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Press Release - September 8, 2021

NFT of the World's First Emoticons Offered in an Auction Sure to Make You :-)

Scott E. Fahlman's original message introducing the ancestors of today's emojis is available at Heritage Auctions this month


DALLAS, Texas (Sept. 8, 2021) — The birth of new language is a rare event, an origin story usually lost to history. But at precisely 11:44 am EDT on Sept. 19, 1982, a few keystrokes by Scott E. Fahlman would change the way we communicate for decades to come.

A colon, then a hyphen, followed by parenthesis, open or closed. With that, online emoticons were born.

"This idea went viral long before going viral was a thing," said Scott E. Fahlman, the Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist who first typed the smiley and frowny emoticons in a university message board. Guinness World Records cites Fahlman as the originator of the "first digital emoticon," which was "created to signify the emotional context of the message and prevent misunderstandings in email communication."

To mark this landmark event, Heritage Auctions is partnering with Fahlman to offer a non-fungible token (better known as an NFT) containing The First Emoticons. The auction launches Sept. 8 and closes Sept. 23 on The First Emoticons NFT will open for bidding at $1,000.

That NFT will include the original message in which Fahlman proposed the use of :-) as a joke marker. Featuring an animated visual, this record of the message being typed mimics the same green text on black background as on the ADM-3A Lear Siegler terminal Fahlman used in 1982, keeping it as close to the historical record as possible.

That message was once thought lost until it was recovered from a CMU backup tape in 2002. The NFT, unique and directly authorized by Professor Fahlman, allows the buyer to validate the authenticity and uniqueness of the original message and their ownership of the original copy, directly through the blockchain.

Also included in this auction lot are two essays Fahlman wrote about the creation of the emoticon: one penned in 2002, upon its 20th anniversary, and another written specifically for this auction reflecting on the creation, as well as a signed and framed certificate from Fahlman.

"Scott Fahlman's creation is one of the most significant developments in communications history and culture," says Taylor Curry, Heritage Auctions' New York City-based consignment director in Modern & Contemporary Art. "What started as a 'joke marker' in 1982 snowballed into emoticons, which have changed the way we communicate and express ourselves. There is no other symbol that crosses cultures and language barriers quite like the smiley. We are honored to be offering this digital artifact directly from Scott Fahlman, and thanks to this NFT format, we will finally give collectors the opportunity to own this iconic piece of history."

According to Fahlman, now a professor emeritus in the Language Technologies Institute and Computer Science Department at CMU's School of Computer Science, the computer science community at Carnegie Mellon was making heavy use of online, text-only bulletin boards in the early 1980s. It was a virtual meeting ground for faculty, staff and students, where things important and mundane were given equal footing. With only simple text messages, senders and receivers could no longer distinguish between sincere and sarcastic messages. So "flame wars" often broke out, with no way to easily extinguish them.

A few bulletin board participants tried out various "joke markers," but none of those sent a clear message.So Fahlman, an expert and researcher in artificial intelligence, tried something more direct, using the ASCII characters laid out on the keyboard at his fingertips.

"It occurred to me that the most intuitive way to signal 'I'm just kidding' would be to create some sort of smiling face, like the ones we used to see on T-shirts and balloons back in the 1960s," Fahlman wrote in one of the essays accompanying the Emoticon NFT. "But how could we possibly do that in a single line of characters?"

In the end, this was his solution.

September 23 The First Emoticons :-) An NFT Auction
Digital communication would never again be the same. The smiley spread from Carnegie Mellon to other campuses and computers all around the world, and finally into the home computers of the general public. Eventually, the emoticons turned into graphical emojis, and an entirely new language was created. Just because someone didn't get a joke.

"It was this thing I couldn't patent, couldn't copyright," Fahlman says. "If it wasn't free, of course, nobody would have used it. There was no way to make money from it. I thought about it. But it had to be free. It had to be my little gift to the world." The professor notes that even after this NFT auction of the original message, the :-) and :-( emoticons will still be free for anyone to use as they please.

The professor, who currently is working on a book about Knowledge-Based AI, said he has no idea how much the NFT of his gift will sell for at auction. He's hoping to use some of the proceeds to pay for his own AI research and maybe that of some colleagues, perhaps supporting a few extra grad students; fingers crossed, maybe he can also give some to charity and take his wife on a nice vacation.

Fahlman's career has little to do with this thing he invented four decades ago. He's a leading researcher in AI and its applications and revered in his field.

But, he's also the guy who made it possible for teens to text without typing a single letter. And truth told, he doesn't mind reminding people of that every so often.

"I recently posted a sarcastic message on a social media site and put a :-) at the end to indicate that I was kidding," Fahlman said. "Someone popped up and said that this was wrong: the :-) emoticon just means 'happy,' and that if I want to indicate sarcasm, I must use /s. I said that the :-) emoticon could be used for either meaning, and that sarcasm was its original meaning. He argued with me for a while longer, so I said that I actually know something about this topic, and sent him a link to my original smiley post. That seems to have ended the argument."


Heritage Auctions is the largest fine art and collectibles auction house founded in the United States, and the world's largest collectibles auctioneer. Heritage maintains offices in New York, Dallas, Beverly Hills, San Francisco, Chicago, Palm Beach, London, Paris, Geneva, Amsterdam and Hong Kong.

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Robert Wilonsky, Communications Director

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