Why were emojis invented

35 years agoThe invention of the emoticon

:-) and :-( - when you put your head on the side, these characters look like little faces: These character combinations are called emoticons. From emotion, feeling, and icon, image. Emotional image. Their inventor is the American computer scientist Scott Fahlman, who is researching artificial intelligence at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when his university was just joining the ARPANET - a network only used by the US military and universities that did research for the military .

"Since we were a group of scientists, there was a lot of computer nerd humor."

On one of the new forums on the network, Scott Fahlman and his colleagues were chatting one night joking about an allegedly contaminated elevator at their university.

"Maybe people are turning their heads"

"One of our administrators showed up and said, 'This is not funny. What if someone sees this message and thinks there is really a contamination or security problem?' We said, 'Oh man, as long as this guy is here, we have to label anything that is not serious.' "

Inventor of the emoticon (picture-alliance / dpa / Scott E. Fahlman) Scott Fahlman thought of the T-shirts and balloons with the yellow, smiling faces from the 1960s. A smiley like that would be perfect, he thought, to quickly express humor or irony and to avoid misunderstandings.

"First you need eyes to make a face. So I looked at the keyboard and there was the colon, just stupid that it was lying sideways. But maybe people would turn their heads."

Then there was the hyphen and the closed bracket for the happy face or the open bracket for the sad face. So Scott Fahlman invented not only a mark for humor, but also for seriousness in the new digital chat.

"So I wrote a little post on September 19, 1982, thinking what a stupid post! I didn't even have a copy saved."

The emoticon mainly replaces the voice

But the emoticon quickly spread to American universities. Then, with the advent of the Internet, in the global scientific community. And finally, when computers found their way into "normal" households in the 1990s, the face of writing appeared in everyday digital life.

Although the emoticon consists of the word "emotion", explains Erika Linz, linguist at the Department of Intercultural Communication at the University of Bonn, it actually doesn't just express feelings:

"There is a new kind of comment function that is created. You practically always comment on your own statements."

The emoticon does not replace facial expressions and gestures in the digital text, as is often assumed, but rather the voice that makes it clear in the spoken language how a statement is meant.

A universal smile

The emoticon - and its Japanese further development, the emoji, i.e. colorful symbols that are used in social media - are merely written or visual elements of our communication. So they don't change our spoken language, only the written one.

"It actually only appears in certain positions in the sentence, primarily at the end of an utterance. That is why there is also the theory that it often takes on a punctuation function like this, a structuring function."

Just as punctuation marks have only been used over the centuries to better structure texts, for Erika Linz emoticons and emojis are a complement to language, a step in the constant change in our communication.

"First and foremost, I would see it as a positive enrichment, where it is also very exciting to see how it will develop further and how it will be used more and more creatively. And it will by no means lead to an impoverishment of language."

Fahlman stays true to the emoticon

Twenty years after Scott Fahlman invented the face of writing in nighttime chat, he finally found the long-outdated data carrier on which his historical mail was stored. At the time, the emojis were already in circulation. But Fahlman sticks to his faces made of punctuation marks.

"It's a pure smile. If you make a face out of it, is it a Caucasian face, a male or a female? You'd have to have different images for blacks and whites. But mine is just a smile. It's universal."

His favorite emoticon was added a little later. It's the winking one - with the semicolon eyes.