Understanding Emoticons

Doc gives a quick history lesson on emoticons and how they have changed into what we see now. Check it out! :-)
Published: Jan 12, 2006
Author: Michael E, Callahan

This question submitted by Danny Holstein, Brenda Wilson, Alyson Jamison, Arnold Vincent, Kathleen Adamslee and numerous others

From the time people first started working with computers there was a need to communicate with each other. While much can be accomplished while working online, there are certain elements that are lacking. You don't get to see a person's body language, hear their tone, listen to their inflection and so on. Whether we realize it or not, we all depend on subtle cues when we're communicating with others. Working without these cues can sometimes lead to misunderstanding. So, from early on people tried to find ways to convey their emotions.

In the early 1980's computer users adopted a number of ways to make their communications easier. Some of the first chats occurred on bulletin boards where the SysOp (system operator) could force a chat with a user. To know when the other person was done talking, people would put "go" or even "ga", for "go ahead" when they were finished with a thought.

Around this same time people using online bulletin boards and early online networks like The Source and CompuServe came up with ways to convey emotions in their forum messages. Newer users, who have grown up with emoticons don't tend to know about these early methods of displaying emotion. These used angle brackets, the greater-than and less-than signs, but to display them more easily in HTML I've put them in so-called "squiggly brackets." A few of the things that were used included:

  • {G} - Grin
  • {VBG} - Very Big Grin
  • {g,d,&r} - Grin, duck and run
  • {g,d,&r,v,v,f} - Grin duck and run very, very fast
  • IMHO - In my honest opinion

If you were teasing someone in a forum message and were worried that the reader might not understand your joke, you might often put in a "grin" or something else to indicate your humorous intent. Some users also expressed a variety of emotions, usually by displaying the emotion or facial expression with words bordered by colons. Like:

  • :: sigh ::
  • :: smile::
  • :: wink ::

On the Internet today nearly everyone uses what have come to be known as emoticons which stands for "emotion icons." In fact, many e-mail and instant messaging programs include emoticons for easy insertion into messages. I did a lot of searching to try to find the first use of emoticons as we use them today. There are a number of claims as to who used the "smiley face" first, but I'm not going to take sides. :-)

Emoticons have come into such common use that even programs like Microsoft Word recognize them. In all my time online I've come to find that often groups of emoticons are by certain groups of people. For example, people who all frequent one chat room may begin to use emoticons that some of them have created or use frequently. There are now thousands of emoticons, with almost limitless variations. Some include eyes, some include noses and others do not. Just a few common ones include:

  • :-) - Smile
  • ;-) - Wink
  • :-/ - Disappointment
  • :-( - Frown, Sad
  • :-* - Kiss

To find entire lists of emoticons, just do a search on the Internet using the keyword "emoticons." You'll find more emoticons than you know what to do with.The use of emoticons has added some functionality and fun to both instant messages (IMs) and e-mail. Many are now in color and offer cute animations that show blushing, kissing lips and more. All ways to help convey what you're really trying to say when you're dealing in a text medium.

I'd like to thank Danny Holstein, Brenda Wilson, Alyson Jamison, Arnold Vincent, Kathleen Adamslee and numerous others for asking thisquestion.

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About Michael E, Callahan

Michael E. Callahan, known around the world by the trademarked name Dr. File Finder, is regarded as the world's leading expert on shareware. Dr. File Finder works with software programs and developers full-time, and in the average year he evaluates 10,000 programs. Since 1982 he has evaluated over 250,000 software and hardware products. Mr. Callahan began evaluating software online in 1982 and no one has been at it longer. He currently works doing online PR and marketing for software companies, and is the Senior Content Producer for Butterscotch.Com.

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