The Web smiley's motto: Grin and bear it

For 25 years, the emoticon has been a mainstay of Internet culture. But are there frowns in its future? Photos: Emoticons for every mood

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
6 min read
Author Vladimir Nabokov said in a 1969 New York Times interview that "there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile--some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket."

Now, nearly four decades later, there is just such a typographical symbol-- :-), or :) for the minimalists, and it'd be tough to find a tech-savvy person who hasn't leaned on it. There's also a special typographical symbol for a frown-- :-( -- and one for a cool dude in sunglasses -- B-) -- and one for a wink -- ;-). There's even a typographical sign for wearing a baseball cap-- d=D.

These are emoticons (or emotive icons), the arrangements of letters and symbols that have been inserted into e-mails, message board posts, and instant messages since the fledgling days of the Internet. "Fledgling days," in this case, refers not to the mid-'90s when people were beginning to learn what AOL was, but to the early '80s, when accessing the Internet was largely limited to research universities and defense contractors.

"Originally, people were using these because it was some cool thing and it showed that you were a real expert user of the Internet, that you knew the secret language."
--Scott Fahlman, professor, Carnegie Mellon University

But the Internet is changing, and typing is no longer the only way to communicate online. With the onset of new technologies that facilitate, for example, a more graphic representation of moods, tone and inference, it's arguable that there could be frowns in the emoticon's future.

After all, the phenomenon is about to turn 25--a dinosaur in Web years. The origin of the ASCII smiley face is typically traced to September 1982, when Scott Fahlman, a research professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Computer Science, suggested that the :-) symbol be used in the subject line of an online bulletin board post to denote a humorous or non-serious topic.

"Nobody ever guessed that this would catch on. I certainly didn't," said Fahlman, who is still on the faculty at Carnegie Mellon. But as he recounted, the trend spread, initially to other Internet-pioneering universities like Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and then beyond.

"As the Internet grew, it escaped this little closed community of computer scientists and made it into first other universities, a much larger group, and then out into the general public," Fahlman said. "It's been interesting to see (smiley faces) trickle from place to place, and now it's showing up in postings from Russia and China and all over the world. It's been fun to watch that."

Essentially, the emoticon proliferated along with the Internet itself.

"For people who first get into it, it's like they know the password to the secret club," Fahlman said. But now that emoticons have spread into every niche of Net culture and morphed into myriad (arguably irritating) spinoffs, that sense of exclusivity has lost some of its luster. "It's kind of pathetic when the 'in group' is sort of half the world," Fahlman observed. "But originally, people were using these because it was some cool thing and it showed that you were a real expert user of the Internet, that you knew the secret language."

Of course, the vicissitudes of human taste have it that there's almost guaranteed to be a backlash against any trend, and emoticons were no exception. "I tried to fight (using emoticons) for a long time," confessed C.C. Chapman, vice president of new marketing at the new-media marketing agency Crayon.

Emoticon gallery

"Then I just realized it was easier to showcase emotion (with emoticons)...Sometimes tone, and sarcasm especially, can be taken completely wrong in e-mail depending on who's reading it," he said.

Nevertheless, Chapman acknowledged the presence of emoticon overkill. "I'm glad the super-customization of them went away," he said, referring to the extensive lexicon of representations for hangovers, black eyes or Elvis haircuts. You don't see those used a whole lot these days, Chapman said. "It's reverted back to the simple smiles and frowns."

While simple frowns, winks and smiles have proven to have lasting power beyond their more complex counterparts, emoticons have nevertheless evolved. Most message board and instant-messaging client features now automatically convert them into cartoons or animated faces. AOL, which inaugurated its Buddy List feature in 1996 and the free AOL Instant Messenger software in 1997, has been converting ASCII emoticons to cartoon smileys since 1998, according to spokeswoman Erin Gifford.

"I kind of hate to see that," Fahlman mused. "I think it kind of destroys the whimsy of the original."

Indeed, despite the conversion features (which IM and message board users can, and often do, turn off), the sideways emoticon has become a cultural icon of sorts. In the United States, the smiley is now such a recognizable phenomenon that marketing campaigns have begun to take note. Last year, the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP), famous for the "Got Milk" ads, incorporated a "branded emoticon" into its latest youth-oriented media strategy. It's a smiley face with a milk mustache, or :-{).

"We created a MySpace page that we used to launch our celebrity mustache ads," explained Victor Zaborsky, assistant director of marketing for MilkPEP. "Of course, MySpace allows you to have friends, so we e-mail our friends when a new celebrity (ad) is launching...and then we sign off with the emoticon."

Zaborsky is uncertain as to whether MilkPEP's emoticon campaign will expand its reach beyond teen-oriented online channels--currently its only medium. "It's really hard to tell," he said when asked whether it would expand into offline media or target a wider demographic. "The emoticon (campaign)'s only about a year old...It's just a way to fit into what they're already doing and be part of their world."

Funny how a 25-year-old piece of Net culture is still considered the stuff of youth marketing.

But new Internet trends could relegate emoticons to the history books. The culprit in question is none other than the avatar, that customizable cartoon or 3D virtual identity famously used in virtual worlds like Second Life and the newly announced Home from Sony, as well as massively multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft.

Avatars can be tweaked to look like just about anything, and they can be made to express emotions, too. Second Life and Warcraft offer commands called "emotes," keywords that can be entered into the games' text fields and program an avatar to dance like a chicken or pick its nose.

C. C. Chapman, whose company, Crayon, operates a headquarters in Second Life, thinks avatars will see wider use in the future. "I think it adds what's been missing for so long, where all of a sudden you have chats and conversations in a three-dimensional environment where showcasing emotion, excitement or anger is much easier," Chapman said. "It's getting closer to real life."

And virtual worlds don't have a monopoly on avatars anymore. Instant-messaging clients like AIM and Yahoo Instant Messenger now offer customizable (albeit two-dimensional) avatars in lieu of "buddy icons," and one of the trademark features of Nintendo's Wii console is the "Mii channel" that allows players to create virtual likenesses. To top it off, many of these instant-messaging clients are now also offering voice or video chat functions. In comparison, emoticons seem downright prehistoric.

"You're definitely going to see much more convergence of all this media," Chapman said. "You have to. We're getting spread so thin with all these different tools, they're going to have to pull together to interact with each other."

And emote-equipped avatars are largely still a nascent phenomenon just as emoticons were two decades ago. "In Second Life, they're definitely not there yet," C.C. Chapman said. "To get the emotes you want, you have to buy them and plug them in." They just aren't fully integrated into the world, he added. "It has to become a standard part of the application."

Emoticons certainly aren't dead yet. For one, it's already pretty clear that people should never underestimate the power of retro. Just look at all the embedded Flash games of Pac-Man that have popped up in the MySpace profiles of teenagers who were nowhere close to being born when the classic video game first hit arcades.

And then there's the fact that emoticons, however outdated, may have already solidified a permanent spot in Web-surfing and communication habits. "It's become almost a convention," said Fahlman of Carnegie Mellon. "The original reason may have completely evaporated, but I think these things will live on for a little bit longer until e-mail itself goes away and we're all just talking and videoing at each other and everyone's forgotten how to write."

And most of us don't foresee humanity forgetting how to write anytime soon. ;-)