Have you ever wondered where the ASCII “smiley face,” and the later emoticons, came from? It was first used on a Carnegie Mellon bulletin board in the early 1980s, September 19, 1982 to be exact.
The motivation behind the symbol was to devise a mark to denote sarcasm or anything not to be taken seriously, to prevent misunderstandings.
Given the nature of the community, a good many of the posts were humorous (or attempted humor). The problem was that if someone made a sarcastic remark, a few readers would fail to get the joke, and each of them would post a lengthy diatribe in response. That would stir up more people with more responses, and soon the original thread of the discussion was buried. In at least one case, a humorous remark was interpreted by someone as a serious safety warning.
The emoticon was an attempt to solve a problem that still seems to persist today, perhaps because people have overused the smileys to the point that most people don’t associate them with their original purpose.
Smiley Lore [Scott E. Fahlman]