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The year was 1982, and Scott Fahlman had grown tired of geeky scientists who never got the joke. A member of a vanguard group of computer experts involved in the earliest online newsgroups, the Carnegie Mellon University researcher participated in e-discussions on topics as diverse as abortion and campus parking. Many in the newsgroup, he found, had caustic senses of humor, but without the benefit of facial expressions or vocal cues to indicate irony, their sarcasm was sometimes mistaken for spite.
So he proposed in a newsgroup that posters use a digital smiley face, :-), and a virtual frown, :-(, to clarify the tone of their messages. Fahlman was pleasantly surprised when participants began to use his "smiley" icons to denote emotive tenor.
In the two decades since, the smiling and frowing icons have taken the e-world by storm. Now called emoticons, short for emotive icons, Fahlman's original sideways smiley face sparked the creation of thousands of variations. And they now go beyond expressing feelings, with symbols ranging from bawdy adaptations of Dolly Parton's cleavage to renditions of Dracula with an overbite. There are several emoticon dictionaries and a handful of academics who earn their keep studying the trend.
SOUND AND VISION. Fahlman might not have the first claim to the emoticon. A mysterious Netizen named Kevin Mackenzie is often cited for having first typed a -) symbol, meaning "tongue in cheek," back in 1979. "As far as I know I was the first, but nobody can ever be sure," says Fahlman. And establishing the provenance of Fahlman's emoticon is nearly impossible. He never printed out or saved his famous posting. Nor did he file a trademark. In fact, at the time he didn't think the post was all that important.
How wrong he was. By 1993, computer book publisher O'Reilly & Associates had put out a 93-page print emoticon dictionary compiled by David Sanderson, entitled Smileys. At around the same time, James Marshall, a graduate astronomy student at the University of Maryland, began compiling an online emoticon dictionary, which now has some 2,200 entries. Marshall uses a particularly elaborate example in his e-mail signature: It's half a page line long and is supposed to depict stars and planets with moons, which, he claims "...should appear in 3-D if you cross your eyes."
The popularity of emoticons worked with the rise of instant messaging systems to convince big tech companies to incorporate numerous emoticons into their products to cover everything from anger to horror to surprise. Yahoo!, America Online, and Microsoft Network all offer instant messaging systems with multiple emoticons. And now they're taking them into another dimension. Yahoo!, which features 16 emoticons, is looking into offering them with sounds. MSN, which has 30 separate emoticons including one that incorporates a martini glass, is developing animated emoticons, says Kelvin Chan, MSN chat program manager and MSN's first emoticons designer.
OBSOLETE? Dozens of offline businesses are also taking note of the symbols' ubiquity. In the past five years, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office has received 24 emoticon-related applications, many of which are still pending. Claire's Boutiques Inc., based in Hoffman Estates, Ill., trademarked the original smiley-face emoticon for use in jewelry. Instructions.com, based in Ambler, Pa., hopes to trademark the expression "service with a :-)" for the use in online retail. Deerfield Communications Inc., from Gaylor Mich., wants to trademark "personal service with a :-)" for online customer-service programs relating to software. And MCI Communications has registered to trademark "Is this a great time, or what? :-)" for telecom services.
With all the trademark applications flying around and emoticons well-established in Internet vernacular, it would seem they're here to stay. Maybe not, claims e-mail lingo expert Naomi Barron, author of Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved And Where It's Heading, published by Routledge last year. Baron says emoticons' days are numbered, and "the majority will fade, like slang of a generation."
Perhaps -- but they won't fade quietly. Consider what happened when Despair.com -- a Web site devoted to dark humor -- posted a mock story on the site last January claiming the company would sue anyone using its trademarked frowning face without permission (see BW Online, 4/19/01, "Company Loves Misery").
BILLIONS "SOLD." The gimmick drew a rash of angry e-mails from around the globe. "One warned: "do what you want, but think about! we are millions. and if you make us to criminals, we destroy you!" So Despair.com quickly announced it would "license" its frown face for free. The business "sold" more than 75 billion copies, complete with a two-page mock user's agreement. Some customers "order" millions.
Heady stuff. So how has all this affected Fahlman? Not much. He hasn't made a dime from the craze nor has he tried to cash in on his creation. Throughout the emoticons mania, he has stayed in the same job at CMU, studying artificial intelligence. "I am trying to create something that will have a greater impact than that stupid thing," Fahlman says. Lots of luck ;-).
A short list of emoticons (faces/figures are lying on their sides):
By Olga Kharif in New York