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Culture

In search of the smiley face

Yale University scholar Angus Trumble traces the development of the phenomenon from early Greek times right up to the age of cyberspace.

William Shakespeare and Mark Twain may never have needed emoticons, but textual smiley faces have grinned, smirked, and grimaced their way into today's e-mail and instant-message conversations.

The text-based smiley face appears to have been invented by Scott Fahlman, a research professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. In a post to a university discussion group in September 1982, Fahlman proposed the crucial insight of using a colon-dash-parenthesis, viewed horizontally, to signify humor.

Since then, the textual smiley face has woven itself into the fabric of Internet culture. It has become de-hyphenated and lost its nose. It has gained the power to denote affection and defuse arguments. Today's instant-messaging clients from America Online and Yahoo go beyond textual limitations to offer thoroughly nonsmiley options, like purple horned demons and green frowny faces.

In his new book, "A Brief History of the Smile," Yale University's Angus Trumble traces the development of the phenomenon from the stilted masklike expressions in early Greek sculpture to the yellow smiley face and its Internet counterpart. CNET News.com recently spoke with Trumble, the curator of paintings and sculpture at Yale's Center for British Art, about his book and his research.

Q: Authors and poets have managed to do without smiley or frowny faces to express subtle emotions. Are Internet users just lazy?
A: It is a very good question. What did people do before emoticons? What did people do before little signs like kisses and hugs? The crosses and zero marks were first used at the end of English correspondence in the mid-18th century. I think the answer is that we are a society of writing creatures in constant search of a convenient form of shorthand.

Could you briefly tell me the history of the smiley face? Your book said that it started in the 1960s.
What one might call the canonical smiley--the yellow disk with the upturned, crisply shaped mouth and the two black dots for eyes came into existence simultaneously in various places in the 1960s.

This would have confused most people in the course of human history.
But it was anticipated by very many kinds of graphic devices with a round shape and a similarly simplified face. Sunkist brand oranges, for example, had cardboard boxes printed with a logo in the 1930s that was very smileylike.

Obviously, in most cases, the product and the shape of the product dictated the form of the emblem, but in one case in the 1960s, the smiley took the form of a button, which was invented by the subsidiary office of a large insurance company to reassure the staff about the prospects of the company's future expansion.

Initially, that badge simply had the upward crisp-shaped line of a smiling mouth--and no eyes. They quickly realized that the whole meaning could be reversed by wearing the button upside down. So the eyes were added.

You argue that smiles have become more accepted over time, a departure from the old antismile prejudice that someone is "all eyes and teeth." What changed?
I think that the two most important developments that changed everything in terms of the exchange of smiles today were the revolution in the standard of dental hygiene, care and surgery through the 19th century and into the 20th, and the invention of photography and later of motion pictures.

Both of those (were key) separate developments, one of which relates to the infrastructure of the face and the other to the way people could see images of faces. In the mid-19th century, in Victorian England, for example, smiling was on the whole unacceptable. It certainly had nothing to do with what polite people did in conversation or in social situations.

Faint smiling was thought to be what nice people did. Smiling with your mouth open was thought to be at best improper. One's teeth were generally pretty terrible, and of course the impression that people got of facial beauty had absolutely no relation to the condition of their teeth. For example, Queen Victoria's prime minister, Lord Palmerston, was the very first person to be called tall, dark and handsome, even though he had prominent teeth missing because of horse-riding accidents.

Your book talks about how a smile can represent wisdom, lust or desire. There's Mona Lisa's famous smile. But now, smiles are being used as punctuation marks. Is that too one dimensional?
You just have to pick up a magazine or take any sample of any electronic medium, motion picture or television to get a vast catalog of bright, sunny smiles.

I was amazed to see the other day an evolutionary smiley that has three eyes.
It has become for us a symbol of health and happiness. We are also prepared to see people with wide-open mouths as beautiful. This would have confused most people in the course of human history.

You may be the world's leading expert on the smile. Do you use smiley faces in your own e-mail?
I have only just commenced doing this as a method of drawing attention to my publisher that I need to speak to him. I would have to say that I do not, normally. I started to notice it and have become more and more aware of it as I started working on this book.

Why did you decide to write your book?
It started its life as a presentation to a conference of dentists. The idea of giving a formal talk to a scientific meeting of hundreds of dentists was absolutely terrifying, but in fact, it was very warmly received. The radical techniques that surgery--you know, shoring up and coloring and restructuring bones in the face, the head, the skull, the jaw--can now achieve means that there is this huge set of options for patients who choose to renovate their face.

You're well read on the psychology of the smile. Do you think people who use lots of smiley faces in e-mail are happier? More fun to be around?
I think not. It is a little bit like people who overuse exclamation marks. You tend to react with complete skepticism. I may be a cynical middle-aged Australian--but if at the end of a message in which I am asked for something, there appears a little smiley, I tend to react negatively. But obviously, if one receives a message from a person that one knows and loves and that person is in the habit of using a smiley to sign off, one obviously reads these things completely differently.

This runs to the issue of the psychology of smiling. We might choose to read the smile in the face of the person we fancy as a definite sign of encouragement. Whereas in fact, what we really ought to be reading is sort of faint pity or a sign that the person is tolerating this for the time being but cannot wait to leave the room.

Smiles are used in social situations as a kind of conversational lubricant. Does the same thing happen online?
That's definitely changing. I was amazed to see the other day an evolutionary smiley that has three eyes. What's that all about? Who would understand it, if he got that attached to an e-mail? I do not know. I think I probably would think that the writer was insane.

People with too much time on their hands have invented textual smiley faces, in which colons and dashes and other symbols are used to create ASCII images of Ronald Reagan or Marge Simpson. Some of those people claim that their ASCII images are art. As a professional curator at an Ivy League institution, what do you think?
That is a very complicated question. I look after a collection of old master paintings and sculpture, and I therefore stand in relation to the Internet in a rather odd way, because what an art museum gives to our visitors is--in the age of the Internet--increasingly unique. The encounter with a unique handmade object is becoming more and more unusual. Many young people seem to have an attitude about our collections, saying that if a scanned photograph of a painting is made available on the Web, that's a close approximation of actually coming into direct contact with the object. I have a problem with that.

On the other hand, reassuringly, artists are now, of course, creating work entirely within the context of the Internet and online. We would be foolish in art museums not to pay attention to and to watch what is going on. Artists, as always, are moving ahead of the rest of us, in terms of using the idea of visual arts and the Internet, and creating new art with it. Museums are followers, not leaders. Generally speaking, with a few mediocre exceptions, artists are leaders and not followers.

Is Yale planning on including any text-based ASCII art or smiley faces in its collection any time soon?
There is absolutely no reason why we should not that I know of. We have a collection of certain CD-ROMs, and we have certain computers making digital prints--which are gradually making it possible for artists to produce art as well as prints by much easier and cheaper means. These are invading our collections in all sorts of interesting ways. The further we go down this path, the more exciting the range of meanings derived by the new art and the old.