Tracing Four Decades of Progress from 🙂 to ? Emoticons
At 11:44 a.m. on September 19, 1982, Scott Fahlman wrote himself into the annals of internet history by piecing together the symbols of a colon, hyphen, and close parenthesis.
In 1982, computer science professor Scott Fahlman from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh published an emoticon – the now ubiquitous “: – )” – on the school’s bulletin board, a text-only social network only available to people within the university’s intranet.
The “first digital emoticon” according to Guinness World Records was a smiley face, which was introduced by Fahlman in an attempt to resolve an issue that is still relevant today – expressing sarcasm through the internet.
Fahlman explained that often on text-based internet forums, sarcastic comments would be misinterpreted by one individual, leading to angry responses and the derailment of the original topic. He said that without body language or facial expressions, it can be difficult to tell if someone is joking or not.
Forty years have passed since emoticons and then emoji came to occupy an important place in our conversations, both online and in person. Now, there are more than 3,600 emojis available to help users convey their feelings and respond to the challenge that Fahlman identified: adding a more meaningful layer to our words, be it with a waving hand, a teary face, or a monocle-clad character.
According to the Emoji Subcommittee for the Unicode Consortium, the non-profit in charge of emoji regulations, emojis provide addendums to what is being said. Our body language, intonation, volume, and eye contact are all part of an implicit conversation that is not expressed with words.
This all began with some punctuation symbols being typed onto a college message board but has now become a comprehensive effort by many tech firms, Unicode, and users to broaden our digital forms of expression. Nevertheless, this is an ongoing venture even after all these years.
A change over time from : – ) to ?
It did not take very much time for the first emoticon and the numerous modifications it went through to become popular all over Carnegie Mellon. During this period, faces that were winking, smiling without noses, and with mouths wide open in shock were created from the original colon-dash-parentheses smiley.
It was going to take a while for emojis to become popular in the United States.
In the mid-decade of the 1990s, a Japanese cell phone corporation, NTT Docomo, added a diminutive black heart to their pagers. However, it was not until 1997 that SoftBank, a Japanese company, released a collection of 90 characters of emojis loaded onto a mobile phone model, but the graphics lacked popularity until 1999 when Docomo offered a 176-character selection.
It was 40 years ago that Scott Fahlman created what is thought of as the initial emoticon. Nowadays, there are thousands of emojis, although the development of digital expression continues to evolve.
In 2010, tech giants such as Apple and Google requested that Unicode, the organization that sets international technology standards, took on the job of standardizing emojis. This was the turning point in the global adoption of emojis outside of Japan.
As the standardization of Unicode’s emojis has provided a set of explicit instructions for new designs and user submissions, the initial days of this process included some questionable inclusions, such as the middle finger character.
In 2011, Apple made an official emoji keyboard available to users outside Japan, which is thought by many to be the moment that these characters truly entered the American online vernacular. By 2015, the Oxford Dictionary even deemed the face with tears emoji to be the word of the year. US users still list this emoji as their favorite according to an Adobe research study.
Emojis and What May Lie Ahead
As we look to the future, it is clear that the use of emojis is going to be a big part of our digital lives. It is an interesting thought to consider what the future of emoji use holds. Although 3,000 may not be sufficient, the same principle applies to emojis as with language—they have developed over time.
Every September, Unicode releases an updated collection of emoji after evaluating submitted ideas and considering popular trends.
Over time, Unicode has been called out for its deficit of representation concerning race, gender, sexuality and disability in its earlier collection of emojis. This led to the introduction of five skin tone choices in Emoji 2.0 in 2015 and two gender choices for professional roles in Emoji 4.0 in 2016. Additionally, accessibility emojis and gender-inclusive couple emojis were added in 2019.
The consortium counts on people in the subcommittee and those who use emojis to move the keyboard forward. Unicode’s Emoji Subcommittee has been a strong supporter of emojis that are more inclusive. They are advocating for the incorporation of inclusive design practices among different businesses, so that a police officer emoji sent from a Samsung device is not seen by an Apple user as a male policeman.
There are currently thousands of different emoji to pick from yet the primary purpose remains the same as it was four decades ago: to bring a grin and some laughter.
Fahlman is a Professor Emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University (that means he’s officially retired, but still affiliated) researching AI and its applications, and has lectured across the globe about his emoticon invention. “I’ve accepted the idea that this will be the first detail mentioned in my obituary,” he mused. “But it’s amusing to become well-known for something small like this.”