'Smiley' turns 25

The emoticon, now an entrenched part of online social culture, celebrates its 25th birthday this Wednesday

Emoticons — the smiley faces that frequently punctuate emails and instant messages — are 25 years old on Wednesday.

Back in 2002, a Microsoft researcher claimed to have rediscovered what was believed to be the first known instance of an emoticon, or "smiley". The smiley is believed to have first emerged in a bulletin board discussion at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in 1982. Since then emoticons have become an important part of online social culture, making it easy to communicate emotions quickly.

Mike Jones, a Microsoft employee who used to work in the Systems and Networking Research Group at the company's Redmond headquarters, kicked off the effort to find the first smiley. With the help of former CMU School of Computer Science facilities director Howard Wactlar and others, Jones found backup tapes covering the period from 1981 to 1983. Restoring them required a nine-track tape drive and enlisting the help of a number of people to scan through the postings until the smiley posting was found.

In a posting made by Scott E Fahlman on 19 September, 1982, the crucial :-) symbol turned up.

"I propose the following character sequence for joke markers :-)," wrote Fahlman at the time. "Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are not jokes, given current trends. For this, use :-(."

Now the date 19 September, 1982, is enshrined in Wikipedia as the official birthday of the famous symbol. It has joined the ranks of other significant dates in the information revolution, such as the date of the original PC's appearance, August 1981, and the birth of email, which has its origins in 1971.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the smiley, Microsoft and etiquette school The Finishing Academy have come up with a guide that aims to improve our manners in email, IM, and phone messages. 

The guide suggests the smiley is often misused. One of the suggestions is that users should be aware of the confusion that can be caused when using emoticons in correspondence with people from other countries — if in doubt, avoid using them.

And, in an effort to take even more fun out of emails and IMs, the guide also suggests avoiding acronyms, such as "LOL", which can mean "laugh out loud", or "lots of love".