Emoticon turning 25: Thank this guy :-) … or not :-(

When the emoticon — known by some as the “smiley face” — turns 25 years old on Sept. 19, the man recognized as having typed the first one intends to mark the occasion with a cookie.

When the emoticon — known by some as the “smiley face” — turns 25 years old on Sept. 19, the man recognized as having typed the first one intends to mark the occasion with a cookie.

In the meantime, Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Scott Fahlman will brace for the inevitable parade of press inquiries, entreaties from emoticon enthusiasts and brickbats from emoticon critics, most notable of whom (to Fahlman, at least) is the entertainer Penn Jillette. The anniversary has already inspired an emoticon contest at Yahoo.

I recently had a pleasant e-mail chat with Fahlman in which he speaks of how his “invention” has brought him fame, not a red cent, and a meeting with his favorite author, Neal Stephenson, who in a 1993 essay eviscerated emoticonists, including Fahlman, only to retract that assessment a decade later. What follows is an edited transcript of my chat with the Father of the Smiley:

Hi Scott: … Do you ever get tired of these interviews? :-)

Yes, but our university public relations people love them, and I’m happy enough to go along. It’s a weird thing to be famous for, but it’s nice to be famous for something.

Do you use emoticons? If so, when?

Yes, I use the two that I invented, :-) and :-( , in e-mail messages, plus occasionally a couple of others such as the winky face, ;-). I don’t like the noseless variants, :) and :( . I think they look like frogs, though I might prefer them if I did a lot of text messaging on a cell phone — one less character to type the hard way.

For some people, making up really complex smileys is a sort of hobby — you know, things like “Uncle Sam, Santa Claus, and the Pope being eaten by a python” — but I’ve never been into that and never use these. If you have to explain what the thing is, it’s not really helping with your communication — at least, not in the same way.

Are you going to celebrate the 25th anniversary in some fashion?

I think we’ll have a little local party for the Carnegie Mellon computer science community. There’s a local restaurant chain, Eat ‘n Park, that (by pure coincidence) is famous for their round smiley-face cookies. For a few dollars extra, they are willing to make me up a special batch of these with the face drawn on sideways. :-) So we’ll probably serve a bunch of those.

We thought briefly about having some sort of symposium to mark the occasion, inviting a lot of experts on online communication and semiotics and the history of writing systems. That would be fun, but I didn’t want to spend the time to make this happen — I’m trying to focus on my own research in artificial intelligence. (Fahlman leads the DARPA-funded RADAR project.)

I’m guessing you never turned a buck off of your “invention” (correct me if I’m wrong). How do you feel about that today when so many make so much off so little?

No, I never made any money off of this, and never tried to. It’s my little gift to the world. Anyway, I don’t see any way to make nontrivial money from this. If there were some practical way in which I could charge people a few cents every time they used these symbols, nobody would use them. As far as I know nobody else has made any serious money from this idea either, so I don’t have to feel regret.

Emoticons seem to engender intense vitriol in some. Has any of that ever been directed at you?

Not really. As I discuss on my Web page, some people who encounter this phenomenon for the first time tend to go a bit crazy for a while, just like people who discover that you can include multiple colors and fancy fonts in an online document. They generally settle down after a while, but until they do, these people can be annoying to those of us who have been using this stuff for many years, and who try to use them sparingly — and also to those writers who see no need for smiley faces in the first place.

I find this overuse amusing, but some people, such as the magician and TV personality Penn Jillette, are more inclined toward apoplexy — I don’t know if the outrage is real or feigned. But so far nobody has attacked me in person for spawning this idea, and most acquaintances who know about this think it’s kind of cool.

I’m so disappointed to hear that about Penn Jillette; he’s a favorite of mine and I always considered him more reasonable.

Well, it’s his job to be outrageous, opinionated and colorfully obnoxious — not reasonable. I’ve never met the guy. Perhaps he’s a nice guy in person, though I doubt it — but I do find him interesting and I enjoy his shows. I think Teller is the brains of the outfit, and (as far as I know) he has never said anything nasty about smileys. :-)

I’ve never taken the time to track down the exact Jillette quote, but I’ve seen lots of second-hand attributions like this: “Penn Jillette [...]recently wrote that emoticons are ‘used by people who would dot their i’s with little circles and should have their eyes dotted with Drano.’ “

If that’s how he feels about random users, I shudder to think what he would do to the guy who started this.

On a happier note, Neal Stephenson, who is currently my favorite author (I’m about 3/4 of the way through his 3,000-page Baroque Trilogy — brilliant work!), wrote a magazine piece denouncing emoticons and their users, mentioning me by name.

A couple of years ago he visited Carnegie Mellon to give one of his very rare public talks, and I got an appointment to meet with him. We had a great conversation — not awkward after the first 30 seconds. Later I noticed that he had posted a retraction of his earlier opinion, though I’m not sure if that was a result of our chat. So, for me, that was maybe the most fun and interesting exchange to come from all this.

Any final emoticonish thoughts that you’d like to share?

It has been very interesting to watch the infectious spread of the smiley face and the “turn your head sideways” principle from my first message, through the local research community, on to other universities, and then around the world as the Internet spread into people’s homes.

Now, 25 years later, radio signals with :-) and :-( should be passing by some habitable star systems. But even if there is intelligent life out there, and even if they are receiving our signals, what will they make of :-) and :-( ?

They probably don’t have faces.

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