Happy Birthday Smiley

Happy Birthday Emoticons!
Everything comes from somewhere. And it’s not always where you might think. For example, computers came about because of looms. Looms were, and still are, machines that could weave loose threads into fabric and the resulting fabric could be used to make clothes which are handy things to have. Especially when it’s cold. What does any of that have to do with computers? Well, weavers wanted a way to keep the designs consistent. So they developed these cards that, when fitted over the spindles of the loom, would allow only certain threads to be worked at certain times. This automated process worked perfectly. It allowed weavers in one part of the country to outsource their work to another part of the country simply by sending them a pack of the cards. The work would be identical as long as the same threads were used. It didn’t take long for smart people to figure out that what was really happening is that data was being stored (the design of the end fabric) and shared. And if you can store one kind of data you certainly should be able to store others. The first uses of these newfangled cards not related to keeping us clothed was a calculating machine. Probably made to count the profits of the weavers. By the late 1800’s machines were used to store census data so that the government could have a real idea of who was where and what they needed. All of these still used the same card types as the looms. In fact it wasn’t until the microprocessor was invented in the 60’s that those cards fell out of use. In other words, a loom worker, called a spinner back in the day, from 1750 could easily have understood the programming of an IBM business computer in 1960. The cards, and their basic purpose, were essentially identical.

A quick aside here; this is the kind of stuff that my old pal Zay Smith used to love when he wrote for the Sun Times. He’s back now, writing for WBEZ’s blog, and he hasn’t lost a step. He’s currently riffing on the impending presidential election and I’ll leave him that as I need to get back to computers.

By the 1970’s computers were starting to evolve into the thinking machines that we know today. But scientists needed to develop a way for humans to interact with them without the cards. They came up with the ASCII system that translated typed messages into numbers the computers could understand and, more importantly, allowed the computer to process those numbers and relate the results in a manner humans could understand.

And with all of that in place, on September 19, 1982, I celebrated my 21st birthday with a young woman named Darlene. Oh, and Professor Scott Fahlman invented the emoticon.

Thirty years ago Wednesday, noted Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Professor Scott Fahlman typed out the first sideways smiley face composed entirely of keyboard characters and posted it to the university bulletin board where — much like the Internet today —the flat text of faceless posts is often misunderstood.

“I propose the following character sequence for joke markers: : – ) (spaces added to prevent it from appearing as a smiley in some monitors) Read it sideways.” he wrote in a post Fahlman recently described to the Independent UK as “a little bit of silliness that I tossed into a discussion about physics.” It quickly spread from universities to the rest of the world, eventually co-opted and evolving into graphic yellow blobs effusing tears or laughter, and tarted up with fashion accessories such as sunglasses and Santa hats.

Fahlman doesn’t care for the evolution. “I think they are ugly, and they ruin the challenge of trying to come up with a clever way to express emotions using standard keyboard characters,” he told the Independent. “But perhaps that’s just because I invented the other kind.”

Or perhaps not. Ubiquitous, much maligned and yet still needed, the emoticon is often much abused — and not just in a graphics sense. Beyond the yellow blobby bastardization, there’s the unfortunate passive-aggressive misuse, in which a smiley face added to the end of a snarky email dares the recipient to take issue with the obvious tone. “Obviously you can’t be mad at anything I’ve typed, because here’s a smiley face!”

Yet, as long as we continue to bring all our issues and baggage to every bit of flat text sent from friend, lover or boss, the unaffected use of the emoticon is still very much needed. There are countless creative variations since that sideways smiley face — and still no need to resort to prefab yellow blobs. On this landmark birthday, lets return to the simple keyboard character composition and give emoticons the respect they deserve.

Now, I know that there are three people who read this who are going to point out that variations of hieroglyphics have been used to confer the emotional states of authors since before Jesus walked the earth.

That is 100% true and 100% meaningless. None of them survived to make it into use in modern times and none relate to computers. There is not a hue and cry for ankh based emoticons.

So, while Professor Fahlman may not approve of the graphic representations attached to his pristine code, where would society be without them?

Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG (FOX! Sports) every Friday around 9:10 AM.

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