Smiley Talk

Jan 4, 2010

Conversing via electronic means has exploded in the past decades. In 2008, 11 billion text messages were sent each day worldwide. That figure is dwarfed by the estimated 269 billion e-mails sent daily in 2017 (PDF). The sheer volume of these one-dimensional messages explains why we believe that the role the emoticon, or “smiley,” plays in electronic conversations is vastly misunderstood and undervalued.

Smileys can unleash a torrent of emotions, as they’re designed to do. Each day, these little conversation helpers add a dash of humor, sadness, or spiciness to trillions of typed words. Not surprisingly, there are those who oppose the use of emoticons, like Mary Williams who describes the emoticon as “the rimshot of online communication” in her Nov. 30 Salon article, Death To Smiley.

Yet as the global drums of chat beat louder, there’s no question that the use of emoticons will only grow. “Smiley creep” is already evident in studies that report that a quarter of students have used smiley faces in their schoolwork, as a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in partnership with the College Board’s National Commission on Writing discovered in 2008.

And about a third added that they had used text shortcuts like “LOL” for “laughing out loud” in their schoolwork. Emeritus Executive Director of the National Writing Project Richard Sterling believes that as the English language evolves some of these e-mail conventions may well become accepted practice.

How could one fight the rising chat tide? While only 22% of online users took part in chat rooms or online discussions with other people, according to a Sept. 2005 Pew Research study, equal to 300 million users worldwide today, that finding preceded the global explosion of social networks where the common coin is social interaction.

So how many people use emoticons or smileys in their online communication? One can safely assume that the most engaged IMers, e-mailers and texters, or the top three quintiles (60%), use emoticons to express feelings, often in profound ways.

A 2007 survey of 40,000 Yahoo! Messenger instant-message users supports our belief: 55% reported they used emoticons daily. And that usage will only grow is underscored by the fact that 40% of respondents said they first discovered emoticons within the past five years.

According to Wikipedia, text messaging is the most widely used mobile data service, with 74% of all mobile phone users worldwide, or 3.2 billion out of 4.3 billion subscribers at year-end 2009 being active users of the Short Message Service (SMS).

Assuming a 50% duplication between Internet and mobile phone users, we estimate that the global number of emoticon users has surged beyond 1.8 billion. And that estimate is conservative, given that Asians are perhaps the biggest users of emoticons as Apple’s forced addition of smileys for the Japanese iPhone market suggests (and based on our own Tencent QQ forays).

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These legions of users can thank Carnegie Mellon University Professor Scott Fahlman who first suggested the use of emoticons in 1982 in this now legendary e-mail:

19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman : – )
From: Scott E Fahlman

I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:

: – )

Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark
things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use

: – (

Fahlman was preceded some 20 years earlier by Harvey Ball who designed the now ubiquitous yellow smiley face in 1963 for an insurance company seeking to raise employee morale. It took him 10 minutes to create the design, which earned him a $45 design fee. By the 70s that yellow smiley symbol had become an international icon, securing a place in pop culture forever to the point of being mocked in a Saturday Night Live skit.

You know emoticons have arrived when they form the basis for a person’s dismissal. In a now legendary dispute, Wal-Mart fired Julie Roehm, a marketing executive, after it discovered a February 2006 e-mail in which Ms. Roehm told Sean Womack, another another Wal-Mart executive, she was smiling because “I am so happy you are here with me. :))).”

In 2007, the U.S. milk industry’s iconic “milk mustache” campaign wandered into the world of smileys when it introduced the world’s first branded emoticon, which added a curly bracket, {, to the classic smiley face : – ) to arrive at :-{) — or the smiley version of its popular campaign.

Yet despite this revolution in social articulation brought on by a simple yet ingenious device, it’s surprising that the ultimate design control freak, Apple CEO Steve Jobs, has let the Mac community be encumbered by some of the ugliest smileys this side of MSN.

To that end, Michael Tchong is about to launch a global initiative that will have you LOLing all the way home. Our overall campaign objective is to drive the point home that smileys are an integral part of the developing online social dialog.

To that end, we will introduce a two-pronged campaign, spanning from branded messages to t-shirts, that will symbolize our push to give the smiley more respect. We also plan to use smileys to communicate the importance in today’s society of being nice. We hope that this simple push to bring merriment in your lives will encourage you to spread the good cheer.

The other part of the smiley initiative, called EmotiScript, is described below. Please support our campaign. We think it will bring a big to your face.

We have to hand it to Skype. They simply have the best smileys in the chat business. Why is that so important? Because as so many fail to observe, emoticons add an important dimension to online conversation. Emoticons are engaging and isn’t that the point of social engagement?

Yet as we observed in the lead story, it’s simply incomprehensible that Steve Jobs allows Apple to use some of the most unattractive emoticons in the business, save for Microsoft. Apparently neither Bill Gates or Steve Jobs chats very much or they wouldn’t allow this to happen.

Because emoticons can help express so many different emotions, we believe that they form an oft overlooked underpinning of online conversations. To wit, smileys can make us chuckle:

Smilies can cheer us up:

Emoticons can make us sad:

Smilies can make a point quickly:

Your emoticon palette is versatile and getting fancier every day:

Yet, Apple, a computing pacesetter, does not thrill us with these emoticons:

But the biggest challenge is the non-standardization in the smiley lingo. Because smileys often do not adhere to a common interpretation standard, emoticons may result in unexpected emotions in the receiving party. For example, there are four ways to denote a smile: 🙂 or 🙂 or :^) or :o).

Below is a chart showing how the most popular chat programs interpret some commonly used smileys:

29 Commonly Used Emoticons As Interpreted By Leading Chat Programs

Description Text AIM MSN Skype Trillian Yahoo!
smile, happy 🙂 happy smiley
cool B) * sunglasses smiley
wink 😉 joke smiley
big grin, very happy 😀 laughing smiley
surprised, shocked :O smiley
tongue :p tongue smiley
nerd 8-| * nerd smiley*
evil grin ]:)
little devil >:) evil smiley
sad, frowning 🙁 sad smiley
crying ;(
disappointed, bored 😐 smiley
angry, yelling :@ steaming smiley*
hmpf!, undecided* :/
kiss :* kiss smiley
angel 0:) * * smiley
heart (h)
broken heart (u)
lips are sealed 😡
confused smile, worried :S smiley
silly, dazed %)
hung over %
wiped out, partied all night #-)
embarrassed :$ * blushing smiley*
clowning :*)
clowning :o)
party <:o) *
dunce <:|
asking dumb question <:-)
Source: Jan. 2010 *Multiple shortcuts represent same emotion.

We propose the creation of EmotiScript, a chat-independent emoticon language standard — an emoticon “lingua franca” that will result in the correct translation of 100 of the more popular emoticons in use today. Now that’s an idea that will bring a smiley to our face.