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TRENDING SCIENCE: The emoticon officially turned 40

The first emoticon was posted to a message board in September 1982.

Fundamental Research

Forty years ago, at 11:44 a.m. on 19 September, Scott Fahlman, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, made internet history with just a few keystrokes. Little did he know that a colon, a hyphen and a close parenthesis would change the way we communicate.

Precursor to the modern-day emoji

To prevent people from getting into fights online, Prof. Fahlman looked for a way to convey emotion, particularly sarcasm, on the university’s closed access bulletin board (present-day internet forum). His post read: “I propose that 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 :-( ” “Somebody would say something that was meant to be sarcastic. Among many readers, one person wouldn’t get the joke and would respond with anger, hostility, and pretty soon the initial discussion had disappeared, and everybody was arguing with everyone,” he told ‘CNN Business’. “When you’re on a text-only internet medium, people can’t tell if you’re kidding or not. There’s no body language, no facial expressions.” Emoticons evolved into emojis, but not before Microsoft’s Wingdings in the 1990s. The first emojis were created by Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita and released in Japan in 1999. New York’s Museum of Modern Art houses the original 176 emojis.

Quirky visual characters here to stay

Emojis continue to remain popular because we love visual stimuli and they admirably fill in for body language. According to Unicode, the global encoding standard, there are over 3 600 emojis used by 92 % of the global online population. The face with tears of joy emoji remains the most popular. Did you know that this iconic emoji was named the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2015? For the first time ever, the word was in fact a pictograph. “They offer things that words aren’t saying. They clarify that when you say ‘okay,’ what kind of okay is that?” explained Jennifer Daniel, head of the Emoji Subcommittee for the Unicode Consortium that manages emoji standards. “The things we do naturally face-to-face, like our body language, our intonation, our volume, eye contact.” “What you’re seeing across the board in terms of the most popular emojis that are used are amusement or humor or affection,” added Keith Broni, editor in chief of Emojipedia. Prof. Fahlman looks back on his creation and the enduring fascination. “I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that whatever my accomplishments are in artificial intelligence, this is what’s going to be the first sentence of my obit. But it’s fun to be a little bit famous for something.” Surprisingly, the father of emoticons told ‘HuffPost’ years ago that he wasn’t a fan of the emoji: “I think they are ugly, and they ruin the challenge of trying to come up with a clever way to express emotions using standard keyboard characters. But perhaps that’s just because I invented the other kind.”

Keywords

emoticon, emoji, internet, body language, face, joke, emotion