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PLATO Emoticons

13 September 2002 -- 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.

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!).

A close-up of some famous PLATO smileys.

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:

Here's another close-up of some more:

Someone on Slashdot has pointed out that the second
emoticon from the top of this close-up list looks
an awful lot like Napster's logo! It does indeed!

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. Of course, the dissertation never mentions PLATO...

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Copyright © 2002-2007 Brian L. Dear

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