Thursday, April 21, 2016


 'The Story of Emoji' by Gavin Lucas  is right on the button - a smiley button. 

Before language, humans drew pictures and created symbols with which to communicate. These early heiroglyphs and pictograms evolved into a written language of marks that, in turn and over time, became standardised letters and alphabets.

Some 40,000 years after the cave paintings and despite the sophistication of our written language systems, Lucas focuses on the fact that millions of us are still harnessing the potency of symbols, pictograms and ideograms in our everyday communication - thanks largely to a set of internationally recognised symbols,  called emoji -  a term derived from two Japanese words - e for image and moji for character.

Part of this journey from then to now forms the first 50 pages of this narrative. Back in the early days of printing, typesetters developed 'fluerons' or 'printer's flowers' to provide ornamentation on title pages. In a later development, printers used graphic elements that could be combined into typographic illustrations. When type moved from metal to digital, a huge variety of symbols were created as fonts. Typefaces like Zapf Dingbats or Windings allowed symbols and pictograms to be interspersed in bodies of texts.

 Other elements of the evolution towards emoji  include 'expressive punctuation' marks, developed to extend the possibilities of type. This 'percontation pont' (left) was designed by English printer Henry Denham in the late 16th century, to mark rhetorical or ironic questions that require no answer.  In the 1960s, the 'interrobang' - a combination of a question mark and an exclamation point was invented by Martin K. Speckter, the head of an American advertising agency who believed advertisements would look better if these various emotions could be expressed with a single mark. 

Another strand of the story is the emoticon (a portmanteau word and of 'emotion' and 'icon') - a combination of typographic characters that look like a face. The earliest so-far found is from the 17th century. The transcript of an Abraham Lincoln speech from 1862 records the audience's response to Lincoln's droll introduction as "(applause and laughter ;). These examples ( above) were published in Puck magazine in 1881. The  well-known smiley in computer communication was first used by Scott Fahlman in an online bulletin board post in 1982. 

"Never in the history of mankind has a piece of art, so simple and with such a positive message, reached so many people" - Harvey Ball (1921-2001)

Fahlman's emoticon came almost 20 years after the iconic “smiley face” designed in 1963 by American graphic designer Harvey Ball on the occasion of the merger of two life insurance companies - State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Worcester, Masachusett's and the Guarantee Mutual Company of Ohio. Morale was low and Ball was hired to create something that would cheer up the 
employees and could be distributed as buttons and posters. He was paid just $45. Ball never applied for a trademark or copyright and by 1971 more than 50 million smiley buttons had been sold. Frenchman Franklin Loufrani did register the image in 1971 and his son Nicholas now holds the SmileyWorld licence which generates millions of dollars a year. In 1999, Ball created the World Smiley Foundation which sells Smiley merchandise and used the profits to fund children's charities.

The 'smiley face' became a hippy symbol thanks to Bill 'Ubi' Dwyer, organiser of the Windsor Free Festivals. [This handout is from The Generalist Archive]

Fatboy Slim
 Later of course it became the icon of rave and acid house culture. I went round Fat Boy Slim's house to do an interview and kick myself that I didn't get a picture of him in front of the huge glass cases full of Smiley merchandise in his hallway.

The immediate precursor to the emoji came in 1995, when sales of pagers  were booming among Japan’s teenagers. The phone company NTT Docomo’s decided to add a heart symbol to the must-have 'Pocket Bell' devices. This allowed high school kids to inject a new level of sentiment (and cuteness) into the millions of messages they were keying into telephones every day.

Says  Gavin Lucas:  'But when new versions of the Pocket Bell abandoned the heart symbol in favour of more business-friendly features like kanji and Latin alphabet support, the teenagers that made up Docomo’s core customer base had no problem leaving for upstart competitor Tokyo Telemessage. By the time Docomo realized it had misjudged the demand for business-focused pagers, it was badly in need of a new killer app. What it came up with was emoji.'

 A young employee named  Shigetaka Kurita, following the idea of the heart symbol, came up with the idea of  creating simple faces to add tone to textual messages. He assembled a team who produced a complete set of 176 12-by-12 pixel characters that could cover the entire breadth of human emotion. The rest is history.

Lucas quotes Vyvyan Evans, a linguistics professor at Bangor University in Wales, who suggests that 'emoji are the fastest-growing form of language of all time. His research suggests that 72 per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 25 find it easier to express their emotions if they use emoji. Furthermore, 50 per cent of the people in this age group believe that emoji enable them to be better communicators.'

All this is a fascinating story that Lucas tells well but its only half the book. The second section 'Inspired by Emoji' is a wonderful visual cornucopia of work produced by artists and designers around the world. It's inspiring and underlines the global effect these tiny emblems of human emotion have become. They've sprung out of being just communication elements in the digital realm and spread into the worlds of art, fashion and beyond. There's 'the novel 'Moby Dick' rendered entirely in emoji and the main scenes of  the Cohn brothers cult movie'The Big Lebowski' ditto, plus political emoji, rings and cushion emojis, and a set of emojis designed for the World Wildlife Fund to raise awareness about endangered species. This cool and groovy seminal book will find and inspire a wide audience. It makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the history of human communication.

(Left) Illustration created by Takakakura Kazuki using the web app.
(Right) MIND BLOWN by FL@33



Whilst waiting for this book to arrive, I did some research of my own on the web. here's a few interesting additions from Wikiedpia and beyond.

