The sideways “smiley face”, often referred to as the first emoticon, turns thirty years old today. Scott E. Fahlman came up with the idea during a bulletin board post on September 19, 1982 as a way to mark a thread as something that shouldn’t be taken seriously. His use of the character sequence is the first recorded use, although verifying it after so many years took a lot of detective work.
Text-based communication lacked the body language or tone-of-voice cues given during traditional face-to-face or telephone calls which made it difficult to determine if someone was being sarcastic in a post or reply or if they were truly serious in their remarks. Fahlman’s smiley face proposal quickly caught on with board users at Carnegie Mellon University and soon spread to several other universities and research labs via primitive computer networks.
Unfortunately by the time that Fahlman realized the trend was catching on in a big way, he wasn’t able to retrieve the original board post and believed it was lost forever. But in 2001, Microsoft employee Mike Jones sponsored an “archeological dig” through old backup tapes in an effort to locate the original thread. After six months of digging, Jones and his team located the correct backup tapes, found the necessary hardware to read the media, decoded the format and ultimately located the original thread dated September 19, 1982.
The original thread and some other posts using the emoticon were reproduced and are now online for all to enjoy.