The 27th Letter

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. — Vladimir Nabokov

Never in the history of mankind or art has any single piece of art gotten such widespread favor, pleasure, enjoyment, and nothing has ever been so simply done and so easily understood in art. — Harvey Ball

They look freakish. The noses are askew, the nostrils invisible. The eyes are beady little pinpricks, and the mouths have no lips, just parabolic cracks. They exist independent of anything else; they're just a few bits of black on endless white space. Yet without the “emoticons,” the webcomics of today would be slower to recognize a fundamental human truth. We all recognize them – they look like typographic versions of the first faces any of us ever drew. And to understand their use, we have to go back in time to discover their prototype: the smiley-face.

People have been drawing faces since primitive times. The yellow and black "smiley face," though, is a relatively new creation, born sometime in the sixties and seventies, the era of mood rings and “Make Love, Not War” placards. It caught on like wildfire with hippies. Few of them knew that its origins were corporate.

In 1963, a board of life insurance salesmen came together to discuss a serious problem. There weren’t very many smiles in their offices. State Mutual Life Assurance had just been through a merger which had left morale floating in the toilet. The vice-president suggested a “friendship campaign”: encourage employees to smile when they answer the phone! When they type a report! Even when they pay a claim!

But how to encourage such a thing? You can’t just walk around and shout “smile, damn it.” So SMLA drafted graphic artist Harvey Ball to create something that would encourage people to smile. He came up with the familiar “smiley face” design in about 10 minutes, and was paid $45 for it – a pretty good hourly rate… though, in retrospect, a lousy compensation for his gift to the world.  Clients took notice; they showed their friends, and eventually the smiley reached the attention of two fad-makers from Philadelphia, who began cranking out “smiley buttons” by the thousands, then the tens of thousands. By 1971, they had sold fifty million.

The "smiley" of the seventies was cuddlier than the creation we know today. It was a yellow circle with eye-slits and a cheeky grin, scrawled boldly in black magic marker, and it was exactly what the United States of America needed just then.

We were in the middle of a sickening war, bearded protesters were storming college campuses, and the old ideal of the Beaver Cleaver family was dissolving as the sexual revolution reached its zenith. Anxiety, tension, and pain were everywhere. The smiley face and the gentle imperative used by its salesmen – “Have a happy day” – were two things that could bring the sparring generations together. It was as influential a cartoon as Peanuts or Mickey Mouse.

Today’s yellow smiley is still circular, but the eyes and mouth are more perfect, more geometric, more sterile. Since the middle 1970s, it’s become a “property” instead of a reflection of the times. It no longer fills a need.

But its cousin, the emoticon, is needed now as much as ever.

Back in 1982, Scott Fahlman noticed a real problem with e-mail newsgroups: humor was unenforceable. If you joked, “I’m sure our beloved government would never lie to us,” there would always be some idiot out there who would take the claim seriously… and somebody else who would take the statement as an angrier one than was intended.

Or consider the phrase "I'd love to see you try." Sometimes sarcastic, sometimes not. How to tell the difference in cyberspace?  Fahlman proposed that posters use a colon-dash-end parenthesis to signify a “smiling” tone :-), and a colon-dash-start parenthesis to signify a “frowning” tone :-(.

The suggestion stuck, and while flame wars did not die out, a lot of unintentional ones were prevented. Association with the old smiley-face from the Woodstock era made it very difficult to take offense at :-). If only Nixon could bring us détente with China, only Smiley could bring détente to soc.culture.china.

Fahlman’s inventions fell somewhere between words and pictures – too visual to be the former but too laced and charged with a single meaning to really be the latter. Smileys aren’t pictures of a specific face or even a cartooned one: they’re drawings of emotions themselves.

This is a revolutionary concept in art, and like most artistic revolutions of the last fifty years, it’s gone virtually unnoticed in the official “artistic community,” which is now fixated on what shocks – cow feces, women tumbling from skyscrapers – not what communicates.

Corporations, also as usual, have noticed the trend and tried to exploit it without fully understanding it. We've seen customized emoticons from the major "portals" like Yahoo, AOL, and Microsoft. They expand their users' vocabulary, though at some expense to the artist in us all.

All three of their messaging services automatically transform the simple emoticons to corporate-copyrighted smiley and frowny faces. There are ways around this, but you have to be industrious to find them. Microsoft Word does the very same thing: I\'ve had to change its settings in order to write this article. In the name of ease, they deprive us of the thrill of drawing with punctuation, which was a big part of the smiley's original appeal. It's why you saw variations like:

:-)))     Very happy
:-C      Very unhappy
:`-(      Crying
X-(      Mad
:\")       Embarrassed
=|:o}    Bill Clinton

And the third-most-popular smiley of all, ;-), the "winky smiley." A bit more mischievous and lascivious than his (her?) more symmetrical sibling. Showing a bit of personality.

And here's where AOL, MSN, Yahoo, and even the PHPBB message boards have made a genuine contribution – their emoticons may be less abstract, but many or most of them continue the idea of "drawing emotions" as some typographic "emoticons" like "Bill Clinton" do not. A typical message board hosts 14 different emoticons, each with a different emotion. Whether you feel this is empowering or sterilizing is up for debate. But the importance of the emoticon remains.

Will Eisner, in Comics and Sequential Art, draws a series of different expressions each uttering the speech balloon "I'm sorry." An apology has a different meaning with a sorry face than with a happy face, a mad face, or a scared face.

This chemistry between the speech and the face of a speaker is one of the building blocks of comics. Countless webcomics panels – a higher percentage than in comic strips or comic books – have wrung humor or drama out of the disparity between what a character's words say and what their face says. Film and television use this device too, and of course, we really learn it from life itself.

But in the comics form – where, as in e-mail newsgroups, we can't hear tone of voice – this distinction is critical, and a generation that's grown up familiar with emoticons understands how to employ it better than any generation before.

Something to smile about.

T Campbell