Image result for ambrose bierce
In 1887, according to Houston, the author Ambrose Bierce, best known for his satirical lexicon 'The Devil's Dictionary'  wrote a 'tongue-in-cheek essay on writing reform entitled "For Brevity and Clarity." 'In this, he 'presented a new mark of punctuation intended to help less fortunate writers convey humour or irony, which he called "the snigger point, or note of cachinnation." ("loud or immoderate laughter.") It looked like a line with the ends turned up ( ‿ )  which he wrote, "represents, as nearly as may be, a smiling mouth." Of course, his proposal was itself an ironic act, and unsurprisingly, the mark didn't catch on.'

In a 1936 Harvard Lampoon article, Alan Gregg proposed (-) for smile, (--) for laugh (more teeth showing), (#) for frown, (*) for wink, and (#) for "intense interest, attention, and incredulity".
According to science fiction writer Gregory Benford, emoticons were in use in sci-fi  fandom in the 1940s,
Keith Houston also reports that, in 1967, a Baltimore Sunday Sun columnist named Ralph Reppert was quoted in the May edition of Reader's Digest. Reppert, writing that his "Aunt Ev is the only person I know who can write a facial expression," explained that: "Aunt Ev's expression is a symbol that looks like this: —) It represents her tongue stuck in her cheek. 

Image result for NabokovIn April 1969, New York Times reporter Alden Whitman visited the world famous novelist Vladimir Nabokov  in Montreux  for an interview  shortly  before his 70th birthday. On request, he had sent his questions in advance. One of them was: "How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of the immediate past?" 
Nabokov answered: "I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile – some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.

(^._.^)~ <(o.o )>

The widespread usage of ASCII art can be traced to the computer bulletin board systems of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The limitations of computers of that time period necessitated the use of text characters to represent image."
 See Wikipedia entries: Emoticon, List of Emoticons, ASCII art, 

A colon, followed by a dash, followed by a closing bracket. They resemble a smiley face.

The computer symbol for “not serious” or now more generally “happiness,” made up of a colon, dash and a right parenthesis, was born into existence at 11:44 a.m. on September 19, 1982, when it was posted on an online bulletin board by Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Scott Fahlman.
“If someone made a sarcastic remark, a few readers would fail to get the joke, and each of them would post a lengthy diatribe in response,” Fahlman explained in a post on Carnegie Mellon’s website about the invention of the sideways smile. 
“The problem caused some of us to suggest (only half seriously) that maybe it would be a good idea to explicitly mark posts that were not to be taken seriously,” he added. “In the midst of that discussion it occurred to me that the character sequence :-) would be an elegant solution ... So I suggested that.”
Fahlman also suggested the reverse — what has come to be known as a sad face — by using the other parenthesis marker.
“This convention caught on quickly around Carnegie Mellon, and soon spread to other universities and research labs via the primitive computer networks of the day,” he writes.
“I probably was not the first person ever to type these three letters in sequence, perhaps even with the meaning of ‘I’m just kidding’ and perhaps even online,” Fahlman wrote. “But I do believe that my 1982 suggestion was the one that finally took hold, spread around the world, and spawned thousands of variations.”

Image result for Scott E Fahlman

In a lengthier account about his invention of the emoticon, Smiley Lore, Scott Fahlman writes about the fact that the text of his original proposal had been lost.

'Several attempts to find the post on old backup tapes were unsuccessful. But in 2001-2002 Mike Jones of Microsoft sponsored a more serious “archeological dig” through our ancient backup tapes. Jeff Baird and the CMU CS facilities staff put in a heroic effort ...and they found the proper tapes, located a working tape drive that could read the ancient media, decoded the old formats, and did a lot of searching to find the actual posts. I am most grateful to all who participated in this successful quest, which I call the “Digital Coelacanth Project.”
Here it is:

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


Back in April 1991, I read a review in New Scientist of this book, 'The Telling Image: The Changing Balance between Pictures and Words in a Technological Age.' It made fascinating reading then as it does now - but for different reasons. The original author Duncan Davies died before the book was published and his work was completed by Diana and Robin Bathurst who in the Preface write:
'Duncan Davies saw that great and influential changes are taking place in society as the balance of the means of communication tilts progressive from words and number towards pictures or images....'
'Duncan felt that too few people are aware of either the scale of the speed of this shift in the balance towards pictorial communication, or of the problems posed by the need to store and retrieve pictorial data, or of the possible consequences for the future. Adapting to this transformation would, he believed, require profound modification of attitudes and of the ways in which we prepare the young through education.'

In Chapter 1, Davies wrote the following:
 'There were 250 centuries when we had pictures alone and could not learn how to use them generally and effectively. Next there were 20 centuries when we learnt how to use formalised pictures (pictograms and ideograms) as message carriers. There followed some 15 centuries or so during which clerks made the great leap forward of alphabetic reading and writing. During the next five centuries, reading and writing thrust picture-communication into the background.
'However, over the past one-third of a century, the picture has suddenly and explosively become the main means for 'reading' and learning but not yet the main means for the ordinary person's 'writing'. Not surprisingly, we are reeling from the shock.
'The return of the picture, although it has been the subject of intense political concern and enquiry, has not been thought about or studied at all broadly. We now have a rich array of options for recording experience ideas and messages. We are suffering from indigestion and embarass de richesse. The time has come for a little therapeutic self-discipline.'

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