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PLATO Emoticons, revisited

Roger Ebert (@ebertchicago) just tweeted the following: "30 years ago today, scientist Scott Fahlman suggested the use of a colon, a hyphen, and a parenthesis to represent happy and sad faces." Right. Meanwhile, PLATO users had been doing emoticons for a full decade prior.

UPDATE: this week there are tons of news articles and digital media "reporters" writing articles celebrating the "30th birthday" of Internet ASCII emoticons, blithely ignoring the important and substantial usage of emoticons by thousands of PLATO users all through the 1970s.

I originally wrote the following text back in September 2002, but it is still as valid now as it was then, and considering all the news this month about the "30th anniversary of emoticons" I figured it was time to trot out some facts about PLATO's own history that goes back much further. So here again is my writeup on PLATO emoticons. in an edited form. Much more will be coming in my upcoming book.

The news is floating around the Web right now about the "discovery" of the first online emotion-conveying icon or "emoticon." What readers and reporters are apparently not aware of is that the emoticon or "smiley" being discussed is the first ASCII smiley. Compared to PLATO's emoticons, the ASCII ones were downright primitive, usually requiring you to turn your head sideways to "get" the joke.

Like so many things, PLATO was doing emoticons and smileys, online and onscreen, years earlier. In fact,emoticons on PLATO were already an art form by 1976. PLATO users began doing smiley characters probably as early as 1972 (when PLATO IV came out), but possibly even earlier on PLATO III (still to be determined... old-timer PLATO III users please speak up!).

PLATO History: Emoticons examples, set 1

A close-up of some famous PLATO emoticons. There were thousands.

How were these things done? Well, on PLATO, you could press SHIFT-space to move your cursor back one space -- and then if you typed another character, it would appear on top of the existing character. And if you wanted to get real fancy, you could use the MICRO and SUB and SUPER keys on a PLATO keyboard to move up and down one pixel or more -- in effect providing a HUGE array of possible emoticon characters. So if you typed "W" then SHIFT-space then "O" then SHIFT-space then "B", "T", "A", "X", all with SHIFT-spaces in between, all those characters would plot on top of each other, and the result would be the smiley as shown above in the "WOBTAX" example.

Below are just some examples of smileys and emoticons collected from lesson =m4= on PLATO in the mid 1970s:

PLATO History: Emoticons examples, set 2

Emoticons were widely used on PLATO. You'd see people include them in messages, in chats (instant messaging was called TERM-talk and chat rooms were available in =talkomatic=). It was just part of the culture, once you started seeing someone posting them, you wanted to know how they did that; you learned, and then you started doing it too! The sideways-looking ASCII emoticons of other systems were primitive compared to what you saw on PLATO.

By the way, an interesting dissertation on emoticons and such was done by Janet Asteroff in 1987. The dissertation is called Paralanguage in Electronic Mail: A Case Study. It mentions the Scott Fahlman proposal. Alas, the dissertation never mentions PLATO...


Learn more about the book:

The Friendly Orange Glow: The Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture, by Brian Dear

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