The smiley and its variants have become part and parcel of our social culture. How extensively emoticons are used to express everything from love to anger to downright disgust

“Will you please answer this question asap?” I keyed in and quickly attached a smiley. The colon-hyphen-parenthesis meme would take the sting out of my attempt to rush the respondent. Just how many words did that one smiley replace?

Born in the early 80s, the smiley has gathered around it a large family of characters expressing everything from love to flirting to downright disgust. “All my friends and I use emoticons extensively,” says Karuna, a 10-year-old. “We shouldn't consider them as part of the written language, but part of the typed language.” The smiley and its (fun?) variants have joined online social culture, conveying emotions in plain text

Scott Elliott Fahlman, computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, known for his work on artificial intelligence is credited as the father of this communication accessory. In a 19-September 82 post on CMU CS general bboard (retrieved by Jeff Baird from a back-up tape of spice vax (cmu-750x), Fahlman wrote: “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 :-( .” He said in a recent interview, “The first line of my obituary is going to mention the smiley face.” If he was keying it in, he would have added a smiley, no doubt.

Thirty and still smiling

Smiley is 30 years old and “never looked happier!” Explaining its birth, Fahlman later wrote: “Yes, I am the inventor of the sideways “smiley face” (sometimes called an “emoticon”) that is commonly used in e-mail, chat and newsgroup posts. Or at least I’m one of the inventors. By the early 1980s, the Computer Science community at Carnegie Mellon was making heavy use of “bboards”… Even in those days, extended “flame wars” were common. The problem was that 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... 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.”

They needed a “joke marker” and Fahlman came up with a character sequence :-), “an elegant solution”, that could be handled by the then ASCII-based computer terminals. He added :-( to indicate that a message was meant to be taken seriously, but that symbol evolved into a marker for “displeasure, frustration, or anger.” Smiley spread to other universities hitching rides on e-mails. Within months avatars exploded, some taking them up as a serious hobby. But the two originals plus the “winky” ;-) remained the most used. Microsoft and AOL turned them into pictures, but “this destroys the whimsical element of the original,” Fahlman remarked.

Questions followed. Didn't Shakespeare, Swift and Twain get along fine without them? Doesn't labelling spoil the joke? Shouldn't we be left wondering if the author is serious or not? “Perhaps the e-mail smiley face has done more to degrade our written communication than to improve it,” Fahlman concedes. But, he points out, not all writers have the literary skills of Shakespeare or Twain. If Shakespeare were thumb-typing a quick note complaining about the lack of employee parking spaces near the Globe Theatre, he might want to use an emoticon rather than saying something intemperate. Also think of the instant firestorm responses the Internet can spawn. “If the judicious use of a few smileys can reduce the frequency of such firestorms, then maybe it’s not such a bad idea after all.”

I asked English teacher Sukanya Goswami if she'd allow emoticons in formal writing. Her students don't use them in educational writing, she said. In fact, she's “never seen them being used in any class.” Emoticons are used effectively in short chunks of writing, as in emails and texts, as our entire thoughts and emotions do not come through in them. And no, we're not moving to hieroglyphics, “but definitely people are becoming lazy. I see it in shorter conversations, shorter writings.” At the same time, she senses weariness for them, even in emails. “People who use them a lot are made fun of now. Their popularity has ebbed, and only a couple are used regularly, at least among adults.”

Footnote: The absolutely original thought about emoticons came from Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita). When asked how he ranked himself among writers, he said, “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile — some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.”

Sample this for conversation in which smiley was invented.

Japanese texters have their own “smiley system.” Examples:

(=_=) bored

m(_ _)m bowing down in apology

(>_<) Ouch!

(9_9) Tired

d(-_-)b Wearing headphones

(^_-) Winking

(;_;) Crying