The worldwide consequences of an annoying joke

Scott Fahlman (Medina, Ohio, March 21, 1948)

In 1982 there was still no internet, no world wide web or google, no e-mail, chat box or sms. The BBS still prevailed, the bulletin board system, a forerunner of today's newsgroups, but with modems and analog telephone lines. In the early days of the computer.

It was on such a BBS that Scott Fahlman launched his idea on September 19, 1982, at 11:44 am to be exact.

In the computer science department of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where Fahlman worked as a "research professor," such a BBS was an important social tool.

A place where professors, teachers and students could communicate on an equal footing about important computing issues.

Most of the messages were serious, others were more like, “I found a ring in the men's room on the fifth floor. Whose is that?' Some of those messages were meant to be ironic, funny, or at least funny.

But then there was always someone who misunderstood this. And gave an angry reply. To which others responded. And so the discussion turned into a mess. Did you have to type the word 'joke' after every joke?

On September 16, 1982, a certain Howard Gayle sent out the warning message that mercury had spilled in the left elevator of the university, that there had been a fire and that you were temporarily not allowed to use the elevator.

Then someone remembered that his high school was closed for a day after a similar incident. It was that dangerous. Everyone got excited. It later turned out to be a joke. Everyone angry.

One Niel Schwartz suggested putting an asterisk between quotation marks after the message in such a case. Someone else liked the two zeros of the percentage sign better.

That went on for a while, until Fahlman came up with his cheerful emoticon: he typed a colon, a hyphen and a close-the-parentheses one after the other and that's how you got a smiling face, albeit turned on its side.

At the same time, he proposed a serious version with an opening quotation mark at the back, downturned corners of the mouth. Which then meant: this is not a joke, this is serious. But soon this second smiley in history took on the meaning of 'angry'.

It's nice to see in the BBS reports from about thirty years ago how everyone invented new signs in the following days. With the rise of the internet, more than ten years later, smileys spread all over the world in an instant.

There is currently a list of up to two thousand smileys. A booklet full.

The words 'smiley' and 'emoticon' are used interchangeably in Dutch today, but the original smiley is of course the round, yellow face with two eyes and a large 'smile' that advertising designer Harvey R.

Ball (1921-2001) signed for an American insurance company in 1963. This served to calm the minds of concerned employees who did not like the merger with another company. He got $45 for it.

He took no rights to the image so that it ended up in the public domain in the US.

The French cartoonist Franklin Loufrani did take rights, who said he invented the figure in 1968 - after the student riots - for the daily newspaper France Soir to highlight positive messages in the newspaper. He founded the company SmileyWorld and had the figurine deposited in a hundred countries.

It is one of the few registered logos that has already grossed more than a billion dollars. The company's 'mission' has the uplifting message: 'Smiley is more than an icon, more than a brand, more than a lifestyle.

It's an attitude of mind.

It's there to remind everyone how powerful a smile is, how much you can change your own life and the life of others with a simple smile.' SmileyWorld also registered 1200 emoticons in one go and concluded 800 license agreements worldwide, including with Mars, Dior, Fuji, Nokia, Samsung, Sony and Tony Hilfiger.

Sixty lawyers ensure that no one in the world uses the smiley faces as a mark without paying SmileyWorld. Neither does Professor Fahlman.

Was Fahlman inspired by Ball's yellow cup at the time? Fahlman: 'Certainly not explicitly. But it undoubtedly played a role subconsciously.

You saw this popping up everywhere in the sixties and seventies.' Fahlman today is a slightly balding man with a large beard who can be seen on his homepage with a big smile, even bigger than those of his smileys.

He is a serious computer scientist who still teaches at the renowned Carnegie Mellon University and writes scholarly texts on artificial intelligence. He almost exclusively uses the laughing version of his invention.

He only uses the angry face if he as a consumer has something to grumble about.

He sees his smiley as a gift to the world: 'Not really a meaningful contribution to world heritage, I think.'
Fahlman fears that his scientific work will be forgotten in a few years, and that he will only be remembered for his computer smileys – trivial in the light of his work.