At 11:44 am on September 19, 1982, Scott Fahlman made internet history by joining a colon, a hyphen and a parenthesis.
Fahlman, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, posted “:-)” on the school’s online bulletin board, a primitive type of social network accessible only by others on the university’s closed, text-only intranet.
With that smiley face, which was dubbed the “first digital emoticon” by Guinness World Records and served as the forerunner of emojis, Fahlman tried to solve a problem familiar to internet users today: conveying sarcasm online.
“Someone would say something that should be sarcastic. Among many readers, one person didn’t get the joke and responded with anger, hostility and soon the initial argument disappeared, and everyone was arguing with everyone else,” Fahlman told CNN business .
“When you’re on a text-only internet medium, people can’t tell if you’re joking or not. There is no body language, no facial expressions.”
Over the next 40 years, later emoticons and emojis became central to our online and sometimes offline conversations. There are over 3,600 emojis available for users to express all their emotions and effectively solve the original problem Fahlman identified — giving our words a deeper sense of embodiment, whether it’s a waving hand, a crying face, or a curious character using a monocle.
“They offer things that words are not saying. They clarify that when you say ‘ok’, what kind of ok is that?” said Jennifer Daniel, head of the Emoji Subcommittee at the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit that oversees emoji standards.
“The things we naturally do face to face, like our body language, our intonation, our volume, eye contact.”
What started with a few punctuation marks typed on a college message board is now a global effort to expand our digital forms of expression, encompassing Unicode and technology company employees as well as user contributions. But decades later,
The evolution from :- ) to 😂
It didn’t take long for the original emoticon and its many variations to spread beyond Carnegie Mellon. In those early days, blinking faces, noseless smiles, and open-mouthed sighs emerged from the classic colon, dash, parentheses smile.
But it would take time for emojis to catch on in the United States.
In the mid-1990s, NTT Docomo, a Japanese cell phone company, added a small black heart to their pagers. In 1997, SoftBank, another Japanese company, released a 90-character emoji set loaded onto a cell phone model, but the graphics didn’t catch on until Docomo’s 176-character collection in 1999.
Until Unicode got involved that any expansion beyond Japan really took root. Unicode, which sets international technology standards to support different languages, took on the task of standardizing emojis in 2010 at the behest of tech companies like Apple and Google.
While there are now very clear guidelines for new emoji and user submissions, the early days of Unicode emoji standardization allowed for some more questionable options, including a middle finger character.
“This got into Unicode at a time when there were fewer rules,” Jeremy Burge, founder of Emojipedia, told CNN Business. “Today, there are a lot of rules, and they are pretty well documented, and new emojis go through a pretty rigorous process.”
Apple added an official emoji keyboard available outside of Japan in 2011, a milestone that emoji experts credit as the characters’ true entry into the American online lexicon. In 2015, the face with tears emoji (😂) was named the Oxford Dictionary word of the year. This emoji remains a favorite among US users, according to an Adobe study released this month.
“Having about 3,000 little photos that you can include at the touch of a finger is like having 3,000 more bits of punctuation,” said Burge. “So while I think we would have made it without him, I don’t know why you would choose to live in a world where there are no emojis.”
The future of emojis
Even 3,000 might not be enough, however. As language evolves, emoji also evolves.
Unicode releases emoji set updates every September after reviewing submitted proposals and responding to global trends. Version 15.0.0, released on Tuesday, added 20 emoji characters, including a hair stick, maracas, and a jellyfish. (Emoji updates roll out progressively across devices.)
But Unicode has also faced criticism over the years for its lack of representation of race, gender, sexuality and disability in previous emoji sets, leading to the release of five skin tone options in 2015’s Emoji 2.0 and two gender options for professions in Emoji 4.0 2016, according to Emojipedia. Accessibility emojis were added in 2019, as well as gender-inclusive couple options.
The consortium relies on subcommittee members and emoji users to push the keyboard forward. Daniel, the first woman to head the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee and a designer at Google, has been an advocate for more inclusive emojis. She promoted the adoption of inclusive design across all companies so that a genderless police officer sent from a Samsung device is not greeted by an Apple user as a police officer.
While there are now thousands of emoji options, the main usage remains true to the original goal from 40 years ago to add a smile and a little levity.
“What you’re looking at in terms of the most popular emojis used is fun, humor or affection,” Keith Broni, editor-in-chief of Emojipedia, told CNN Business .
As for Fahlman, he uses emojis “very, very rarely.” Mostly, he said, “I prefer text little ones, in part because they’re my babies.”
While Fahlman continues to work at Carnegie Mellon as Professor Emeritus, researching artificial intelligence and its applications, he has lectured around the world on his creation of emoticons and acknowledges the continued interest in it. “I’ve come to terms with the fact that whatever my accomplishments in artificial intelligence, this will be the first sentence of my death,” he said. “But it’s fun to be a little famous for something.”
Source: CNN Brasil