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

'Net Buzz By , Network World
July 10, 2007 03:52 PM ET

Network World - 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.

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