In Praise of Emoticons . . . But, You Know, Living Ones

Peter Stackpole—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Peter Stackpole—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
A gleefully mischievous Bob Hope, 1941.
Culture
1937
1972

Most everyone who has ever sent or received more than, say, eight emails over the past several decades is probably familiar with emoticons. Or rather, most of us are familiar with one particular emoticon, whether we find it cute, creative or mere digital clutter. That’s right. We’re talking about that sideways smiley face — comprised of a colon, a dash and a close parenthesis, like this, : – ) — that millions upon millions of people have inserted into billions upon billions of emails ever since a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon named Scott Fahlman included it (and a sad face) in a post to a university discussion board.

At 11:44 a.m. on September 19, 1982, Fahlman sent the following note to students and colleagues:

19-Sep-82 11:44

From: Scott E Fahlman

I propose 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

: – (

The idea of using punctuation and other typographical devices to form “pictures” had been around long before Fahlam sent his now-famous (among geeks, at least) missive to the discussion board. In fact, an often-cited article in Reader’s Digest in 1967 uses almost, but not exactly, the same symbols to form another image on the printed page: the writer notes that his “Aunt Ev” used an emoticon of her tongue inserted firmly in her cheek, like this —), as she shared gossip from back home in a chatty letter.

But hardly anyone disputes that the sideways smiley face and the sideways frown that we’ve all come to know and love (or loathe) found their first serious online champion in Fahlman. He was the one to codify, in a sense, that these two most elemental human emotions — happiness and sorrow — could be conveyed electronically in a few very basic keystrokes.

Let’s be clear: Fahlman did not (despite what some have claimed) “invent the emoticon.” He, can, however, lay claim to being the first person to publicly propose the use of the two digital facial representations that, without a doubt, have been sent and seen by more human beings than any other emoticons in history.

Awe-struck Milwaukee baseball fan seized w. utter delight as he watches the Braves make a home run in the World Series as he mingles w. other at a TV party.And yet . . . as the number of emoticons used every single second of every day in emails sent around the office and around the globe continues to grow, even the most ardent fan of the little critters would probably admit that, as clever as many of these constructs might be, when it comes to finding a vehicle that can adequately convey the mind-bending panoply of our species’ (and, occasionally, our non-human friends’) emotions, there’s really no substitute for the real thing.

Here, LIFE.com applauds the humble, ubiquitous emoticon — while celebrating the wildly expressive, versatile-beyond-measure human face.

Photo of Milwaukee Braves fan, 1957: Francis Miller—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images


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