Emoticon Inventor Marks Web's Birthday With A :-)

October 29th marked the 40th anniversary of the Internet. We'll talk with Scott Fahlman, the computer researcher who invented the virtual smiley face, about how emoticons and abbreviations have changed electronic communication.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

A week ago, we marked the 40th anniversary of a momentus event, the first message sent over ARPANET, which later became the Internet. That moment was just the beginning of what would become a tidal wave of cyber communications, email, newsgroups, social networking. And as anyone who's ever typed a few word message in all caps and received a tearful reply knows, electronic communication is often misunderstood. Enter the emoticon.

In 1982, the colon, dash, parenthesis combo made its first grin. And today we'll talk to the man who brought that little bit of fun to our computer screens. We also want to hear from you. How have you used this technology? Abbreviations, emoticons, capitalization. How do you relay your tone in your electronic communications? Does it work? Does backfire? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Scott Fahlman is a research professor in Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science, and he joins us today from WQED in Pittsburgh. Welcome to you.

Professor SCOTT FAHLMAN (Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science): Hi, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Now, I want to just stress here: Your career has included much more than the moment that you made this electronic little smiley face. But how do you�

Prof. FAHLMAN: Yeah, that was an interesting 10 minutes of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: But let's take you back to that 10 minutes. Can you tell us how it all came about in 1982?

Prof. FAHLMAN: Sure. Well, in those days the networks were quite primitive. There were maybe half a dozen universities and half a dozen companies wired together in what was called the ARPANET. We had email internally and we had just begun to send email from one university to another. And the other thing we have is what called bulletin boards. They were like newsgroups or chatrooms now.

And one of them that Carnegie Mellon had was called the Opinion B Board(ph), which was the everything goes forum - anything goes. And there'd be all sorts of discussions on there. There was a lot of nerd humor, as you can imagine, being all computer scientists.

And there was a long discussion about what would happen if, like, there were a bird in the elevator and the elevator went into freefall, and what would happen if somebody had a lit candle, you know, would it go out in freefall because there's no - circulation of the air is different. Or what if you had a pool of mercury on the floor of the elevator and again it went into freefall? One guy's theory was that it would bunch up into a sphere and therefore rise up off the floor as you're plummeting.

LUDDEN: This is the geek humor you're talking about.

Prof. FAHLMAN: Well, I think, yeah.

LUDDEN: No, there's a serious side to the questions?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FAHLMAN: No, that was all kidding around late at night.

LUDDEN: Okay. I need an emoticon here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FAHLMAN: That's right. Well, I'm trying to do with my voice, but I'm not sure - but you know, you don't have the tone of voice on the Internet, that was the point. And somebody posted and said, well, you know, you should avoid the left hand elevator in our computer science building now because it's contaminated by mercury and there's some flame damage and some dead birds.

And one of our administrators got all bent out of shape. He said, well, you know, if anybody read just that post and not everything that led up to it, they would think there really was a problem with the elevator and we can't be doing that.

And so we started a long discussion about, gee, maybe as long as this particular humorless guy is around we better mark everything that's meant to be humorous. And how are we going to that? We could put an asterisk in the subject line. And then somebody said, no, the ampersand is much funnier than the asterisk. And so we were trying to think what's the best way to mark something as meaning I'm only kidding...

LUDDEN: So you all had a discussion about how to convey humor.

Prof. FAHLMAN: Yeah. This - yeah. It's actually all on my Web site, you know, if you want to see the actual thread. We dug it up out of our archive tapes.

LUDDEN: Oh, that's great.

Prof. FAHLMAN: But in the course of all this it occurred to me that I wanted to make a smiling face, you know, some kind of little artistic thing out of characters, but you can't really do it in one line with the available characters, unless you turn your head sideways. Hmm. And if you do that, you can do colon, minus and then a paren and you can make it into a smiling face or a frowny face, depending on which way the parenthesis goes.

LUDDEN: A-ha.

Prof. FAHLMAN: And so I wrote a little kind of one-line post and said, hey, you know, we could this to mean I'm only kidding. And maybe with the parenthesis turned toward a frown it means I'm not kidding...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FAHLMAN: ...you know, which people quickly mutated into, gee, I'm really angry.

LUDDEN: And so, when you - I mean, when you saw this take off then and spread, what - I mean, did you expect that?

Prof. FAHLMAN: I thought I might get two or three replies and that would be the end of it, you know. And then it spread through Carnegie Melon. And a couple of weeks later we got a message back from one of our friends on the West Coast and said, you know, it's happening here too. And he had a whole list of these things. You know, guy with glasses, you know, using the using an eight, you know, and two O's for this is message about somebody who left their car headlights on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Yeah, I've seen it.

