Emoticon is a portmanteau word of emotion and icon. The term emoticon is thus synonymous with a compound of emotion and symbolized representation. Emoticons are designed to express human feelings in the form of short symbols or in writing and are used in IT environments. Characters from the ASCII character set-II are used as well, for example, a colon, hyphen, and parenthesis to represent a smiley face; or semicolon, hyphen and parenthesis for a winking smiley. This form of character use and emotional expression is especially popular in emails, messengers, chat programs or social media such as Facebook or Twitter.
Harvey Ball designed the first smileys in 1963. Originally, smiley pins were supposed to raise the morale of employees after a takeover by another company. An insurance company wanted to cheer up the new employees who were easily demotivated by the takeover. Harvey Ball was commissioned to design the pins. He drew the first smiley and his clients were immediately enthusiastic.
Shortly thereafter, he received many orders and the smiley spread rapidly. Within ten years, he sold more than 50 million smiley pins. But Harvey Ball never applied for a patent on the first smiley. The Frenchman Franklin Loufrani did though. Today, there are hundreds of licensees in numerous countries that use the smiley as a product feature or marketing element.
It was only a short step then from the idea to the technical implementation. The first IBM PC in 1981 used two smileys in its character set code page 437, a smiling face on a white background and one on black background. Later, these smileys were included in the Unicode character set. Scott E. Fahl suggested that the smileys could be written sideways in reading direction, for example, to underscore a humorous statement.
Many different emoticons and smileys have been introduced to represent various different feelings, not just a laugh or an ironic statement. Many programs and applications provide emoticons directly as a graphic representation when you enter certain character strings. They have become indispensable in the electronic communications sector. Emoji are an extension to emoticons. These are very small images which can represent situations within a chat or in an SMS.
Recently, a study was published in Australia which proved that emoticons cause real human reactions. Emoticons are a culturally specific reaction which could be evidenced as neuronal activity over the years. The human brain processed smileys like real faces and would recognize the laughter of the character strings as such. The symbols colon, hyphen and parenthesis would be perceived as a whole and processed in the back part of the cerebrum.
The same region of the brain is responsible for the interpretation of facial features and facial expressions. The cultural practice of electronic communications with emoticons alters our way of interpreting such strings. However, only 20 subjects were examined and they were all younger than 32 years of age; a relatively narrow base to speak of cultural practice and a learned understanding of emoticons.
To what extent the search engines can recognize strings that are used in emoticons is completely unknown. Essentially, they are mere character strings to the crawler of a search engine, no different than words and punctuation symbols. Crawlers cannot translate these strings into a semantic context. Only the human user makes laughing faces out of it. This is related to the user experience, because users connect emoticons with human emotions.
By unobtrusive use of emoticons, they can be considered trust elements and may increase the length of stay since users can identify themselves with the site. However, this also depends on what the purpose of a website is. Emoticons may fit in well on blogs, but in online shops they may seem perhaps rather frivolous. Website operators have to make their own decision about it and weigh the pros and cons.