28 (or perhaps 148) Years of Rotating Your Head 90 Degrees

by J.D. Falk
Director of Product Strategy, Receiver Services

September 1982. Italy had won the World Cup in July. Compact discs were available for the first time, in Germany. Things were bad in Lebanon. And on a computer bulletin board at Carnegie Mellon University, emoticons were born.

It all began, according to messages recovered from magnetic tape some twenty years later, with a theoretical physics problem involving a candle and a drop of mercury in a free-falling elevator. Someone replied with a joke about mercury contamination in one of the department elevators, and apparently someone else didn’t realize it was a joke.

This led to a discussion of which character could be used in the future to denote that a message is in fact a joke. Being entirely text-based, they didn’t have much to choose from. *, %, &, and # were suggested before Scott Fahlman came up with ūüôā for jokes, and ūüôĀ for things that aren’t funny.

The idea spread quickly, but there was only so much variation possible. Occasional attempts to use more complex ASCII art within an otherwise textual conversation were usually seen as intrusive and inappropriate. Wikipedia has a lengthy list, many of which I doubt have ever actually been used in conversation.

In the mid-1990s, whenever a newspaper or magazine wanted to show that they’re hip to this new information superhighway cyberspace thing, they’d publish a sidebar with a list of emoticons. I suspect that half of these were made up by whichever copy room intern got stuck with the task, and — perhaps luckily — none of these lists appear to have made it into the freely avaliable online newspaper archives.

As internet use grew and became almost entirely graphical (as opposed to the largely text-based interfaces of the past), so did the smiley icons. It’s not clear which instant messaging program did it first, but now all of them — plus phone text messaging services, web bulletin boards, many email programs, and so forth — automatically turn classic old emoticons into actual pictures.

Icons in messages have gone further in Japan, where emoji supplement the hiragana most easily accessible on mobile devices. As with IM icons, different emoji are available from different manufacturers.

These post-text icons present two challenges for email technologists. The first is primarily a usability issue: when a message display is full of little icons, how can users discern which of the icons are actually relevant to them? There’s a skull and a cup of coffee where the subject line should be, a little key and a book next to it, an envelope off to the side, a green star that sometimes turns red…do any of them mean anything at all?

Usability experts would tell us that “the speed at which the average user can deduce an icon‚Äôs function from the image is directly proportional to the speed at which the design team can agree on what the ideal image for that function should be.” In other words, if you have to put a lot of thought into it, so will your users — when all they really want to know is what their friend is saying.

And that’s the other challenge, not just for technologists: figuring out what newer, ever more obscure emoticons like o-+ are trying to convey — even when translated into a picture. Me, I have no idea — which is why I personally prefer to use a somewhat more obvious method of conveying emotion in text: *shrug*.

There’s another part of the story which didn’t fit easily into this article. According to an article from the New York Times last year, it is very possible that Abraham Lincoln’s typesetter used ūüėČ to convey laughter and applause.

Lincoln himself was later immortalized in the rarely-used ==|:-).

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