Prof. FAHLMAN: And - well, you know, the early ones were kind of lame, but suddenly I'm thinking, gee, you know, this might last actually a couple of months, maybe even a year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FAHLMAN: And here we are 27 years later talking about it. It spread through the networked companies and universities that were on the network at the time. And then, of course, that was the edge of the world. It could go no farther.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: And now...

Prof. FAHLMAN: And then gradually, as the ARPANET added more and more companies hooked up with networks in Japan and Britain, and eventually became open to the public as the Internet, every time there was a new population getting email from, you know, seeded by the old guys, this thing spread like a virus. And you could watch it just spreading out from that first message going around the world.

LUDDEN: And...

Prof. FAHLMAN: And the rest is history, I guess.

LUDDEN: Yeah. Here we are today. Well, we're already getting some listeners responding here. I've got an email from Katie(ph) in Knoxville who says: Emoticons are wonderful. It really helps relay true emotion in emails and IMs. It also helps relay sarcasm when it's really needed, smiley face. Thank you for your invention.

Let's also hear from Mark in Willington, North Carolina. Hi, Mark.

MARK (Caller): Hi, there.

LUDDEN: What's your story?

MARK: Well, I just wanted to say that I'm very more aware of using emoticons after an experience with a close personal friend several years ago when I always thought I was being, you know, purposely sarcastic, and she took it as face value, I guess. And it caused a rift in our relationship for a little while until I, you know, expressed to her that, you know, I was trying to be sarcastic. And since then I make that if I use any sarcasm or irony or anything like that, I - you know, I make it clear.

LUDDEN: So Scott Fahlman there - thank you for calling, Mark. Scott Fahlman, an emoticon or a lack of emoticon, I guess, not really working out so well if - it's still - miscommunication is still a problem, isn't it?

Prof. FAHLMAN: Oh, sure. And you know, some people use those, some people don't, some people hate it. People I hear from are about three to one in favor. But I get a certain number of notes from people who think this is just the worst thing that ever happened to human communication too. You know, Shakespeare didn't need this. Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, you know, all did humor, didn't need this thing.

LUDDEN: Yeah. Well, they didn't have a BlackBerry, did they?

Prof. FAHLMAN: No. Most people tossing off one-line notes, you know, it's a different medium.

LUDDEN: Do you have a favorite story of the most inappropriate use of an emoticon?

Prof. FAHLMAN: Most inappropriate use. Well, I'm still waiting to see one in like an international treaty or, you know, something from a lawyer saying we're suing you. You know, if there was a smiley face in there, you wouldn't know what to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FAHLMAN: But you know, it has crept inappropriately, I think, into some serious business communication. But usually people understand that it's for informal communication and not for anything meant to be serious.

LUDDEN: Right. Although these things have a funny way of mainstreaming themselves, don't they? Let's take a call now from Lisa(ph) in Venice, Florida. Hi, Lisa.

LISA (Caller): Hi. How are you? Thank you for taking my call. I just think this is really entertaining because I have this habit on Facebook or emails or text messages of using the dot-dot-dot to convey that I'm pausing, which could mean a number of things depending on, you know, what else I'm talking about. You kind to have to use context clues to figure it out. But it annoys some of my friends...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LISA: ...because it's the way I talk. And they don't like it when I do it when I'm talking. And so, when they have to look at it and read it too, it just drives them insane.

LUDDEN: So it's bleeding back to the popular culture there. Scott Fahlman, dot-dot-dot - I mean, what are some other things that have come out of this whole...

Prof. FAHLMAN: Well, of course, dot-dot-dot is very old. I think that comes from I don't know how far back. Perhaps the first emoticon was the exclamation mark, you know, and that's been around for 400 to 500 years...

LUDDEN: Right.

Prof. FAHLMAN: ...you know, and it's a little bit of text that tries to tell you what the emotion is of what's being said, in this case that somebody's excited. But you know, the smiley face and the frowny face, I think, do serve their purpose, and all the things that have come later. One I did not invent but wish I had is the one with the wink. You know, you use the semi-colon. And those three, really, are the ones that I see. You know, people - there's this whole culture of making up more and more complicated ones that some people do for a hobby. You know...

LUDDEN: I've seen one of Bill Clinton. It's really amazing. It's like - so looks like him.

Prof. FAHLMAN: Well, there's a Ronald Reagan one with the tilda(ph), you know, he had a little pear(ph) sweep. But you know, you see Abraham Lincoln and Santa Clause being eaten by a python, you know. But the ones that people use for - all of those you have to explain what it is and then maybe it's funny or maybe not. But the smiley and the frowny face people get right away usually.

