The Smiling Revolution

Prof. Scott E. Fahlman
Prof. Scott E. Fahlman

What did you have in mind when you sent the first emoticon, known by some as the smiley face, on September 19, 1982?

Fahlman: The short version is that we had an “anything goes” online bulletin board that had a mixture of serious discussions and attempts at humor. Sometimes people would post sarcastic remarks and others would take them seriously and become upset. So we were looking around for a very concise way to say “I’m only kidding”. We were limited to a single “subject” line of ASCII characters, so it was a difficult problem. I realized that if you turn your head sideways, the characters 🙂 made a very recognizable smiling face, so I suggested that. And it all took off from there. This is the story in a nutshell. It is explained at great length on my Web page.

What will you do to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the emoticon?

Fahlman: We’re having a little party here at Carnegie Mellon. We’re hoping that some of the students, staff, and faculty who were here at the time, but who have since moved away, may be able to join us.

Which emoticons do you still use today?

Fahlman: I use the symbols I proposed, 🙂 and 🙁 a few times a day, and occasionally some others, such as 😉 for a sly wink. I think that those serve a useful purpose − at least, they do for me. I don’t use the “noseless” versions, such as 🙂 and 🙁 − to me they look too froglike.

Would you share your favorite emoticon story with us?

Several members of my family have been successful businessmen. They used to jokingly consider me the black sheep of the family for going into something as impractical as artificial intelligence research. So guess which member of our clan was the first to get his name on the front page of the Wall Street Journal − for a completely silly accomplishment. 🙂 And now I’ve had my face in the Style section of the New York Times − about as unlikely an event as you can imagine.

Did you ever imagine the popularity that emoticons have achieved?

Fahlman: It was surprising that this idea took off at all, surprising when it spread into the living rooms of non-technical people, and surprising that the text smileys are still in use in this age where we can so easily send complex graphics and video messages to one another.

In your Web site you were talking about the Digital Coelacanth Project. Could you describe the significance of it?

Fahlman: The coelacanth is an ancient kind of fish − a “missing link” in the evolutionary record − that was thought to have been extinct for millions of years. And then, in 1938, fishermen in South Africa caught a live one. Something similar happened with the board post in which I originally proposed using 🙂 and 🙁 symbols. It took me about ten minutes to write, and I never dreamed that it would be the start of something big and long-lived. So I didn’t save a copy or even make a note of the exact date. It disappeared. By the time we realized that the smiley was growing into an international phenomenon, and that the original post had evaporated. A few attempts were made over the years to find the post, and the surrounding thread of messages, on our backup tapes, but with no success. In 2002, Mike Jones, who was here at the time of the original post and who later moved to Microsoft, decided to mount a serious “archeological dig” to find that old post. He knew a lot about how our department’s tape backup system was organized, and he offered to pay any expenses that were run up in searching for this information. Jeff Baird, with help from many members of our current support staff, was finally able to find the old post, and the result is on the Web page mentioned above. This was a big effort: they had to find the old tapes, then find an antique tape drive that could read those tapes and software to run those tape drives.

How emoticons have evolved over the years?

Fahlman: Well, the text emoticons that people actually use in messages have not evolved much. The Japanese have come up with a different style that does not require turning your head: (*_*) and so on. Some people take great delight in inventing and collecting very complex smileys – there are thousands of these − but they are not used much in actual messages. And, of course, the graphical and animated smileys have come along. Some companies have made a business of creating thousands of these. The real evolution has been in the way that these things are used. Originally confined to the “techie” culture, they now are more common in messages sent by the general public.

Yahoo Messenger asked recently 40,000 users about their emoticon usage. They found out that more people find it easier to convey love through emoticons rather than saying it in person.

Fahlman: It all seems very strange to me. I’m not part of the online instant-messaging culture, and I really dislike those animated graphical emoticons − I think that the challenge of making a picture from the limited ASCII character set was part of the fun. But the high-school kids seem to be having a really good time with this, and if I helped to cause that, that’s fine.

What are you currently working on?

Fahlman: My real job is to do research in artificial intelligence. I think that the great missing element in current AI systems is the ability to store and effectively use enough knowledge to develop some degree of commonsense. That requires knowing millions of facts about millions of things. My students and I are working on a knowledge representation system called Scone that will soon be released as an open-source software package. We believe that this can be used as a component in many applications, ranging from improved search engines to self-configuring computer systems to understanding English text.