Tape Backup Reveals First-Ever Use Of The Humble Smiley

If youive ever wondered where the text smiley face came from, information published by a Microsoft researcher reveals that the first-ever recorded use of the well-known smiley face appeared on a Carnegie Mellon bulletin board post, and that the smiley will celebrate its twentieth birthday this Thursday. The post shows that on September 19th, 1982 one Scott E. Fahlman suggested that grin could be used to denote a joke. Fahlman goes into detail on his own Web site:

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.

This problem caused some of us to suggest (only half seriously) that maybe it would be a good idea to explicitly mark posts that were not to be taken seriously.?? After all, when using text-based online communication, we lack the body language or tone-of-voice cues that convey this information when we talk in person or on the phone.? Various ?joke markers?? were suggested, and in the midst of that discussion it occurred to me that the character sequence grin would be an elegant solution ? one that could be handled by the ASCII-based? computer terminals of the day.? So I suggested that.? In the same post, I also suggested the use of? :-(? to indicate that a message was meant to be taken seriously, though that symbol quickly evolved into a marker for displeasure, frustration, or anger.

Retrieving the post from its tape backup was a hefty task, with Carnegie Mellon staff and students working their way through collections of tapes and narrowing down the field. The thread containing the post was finally discovered on September 10th.

You can read all about the retrieval effort at Mike Jonesi Web site, and find more detail in Scott Fahlmanis account.

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