The first smiley goes up for auction

The first digital smiley is going under the hammer in the USA. It will be auctioned online until September 23, announced the auction house Heritage Auctions in Dallas, Texas. The starting bid for the NFT, which contains the original message on an online university message board, is $1,000 (about 850 euros), according to Heritage Auctions.

The character combination 🙂 was first proposed for use in this context by computer scientist Scott Fahlman of the University of Pittsburgh on September 19, 1982 – he is now considered by many to be the forefather of the smiley. However, Fahlman himself already feared inflationary use, so in the same message he recommended another emoticon that has since become almost as popular: “Given current trends, it’s probably more efficient to mark things that aren’t jokes. Use 🙁 for that,” he posted in the university chat at the time.

Lost for 20 years

The recording and the exact text of Fahlman’s original message were lost for nearly twenty years, according to Heritage Auctions. Only after an “archaeological dig” of the backup tapes was it recovered, including the original discussion to which it belonged, on September 10, 2002. The original screenshot of the September 19, 1982 message can be found here.

digital smiley

The emoticon 🙂 “looks like all of us”

Meanwhile, many chat and mail programs automatically convert the sentiment expression, originally intended as a mere string of characters, into a thumbnail aka emoji. That’s not an advantage, according to Professor Fahlman. In an essay on this digital artifact, he writes, according to Heritage Auctions, “The 🙂 emoticon is the distilled, abstract essence of a smile. It has no gender, no race, no age, no religion, no politics…. It is simply a smile. This is a big advantage over the emoji versions. With 🙂 we don’t have to argue about how many different versions to create for different groups. It looks like all of us.”

And indeed, the 117 new emojis released in 2020 include mostly gender-neutral images. Thus, in the future there will be men holding babies in their arms, but also a man in a wedding dress and a woman in a suit with a bow tie. The current emoji catalog includes almost 3,000 symbols from various areas of life – from emotions to food, natural phenomena and flags to people in different life situations. Billions of Messenger users now use emojis; they are the new global language and a serious and political matter.

A Unicode consortium decides

Behind these emojis is a Unicode consortium, which is a non-profit group of hardware and software companies that decides standards for IT systems. Meanwhile, however, Unicode is also known for being the gatekeeper for emojis: the consortium standardizes and approves them or rejects new ones.

At the head of the emoji subcommittee is Jennifer Daniel. She first became known for introducing “Mx. Claus,” a gender-fluid alternative to Santa Claus and his wife Mrs. Claus, known primarily in the US. But she also introduced a gender-neutral person breastfeeding a non-gendered baby – and a male face wearing a bridal veil.