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Idea No. 101

The Emoticon

In 1963 State Mutual Life hired cartoonist Harvey Ball to create a smiley face for the company’s “Friendship” campaign. He designed a circular yellow face with two black dots for eyes and a simple curve for a mouth. It took him 10 minutes and he was paid $45. In 1970, brothers Bernard and Murray Spain added the line “Have a Nice Day” and sold millions of dollars worth of merchandise. Two years later, Franklin Loufrani gave the face a name and took the “Smiley” to Paris, licensing it to French newspapers to highlight positive stories. Harvey Ball’s design had gone global. When asked if he regretted not trademarking his design, Ball’s response was philosophical: “Hey, I can only eat one steak at a time.”

The first use of the smiley face on a screen was in 1982 at Carnegie Mellon University. Jokey remarks on the computer science department’s online bulletin board were often misinterpreted and a flame war would result. At best, the original intent of the thread was lost. At worst, people were offended. Research professor Scott Fahlman pragmatically suggested it would be a good idea to mark posts that were not to be taken seriously.

The convention caught on and spread to other universities and research centers. The Smiley and other emoticons, like the wink ;-), grin :-D and tongue out :-P were very quickly in common use on bulletin boards across the Internet.

In the mid-’80s, Japanese internet users popularized a style of emoji that did not involve tilting your head, such as (*_*) and (^.^). Other examples include a wink (^_-) and confusion (@_@), while a stressful situation is represented by (-_-;), the semi-colon representing sweat!

When web chat took off in the mid-’90s, emoticons evolved into images. Instant messaging services such as ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger started offering a wide range of icons that could be inserted into text at the click of a mouse. In 1997, Franklin Loufrani’s son, Nicolas created a dictionary of animated GIF icons, based on the Smiley, to replace text-based emoticons. There are now over 2,000 icons in this dictionary and, to the annoyance of many, modern platforms ofter auto-replace text-based emoticons with these animated images.

Of the phenomenon he created, Scott Fahlman says wearily, “I had no idea that I was starting something that would soon pollute all the world’s communication channels.” I like to think that, in his head at least, this statement ends with a smiley face.

Emoji Portraits

Artist Yung Jake draws merges his background as a painter with contemporary internet aesthetics to create portraits produced entirely of emojis.

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