September 19th, 2007

Happy birthday to you, :-) .  At 11:44 am on September 19, 1982, Scott E. Fahlman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University typed you into a chat room, and you changed our world forever. 

There are many famous smiles that have come to gain wide notoriety throughout history.  The Mona Lisa, the smiley face of the 1960s, the Chesire Cat.  But I would argue that none have had the impact of :-) .

Fahlman created the :-) while discussing the limits of expressing humor in online communication.  This was his response:

“I propose the following character sequence for joke markers: :-) ,” wrote Fahlman. “Read it sideways.”

We tell our clients in our media training session that 55% of communication is how you look (body language, expression, etc.), 38% is how you sound (pitch, tone, volume, etc.) and only 7% is what you say.

So Fahlman and his colleagues at the dawn of online communication found themselves without 93% of their means to communicate.  (Today, we still do much of our communications this way.)  They needed someway to communicate tone, sarcasm, pitch, expression without any of those abilities.  So they copied them with simple, easy to write and understand icons.  In some ways, you could say they went back to the days of the caveman – when symbols mattered.  They were able to overcome communications challenges.  They showed that there are many ways to communicate, and it is up to us to figure them out.

Today, emoticons (as the :-) and its cousins are known) transcend the online world.  They’ve made their way onto mobile phones, into the media and in some cases, into corporate communications.  They’ve spawned generations of people who embrace and use symbols to communicate.  And they’ve widened the possibility of expression in all media.

Congratulations to Falhman on 25 years of better communication.  :-)

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