How Emojis Work

The ABCs of Emojis

emoticons emoticons
This keyboard shows examples of emoticons, pictures made by using keyboard characters or letters :-) KEIJIRO KOMINE/Getty Images

Emojis are not the first human effort to add emotion to text. That honor goes to emoticons, which blend a variety of the characters found on your keyboard to create a visual representation of a facial expression such as :-) or :-( for a for a happy face or sad face, respectively. Emoticons have been around in the computer world for decades, alerting message recipients to the presence of sarcasm or sadness or irony.

Emoticons have an actual start date. On Sept. 19, 1982, a computer scientist named Scott Fahlman proposed on Carnegie Mellon University's electronic bulletin board that posters put a smiley face with a colon, dash and parenthesis if their comment was humorous. This was to prevent some all-too-common misunderstandings and ensuing arguments. The practice soon spread to other colleges and then to the wider world [source: Steinmetz].

Of course, people were scrawling smiley faces in hand-written letters way before that. Some historians even point to a 1648 Robert Herrick poem titled "To Fortune," in which the writer seems to have purposely included an emoticon in one line: "Upon my ruins, (smiling yet :)." If that's not a clever bit of technological divination, we don't know what is [source: Madrigal].

Emojis are simply an evolution of the emoticon. They're icons in place of ASCII or alphanumeric characters or punctuation, colorful pictograms standing in for older, boring monochrome manifestations.

It all started in 1995, when a Japanese company called NTT DoCoMo introduced two little icons — a phone and a heart— that users could send via its fabulously popular Pocket Bell pagers. The phone icon indicated that you wanted to talk on the phone, and the heart, of course (hopefully) denoted affection of some type [source: Ford].

Later in the '90s, DoCoMo streamlined its pager offering, ditching the cutesy icons, which were a distraction from its business-centric product. Japanese teenagers fled DoCoMo for a competitor, Tokyo Messaging, which did offer icons. It didn't take long for DoCoMo to realize it'd driven off one of its vital customer bases [source: Blagdon].