1963 – 1982: Smiley Face, Emoticons, and Japanese Kaomoji 🙂☺︎🇯🇵¯\_(ツ)_/¯


Tyler Schnoebelen, a Stanford linguistics Ph.D., explains that we are only just learning how to convey the speed of talking through written word, without physical contextual clues, and emoji can go beyond representing simple internal states to creating interactive variants and propositions for readers. Furthermore, given that 7% of communication is verbal, 38% vocal, and 55% nonverbal according to a seminal study by psychologist Albert Mehrabian, we are effectively losing 93% of our communicative potential. Even Nabokov, arguably one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, acknowledged as early as 1969 the need for emoji: “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile—some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket.”



And so, before our current assortment of skeumorphic emoji designs filled the void of cold, screen-based interaction, we had the classic Smiley 🙂 An ad man named Harvey Ball created the original yellow smiley face symbol as part of a 1963 campaign to boost company morale for State Mutual Life Assurance Company in Worcester, MA. He was paid $240 for the design and slogan “Have a Happy Day,” including $45 for the rights to the image. The image was never copyrighted by either Ball or State Mutual.

The smiley face symbol was quickly appropriated from early-70s to late-80s acid house culture and soon became a ubiquitous symbol in pop culture. Bernard and Murray Spain, two brothers who owned Hallmark card shops in Philadelphia, sold over 50 million buttons based on the classic smiley design by 1971. French journalist Frank Loufrani registered the trademark as Smiley World in 1972 and launched a smiley T-shirt licensing company which today makes more than $130 million annually.


As with the marginalia of the medieval century, the Smiley’s “fixed facade of childlike contentment (…) was ripe for subversion.” Early political statements using the smiley include the Dead Kennedy’s 1979 album California Uber Alles, with its Nuremberg-style rally with Smileys instead of swastikas, and blood-stained smiley face motifs pointing to a dystopian world of depressed superheroes in the comic Watchmen. The Smiley took on political undertones as a “visual metaphor for a narrative that examines guilt, failure, megalomania and compromise with a corrupt power structure.” It became a staple of “Corporate Rock Whores” Nirvana T-shirts in the 90s and ecstasy PSAs denouncing youth culture alike.


Scott Fahlman, creator of the smiley face emoticon

The first digital emoticons were smiley faces created by Carnegie Mellon computer Scientist Scott Fahlman in 1982. The sideways smiley face 🙂 was invented out of a need to distinguish serious messages on the online bulletin boards, or bboards, used by the university in the 1980s.The first emoticons were used as “joke markers” after someone posted a fake mercury spill message. The word emoticon is a portmanteau of “emotion icon,” and it is defined as a typographic display of a facial representation, used to convey emotion in a text only medium. Emoticons are distinct from emoji because they use characters from the Latin alphabet whereas emoji require specific encoding and designs vary cross-platform.



Kaomoji were independently invented in Japan around the same time as emoticon and use the fuller character set to create facial expressions from punctuation marks. The word Kaomoji 顔文字 means “face letters.” The first kaomoji was (^_^) and appeared in a Japanese forum in 1986. Kaomoji are an extension of Japan’s kawaii (cute) culture influenced by manga and anime, with a greater focus on eye expressions than mouth. They range from the simple (*_*) to complex designs like (ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧. or ಠ_ಠ or even (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻  and it is estimated that there are over 10,000 of them.

One of the most popular kaomoji is the shrug


Kaomoji and emoticons arose from the need to communicate intent more clearly on message boards. A complete list can be found here.


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