a serious safety warning."
To keep this from happening, some of the group's members decided they needed a way to mark jokes separately from more serious posts.
"After all, when using text-based online communication, we lack the body language or tone-of-voice cues that convey this information when we talk in person or on the phone," Fahlman writes.
His solution: using :-) to indicate jokes and :-( to demarcate serious posts.
Here's the full text of the first use of Fahlman's emoticons:
19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman :-)
From: Scott E Fahlman
I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:
Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use
Fahlman says his smiley face, made from a colon, hyphen, and end parenthesis, spread from CMU to other schools, using the computer networks of the early 1980s.
The emoticon evolved in a matter of months, Fahlman writes — people made emoticons that looked like the pope, Abraham Lincoln, and a person wearing glasses.
He doesn't seem to like emoji, though. In his recollection of the invention of the emoticon, Fahlman writes: "It’s interesting to note that Microsoft and AOL now intercept these character strings and turn them into little pictures. Personally, I think this destroys the whimsical element of the original."
Today, Fahlman, a fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence, is widely credited as the inventor of the emoticon.