Insert a smiley here

When the emoticon — known by some as the “smiley face” — turns 25 years old on Sept. 19, the man recognized as having typed the first one intends to mark the occasion with a cookie.

I recently had a pleasant e-mail chat with Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Scott Fahlman, in which he speaks of how his “invention” has brought him fame, not a red cent, and a meeting with author, Neal Stephenson, who in 1993 eviscerated emoticonists, including Fahlman, only to retract that a decade later. This is an edited transcript:

Q:Do you use emoticons? If so, when?

SF:Yes, I use the two that I invented, πŸ™‚ and πŸ™ , in e-mail messages, plus occasionally a couple of others such as the winky face, ;-). I don’t like the noseless variants, πŸ™‚ and πŸ™ . I think they look like frogs, though I might prefer them if I did a lot of text messaging on a cell phone — one less character to type the hard way.

Q:Are you going to celebrate the 25th anniversary in some fashion?

SF:I think we’ll have a little local party for the Carnegie Mellon computer science community. There’s a local restaurant chain, Eat ‘n Park, that (by pure coincidence) is famous for their round smiley-face cookies. For a few dollars extra, they are willing to make me up a special batch of these with the face drawn on sideways. πŸ™‚ So we’ll probably serve a bunch of those.

Q:I’m guessing you never turned a buck off of your “invention” (correct me if I’m wrong). How do you feel about that today when so many make so much off so little?

SF:No, I never made any money off of this, and never tried to. It’s my little gift to the world.

Q:Emoticons seem to engender intense vitriol in some. Has any of that ever been directed at you?

SF:Not really. As I discuss on my Web page, some people who encounter this phenomenon for the first time tend to go a bit crazy for a while, just like people who discover that you can include multiple colours and fancy fonts in an online document. They generally settle down but until they do, these people can be annoying to those of us who try to use them sparingly. . . I find this overuse amusing, but some people, such as the magician and TV personality Penn Jillette, are more inclined toward apoplexy — I don’t know if the outrage is real or feigned.

Q:I’m so disappointed to hear that about Penn Jillette; he’s a favorite of mine and I always considered him more reasonable.

SF:Well, it’s his job to be outrageous, opinionated and colorfully obnoxious — not reasonable. Perhaps he’s a nice guy in person, though I doubt it — but I do find him interesting and I enjoy his shows. I think Teller is the brains of the outfit, and (as far as I know) he has never said anything nasty about smileys. πŸ™‚ I’ve never taken the time to track down the exact Jillette quote, but I’ve seen lots of second-hand attributions like this: “Penn Jillette […]recently wrote that emoticons are ‘used by people who would dot their i’s with little circles and should have their eyes dotted with Drano.’ “ If that’s how he feels about random users, I shudder to think what he would do to the guy who started this. On a happier note, Neal Stephenson, who is currently my favorite author (I’m about 3/4 of the way through his 3,000-page Baroque Trilogy — brilliant work!), wrote a magazine piece denouncing emoticons and their users, mentioning me by name. A couple of years ago he visited Carnegie Mellon to give one of his very rare public talks, and I got an appointment to meet with him. We had a great conversation — not awkward after the first 30 seconds. Later I noticed that he had posted a retraction of his earlier opinion, though I’m not sure if that was a result of our chat. So, for me, that was maybe the most fun and interesting exchange to come from all this.

Q:Any final emoticonish thoughts that you’d like to share?

SF:It has been very interesting to watch the infectious spread of the smiley face and the “turn your head sideways” principle from my first message, through the local research community, on to other universities, and then around the world as the Internet spread into people’s homes. Now, 25 years later, radio signals with πŸ™‚ and πŸ™ should be passing by some habitable star systems. But even if there is intelligent life out there, and even if they are receiving our signals, what will they make of πŸ™‚ and πŸ™ ? They probably don’t have faces.