The Somewhat Secret History of Emojis
A CompuServe marketer from the ’80s recalls the birth of emojis and avatars
Whenever I reach for an emoji as a shorthand for adding emotional effect to an online message nowadays, I’m reminded of a baby step that the phenomenon took back in 1985. This was well before AOL combined CD-ROMs and a virtual private network to bring interactive multimedia to online communications. And before Netscape Mosaic introduced us to the concept of browsing by making the burgeoning internet visual and clickable.
No, the remarkable emoji ecosystem I’m recalling bubbled to life at CompuServe, on the cusp of the personal computing revolution, when this packet-switched data network was making the transition from mainframe time-sharing to microcomputer communications. To those studying its early adoption then, “online” was referred to as “videotext,” a quaint idea for the simplicity of words on a screen, and a kindling of the premise to which Kindle later returned.
Apart from databases galore, the real allure of CompuServe for consumers proved to be communications. Not unlike Reddit today, threaded discussion forums called Special Interest Groups or SIGs were hugely popular. As was EasyPlex, a nascent platform for e-mail (hyphen intentional). EasyPlex was the product name developed for the mass market adaptation of the CompuServe corporate e-mail product, InfoPlex. “Easily complex”—now there’s a value proposition. Mea culpa.
When I began work there in 1984, CompuServe had a breakout consumer communications product called CB Simulator. Launched in 1980, this simple group text messaging platform allowed a group of people to “talk” with one another, while a script of the exchange unfurled for all to view. Like many technologies that echo their immediate predecessors (for example, bike “saddles”), CB Simulator overtly echoed the Citizen’s Band Radio craze from that Smokey and the Bandit period of trucker chic.
On a CB radio, there was a protocol to alert your “good buddy” that it was their turn to talk. You acknowledged the end of your transmission by saying, “go…