Scott E. Fahlman

From Emoticons To The Future Of Communication

The inventor of the emoticon, Research Professor at the Language Technologies Institute and Computer Science Department, Carnegie Mellon University

The sideways “smiley face” or emoticon has become an internationally recognized symbol.

One could argue that there’s no-one on the planet that hasn’t used it or at least seen it at a certain point. Today, the inventor of this global phenomenon works as Research Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in the exciting field of AI.

Back in 1982, you proposed using 🙂 as a joke marker, and soon Smiley literally took over the world. Where did the idea for emoticons come from?

A number of us were discussing how to mark posts meant to be humorous – not to be taken seriously.  Someone proposed putting an asterisk in the subject line of such posts, but nobody would have known what that meant.  It occurred to me that a little smiling face in the subject line would be a good way to indicate this, but how could we do that in a single line of characters?  At that time, we had only upper and lower-case English-language characters, numbers, and some punctuation marks.

The first thing we needed was eyes, but how could we do that?  I looked all over the keyboard.  The colon character would make good eyes, but unfortunately, it was sideways on, so that’s no good…  and then it occurred to me that if the reader turned his head sideways, you could make a nice smiling face like this:  🙂 So I suggested using this for “I’m joking” and  🙁  for “This is serious”.

The Smiley-emoticon story is a good one, along with all the other stories that brag about CMU’s achievements in AI and Robotics, and the fact that 48% of our incoming undergraduate students in Computer Science are women, compared to less than 20% nationwide

Did you expect that emoticons would have such a huge, viral success?

Not at all. I thought that it would amuse a dozen or so of my friends who were taking part in that email discussion, and it would all be forgotten in a day or two. I didn’t even save a copy, and we had to make an archaeological search 20 years later to find a copy of the message on our old backup tapes stored in a warehouse.

Nowadays, we use a lot of emojis, as well as more and more stickers (e.g. in messaging apps). In a way, they all came from the original emoticon. But do you like what emoticons have “mutated” into?

If people are having fun with emojis and stickers and so on, that’s fine with me.  Personally, I find most of the graphic versions ugly, and lacking the whimsy and creativity of the text-based ones.  But perhaps I’m biased.  🙂

Have you heard of bitmojis? A bitmoji is an app that lets you make your very own avatar that becomes your personalized emoji. Do you think it’s a cool idea?

No, I’ve never heard of them.  Again, if people have fun with this, that’s fine, but it doesn’t sound like a cool idea to me.

First, there were emoticons, then emojis, bitmojis… What do you think comes next?

It seems strange to me that people are still using any of these things.  If I want to send someone a smile, it’s now easy to send them a little smiling selfie, perhaps even animated, or a picture of some object.  In the future, maybe even a hologram.  Why settle for a limited set of yellow circles and piles of … whatever it is?

Do all these new emojis, bitmojis and shiny new things make you feel a bit nostalgic about the good old sideways “smiley face”?

Well, those are the only ones I use, plus sometimes 😉 or 😛 or :-O.

Some of what we write, especially in business, is very stereotyped.. Even a very shallow AI can produce this stuff. But Shakespeare and J.K. Rowling are safe for the time being

Back in the days, it all began with the “smiley face” 🙂 and “frowny face” 🙁 Soon, people started making their own variations, for example, using the figure eight for a smiley face with glasses 8-). Do you like how you initiated all this creativity as well?

I like many of those that are text-based. But they serve a different purpose from the simple smiley and frowny faces.  Most of the more complicated ones have to be explained to people, and then they think they are funny.  But these are not useful for communication since people often can’t guess what they mean.

There was a certain challenge in making emoticons out of the standard characters we get on our computer or mobile phone. Maybe this challenge was good for our creativity. Do you think we are being less creative now when everything is ready-made for us in the form of emojis or stickers?

I think that making meaningful symbols out of a limited character set does take a little bit of creativity, while yellow circles take almost none.  But in any case, we’re not talking about Michelangelo-level creativity here.

Besides being famous for the sideways “smiley face”, you’ve worked on many different projects related to artificial intelligence. How do you feel about the state of AI nowadays? Do you think there’s a big new revolution going on?

Right now, progress in AI is faster than it has ever been before, so it is a very exciting time in this field. This is the result of a slow accumulation of good ideas, mixed with much greater processing power than we had in the past, and the huge amount of data that is easily available on the Web. Suddenly those things have reached a critical mass, and have exploded with lots of exciting applications.

But most of the current AI gold rush lies in what we might call the sensory-motor areas of intelligence: recognizing patterns and performing simple physical actions. We still have a long way to go to match the common sense or language abilities or flexible planning of a human child.

AI is also a trend in messaging. For instance, some e-mail clients now suggest pre-written e-mail replies, and there are different chatbots being used more and more. It sure is good for time efficiency, but is it as good for communication?

Well, some of what we write, especially in business, is very stereotyped. Even a very shallow AI can produce this stuff. But Shakespeare and J.K. Rowling are safe for the time being.

Universities are traditionally seen as high-pressure, serious places, while Carnegie Mellon, the birthplace of the emoticon, where you still work, embraces emoticons and the joyful side of its story.  There is even a Smiley award. How do you feel about this?

The PR people at CMU, like PR people everywhere, love “feel good” stories.  The Smiley-emoticon story is a good one, along with all the other stories that brag about CMU’s achievements in AI and Robotics, and the fact that 48% of our incoming undergraduate students in Computer Science are women, compared to less than 20% nationwide.

So the emoticon story is just one among many. It has been fun for me but hasn’t helped my academic career, and it shouldn’t.

It feels a bit strange to be better known for a silly message I wrote in ten minutes than for my 40-plus-year career doing cutting-edge AI research. But I’ve made my peace with that – it’s been a fun ride.

Emoticons are used everywhere, but has some student ever handed you a research paper with Smileys in it? Would this be a good idea? Maybe we need more emoticons in scientific papers too – or not?

My students often use emoticons in email messages to me.  We’re not very formal around CMU.  But I do remind them that proper emoticons should have noses – the 🙂 and 🙁 versions look like frogs to me.

People often ask me if emoticons are appropriate in journal articles or in business letters. I say that they are appropriate whenever other forms of humour would be appropriate – maybe in some intra-company communication if the company is not too formal, but probably not in international treaties, lay-off notices or obituaries – except maybe for mine.  🙂

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