How we make ourselves understood online

In September 2002 a small news item flashed around the Internet. It was forwarded from person to person in private email, posted on message boards, and written up in news services for “techies” all over the world. Its headline was something like “First Smiley Rediscovered”. Mike Jones, a researcher at Microsoft, announced that he had rediscovered the thread (sequence of bulletin board messages) in which the smiley had been used for the first time.

It was first suggested by Scott Fahlman in a post to the CMU CS general bulletin board in September 1982.

19-Sep-82 11:44  Scott E  Fahlman  :-) 

From: Scott E Fahlman <Fahlman at Cmu-20c>

I propose that [sic] the following character sequence for 
joke markers :-)

Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical
to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. 
For this, use :-(

Why is the smiley so important that several researchers had spent six months tracking it down? They located old backup tapes and the hardware to run them, and looked through them one by one, narrowing the date to find the exact sequence of messages, in a series of discussions by Computer Science staff and students at Carnegie Mellon University, in which the smiley was proposed.

Fahlman himself explained why it was needed: “Given the nature of the community, a good many of the posts were humorous (or attempted humor). The problem was that if someone made a sarcastic remark, a few readers would fail to get the joke, and each of them would post a lengthy diatribe in response. That would stir up more people with more responses, and soon the original thread of the discussion was buried. In at least one case, a humorous remark was interpreted by someone as a serious safety warning.”

It is generally considered that 55% of communication is non-verbal body language, including facial expression, 38% is tone of voice, and only 7% is content – the actual words used. The exact figures may be disputed, but it is certain that non-verbal clues when combined with verbal ones have many times as much impact as the verbal clues in face to face communication. So how do we replace these vital non-verbal clues in a text-only environment? How do we express the subtleties of human communication from sarcasm to irony to teasing, with just text to do it in?

Writers have, of course, been conveying all manner of emotions meaningfully in words for centuries, but in the normal intercourse and discourse of cyberspace – email, bulletin boards, chat and other text-based virtual environments – the writers are not normally poets nor do they have the luxury of thousands of words as do prose writers.

Online communications are generally rapid and short and misunderstandings can arise very easily, so quite early on in the development of computer communications technology there was a clear need for such short-cuts and symbols. The smiley was probably around long before 1982, but Fahlman can reasonably claim that it was his use of it that was taken up by the fledgling global online community.

The smiley was only the first emoticon (from emotion and icon), and there are now a wide range of them used as a way of expressing emotions and feelings online. Initially they were based on the simplest characters available to computers, ASCII characters, but now many computer systems including word-processors and Web-based discussion boards automatically replace a typed smiley with a special smiley-face icon (try typing :) colon-close bracket into a Word document – or a WordPress editing window! ).

Fahlman, Scott, “Smiley Lore

Mehrabian, Albert, “Silent Messages” (1971)