LUDDEN: I'm curious if you have any strong feelings about, you know, emoticons versus you see a lot of all caps abbreviations. You know, the LOL, which I always thought everyone loved me lots but it turns out they're laughing out loud.

Prof. FAHLMAN: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FAHLMAN: I don't know. That more came out of the sort of America Online civilian Internet culture. People enjoy it, great. You know, the ones that I think came out of the sort of computer science culture that maybe has been around a little longer were like IMHL, in my humble opinion, and BTW, by the way. You know, and they're just handy abbreviations.

LUDDEN: Right.

Prof. FAHLMAN: LOL is cute. I mean, people use these things partly to show that they're in the know, you know, they're part of the in-group. They're communicating like real computer people.

LUDDEN: Which is why when we get them and don't understand them, we just don't say anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FAHLMAN: Yeah. And if you use too many of them, of course, what you're doing is labeling yourself as a newbie. You know, it's the opposite of what you're trying to achieve.

LUDDEN: I see. Let me just interrupt here to say you're talk - you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's take another call now. Jeremy is in Fargo, North Dakota. Hi, Jeremy.

JEREMY (Caller): Hi.

LUDDEN: What's your emoticon feeling?

JEREMY: Well, that's the thing. I don't - I just can't bring myself to use emoticons. I don't mind if I get one, but I just can't bring myself to use them. So I find myself having to sort of, you know, modify emails, express tone by either, you know, little parentheticals saying I'm being sarcastic. Or if I'm like in a business situation, I find myself just being exceedingly polite. You know, I sound like I'm quoting letters from an old Ken Burns documentary or something.

LUDDEN: You're being careful not to offend so you don't have to put a little smiley face.

JEREMY: Yeah. I mean, I say things like, you know, sorry for inconveniencing you, or would you be so kind as to - those kinds of things, which are, I suppose, kind of sound pretty obsolete anymore. But...

LUDDEN: Did you have a miscommunication that caused you to do that?

JEREMY: Well, I did one time have, like an earlier caller expressed, an exchange with my closest friend. I think he was just being sarcastic or something and - but you know, we - the temper of email and things like instant message, they're so easy that I think we have this impression in our heads that it's like a telephone conversation or almost like a face-to-face encounter. So we type the way we're talking and we just sort of - we hear it in our heads as sounding one way but it just - it's impossible to convey through text.

LUDDEN: Hmm.

JEREMY: And emoticons is a great innovation, but I just - I can't bring myself to actually use them, so I use other conventions, more old fashioned ones, I guess.

LUDDEN: Jeremy, thanks for calling. Scott, is there an overuse? Is there a point where these are just overused?

Prof. FAHLMAN: Oh, absolutely. You know, some people, when they first get on a computer, it's magical that you can have any font you want and you can have 16 colors on the same page. And they go nuts for a while and it's painful to read what they're sending out. And emoticons are the same way. You know, I think if you're using more than a couple a day, you know, you're probably getting on people's nerves.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Now, Scott Fahlman, I want to ask you, I understand you - back in the earliest years of the Internet, you were working with people like Martin Minsky when this was all beginning. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like back then, you know, creating this new form of communication?

Prof. FAHLMAN: Well, the AI lab at MIT is where I did my graduate work, artificial intelligence lab, with Marvin Minsky, and you know, a bunch of very brilliant people. And that was a really high-pressure, high-powered but crazy and fun place. There were graduate students who were working away during the daytime doing serious stuff and then the hackers would show up at night. Hackers in those days didn't mean criminals. It meant guys who were very, very good at doing amazing things on the computer.

And there was this whole culture of people who would come in and do, you know, just suddenly the operating system had a new capability because the hackers had been in at night and added stuff. And then when I came to Carnegie Melon as a faculty member, you know, the Internet was - the ARPANET was up at that time and we were - I had been using email all the way through graduate school, but locally. And we were just beginning to communicate with other universities and with companies and so on.

LUDDEN: And did you ever - we just have a few seconds left, but did you see what was ahead? Did you have a sense of what would become?

Prof. FAHLMAN: I kind of knew the Internet was going to be important if it penetrated the rest of the world. I did not see the Web and the browsers and all those things. If I had, I'd be a millionaire.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: And speaking of, I understand that despite your claim to fame with the emoticon, you didn't get a lot out of that, financially speaking.

Prof. FAHLMAN: You know, if it cost you a nickel to use it, nobody would use it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FAHLMAN: So that's my little gift to the world.

LUDDEN: Well, we thank you for it. Scott Fahlman is a research professor in Carnegie Melon School of Computer Science. In addition to inventing the smiley face, he studies artificial intelligence and its applications. He joined us from WQED in Pittsburgh.

Thank you so much.

Prof. FAHLMAN: Thank you.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.