Closeup of emojis on an iPhone

  The Surprising History of Emoticons: A Fascinating Journey  , You probably know them, even if you don’t love them.

They appear on social media and in text messages – how else would you share yours Wordle result without revealing the solution? — and have even infiltrated advertisements and work emails. In 2015, The Oxford Dictionary chose one as his “word” of the year.

We are talking, of course, about emoticons.

Colorful icons are excellent substitutes for those things that are sometimes lost in text communication: emotions, body language, tone of voice. And with more than 3,600 to choose from in Unicode standardemojis have become somewhat of a language of their own.

How did we get here then? As it turns out, there is some debate surrounding the creation of the first emoticons.

Read more: Why was the alphabet invented anyway?

Emoticons vs emoticons

In the beginning, emoticons reigned supreme.

These digital facial expressions are created from the symbols already found on a typical keyboard; type in a colon, dash, and parenthesis, for example, and a smiley face will look back at you.

Scott Fahlman, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, is believed to be the first to link these characters together. On the school’s online bulletin board in 1982, he advocated the use of smiley and sad face emoticons in emails to add emotional context and prevent miscommunication.

Little did Fahlman know, however, that such emoticons would later explode in online chat rooms—and eventually serve as a precursor to the emojis we know today.

Read more: Why is texting so stressful?

Who invented emoticons?

A quick web search will confirm that Japanese phone operator Docomo is generally credited with the first known set of emoticons. Created by designer Shigetaka Kurita in 1999, these 176 images consist of a 12 by 12 pixel grid.

Kurita’s goal was to make communication on Docomo’s new mobile internet platform easier and more stylish. So he focuses on colorful, information-rich symbols: weather phenomena, hobbies, modes of transport and numbers.

But another Japanese operator known as SoftBank (J-Phone at the time) actually beat Kurita by two years. In November 1997, SoftBank released its SkyWalker DP-211SW mobile phone — complete with the world’s first built-in set of emoticons.

Although this set offers 90 different emoticons, including an early iteration of the “a pile of poo” emoticons later popularized by Apple never reached the level of fame achieved by Kurita’s set.

For one thing, these 12-bit predecessors only came in one color—black—and perhaps left consumers wanting more. However, in the end, emojis were associated with a high-priced phone that ended up being a failure.

The Unicode standard

Over the next decade, emojis gained popularity among companies outside of Japan as well. But when it came to adoption across a range of different platforms, one big hurdle stood in the way.

Since computers work with numbers, each character in each language must also be “encoded” or represented by a specific numerical code. There used to be hundreds of different encoding systems, which led to a lot of translation problems between different computers and servers — and suddenly emojis faced the same problem again.

So, in 2007, Google petitioned the Unicode Consortium, a non-profit Silicon Valley organization dedicated to standardizing text in all modern software products, to also recognize emoticons. Two years later, Apple engineers Yasuo Kida and Peter Edberg joined the initiative, presenting their own proposal for Unicode to accept 625 new emoticons in its library.

This proposal was adopted in 2010, paving the way for any company – from Google and Microsoft to Facebook and Twitter – to create their own version of emoticons without fear of being unrecognizable to another operating system. Emoji had officially gone mainstream.

Future emoticons?

Of course, we’ve come a long way since the original 625 emoji offering. If you are looking for a troll, an empty jar, or three beans, you’re in luck. The Unicode Consortium adds new ones to its library every year, with the next expected release currently scheduled for September 2023.

Although there is a distinct lack of celebrities, deities and brand logos in the Unicode standard, this is not due to a lack of corporate support. Taco Bell lobbied for the taco emoji, while Tinder pushed for the interracial couple emoji. The boots? Thanks to Timberland. The cup and the germ? GE.

Ford spent over $100,000 lobbying for truck emojis, and Bill and Melinda Gates advocated for mosquito emojis as a way to promote discussion about mosquito-borne diseases. In truth, anyone can submit a proposalas long as they are prepared with a prototype of the emoji and an explanation of its potential use.

But before you hit the drawing board, remember that you can’t please everyone. In a 2012 interview The Independentemoticon pioneer Scott Fahlman dismissed our modern emoticons as ugly, adding that they “ruin the challenge of trying to come up with a clever way to express emotion using standard keyboard symbols.”

That’s what we say :-(.

Read more: Are facial expressions universal?

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