“Where Did Emojis Come From?”

Excited Emoji

Artistic rendering of an Excited Emoji.

By Scott Hamilton

Did you ever wonder where the idea for the emoji originated? This week I want to go into a little history lesson about the cute little faces and symbols we all tend to use to convey emotions on text messages.

It all started at Carnegie Mellon University in 1982, before the public Internet. A gag about a mercury spill was posted to an online message board at the school, which sent panic across the campus. As a result of the confusion caused by the gag, Dr. Scott E. Fahlman suggested that jokes and non-jokes be marked by two sets of characters. These sets of characters became known as emoticons, the first two of which were the smiley face 🙂 and the frowning face :-(. After this first appearance, the use of emoticons became a big hit among ARPANET users.

I have written several times in the past about the history of the Internet, but in case you have not read, ARPANET was the pre-cursor to the Internet. When at its peak, it contained around 5,000 computer systems in government facilities and universities before expanding to include the general public. The step between ARPANET and what we now call the Internet was a system called Usenet, where users could post content in topic-specific newsgroups. It was in one of these news groups called FidoNet that the acronym “LOL” made its first recorded appearance on May 8, 1989.

FidoNet was like a bulk e-mail, but it was spread across the world by Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), which was a network of computers linked by phone lines used to spread messages to the world. BBS systems were really only popular among the most tech savvy individuals in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the May 8, 1989, edition of the newsletter they described the growing number of acronyms and emoticons in use in the day. Most of them are still in use today aside from a few like ODM (On de move) and LTNT (Long time no type), which never really caught on.

Among some of the more popular emoticons were 🙂 (the smiley), 😉 (the wink), 😀 (the big smile), *) (the kiss) and 😛 (sticking out your tongue), which have grown into the modern day Emoji. Of course it would be impossible to describe all of various emoticons and emojis without using an entire book. My favorite part of the source article on FidoNet was the signature, “I hope this makes for more colorful communicating. Just remember the quote from Alex Bell (no relationship to the famous Bell) ‘Anything that can be said in a few words, isn’t worth saying and should be forgotten.’ Don’t blame me I didn’t say it.”

To read the full original post from FidoNet you can visit the very interesting site http://neal.fun/internet-artifacts/earliest-lol. The site was put together by the very talented Neal Agarwal in an attempt to capture the nostalgia and history of the early Internet.

I remember being on ARPANET at West Virginia University where it was my first real experience with the Internet. I had run one of the public BBS systems prior to attending the university, but being able to view files on other computers around the world without having to directly dial phone numbers associated to the system was amazing to me. I remember visiting the first chat rooms in the early 1990s and being amazed that we could type real time messages to large groups of people, and never imagined that one day we would be having multiparty video calls on the Internet.

So now you know a little more about the history behind those cute emojis that have even starred in their own major motion picture. Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.

Scott Hamilton is an Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to shamilton@techshepherd.org or through his website at https://www.techshepherd.org.

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