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The humble emoticon has gone through an amazing transformation during the past few decades, initially being used in universities, becoming popular with teenagers on phones and finally making it into the mainstream. From work, to schools, to websites and social media, the little faces of joy appear to be everywhere, but how did it all happen?

It’s easy to associate emoticons with mobile phones, but they were actually in use long before phones became popular. Research Professor Scott Fahlman was the first person to suggest using characters arranged as a sideways face to express emotions.

Scott proposed the use of a series of markers for online bulletin boards at Carnegie Mellon University during the early 1980s. With sarcasm and humour often proving difficult to detect in text, Scott wanted to explicitly mark posts that were light hearted, resulting in :-) for humorous posts, and :-( for posts that were meant to be taken seriously.

An explosion in emoticons

Scott explains on his website: “Within a few months, we started seeing the lists with dozens of “smilies”: open-mouthed surprise, person wearing glasses, Abraham Lincoln, Santa Claus, the pope, and so on.”

The smilies spread to other universities, and within a couple of years other cultures were also starting to embrace emoticons. People in Japan started to use characters to emphasize emotions during the mid 1980s. Their emoticons differed a lot, with (^_^) replacing :-), and faces always appearing upright. China and South Korea have since adopted their own styles, with a number of hybrid variations appearing around the world.

Emoticons have become especially popular with younger people on their mobile phones during the past decade; keeping messages quick, short and sweet. Even popular handsets like the Nokia 5110 could only offer monochrome displays, low pixel counts and simple support for text and characters during the 90s, however.

Better screens and actual smiley faces

By the start of the next century, mobile phones like the Nokia 6100 were already sporting more advanced screens, boasting a far higher pixel count to go hand in hand with the introduction of colour. As with computers, it was only a matter of time before pictorial representations were introduced, with genuine smiling faces, frowning faces and other emoticons now a possibility.

Japanese culture has been influential in the rise of images in place of characters, with ‘Emoji’ (‘picture, in Japanese’) resulting in a whole subset of different icons and tiny pictures, including everything from small penguins to sharks and other animals.

Although designed for Japanese mobile phones, Emoji has proved surprisingly popular in Western countries as well, with the code required helping emoticons to appear in Windows Phone 7 devices like the Nokia Lumia 800, the iPhone and on Apple’s OS X operating system.

Becoming ever more popular, emoticons are on Internet forums – with a vast and seemingly infinite amount of different options available – and they’re also popping up on thousands of websites. Print, books and news publications appear to be the last bastion, but it seems like the future definitely involves little faces filled with emotion.

It’s the simple smiley face that still seems to be the most enduring, however. Not a day goes by where :-), :-/ or 🙁 fails to make an appearance on Facebook and Twitter, and many of us are also being bombarded by tiny renderings in work emails.

Scott, in particular, has been surprised by just how many people want to express themselves with his series of characters. He told Conversations: “When I sent that message, I thought it might amuse the dozen or so people participating in the discussion, and that would be the end of it.  I didn’t even save a copy.”
The future

So what’s next for the emoticon? It’s hard to believe the 🙂 has already been around for three decades, but for lots of us it definitely feels like a part of everyday life. We asked Scott what he thought would happen to his creation:

“The 🙂 could die off, but after 30 years, I think it has become a part of our language – though admittedly a small and silly part. As long as people send text messages typed on a keyboard, I think there may be a place for :-). If all that goes away, and nobody communicates informally by written text, then of course the 🙂 will go away as well, along with the exclamation mark and the comma.”